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Excerpt from My So Called (Love) Life

Enjoy! You can buy the book for £1.19 here

Chapter One

I am really tired of being miserable, Tigerlily James thought as she marched out of Kings Cross Station. It was the last Thursday of the month, which meant the Misery Dinner at Entangled. She scanned the room for Dana and Ame, knowing that the likelihood they were on time was minimal, and headed over to her usual table.

‘Tigerlily!’ Ruby half ran over to her as she entered, pulling her in for a bear hug, all patchouli and cigarettes. Ruby was the owner of Entangled, but Tig had privately taken her on as a role model and personal saviour. Ruby had her shit together. Today her greying hair was tied back with a rockabilly red scarf, dangling ruby earrings getting caught on Tig’s hair as she pulled back. ‘Early for the Young and Bitter Club today, darling?’

‘It’s a Misery Dinner, not a club,’ Tig corrected, walking over to her usual table.

She knew there was no point arguing; the Misery Dinner was nothing if not a meeting of the Young and Bitter brigade. It was her fault. She’d decided after Darren left that if her love life sucked, her career had gone down the toilet and she was back to living with her uni housemate, well, there should at least be an excuse for monthly margaritas. The idea was to compartmentalise. Once a month they got together to talk about how shit their lives were, to wallow and enjoy moaning about it all. And then they got on with their lives. It made sense at the time, Clint had cheated on Ame, and she was going through divorce proceedings, fighting for the house and thanking whatever deity was responsible for her very modern decision to sign a pre-nup. Tig had yet to remind her that it was she, not God, who’d advised her to be careful about it all.

Which meant, a year down the line, that Ame had a beautiful house in Hampstead, but was still working for her ex-husband. And Dana had thrown herself into work ever since Elodie, refusing to move forward and look for love again, instead settling for working her way up and owning the PR company she worked for by thirty. She was twenty-eight, and almost killing herself to get to the top. It seemed better than the alternative, which involved the realisation that there might not just be one perfect person for everyone, that loves could be multiple and varied. Dana didn’t buy that.

‘You know, you girls will be old before your time if you don’t stop focusing on the negative,’ Ruby said, raising her eyebrows in what was probably meant to be a severe sort of expression. Which was pretty impossible, as Ruby radiated goodness. She was like Audrey Hepburn would have been if she’d run off with a biker and opened a cafe/bar in London at sixty. Ruby was pretty much what Tig wanted to be when she grew up.

‘We’re having dinner, Ruby. We’re not sticking pins into voodoo dolls, or cackling over cauldrons.’

‘You’re wallowing. Two months is pushing it. Seven is taking the piss. You could have almost grown a person in this time!’ Ruby raised an eyebrow.

‘Well, the whole “not growing a person” thing is definitely something to be thankful for. Can I have a margarita now?’

Ruby shook her head, clearly disappointed. ‘Madam, if you were my daughter I’d give you a boot up the bum. But as it is, I’ll settle for sending you death glares across the room until you give in and get over that idiot.’

‘I am over him,’ Tig challenged. ‘I’m just still … in shock.’

‘Shock’s immediate,’ Ruby said severely, looking over the rim of her glasses. ‘Comas can last a lifetime.’

‘You know what this coma patient could use to wake her up? A tequila-based cocktail,’ Tig said pointedly.

‘Lucky for you, the new guy needs the practice,’ Ruby shrugged. ‘I’ll bring it over.’

‘New guy?’

Tig hated when the staff at Entangled changed. She liked it to be her haven, knowing that she could walk in and it would always be the same, only the art on the walls and the cakes on display changing.

‘Short term, four months. Really enthusiastic about bar work,’ Ruby winced as a crash sounded from behind the bar, ‘despite not having worked in a bar for about two years, and being excellent at breaking things.’

‘First days are tough …’ Tig shrugged, trying for hopeful. Ruby looked past her to the door, seeing Ame and Dana come rushing in.

‘I’ll make that three margaritas for the moody madam brigade!’ Ruby chortled. ‘Oh, sweetheart, you left some bits and bobs here last week – a notebook, some letters …’

‘Oh, crap.’ So that’s where her planner was, not under a pile of clothes at home.

