“‘Darlin’”: never my name.
“One more mouthful, darlin’, then the rest are mine,” stuffing hot salty chips and vinegary fingers past my lips outside the Archway Tavern, laughing “Don’t bite yet! Don’t bite!”
“Darlin’, I’ve given myself a payrise to keep up with inflation. Blame Mr. Callaghan, but wait ’til after I’m done with you.”
“Darlin’, shut the door after you, would you?”
I guess she had too many names to remember. Once, just once, she called me Liam. My name’s actually Leon but maybe that’s what she thought she’d heard when we met. “Liam,” she’d said, that one time, from a phone box, “I’ve only ten pee. Listen, I’m in Finchley, by the shops, you couldn’t come pick me up, could ya?”, and then she hung up before I could ask East Finchley, North Finchley, Finchley Central, or how she had my number. There’d have been time for all of that left on her ten pence.
Of course, after driving up and down the Finchleys in my Hillman Imp for nearly an hour on a filthy wet night, she turned out to be in Friern Barnet all along, sat at the bus stop in front of the Town Hall. “You took your time,” she said. She looked out the passenger window as I drove, wiping the fog off with her sleeve. I glanced at the back of her head as we inched towards Ally Pally. Her oxblood hair glittered with rain. “Darlin’?” she said, without turning around. “Paula,” I replied, after nothing else followed. “Darlin’, I couldn’t stay with you awhile, could I? I’ve had a fallin’ out with my fella, and I’ve nowhere to turn.” She added, lower, “Most the men I know are married…”
We detoured to fetch a few of her things from out Edmonton way. I sat in the car, listening to rain hit the roof. I watched the streetlamp halos fur in the dampness, drummed my fingers on the steering wheel when I heard shouting and slamming from the house. At one point, I glanced over and saw two shadowy palms pressed against the front window. I looked away.
After twenty or so minutes, she shambled out laden with bags and I took her home.
We ate Fray Bentos pies, peas and potatoes in front of the telly, washed down with Double Diamond. My old sofa slumped in the middle beneath us. I pictured it folding in half, trapping us inside like a clam. “What’re you smiling so happy at?”, she asked, glossy gravy spotting her chin. “Them,” I lied, waving a fork at The Two Ronnies.
I knew it wouldn’t last, and of course it didn’t. She moved out six months later, heavily pregnant with twins, not mine, which I admit surprised me. (The timing, not the paternity.) That first evening, though, reaching over to dab her chin with my hankie, I braved her own word on her, “Alright, darling?”, and she nodded, and life felt good. It did.