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Tandem, p.1

Tandem, page 1



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  By Alex Morgan

  Hookline Books

  “Sometimes terrible things happen. Lives hit unexpected reefs, break up and sink; they can never be put back, but with love and effort (and the assistance of a penguin-loving hermaphrodite if you are lucky) life can be salvaged from the wreck. Tandem is a wonderful ‘salvage’ novel – funny, edgy, acute and tender. I am not surprised it has been picked out by real readers – they deserve Tandem and it deserves them.” Sara Maitland

  “Quirky, honest and original,”

  Cynthia Rogerson

  “A novel about perception and the changing nature of relationships, both with oneself and with others. It reminds us that – like penguins – not everything is as black and white as it first seems.”

  Clio Gray

  For Trevor

  On the road

  Paula took off her trainers and rested her feet on the dashboard. She was tired and warm. Closing her eyes, she imagined leaping out into the darkness and running along the hard shoulder, picking up speed until she was travelling faster than all the traffic. She felt the coolness of the road spray on her calves, tasted the bitter, fume-filled rain on her tongue. Outpacing cars, lorries and coaches with long, easy strides, she left every single one of them behind, until she had the motorway to herself. Until there was nothing but the sound of her own feet. Until she was free.

  She wrenched her eyes open. “Do you mind if I smoke?”

  Stretching down for her bag, she rummaged for the lighter and packet of Benson & Hedges she had bought that afternoon. She couldn’t be sure if the nicotine would make her feel better or just string her out even more, but she reckoned it was worth a go. She peeled off the cellophane, dropped it into her bag and prepared to light up.

  “I’d rather you didn’t,” Andy said without taking his eyes off the road.

  “But I thought …” She pointed into the footwell at the scrunched up Embassy packet and fragments of ash she had brushed off the seat when she climbed in.

  “Ah, no. I gave up a while ago. I just don’t clean the van very often. There’s not much point when it’s usually only me.”

  “In that case, maybe I’ll give up too, if you can call it that when you haven’t even started.” She returned the cigarette to the packet, lowered the window, and launched the box out into the night.

  He gave her a reproving glance. “That wasn’t very environmentally friendly.”

  “It’s better than smoking them, and the rain’ll dissolve the evidence pretty quickly.”

  “There’s certainly enough acid in it. Let’s stop for a coffee to celebrate you giving up.”

  “Or not starting.”

  “Whichever. I could do with a break. The wipers are hypnotising me.”

  Andy pulled off the motorway and into the car park of a service station. He checked his watch. “Meet you back here in forty-five minutes.”

  Paula pushed her feet into her trainers, relieved he didn’t expect them to spend the time together in polite conversation.

  There was a queue in the coffee shop. As she waited, she wondered why everyone else was travelling in the small hours. A young man with a drowsy toddler in his arms was placing an order at the counter. His partner sat bleary-eyed at a nearby table, the toddler’s baby brother or sister snuffling gently as it slept in a car seat at her feet. An elderly couple were having a disagreement about whether sharing an apricot Danish would be too serious a breach of their diet, and a pair of vast rugby fans in matching kilts and Scotland jerseys were debating whether to have carrot cake or a fruit slice.

  Paula knew that, if the last hundred and eighty miles were anything to go by, Andy didn’t particularly want to spend the journey chatting either, but it would be rude to doze off, so she ordered a grande Americano with an extra shot and a double chocolate muffin. Their combined caffeine content should do the trick.

  She sat down at an empty table and watched Andy help himself to the last sandwich from the cold cabinet. He ordered his coffee to go. She couldn’t place his accent but it was definitely British. There was something almost Mediterranean about his looks though: the aquiline nose, chocolate eyes and slightly swarthy skin. His jeans were old and faded, just like the checked shirt he wore with the sleeves rolled up above his biceps. His face was young – relaxed, unlined – and she would have put him at no more than thirty if it wasn’t for his hair. The thick black waves he had pulled back in an elastic band were streaked with grey. She had a powerful urge to go over and free them, wrap her arms around his back, bury her face in their softness and cling on for dear life.

