Ten years ago
Ruth’s hand shook as she applied a coat of the lipstick she’d swiped from her mother’s dressing table. She should have asked to borrow it, really but she never wore make-up and didn’t want anyone to know why she needed to tonight. Vera would have been thrilled her eighteen-year-old daughter was finally going on a date – and that was the problem. It was Ruth’s first date and she wasn’t entirely sure he would show up.
Imagine the humiliation of being stood up and everybody knowing about it!
How did the date go, love? It didn’t. I sat in the restaurant with your too-bright pink lipstick zigzagged across my gob and waited on my own until closing time. Thanks for asking, Mum. Goodnight.
Ruth paused, lipstick hovering in front of her face while she gave her reflection a good talking to. Zack would show up. They had a connection, a real connection, and it didn’t matter that he’d been cruel towards her throughout their school lives. It wasn’t Zack’s fault – everyone had been cruel to her. It was what happened when you were the fat kid. People teased you, they called you names – and inventive ones like Fat Twat (rhyming), The Jelly Green Giant (word play) and Mrs Blobby (Noel Edmonds had a lot to answer for) – and they excluded you from absolutely everything. School had been hell for Ruth. She’d never been physically bullied, but the name-calling had been relentless. She didn’t have any friends, unless you counted her older brother, Stephen and his best friend. Stephen and Billy had always stuck up for Ruth as best as they could, but they were older than Ruth and had moved away to the other side of Manchester for university so she didn’t see them very often anymore.
And they didn’t really count as friends. Ruth knew that deep down.
She wished she had a friend more than anything, even more than she wanted a boyfriend. A real friend to share secrets with, to joke with and to swap make-up tips with. She could use a friend right now, judging by the mess she’d made of her lips. Lipstick was smeared beyond her lip line and was it… yes, it was on her teeth. Panic bubbled from her gut and spread throughout her body. She lifted her wrist to check the time. Relax, relax, relax. Deep breaths. She wasn’t due to meet Zack at the restaurant for another twenty minutes and, as she was already camped out in the restaurant’s loo, she had plenty of time to sort her face out.
After removing the lipstick with a damp tissue, Ruth took a chest-achingly deep breath and tried again, this time smoothing the lipstick over her puckered lips almost perfectly. It needed a touch up here and there, but all in all it was a vast improvement. Shame about the colour, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and all that.
Ruth blew her reflection a kiss before she headed back into the restaurant and to the table the waitress had already seated her at. The restaurant was quiet, with only three other tables occupied but that could have been down to a number of factors: the restaurant being way out of town, the questionable décor and mismatched furniture, or the unidentifiable whiff about the place, which was somewhere between cat piss and BO. But to Ruth it was perfect. This was the setting of her first date and with Zack O’Connell too. Zack had been the most popular boy in her year and she’d always had an (obviously unrequited) crush on him. Zack had mostly ignored her during their fourteen-year acquaintance and when he had spoken to her, it was only to throw jibes her way. It had been only a few weeks ago that he’d snarled ‘fuck off, fatso’ when she’d asked him to sign her shirt on their last day of school, but here she was, waiting for him to wine and dine her.
Wasn’t it funny how life worked out? How a simple walk through the park with your elderly neighbour’s dog could change your life. Ruth hadn’t expected to run into Zack and his friends in the park and when she had, she’d turned and stumbled away in the opposite direction. But Zack had caught up with her and asked if they could talk.
Talk? Zack wanted to talk to her?
Of course she’d been suspicious. She wasn’t stupid. But it turned out Zack had been dumped by his beautiful and equally popular girlfriend and he couldn’t talk to his friends about it. They were all idiots. They didn’t have feelings, not mature ones that didn’t involve their dicks anyway.
‘Sasha dumped you? But why?’ Sasha Bloom had been the most popular girl at school and she and Zack made an obscenely gorgeous couple. Ruth had always known she was a superficial bitch, but she’d never suspected Sasha could be so dumb. Why on earth would any girl dump Zack?
‘She’s going away to uni and doesn’t want to be tied down to a boyfriend.’ Zack’s head was hung low and Ruth wanted to reach out to touch him, to offer him some sort of comfort. But she didn’t dare. ‘Can we meet up and talk properly? Tomorrow?’
