The alarm goes. I slap the screen of my phone and it stops. Six thirty AM.
I get out of bed and dress. I left my gear out last night on the table next to my wardrobe. I grab my keys from on top of the chest of drawers and go out.
At the gym the car park is almost full. I drive about for ten minutes before I get a space. This proper muncher takes ages to reverse out of the only space left. I honk my horn and they soon get on with it. Probably saw my guns.
In the gym I do the usual routine. Stretches, squats, weights, done.
I’m home and I shower. Wouldn’t shower in the changing rooms at the gym. Might get herpes.
Uni is boring. I only even bothered coming in because they pass round a register and you get hammered if you don’t sign it. The lecturer goes on about some kind of equation but I’ll check the presentation online later and make sense of it then.
I’ve got my headphones in on my walk to work though I’m not actually listening to anything. I just don’t want random jakeys to think they can talk to me. I get a text. It’s my little brother asking to use my car. He can actually fuck off. Bet Dad put him up to it. This is why I need to move out, although I guess Dad pays the car, so maybe not yet. I reply saying no bother. The lads chat is going mental. I flick open Messenger to see what’s going on when I realize I’m right outside work.
I’ll check later then. I get inside and Dave is giving me the eyebrows. I give them back. It’s a thing.
I get to the back and put my bag in a locker before changing my shirt. Loretta walks in just as I thought the place was empty.
“Cameron,” she says. “There’s a bathroom right over there.”
“Yeah, sorry,” I reply.
“What would you have done if I had been Chris? He stares at you enough as it is.”
“I’d let him have a feel.”
Loretta exhales loudly and rolls her eyes. “Don’t come crying to me when he gets too much and you don’t know how to handle it. There’s books need unpacking and your shift just started.”
She strides out of the break room in her Sketchers. She always wears Sketchers. Her red hair flies behind her. I pull on my shirt and make after her too.
She is already knee-deep in boxes when I arrive in the stock room, tearing at cardboard with a Stanley knife.
“Took you long enough,” she calls at me without turning to look. “I left you one—by the door.”
I look over to the ledge to my left and there is a Stanley knife waiting for me too. Looks like it’s just me and Loretta on in the back today. I normally like it in the back. Depends who you’re on with though. Loretta’s the boss and doesn’t talk much. But if you get stuck with Maureen then forget it. Everyone else is pretty decent.
We could only have been going at it for like ten minutes when Loretta announces she has to check something outside. Off she goes, leaving me in here by myself. The door closes behind her and I take my phone out of my pocket to see what’s getting everyone so excited on the lad’s chat. I scroll to catch up for a minute and basically Mikey accidentally pulled his ex-girlfriend in Institute last night. He was too fucking drunk to notice who it was. She’s been stalking him ever since they broke up. I met her once and she had this mental look in her eyes. Clinically insane in my opinion. She’ll be loving this.
How the hell do you accidentally pull someone? At least he didn’t go home with her. I send a GIF of some girl who looks American saying, “She’s a fucking psycho.” I smirk. I’m funny. I put my phone back in my pocket.
Shit. Look who it is. Fucking Maureen must have shuffled into the room while I was checking the chat. She’s so quiet she’s an actual ghost. Pale as one too. Fuck me.
She sets, slowly, to work on cutting open a box without even saying hello. Loretta must have sent her in to help out. If you can call it help. It’s three thirty. I check the rota on the wall and see I’m not due out on the floor until five. An hour and a half in here with Maureen. Fantastic.
I cut the tape on the boxes, lift the flaps, take the books out and pile them on the trolley by genre and in alphabetical order. I flatten the boxes. I can’t help but notice my trolley is almost full and Maureen’s is basically empty. I try to ignore it. Then I fill my trolley and I can’t ignore it.
“You need a hand, Mo?” I call her Mo. She doesn’t seem to mind.
She mumbles something.
“My trolley’s full. Want me to come help with yours?” I say.
I step over the pile of flattened cardboard I’d made and start to pick up the boxes piled up in front of her. We work on it for a little while. I notice she picks up the pace. Yes, Maureen, that’s the stuff.
I’ve spoken to her like twice before. Pretty sure that “um, sure” is the first thing I’ve ever heard come out from under the hair she wears like curtains. She’s the only one in here around my age but that’s all we’ve got in common. I don’t think of striking up conversation.
