Two: Mandy vs. The Girl (Pt. I)
"Where's my underwear gone?"
James glanced up from the TV to find his flatmate standing in the doorway, very naked from the waist down.
"Oi, Andy, why's your pee-nahs out?" he questioned, furrowing his brow.
"Can't find my fucking pants."
"Just wear trousers, then."
Andrew frowned, crossing his arms across his chest. "All my trousers are in the wash."
James shrugged and turned his attention back to the television where Benny Hill was currently singing about "young love for sale" to a beautiful woman in a sailor suit (he thought it might have something to do with role reversal being considered amusing).
"Oh, Benny Hill, I love this show," Andrew sat down on the sofa beside James, still sans trousers or pants. "Before or after Hill's Angels?"
"Before, I think."
"Damn," Andrew shook his head, slowly, though his eyes were still glued to the screen as what seemed to be Benny Hill's wife or summat got into a fight with another attractive woman, inadvertently "stabbing" Benny in the stomach. Andrew snorted when a red cloth appeared on Benny's chest. "Bloody genius. You know he was a mincer?"
"He wasn't a mincer."
"'E was, I heard it on the news."
"On the news? Since when do they talk about dead comedians on the news?" James furrowed his brow, turning his attention to the older man.
"Not recently, when he died. '93, wasn't it?"
"'92. And why do you remember whether or not he was gay?"
Andrew crinkled his nose, refusing to tear his eyes from the TV screen. "That ain't somethin' you just forget, ya know."
"I forgot," James couldn't stop the small smirk forming on his face. It was a rare moment when he was able to make Andrew feel uncomfortable in a way that didn't horribly embarrass himself in the process. Without blinking, Andrew reached over, grasping the back of James' neck and shoving his face towards his exposed dick, stopping about three inches above. James struggled against his grasp, punching Andrew in the arm, though his grip never loosened.
"Are you callin' me a mincer, Burke? That it?" Andrew demanded, though he was giggling rather gleefully as well.
"Alright, lads?" a voice called from the stairs and Andrew's grip finally went slack, allowing James to pull his head up and dart up from off of the couch. Peter made his way into the living room, surveying the scene before him: Andrew sitting on the couch in all of his glory, while James stood nearby, face a bit red, breath coming out a bit too much for someone merely watching the telly. "I don't even wanna know, man."
It takes a brave man to confront his family-oriented mother when he is 32, unmarried and without children. While James is not brave, he certainly realised the danger of visiting his mother, and as he stood on the doorstep of her Manchester home-the same home he spent nineteen years in-he found himself wanting desperately to turn around and run home, transportation be damned. Instead, he smoothed his hair over his forehead and ears, making sure his cowlick was not making an appearance, and rang the doorbell. The pleasant chime could be heard through the dusty pink door and he winced at the sound of her greyhound, Shane, barking his deep-chested bark, scratching against the front door.
Simultaneously, the front door swung open, Shane bounded out of it and began contentedly chewing on James' right sneaker (his favourite, naturally) and he found himself nearly tackled to the floor by Margaret Burke.
"James Nicholas Burke, where the bloody hell have you been?" she demanded, reaching up to smooth his hair from his eyes. "And what're you wearing; I thought you worked in an office."
James glanced down at his black and gray half-zip turtleneck, fairly new jeans and age-old sneakers (complete with blue greyhound attached).
"I do," he shrugged, suddenly feeling ten again as he gently pulled his foot out from under Shane's head. "They don't mind."
"They may not say anything about it, but I'm sure they're thinking it," Margaret pointed a finger at him in her terribly motherly way, giving him her most stern expression. James nodded, slowly and her face broke into a grin. "Come on in, then. Your dad's at the Masons', but he should be back soon, if you'd like to see him."
"That's alright. I've got a show tonight, anyway," he announced as he was ushered into the house.
"You boys have been at that band for twenty years, when are you going to give it up and focus on something more fruitful; like starting a family!"
"Mum, please…" James ran his hands through his hair, falling back onto the aged floral couch. As much as he loved his mother, there were times when he wished for a stroke. Something to shut her up.
Then he realised how terrible that thought was and wished he could take it back.
James stood up from the couch as Margaret made her way into the living room, wrapping his arms around her, tray of food and all. "Love you, Mum."
"Oh…well, I love you, too," she patted his back, gently, before prying herself from his arms, setting the tray of cookies down on the coffee table.
Margaret barely glanced up as she poured two cups of tea and began arranging the cookies into some unknown pattern.
"You believe in fate?" James sat back on the couch, toying with the fingernail of his right thumb. Margaret frowned, glancing back at her son, a sugar-coated pink cookie still held in one hand.
Most mothers, James thinks, would have smiled and jumped into a story of how they met their husband. Or they would smile and nod because the idea of fate is quite romantic, in theory. His mother, however-
He shrugged, bringing his thumb to his mouth and chewing on the nail. "Just wondering."
"Jamie…" Margaret set the cookie down and eased herself onto the couch beside him. "Mandy's a wonderful girl and she loves you. It's okay to be scared."
He allowed her to smooth his hair away from his forehead, trying furiously to erase the images of the very young, very bright-haired girl from his mind and replace it with an image of a sweet-faced Mandy with her shiny blond hair and half-smile.