She’d said yes. She wasn’t a fool. They’d met and talked – not only about Sasha but about everything. It had been amazing, like having a real friend, and the afternoon flew by too quickly. Suddenly meeting up with Zack seemed cruel. It had given her a taste of what friendship was like, but was now being snatched away.
But then he’d asked her out. On a date. In a restaurant and everything.
Ruth prayed he’d turn up.
Not normally a fiddler, Ruth found herself toying with the condiments on the table, reading the sticky, faded label on the bottle of vinegar and spinning the pepper pot on its rounded top. It seemed her stomach was having a bit of a party, twisting and jiving as she waited on her wobbly chair. She doubted she’d be able to eat a thing when Zack did arrive – both minor miracles as far as Ruth was concerned.
The door opened and Ruth turned in her seat, her sickly-pink mouth gaping as she saw Zack striding towards her. He was wearing the leather jacket she’d always thought he looked hot in and she gave her thigh a good pinch to make sure she wasn’t dreaming.
‘Zack, hi!’ What did she do now? Did she stand up to greet him? Before she could make a decision, Zack had thrown himself into the seat opposite.
‘Hey. You look nice.’
Ruth’s cheeks turned as pink as her lipstick at the compliment. She was beginning to believe he really did like her. That was the second compliment he’d given her since they’d struck up their friendship, having already told her she’d be beautiful if she lost the weight. Nobody had ever told her she was beautiful, unless you counted her parents, which Ruth did not.
‘Thanks. So do you. I like your jacket.’ Ruth wanted to reach out and stroke the leather, to throw her face into its collar and smell it. She sat on her hands to take away the temptation.
‘Shall we order then?’
Ruth nodded, though her appetite had deserted her. She couldn’t imagine ever feeling hunger again. Although, when her pizza arrived, oozing with extra cheese, it did smell divine. Zack had no qualms about eating and immediately set about shovelling his food into his mouth. Ruth watched him for a moment, wondering whether he would pause long enough to chat. Or even chew.
‘How do you think you’ve done in your exams?’ It was an inane question, but Ruth couldn’t think of anything else to say and their date was turning out to be more like feeding time at the zoo. They’d recently sat their A Level exams and would be picking up their results in less than a week.
‘Dunno.’ Ruth looked away as Zack flashed his food as he spoke.
‘I think I’ve done alright. No As or anything, but I think I’ve done enough to get on my course.’
‘I hope so.’ Nervous laughter seeped from her lips. It was true that she was in no way experienced when it came to dates but she had imagined it would be different to this. More romantic. And with more conversation. ‘Zack, are you really over Sasha?’ The question was out of Ruth’s mouth seemingly before she’d even thought it and she took a huge bite of pizza to keep her from saying anything else moronic.
‘Yeah, course I am. Why?’
Ruth chewed and chewed at the pizza, wishing she hadn’t shoved quite so much into her mouth. Unlike Zack, she couldn’t bring herself to talk with her mouth full.
‘It’s just that I like you. I have for ages.’ Ruth suspected she was in love with Zack O’Connell but then most girls in her year had been and so she kept it to herself.
‘I like you too.’
Ruth’s mouth spread into a wide smile until half of her face was made up of Barbie-pink lipstick. ‘Really?’
‘Really.’ Still chewing, Zack dropped his cutlery with a clang. ‘Come here and I’ll prove it.’
Ruth leant across the table, eyes squeezed shut and lips puckered. Her first kiss was heavenly and she only wished she had a friend she could gush over the details with later. She wasn’t quite sure about Zack’s tongue swirling round and round her mouth like a washing machine on a fast spin but she was sure she’d get used to it with a bit of practice.
Ruth was so busy savouring the sensation of Zack’s warm lips on hers that she wasn’t aware of the commotion as half a dozen teenagers clattered into the restaurant, pointing and jeering.
‘Oh my God, I can’t believe you actually did it!’
‘You’re a sick bastard.’
‘That’s fucking gross, man.’
Zack’s lips wrenched away from hers and as his body slumped back into his seat, Ruth took in the scene around her. Zack’s friends were heading towards them, led by Sasha Bloom.
