Chapter Eighteen

Still, the next morning when I go to work, I’m on the lookout, and when I leave the office to get lunch, I make sure I carry my coffee ultra carefully, just in case. But nope, there’s no Nate on his iPhone bashing into me. No sightings of Nate in restaurants. In fact, it’s very much a Nate-free zone.

Admittedly a couple of times I spot a grey-suited man in the crowd and my chest tightens, but thankfully it’s mistaken identity. Just me being jumpy and twitchy.

By the end of the day I’m feeling much calmer, and rather silly. OK, so what happened yesterday was a bit freaky, and very annoying – despite drowning it in Vanish, I’ll never get those coffee stains out of my top, and I couldn’t enjoy my sushi with him sitting next to me – but let’s be rational, it was just a coincidence. Sod’s law. Bad luck.

Call it what you want, it’s hardly reason to think it’s something more than that.


‘I know it sounds crazy, but for a moment there I was getting a bit paranoid,’ I pant breathlessly, looking across at Robyn, who’s puffing away on the exercise machine next to me.

It’s the next evening after work and Robyn and I have made the most of my sister’s free passes to her private gym and are working out on the machines. I use the term ‘working out’ loosely. ‘Near collapse’ is probably a more fitting description.

Despite my sister’s offer of free passes, she’d been taken aback by my eagerness. ‘What? You’re going tonight?’ she’d said in astonishment, to which I’d rather curtly told her that I was keen to get fit and no time like the present.

What I didn’t mention was Nate’s comment about my cellulite, which had been scorching a hole in my brain like a burning cigarette. ‘How dare he say I’ve got cellulite?’ I’d harrumphed to Robyn approximately every ten minutes, and like the loyal friend she is, she’d harrumphed right back, ‘How dare he! There is nothing wrong with your thighs!’ I was a real woman, not some gym-honed stick insect. Besides, every woman has cellulite. Even Kate Moss. I mean, I’m sure I saw some on a photograph once.

OK, so it could have been a trick of the light, but still, I’m sure it was there.

Then after my vitriolic speech – Down with Nate, up with cellulite! – in which I’d marched around the living room in my knickers, waving the remote like a banner, I’d gone into the bathroom, looked at my bottom in the full-length mirror under the overhead lighting and made a startling discovery.

Someone had stolen my bottom! Not only that, but they’d replaced it with porridge in a string bag! I didn’t know when, or how it happened, but I did know one thing: I wanted my bottom back.

Which is why I’m at Equilibrium, a super-trendy gym uptown, complete with exposed red brick and plasma TVs, nearly having a heart attack. And not just from the exercise. I feel like I’ve been thrown into a parallel universe. A universe where everyone is wearing designer Lycra, exposing gym-honed bodies and more six-packs than Oddbins. Strutting around wearing iPods, handtowels casually thrown over their shoulders, swingy ponytails swinging, they positively glow with health and vitality. It’s like landing on Planet Beautiful.

Meanwhile I’m in my old vest and shorts, puffing like a steam train, with a face like a giant tomato.

‘What?’ yells Robyn, in the way people do when they’re wearing earphones and think they’re talking normally but they sound like the drunks who spill out of nightclubs in town centres on a Saturday night.

‘Oh, nothing. I was just thinking out loud.’

Screwing up her face in confusion, she tugs out one of her earphones. She’s listening to a portable CD player. I don’t think I’ve seen one of those since 1995. She’s also wearing tie-dye. Next to her, I feel positively trendy, which is saying something.

‘Sorry, I was miles away,’ she gasps, yanking her ponytail tighter. Her hair is tied up on the top of her head and the curly brown strands are spilling outwards like one of those fibre-optic lights.

‘What are you listening to?’ I grunt. I’m on something called a cross-trainer, which has this huge control panel with flashing lights and dials. It’s a bit like being in a cockpit. Not that I’ve ever been in a cockpit, but I’m sure it looks like this. Probably less complicated too, I muse, glancing at it now with trepidation.

