Aching Back and Black Tea

It’s high time for a new project. A new Work in Progress, better said. I’m hoping this new idea turns into a novel, and I’ve almost hit the 15k-word mark for it. Working on this one has been so refreshing, and (so far) the self-doubt has been manageable and muted in favor of wanting to find out what happens next. That feeling, of wanting to know what happens next and where the story goes, before realizing you’re the one writing it… I haven’t felt that feeling about one of my pieces in a long time.

I’m sharing a small piece of it, a continuation of a scene (chapter?!) I wrote a few weeks ago. Recently, I also came up with the emotional theme that the story will follow, so I didn’t feel too bad or self-indulgent if I didn’t go back to the story for two weeks to keep writing. I favored self-care while feeling off after hitting month two in quarantine, and I still came up with a major break-through for a new project. Time well spent.

What you’re reading is what I consider a very rough, in-need-of-polishing first draft, so keep that in mind when reading. I would love to hear what you think regardless, so please let me know how reading this short scene makes you feel.

Trigger Warning: References to domestic violence.

Black and white image of mug with steaming liquid inside
Photo by Salome Alexa on Unsplash

Her head still ached, and in her dream she was walking on streets, some in Camden, some in Virginia, and even one in DC. They all blended together, with a seafood restaurant with a Natty Boh sign appearing next to an entrance to Camden Market. Xander kept walking, but she broke into a run as she wound past some streets. As she got to one similar to the bridge underpass she’d walked with Neal the day before, she started running, but she wasn’t moving as fast as she could.

Like all dreamers, she ran and moved fast but she wasn’t going anywhere, and when it came to pushing past some kids waiting at the bus top, she felt herself pushing hard but there was no impact to her shove, and the longer it took for her to make her way past the packed bus stop, the bigger the urge to run. No one was behind her, but it was a presence, almost a mist or a fog, that threatened to consume her if she didn’t keep running. But the people at the stop wouldn’t move, and when she turned to find another way through, she saw Oliver’s face.

The sound of the door closing woke her, forgetting where she was. She tried to sit up straight, but her lower back screamed at the attempt and she couldn’t move. Slowly, Neal’s living room started looking familiar again, and as she unwound herself from the fetal position she’d fallen asleep in, her back stopped hurting a bit. She reached around her head to the arm of the couch for her phone where she’d left it charging and checked the time – 7:30. Neal probably hadn’t gotten in bed until almost 1 and if he left at 7:30, when had he gotten up?

Oliver’s face in the dream was the same as it had been the night before, before Neal clocked him. It was the same anger Oliver had had before he’d hit Xander, the same look she had noticed briefly before the smack came down. She was scrolling down Facebook but not really seeing anything but Oliver’s face in her dream, his face at the bar when he smiled at her in front of everyone at the bar, then his face the morning before, when he wound his arm back before bringing it down on her.

She went to browse Instagram but then jumped back to Facebook again, forgetting she wanted to see what her one friend from high school was doing for the latest pyramid scheme. She browsed again and scrolled for a few minutes before remembering she was working at noon and that she should probably get an hour or two more of sleep before getting ready.

She set an alarm for 8:30 and set her phone down. She turned to her other side, carefully to avoid the shooting pain on her lower back. She settled in and tried to go back to sleep, her eyelids heavy. She thought about Neal, how he’d said he’d be cutting a key for her today, so she probably shouldn’t leave until going to her shift, which meant she couldn’t go out and buy groceries like she’d wanted. She could clean the place, but that would be too presumptuous, not to mention predictable – he gets her out of the biggest pickle she could possibly be in while living in a foreign place, and her gratitude would come in the form of Cinderella?

What would she have for breakfast? He hadn’t said to help herself to anything to the kitchen yet, but isn’t it implied when letting someone stay with you? Or would he be pissed if he knew all she had to eat all day was a cup of black tea before going into work for five hours? She could go get brunch before going into work – that was an idea. Get a snack for her break on the way into the bar and hold off until dinner – but then she wouldn’t be able to cook him dinner like she told him she wanted to. What would they have for dinner tonight? What would they do for dinner?

Xander turned on her back again and put her arm over her eyes. Neal could use some curtains; those blinds were very dusty, but at least they were keeping some of the light out because of it. She could buy him new blinds or curtains, as a thank you and to help her sleep a little better if she was going to keep crashing in the living room. What if he wanted to stay up watching TV one day and she wanted to head to bed? What was the expectation there? She probably would have to stay up with him, yawn politely and be on her phone, or get comfy on the couch until she “accidentally” fell asleep and he let himself out quietly. She couldn’t be there for long – she had to find a cheap room somewhere close. Tracking down her great aunt in the country had never been an option, really.