‘Oi, fat bitch. Who said you could touch my boyfriend?’ She cackled as Brad, Zack’s best friend, stepped closer and slapped Zack on the back.
‘What was it like?’
Zack swiped at his mouth with the sleeve of his lovely leather jacket. ‘Like sucking a marshmallow.’
‘I bet you enjoyed it really,’ Ryan, another friend, jeered from within the crowd. ‘You looked well into it.’
‘Was I fuck.’ Zack jumped out of his seat, grabbed a fistful of chips and turned to face his mates. ‘You all owe me fifty quid. Each.’
And then they were gone, Zack and Sasha arm in arm, everybody laughing and ribbing Zack. Ruth watched them leave, refusing to move from her seat even as she realised Zack had left her with the bill. It had all been a joke. Nothing but a prank and the opportunity for Zack to make a bit of cash. He didn’t like Ruth. She was nothing but a freak show.
Ruth took a bite of her pizza but it lodged in her throat, a great big clump that refused to go down. Ruth’s lips became a thin pink line and she squeezed her eyes shut, but it was too late and a tidal wave of tears poured down her cheeks and plopped onto her stuffed crust.
Is there anything more joyous than glancing at the clock and realising you have a mere five minutes until you can go home? My mood shifted up a gear as I clicked print and swivelled in my chair to scoop up the document. There wasn’t much point in starting anything new this late in the day so I stapled the document, slipped it into its file and shut down my computer. Freedom was just four minutes away.
I was preparing for the journey home, touching up my lipstick, running a brush through my hair (you never know who you’re going to run into on the bus), when the phone shrilled beside me, the sudden noise almost causing a catastrophic smear of fuchsia up to my ear. Snapping the lid back onto my lipstick, I snatched up the receiver, knowing exactly who was phoning me at three minutes to five. Gideon. Cancelling our date tonight. At the last minute, yet again.
‘Good afternoon, Kelvin Shuttleworth’s office, how may I help you?’
Of course I’d wanted to snap at my useless, unreliable boyfriend but I had to be professional. At least until I knew for certain that it was Gideon. I’d fallen into that trap once too often. The last time it had happened, I’d roared ‘what the bum fluff do you want this time?’ into the receiver after he’d phoned me seven times in six minutes. Seriously, if you have a memory like a goldfish, make a list of the topics you want to cover and then phone me. Did he think I sat at my desk doing nothing all day (I did mostly, but that’s not the point here), waiting for his scintillating calls? By this, the eighth call, I was pretty narked.
‘It had better be urgent or I swear I’m going to twist your bollocks until they ping off.’
Luckily it had only been Glenn from Accounts on the other end and not somebody really important otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk right now. I’d be in the dole queue. So I answered politely now, just in case.
‘You can help me by getting your arse in my office. Pronto.’
The phone call ended abruptly and I checked the time. Three minutes to go and Kelvin was calling me into his office? Why was I even surprised? I’d worked for Kelvin Shuttleworth, General Manager, General Lazy Bastard and General Sleaze of H. Wood Vehicles for long enough to know he didn’t give a toss about my free time. I’m sure he was under the impression I continually camped out under my desk awaiting new and exciting tasks.
‘Yes, Kelvin?’ I stood on the brink of the threshold, still on my side of the door, still ready to flee home.
‘I want four copies of this.’ He stabbed a thick wad of paper on his desk with a finger, not even bothering to pass it to me, lest he wear out his fat sausage fingers in the process. ‘And I’ll have a coffee.’
I flicked my eyes up to the clock on the opposite wall. Yes, it displayed the same time as the clock in my own office next door and it was in full view of Kelvin. ‘But it’s three minutes to five.’ Not even that. More like two minutes and twenty-nine seconds. ‘May I remind you that I finish at five?’
‘May I remind you that you don’t clock in and out?’ I’d have to remind him of that fact when I rocked up at half past nine the following morning. ‘May I also remind you that I have not forgotten your mishap with the photocopier?’
No, I didn’t photocopy my arse. It would have been beyond repair if I’d somehow managed to perch my fat derrière on top of the photocopier and, as it turned out, it only took the repair man a couple of hours to fix it after I booted the hell out of it. You’d have done the same, I’m sure. It had been taking the piss all morning and then decided to chew up the pages in the middle of a 100-page document I was photocopying for an important meeting that afternoon. Not only did the pages refuse to come loose from the mechanism inside, I broke two nails while trying to free them. That had been the final straw.
