Author: Fiona Gibson
Published: 25th February 2016
Hello fellow bookworms and happy Saturday! Today I have the pleasure of being on the tour for The Woman Who Upped and Left by Fiona Gibson. I am delighted to be sharing the first chapter of the book with you. Don't forget to check the other stops on the tour- there is some wonderful cooking involved!
Pants. There’s a lot of them about. Tomato-red boxers are strewn on the sofa, while another specimen – turquoise, emblazoned with cartoon palm trees and pineapples – has come to rest under the coffee table like a snoozing pet. A third pair – in a murky mustard hue – are parked in front of the TV as if waiting for their favourite programme to come on. I’m conducting an experiment to see how long they’ll all remain there if I refuse to round them all up. Perhaps, if left for long enough, they’ll fossilise and I can donate them to a museum.
Yet more are to be found upstairs, in the bathroom, slung close to – but crucially not in – the linen basket. The act of lifting the wicker lid, and dropping them into it, is clearly too arduous a task for a perfectly able-bodied boy of eighteen years old. It’s infuriating. I’ve mentioned it so many times, Morgan must have stopped hearing me – like the way you eventually become unaware of a ticking clock. Either that, or he simply doesn’t give a stuff. Not for the first time I figure that boys of this age and their mothers are just not designed to live together. But I won’t pick them up, not this time. We can live in filth – crucially, he’ll also run out of clean pants and have to start re-wearing dirty ones, turned inside out – and see if I care …
Beside the scattering of worn boxers lies a tiny scrap of pale lemon lace, which on closer inspection appears to be a thong. This would be Jenna’s. Morgan’s girlfriend is also prone to leaving a scattering of personal effects in her wake.
I stare down at the thong, trying to figure how such a minuscule item can possibly function as pants. I have never worn one myself, being unable to conquer the fear that they could work their way actually into your bottom, and require an embarrassing medical procedure to dig them back out. I know they’re meant to be sexy – my own sturdy knickers come in multipacks, like loo roll – but all I can think is: chafing risk. And what am I supposed to do with it?
Although Morgan has been seeing Jenna for nearly a year, I’m still unsure of the etiquette where her underwear is concerned. Should I pick it up delicately – with eyebrow tweezers, perhaps – and seal it in a clear plastic bag, like evidence from a crime scene? Tentatively, as if it might snap at my ankle, I nudge it into the corner of the bathroom with the toe of my shoe.
Stifled giggles filter through Morgan’s closed bedroom door as I march past. He locks it these days, i.e. with a proper bolt, which he nailed on without prior permission, irreparably damaging the original Victorian door in the process. We’ve just had a Chinese takeaway and now they’re … well, obviously they’re not playing Scrabble. Having known each other since primary school, they’ve been inseparable since a barbecue at Jenna’s last summer. Favouring our house to hang out in, they are forever draped all over each other in a languid heap, as if suffering from one of those olden-day illnesses: consumption or scarlet fever. They certainly look pretty flushed whenever I happen to walk into the room. ‘Yes, Mum?’ my son is prone to saying, as if I have no right to move from room to room in my own home.
‘Morgan, I’m off now, okay?’ I call out from the landing.
‘I’m meeting Stevie tonight. Remember me saying? I’m staying over, I’ll be back around lunchtime tomorrow. Remember to lock the front door and shut all the windows and try not to leave 700 lights blazing …’
More giggles. How amusingly petty it must seem, wishing to protect our home from thieves and avoid a £2000 electricity bill …
‘And can you start putting milk back in the fridge after you’ve used it? When I came back last week it had actually turned into cottage cheese …’
‘Morgan! Are you listening? It blobbed out into my cup!’
‘Ruh,’ comes the barely audible reply. With my teeth jammed together, I trot downstairs, pull on a black linen jacket over my red and black spotty dress, and pick up my overnight bag.
‘Bye, Mum,’ I call out, facetiously, adding, ‘Have a lovely time, won’t you?’ This is the stage I have reached: the point at which you start talking to yourself in the voice of your own child. Where you say things like, ‘Thanks for the takeaway, Mum, I really enjoyed it.’
The spectre of Jenna’s lemon thong shimmers in my mind as I climb into my scrappy old Kia and drive away.
My shabby, scrappy life. It’s not very ‘Audrey’, I reflect as I chug through our small, nondescript town en route to the motorway. Although I don’t obsess about her – the real Audrey, I mean – I can’t help having these thoughts occasionally.
You see, my name is Audrey too. It was Audrey Hepburn; let’s get that out of the way. It’ll come as no surprise that I am named after Mum’s favourite actress, which might sound sweet and romantic until I also explain that she and Dad had had an almighty row on the day she was going to register my birth. She’d threatened to go ahead with the Audrey thing. ‘Don’t you dare,’ he’d yelled (Mum filled me in on all of this as soon as I was old enough to understand). And she’d stormed off to the registrar’s and done it, just to get back at him over some silly slight. ‘What did Dad want to call me?’ I asked once.