After several false starts I’ve managed to set it to something called ‘interval’, as I liked the look of the little diagram at the side: high bits with lots of flat bits in between. It was the flat bits that swung it for me. It looked quite easy. After all, isn’t ‘interval’ just another word for ‘rest’?

Er, no, Lucy, I grimace, ten minutes in. It’s apparently another word for ‘torture’.

‘It’s this amazing CD,’ gushes Robyn, looking invigorated.

‘Oh, is it the new Black Eyed Peas?’

‘Black Eyed Peas?’ Robyn looks slightly baffled. ‘No, it’s all about miracles and how they can teach you the road to inner peace and enlightenment. It’s totally fascinating. Do you want to have a listen? We can have an earphone each. I think they’ll stretch . . .’ She starts trying to untangle them.

‘Um . . . no, it’s OK,’ I say hastily.

‘Are you sure? There’s this really cool bit about how you have to alter your perception of the world by imagining you’re a tree and your arms are the branches . . .’ To illustrate her point, she waves her long, skinny arms, resplendent with silver bangles, over her head. ‘ . . . and you’re stretching your branches out into the sky and then up through the clouds and into the universe—’

‘So how was the date with Daniel last night?’ I cut her off before she narrates the entire CD. And she would. Trust me. ‘You weren’t back when I got in last night.’

Her arms flop back to her sides. ‘It wasn’t a date,’ she corrects, wrinkling up her nose.

‘OK, how was your non-date?’

She shrugs nonchalantly. ‘Oh, you know, pretty good.’

I suddenly feel like a cop on one of those shows in which the perfectly innocent-looking granny does something suspicious. There’s something wrong here. ‘Pretty good’ is not a phrase Robyn would use. ‘Awesome’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’ are Robyn adjectives.

Something’s up. She’s lying.

‘Just pretty good?’ I say, equally nonchalantly. Well, that’s what they do in those cop shows, isn’t it? Act all casual to try to catch the suspect out.

‘Yeah.’ She nods, but her mouth is twitching and I can tell she’s dying to say more. ‘He took me to dinner at this little vegan restaurant that’s one of my favourites. The grilled tofu was amazing.’

‘He did? Wow.’

‘I know, isn’t it incredible?’ she gushes, flashing one of her megawatt smiles before quickly catching herself. ‘Well, not that incredible, more just a coincidence . . .’

That’s another thing Robyn doesn’t do: use the word ‘coincidence’. She doesn’t believe in them. She believes in serendipity. Kismet. Fate.

I swear if I was a cop, I’d be ready to make an arrest.

‘ . . .Then we went to watch an African drumming band.’

‘That’s amazing,’ I exclaim. Robyn’s entire music collection consists of panpipes, African drumming bands and CDs with names like ‘Sounds of the Indigenous Peoples’ with soft-focus pictures of rainforests and rainbows on the front.

‘Trust me, they were,’ she gushes, unable to help herself. ‘The rhythms, the music, Daniel and I were mesmerised . . .’ She trails off, her eyes shining, and comes to a dead halt, unlike the machine, which keeps moving. She quickly starts again.

‘You like him, don’t you?’

‘I do not!’ she protests indignantly. ‘I mean, yes, as a friend I like him, but that’s it.’

Of course she’s completely lying. I should be handcuffing her right now and leading her to the cells.

‘When are you seeing him again?’

‘I dunno . . . He invited me to see a play this evening. It’s called Celestial Awakenings and it’s all about angels.’

And you’re not going?’ I look at her incredulously. One of Robyn’s most beloved possessions is her deck of Angel Cards, as she believes in angels. Along with fairies, ghosts and Santa Claus. Actually, no, that’s a fib, she doesn’t really believe in Santa Claus, but sometimes I do wonder.

‘No, I’ve got things to do.’