‘Artistic people are often awful at life stuff,’ Ruby patted her shoulder.

Well, thanks, I feel much better!’

‘I just meant you’re clearly a creative genius!’ Ruby laughed. ‘Hi girls, drinks are on their way!’

Ame threw down her bag, and started unwinding her Hermes scarf, honeyed brown hair falling perfectly at her shoulders. ‘I’m sorry I’m late, I had the worst day, and you’ll never believe what Clint did today –’

‘Hi Tig, how are you? Well, I’m fine, Ame, thanks for asking before you launch into a diatribe about your ex-husband. I really appreciate that I’m more than just an aural punching bag,’ Tig sing-songed, honestly quite tired of hearing all the ways in which Clint was an arsehole. Especially considering she’d spent the year they were engaged and the six months they were married hearing about all the ways in which Clint was the most fantastic of human beings. She kind of just hated him for existing at this point.

‘Jeez, Tig, harsh.’ Ame frowned briefly, and then Tig saw her physically smooth down her brow to avoid getting wrinkles. Sometimes she wondered how they were friends at all. If she’d never started working at the student bar, she and Ame would never have been friends. At least then her friend was fun, silly and joyous. Now she seemed to walk around with a perpetual pinched look, eyes raised to the sky like she was waiting for a piano to fall on her head. Which would have been fine if it was just the Misery Dinners, but Ame’s misery was bleeding into every other part of her life, which, as her housemate, or lodger, was pretty damn difficult.

‘Well, Ame, you maybe should greet people before hitting them over the head with your emotional issues,’ Dana shrugged, then sighed as her phone flashed up. ‘Sorry, it’s a client, I have to take this.’ She shuffled over to an empty corner, coat still half on, long dark hair tied back in a bun. Dana was an Amazon of a woman, tall and powerful, her pinstriped suit perfectly pressed even after a long day. But she looked weary.

‘Well, Dana, maybe if you weren’t so emotionally repressed you’d hear where I was coming from!’ Ame hissed at her back.

‘This is getting off to a great start,’ Tig sighed.

‘Even when she leaves work she can’t leave work.’ Ame tried for a half smile and a shrug, looking at Tig hopefully. ‘I’m sorry, hun. I’m working on not being such a bitch all the time. How are you?’

Like an ant stuck in amber, Tig thought to herself, trying to smile back because Ame was making an effort.

‘I’m okay,’ she replied.

‘Do any work today?’ Ame prodded.

‘I worked with Petunia and Theo,’ she said in a huff, knowing that wasn’t what Ame meant at all.

‘Are you planning on getting back to photography any time soon? I know that teaching art to privileged four-year-olds in Hampstead mansions is good money, but it’s not really a career choice, is it?’

Ame had this way of throwing out hurtful comments like they were facts. Sadly, most of the time they were facts, so you didn’t feel justified in getting upset. It was just one of the many irritating traits Tig had noticed about her friend, living with her post-university. Back then they’d never had a problem. But Ame had been more fun then. They both had. Maybe it wasn’t just Tig, maybe they were all getting more bitter by the moment.

‘Ame. Shut up. She’s doing fine.’ Dana strode back over, phone tucked away, pulling her hair out of the tight bun and massaging her scalp delicately, wincing slightly. ‘You are, aren’t you?’

Tig nodded.

‘Then leave her the hell alone,’ Dana demanded, picking up her menu to signify the conversation was over. Dana was learning to become more demanding. She’d been reading a lot of personal development books, doing anything she could to get to the top. Tig suspected it was more a way of filling her time and avoiding getting on with her life than it was a result of particularly loving her job, but Dana was just quietly getting on, so you couldn’t really call her on it.

‘I’m just trying to be supportive!’ Ame was good at the outrage these days, too. ‘She’s a brilliant photographer and there are other gigs out there. You don’t have to be a wedding photographer anymore …’

‘Ames,’ Tig held up her hand, ‘I really appreciate what you’re saying. And I’ll get there. I’m making enough money for rent and a gym membership and monthly margaritas, so unless you’re about to kick me out, I should be fine. Tell us about your day.’

Ame rarely needed an excuse to launch into the tales of woe in her office, centred around her arsehole ex-husband.

