Naomi Watkins was standing in front of the spotless oval mirror applying her lipstick. The weak sunlight sniffed along the polished floor, spreading itself thinly over the pristine walls. Naomi’s hairdressing salon, The Elbow Room, was empty except for her YTS girl, Sîan, who was distractedly arranging the cans of hair-lacquer behind what Naomi called the reception area, but which was in fact only a melamine-surfaced desk, bought on the cheap from the office supplies warehouse, with a bouquet of plastic flowers and a cordless telephone on it. Naomi usually avoided studying herself in the mirror, but this morning she was pleased to examine that answering stare. Her heart-shaped face was lightly sun-tanned and dusted in freckles, with a full mouth smiling over accurate teeth. Her blue eyes seemed to shimmer with the electricity of happiness, or so Naomi thought as she put her lipstick back into the small leather drum of her handbag.
It had been six weeks since she’d first met Greg. He’d come in The Elbow Room, one Thursday morning as the street outside seethed with rain. The barber’s on the High Street was boarded up and so he’d decided to try his luck here. His shy manner and the blushing way he’d asked her if she did men’s hair had trip-switched something in her, something distantly incendiary. She usually left Sîan to deal with any male clients or children, but that morning she looked after Greg’s head herself; kneading the perfumed syrup of the shampoo into his raven-dark hair and then rinsing it out with the shower nozzle as he’d angled himself backwards over the out-sized basin. He’d stammered his thanks as he settled up the £7.50 and, when he’d dropped a 20 pence piece on the floor, they ‘d banged their foreheads lightly as they both knelt down at the same time to retrieve it. And it was at this moment that Naomi had done something that retrospectively unsettled her; she’d invited Greg out for a drink after work.
They’d gone to the Pheasant and sat at a table next to the fruit machine that started up an electronic soliloquy every few minutes. Naomi had taken a Bailey’s, while Greg had settled on a half-pint of pump bitter because after he would be driving to an evening seminar in a neighbouring town. They’d talked through their sticky drinks, papering over any silences expertly, and Naomi had realised then she had never had anybody with whom she could really talk like that. All her friends had always talked about themselves and had never really bothered enquiring about her own life. She’d always had the impression that she was constantly interviewing people; always asking them questions. But here was somebody who had asked her questions and had listened attentively to her answers. She’d been able to discover, in her turn, that Greg had just started working at the Building Society four shops down from The Elbow Room, opposite the fire-gutted shop where the newsagent’s used to be. Finally, and as disinterestedly as she’d been able to, she’d posed the question that had intrigued her the most:
“And are you, you know, involved with anybody at the moment? None of my business, of course. Just interested”
She’d trailed her fingertip down the side of her empty glass and had looked away when she blushed, thus contradicting the indifference she’d hoped to exhibit. Greg had spun his own emptying glass between his long, elegant fingers before hesitatingly replying;
“I’ve, in fact, just been through a long thing. Something that wasted, sort of, years of my life. Nobody’s fault really, just a, how can I say, bad connection between two people. And now I’m a bachelor”
He’d laughed softly at the word “bachelor” and Naomi had joined in, and this in turn had established a kind of blood-warm intimacy between them. They’d met up frequently after that in various local pubs and even restaurants, and the relationship began to totter forward on its uncertain, newborn legs. They eventually slept together at her flat with its tastefully chosen furnishings and wall-mounted family photographs. He’d always refuse to stay the night, fearful of what the neighbours would think of Naomi if they saw an unknown man slipping out of her flat in the mornings. She appreciated this old-fashioned approach to what used to be called courtship; it made her think of those sexless romantic black and white films she used to watch at home when she was young and thought that love was a silken celluloid thing, unsullied by touch or any mercenary thought. Greg gave her thoughtful gifts; succulent sheaths of expensive flowers, a floral-covered diary in which he urged her to ink out the contours of their shared story.
Naomi went to her mother’s every Sunday; a sort of supplicating gesture that seemed to bring neither her nor her mother any pleasure. Her mother lived in a tight-shouldered terraced house up on the hill that bled into the receding hairline of the woods. The obscured web of the net curtains blotted out the colourless life meanly counted out within. Naomi’s father had died seven years previously; he’d fallen off a step ladder in the back garden whilst cutting the hedge, and had cracked his temple against the large stone that held in place one of the poles holding up the washing line. He’d bled to death unseen there in that back garden; Naomi’s mother had been out in town buying candles for Naomi’s birthday cake. Ever since her mother had sunk leadenly into a thickly-sliced sullenness – sitting at the kitchen table staring at some threadbare sparrows picking at the stale breadcrumbs scattered over the grit-covered terrace area.
