Somebody had moved the light switch. Either that or it was playing with me, like we were trapped in some cruel game of ‘tag’ that I wouldn’t win until my legs buckled, my body jerked forward without warning and I hit the switch with the nib of my nose.
Spotlights flooded the room and I crashed into it with abandon, scanning a lawn of beige carpet in search of my dignity but instead finding a set of brightly painted red toenails that I recognised instantly.
“It’s about time,” she said bluntly.
I looked up slowly and there she stood in her silk night-gown, her slender, brown arms akimbo, her narrow, speckled face taut with frustration.
I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but in the three years that Nancy and I had been together, I had come to accept that she was usually right about most things, and so could only assume that she was right about this too. It was about time, though about time for what exactly I couldn’t say.
“I’m sorry,” I slurred, more out of habit than guilt.
Again she glared, saying nothing, just screwing up lips that, without the benefit of make-up at this early hour, were slim and pale, and rolling hazel eyes towards a dark mass of thick, wavy hair.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to say, but it no longer mattered. In an instant, my body decided that it had just about had enough of all this and I toppled to the floor.
Something smelt horrid. A thick moisture dripped from my face and I became quickly aware of some low, murky pain in my gut.
A few hours, at the least, had passed, though I only knew this thanks to an unforgiving sunlight that pushed its way through the windows of our home; a semi-detached that had been an ode to style and Modern Living when it was first built in the late 1990s but which had aged poorly and prematurely.
The sun pushed further still, burning violently through my clenched eyelids and dancing with heavy feet on my retinas.
There was no use. Time to admit defeat and face the consequences.
Opening my eyes slowly and giving my brain a few seconds to come to terms with consciousness, I lifted myself from the ground on my hands and knees in a kind of uninspired press-up motion and realised that I’d been lying in my own vomit. God only knows how I’d managed not to choke or drown through the night. That probably would’ve been the safer option. As it was, I was alive, though not particularly well, and about to face Nancy’s wrath.
A low rumble escaped my lips as I looked up, still on all fours like some wounded dog, to see Nancy staring back down at me, her face decorated in disgust and expensive mascara.
“You haven’t been stood there all night, have you?”
It was a reasonable question I thought. Besides the fact that she’d changed out of her gown and into a sexy skin-tight jeans-and-t-shirt combo, she was stood almost exactly as she had been before I’d passed out; the same delicate hand on the same sharp, protruding him and that same bitter tone in her voice.
“Yeah, right,” she spluttered. “You roll in blind drunk at half three in the morning and you think I’m going to just stand here and watch you playing in your own vomit. Look at the state of you, Jack.”
I did. Propping myself up on my knees, brushing soft, drooping locks of matted dark hair from my face and wiping away a smear of second-hand kebab from fresh stubble, I looked down at my tired, sagging body. I looked a mess, especially compared to Nancy.
Nancy was a slim, beautiful girl, and though it was her bullshit-free approach to life and unwavering ambition that had made me fall strangely in love with her, it had been the supple, perma-tanned flesh of her short, slick pins, pert breasts and delicate shoulders that had first attracted her to me. She still looked good now, though since her long, narrow eyes were scowling at me and her freshly made-up lips were ready to eat me alive, I didn’t find her all that attractive.
I opened my mouth to speak, but the only noise I could physically muster was a dark groan that vibrated in my throat and sounded like a sloth in the throes of a heart attack.
Her eyes were full of nothing but disdain now.
“There’s no milk, you’ll need to go buy some. Make yourself a coffee and sort yourself out.”
It was pointless. The door slamming behind her sent shudders through my aching brain and I was left on my own to deal with a mammoth hangover and a house that reeked of sick.
I called out Nancy’s name again, then figured she wasn’t likely to hear me over the sound of her car engine starting, and promptly collapsed again, face first into my own puke. I probably would’ve stayed there too, but by now the acid stench had become intolerable, and I forced myself to my feet.
The word ‘milk’ sprang to mind. Fuck milk, I didn’t need milk, I needed coffee; strong, black coffee with enough power to kick-start a frigging locomotive.
As the kettle roared into action, I switched on the radio. An old familiar tune faded out to make way for the daily news report.
