By Natalie Ellis
Swiping my punch card at the end of my shift at a bookstore in Glasgow the Friday night tingle of anticipation washes over me. Pulling my soft, grey parka down off its hook in the vacant staffroom I pass the lunch table and take a Christmas cookie from the open bag. The table is littered with three-shifts-worth of empty coffee cups, Styrofoam chip containers, abandoned crosswords, and today’s newspapers. As I turn to leave the top floor I take my cell phone out of my purse and press down on the power button. I never owned a cell phone in Canada, but here in Scotland, everyone has a “mobile.”
The overnight staff starts trickling in and I smile at a few of them as they pass me on their way up the staircase. Slowing my decent I stop to read a new text message from my flat mate, Ruth:
“Nat. U comin for a pint or wit? We R @ O’Neill’s. Hurry up. Xx.”
On the bottom step I put my mobile back in my purse, pause before I leave, and look out the window to my left at the illuminated skyline. Each building’s lights are reflecting off the low, heavy clouds. Tonight the city is wrapped in a dull orange hue. I love Glasgow. I’ve been living here for five months and it still won’t fully sink in. Sometimes I think I recognize someone from Canada in the store, or on the street, and then realize that it’s impossible.
“I still can’t believe I’m here,” I whisper to myself.
Walking through Biographies, past Nonfiction, around the travel section, and down the four flights of stairs to the periodicals is my nightly route. Near the front doors I pass by twenty racks stuffed with every magazine, in every imaginable language. Pushing open the tall, glass, double doors, I step out into the December air. Tiny pieces of hail sting my face. Pulling down my wool hat I briskly head up the cobbled walkway to the subway station. My footsteps echo on the frosted street, and my breath fills the air ahead of me.
Before I can descend down the subway station’s steps Allison comes running up behind me and grabs my arm,
“Where are you goin’? You silly wee eejit!”
Allison is 22, a year older than me.
“I was waiting for you around the corner of St. Georges Square! God, I’m glad I saw you!” she laughs between labored breaths.
“Sorry!” I exclaim, “I only got a text from Ruth, and I was just going to head over to O’Neill’s.”
Trying to catch her breath, Allison laughs and shakes her head,
“Nae, I was there last night, let’s go tae Auctioneer’s.”
Being new to Glasgow I try to be as social as possible, but it doesn’t take much effort. Most of my co-workers go to the pub religiously. There’s hundreds to choose from in the downtown shopping district, but Auctioneer’s is a favorite. Filled with lots of comfy, worn-in, burgundy leather booths, a never-silent jukebox, cheap lager and crisps, decades of smoke staining the walls, historical sepia pictures of Glasgow and the old shipyards, throngs of other sympathetic retail employees, and ageing chubby barmaids manning the taps.
Auctioneer’s is busy tonight. We head directly to the bar and I order us two pints of cider and black, from a flush-faced bartender. Waiting for my change I turn and scan the room for any familiar faces. Allison’s voice regains my attention,
“Katie was such a fucking bitch today,” she states in her thick, Glaswegian accent, “What the hell is her problem? She’s a right bitch and a total slag too. You know, I cannae understand why James is with her, he’s so lovely…”
Noticing a group of people leaving a booth that faces the street I pull Allison over to it. We slip off our coats, settle into the seats, and Allison instantly picks up where she left off.
To my right I notice Rory through the window, walking up the street toward the bar. Rory was the first friend I made at the bookstore, and the first person I’d come to Auctioneer’s with. A musician and a comedian; he’d made being new to the bookstore—and the city—easy and fun.
Tonight he’s with someone I don’t recognize. I can’t concentrate on Allison anymore because I’m overcome by Rory’s friend. Its intensity grows with their every approaching step. They’re talking and laughing. An odd jealousy grips my chest that I don’t own his attention. They get closer and I see he is thin, pale, and unshaven. He’s wearing a ratty brown coat. His wavy, blonde hair is greasy and wild. His boots are dirty and worn out, as are the cuffs of his pants. Yet, to me, he radiates. They pass the window and my stomach drops. Rory waves at me, unaware of my ensuing panic. My face flushes, my blood throbbing in my temples, and I can’t hold my pint steady. I turn to see them walk through the bar’s doors. Everything goes into a sickening slow motion. Rory blows me a kiss, winks, and signals that he and his friend are going up to the bar first. This gives me time. Running my hands through my hair and then under my eyes, to sweep away any stray mascara, I gulp down the rest of my pint. Suddenly I’m standing beside Rory.
