“You know what he said to me? He said women notice these things. That’s what he said. Can you believe that?” Paul is drunk. White spittle has gathered at the corners of his mouth and it occasionally shoots forward, threatening to land on me. His face is florid from the IPA and the injustice of it all.
“Oh dear,” I say. I try to look politely sympathetic by raising my eyebrows in cynical resignation and pursing my lips into a silent hmm. I don’t want to encourage him by looking too invested. I also don’t want to give myself away.
“I told him to piss off, obviously. I was like that: nut, piss off. If anyone is going to be that superficial and not go out of me because of my SHOES, if that’s all that matters to them in a relationship, then I don’t want them, either. He can piss off with that, honestly.”
At this point I recall, guiltily, the period in which I met Paul. He was working in a department I was sent to on teaching placement. We’d bonded over the abject misery of working in a school we felt was presided over by ignorant and narrow-minded plonkers.
“It’s hard to believe everyone in this building has two degrees,” he’d said, dryly, after we’d both pointedly failed to contribute to a staff room conversation about Love Island. Emboldened by this exchange, I’d decided the following day to mock the Assistant Head – a Glaswegian woman whose grasp of grammar was questionable and whose thong was always showing (a glaringly incriminating anachronism) – when she’d asserted that the most effective villain in cinema history was Jaws.
“Oh yeah, that bloody shark,” I’d said. “Total bellend. Manipulative shit.” Paul and I had exchanged glances, thereby confirming our shared superiority and status as allies.
“Yes, old Bruce really gives Iago a run for his money,” he’d added.
Paul was funny, and had the appealing schtick of ostentatious long-suffering that fictional characters usually pull off better than real life humans. But to me, in those days, he managed to be a feasible combination of Dan Ashcroft in Nathan Barley and Tim from The Office. We were both single and unhappy, and both relished projecting that unhappiness outwards. He was certainly not wholly unattractive then. I remember considering trying to get off with him once, on a staff night out, but something about him had stopped me. It wasn’t the broken capillaries on his nose, the mercurial temper, or the stained teeth. It was his white trainers. He wore them with his dark suit on the way to work, and with his beige chinos at the weekend. He looks like a bloody sex offender in those, I thought to myself with disgust.
“Ooh look, there’s one!” whispered Scott, conspiratorially, in my ear, as he gave my hand a surreptitious squeeze. I looked up. He was right.
“Yes, that’s exactly the type I mean.”
The man we were talking about stepped on to the road to give us room to pass.
“I think those are old Nike Cortezes.”
“I think that man is probably on the register.”
Scott snort laughed. “Yes, I suppose… it a sort of social literacy isn’t it? Knowing when things are no longer fashionable. Knowing what you’re communicating to the world about yourself with what you wear.”
“Precisely. The fifteen or so years this man has spent not noticing that no-one wears Nike Cortezes anymore – I mean, where’s he’s been directing all that attention?”
“I think we both know.”
As we turned down Calton Road towards the station I began to feel a little light-headed. I checked the time on my phone.
“Will your mum be meeting us off the train?” I asked.
“Yes, she and dad will drive down in the car. They’re desperate to show off the new one. They’ll be looking forward to meeting you, I’d think.”
“Ok. I’m starting to get a bit nervous about it all, to be honest. Is my hair alright?”
He stopped me to inspect. “Yup. I think so, anyway. Let me just…”
He fixed the parting of my fringe, then brushed some cat hairs off my coat.
“Och, sweetheart, you’ve always got fluff on you,” he said, tutting.
I thought about turning around and just not going to meet his family. I thought about telling him that I would never want to meet them. But then I remembered that shortly before he and I were introduced, Emma had been earnestly trying to set me up with someone actually called Shitey. Shitey, she’d assured me, is a great laugh. As long’s he doesn’t get absolutely plastered, that is. I remembered that Scott’s ex-wife – the one who had abandoned him and left him heartbroken to the point it seemed he would never fully recover – wore a Barbour jacket and had had a book published about Molière. I swallowed hard.
“Well. At least I’m not the one in fucking espadrilles in March, you hipster.”
“Anyway, he’s always been a smug prick, to be honest, and I am not interested in dating advice from a smug prick like him,” says Paul, conclusively, leaning back in his chair. “Plus, it’s all bollocks, at the end of the day. Relationships. The whole fucking thing is just a nonsense.” He takes a drink of his pint, sets it back on the table and looks at me like he’s awaiting a reaction. He clears his throat. “What about you, anyway? That Scott lad’s not still on the scene, is he?”
“No. He’s not.” I sniff sharply and shrug. “He was pretty domineering, to be honest. Very arrogant. A bit of a bully, to tell you the truth.” I pause. “Also, he had a really off-putting habit of constantly shoving his hands down his boxers. I’d be trying to have a conversation with him in the house and he’d be all… having a root around.”
“Oh. Oh dear…” says Paul, stifling a laugh.
“It was fucking disgusting, Paul.”
Paul knows all of this, though. We talked about it before, the last time we sat here. It occurs to me that he’s brought up the topic of exes because he wants me to ask about Laura and the wedding.
“Oh, how was Laura’s wedding? Did you go, in the end?”
He puffs out his cheeks and exhales slowly. “Jesus. Yes, I did. Jings, it was quite the occasion.”
I’m not sure what to say, so attempt a wry smile and try do something cynical-looking with my eyes.
“I don’t mean to sound bitter – I wish her all the best, I really do – but, honestly, that girl is an idiot. She’s made some atrocious decisions. She really has.”
I nod. The unspoken understanding is that chief among these is her decision, three years ago, to dump Paul after a few months of seeing him and promptly get together with someone new. The groom, as it happens.
“Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Rob’s a malicious man. A vapid non-entity, perhaps, but there’s no malice in him. I would never say that. But, my God, you should’ve seen what his mother was wearing. Honestly. The woman is batshit crazy. There’s really something faulty with that gene pool.” He shakes his head, as if in disbelief.
“A fucking floor-length red velvet monstrosity with long sleeves. Height of summer. She looked like something out of Charles Dickens or something. Green stockings. Blue heels. She was a fucking fright, so she was. She and his dad didn’t speak to each other the whole night, either. He was there with his new wife. Well, she’s not new. His second wife. And she was wearing some sort of linen… shirt thing. And sandals.”
“To a wedding, as well. My word.”
“It just… ” he shakes his head “beggars belief that she would agree to marry into that family. Some people… it’s like they’re so posh and privileged that they think they don’t have to bother about what people think. It’s sickening, honestly.”
I find myself avoiding his eyes and allowing my gaze to travel up to the ceiling.