“Good morning, it’s Saturday April fifth, and in today’s headlines, the Government have announced a new campaign to combat obesity entitled ‘God Hates You, Fatty. Now Go Ride a Bike or You’ll Go To Hell.”
OK, so that’s probably not what the news reporter said, but I wasn’t really paying attention, drifting instead into my own thoughts and begging my brain to stop hurting.
“And in today’s League One game, the Ellington Eagles take on Chinchester United at New Field Road,” said the sports reporter, his words slapping me back into reality.
“The game kicks off at three pm.”
I looked over, past the pile of dirty dishes towards the cheap clock on the far wall. It had just gone twelve, and I sighed deeply as I prepared myself for the inevitable phone call that was to come.
The kettle popped, and as the last drop of steaming hot water splashed into my mug, the call came.
“Pub,” said the ever-cheerful voice on the other end of the phone.
It was Rob. Rob had been one of my best friends for years now. I loved the lad dearly, but he was, without a doubt, the most stubborn swine alive, and if he wanted me to come to the pub with him, there was little point in arguing with him. Regardless, I did anyway.
“I don’t think I’m gonna bother today mate,” I told him. “Got a bit messed up last night.”
“Why, where were you? Out drinking without us? You know we were all waiting for you to go to Dirty Frank’s don’t you?”
“Yeah I know, I’m sorry mate. I got last minute press tickets to a gig in the city, I couldn’t miss it. Wish I hadn’t bothered though now.”
“Bad times all round?”
“Let me put it this way, Rob, I was off my skull at half two this morning, dancing with that bassist from The Jersey Girls like some fat walrus having a fit.”
Rob’s laughter boomed down the phone and tickled my ears.
“It’s not funny” I protested. “I woke up this morning covered in puke, with Nancy pissed off at me, feeling like some fat bloke’s been sitting on my head all night.”
He laughed again.
“Well anyway, that’s no excuse. What time are you coming to the pub?”
“Aw, Rob, I really don’t…”
“Don’t want to let me down, I know, I know. So I’ll see you in the Robin in time for kick off then.”
That was the most annoying thing about Rob. Not that he’d hung up, but that he was right; no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, it was more or less inevitable that I would end up the pub later.
All I needed now was an excuse; something to persuade me that drinking with the boys was a much better option than staying home, riding this vile hangover out to the bitter end and waiting for Nancy to come home and forgive me.
Sparking up a crumpled cigarette I’d found squashed in my back pocket, I carried my coffee over to the kitchen table and collapsed into a hard, wooden chair. At first, my eyes simply wondered aimlessly across the room, past the neatly folded stack of laundry that would probably stay there until Nancy and I had stopped arguing over who’s turn it was to put the clothes away, along the dark, oak work surfaces and across the blood red walls, the notice board littered with take-away menus, a picture of Nancy and I on holiday in Italy and some strange stain that we just couldn’t shift.
They wandered further, through the open door and into the living room, over the plush leather sofas and trendy, flat-pack furniture, picked out by Nancy and put up by me, beyond my puddle of puke and towards the wide window bay, where artificial flowers flourished in a tall, black vase and my old acoustic guitar lay, neglected.
Then they wandered back again, into the kitchen, and focused on the envelope which stood menacingly in front of me, propped up on the kitchen table by an empty bottle of red wine.
There was no stamp, no address, just the word ‘JACK’ carved into the surface in heavy, imposing capital letters.
I opened it up and slid out a thin sheet of paper marked with those same bold letters, and there it was, an excuse to go get drunk with the boys.
Sometimes, no matter how much you care for someone, no matter how much you want to desperately help them, they’re so wrapped up in their own delusions that they don’t even think they need help.
Sometimes, it’s like they’re determined to do as much damage to themselves as possible, and fuck to all hell how affects those close to them.
You’ve been doing this to me for too long now, Jack. I’ve had enough.
I’ve got big plans for my future, and I thought you did too, but instead all you’ve been doing lately is dragging me down, holding me back, and I have to get out of this relationship for the sake of my future.