‘Like what?’

‘Um . . . just things.’ She looks guilty.

I eye her suspiciously. ‘Such as?’

‘Such as planning for the future,’ she says agitatedly. ‘It’s important.’

‘Oh, OK.’ I nod. Wow, I didn’t realise that Robyn was so sensible. ‘You mean like savings and pensions?’

‘Yeah, something like that,’ she says vaguely. ‘Anyway, what are you doing tonight?’ she asks, deftly turning the subject back on to me.

Which again is a total giveaway. Robyn never, I repeat never wants to stop talking about herself.

‘There’s a new gallery opening not far from here. I thought I’d pop over after my workout.’

‘Ooh, that sounds fun,’ she enthuses.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to come with me?’

She immediately stiffens. ‘Um, no, I’m busy,’ she says, avoiding my gaze. There’s a sharp beep and she glances at the control pad of her exercise machine. ‘Oh look, I’ve finished! Phew!’ Her face flashes with relief as the machine starts slowing down. ‘I think I might hit the steam room now.’

With wobbly legs she hastily climbs off the machine, tripping slightly. And this despite the fact she kept telling me earlier about how she’d climbed up to Machu Picchu, and ‘if you’ve hiked in that altitude for seven hours, everything else is a breeze’.

Yes. Quite. When the Incas built Machu Picchu, they’d obviously never been to Equilibrium.

‘I’ll meet you there.’ I nod, breathing heavily. ‘I just want to do a few extra minutes.’

Which is a complete lie. I want to collapse on the sofa and eat an ice cream, but the image of my stolen bottom is preventing me.

‘OK, well, see you in a bit,’ she says, and hurriedly grabbing her CD and tie-dyed towel, she staggers off. ‘Have fun.’

Fun? This is supposed to be fun?

With my heart thudding in my chest like a jackhammer, I glare at the cross-trainer. I can think of many different words to describe my experience for the past twenty minutes and ‘fun’ isn’t one of them.

Torturous, agony, boring, please make it stop. Oh, no, that’s four, isn’t it?

Wiping away the beads of sweat that are beginning to trickle down my face, I grip on to the handles and ignore the fact that my chest feels as if it’s about to explode. This is good for me, I tell myself firmly. It’s healthy.

I glance at my reflection in the mirror opposite. I have a sweat helmet. My face is puce. My eyeballs are bloodshot and look as if they are about to burst from their sockets, like something out of a bad zombie movie. I don’t think I’ve ever looked more unhealthy. Or more unattractive.

Thank God no one in here knows me, I think with a flash of relief. At least that’s one good thing about being new in town. You’re totally anonymous. You’re not going to bump into someone you know.

No sooner has the thought fired through my brain than in the mirror opposite I see someone climb on to the running machine next to me.

My stomach drops. Literally plummets, like someone’s just chucked me out of an aeroplane. Without a parachute.

Oh God, no. Please, no. It can’t be . . .

But it is.

Nate.

For a moment I think I’m seeing things. It’s impossible. There’s unlucky and there’s unlucky. Stunned, I stare at him in his shorts and vest, my brain not really computing. Is someone playing a trick on me? Am I on Candid Camera? I glance around quickly, then realise what I’m doing and pull myself together. It’s just a coincidence, remember? Unfortunate, admittedly, but still a coincidence.

Pretending I haven’t seen him, I surreptitiously reduce the speed on my machine. With any luck I can sneak out before he sees me and make my escape.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see him limbering up, stretching out his calf muscles, flexing his arms, bending sideways, back and forwards.

Oh, for God’s sake, just get on with it. Show-off!

Then, unexpectedly, I feel a kick of stubbornness. Hang on a minute, why should I leave? I was here first! I’ve got as much right to be here as he has! Followed by a swell of competitiveness. Right, I’ll show him.

