Mark Johnson is hitting his forties and is stuck in a rut.
He’s had the same boring office job for ten years, with no motivation or inclination to change it. The same crumbling house for ten years, with no cash or know-how to fix it. And the same Facebook status for five years—it’s complicated. It isn’t. He’s single. He just doesn’t want to correct it. That would be admitting defeat.
The day a tea bag splats onto his face whilst he’s emptying the dregs of his morning cuppa at Macy’s Tea Shoppe is the one that makes him question each of his current life choices…the tea bag and that the shop is currently being run by one rather friendly, rather hunky, but rather young Australian named Bradley Summers.
Tea has never tasted so good.
The slurp was loud and rather obnoxious, especially when the man was sipping from one of Mark’s grandmother’s dainty china teacups that Mark saved for special occasions. Since Mark hadn’t had any need for the guest china in quite some time, he’d let Grammy’s cardinal rule slide for the strapping workman clambering up in his loft.
“Yup, I see the problem,” the workman yelled down the open hatch in Mark’s landing ceiling that led to the over-cluttered store of stuff that Mark hadn’t set foot in for…well, quite some time.
Mark wished he hadn’t offered the man a brew. He really hadn’t had the time to wait for the kettle to boil, for a start. But he’d been brought up well, and one must offer one’s tradesmen a cuppa in the hope they’ll knock a few quid off the call-out charge. He suspected he would have to delve deep into his already ravine-like pockets, so anything that could be considered mates-rates would really help at this point in his life. Mark wished he did have mates. Ones that were handy, anyway.
“Oh, yes?” Mark called back, his voice echoing through the square hole in his ceiling. He closed his eyes, for some reason, as if that would soften the blow of what was going to come out of the man’s mouth next.
“Gonna need coupla new roof tiles, mate. A lotta this stuff is gonna get ruined.”
“Bugger,” Mark muttered into his own mug of piping-hot tea. Well, it was rude not to join the man in a beverage.
“What was that?” The man’s round, if somewhat flushed, face appeared at the hole.
“Nothing, nothing.” Mark shook his head. He didn’t much fancy repeating himself. The man might take it seriously and give him a whack. Or, which would be much worse, not take the job of fixing Mark’s leaking roof. “Thank you.” He smiled.
Mark had been told, on occasion, that he had quite a nice smile. One that relaxed people. Mark, however, believed it to be far more useful to allow people to walk all over him. Or pass by him. Through him…
With a grunt, the workman set his steel-toe-capped boots on two metal rungs of the ladder, revealing the tip of his rounded behind popping out of the elastic waistband that appeared to be failing in its one basic function. Normally, on an average Saturday night, Mark wouldn’t have minded the view, as his internet history would evidence. But today was a Monday and the man didn’t look like he would appreciate Mark’s ogling. Not that Mark was ogling. He just had nowhere else to look. Honest.
On reaching the landing, the workman crashed back into Mark. Stumbling, Mark gripped his cup with both hands to prevent the utter travesty of spillage onto the carpet. Not only did he not have time to clear up any stains—not that any would show on the swirling patterns of the seventies-design stitch work—but he also hated to waste a cup of the good stuff.
The workman hefted up his jogging bottoms, his hands empty of the china teacup he had been avidly slurping from up in the loft. And that meant Mark would now either have to venture up into the space he avoided like the seaside lido on a May bank holiday afternoon, or leave it up there to breed new life. He knew which he would rather.
“Right.” The man scratched his stubbled chin. “See, you’re gonna need a coupla new tiles. Tha’s what the leak is. The rain we been ’avin is comin’ in frou ta ’ole in ya roof. Travelling daan the walls and dripping aaat ya ceiling.”
“Good-oh.” Mark nodded, not letting on for a single second that he had no idea what the man had just said. “Uh, can you fix it?” He mentally crossed his fingers in the hope that he hadn’t just said that he could. Or couldn’t.
“Yeah, no sweat. I can do two tiles at a ton.”
“A what now?”
“A ton of what? Tiles?”
“No. A hundred smackers.”
Mark blanked, shaking his head.
“Oh, I see. Well, that’s not too bad then.” Mark smiled. And phewed. Mentally.
“But that won’t fix ya problem.”
“Oh dear.” Mark furrowed his brow, which he didn’t like to do all that often as the lines weren’t smoothing out after so much anymore.
“Dunno which bleedin’ cowboy did ya roof last, but they didn’t felt it.” The man tucked a tiny pencil behind his ear. Where he’d got the pencil from was Mark’s first question. Quickly followed by, do I really want to know?