  She shook her head and took a sip of coffee. He was just a guy who drove a van for hire; she didn’t know anything about him. The old Paula would never have acted so irrationally, but things were different now and she no longer knew how she was going to behave. The old Paula had felt safe and secure. She was sensible and predictable. She didn’t smoke. The new Paula was taking things an hour at a time.

  She tried to make her coffee and muffin last, but when she looked at her watch it was only two thirty-five, less than fifteen minutes since they had stopped, and she still had half an hour to kill.

  The women’s toilets were empty. Paula dumped her bag on the long vanity unit, and felt around until she found nail scissors buried among some tissues at the bottom. She regarded herself squarely in the mirror. Fifteen centimetres should be about right. She took hold of a handful of hair and sawed into it just below her right ear, watching as the brown strands fluttered onto the mottled grey and pink melamine.

  “Jesus Christ, that girl’s giving herself a haircut,” squealed a woman in a spangly turquoise cowboy hat, who tumbled through the swing doors with a gaggle of companions. Three of them wore sagging fuchsia boob tubes printed with the slogan Brenda’s hens. The fourth’s said simply Brenda. They clutched each other for support as they attempted to process the sight of Paula in mid-snip.

  Brenda was the first to collect herself. Swaying on her stilettos like a tree that might fall at any moment, she made a gun out of the thumb and first two fingers of her right hand and pointed it at Paula.

  In what she seemed to think was an American accent, she said, “Put those scissors down, lady, and step away from the mirror before someone gets hurt.”

  Her friends snorted and hiccupped at her wit.

  Paula took hold of another handful of hair. “Thanks for your concern,” she said grimly, “but I know what I’m doing.”

  Brenda staggered over and caught her scissor hand by the wrist. “I beg to differ.”

  Paula tried to pull free. “What do you think you’re playing at?”

  Brenda eased the scissors from Paula’s fingers. “Those things are potentially deadly in the hands of an amateur.”

  “You tell her, Brenda,” encouraged one of the hens.

  “Just think yourself lucky the cavalry arrived in time to avert a disaster,” another said.

  Paula had never been stripped of her nail scissors in a service station toilet by a quartet of sozzled women before. The old Paula would probably have grabbed them back, gathered up her things and made for the door, but the new version was curious to see what would happen next.

  “Look what I’ve found,” announced the third hen as she emerged unsteadily from the cleaner’s cubicle carrying a wooden stool with a ripped red plastic seat.

  “Thank you, Jasmine. If you could just put it there …” Brenda pointed to a spot at the mirror directly in front of a strip light. “That will be perfect for madam.”

  Jasmine breathed on the seat and gave it a polish with a fake-tanned forearm. “Please, sit yourself down,” she said.

  Paula hesitated. “Are you actually hairdressers or are you just having a laugh?”

  “I’ll have you know
I got to the third round of South Yorks Young Hairdresser of the Year in 1998,” Brenda said huffily. “Now hurry up and park yourself – the rest of the girls are waiting in the minibus.”

  “I’ve got someone waiting too,” Paula said.

  “A bloke?” Brenda asked.

  Paula nodded.

  “And you don’t think I’ll get this lot cut quicker than you will? Besides, there’s no harm making him wait. You’ve got to treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen. Isn’t that right, girls?”

  The hens roared their assent.

  “So get your arse on that stool.” Brenda pulled a pair of styling scissors from her handbag. “This is my last haircut as a free woman and I can feel in my bones it’s going to be a good ‘un.”

  Paula did as she was told and watched Brenda eyeing her in the mirror.

  “I’m assuming you don’t much care what kind of style I give you, since you were about to wreck it yourself,” she said.

  The other three crowded round as she made a couple of practice snips in the air.

  “What about a fringe?” one suggested.

  “Are you out of your tiny mind, Louise?” Jasmine snapped. “Her eyes are her only half-decent feature. Give her a fringe and nobody’ll ever notice them.”