‘He keeps shagging these interns in his office, and then sending them to deliver files to me, still smelling of sex,’ she raged, ‘and they look so embarrassed, because they know who I am and what he’s doing. Though, I mean, they should know better than to sleep with their boss –’

‘Ah!’ Dana pointed.

‘I heard myself say it!’ Ame said. ‘Okay, so we all make mistakes! Women are victims, men are evil! I’m not blaming the sisterhood! Okay!’

‘Um,’ a male voice said into the stilted silence, ‘three much-needed margaritas?’

Tig looked up to see the new barman, standing awkwardly with a tray in his hand. Dirty blond hair, stubbled jaw, blue eyes. He was wearing a smart white shirt, rolled up at the sleeves to reveal old-school sailor tattoos on his forearms. Exactly the type to bartend at Entangled. Friendly enough, but always with enough edge to remind you they’re out of your league. Not that she was in anyone’s league, or looking to play a ball game of any sort. Tig realised no one had answered him.

‘Hi, yes, thanks! Desperately needed!’ She unnecessarily tried to clear some space on the table for him to put the drinks down. He twitched a smile at her, which she twitched back. Ame and Dana seemed to be having a huffing match about feminist standpoints under their breath, so she turned back to the new guy. She might as well be friendly, seeing as she was at Entangled more than her own home these days. You always wanted the staff on your side.

‘How’s the first day going?’

‘I’ve only broken three glasses and spilled ice all over the floor so that Ruby tripped head over arse,’ he shrugged. ‘Not at all mortifying.’

‘First time bartending?’ she asked. Am I prying? Why am I forcing this conversation when he’s clearly hovering about like he needs to go? Shut up, Tig.

‘Nope, just out of practice. And I’m going to blame jetlag, and first day nerves, and anything else I can think of! Just yell when you want the next round of drinks. I can almost guarantee I won’t screw them up,’ he winked and strode off.

Tig smiled, remembering how awful her first day had been in the SU bar, where she’d dropped a pint of snakebite down her front and the rugby team had made her swear so effusively she was sure she’d get fired. Instead the manager had patted her on the shoulder, given her a towel and said, as long as she kept that mouth on her, she’d make it through alive.

Tig turned back to see if her friends had stopped arguing. They had. In fact, they were both looking at her like she’d morphed into some sort of terrible sea creature.

‘What?’

‘You … him …’ Ame pointed at the bar, and Tig felt a violent irritation stir in her chest.

‘I had a conversation with Ruby’s new barman, Ame. It’s called being polite. It doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly solved all my problems, will get into a relationship, go back to work, get married and have babies,’ she spat. ‘It means I was tired of you two bitching at each other once again, and made conversation elsewhere.’

They looked at her, this time like the terrible sea creature had revealed talons and a bad dye job.

‘Okay, Tig, calm down.’ Dana made soothing noises. ‘I think Ame was trying to point out, in a very positive way, that it was nice to see you making an effort to welcome a new person to Entangled. Especially a person who happens to have a penis, because you’ve spent the last seven months wanting to chop off all the ones in the immediate vicinity, regardless of who they’re attached to.’

Tig blinked. ‘And that’s why you work in PR.’

She took a deep breath and tried not to blush as she thought about her overreaction. ‘I swear I never used to be so mean. Or angry. I mean, I’ve always had the ability to be a bitch …’

‘No, you haven’t,’ Dana smiled. ‘In fact, for the most part, you’ve always been a big hippie softie. Think you might have lost that somewhere along the way.’

‘Maybe Ruby’s right, maybe the Misery Dinners are making things worse,’ Tig shrugged, sipping her drink and sighing in relief.

‘They’re helping, Tig, honestly,’ Ame said forcefully.

‘So you’re done moaning about Clint? You’ve worked through that?’

‘He hurt me, Tig. That takes time …’ Ame shook her head. ‘You just don’t get it.’

Tig closed her eyes and took a deep breath, tucking her red hair behind her ears. Living with Ame had been a bad idea. When Darren had dumped her on Valentine’s Day, and Ame found out Clint was cheating, it made sense for them to move in together. And whine (with wine) together. Tig had given up the wedding photography business and Ame let her stay in the Hampstead flat for minimal rent, which she’d really appreciated. But Ame had started to become … difficult. She lived in a permanent state of outrage, and was getting more and more bitter. Which wasn’t helping Tig to become the glass-half-full type girl she’d been before, either.