“Hello Canada! How are you?” he chuckles, “What are you and Allison drinking this evening?”
I laugh and make a face at the mention of my nickname, “I’m fine, Allison hates Katie, I haven’t heard a good song on the juke yet, and we’ll both have a cider and black please.”
I lean in close and wrap my right arm tightly around him. As we’re hugging I smile at his friend.
“So you’re the infamous foreigner of the bookstore? Or ‘Canada’ as I’ve heard,” he says slowly with a smirk.
“That would be me,” I say softly.
Handing me the two pints, and giving me a kiss on the cheek, Rory turns to another bookstore employee, and I’m left to make conversation. Someone puts a pound in the electronic jukebox and The Killers’ Smile Like You Mean It fills the room. Rory’s friend leans in close to me, so I can hear him over the music,
“What’s your real name, Canada?” he asks, his soft nose touching my cheek, his sensual Scottish accent into my ear. He places his hand on the small of my back before I can answer.
“Natalie,” I say, “and yours?”
I turn so we are facing each other, “Ben…” he smiles.
The more time we spent together, the more I knew I was falling in love with him. We spent many nights in quiet pubs, coffee shops and my flat. Hours spent talking, learning, immersed in each other’s pasts. Sipping on pints of beer or glasses of red wine, I’d happily watch Ben smoking his imported French cigarettes.
When he was 18, he’d spent a year living in Monmartre—a district in Paris—to learn French. He had loved French culture from a young age and had moved there after he finished high school. When he was 20 he’d moved to New York for the same reason. On one of our first nights out together Ben asked me why I had moved to Glasgow.
“My Mum is Scottish, and we used to visit here every year until I was 14, when it became too hard for me to take the time off school. I loved Scottish and British culture from a young age, it honestly felt more natural to me than Canadian culture. The attitudes, the society, the television, the weather, the fashion, everything. I just felt like this is where I belonged. Last year, when I had decided to take a year off from university, the choice to move to here just came naturally.”
I paused. He was staring intensely at me. Leaning across the table, looking into my eyes, he whispered,
“I happen to think you were right, you belong here.”
The gravity of his words swirled in my head.
The more we got to know each other, the more we saw how much we had in common. We loved the same music, books and movies. Small bands and unsigned acts play the pubs every night in Glasgow, and we’d go see as many as we could afford. We’d spend Sundays in the free art galleries around the city.
I was shocked arriving at my flat after work on Valentine’s Day. My flatmate, Ruth, was in England for the weekend to see her boyfriend. All the lights were on and the outside door was unlocked. I could smell garlic cooking. Scared, I pulled out my mobile, dialed “999” and got ready to press “call”. I walked in, peeking into the kitchen, to see Ben standing at the counter, cutting vegetables and mixing salad. The table was set and pasta was cooking on the stove.
“Welcome home! Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Laughing nervously I shouted, “How the hell did you get in?” and looked for signs of forced entry.
“Ruth left me the key! We planned it last week!” He exclaimed, “Did you think I broke in through a window?”
I blushed and we both laughed. My flat was on the third floor. Ruth was terrible at keeping secrets. I was proud of her that she had managed to keep this one.
By the spring I realized that I was neglecting my other friendships, especially with Rory. I bought him, Ben, and I tickets to see the White Stripes on February 21st, 2005. I knew Rory and Ben couldn’t afford to go. The three of us met at Auctioneer’s after work. We started walking to Barrowlands and on the way talked about the approaching summer.
“I’m trying to save to go to New York,” Rory said, “I really want to go for at least a month, and try to play some gigs or something. Nat, are you still planning to go to Europe?”
Meeting Ben had changed a lot of my plans.
“Um, I’m not sure,” I lied, “I’ll have to see how much money I can save by April or May.”