It’s not doing me any good being with you, waiting for you to stagger in blind drunk and stupid o clock in the morning after going out to another gig, listening to you bullshit the both of us when you claim that you’re totally justified in leaving me at home all night because it’s your job to write those shitty music reviews for that shitty newspaper that nobody even reads anyway.
Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if you were actually successful at it, but let’s face it, you’re not. Instead, it’s me trying to make something of myself and you pissing it all away, wasting your life and making up bullshit excuses when I try to help you do something better.
Look at those reviews you said you were going to send to that magazine, they’ve been sat in an envelope on the kitchen table for the last two weeks, and you’ve been lying to me that the only reason you’ve not posted them is because you’re forgetful, when the honest truth is that you’re quite happy with your crappy existence here in Ellington, and don’t even want anything better. The only reason you put those reviews together in the first place was to appease me, and whilst I appreciate the thought, it just isn’t enough, not any more.
I want to get out of this place, to have a better life for myself, and being with you is stopping me from doing that.
So that’s it, it’s over.
I hope you know that I do still care about you Jack, and I do want you to succeed, but I can’t just sit around any longer and wait for that to happen.
The paper dropped from my hands, sailing back and forth towards the floor, followed immediately by a long trail of ash from the cigarette I’d held between my lips but forgotten to smoke.
I wondered for a second if I was supposed to be angry, devastated, heartbroken or just plain, bloody offended. Instead, what I actually felt was some crushing, heavy pain that encompassed all of those and pushed them down, through my skin and into my entire body with such force that I was crippled by it and for a moment I couldn’t move a single muscle, think a single thought or mouth a single word.
All I could do was look at the envelope Nancy had mentioned in her letter; a brown packet adorned with a neatly typed label addressed to Rock Slam Magazine. Inside, it contained some of the best work I’d produced in my job as an entertainment journalist of sorts for the local newspaper, the Ellington Express, and a polite letter stating my desire to write for them, should they like my work and want me on board.
Rock Slam was the most celebrated, acclaimed music magazine in the country. It was edited by the infamous Malcolm Styles, a man who’s raw, intense, urgent style of music journalism had greatly influenced my own, a man noted for grabbing more exclusives with the musical elite than any other, and a man who’s printed words of praise could do the same for a fledgling band as a spin on John Peel’s legendary radio broadcasts. As editor, Malcom Styles had made Rock Slam the only music magazine in the country who’s voice really mattered, and for as long as I could remember, I’d dreamt of my name splashed across its pages.
When I was younger of course, I’d always imagined that the words would read something along the lines of ‘Jack Conner, world famous rock icon and international sex symbol,’ but that was before I realised that my musical talents only stretched as far as knocking out a bad version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and wouldn’t be improving. So I gave up that dream and channeled my efforts into writing instead.
After all, if I couldn’t be a rock star, there was nothing to stop me writing about them.
So why hadn’t I put that envelope in the post? I’d convinced myself that it was simply because the post men had gone on strike again recently and that I’d much rather wait until things had returned back to normal, but in the back of my mind, I knew that wasn’t the real reason.
The real reason was that I was scared of what might happen once that envelope slapped the bottom of the post box and was out of my control. What if they didn’t like my stuff? Surely that would mean I wasn’t that good after all, and that I’d have to give up on yet another dream.
And besides, why take that risk when, like Nancy had pointed out, I was happy here in Ellington. I liked my job here, my friends were all here and weren’t likely to be going anywhere soon and of course, the mighty ‘Eagles were picking up wins left and right in League One. Why risk taking a chance on something I wasn’t even sure I was cut out for when I had everything I needed right here at home?
It was this fear of failure and rejection that stopped me doing most things in life. Naturally I had big dreams and things I wanted to accomplish, but the terror of sticking my neck on the line and ultimately failing had embedded itself into my soul like a rusty nail and refused to budge.
Admittedly, I’d been OK up to now, but that had all been largely the result of several happy accidents mixed with a few rare moments of blind bravery and naively putting myself forward for things I didn’t fully understand.
That’s how I’d ended up in this house with Nancy in the first place.
I’d moved out of my Mum’s place once her boyfriend and his two young sons had moved in with us. There just wasn’t the room anymore, and at twenty two years-old, it was generally felt that it was about time I moved on anyway.
