|Publisher:||Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)|
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After I've Gone
By Linda Green
Quercus Publishing LtdCopyright © 2016 Linda Green
All rights reserved.
Monday, 11 January 2016
I smell his bad breath a second or two before I feel his hand on my arse. That's the weird thing about public transport gropers, they always seem to have personal hygiene issues.
'What's your problem?' I shout, as I spin around to face him. Immediately, the crowd of people jostling around the ticket barriers parts. The one thing commuters hate even more than delays is a confrontation.
The guy with the dodgy breath and wandering hand obviously hadn't expected this. He looks to either side, desperate to pass the buck.
'Nope, it's definitely you, middle-aged man in the shiny grey suit. Get off on touching women's arses, do you?'
He shuffles his feet and looks at the ground then pushes his way towards the ticket barrier.
'That's it, you run along to work. I bet the women at your office can't wait to see you. Keep your mucky hands to yourself next time, OK?'
I glance behind to see Sadie looking at me with a raised eyebrow.
'What?' I say. 'He got off lightly if you ask me.'
There is now a clear path in front of me to the ticket barrier. I go straight through and wait for Sadie on the other side.
A young guy with dark hair stops in front of me. 'Nice takedown,' he says with a smile. 'Do you want me to go after him for you?'
He is wearing a plum-coloured jacket over a white T-shirt, like he's come in for dress-down Friday on a Monday by mistake.
'What I really want is for all members of the male species to go to hell and stop bothering me.'
The smile falls off his lips. 'Point taken,' he says, before walking off.
'What did you do that for?' asks Sadie, staring at me. 'He was only trying to be nice.'
'Yeah, well, it's difficult to tell sometimes.'
Sadie shakes her head. 'I don't get you. Is this national bite-someone's-head-off day or something?'
'PMT and hunger, always a bad combination. Come on, I need food.'
Breakfast (I hate the word 'brunch' so I refuse to call it that, even when it is after ten thirty) for me consists of a huge blueberry muffin (that I hope will count as one of my five a day) and a can of Tango (that possibly counts as another). Mum used to tell me that the day would come when I wouldn't be able to eat and drink all that crap without looking as if I did. I'd taken it as a green light to have as much of it as possible while I could still get away with it.
I hear footsteps approaching as I stand waiting to pay. Sadie gives me a nudge. I look up. The guy who'd offered to go after the groper is standing there, bunch of flowers in hand. Actually, it isn't a bunch; it's a proper bouquet. Handtied, I think they call it, not that I've ever seen a machine tie flowers.
'An apology for earlier,' he says. 'On behalf of the male species. To show we're not all complete jerks.'
All conversation in the queue stops. I am aware my cheeks are turning the same colour as the roses in the bouquet.
'Thanks,' I say, taking them from him. 'You didn't have to do that.'
'I know, but I wanted to. I also want to ask you out to dinner but I'm not sure if that would be risking a massive public bawl-out so I've left my business card in there with the flowers. Call me if you'd like to take up the invite. And thanks for brightening my morning.'
He turns and walks away, one of those supremely confident walks that stops just short of being a full-blown swagger.
'I hate you,' says Sadie. 'I have no idea why I chose someone who strangers give flowers to as a best friend.'
'You didn't choose me,' I reply. 'I chose you, remember? Mainly because you had the best pencil case in reception.'
'Well, whatever. I still hate you. You don't even have to try. You wear a puffer jacket, leggings and DMs and you still get a gorgeous stranger asking you out.'
'I might not call him,' I say, lowering my voice, aware other people in the queue are listening.
'Then you're a bigger mug than I thought.'
'Well, I'm certainly not going to do it straight away.'
'Playing hard to get, are you?'
'No. I'm just starving and I'm not going to do anything until I've stuffed this blueberry muffin down my gob.'
Sadie smiles at me and looks down at the flowers. As well as the roses there are lilies and loads of other things I don't even know the names of. 'They must have cost him a packet,' she remarks.
'Shame he didn't know I'd have been happy with a blueberry muffin then,' I reply. She laughs. I hold the flowers a little tighter, despite myself.
Leeds city centre is its usual Monday morning self: grey, drizzly and slightly the worse for wear from the weekend. Someone presses a copy of a free magazine into my hand as I stand at the crossing. I take it, not because I want to read it but because I feel for anyone who has to get up at the crack of dawn to force magazines into the hands of grumpy commuters. I roll it up and wedge it into the side pocket of my backpack as I cross the road. The woman in front of me has her right arm turned out and a bulging tote bag hanging from it. I resist the temptation to tell her she looks like a Barbie doll that has had its arm twisted the wrong way by a little boy. I am convinced that if the female species carries on like this, baby girls will eventually be born with their right arms protruding at this weird angle, ready for the midwives to hang tote bags on them.
