“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”
- Sir Walter Scott
It begins with a takeaway. The food itself is of no real importance, but on the evening that Paul decides not to cook dinner, a certain chain of events is set in motion. There is the walk down the road to the Chinese, there is the smile and hello from the tiny lady behind the counter, and then there are the five most depressing words in the English language: "Set meal for one, please."
Paul is certain the pint-sized proprietress has a certain smug, knowing look in her eye as she hands over the plastic bag and takes his money. Those five lonely words form a circle around his heart during the walk back to his flat, squeezing the breath out of him. A dead screen is the only thing that greets him when he opens the door, and he eats his chop suey straight from the container in front of Eastenders.
Half an hour of cockney melodrama plays out, and Paul doesn't recognise a single authentic moment. Where in this monster of a capital is there a single street, let alone a whole community, where neighbours know each other by name? Oh, London; Paul can't help wondering if anybody else but him can manage to feel so utterly alone whilst sharing the same polluted air and tube system as seven million other people.
There's nothing on, so Paul switches the telly off. After a while, with nothing to keep him company other than the sound of his actress neighbour loudly reciting lines through the paper-thin ceiling, he decides to go to bed. For an indeterminate time he stares at the ceiling and considers getting a cat, but the thought is perhaps as equally melancholy as the set meal for one. Having a Gizmo or Tibbles around would be making too much of a statement, like giving up on human contact all together. And Paul is still holding onto a sliver of hope that he will end up with a companion of the female variety, and not the feline.
The next day is a Tuesday, and that evening, the second domino in Paul's series of events begins to topple. After an impossibly long day of fielding abusive phone calls at the centre, Paul meets his friends for a much needed drink. Paul's immediate friends consist of two couples; Lee and Tara, and Shaun and Daisy. Happy, good looking people – Paul does sometimes have trouble remembering why they're mates with him, or vice versa. The subject of tonight's conversation is his seemingly perpetual singleness.
"You don't know how lucky you are," Daisy tells him. "I mean, you've got your flat, and all to yourself, no less! Do you have any idea how hard it is, trying to find a starter home?"
"It's hell," Shaun agrees, "having to stay with my parents until we get a place of our own that we can afford. If it ever happens..."
"Tell me about it," Lee cuts in. "Tara and me had to live apart for months until we found somewhere, didn't we babes."
"It was awful," Tara nods and snuggles even further into the crook of Lee's arm. "Although, it made the flat's christening even more fun..."
Paul amuses himself with a fantasy of what it would be like to drown in his lager at this particular moment.
"Still," Shaun grins at Paul, "it'll be a good stretch before you need to start worrying about all that, ey!" He says it in a way that is probably supposed to sound pally, but it just sounds obscenely cruel, and Paul has had enough of this hard-edged friendship lately.
"Shows what you know," he mutters.
"What was that, sweetheart?" Daisy leans forward.
"Actually," he finds himself saying, "I'm seeing somebody." The moment the lie leaves his lips, he knows he has made a huge mistake. There's no taking this back, no laughing it off, not with this crowd. Oh dear.
"Really?" Tara's ears almost visibly prick up at this new information. "Well Paulie! Since when? What's her name? How come you didn't tell us?"
"We've not known each other long," Paul says. He can feel his face reddening; he's never been much of a liar. "Her name's, er, Caroline. I met her the other week, she works in a shop..." He silences himself with a swig from his beer, before any other hastily made-up facts can come spilling out.
"Look at him, he's blushing!" Daisy squeals, eyes wide with surprise and pleasure. "That is so bloody sweet, Paulie!"
And so Paul's imaginary girlfriend is born. Daisy and Tara try to elicit more information from him, but he feigns shyness and says there's not much to tell.
"We've only been out a few times," he says. "I don't want to jinx things." After that, the subject is deemed closed, for tonight at least...
The remainder of 'The Girlfriend' can be found in "Sweet Tooth", available from the Amazon Kindle store now.