She could feel herself dozing off, her eyelids getting heavier, her thoughts more disjointed. She thought of what she’d do for dinner again. They could have dinner together, get some take-out that she’d pay for. But that would surely set a precedent, right? Like a curfew, or being home (or back there) at a certain time every day to have dinner together. And who would cook? Not Xander.

What if he had ladies over – he wasn’t married. She’d never thought to ask. While having his beers at the bar, Neal didn’t talk about seeing anyone else at the end of the day other than his mom, and if he were married, a wife would certainly have something to say about those dusty blinds. If he had a wife, would he even have offered Xander the place? If that was the arrangement – but no, that wasn’t it. The way Neal had thrown Oliver to the ground, it had the familiar concern of a father behind it, not a possessive husband. That’s what Oliver’s face had been like. But she pushed that face out of her thoughts, not wanting to dream of him ever again.

She turned to lay on the side she had woken up on, and finally fell asleep. Her alarm went off what felt like minutes afterward, and she couldn’t get comfortable with her achy back, so she went to the kitchen and put some water to boil on the kettle. The plastic appliance had stains on it and was greasy everywhere except the handle and button to turn it on. So that’s where her gratitude would start. She grabbed the mug she’d used the day before and poured some hot water over a bag of black tea, and while she went to look for the painkillers in her travel first aid kit, she hoped Neal was the kind of bachelor that kept clean dishrags and dish soap somewhere.

Pulling Pints

I had a really difficult time picking this week’s novel excerpt. I take that to be a good thing: I don’t want to share much about the new project yet because I like it all too much. I want certain scenes to remain just for me for now.

That being said, I’m sharing a short scene that took a bit of work to flesh out, mostly because I second-guessed myself on what details to include and which to leave out, and how much dialogue was TOO MUCH dialogue (although I’m starting to think dialogue may be one of my strengths). But I still like where this new project is headed, and it’s gotten me excited about writing again.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think.

It was sunny, and the wooden tables inside the pub looked the brightest they had yet. Xander could see every speckle of dust as it danced in the sun rays. The ale handles looked dull in the sunlight, and with the regulars not in yet and the odd patron spread out across the tables watching the TVs or on their phones, Xander went to look for the brass polish.

She was absentmindedly polishing the ale handles, vigorously polishing a surface that would get fingerprints on it in a matter of hours. Being able to see her face clearer and clearer the more she rubbed and applied pressure, the dirtier the cloth got, the more satisfaction she felt.

“I could do my make-up off these handles,” she said out loud.

“You don’t need make-up,” a voice said.

Xander looked around and found its source. A man leaning on the bar on both his elbows. The early October air was crisp, and his leather jacket didn’t look very warm, but his smile didn’t betray him and only projected confidence and amusement. And with his fade cut and dirty brown hair, easily six feet and a few inches tall, of course he’d be confident.

“And that’s not a compliment,” Xander said. She smiled back and put the brass polish and dirty rag in the sink. “You alright?”

“I’d be better with a pint of cider, please,” he said and winked. She looked straight at him and didn’t look away while she grabbed a glass. She pulled the cider handle and turned her attention to the pouring liquid – getting the foam right on this one was tricky.

“Slow day?”

“Yeah, I think it’s the weather, but it’s still early.”

“Ooh,” he said and smiled again. Don’t ask. Don’t do it. “Where is that accent from?”

C’mon, dude. “I’m American.”

“Whereabouts?”

“Virginia.”

“That’s near New York, right?”

“No, not really,” she said and put the pint in front of him. “It’s closer to Washington, D.C.”

“Oh, right. What brings you here, then?”

Jesus Christ. “Just wanted to try living out here.”

“No family here, or anything?”

“I have an aunt out in Cheshire somewhere, but we’re not close.”

“Interesting,” he said. “Have you seen much of London yet?”

“I haven’t been here since I was a kid, so not much yet, no.”

“I’ll be back on your day off and we can do something.”

“Want to pay for that pint first, though?” Gross. Do better.

He laughed and handed her a £10 note. He offered light resistance when she went to take it, waiting until she looked at him before releasing. He winked again.

“Something wrong with your eye?” Xander said and turned to punch in the numbers on the register. She turned around with the man’s change, but he had gone to a corner table already. She waved his change in his direction, but he shook his head as he took another sip of his drink. She shook her head and dropped the £5.70 in the tip jar.

“Xander, darlin’, I’m ready if you’re done batting your eyes at that fella.” Steve had moved from his seat to the side of the bar he never saw.

“What were you hollerin’, Steve?” There was no way to save face, but she pulled another pint as Steve drained the remaining of his old one. She saw Neal lighting up a cigarette at the door, and she added Steve’s third pint to his tab before pulling Neal’s Sagres.