‘Do I need to show you the repair bill?’ Kelvin made to reach into his desk drawer, even though I knew it wasn’t kept in there. I did his filing for him, after all. The only things Kelvin kept in his desk drawer were a bottle of whiskey, an emergency Mars bar and an envelope containing several saucy photos of a woman half his age, who definitely wasn’t his wife.
‘That won’t be necessary.’ I grabbed the wad of papers, which must have been at least fifty pages. The photocopier had better be on its best behaviour otherwise it’d be me cancelling my date with Gideon for a change.
‘Don’t forget the coffee.’
Of course not, sir. We wouldn’t want you dying of thirst. Or getting off your arse and making it yourself.
Dumping the document on my desk, I headed over to the staff kitchen. I say ‘kitchen’ but it was little more than a walk-in cupboard with a kettle, tiny sink and a fridge squeezed inside. I made Kelvin’s usual coffee with full-fat milk, three sugars and four chocolate digestives on the side.
‘There you are. Ooh, biccies.’ Erin reached her slender fingers towards the saucer and grabbed one of the biscuits. ‘Are you ready to go?’
I shook my head as I replaced the biscuit and explained the situation. I’d known Erin for three years, since I started working at H. Woods, a bus and coach manufacturers. We’d hit it off immediately, even though we couldn’t have been more different, with Erin being slim and gorgeous with a dark and sleek Cleopatra sweep of hair while I was house-sized, ok-looking if you squinted enough and with short blonde curls. Erin was also a bit of a goer while I was chaste (not by choice, I should add. It’s quite a challenge to be a slut when you’re house-sized).
‘You should have told him to piss off. It’s after five.’ Erin swiped another biscuit and I swallowed the urge to stab her with a teaspoon.
‘I can’t. He brought up the photocopier.’
‘That was weeks ago. Is he going to hold you to ransom forever?’
‘Probably.’ I batted Erin’s hand away as she lunged for another biscuit. How the hell did she stay rake-thin?
‘Do you want me to stay behind with you?’
‘Nah.’ There was no point in us both losing part of our evening.
‘Good, because I’ve got a date with Christian.’ I gave Erin a blank look. I honestly couldn’t keep up with all the men she dated. ‘The gorgeous bloke from my salsa class.’ Of which there were many, according to Erin, and therefore failed to narrow it down. ‘He brings his girlfriend every week? The red-head bitch who kicked my ankle a few weeks ago?’ Ah, yes. Salsa was an extreme sport where Erin was concerned, what with her flirting with every man under the age of sixty. ‘Well, he turned up alone last week. His girlfriend broke her ankle – how’s that for irony? – and I talked him into taking me out.’
‘You’ve no shame.’
‘Nope.’ Erin grinned and swiped another biscuit before sauntering towards the staircase, waving a hand as she went.
Not bothering to replace yet another biscuit (it was nearly tea time and, well, I just couldn’t be bothered), I carried the coffee through to an ungracious Kelvin before making a start on the photocopying. Luckily for both the photocopier and me, all went smoothly until I handed Kelvin the four documents. He didn’t take them, simply nodded at his in-tray.
‘Stick them in there. It’s getting late. I’ll deal with them tomorrow.’
I can’t tell you how much I wanted to stick the documents in a far more unpleasant orifice than Kelvin’s in-tray, but I restrained myself. Violence towards the photocopier was one thing, violence towards the general manager was another, however justified.
‘Couldn’t I have photocopied them in the morning?’ I really couldn’t help myself. My gob had a mind of its own at times.
‘I suppose you could have, yes.’ Kelvin glanced up from his computer screen. I could tell he’d been playing solitaire by the frantic clicking of his mouse. ‘But I didn’t realise how long it would take you to complete a simple task.’
I clasped my hands behind my back and clamped my lips together, determined to neither throttle my employer nor say something I wouldn’t regret but would certainly lose my job over.
‘I’ll see you in the morning then.’
‘Hmm.’ Click, click, click. He was back to losing at solitaire.
