Wednesday 14th February 1996
I went out to that traffic signal party Andy’s been harping on about. He said if I helped set up, I’d have free beer on tap all night. Turned out to be a single pint of snakebite and black. Wasn’t worth the effort if I’m honest. Andy said I need to get myself out there after Martina. Have fun at a singles night. On Valentine’s of all days. I keep wondering what Martina might be at. Maybe she’s celebrating with someone else this year, or maybe she’s at home regretting dumping me to become a lesbian. I dunno. I hope it’s the second one.
Anyway, it was pitiful this singles night. It was like being back at the primary school disco. All the boys lined up on one side, all the girls on the other. Looking at each other but not looking at each other. Trying to catch a glimpse of each other’s badge – green badge for single, red badge for taken. Amber for… I’m still not clear on that one.
‘What’s amber for?’ I asked Andy, as the organiser of the whole thing I thought he’d have a clue.
‘I dunno, mate. Maybe?’
‘Why are there even reds here? Shouldn’t they be at restaurants with their significant others.’
‘Obviously their others aren’t that significant. Don’t worry about the reds, you focus on the greens tonight, mate.’ Andy slapped a green badge on me. ‘In fact, I’m sticking two on you. You need all the help you can get.’
Andy slapped a badge on my arse. He said it would get me a bit of attention. I mingled for a while, but to be honest, my heart wasn’t in it. Besides, everyone reeked a bit of desperation. Not just the women, the men too. They’d all been rather liberal with the body spray.
There was a girl on a stool in the corner. She sat alone, reading a book with her elbow propped up on a dictionary. This girl had an amber badge on. That is definitely what amber looks like. Not bothered. I wandered over.
‘Are you reading?’
‘Why do people ask that? When I am obviously reading.’
‘Sorry, could I?’ I pointed to the stool beside her. She waved a hand without looking up from her book, so I sat down.
‘I’ll try this again. What are you reading?’
‘A book.’ She ran her fingers through her messy cropped bob.
‘OK, what book?’
‘You don’t know it.’
‘Try me, I’m an English Literature student so you never know.’
She set me with a dead stare. Her thick black glasses magnified her blue eyes. It was rather disconcerting, if I’m honest.
‘It’s German or it’s in German?’
‘What’s it about?’
‘A teen boy who has an affair with a Nazi. This is after the war and he doesn’t know she’s a Nazi. Or at least, I don’t think he does. My German is a bit iffy and I have to keep stopping to look up words.’
‘Let me get this straight, you’re reading about Nazis in German at a singles night?’
‘Is your coursework due in tomorrow or something?’
‘No, I’m reading this for fun.’
‘Fun?’ I laughed, she wrinkled her nose.
‘Did you actually want something? Or was it just to interrogate me about books?’
‘I came over to ask what the amber badge means. No one seems to be able to give me an answer.’
‘Well for me, it means I getting over a particularly bad break up.’ She adjusted the badge on her white tee.
‘Oh, I knew I should have gone with amber.’
She ignored me, or at least she didn’t bother to follow up what I said with a question.
‘I’ve recently split up with someone. Or at least she split up with me.’ I offered.
‘I’m sorry, were you together long?’
‘Two years. Or it would have been. She split up with me the day before our anniversary.’
‘Well, that’s awful.’
‘Yeah, my mates said it would be good to get out of the house for a bit. I’ve been a bit down since it happened.’
‘My friends said the same. That’s why they dragged me out tonight. When was your break up?’
‘Over Christmas, what about you?’
‘Yesterday.’ She sighed. ‘Well my friend, Caroline, said the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.’
‘Oh right. Caroline sounds like an interesting character.’
‘That’s her over there, the one with the green badge and the Rachel haircut.’
‘Which one?’ The bar had started to fill up with women all with identical hair.
‘The one with the swarm of men around her probably.’ She closed her book. ‘What’s wrong with you then?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Why did your girlfriend split up with you?’
‘Nothing wrong with me. Wrong with her. Well… not wrong.’
‘Spit it out!’
‘She’s a lesbian now. She realised she prefers women.’
She chuckled. No, she outright hooted with laughter. She had to take her glasses off to wipe a tear away from her eye.
‘I’m just going to call bullshit on this one.’
‘Oh no, I really believe you think she’s a lesbian. I’m saying that… what’s her name?’
‘Martina? Really? OK, Martina isn’t a lesbian. She’s just looking for a way to let you down without telling you she’s moved on.’
‘No, Martina’s not like that.’
‘Does Martina go here?’
‘No, we were supposed to go to uni together but she put down Edinburgh as her first choice. She didn’t think she’d get in, but then she did. She actually wanted to come here with me.’
‘So you were both supposed to be going to uni together but somehow she ended up 400 miles away instead? Can I ask a question? Is there anyone in Martina’s classes or halls with a cool guy name? A Jason or a Joshua or an Aaron?’
‘There’s an Aaron in one of her tutorials.’
‘She’s having it off with Aaron.’ She started to pack her books away into a tiny backpack. It was like Mary Poppin’s carpetbag, neatly absorbing her tome of a German dictionary and her weird Nazi book.
‘No, she’s a lesbian.’ I repeated.
‘I’m sorry, Martina is most definitely having sex with Aaron. She said that lesbian stuff to let you down, but also to keep you on the hook.’
‘Keep me on the hook.’