“Thank you,” she stutters.
I think I must look at her with surprise by mistake because she seems to go back behind her curtains as fast as she can.
“Don’t mention it,” I say.
“My mum always says I need to thank people who help me out.”
Not keen. Not keen at all for this chat. So not keen. Why does she think I want to talk about her mum? I never should have said anything. I should have just fake-smiled.
Dave rescues me by strolling in nice and casual. “Any trolleys to go out?” he calls.
“Aye,” I reply, “there’s one over there.”
“Great work, Johnson.”
Dave calls me by my last name. I call him Sergeant because he volunteers with the Salvation Army and when he told me the first time all he said was “I do some work for the Army.”
He goes to get the trolley and begins to wheel it out when I whistle at him. I hop over some unpacked boxes towards him.
“Mate, can you see who’s on here at five and get them in here ASAP?” I mutter close to his ear.
He smiles and his eyes briefly flicker over my shoulder. Of course he would enjoy this. He pretends he doesn’t know what’s going on. “You not enjoying the back today?”
He knows fine well I’m not. “That is not the team spirit I expect of an Army man like yourself.”
He laughs. “Alright. But I think it’s Chris and he’s on fantasy. We all remember the last time a customer spoke to you there.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ll just put my busy face on.”
I can barely stand Dave’s smugness but I’m desperate. Maureen has never wanted to chat before. I need out.
He wheels his trolley away, calling back, “I’ll see what I can do.”
I go back to Maureen and give her a quick grin when her eyes dart my way.
Five minutes later and Dave has pulled off a miracle. It’s Chris.
“I hear you wanted out to fantasy,” he trills as he walks in. “You want to talk to customers today? How unusual, Cameron.”
“Just fancied a bit of sunlight,” I reply, before double-checking there are no windows in the stockroom to contradict me.
He looks skeptical. “Well, you know me”—I don’t know him—”I’ll take any excuse to get off the floor.”
He winks as he says this but I don’t know why. He’s a bit weird but he’s alright chat if you’re in a bind.
I hop past him and out of the stockroom to the floor, heading for the fantasy section. Loretta accosts me on my way, mid-bustle.
“You’re not supposed to be out here until five,” she says.
“I swapped with Chris.”
“Fantasy?” she scoffs. “This’ll be a laugh.”
I struggle to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. “Thanks.”
Loretta had been on her way but she stops and turns. “I can hear the customers putting books back in the wrong places as we speak,” she says, holding her hand to her ear because she thinks she’s so funny. I wait for her to make her point.
“Well?” She claps in my face. “Get over there!”
My phone is vibrating in my pocket and I bet the lads chat is piling in on Mikey for being such a twat. I want to read it but not with Loretta lurking. She’s got a way of appearing suddenly from behind a bookshelf.
I forget where fantasy is so I kind of circle the floor a few times when I notice a pair of eyes looking at me from between a row of books and the shelf above them in a nearby bookcase. I stop in my tracks. Weird. Then the eyebrows jump. Fucking Dave. I give them back. I give him the finger for good measure and move on.
I head over to the fantasy section and re-order books that have been put back in the wrong place. I’m at it for a while until Dave wheels the trolley over and we restock the shelves. It’s a decent laugh. I say to him he got me when he did the eyebrow behind that shelf. He says it wasn’t him.
“In the habit of swearing at your manager, are you, Cameron?” Shit.
I turn round and Loretta is there looking not impressed.
“Oh,” I manage. Great, Cameron, fucking great.
She stands there waiting for me to say something more.
“I thought you were Dave.”
“Dave! I’m about half the height of that lanky pile of bones.”
“You seemed the right height behind that shelf.”
“I was standing on the steps—some of us notice the gaps on the top shelves, unlike you pair.”
“But you did the thing with the eyebrow and only he does that!”
Loretta caves in to a wicked smile she’s been holding back.”You two think your inside joke is so special. But you can’t handle it when Loretta enters the ring.”
“Our inside joke is so special!” Dave interjects.
“Probably deserved the finger for trying to get involved, didn’t I?” Loretta strides off, calling back over her shoulder, “Dave! Those feature tables aren’t going to stock themselves! And Cameron—top shelves!”