Sadie follows my gaze and smiles knowingly at me. We are both fully paid-up members of the backpack brigade.
'I wonder if they'll do something for Bowie at work,' Sadie says. 'Put Labyrinth and Absolute Beginners on, maybe.'
'Yeah,' I say. 'I bet a lot of people would come if they did.'
I decide not to tell Sadie, who has spent most of the train journey talking about David Bowie, that, actually, I am already fed up with it all. Every time I look at Facebook it's full of people posting tributes to him, all doing that RIP crap as if they'd actually known him, actually suffered some deep personal loss. Never stopping to think about what that must feel like to someone who had genuinely lost a loved one. The most important person in their life, even.
We turn off the road into the comparative warmth of the shopping centre. Someone had the bright idea of not putting any sides on the building, so people have to sit at the tables outside the restaurants with their coats and scarves on in winter, even though they are technically inside.
I follow Sadie up the escalator. The cinema is on the 'leisure' floor, with all the restaurants. It's a trendy independent one with squishy sofas and pizzas served in your seats. That's how I justify working there (well, that and the fact that I don't have to start work before 11 a.m., even on an early shift). I could never work at a multiplex. It would be like letting the Dementors suck out your soul.
Nina, who's on a rare outing as duty manager, is on the front desk. She looks down at my flowers and raises an eyebrow.
'I hope you're not thinking of starting a Bowie shrine here.'
'It's nothing to do with him. I was given them, actually.'
'Telling a guy he was an arsehole.'
'No, really,' I reply. 'Only the arsehole wasn't the guy who gave them to me.'
Nina shakes her head and sighs. 'So, basically, you bought yourself some flowers on the way into work to make it look like someone gave them to you.'
'Actually,' says Sadie, jumping in before I have the chance to say anything, 'she got them from a drop-dread gorgeous guy who came up to her in the station and asked her out. She's just too modest to admit it.'
'Oh yeah? What's his number then?' asks Nina.
I reach for the business card inside the cellophane and read it out to her. 'Call him if you like,' I say. 'I might not bother.'
Nina rolls her eyes and goes back to whatever it was she was doing on the screen. Sadie nods at me and we head off towards the staffroom. When we get there, I realise I still have the business card in my hand.
'What's his name?' asks Sadie, following my gaze.
'Lee Griffiths. It says he's an associate director at some PR firm in Leeds.'
'Woo. Big cheese. Call him.'
'Nah. It's probably a wind-up.'
'Well, if you don't want him, I'm very happy to take second-hand goods.'
I smile at her as we step back in to the lobby to find Tariq and Adrian laying the new red carpet leading to screen one.
'Here you go, ladies,' says Adrian, 'just in time to try it out.'
'Me first!' cries Sadie. I laugh as she sashays up and down the red carpet, posing for imaginary photographs for the paparazzi.
'Hang on,' I say, throwing myself on the floor in front of her. 'Name the film premiere'.
'Suffragette,' she shrieks, before joining me, prostrate on the floor.
'What's all this noise?' asks Nina, sticking her head around the corner.
'Guess the film premiere!' I say. 'Do you want to have a go?'
'No. I want you two to stop treating this place like a softplay centre and get to work.'
Sadie groans as Nina returns to the front desk. 'I bet Carey Mulligan never had to put up with this,' she says.
I wait until lunchtime to text Lee, when I am on my own in the staff room. I want to be sure no one else is around in case the whole thing is a wind up. I decide to keep it short and sweet.
Hi, thanks again for the flowers. Let me know a date and time to meet up. I finish work at 7pm until Wednesday, then I'm working late for a week. Jess.
I hesitate for a second, aware that I might be about to make myself look incredibly stupid, but then I decide to do it anyway. I exhale deeply and press send. It is only once I have done so that I realise how bothered I am about whether or not he responds. Fortunately, I have to wait less than thirty seconds before my phone beeps with a message. Clearly he is the sort of guy who doesn't have to worry about looking desperate.
Hi Jess. That's great. How about Wednesday @ 7.30pm, the Botanist?
The Botanist is an uber-trendy bar just along from the shopping centre. I have never been there, mainly on account of the fact that I am not uber trendy and don't know anyone who is.
I text back to say that I'll see him there, as if it's a usual hangout of mine. He replies, Great, looking forward to it already.
I am still sitting there with a smug look on my face when Sadie comes in.
'You've called him, haven't you?' she says.
'And you're going out with him.'
'If you two get married, I'm going to hunt down the arse-groper guy and invite him to the wedding.'