Straightening up, I stick out my chest and start striding breezily, my feet bounding on the pedals like I’m taking a walk in the park, and isn’t it wonderful? Next to me I can hear the machine starting up and feet pounding. I try not to look.

I keep staring straight ahead, but that’s even worse as he’s right in front of me, reflected in the mirror.

And there I am, right in front of him.

Catching sight of me, a look of shock flashes over his face, but he quickly recovers. ‘Wow, fancy seeing you here,’ he says tightly, in a way that says there’s no ‘fancy’ about it.

‘You too,’ I say curtly, still striding out.

I feel like we’re speaking in break-up language. There should be a phrase book, Learn Break-Up, in which common phrases could be translated from English. For example, in break-up a phrase like ‘Fancy seeing you here’ would be ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ Then ‘See you around’ would be ‘Over my dead body.’ A simple word like ‘Hi’ would be ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’

It would make things so much easier. You’d be speaking break-up in no time!

‘So, I didn’t know you were a member of this gym,’ he says casually.

Also translated as ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’

As you can see, in break-up many of the common phrases mean the same thing. It’s a bit like Eskimos have a million different words for ‘ice’ when we’ve got just one. In break-up that one word is usually ‘fuck’.

‘I’m just trying it out,’ I say, aiming to sound nonchalant. ‘Seeing if it’s up to my . . . er . . . usual standard.’ I promptly jab a few buttons on the control pad in front as if I know exactly how it works. ‘What are you doing here? I thought you had your own machine.’

Translated: ‘Bugger off! I look like a big sweaty lump, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing on this dratted machine, which is now making a weird vibrating noise, and the last person on earth I want to see is you.’

‘I like to mix it up,’ he says.

‘Oh, right, yeah . . . mix it up.’ I nod, as if I’m always mixing things up.

There’s a pause, and then . . .

‘Look, about the other day, I said a few things I shouldn’t have . . .’ He trails off and his eyes sweep to my thighs.

I feel a stab of mortification. ‘Yes, well, we both did,’ I say hastily. I stare determinedly ahead, but out of the corner of my eye I can’t help noticing he’s barely breaking a sweat, while I’m starting to sound like a heavy breather on the telephone.

Taking a swig from my water bottle, I try to concentrate on my breathing – I remember reading an article about that once, though I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be concentrating on. I mean, it’s just in and then out, isn’t it?

He’s getting faster now, but I keep pace. See, I can do it. Though my legs are beginning to feel a bit like jelly. Did my knees just wobble? Oh shit, and now my machine seems to be starting to incline. Bollocks, what’s going on? I glance down at my controls, trying to figure it out, then give up. It’s too complicated. You’d have to be in Mensa to figure out all those buttons.

I can’t believe it! Now he’s speeded up!

Glancing up, I see Nate is springing along next to me at an alarming rate of knots. I take my eye off the ball for two seconds . . . Infuriated, I jab at the arrow marked, ‘Up’. Aha! Take that!

I start striding harder – forward, back, forward, back  – and swing my arms. Only the funny thing is, the machine doesn’t seem to be getting any faster, just sort of higher. Flustered, I jab more buttons. I’m not going to let Nate win. I’m determined!

Sweat is now pouring down my face in rivulets, but I forge ahead. I’m picking up pace. I’m getting faster and faster. My feet are pumping furiously on the pedals. My heart is thumping in my chest. Next to me I can see Nate bounding along rhythmically. It’s like a face-off. A dual. I glance at his controls.

He’s on level 14!

I jab at mine. Up, up, up . . .

Suddenly I’m aware that my machine has started making a loud whining noise. Hang on a minute . . . alarm bells . . . Now it’s going really fast . . . like really, really fast . . . like about ninety miles an hour . . . Oh God, and it’s still getting higher and higher . . . I feel a stab of panic . . . How do I make it slow down . . .? How do I make it stop . . .?

Oh my God, oh my God, oh my—

Argggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!!

You're the One That I Don't Want
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