‘Gail,’ she replied with a shudder, although it sounded perfectly acceptable to me. To be fair, though, I don’t imagine Doreen Hepburn anticipated the sniggery comments I’d endure throughout childhood and adolescence. You can imagine: ‘Ooh, you’re so alike! I thought I was in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for a minute!’ In fact our name is the only thing we have in common. I’d bet my life that the real Audrey never picked up a single pair of pants, not even her own exquisite little scanties, and certainly not someone else’s unsavoury boxers. Nor did she drive a crappy old car that whiffs of gravy (why is this? To my knowledge there has never been any gravy in it). The real Audrey was arguably the most gorgeous creature to ever walk on this earth. Me, I’m five-foot-two (if I stretch myself up a bit) with a well-padded bottom, boobs that require serious under-wired support and overzealously highlighted hair. I am a shoveller of peas, a disher-outer of sausages and mash. I am a 43-year-old dinner lady and my wedding ring didn’t come from Tiffany’s; it was on sale at Argos, £69.
While some women feel disgruntled about changing their name when they marry – or, quite reasonably, flatly refuse to do so – I was so eager to become Audrey Pepper that Vince, my ex, teased, ‘It’s the only reason you said yes.’ I kept it, too, even when I reverted to a ‘Miss’ after our divorce, when our son turned seven. I never tell boyfriends my maiden name – not that there’s been many. There was just the very occasional, casual date until I met Stevie nine months ago in a bustling pub in York.
I couldn’t believe this charming, rakishly handsome younger man was interested. So intent was he on bestowing me with drinks and flattery, I suspected I’d been unwittingly lured into some kind of social experiment and that a reality TV crew was secretly filming the whole thing. I imagined people sitting at home watching and nudging each other: ‘My God, she actually thinks he fancies her!’ I even glanced around the pub for a bloke with one of those huge zoom lenses. In fact, Stevie turned out not to be an actor tasked with seeing how many middle-aged women he could chat up in one night. He runs a training company, specialising in ‘mindful time management’. I don’t fully understand it, and it still strikes me as odd, considering he seems to have virtually no time to spare for normal things like going out for drinks or dinner with me. Hence the venue for tonight’s date being a two-hour drive from home.
Here’s another un-Audrey thing: meeting your boyfriend at a motorway service station on the M6 on a drizzly Wednesday night. Charnock Richard services, to be precise. We are not merely meeting there before heading off to somewhere more glamorous. I mean, that’s it. We are spending the night at a motorway hotel. We do this a lot, snatching the odd night together when he’s ‘on the road’, as he puts it, which happens to be most of the time. However, I suspect it’s not just for convenience, and that service station hotels are just his thing. His mission seems to be to make passionate love to me at every Welcome Break and Moto in the north of England.
It’s just gone 7.30 when I pull into the car park. I turn off the engine and take a moment to assess the situation I’ve found myself in. I’m parked next to a mud-splattered grey estate with a middle-aged couple inside it; they’re chomping on fried chicken and tossing the bones out of the side windows. I watch, amazed that anyone could possibly think it’s okay to do this.
A lanky young man with low-slung jeans and a small, wiry-haired dog ambles towards my car. Spotting the scattering of bones, the dog starts straining on its lead and yapping like crazy. Dragging him away, his owner fixes me with a furious glare. ‘You’re disgusting,’ he snaps.
Before I know what I’m doing I’m out of my car, shouting, ‘They’re not my bones, okay? Maybe you should check before accusing people!’
‘You’re mental,’ the man retorts, hurrying away. The chicken-munching couple laugh as they pull away, and it strikes me, as I stand in the fine rain in my skimpy dress – my jacket’s still on the back seat of my car – that I probably do look unhinged, and this is all a bit weird. This service station thing, I mean. This thing of Stevie expecting me to jump in my car to meet him with barely any notice.
Yet I do, nearly every time. I picture his teasing greeny-blue eyes – eyes that suggest he’s always up for fun – and sense myself weakening. I imagine his hot, urgent kisses and am already mentally packing a bag. Never mind that I have another job, as a carer for elderly Mrs B, on top of pea-shovelling duties. At the prospect of a night with my boyfriend I quickly arrange for someone to cover my shift. Julie usually obliges. She’s always keen for more hours.
So here I am, stepping through the flurry of pigeons pecking at the greasy chicken remains. Taking a deep breath, and inhaling a gust of exhaust from a carpet fitter’s van, I make my way towards the hotel to meet the most beautiful man I’ve ever had the pleasure of sleeping with.