'I don't think there's any danger of us getting married.'
'Er, different leagues.'
'Bollocks. You're well up there with him.'
'I still reckon he did it for a dare. Anyway, you'll be on your own on the train home on Wednesday. Think of me surrounded by hipsters trying to order cocktails I've never heard of.'
Sadie snorts. 'I hope he's paying.'
'So do I. Otherwise we're going to Subway, I tell you.'
It's only as I'm walking home from Mytholmroyd station later that I realise Dad will ask about the flowers. I think for a second about chucking them over my head – bride-style – but a quick glance behind confirms that they are likely to be caught by a long-haired, overweight guy, who probably wouldn't appreciate it. I decide to tell Dad a censored version of what happened. He may be able to cope with a guy hitting on me but I'm pretty sure he would freak if I mentioned the arse groper.
I walk past the rows of little back-to-back terraces, lines of washing hanging across the backyards like something out of a bygone era. I bet the people down south watching the Boxing Day floods on the news couldn't believe that a place like Mytholmroyd even existed. It does my head in most of the time, the smallness and oldness of the place. Some people have lived here all their lives, have never even been to Leeds, let alone London. I think that's why I took the first job that came up in Leeds when I left college. No, it wasn't doing what I had planned to do, but at least it meant I could get out of Mytholmroyd.
Our front door opens straight onto the street and the back door onto our yard behind. If I can ever afford a flat in Leeds (which is doubtful), I've already decided I'll get one high up, so people walking past can't have a good gander inside when you open the door.
I go in the back way, as usual. Dad's in the kitchen, Monday being a rare evening off for him because the Italian restaurant where he works is closed.
'Smells good,' I say. Dad looks up from the pan he's stirring, his gaze immediately dropping from my face to the flowers.
'Yeah.' I put the flowers on the kitchen counter, knowing full well that I'm not going to get away with that answer.
'So, who are they from?' Dad is still stirring the vegetables on the back hob, trying to pretend he's not that interested.
'A guy I met at the station this morning.'
He nods slowly and puts the wooden spoon down on the chopping board.
'That was nice of him.' Dad's tone suggests he actually thinks the man in question is a serial killer. I decide to get it all out in one go.
'Yeah. I'm going for a meal with him on Wednesday.'
'Are you now?' Dad picks up the spoon again and stirs with an intensity that is entirely unnecessary.
'How old is he, this guy?'
'I'd say seventies, maybe eighty at a push.'
He turns to face me. I have the smile ready prepared for him.
'Very droll,' he says.
'Well, what do you expect? He looks like he's in his late twenties but I don't know. I'll take a questionnaire with me on Wednesday, if you like.'
'So you've never met him before?'
'And he just walked up to you this morning and gave you flowers and asked you out?'
'Yep. That's pretty much how it was.'
'Doesn't that strike you as a bit weird?'
'Not really.' I was starting to think it would have been easier to tell him about the arse groper after all.
'It sounds a bit weird to me.'
'Look, you've got to let me do normal stuff like this.'
'It's not normal, though, is it? Giving flowers to someone you don't know. Maybe he does this all the time. Some kind of scam he pulls on pretty girls.'
'Dad, I can't win with you. You're the one who always used to tell me to get out more.'
'Yeah, I didn't mean with a stranger.'
'Well, he's not a stranger now, is he? He gave me flowers and asked me out. I said yes. I thought you'd be pleased.'
This is a lie. I knew he'd be exactly like this but I also know how to play him in an argument. He looks down at his feet.
'I'm happy for you. It's just that after last time I, you know, I don't want to see you get hurt.'
'Callum was an emotionally inadequate bastard.'
'Well, he was! And I've grown up a lot since then – I'm not going to make the same mistake again, am I?'
'So how do you know this guy's not like that?'
'I don't yet, but he gave me flowers, which is a pretty good start, and if I don't like him on Wednesday I won't see him again. Simples.'
Dad nods. He is trying his best to be two parents rolled into one, I know that. But I still wish Mum was around to tell him to let me learn from my own mistakes.
'OK. I'll give him a chance. What's his name?'
For the first time in the conversation, Dad manages a smile.
'His name is Lee and he's the associate director of a PR firm in Leeds and I don't know anything else about him – but if you submit your questions by midnight tomorrow, I'll be sure to put them to him over dinner, OK?'
I flounce out of the kitchen and up to my room. When I return ten minutes later, Dad has put the flowers in a vase. I smile at him. Sometimes he tries so hard it hurts.
Excerpted from After I've Gone by Linda Green. Copyright © 2016 Linda Green. Excerpted by permission of Quercus Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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