You get hurt, you wallow, you move on. Those were the rules. Tig had spent the first few weeks after the break-up almost catatonic, permanently drunk and stoned, slowly eating her way through two hundred wedding cupcakes embossed with ‘Mr and Mrs’. The next couple of months she graduated to quietly drinking neat vodka, curled up on the sofa in front of romantic comedies, waiting until the final scene to shout, ‘Sure, it’s all great now, but wait until he leaves you because your tits got too small!’

But she was past that now. She was. She got dressed, she went to the gym. She could be trusted not to warp the world views of young children, and as of today she had interacted with a male without wincing. She was improving.

‘I know what it’s like to be hurt,’ Tig said calmly, ‘and I know what it feels like to get so bitter and twisted that you don’t really like yourself anymore. I want to be happy.’

Dana nodded, with that quiet, approving presence that she had. ‘That’s great. So are you going to start up the photography business again? Back to weddings?’

Tig’s stomach plummeted. Okay, so … maybe she wasn’t so ready. She could grow, and be happy, but being around weddings again? She still couldn’t look at her portfolio without crying. Her wedding dress was hanging in the back of her wardrobe almost a year later, with the ‘five days to go!’ tag still tied around the hanger.

The problem was, she was good at wedding photography. She’d been planning her and Darren’s big day for almost three years, and during that time, meeting other brides, retailers, she’d accidentally started a business. Become an institution. The other brides liked her because she was in the same situation as them; she knew what they wanted, because she wanted it too. She’d paid for the wedding with their weddings. She was so happy those three years, meeting all these people, making plans. Finally being able to pack in the insurance job to take photos for a living, the dream she’d had since uni. It was hard not to blame Darren for taking all that away. It was harder to stop blaming herself for letting it stay that way.

‘I’m … I’m going to find a way to use my skills without doing the wedding thing just yet … maybe, at some point. Just, not yet.’

She tried not to let her positive attitude be knocked down by lack of a plan. Or any plan. She couldn’t deal with photographing babies, their pudgy little alien faces gumming at her as she tried to get them to smile without puking everywhere. What did that leave? Being a camera assistant at Harry Potter World, most likely. London was teeming with unemployed artists, and every year she felt her chest constrict as another wave of graduates flooded into the job pool.

Her friends shrugged, and thankfully Dana started moaning about her client list, and her obsessive boss who kept changing the brief every thirty seconds, and Ame went back to Clint and the bitches at work, so Tig could sit and let it wash over her. She looked at her two friends, taking in Ame’s perfect skin and flawless make-up, Dana’s expensive suits and towering heels, and wondered what had happened. Surely it was only weeks ago they were at uni, drinking pink Lambrini through jumbo straws and wondering why everyone was into dubstep? Yet here they were, prematurely middle-aged singletons, moaning about everything. At least Ame and Dana looked like adults, Tig thought sadly, looking down at her clothes. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn something that wasn’t tie-dye coloured or some sort of elasticated fabric. She was sure she used to wear clothes that weren’t yoga pants, once upon a time. When she’d first lost weight, she’d experimented wearing all those skimpy little clothes she’d never felt comfortable wearing, but the truth was, even a few stone lighter, she still didn’t feel comfortable. It just wasn’t her. So she’d reverted to her hippie clothing, and tried to ignore the fact that, more and more every day, she seemed to be turning into her parents.

The rest of the meal seem to pass easily enough, and Tig concentrated on focusing individually on their problems, but had long since stopped trying to offer solutions. Ame simply wanted to moan, and Dana seemed to offer up work problems because she didn’t want to moan about anything important, but didn’t want to be left out.

‘You coming?’ Ame asked, putting her coat on and leaving a tip on the table. Dana had already run for the DLR to get to Greenwich. Ame and Tig always travelled home together after the dinners, but tonight she just didn’t feel like it.

‘I’ve got to collect some stuff from Ruby, and then I think I might go to the studio for a few hours. All this talk about my photography has got me thinking,’ she lied, hoping Ame would just let it go for once.