Dave wheels off behind his trolley to the front of the store. Loretta’s pretty chill, really. Game for a laugh at least. I turn back to the shelves and continue putting books back where they should be. I’m doing that for a while when I hear someone clear their throat behind me like they want my attention but they won’t just say it. I turn round and there’s this customer looking at me. I try to look a little helpful in reply.
“Do you know where I might find some paperbacks of Harry Potter?”
No. “Um, yeah. They’re in children’s. That’s round the corner there.”
“I was round there already but I couldn’t see them.”
“They’re definitely there.”
The customer moves reluctantly off and I hope that she bothers someone else with her problems. Ten minutes later I see Loretta leading her back over to a shelf here in fantasy and showing her where the paperbacks are. I decide I need the toilet and make a break for the back.
When I come back the floor’s pretty quiet. I go to see if I can find the steps to reach the top shelves. Loretta skips out from behind a life-size cardboard cut-out of Stephen Fry and I shit myself.
“Where’d you put the steps?” I say, in a higher pitch than I meant to. Fuck me, she’s barely off the shop floor today. Normally you can’t get her out of the office. Maybe she got lonely back there.
“Your voice okay?” she chimes.
I clear my throat. “The steps?”
“Oh, you’ll find them right next to Harry Potter.” She sniggers to herself. I pretend to laugh with her and then stop and give her the death stare.
“Someone’s moody tonight,” she says.
“‘Cause you’re messing.”
I think she’s going to rip me some more but she doesn’t.
“What are you doing after work?” she says.
“Go for a drink instead.”
“With who?” She’ll be trying to set me up with fucking Maureen.
“Who else is coming?”
“You can tell your friends it’s a date, if you like. Might help the”—she does quotations in the air with her fingers—”street cred.”
I grimace when I was trying for a smile. “I don’t know if—”
“It’s not a date, you lump. I could be your mother,” she says flatly.
I feel kind of stupid for picking things up wrong. So wrong. If I say no now, it’ll seem like I was actually that stupid. If I say yes, I can pie it off like I was being funny. “In that case, that’ll be fine.”
“I’ll meet you by the back door after I’ve cashed up.” She strides away. “Change your shirt before I get there!”
Weird. Loretta is normally out the door the second her shift is over. Why does she want to go for a drink with me? Maybe it’s because she saw me without my shirt on. Bet that’s it. That’d explain why she’s been messing around today. What a minx. She moves fast, eh? Doesn’t want to call it a date but that’s exactly what she means. Classic lady tactics. Imagine if she makes a move at the bar—that’d be well worth telling the lads. Pretty sure she’s married though. And at least fifty.
After the store closes I manage to get a text off to the lads chat between dusting tables: “Boss walked in on me getting changed today. Now we’re going for a drink. WHAT.” Then a GIF of a cowboy lassoing a guy. Mikey texts back right away taking the piss—bet he’s desperate for me to take the heat off him for a while. They’re still ripping into him. A few of the other lads text words of encouragement. Greg texts a meme of Jennifer Lawrence from Hunger Games saying “I volunteer as tribute.” What a joker.
Once my shift is over I’m waiting outside for Loretta and she’s taking a while. Weird. She normally sprints out of the shop the second the timesheet says her shift is over and she doesn’t care if the place is falling to bits as she goes. I wonder why I’m not away home to avoid this awkward situation. I don’t know. I guess she’s alright banter and she might just want to make me a supervisor or something. Keen for that.
“You ready?” Loretta emerges and pushes the back door closed behind her, turning the key in the lock.
It’s raining and the headlights of cars shimmer on the surface of the road. People huddle under umbrellas and don’t watch where they’re going on the pavements.
“The bar’s just over the road.” She strides off ahead into the night with her anorak hood pulled over her head and her handbag slung over her other shoulder. I go after her.
It only takes a few minutes and she’s turning back to see if I’m still there, which I am, and she jostles me into this bar. I go in and there’s immediately some stairs I almost fall down. Never been anywhere like here before, though I’ve been out plenty with the lads. I ain’t out with the lads tonight. I go down the stairs.
“Fucking cold out there,” Loretta breathes behind me.
I laugh. First time I’ve heard her swear. “Aye, it is.”