  Jasmine turned her attention to Paula. “Have you thought of trying concealer on those bags?”

  Before Paula could answer, Louise said, “Who are you calling out of her tiny mind? I’ve only had eight vodkas.”

  “Yeah, but they were all doubles,” Jasmine reminded her.

  “Ladies, please,” Brenda said. “A bit of hush while I’m working, if you don’t mind. Now, what do we think about layers?”

  “I don’t see that you’ve got any choice with hair like that,” said the one who had mentioned the cavalry.

  Staring at Paula, she added, “Have you tried concealer? You look like you haven’t slept in a month.”

  Paula didn’t reply.

  “Jodie,” Louise scolded, heaving her ample rear onto the vanity unit, “leave the poor girl alone and give Brenda peace to weave some of that South Yorks magic.”

  “Yes, fuckin’ shut up the lot of you,” Brenda ordered and began snipping.

  Louise handed Jodie and Jasmine each a miniature of Bacardi from her handbag. She held one out to Paula. “Go on,” she urged, “you look like you could use it.”

  Paula hesitated then took the bottle. “Cheers.”

  “Cheers,” her new friends chorused, raising their miniatures.

  Paula unscrewed the cap and knocked the contents back in one. “Bloody hell,” she gasped.

  “Way t’go, girl,” Jasmine said and threw hers back. Jodie followed suit.

  “What about me?” Brenda demanded.

  “You can wait till you’re finished,” Louise said. “We want her looking better not worse.”

  “Eck-zacly,” Jodie slurred, pulling herself up to sit beside Louise and nearly knocking Paula’s bag onto the floor.

  “Here, what’s this?” she asked, holding up a packet of blonde dye that had fallen out.

  “You’re a hairdresser,” Jasmine said. “You work it out.”

  “Ha, ha, very funny,” Jodie said. Pointing to the cleaner’s cubicle, she added, “I wonder if there’s anything through there to mix it in.”

  “You stay here. I’ll go.” Louise placed a restraining hand on the other woman’s shoulder. “You’re so pissed you’d probably end up cutting it with toilet cleaner.”

  “Hang on a minute,” Paula said. “Who says I want to dye my hair?”

  “What else would you have a box of Natural Born Blonde in your bag for?” Brenda reasoned, snipping away as if she was on speed.

  “I wasn’t planning to do it right now.”

  “No time like the present,” Jodie said gleefully. “I never go anywhere without my moulding wax.” She pulled a huge tub from her bag. “And we can style you with the hand drier.”

  “But you’re all drunk!” Paula exclaimed.

  “So?” Jasmine put in. “You’re letting her cut your hair.”

  “It’ll take ages,” she tried again, “and your friends are waiting.”

  “They’ll be fine,” Jasmine said. “There’s a full bottle of vodka in the bus.” She began massaging Paula shoulders. “Just sit back, chill and in no time we’ll have you looking like …” she paused. “Who will she look like, Jodie?”

  “Keira Thingy?” Jodie suggested.

  “She’s far too old to look like Keira Thingy,” Louise said.

  “Sienna Miller then,” Jodie tried.

  “I haven’t got the cash to look like Sienna Miller or Keira Knightley,” Paula protested. “The machine in the foyer was broken.”

  Brenda stopped snipping. “You don’t think we charge for toilet makeovers, do you? You provided your own dye and the hot water’s laid on. It would be completely against our code of practice to take money in a public toilet under such circumstances.”

  Paula held up her hands in submission. “Okay, I give in. Do your worst.”

  “Blimey, what happened to you? I was beginning to think you’d been kidnapped,” Andy said as she climbed back into the van. “And I wouldn’t have recognised you if you weren’t wearing the same clothes. Since when did they have all-night hairdressers in service stations?”

  “They don’t. I’m really sorry I was so long. I got ambushed in the toilets.”

  “If that’s an ambush, I hope you got the guilty party’s phone number so they can do it again. You look fabulous. Just like …”

  “Sienna Miller?”

  “That’s it.”

