A Christmas to remember part 4
Ten years ago, to the day four friends and I started a boxing day tradition which basically involved walking, or cycling, from point A to point B and back again. The common denominator for these little jaunts being point B was invariably an establishment selling food and alcohol (not necessarily in that order). Ten years ago, these were very much a lad’s day out and the journey back involved a lot of staggering (or wobbling if bikes were involved) in a haphazard fashion and not everyone made it home in one piece. Over the years the dynamic changed as girlfriends started to appear on the scene. Girlfriends becoming fiancée’s and fiancée’s becoming wives and what started out as a lad’s day out turned very much into a couple’s event, or at least it did for my four mates. This year the dynamic changed again when children appeared in the form of Rob and Kate’s young son Jason.
I had to admit for the first time ever I felt like the odd one out. Maybe it was because the conversations around me were kid orientated focusing on subjects such as schools and the vagrancies of kids TV. There again maybe it was because on our three-mile hike through the Essex countryside to the Rose and Crown I was the only one who wasn’t walking hand in hand with my other half. I suppose being distracted by the Rosemary saga didn’t help either.
Throughout the morning I had called mutual friends and asked them if they knew where Rosemary had moved to. None of them did, furthermore it rapidly became apparent I was the only one who’d visited her at her home and out of them all, only Marie knew her former address. Out of desperation I asked Marie, with whom I’d been good friends with since school, if she would call her for me. Inevitably Marie called back half an hour later to say Rosemary wasn’t answering her calls. Needless to say I wasn’t the most sparkling of conversationalists when we sat down to lunch.
“What’s wrong Joe?” Rob asked on noticing me disconsolately pushing my dinner around my plate.
“Nah, it’s nothing,” I answered.
“Doesn’t look like it,” chimed in Sally from the other end of the table. “You’ve been quiet all morning.”
I sighed and looked out of the window toward the distant Thames estuary. “I think I put my foot in it and hurt somebody’s feelings.”
“Anyone we know?”
“Rosemary, the girl who came with me to Chris and Lisa’s wedding.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, she seemed so nice.”
“She is nice, which is why I feel like shit.” There was a discreet coughing noise across the table as Rob shot a sideways glance toward his young son and I apologised for swearing.
“Just what was she to you?” asked Lisa. “We never could work it out.”
“We were just friends. Close friends,” I said with an emphasis on the close which I hoped would avoid having to explain Rosemary’s and my arrangement In front of an eight-year-old boy.
“And am I right in guessing she wanted to be more than friends?” Lisa continued.
“Well, if she did I didn’t see it, which is why I ended up putting my foot in it last night.”
“Yeah, and now she’s not answering any of my calls.”
“I’ve got to ask Joe, why were you and Rosemary just friends? We only met her the once, but as Sally said she seemed so nice. We all thought you’d make a great couple.”
I snorted and shook my head. “Because being “friends” was what suited us both. Or at least I thought it did.”
“Now I don’t know what to think.” Which was the truth I really didn’t, all morning I’d been tormented by so many conflicting thoughts involving both Rosemary and Melody. I honestly didn’t know which way to turn.
“Well, we’re all here if you need someone to talk to.”
“Cheers Rob, I’m sure it will sort itself out,” I replied trying to sound far more convincing than I felt.
On the return hike it was noticeable how much more inclusive my friends were than they were on the way out. Also, when it came to saying goodbye both Sally and Lisa gave me an extra special hug with Lisa adding whatever happens she sincerely hoped it worked out for the best.
I had half planned to visit Leanne and the kids on the way home, but my sisters text message threatening to insert a drumstick somewhere not nice and turn me into the world’s first human lollipop made me think otherwise and I went straight home instead. The light was fading fast when I parked my ageing Land Cruiser on my short driveway. Glancing up and down the street I noticed my house was the only one which didn’t have Christmas lights in the windows. It was another reminder of how sad my life was in danger of becoming. It was whilst I was closing my front door I noticed an anomaly running along the Land Cruisers passenger door. Thinking it was a trick of the light I turned away, or at least started to, something wasn’t quite right though, and I went to investigate. The closer I got to my car the more the three-foot-long scratch somebody had etched into its paint work became apparent.
To say I was furious was an understatement. Unlike most of my colleagues I didn’t have a flash expensive car and whilst it was true the Land Cruiser will have set its first owner back a penny or two when it was brand new fourteen years ago it hadn’t broken the bank as far as I was concerned. That doesn’t mean to say I didn’t love it any the less and for someone to wantonly vandalize it seriously boiled my piss. What I couldn’t work out was where it had been vandalized. It could only have been here, on my driveway, or at the Rose and Crown. The problem was when I returned from Rosemary’s former address last night I parked it the other way around and the nearside of the car wasn’t in view when I got into it this morning. It was the same at the Rose and Crown, I’d parked on the end of the row with the nearside of the car to a fence, consequently I didn’t know where it had been vandalized. Then there was the question of who or why? I couldn’t think of any one person who held a grudge against me, apart from Jason that is, but as much as I didn’t like the guy I honestly didn’t think he’d stoop so low. Then there was my cousin Martin who still resented having his face remodeled when he made the mistake of bad-mouthing Leanne in front of me when we were kids. Martin emigrated to the states five years ago however, and I couldn’t see him taking a return flight from JFK just to scratch my car. I could only assume it had been the work of some random shitbag, either here or in Essex at the Rose and Crown.