“You’re not one of those guys who goes about in shorts in the winter, are you?”
I pull open the door into the main bar area and gesture for her to go past me. “Only if I’m driving to the gym.”
She looks at me like I’m stupid. “Have you seen the width of this corridor, Cameron? Go.”
Loretta nudges me impatiently through the door and follows me in to the main bar area. It’s a dark place with a pretty low ceiling and everything is dark brown wood and paneling. A waitress spots Loretta and waves us over to a table near the bar. Loretta greets her and the waitress pulls out two wooden chairs and takes our coats.
“Fancy place,” I mutter.
“Ha! You mean it’s not Siberia?”
“I don’t go to Siberia.”
I don’t want to agree so I screw my nose up at her instead. She enjoys that. I sit down and there’s a candle on the table. It’s all very cute. I sit upright in my chair and look round the bar. It’s all low lighting and small tables with candles. Some free-form jazz plays through speakers you can’t see because it’s too dark. Loretta orders a gin and tonic and then we endure a very awkward moment where I figure out what I want in a place like this while the waitress and Loretta look at me intently. I stutter out that I want a pint.
“Would you like the stout, the ale, the lager, or the bitter?” the waitress asks.
Fuck me. Beer is beer. “The—lager,” I say.
The waitress speeds off. “Lager!” Loretta laughs. “And you call yourself a lad!”
“I have never called myself that.”
“Haven’t you? Don’t you broadcast your every visit to the gym on Facebook? Or make sure everyone at work hears about your wild nights out?”
“You’ve been on my Facebook?”
“Yes—although you haven’t accepted my friend request.”
“Surprised you know how to send one.”
“Harsh. How old do you think I am?”
I look her up and down, as though I’m trying to figure it out. “Charming,” she mutters. She’s leant forward on the table, hands cupped in front of her. I quickly scan her fingers, I think discreetly, for a ring. None. Maybe she does want a piece.
“What are you hoping to find on my hands?”
Not so discreet then. “Wrinkles, maybe.”
The drinks arrive before she can go further, and I’m glad for the interruption. I genuinely thought she was married. I’m sure she used to wear a ring. It was gold and it used to catch the light in the bookshop.
She lifts her gin and tonic and chucks a significant portion of it back. “Best to start whipping another one up for me now, Jane.”
“That kind of day?” the waitress replies.
“You know it.”
The waitress goes. I sip my pint.
“You come here often, then?” I ask her.
Loretta sweeps her hair back off of her face. In this light you can see the dye more easily than normal.
She shrugs. “It’s close to work.”
“You always bring some meat with you?”
She snorts through her gin. “Meat? Give yourself more credit.”
“Normally alone then?”
“Why’s it matter to you?”
“I’m trying to figure out if I’m special.”
“Oh, please. Some days—some days I just need some entertainment is all.”
She says it in a kind of distant way. She hasn’t taken on my banter at all and I’m kind of embarrassed I’ve been going at it so hard. I knock a good bit of beer back. Why the hell was I flirting like that anyway? Fuck me, Cameron. I’m suddenly very self-conscious. I cross one leg over the other in an effort to look more stately.
“And you’re good entertainment,” she continues.
“Well—that lot at work—they can be dull.”
I think of Maureen. “You can say that again.”
“And—I mean—you’re pretty shit at your job, Cameron, if I’m honest.” I look up at her shocked. Maybe my mouth is gaping a little. Our eyes meet and she just laughs really hard, putting her drink down on the table and throwing her head back. I laugh a little too. I am kind of shit with books. But still, harsh from Loretta.
“But,” she recovers herself. “You’re good conversation. You give me a bit of attitude. I’d call you sassy but I know you’d hate that.”
“I can take being sassy.”
“Good! ‘Cause you are.”
I smile and sip some more of my pint. Her next gin arrives. I ask for the same again.
“Do you know the amount of applications I get whenever a job opens up there?” She points upwards in the general direction of the shop. “All these bookish types putting on their cover letters that their favorite book is Gatsby or 1984.” She rubs her hands together idly. “Makes me sick. But yours—I remember your application.”
“You make it sound like it was a joke.”
“I mean, maybe it was! ‘Can lift heavy boxes,’ it said. That was your cover letter. I said to myself—I’ve got to meet this guy.” She laughs again, this time quietly to herself.