‘You’re going to go now? How will you get home?’

‘Probably call Sergei for a cab, don’t worry about me.’ Tig hugged her best friend, inhaling the ever-present smell of Chanel No. 5 that had always defined her, even when they met in the bar during Freshers’ Week.

‘I’m not worried about you! What if I get attacked on the way home?’ Ame said, appalled. It took a second for that glint to appear in her eye, and for Tig to realise she was joking. It had been ages since she’d been able to properly read her best friend.

The minute Ame was through the door, Tig collapsed back into her chair, breathing a deep sigh of relief. It was the first time she’d felt able to breathe all night.

‘Here you go.’ The new barman reappeared with a large glass of red wine. ‘You look like you need it.’

‘I’ve been getting that a lot today,’ she frowned. ‘Do I look like an alcoholic?’

‘You look like someone sitting in a bar with a sad, wistful look. And when I bring women chocolate cake to cheer them up, they look at me like I’m the devil.’

Tig raised an eyebrow. ‘You need to hang out with better women.’

‘I’m trying,’ he grinned.

She tensed, then decided that maybe, yes, not every man needed the Wrath of Tig. Especially when they had green eyes and toned arms and tattoos. Not that he wouldn’t turn out to be a massive dick, and it wasn’t like it mattered, but … well, he was quite nice to look at. And he brought her wine. And there was the possibility that he might bring her cake.

‘We didn’t do the name thing,’ Tig gestured between them.

‘Right. I’m Ollie.’ He reached out to shake her hand, whilst she stared at him before shaking back briefly.

‘Formal. Okay.’

‘You’re Tig. Ruby said you’re a regular,’ Ollie nodded. ‘What’s Tig short for?’

‘Tigerlily.’

‘Bullshit!’ He laughed, and watched as she raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms.

‘Um, and by that I mean, my name is Ollie and I’m new here and nervous and jetlagged and once again going to use every excuse I can to undo what I just said. Tigerlily. I like it.’ He made a face, wincing at her to see if her stern impression had weakened. ‘How about if I give you free chocolate cake and back away slowly? That sound good?’

She broke, smiling a little to herself. Somehow he was even more appealing chewing at his lip, nervously dragging a hand across his jaw. It was nice not to be the one saying the wrong thing for once.

‘It’s okay. I get it a lot. My parents are hippies.’ She paused. ‘Also, today is the first time in months I’ve managed to talk to a man without wanting to throttle him for things that my ex did, so, you know, congratulations on that. I’m afraid I don’t have a prize for you.’

Ollie tilted his head to the side like he was trying to tell if she was joking. ‘Okay, in which case, definitely cake. Let’s try and keep this whole “not throttling me” business going.’

He had a nice voice, she decided, warm, with a slight American lilt behind the London sharpness. She wondered what that was about, whether he was jetlagged from a trip back from America. And then Tig realised it was none of her business. But she smiled again, and shrugged, because you never turn down cake. A yell from behind the bar broke the moment, and he grinned, saluting. ‘Lovely to meet you, Miss Tigerlily, I’ll return with your bribe momentarily.’ He went to walk away. ‘Oh, wait, Ruby said you’d left these papers here?’

He placed a collection of letters and notes on the table, smiling as he rushed back to the bar.

Tig traced the mosaic tabletop with her fingers, riffling through the papers absentmindedly as she sipped her wine. Things were changing, she could tell. Everything was already starting to get better. Her positive attitude had created a positive situation. Maybe this rut was finally done.

There was an unopened envelope in the pile, thick and cream, her name written in royal blue ink. It looked official. Tamara was probably getting married, or Dahlia, or any of the other nice enough posh birds from uni that she had never really been close to, but who still insisted on calling her ‘bestie’ and crushing her ribcage whenever she ran into them on Essex Road.

She opened it, noticing the sweet lace edging, the soft feel of the textured paper. Expensive. She’d spent ages looking at invitations. She’d gone with a more informal feel, more shabby chic, laid-back. More like them … like her.

She scanned through the parents to the names of the happy couple. She thought she would fall off her chair with the shock, and held tight to the table for fear the world was turning on its axis. Darren was getting married. The bastard.

 
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