Four hours later and I was still furious. I’d called the Rose and Crown and asked them if they had CCTV in their car park. They did, only it didn’t extend to the overflow car park which was where I had been parked. I’d also called around to my neighbours who had a camera on the front of their house. I should have put more thought into that before knocking on the door, Bob and Ella are both getting on and I could see Ella was more than a bit perturbed when I told them someone might have vandalized my car when it was parked in front of my house. Sadly, their camera’s view didn’t extend as far as my parked car. What it did pick up was somebody walking by at three twenty AM. Whoever they were, they were wearing a dark hoodie which hid their face from view. They probably had a legitimate reason for being there even if there was something about the way they kept their face fixed on the floor as if avoiding the streetlights which seemed more than just a little suspicious to me.
After assuring Bob and Ella the chances were my car had been vandalized elsewhere I returned to my cold, empty house. And God did it feel empty, this really was turning into a Christmas to remember. After making another fruitless attempt to contact Rosemary I decided to call it a night and was just getting comfortable between the sheets when I heard my phone buzzing from its perch on top of a chest of drawers. Thinking Rosemary had finally deigned to call me back I snatched it up and thumbed the answer button.
“Oh, hi Melody,” I replied whilst my brain did a quick mental reset.
“I hope you don’t mind me calling so late.”
I closed my eyes and imagined Melody’s face as she spoke on the phone, how could I ever mind. “No, not at all, call me whenever you like. How was Wales?”
“Wales was fine, wet but fine.” She paused for a moment and there was a sudden sense of expectation hanging in the air. “I was wondering,” she said in a hesitant voice. “I was wondering if you’d like to go through to the new offices. I know you’ve seen them, but I haven’t, and I thought it might be nice to have a look around when the builders weren’t there.”
In an instant the pain, anger, and despair which had been weighing me down for the last two days dissipated into the ether. “Yeah, sounds like a good idea to me. When do you want to go?” I asked trying my best not to sound too eager.
“Whenever suits you.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrows OK.” I noticed there was no hesitation in Melody’s voice now. If anything, there was an overwhelming sense of relief which left me wondering as to how long she’d agonized over making the call.
“OK, I’ll pick you up about ten. Do you still live on Montrose Avenue?”
“Yes, number 42,” Melody answered, obviously surprised I could remember where she lived.
“Ten O’clock it is then.”
It’s strange how one phone call can chase away even the darkest of moods. Ten minutes ago my only desire had been to rip the head off the shitbag who vandalized by car. That was forgotten now and all I could think about was Melody, our relationship was at a cross roads and I’m sure both of us knew tomorrow was about far more than looking over the new offices, or at least I hoped we both did. Maybe it was just me misreading the situation, which given what took place yesterday wouldn’t be a first by any means. Either way I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep again tonight, at least this time it was for far happier reasons than the last.
Montrose Avenue is four streets away from Kitchener Close where Leanne and I grew up when we were kids. There couldn’t be more than three hundred yard between the two. Three hundred yards and whole different world. Montrose avenue being quintessential suburbia lined as it was with large, semi-detached houses with airy bay windows harking back to the 1930’s. Each house having long well-maintained front gardens with a driveway for the family car. Four streets away in Kitchener Close there were no bay windows, no quaint porches or patios and certainly no expansive gardens with block paved driveways. The truth is whereas Melody grew up in a comfortable family home situated on a quiet suburban street Leanne and I grew up on a nearby council estate. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t the worst, but there again it wasn’t always the greatest either. In the past I had wondered if this difference in social back grounds was the reason why Melody had taken against me when I started working for Slater and Webb. I closed my eyes and forever banished the thought from my mind. We were looking forward now, not backwards, the past was the past and that was where it could stay.
Number 42 was roughly halfway down Montrose Avenue, not that I needed to see its number, Melody’s electric blue Audi TT parked on the drive being something of a giveaway. The Land cruisers wheels had barely stopped turning before Melody was out of the front door heading down the driveway toward me with a mile wide smile, behind her I could see two indistinct forms in the obligatory bay window watching her go. I knew I was staring, but try as I might, I couldn’t tear my eyes off her. I think it was because at work I was used to seeing her wearing smart business suits with her hair tied up, today her hair cascaded free over her shoulders and the light, pastel blue fashion jacket she wore over a plain white blouse. It was a simple but effectively stunning outfit complimented by a pair of retro style jeans. My only concern was it didn’t look the warmest of outfits and as I’d already pointed out the heating at the new offices wouldn’t be operational for some time.
“Hi,” she said opening the Land cruisers door and slipping into the passenger seat.
“Hi, how are you?” I asked slipping the car into drive.
“Better now I’m out of the house. Mum’s been driving me mad for the last two days.”