“Well, you don’t half have me on in the back doing exactly that all the time.”
“I know! I remember thinking this guy gets what I need. I don’t want passion for books. I need shelves restocked.” She’s very animated when she talks. She points to herself or to the world depending on who she’s talking about. Then she shakes her finger back and forward like she’s prodding a bear awake.
“You know—I didn’t actually know it was a bookshop when I applied,” I say.
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
“Just as well, though. I’d have never applied for a bookshop.”
“Just as well?”
“Some might take that as you admitting you like it there.”
“Some might.” My next pint arrives. My first is finished. I think I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket but I’m not sure and I can’t be bothered checking. She’s ordering her bloody third gin and tonic.
“What about you?” I ask.
“What about me?”
“Do you like working there?”
She pauses. “Not a question people ask the manager.”
“That’s ‘cause no-one pays us to have reviews with you.”
“I’ve got a manager of my own for that.” She looks away down to the table as though an answer to my question is written somewhere in the grain of the wood. “It’s never where I saw myself.”
“In a bookshop?”
“Where did you see yourself?”
“Never this far north, that’s for sure.”
“Why you here then?”
“You’re more curious than you look.”
“I assume you asked me here to talk about something. I’m not going to sit here bored.”
“So I’m entertaining you now.”
“Entertainment should work both ways.” The beer and the time since lunch makes my tongue a little looser than it should be.
“Alright.” She rolls her shoulders, like she’s throwing a rucksack off. “I don’t know why I’m here. I hadn’t thought to question it until recently.”
“Who doesn’t know why they’re where they are?”
“Easy for you to say.”
“You grew up here. People stay where they’re put more often than they move. And I’ve been put here.”
“But you didn’t grow up here so—”
She wrings her hands and she’s not looking up much anymore. I’m sipping my pint and I figure she could use a second to herself so I look around the room a bit. The waitress smiles politely to a couple of customers who’ve just walked in. A couple sit holding hands at a table. A guy sits opposite an empty chair with a jacket thrown over the back of it, waiting for whoever he’s with to come back from the bathroom. A woman shakes her finger drunkenly at her friend while she throws back another drink. Another couple, the table just behind us, sit in stony silence and the lady stirs her drink slowly. I imagine hearing the ice clink against the glass if I was sitting at the table with them. But I’m not. I’m sitting at this one.
The waitress comes over to the table and drops off the bill. I don’t remember us asking for it.
“I always say to never let me stay past eight,” Loretta says, without looking at me. She throws back the last of her gin and tonic.
“I always have dinner at home. And I don’t eat past nine.”
“Hmm. Fair enough.”
I shuffle in my chair to ease my wallet out of my back pocket. Loretta waves me away.
“These are on me,” she says.
“Nah, let me. I pried.”
She’s picked the bill up from the table and was just about to get up to pay but she stops. Still facing the bar, she turns back to me.
“You’re fine. You’re refreshing, actually. I can’t remember the last time someone asked me questions.”
“My boss asks me out for drinks. Of course I’m going to have questions.”
“Get some juicy info to make you popular?”
“No. Not at all.” I try to look earnest.
She laughs. “Not that I’d care.”
She gets up to go to the bar and pay. I sit and wonder what she meant. She comes back a moment later with our jackets. I put mine on. She leads the way out and I follow.
At the top of the stairs she takes a moment to lift her hood over her hair before she steps out into the light rain. I go out behind her.
“I’m left,” she says.
She pats my shoulder, “Thanks for your company, Cameron. When are you in next?”
“I’ll see you then.” She turns away.
“Loretta,” I call. She turns back, but continues walking away just backwards and with slow steps. “I’d be up for this again.” It feels good to say.
“I’m sure you would.” She turns off into the night.
I start home. God, Cameron, such a loser calling after her like that. I’ll need to up my sass on Friday so she doesn’t think I’m needy. I think of plugging my headphones in on the way home but I decide I’d rather just listen to the streets, to the rain and all that. I get mental ideas when I’ve had a couple to drink and my mind’s moving even faster ‘cause I haven’t had anything to eat. I stick my phone off after a while because the vibrate from the lads chat keeps distracting me from just thinking. The city sounds weird.