“What about you, Ben? You said you wanted to come back to New York with me if I was ever going, here’s your chance. And didn’t you say you were trying to go back to Paris for a while too?”
Shooting Rory a look, and then me, Ben cleared his throat.
“Same thing as Nat. I’ll just have to see how much I can save. I was thinking of maybe going with Nat to Europe for a bit. I dunno yet, nothing concrete…”
Relieved to see Barrowlands come into view, I changed the subject,
“Wow, that line is bloody huge! Let’s hurry up and get over there.”
7:00pm. April 15th, 2005.
Sitting at the bottom of Ben’s bed, listening to The Shins and flipping through magazines, I realized I hadn’t kissed him when I arrived at his flat. Moving over to where he sat near the pillows, I put my lips to his cheek, brushing them against the emerging bristles. He’d been different lately. I thought it was because I had been thinking seriously about taking a trip to Europe.
“I’m going to have a shower, OK?”
“Yeah, and then let’s go get something to eat,” I said.
He smiled while walking toward the bathroom and pulling his towel from the radiator.
That morning I emailed a youth travel group, to get advice on my trip, so I went to Ben’s computer to check if I had a response. His Hotmail account was still open from the last time he had used it. I was going to sign out, I tried not to look, but I couldn’t resist, and my eyes scanned the screen. I felt like vomiting. The name Aubree Fabian was repeated over and over and over and over again. The newest one from this morning. Unable to stop myself, I opened it. It was a reply and the initial email from Ben was included. At the bottom of his he had written,
“I can’t wait to see you in a few weeks. All my love always, mon petite Cherie,” followed by about forty kisses.
Bolting up from the desk I knocked the coat and scarf off the chair behind me. Scrambling for my purse and jacket, I hear Ben open the bathroom door.
Standing in his doorway, Ben’s eyes register panic from amidst his dripping-wet bangs.
“What’s wrong Nat?”
Trying to push past him, I feel the strength of his thin arms around me. I feel like I’m going to explode. I don’t want to cry here, but I can’t hold my sobs in at the feeling of his touch. This will be the last time.
We’ve been sleeping together for months. The previous night he’d asked me if I really wanted to leave Scotland when my visa was up.
“I could move to Canada,” he had said in the dark.
Moving my head from his chest to the soft, linen pillow beside him, I ran my finger along the stubble on his cheek and jaw. I turned and propped myself up on my forearms and looked deep into his eyes. Even in the dark, with no twilight approaching, I swear I saw a glimmer of truth.
“We could live together in Toronto,” he went on, “I could get a job there nae bother. Or we could look for a place here in Glasgow, if you get yer British passport…”
I closed my eyes and lay back down, letting the warmth of his fantasy wrap around me.
4:45am. I’m in the back of a cab. I try not to breathe deeply. My hair is filled with the stench of Ben’s cigarettes. It’s on my coat, it’s on my clothes, it’s on my scarf, it’s on my purse. It is sickening. My nose is stuffed up from crying. I keep forgetting to breathe through my mouth. Looking at the window, the outline of my tear-stained face reflects back. I peer past myself, to the empty Jamaica Street Bridge. Even the hookers have gone home for the night. My throat hurts and my temples throb. The drive to my flat will take another ten minutes at least.
“Shit!” I say out loud, “I forgot my fucking mittens.”
“What’s that Pet?” the cab driver asks.
“Sorry,” I mumble, “I’m just talking to myself.”
He laughs kindly.
I want to be back in Canada, I want to be as far from Ben as possible. His imprint is still on my skin. His deep, longing stare still rests upon me. On my heaving chest, my tangled hair, and my quivering lips. When Ben had spoken the words, he tried to hold me tight, but I pushed him away with more force than I knew I had.
Aubree, his girlfriend of two years, lives in Paris. They met when he lived there and had been dating on and off ever since. They were on again. Rory never told me. No one told me.
A cab whips past in the opposite direction, but not fast enough that I don’t see the drawing of the Eiffel Tower on the side of it. My tears start again.
“It’s not much further,” I remind myself, stifling a sob.
I lean my throbbing head back against the leather seat and close my eyes.
If Ben calls tomorrow, I’ll get Ruth to tell him to give my mittens to Rory.