“That cowboy would be my grandfather.” Mark attempted to add a hint of pride to his voice, but the vacant expression of the workman before him just made him slink into a guilty, wincing admission. “He built the house.”
“Ah. Right. ’Nover ’and-me-down was it?”
“Hand-me-down?” More deep-set wrinkles formed on Mark’s brow. He must remember to use that skincare range for men he’d got as a Secret Santa present at work last year, the one that claimed to defy even the deepest-set wrinkles. He had a hunch who’d been bold enough to buy that for him. Bloody Yvonne.
The man waved, indicating Mark’s attire. “The clothes.”
Mark held out his arms, still clutching his mug of tea, and peered down at himself. Trusty grey corduroy trousers, wonderful and comfy, and rather warm considering the current climate, matched with a white button-down shirt. The vest underneath was simply due to the fact that his dark nipples tended to show through the thin material of cheap cotton. He’d discovered that tidbit of information back at secondary school when the popular boys used to poke his nipples through his school shirt, many twisting for added effect. And people say all-boy grammar schools are a safe haven from bullying.
Mark ran a hand through his thick dark hair, sliding it across his forehead in a floppy fringe, ignoring the jibe at his attire and moving on to the pressing transaction at hand. “So you were saying about the roof?”
“Yeah. Gonna need ta replace it.” The man sniffed, his chest rising with the inhale of breath, then shrugged. “Set ya back ’bout five grand.”
The fact that Mark had chosen the man’s pause to take a sip of tea probably summed up his entire existence. It had been, of course, the wrong decision. He spat the tea out, liquid escaping from his nose, and coughed, gasping to get air, rather than the delightful Twinings English Breakfast, into his lungs.
The workman slapped him on the back. Perhaps he thought that would help the situation. It didn’t. It only exacerbated it, knocking Mark off his feet and forcing him to grapple for the bannister to prevent a rather tragic tumble down the stairs.
“Better out than in, I say.” The workman did say.
Mark blanked. If only the boys at his delightful modern secondary grammar had believed in that statement back when Mark had been in year ten and announcing to the world he was gay. Not that any of his peers had had any doubt before Mark had made his fabulous speech. But Mark presumed they would have preferred him to stay in on that day, considering many had received detention for the words of “encouragement” they had called out in a perfect display of teenage camaraderie.
“Well, I can do the tiles tomorra,” the man carried on, oblivious to Mark’s inner turmoil. “Fink about the rest of da roof, though. You don’t want it cavin’ in on ya.”
Mark nodded, although, right then the thought of paying out five thousand pounds that he didn’t have made him consider the alternative option.
“Righty-oh. Thank you very much for coming out on such short notice.” Mark ushered him down the stairs.
“No probs. Give me card your granddad, then.” The man handed over a bent business card, a mobile phone number scrawled on the back with black pen along with the words The Man With The Van Who Can. Mark pondered if there was anything that he couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?
“That would be rather futile. Grampy died quite some time ago.”
“Oh.” The man squinted, stepping out into the daylight and onto Mark’s porch. “So you chose this?”
“Chose what?” Mark desperately tried not to furrow his brow.
The man waved his hand, indicating, Mark presumed, the entire house’s internal decor.
“I like antiques.” Could seventies decor be considered antique? He supposed it could.
“You get antique wallpaper these days then?”
Bastard. “Oh, indeed.” Mark nodded. “Worth a fortune.”
Mark slammed the door shut and rested his back against the wall, glancing around at the house he’d lived in coming along ten years now. It was falling apart and no redecoration had been done since probably the last time he’d been up in the loft. He sighed, slammed his mug down on the windowsill and decided now was the time for a decent cup of the good stuff.
Grabbing his black Barbour jacket from the coat hooks, he slipped his feet into the black loafers by the door then ventured out into the morning sun. And what a glorious day it was, perfect to be beside the seaside. And Mark was. He lived directly opposite the pebble beach of Marsby in the south-east, a quaint little seaside town that homed more retirees than tourists. Not that Mark was retired. He could only wish for that, although he was leaning nearer to the end of his career than the start. Mid-career, perhaps? Christ, maybe I should think about actually having a career rather than simply a job that barely pays the bills?
Trying to forget that he had left a gaping hole in his roof—and now his ceiling having forgotten to shut the loft hatch—Mark rammed his hands into his jacket pockets and thanked whomever above for the abnormal radiant sun. And that was when the inevitable dark clouds glided overhead and droplets landed with splats on his cheeks. Such was Mark’s luck. So he trotted that bit faster along the pathway beside the beach and into the main High Street, stopping at the welcoming sign of Macy’s Ye Olde Style Tea Shoppe on the corner.