  Paula put on her seatbelt. “Thank you.” A trendy haircut and some blonde dye couldn’t hide the fact that she was a complete wreck, but it was kind of him to say it.

  “Onward and upward?”

  “Absolutely. Let’s go.” She sounded more certain than she felt.

  He pointed to the glovebox. “Choose a cassette then.”

  She opened it and sifted through his collection. It was mostly pensioner music, traditional Scottish and Irish stuff by The Chieftains and Boys of the Lough that was guaranteed to set her nerves even more on edge, but there were a few tapes by bands she didn’t know.

  She picked one. “What are Seven Hurtz like?”

  “Which album is it?”


  “Brilliant. Perfect if you need to unwind. Stick it on and see.”

  Paula slid the cassette into the slot and pressed play. Mellow electronic sound filled the warm, still air of the van.

  Despite the temperature, goose bumps rose on her arms as they pulled back onto the glistening ribbon of motorway. As a child, she loved being in the car at night, especially if the weather was bad. Tightly belted into her side of the back seat, the reassuring outline of her mum’s chestnut bob and her dad’s square shoulders visible through the headrests, she snuggled into the upholstery and surrendered to the thrill of being sucked along the tunnel of darkness. No matter how loudly the rain drummed on the bodywork, she knew it could never penetrate this cosy cocoon. Before long, soothed by the lullaby of windscreen wipers and whooshing spray, she slid into sleep. Waking as the car pulled up, there was the sinking realisation that she had squandered most of the magical journey, the knowledge that no matter where they had just arrived, it couldn’t offer anything as wonderful as the tantalising expectation and utter security she had just experienced.

  If she had known then how much she would long to return to that simplicity and freedom, she would never have allowed herself to miss a second. Now, night-time roads frightened her, menaced her with their destructive power, and yet here she was, making this journey in the dark.

  Turning her head, she caught sight of her new short, blonde hair reflected in the window and suddenly she could see Pete as a child. She closed her eyes. They were sitting together at the breakfast table, that day all those years ago when they had become twins. Pete was crying because the kids at school had
been mean to him about having a birthday on Christmas day – they said it was no birthday at all. Her dad, who had been doing The Scotsman crossword, looked down at his son’s tear-streaked cheeks and took hold of his hand.

  “We can fix that,” he said. “How would you like an extra-special extra summer birthday instead? On, let’s see …” He thought for a moment. “How about the twenty-fifth of July? From now on, your extra birthday will be the day your mum and I got married. How does that sound?”

  Pete wiped his face on his sleeve. “Will I get presents?”

  “You certainly will. You’ll get Christmas presents at Christmas and your birthday presents will be in July.”

  Pete beamed.

  “That’s not fair,” Paula shouted. “My birthday’s only nine days after Pete’s and I don’t have an extra-special extra summer birthday. I want my presents on the twenty-fifth of July too.”

  Her brother considered this. “If our birthday’s the same, you won’t be nearly a year older than me anymore.” His face broke into a wide grin. “I won’t be the littlest in the class and you won’t be the biggest. We’ll be the same.”

  “Are you sure that’s what you want, Paula?” their dad asked.

  She didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I want an extra-special extra summer birthday.”

  “Well, then, from now on you will both celebrate your birthday on July the twenty-fifth, and do you know what that makes you?”

  Pete shook his head.

  “I do,” Paula said triumphantly. “We’ll be twins just like the Little Miss Twins. They live in Twoland and say everything twice. Except Pete can’t be a Little Miss Twin because he’s not a girl. He’s a stinky boy.”

  Pete ignored this insult. “Please, let’s be twins, Paula. I can say everything twice. Please, let’s. I can, I can. See?”

  “Yes,” Paula said. “We’ll be twins. I’ll be the big twin and you’ll be the little twin, and I’ll always kick anyone that’s bad to you.”

  It was daylight by the time Paula spotted the turning for the village.

  She pointed to the rusty black and white signpost poking out of a hedge. “There it is! Down to the right.”

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