James did not know why he remembered how many days it had been since he'd met the mysterious redhead. It was not proper for a man who was attached to a lovely girl to remember how long it had been since he'd met another girl. A girl he was seemingly obsessed with. But there it was, written atop his notebook:
Yes. Because thirteen days is always a good sign.
He frowned, kicking at a piece of trash lying nearby as he made his way down the streets of London. There had been many times over the past two weeks when he had struggled to justify his train of thought. After all, she had been a very attractive girl and she had acted more concerned than he had expected her to be, considering he had knocked her to the ground. How many drinks had he had that night? All of which she'd paid for.
He made his way into the grocery shop, head lowered, eyes glued to the ground. Absently, he wandered down the aisles, tossing various necessities into the basket he hadn't realised he'd picked up. The other night, Mandy had mentioned his sudden change in attitude over dinner, naming off some strange psychiatric condition she'd probably read in a magazine. He'd brushed it off, blaming his flatmates instead, hoping she'd drop it. Which she had, but only after spouting out some more psychiatric nonsense. He frowned at a package of powdered milk. This, he thought bitterly, was the way cheating started. Man meets girl. Man becomes enamored-obsessed, even-with said girl. Commence blatant lying to significant other.
He shook his head, tossing the milk into his basket and making his way to the check-out.
"You're better looking when you're not pissed."
He jumped at the sound of the voice, dropping a loaf of bread, a head of lettuce and a package of tomatoes.
Poor tomatoes. Never had a chance.
James finally looked up to find himself face-to-face with the subject of his current inner battle. "Oh, um…hullo."
"Hullo. D'you need to run and get some more tomatoes?" she questioned, leaning over to get a better look at the dearly departed vegetables.
"Uh, no. No, s'not a big deal," he shrugged, struggling to convince himself the same. She nodded, beginning to pull each item over the scanner.
"About your girlfriend, are you feeling better?" she repeated casually and James shrugged again,.
"No. I-I mean yeah. Yeah, loads."
"Good. That's good."
He bent down, picking up the bread and lettuce, handing them to the girl and scooping up what was left of the tomatoes.
"Here, I'll throw that out," she took the soggy bag from him, dumping it beside her into what he assumed was a waste basket. "Alright. Your total comes to 25 pounds, 74 p."
Damn. He should have brought cash. "50 okay?"
"Sure. We just want your money," she spoke with such a serious expression and deadpan voice, it took a moment for James to realise she had been joking. He forced a nervous chuckle before pulling his wallet out pulling the 50 pound note from it, handing it to her and averting his eyes as she made change of it. "Here you go. 49 pound, 26 p."
"Thanks," he muttered, shoving the money back into his wallet and making his way towards the groceries. "When d'you get off?"
"Of work. When d'you get off?"
"About four hours. Why?"
James finally allowed himself to look up and saw the girl smiling at him. "I'll stop by. Pay you back for the other night."
"You mean when I paid for your insane amount of drinks?" he felt his cheeks grow warm and she laughed. The sound did things to him he refused to admit to. "Sure. Sounds fun."
"Great. Great, I'll um…I'll see you then," he smiled back at her, then turned away quickly as another customer idled towards her register. Gathering the five bags of food, he turned back to see her watching him as she scanned the elderly man's items and he gave her his cheekiest grin, watching with satisfaction as she laughed again, dropping the customer's box of tissues.
This time it was difficult to ignore the somersaults in his stomach.
Any place, James realizes, can instantly become ominous under certain circumstances. The grocery store at seven o'clock at night while waiting to meet up with a woman who isn't your significant other is one of those places. Now he sat in Nathan's car, parked outside of the shop at exactly 6:55PM, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of a Queen song. Quiet honestly, he hadn't felt this way since he and Mandy met the first time in secondary school. That fear of fucking things up by saying "Hello" wrong. While the nostalgia was admittedly nice, the urge to vomit out of the car window was not. Should he go inside and wait for her? Stay in the car and let her come to him? Meet her halfway and wait at the entrance?
What Would Jesus Do?
He shook his head, switching the car off-abruptly ending the chorus of "Can't Stop Me Now" which, oddly enough, made him think of zombies and snooker-stepped out and made his way towards the entrance. Chivalry was not dead, just shy with low self-esteem. There were very few customers going in and out at that time and for that he was thankful. While making a fool of himself in front of the girl would be painful enough, he didn't need an audience when he did so.
Part of him hoped she would be waiting inside the door to save him from searching. Another, much smaller part of him, hoped she had left without him. He paused within the door, nervously wringing his hands, his eyes searching the store with no luck. A young mother and her four-year-old daughter passed, the girl pointing out the comic strip on James's shirt. A couple of teenagers passed, nearly shouting their conversation. He sighed, running both hands through his hair and turning towards the door.
"You were going to leave me, weren't you?"
James spun around, nearly tripping over his own sneakers in the process.
"Wow, careful," a hand shot out, grasping his arm and helping to steady him. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I was just…didn't see you," he muttered, forcing a chuckle that came out sounding painfully nervous and unsure. She smiled back, adjusting the bag on her shoulder.
"In the back. Had to grab my bag," she shrugged, her eyes drifting to something behind him.
"Did you have anywhere in mind?"
She turned her attention back to him and he felt that familiar feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Did you have anywhere in mind? To go."
She smiled at him, one hand wrapped around the strap of her backpack, the other-he had only just noticed-still on his arm. "No idea."