The bus was late as usual, packed and sweaty with disgruntled commuters (of which I was most definitely one), meaning I had to stand for the entire journey in heels. I always wore heels, whatever the occasion. I’d already been cursed with being fat – I didn’t want to be fat and stumpy, resembling a Weeble, and so my feet had to make the ultimate sacrifice. Still, my shoes were pretty fab that day – grey leopard-print lace-up ankle boots with a massive heel. They went perfectly with my knee-length charcoal dress overlaid with paler grey lace. To brighten the look (I did like to be bright, to show off my curves, rather than hide them away), I wore a pair of canary yellow cable and rib tights and chunky yellow beads around my throat and wrists.
The bus ride seemed to take forever, pausing at every stop to pile yet more disgruntled commuters on board, upping the sweaty, stuffy atmosphere. The others were already settled at home by the time I arrived. The ‘others’ being my housemates, Billy and Theo, and by ‘settled’, I mean they were camped out in the sitting room, eyes glued to the television screen while they hammered at the Playstation pads in their hands.
‘Theo?’ I remained in the doorway, afraid to enter. ‘Why are you nearly naked?’
Theo, wearing just a pair of boxers and holey socks, didn’t tear his eyes away from the TV. ‘I’ve got no clean clothes.’
‘What about the clothes you wore to work?’ Please let him have worn clothes to work.
‘They’re in the washing basket. I spilled a pint over them at lunchtime.’
Ah. ‘Spilled’ in the case of Theo translated as ‘propositioned a lady and was impolitely turned down’.
‘Do you mind sticking the washing on for me?’
I told Theo where he could stick his washing. I’d had enough of being a skivvy for one day.
‘There’s some post for you. I’ve left it in the hall,’ Billy called after me as I stalked away, muttering to myself about lazy bastard men.
By some miracle, Gideon didn’t cancel our date and so I met him at Cosmo’s, a restaurant around the corner from my house. I’d been seeing Gideon for about eight months and, while he was a bit of a slob and a bit of a moron, he’d do. At least he wanted me and what was the alternative? Sitting on my own night after night?
‘Ruthie! Ciao dolcezza.’ It wasn’t Gideon who greeted me so enthusiastically, kissing me on each cheek, but Cosmo, the owner of the restaurant. Don’t worry. He wasn’t some sort of sleaze who pounced on all his female clientele. I’d known Cosmo for about ten years, even living with him for the briefest time (though not in any sort of sexual context).
‘Is he here?’ I asked as I removed my jacket.
Cosmo tried not to pull a face but it was difficult and he was forced to turn his grimace into a smile, purely for my benefit. ‘He’s at the bar.’
‘Pissed, I presume.’
‘Getting there. Shall I show you to your table?’
We picked Gideon up en route, sitting at a table in a cosy corner of the restaurant. I ordered quickly, eager to tell Gideon my news. I’d taken my post upstairs with me so I could read it while I was getting ready and discovered an invitation to the Ultimate Highmoor Reunion. Highmoor was my old school, a great big building of misery for me but soon it would be no more. Highmoor was being bulldozed to make way for a shiny new academy and so a reunion was being held during the summer for all pupils who had attended during its sixty-year lifespan.
I was horrified to begin with and felt a bit queasy at the thought of having to face all the people who had made my life so depressing, all the people who had jibed and poked fun at me and were truly horrible and nasty, dismissing me purely because I was fat. The worst part would be facing Zack, my first love. I hadn’t seen Zack in ten years, since he’d pretended to like me for a practical joke and shattered my delicate, teenage heart into a million pieces.
My first instinct was to tear up the invitation but something stopped me. I could go to the reunion with my head held high, my boyfriend on my arm, and show them all that I wasn’t the same loser I once was. I wasn’t alone anymore. I had a boyfriend – even if it was Gideon. I phoned the number on the invitation before I could change my mind and purchased two tickets. Now all I had to do was tell Gideon about the reunion and somehow talk him into wearing a suit, or a clean shirt at the very least.
‘It’s not working out, is it?’ Gideon asked before our starter had arrived and before I had the chance to bring up the reunion.
‘You and me. Us.’
Oh, God. I was being dumped. By Gideon.
What about the reunion?
So that's A Beginner's Guide To Salad, which will be available now.