“Oh dear,” I replied as Melody rove a critical eye around my car’s interior and not for the first time, I heard Mark’s voice making a comment about it being a prerequisite for any of Melody’s potential suitors to own either a Bentley or a Porsche.
“I don’t know why,” Melody said with a semi critical air, “I always thought you’d drive something flash like a Range Rover.”
“Me? What made you think that?” Apparently, Mark wasn’t the only one with an opinion about personalities and cars.
“I don’t know, it just seemed to fit with your high-flying executive persona.”
“High flying?” I queried.
“Yes, you have to admit Joe you’re very driven when it comes to work.”
“Doesn’t necessarily mean I’d drive a flash car, anyway, don’t mention Range Rover’s, Sarah Jane doesn’t like it.”
“Sarah Jane?” Melody asked with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
I smiled and lovingly patted the steering wheel. “Yes, Sarah Jane.”
Just for a moment Melody regarded me with an expression which was somewhere between incredulity and pity. “You named your car?”
“Yeah, what’s wrong with that?” I replied supressing a thought to add a facetious remark about going for a ride with Sarah Jane.
“Nothing I suppose, but why Sarah Jane?”
“The registration starts with SJ.”
“I see, do you know Sarah Jane has a horrendous scratch down her side?”
“Yeah, don’t remind me. That appeared sometime in the last four days.”
“You don’t know when?”
“No, not really. I park the car with the passenger side next to a wall at home so never noticed until last night.”
“So, it’s been done deliberately?” There was no disguising the shock in Melody’s voice
“Yep, so it would seem.”
“That’s not good Joe.”
“No, it bloody isn’t. I met some friends at a pub in Essex yesterday. Some random smart arse probably did it while we were having lunch then.”
“That’s terrible. Why would somebody do that?”
I scoffed out loud. “Who knows these days. I was going to give Mark a call a little later, his brother has a garage in Enfield, hopefully he’ll be able to fix it.”
By this time, I noticed Melody had her phone in her hand and was busily scrolling through its screen whilst at the same time holding a conversation with me. Every now and then she would pull a face or laugh at whatever it was she was reading. Even though we worked together, I’d rarely been in such close proximity for any prolonged period of time, and I had to admit I was fascinated by her mannerisms. Especially the one where her nose did a cute twitch when she focused in on something interesting.
“You’re not on social media are you?” she asked noticing me watching her out of the corner of my eye.
“No, not as such. I have a private account which is for family only, that’s the only one though.”
“I sometimes wish I wasn’t. It gets too much sometimes,” Melody said with her fingers tapping away on her phone at an unimaginable speed. “Lucy says hi by the way.”
“Lucy? She knows we’re going to the new offices together?”
“Yeah, I told her.”
“Great, you know she’s going to put two and two together and come up with six?”
“Hmm, we’ll see. She’s usually quite perceptive though.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, especially when I glanced across and saw Melody smiling back at me as if to say your move. I was about to say something when a flurry of movement in my wing mirror caught my eye a split second before a small, red hatchback came out of nowhere and swerved across the road front of me. I hit the brakes and flung the steering wheel hard to the left, somehow missing a parked bus in the process, beside me Melody let out a cry of dismay as her phone was catapulted from her grasp into the passenger footwell. After what seemed an age the Land Cruiser came to a tyre screeching halt and we found ourselves sideways across the road looking directly into a barber’s shop window, of the red hatch back there was nothing to be seen.
“You alright Mel?” I asked with my knuckles turning white as I channeled the rage boiling up from within into the steering wheel.
“Yes, what an idiot,” Melody said in a shaky, disbelieving voice.
“Idiot? I’ll f…,” With an almost herculean effort I caught myself in mid-sentence and mentally counted to ten. Today was going to be a good day and I wasn’t going to let some moron who shouldn’t be anywhere near a complicated piece of machinery capable of propelling itself along the public road spoil it.
“It just came out of nowhere,” Melody continued, slackening her seat belt so she could retrieve her phone. “I honestly thought we were going to crash into the back of the bus.”
“Yeah, so did I, it’s a good job Sarah Jane’s got good brakes.” Th use of Sarah Jane's name brought a smile and a little color back to Melody’s ashen face and my grip on the steering wheel became a little less intense. I straightened the car up and with a wave of thanks to the patiently waiting bus driver ventured forth once more.
An hour after our brush with death we pulled up outside Slater and Webb’s new offices and once again Melody’s face turned a whiter shade of pale.
“I thought Jim said they were nearly ready.”
I arched my eyebrows and gave her the benefit of an evil smirk. “Err yeah and compared to what they looked like six months ago they are.”
I saw her taking in the vista of site cabins, dump trucks and piles of building materials surrounding what outwardly appeared to be an early 20th century brick-built warehouse.
“Seriously Joe, he thinks we’re going to be able to work in this?”
“Apparently so. It’s not that bad once you get inside though.”
Melody shook her head in utter disbelief. “Well, it can’t be any worse than it is out here.” I didn’t say anything and instead held open the front door…