“He’s cute!” Steve said. “You going home with him after your shift?”

“Let’s not be nasty, yeah?” Xander said.

Steve raised his eyebrow and took a sip of his drink. Xander had the Sagres ready when Neal walked in and sat three stools away from Steve. When she put the pint in front of him, he smiled. “Thanks, lovely. You alright, Steve.”

“Evening, Neal.”

“Hey, Xander, when you’re ready.”

“Hey, Danny,” Xander said and checked her watch. “Damn, that time already?”

“You by yourself today, girl?” Neal said. “It won’t stay quiet for long.”

Xander was grabbing Danny’s Bulmer’s and his glass, remembering to squat down, not bend over. “Tara is downstairs, and I think Shannon is coming in an hour.”

“Thanks, Xander,” Danny said and handed his money. “There’s a few people on the other side.”

“Oh fuck’s sake,” she said and handed him his change. “Not you, Danny, my bad. But if it’s gonna get busy– ”

Danny laughed. “So polite. It’s fine. Go, go.”

Xander walked back to the other side and the cider man was back and smiling, and another woman was a few feet away from him.

“What can I get you?” Xander asked the woman.

“Glass of house red, please, love. Large.”

Nodding, Xander went to the man. “Same again?”

“Yes, please, love,” he said and winked again.

“You know, if your contacts are bothering you or something, I have eyedrops.”

Xander poured the glass of wine and cashed out the customer. She took the empty glass he’d brought back and put it on the dirties tray, then grabbed a clean glass before pouring another cider. The man was still looking at her and she couldn’t not smile at him.

“Here you go. That’s £4.30, and don’t go without getting your change again.”

“You know,” the woman with the wine said. “If she’s being nasty, sit with me and have a chat.”

Xander let out a snort as she punched in the man’s pint and got his change for a £5 note. The woman took big swigs of wine and showed her crooked teeth at the man. The sun shining through the window wasn’t doing her any favors and showed every stain on them, along with flyaway hairs on her head.

“You’re alright,” the man said, not looking away from Xander. “What time do you finish your shift?”

“11,” Xander said.

“What are you doing after?”

“I’m going home,” Xander said.

“Can I walk you home?”

“Fuckin’ hell,” the woman said and scrambled off the stool. Xander laughed as the woman went to sit outside and almost run into the door on the way out.

“No, thanks,” Xander said. “I live far away.”

“I don’t care,” the man said. “How far?”

“Essex,” Xander said and walked around the bar to the floor. She heard the man laugh as she did her glass collection run. With one bottle in hand a mixed-drink glass in the other, she walked to the other side of the bar, nearly colliding with Tara as she opened the cellar door.

“Sorry, darlin,’” she said. “You okay?”

“She’s left us lonely, Tara,” Steve said. “That bloke on the other side has had her attention for an hour.”

“Jesus, relax, Steve,” Xander said. “I know you don’t drink that fast.”

“Take a little break, darlin’,” Tara said. “Before it gets busy.”

“Okay,” Xander said. “Neal, let me get you another one first.”

“Thanks, lovely.” Neal was counting his change already.

Xander poured the pint and put the money in the register before filling a glass with coke from the soda gun. She took it and walked around to sit next to Neal. She felt the man stare at her from the other side of the bar, from his lonely table.

“He botherin’ you, darlin’?” Neal said when she sat down.

“Nah, he’s fine. Keeps winking, though.” Xander took a sip. Coke here tasted different than at home.

“You’ll be careful, yeah? Get one of us to walk you home or pay for a taxi.”

“I’ll be okay. He won’t be here for long anyway.”

“Yeah?” Neal said and took a sip of his Sagres.

“Well, look at him,” Xander said and took another sip of her drink, looking behind Neal’s head. “He’s dressed like he’s going somewhere, probably The Roundhouse or Camden, and he’s probably in here meeting someone before they head out. Then it’ll be the end of my shift and I’ll be home.”

“He can wait for you,” Neal said. “Come back here after he’s had a few.”

“That’s why I told him I work until 11 when I really finish at 9.”

Neal laughed. “What are you like, girl!”

“Can’t trust a man who drinks alone,” Xander said.

“You sayin’ I’m dodgy?” Neal said, raising his eyebrows but the corners of his mouth were twitching. “I was gonna buy you a drink later, but not anymore.”

“You’re not drinking alone, though,” Xander said. “You’re drinking with me.” She clinked her glass to his with a smile and took a sip. Neal laughed and took a sip himself.

“Look at Steve,” Xander said. “He can be dodgy and annoying, and he’s always drinking alone.”