The bell above the door chimed as Mark hurried into his regular haunt. He’d been going there for quite a few years now, since his move back to his home town from the mean streets of London, and still hadn’t figured out why Macy added the extra p and e to the shop. He shook his hair out like a wet dog and nodded at the umbrellas Macy always offered to customers on such regular occurrences as torrential rain, a quick downpour, scattered showers and that really fine light rain that has one believing they aren’t getting wet until they get home and their clothes are sopping.
The shop was empty, which was rather odd. There was usually someone sipping on a decent cup of tea made from the loose leaves in a well-stewed pot. Macy made proper tea, using a strainer, and it tasted every bit of the aromatic leaves that it should. She was also a rather good baker and Mark was horrified that there were no buns, baps or any other derogatory term used for parts of the female anatomy displayed on the counter for Mark to scoff and instantly burn off the calories by breathing. He had a fast metabolism, which was both a dream and a curse.
As Mark slapped a hand down on the counter, he heard shuffling back in the kitchen area. Thank God Macy was there. He needed a chat. And a tea.
“Helloooo? Only me, love. Usual cuppa when you’re ready.”
Drumming his fingers on the counter, Mark swivelled a one-eighty. Vacant seats and no-one in the vicinity looking like they might want venture on in to grab a tea to go, which would be quite difficult as Macy only served tea in porcelain cups. And rightly so.
“So, Macy, love,” Mark called out over his shoulder, thinking it was best to fill her in now or he might not have time to divulge all the details of his eventful morning before he had to head into work. “I’ve decided I’m better off if I just kill myself now.”
He leaned forward over the counter, ensuring his voice would drift to the kitchen. “Turns out my roof might collapse on me anyway. And according to this rather annoyingly beefcaked member of the male species, the sight of whose perfectly rounded behind is now imprinted on me for many a future solo endeavour, and who graced me with a whole other English language making me feel every bit of my—cough—years, it’s going to cost me rather more than my arm and my leg. And I’m sadly going to have to admit it, Macy love, that I’m not sure the fellow would accept an offer of my penis as monetary value. Not that I have a wealth of offers for that part of my anatomy these days anyway. Much like the pound to the euro, I swear it’s shrinking in value.”
He chuckled at his own joke, as he so often did, then spun around to face the seating area. A couple of joggers zoomed past the window, obviously on their beachside run rather than the mad dash for cakes and biscuits that he did.
“You okay, Mace? Need a hand?”
No reply. So Mark leafed through the selection of pre-packed biscuits crammed in the bowl by the till. Macy had one of those old-fashioned registers. No electronic buttons to press. No new-fangled tablet hooked up to the mains. It was basically a calculator with a drawer.
Choosing a packet of chocolate-dipped Viennese shortbread fingers, Mark cocked his head to peer through the open kitchen door. “I mean, Macy, what is the point in filing paperwork for a living just to earn enough money to fix a roof when I have no man to enjoy the comforts of my damp-free living space along with me? And by the time I find a willing participant to snuggle with me on my antique sofa looking at my antique wallpaper in my antique house, I’ll be ready to pop my clogs anyway. So, death by sugar, please, Macy.”
He slapped the counter to finalise his self-depreciative monologue, and nearly threw up the entire contents of his breakfast when a male vacated the back kitchen. Said man was wiping his hands on a rather beautifully stitched gingham tea towel. But that wasn’t the only thing that was a delight for the eye. The man was shirtless—rippling muscles, a glowing sheen of glistening skin and white-wash jeans hanging low on his perfectly sculpted hips. Needless to say, that wasn’t Macy.
“Hello,” Mark said, because, it is the polite way to greet a man, regardless of the lack of shirt and the highly embarrassing fact that Mark had already told his life story, leaving out all, or indeed any, good bits.
“G’day,” the man replied.
Studying at a West London university, she realised there was a whole city out there waiting to be discovered, so, much like Dick Whittington before her, she never made it back home and still endlessly searches for the streets paved with gold, slowly coming to the realisation they’re mostly paved with chewing gum. And the odd bit of graffiti. And those little circles of yellow spray paint where the council point out the pot holes to someone who is supposedly meant to fix them instead of staring at them vacantly whilst holding a polystyrene cup of watered-down coffee.
She eventually moved West to East along that vast District Line and settled for pie and mash, cockles and winkles and a bit of Knees Up Mother Brown to live in the East End of London; securing a job and creating a life, a home and a family.
Having worked in Higher Education for most of her career, a life-altering experience brought pen back to paper after she’d written stories as a child but never had the confidence to show them to the world. Having embarked on this writing malarkey, C F White cannot stop. So strap in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride…