A birthday party with myself (fiction)

This is an extract from a story I’m writing. I’m a bit worried it’s the literary equivalent of a stick drawing, but hopefully you’ll like it for its amateur charm. 

A fog horn woke me. Or was it Josh’s bread maker? He thinks it cures his insomnia. There’s something cathartic about pouring in the flour he says, the yeast, the salt. The beep beep of the buttons, the red glow of the numbers on the little LED screen. He likes the clunk of the lid locking into place and the lumpy thrum of the blades. It must be focaccia this morning. Focaccia is a particularly noisy bake, the death metal of the bread world. I turn beneath the sheets and watch the slow rise and fall of Josh’s back. A sleep that sound only confirms my suspicions.

It’s only 4 am but I decide to get up. It’s my birthday. It’d be nice to take a few hours alone to mourn my younger self.

Still in my vest top and underwear, I pad along the cool floorboards to the open plan living area. That’s what the estate agent called it when he showed us around, when the bare floors were still dusty with plaster and the kitchen appliances were wrapped up in plastic and everything smelt of paint.

Welcome to your new open plan living area, you’ve got fifty square metres to play with here. I glanced at Josh in case he wanted to laugh at how pretentious it all was, but he was too busy looking at the cellophane-wrapped 40 inch plasma TV propped against the wall.

This morning our open plan living area glows flatly in the silvery light of dawn. It smells of fresh bread with an underlay of last night’s take-away curry, which is still piled up in foil containers leaking yellow gunk on the coffee table.

Twenty-five. I must stop eating take-aways every Friday.

I plug the coffee machine in and imagine having a birthday party with all my past selves.

There’s twenty-five of us milling around my open plan living area. One-year-old me is sitting plumply on the rug, wiping my dribbly fists all over the expensive wool. Two-year-old me is scribbling with one of Josh’s SoFit branded biros on the wall. Sitting upright at the very edge of the sofa is eleven-year old me, fiddling shyly with tight plaits. And beside her is me a year later wearing my first bra, in the green checkered hot pants that made me feel like Cher from Clueless. There are other Ivys scattered about, four Ivys in her twenties, more close in looks and character to me now. My shorter, wavy hairstyle, my nose ring. Which Ivy would I most like to talk to right now? I press the silver button and catch the dribble of brown liquid in an espresso cup. That one’s easy.

She’d be sitting up on the kitchen counter, long suntanned legs kicking the cupboard door, scuffing the white gloss with the soles of her rainbow Converse. Her dark hair would be long, golden at the ends, tickling the bare skin between the waistband of her denim cut-offs and the hem of her cropped t-shirt. Billy Idol. She didn’t know who Billy Idol was but his pop-art image emblazoned on the front of her t-shirt felt like the coolest thing.

It’s been ten years since I was her, and so much changed. Fifteen-year-old-me. It was the year Melissa left home and I, red hot with the anticipation of womanhood, started to bloom.

“I thought I heard the coffee machine.”

I jump out of my imaginary birthday party. My rainbow Converse disappear with a pop. It’s Josh, standing bleary-eyed and pantless in the doorway. His blonde hair – usually so carefully coiffed with his special hair stuff, is completely flat on one side and fluffed up like a peacock’s tail on the other.

“The coffee machine woke you up?” I ask.

“It’s a noisy fucker.”

“I’m surprised you could hear it. You know, over the sound of focaccia dough being violently pummelled by your bread maker.”

He perks up at the mention of bread, rubs his hands together and approaches the white box throbbing in the corner.

“How good does that smell, Ive? I have a feeling, and I don’t want to jinx it, but I think it’s going to be my best one yet. I added a little more oil, extra virgin this time. She’s going to have quite a kick.”

I take a sip of coffee, unable to look away from the pink tip of his penis just visible beneath the hem of his t-shirt.

“Your bread’s a she?”

“Next time I might try chili infused oil. Hell yeah, I could make my own. How about that Ive? We could make our own chilli oil together.”

“There’s nothing I’d like more in the whole wide world.”

He slips me a narrow-eyed look, gives the bread maker a tender pat and slouches away. I watch his half-moon buttocks disappear into the hallway.

“I need to sleep a little more baby. The lads are coming over tonight for the football, it’s bound to be a late one.”

“I’m out too.”

“That’s fine baby,” he called. I hate it when he calls me baby. I don’t know where he got it from. A film, perhaps.

“And you’re the wrong sort of half-naked,” I mutter when I know he can’t hear me anymore.

I take a sip of coffee and wait for the creak and click of our bedroom door. He fell in love with my legs first. He told me that after we’d been dating for a few months. We first met when I was twenty-two at his health club’s launch party. Vivian sent me there to take photos for a big magazine feature they’d paid us to organise. It was one of my first jobs with VIVA PR so I was trying to look like I knew what I was doing. Unfortunately the DSLR I’d borrowed from the tech team had more buttons than I’d anticipated.  

“You were wearing a sexy black mini dress,” Josh reminisced. I think we were walking through St. James’ Park hand-in-hand between the tourists, feeling young and beautiful.

“I never wear mini dresses.”

“It was mini on you. Those legs. Fuck Ivy, I couldn’t take my eyes off you, no one could. We invited all those health freaks, the celeb fitness instructors, that juice woman from the telly, but you with your camera, that mini dress, you were the most beautiful woman in that room baby.”

His trump card was a free gym membership. I was up on the mezzanine level trying to get a bird’s eye shot of the party.  

“You’re doing a great job.”

I squinted through the viewfinder, took another out-of-focus shot of the guests mingling, and said, without looking round – “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.”

I’d assumed he was just another guest, another lonely health magazine journalist who’d run out of women to talk to.

“How hard can it be?”

I turned, took in his sharp blue suit, his immaculate blonde hair and boyish grin, and realised who it was. I’d seen him sweep through the office a few times in his click-clacky shoes and ‘I-mean-business’ aftershave. Josh Rider, co-owner of the new SoFit chain of health clubs that I’d been employed to promote.

I laughed nervously, wondering for a second if I should push myself over the railing and end it all.

“You’re right. It’s not hard at all. This one, this one’s a real beauty. It’s a Canon,” I said, suddenly noticing the Nikon logo.

“You’re Ivy, aren’t you?”

“Yes, that’s right.” I slipped a thumb over the logo. “And you must be our client Mr. Rider?”

“Please, call me Josh.”

It felt so scripted, as if we’d sidestepped onto a film set. Josh had that air about him, the sense that he thought he was living inside his own movie. I wondered if all slick businessmen learnt how to charm people by watching American films. Instead of movies imitating life, life had started to imitate movies. The thought consumed me for a moment while I shook Josh’s hand, and perhaps he mistook my momentary absence for nerves, because he said –

“Don’t worry, I’m not here to scrutinise your work. I’d just like you to have this, for all the time and effort you’ve put into this project. It means a lot to us.”

“It’s nothing, really.”

He held a gold SoFit membership card between his thumb and index finger. I noticed how clean and buffed his nails were. Much nicer than mine, which were coated in chipped black nail varnish that I’d forgotten to remove.

“Oh wow, look at that. But you know, It’s really Vivian who deserves this. She’s the boss.” I smiled. I’d never like gyms. If I ran, I ran outside, where I didn’t have to watch the ticking numbers of my distance and calorie burn, or a TV screen, or the sweat-soaked back of someone on a static bike. I was a snob about it, really. Those gym-goers, with their branded duffel bags and busy lives.

“Vivian’s already got one. This one’s for you. We’ve set you up with an account so you’re all ready to go, if you want to. Your first fitness consultation is on the house. It’ll be with me.”

I noticed a flicker in his eye, like a shadow passing a window. I realised then, with relief, that he wasn’t as confident as he was trying to appear. He was young – late twenties, and I knew from Vivian’s brief backstory in the boardroom that he wasn’t a seasoned businessman. He was a plain old personal trainer before his business partner inherited a Kensington townhouse from a rich aunt, sold it for millions and turned their warehouse gym into a luxury health club franchise.

Even though (without Vivian’s knowledge) I was forced to purchase stock photos of a party for the magazine feature, I still went to my free consultation with Josh Rider. I didn’t necessarily want to. Perhaps it was the flicker I noticed in his eye. It felt like something human, the shadow of some understanding. It was incongruous with the click-clack shoes and silver cufflinks. The way he shook people’s hands with his hand on top so they’d know he was in charge, like they teach us in body language books.

And now two years later we’re living together in this new-build apartment with its biometric security system and American fridge-freezer with the ice dispenser and chilled water tap. Josh, with his bread maker and his football and his pink, flaccid penis.

What would fifteen-year-old me think of my choice of boyfriend? I imagine her again on the kitchen counter, chewing gum, kicking her rainbow Converse. I notice she’s got blue fingerprints all over her thighs. She must have been painting again. I used to love painting. Fifteen-year-old me would call him a fake, a show-off. Classic vain salesman, mister charming.

“They’re not real arm muscles,” I would have said, ever the sceptic. “What’s the point if they’re made in front of a mirror in a gym? What are they good for? Real muscles are made on farms, building sites, workshops, forests, trawlers.” I had a thing for working men.

Beyond the window the rising sun starts to melt the sheath of silver cloud. A flare of orange escapes between the rooftops of the apartment blocks across the harbour. The crane, which hasn’t moved since we moved in four months ago, is a skeletal silhouette against the pink and orange sky. Perhaps it’s a permanent fixture, put there by the property developers to create the illusion of continual progress and enlightenment. I move from the kitchen and sit on the rug in the sun patch, closing my eyes against the warmth.

Life is an experiment, I find myself telling fifteen-year-old me, feeling like she can see right through me. You don’t know it yet but it’s all an experiment. We can hypothesise but we never really know what’s going to happen. You really thought we’d be in control of it all, didn’t you? But we aren’t.

A tear forms hotly at the corner of my eye and dribbles feebly down my cheek. I stare at the rows of mega-yachts in the harbour until it’s all a glowing amber blur. The forest of masts clink in the breeze. The ocean rises and falls, like lungs.

Twenty-five. At fifteen I believed I was going to be an artist. Not just a person who painted but a person who saw things differently, who tasted life, who translated difficult truths and captured the moment with absolute precision. The Zeitgeist. But capturing the moment feels like the game my dad used to play with the five pound note. If you can catch it you can keep it. But I can never move quickly enough and in a second, the five pound note and all the promise it held, are gone.

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