Not long after I’d started renting this place, I’d met Nancy in a nightclub. She looked gorgeous that night; her sharp, tanned pins bound by a tight mini-skirt and her slender body wrapped in black blouse. Her dark hair coiled atop her head and drew attention from her seductive eyes and fiery red lipstick.
Being at least half-bladdered and full of Confidence Juice, I’d told her that I was a highly acclaimed music critic and, being half-bladdered herself, Nancy was impressed. She came home with me that night and, well, just never seemed to leave.
Not until now at least.
I wondered if she might have stayed had I just put that damn envelope in the post. If I’d managed to get off my arse and prove to her that she wasn’t the only one with ambition, maybe she’d still be here, forgiving me for once again rolling home blind drunk and either passing out straight away, or begging her for sex first and then passing out with my boxers round my ankles and the stench of kebab on my breath.
Then again, maybe the amount of times I’d done exactly that had contributed more to Nancy’s decision to leave me than anything else, and as much as I was annoyed at her for basically calling me wasted looser, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.
Forgetting for a moment that I was still being raped by a sordid hangover, I banged my head hard against the cold, wooden table.
It didn’t help, but I knew what would.
Quickly, I chucked the last gulps of coffee towards my mouth in such a reckless fashion that most of it missed my mouth and instead added a few splashes of pale brown to the vomit collage on my white shirt. Then I headed for the shower.
Thanks to the pissed-up festival of debauchery it had been dragged through the night before, my body was incredibly sensitive and I could feel every drop of soothing, hot water colliding against my loose, pale flesh, burning off a thick film of filth and flushing it down the drain.
I needed that, but more, I needed to get out of the house. Nancy was everywhere. The faded smell of her sweet perfume hung gently in the air, resting itself on photographs of happier times that clung to cream-painted walls, on the computer desk, laden with empty cups, tattered notebooks for my work and bulging document folders for hers, and on the duvet, folded like fjords atop an empty bed.
It settled itself on the beige carpets and crept quietly into open drawers stuffed with memories and it slid up my nose, where it wrestled with the bitter odour of stale vomit.
I stepped out of the shower and dressed quickly into a pair of dark, loose fitting jeans and a black, baggy T-shirt that served to hide my slowly developing beer belly.
The thing was an embarrassment. It was like all of a sudden it had just appeared, this soft, fleshy molehill rising up from what had once been a flat, toned stomach, the result of too many nights on the lash and a complete lack of exercise.
Once, lying in bed with her body tucked in close to mine, I’d asked Nancy if she’d ever leave me if my belly got too big.
“Don’t be daft, you know I wouldn’t,” she’d assured me with a slight giggle at the time. I only wished now that she would have warned me that she might do if I failed to post an envelope.
Once dressed, I combed back my thick shock of hair, slipped on my favourite leather jacket then soaked the living room carpet in disinfectant, dropped a towel over the offending area and jumped on it a few times. Then I left the house.
I shuffled along at speed, hands tucked into my pockets and shoulders pushed up, sandwiching my neck between them to protect from the cold chill of early April, then got halfway to the pub and stopped dead in my tracks before sprinting back towards the house.
“Knobhead,” I said to myself as I barged back through the front door and raced into the kitchen.
A wallet with two tattered twenty pound notes in it, a mobile phone, packet of cigarettes and a lighter, the most essential items for any trip to the pub, and I’d left them all on the kitchen table.
I scooped these up quickly and slid them into my pockets. The words ‘ROCK SLAM’ screamed at me, demanding attention. I picked up the envelope and stared at it for a moment. I knew that if I gave this thing any amount of thought or consideration at all, it would stay on the table, and so horridly shoved it into my pocket, forgot about it and left the house again.
There was a post box just round the corner from the pub. I approached it nervously, as though it were some untamed beast snarling at me, ready to rip my hand the moment I went anywhere near the dark, menacing pit of its jaws.
Breathing in deeply and closing my eyes, I took the envelope out of my pocket and, with one quick, sudden movement, slammed it forcefully into the mouth of the post box, breathing out as I heard it plop with a light thud on the bottom.
Then I told myself to forget all about it and headed inside The Robin Hood.