That Sunday as they silently chewed their way through a round of cold beef sandwiches, Naomi stole herself to tell her mother about Greg. As they finished off their cups of brick-red tea she finally said, looking down at the plastic table covering;
“Mum, I’ve met somebody; somebody who’s special for me. I’d like you to meet him soon. Maybe at my birthday”.
She surreptitiously scrutinised her mother’s features as she digested this information, but the face stayed immobile as the mouth was pursed thinly. The silence stretched itself out in that low-ceilinged kitchen. After the heavy oak clock had chopped out lengths of time Naomi’s mother replaced her tea cup on its saucer and looked up at her daughter;
“I’ve told you never to talk about your birthday. Ever again. If it hadn’t been for your birthday your father would still be alive today. You and those candles you had to have for that cake. And him dying there, alone, in the garden. All because of your candles”
She sighed long-sufferingly and looked away, out through the net-curtained kitchen window, at the stone-clad wall where green sprigs of ivy shone in the thin rain. She then looked back at Naomi;
“You say you’ve got a new one? Only after one thing. Or maybe two. What you’ve got between your legs and what you got in the bank. Mark my words he’ll be like all the others. That one that worked, or so he said, down at the council and never got back in touch when he’d got what he wanted. And the one you met at the leisure centre, remember how he left you? Two thousand pound poorer. They’re all the same, except your father. I was lucky. You won’t be”
She got up and went to the sink with her back to Naomi, twisted the taps and let the cold grey water uncoil itself over her fragile bird-like hands. Naomi cleared her throat and felt incipient hatred for her mother flashing through her veins;
“You’ve never even met him, mum. He’s not like the others. I know it”
Her mother turned around and fairly spat at her;
“You know it, do you! You knew it when you were on your back at sixteen. Have you forgotten about the abortion? Have you? Who paid for it? Your father and me is who.”
A weariness seemed to settle on her as she uttered the last syllables of that speech, but then she gathered herself up to finish off what she wanted to say;
“Everyone you’ve been with has been a bad ‘un. Every last one of them. And this one will be no different, you’ll see”
She hung up her pinny behind the kitchen door and went off to the front room to watch Crown Court. Naomi left her mother’s shortly after, having secured, with her tears, an assurance that her mother would be there for her birthday at the Pheasant that Thursday evening.
Naomi closed the shop behind her, and stood on the wet pavement; she felt insulated by her happiness, as if an invisible sponge lining had been placed between her and the nastier things in life. In the Pheasant she saw her friends, Donna and Lisa, huddled around a table with her mother. They’d already ordered a drink for her, and as she sat down with them she held her glass of Bailey’s to her brightly lipsticked mouth.
“Well, what time is getting here then?”
Her mother spoke sharply, but Naomi was glad all the same that she’d turned up.
“He’ll be here in about five minutes, mum. He’s never late”
“Your father was always one for punctuality. I hope this new one follows your father in other things as well”
They chatted over their drinks about what the future might hold for her and Greg. Children maybe. Perhaps a house out on that new estate. Even Naomi’s mother seemed to have thawed, and she handed her daughter a present: her father’s wrist watch:
“If he is the one, and he is a good one, then I’d like him to have this. Strange, I know. I’m giving you a present that I want you to then give as a present”
Naomi’s happiness had now been cranked up into euphoria, and tears plunged down her face. Just then they all turned around as the door opened to see Greg. But Greg was not alone; he was standing next to an unknown woman. Naomi got up and approached them:
“Greg, who’s this?”
Greg said nothing and the other woman moved forward;
“So this is the slut then, is it? This is the one spreading her legs while you go to your … what was it? Yes, your seminars. Well, she looks just like all the others. Tarty and inch-thick in make-up. Greg, what is it with you and your taste for cheap slags?”
All this was said within hearing not just of Naomi’s friends and mother but also anybody else who happened to be in the pub at that moment. Naomi felt like she’d been caught up in a freak hailstorm; her skin was deep-frozen. She repeated her opening question;
“Greg, who is this?”
Again Greg said nothing, just stood there looking down at the toe-caps of his highly polished brogue shoes. And again the other woman spoke;
“Who am I? Who’d you think I am? I’m his fucking wife. The mother of his fucking kids. That’s who I am. And I know who you are. You’re another of those little tarts with a mattress stuck to their backs and legs open twenty-four hours a day. Don’t think you’re the first. He’s always up to this, is Greg. He’s likes his little sluts, does Greg. I let him play about a bit, but, you know, sometimes I’ve got to yank the leash a bit. Make him know who’s boss. Who’s wearing the trousers. Now, I’ve got one little thing to say to you before we get back to our happy house. If I hear of you sniffing about him again I’m going to break every bone in that tart’s face of yours. You got me?”
She didn’t wait for an answer and pushed Greg out of the pub. The pub fell silent, and after a few minutes Naomi’s mother spoke up;
“Can I have your father’s watch back, please?”