‘Yep, see right now you’re mad at her for dumping you. Eventually, you’ll be less angry and you’ll come round to the idea your ex is a lesbian. Maybe you might start fantasizing about it even. Then in six months or a year or more, you’ll bump into her. Guess what? She’ll say it was a phase she went through and she’d like you back now please. And you’ll be OK with that, ‘cause it was just a phase. A phase that you’ll imagine involved her hot friend, Michelle…’
‘OK, you’ll think Lauren and Martina went to town on each other. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that phase will actually be an awkward snog (no tongues) after one too many lambrinis then Martina and Lauren will never make eye contact again. If I’m wrong, I’ll owe you a pint.’ She stood up and pulled her ridiculously small backpack on to her back.
‘Are you coming?’
‘Back to mine, of course.’ She stared at me for a moment. ‘Look, if I’m right Martina is shagging Aaron tonight, if you are right, it’s Lauren. Either way, do you want to be here trying to figure which it is or do you want to come home with me?’
I downed my snakebite and followed her out. She said her flat wasn’t far and it really wasn’t. Her flatmate had chosen it as it was convenient for the bars. We stood in front of the hulking great red door of her flat for a minute or two as she tried to find her key, which was eventually located in a page of her German dictionary.
‘You have a green badge on your bum,’ She said as she turned the key.
‘My mate thought it would make women look at my arse.’
‘It worked then,’ she didn’t open the door, she just peered at me. ‘Did you tell me your name?’
‘Eric.’ I offered my hand.
‘Jayne.’ She shook it.
After ascending three flights of stairs in the dark, we reached her flat. The living room had a brown sofa covered by throws hemmed in by bookcases full of books and CDs and a blue blow up chair in the corner. There was a poster above the electric fireplace. It was some foreign film.
‘The books are mine, the CDs are mostly Caroline’s.’ Jayne called from the kitchen. ‘We only have vodka, is that ok?’
‘Yeah. So are you going to tell me what happened with your ex? So I can dissect it, just like you did with my break up, Poirot.’
‘Um,’ She returned with two pint glasses of orange liquid. ‘We only had Capri Sun, so I hope that’s fine as a mixer. OK, what do you want to know?’
‘What happened? Why did you split up?’
‘I think it was a long time coming. There were signs, I suppose, from last summer. I think Gary was trying to hint that the end was near but I just wasn’t listening. Or at least not listening hard enough.’
‘What was he like then, this Gary?’
‘He was… he was an Adonis.’
‘An Adonis? And his name was Gary? Gary’s not a very sexy name.’
‘Your name is Eric.’
‘There are sexy Erics.’ I protested.
‘He doesn’t count.’
‘He’s an Eric, why wouldn’t he count?’
‘Cause he’s French. Normal rules don’t apply to French people. You could be called Shitface De Turdballs and still be sexy if you’re French. Everyone knows that.’
‘I can’t think of anyone else except Eric Morecambe.’
‘Eric Morecambe wasn’t sexy.’
‘Tell that to his wife,’ I chuckled. ‘Sorry, you were telling me about Gary.’
‘Yes, Gary. He’s got the body of a god, he’s an amazing dancer and he’s got a really scampish personality. He’s a real joker but he’s also got the soul of a poet. He’s a musician, in Manchester. He’s a big part of the music scene up there. Gary writes these songs… he just gets right into here.’ She touched her heart, her eyes watering.
‘Wow, he’s the whole package, is Gary. What went wrong?’
‘It was mutual. We’re just in different places right now. We’re not definitely ruling out the possibility of getting back together, but we are just going our own separate ways for now. We just need to focus on ourselves for a bit.’
‘Is that the official statement? Very mature,’ I watched her for a moment as she fiddled with her long silver necklace. She glanced at me, then the CD player.
‘Put on some music, while I get into something more comfortable,’ she wandered off, leaving me to flit through the stack of CDs. I pressed the eject button – Take That. An early one. I forced it back in again and hit play, then forwarded it through the less than romantic tracks.
Put your head against my life, what do you hear?
‘Ah, A Million Love Songs. That’s the one.’ I looked down at a neatly arranged pile of CDs, all Take That.
A million words just trying to make the love song of the year.
‘Jayne, your flatmate must have been a bit devastated.’
Close your eyes but don’t forget.
‘What?’ She called from her room.
What you have heard.
‘I said Caroline must have been sad to hear the news about Take That yesterday. Splitting up and that. I heard The Samaritans had to open a special hotline for suicidal teens. My mum said a girl in her office called in sick, said she was too depressed to come in. She nearly got the sack. Can you believe that? A boy band splits up and girls just lose their heads. They said on the news it’s going to cost employers hundreds of thousands of pounds…’
‘I just can’t believe they’ve split up,’ Jayne choked.
I turned around to find Jayne in what was definitely a Take That t-shirt. Unmistakable as the tee was emblazoned with Howard, Mark, Jason and Gary’s faces.
Jayne’s description of her ex rang in my ears – an Adonis, a scamp, a dancer, a poet.
Jayne stood, her bare knees shaking with the effort of her sobs. Her cheeks were stained with tar-like streaks of mascara. She dropped on to the sofa and pulled her knees up to her chest. I spent the rest of the night rubbing her back, while listening to Take That’s back catalogue on repeat until she fell asleep.
A million love songs later, here I am.