One week in and I’ve already reached peak-January.
Seven-thirty on a cold, grey morning and I’d rather be anywhere than here — the waiting room of a backstreet garage. There is no worse time for your MOT to expire than a few days after Christmas; not that I realised it had expired until the police pulled me over on New Year’s Eve. They warned me not to drive the car until I had a valid MOT certificate unless I fancied a hefty fine. Consequently, I saw in the New Year alone in my poky flat rather than at my brother’s house in Kent.
I approach the gammon-faced man at the service counter.
“Not good news I’m afraid,” he confirms. “It failed.”
It’s not good news for me, maybe, but the garage now has an excuse to quadruple my bill. Mr Gammon-face does his best to hide it, but I can see the glee in his eyes.
“What did it fail on?”
“You need two new tyres and the brake pads are shot.”
I knew the tyres were borderline legal but the brakes seemed okay.
“Are you sure the brake pads need replacing?”
I pull out my phone and tap the screen.
“Bear with me a moment.”
A quick Google search and I check the garage’s online reviews. They’re a mixed bag with a handful of customers complaining they were charged for unnecessary work. I probably should have checked before but options were limited for an early booking.
“Can I see the brake pads, please?”
“They’re my brake pads. Why can’t I see them?”
“I never said you can’t,” he shrugs. “I’ll just grab your keys.”
“Yeah, you’re gonna need them, obviously.”
“To drive the car around the corner. Once you’re there, you can jack the car up, remove each of the front wheels, disassemble both brake calipers, remove the wheel studs …”
“Hold up,” I interrupt. “Surely you can do all that?”
“We did, and that’s how we discovered your brake pads need replacing. If you don’t believe our mechanic, you’re welcome to check yourself.”
The very personification of smug, he dangles the keys in front of me.
“How much?” I mumble.
“If you go for budget tyres, you might get a few quid change from two hundred.”
That’s January extended by another lunar cycle.
“Doesn’t look like I’ve much choice, does it? How long will it take?”
“Should be ready by the end of the day.”
I leave the garage and make my way to work on foot.
Yesterday marked twelfth night and there’s some unwritten rule it’s the date you’re supposed to take down all your Christmas decorations. I’m no fan of Christmas but I do miss the colour. January is a shit month for many reasons but it feels particularly stark when all the fairy lights and baubles have been packed away for another year.
With a sombre sky above and mottled grey pavements below, the vista is particularly monochrome this morning. As too is my mood.
I reach a junction and wait for a gap in the traffic. A red Volkswagen Polo pulls up at the lights — the exact same car Gemma used to drive. Even now my heart still skips a beat whenever I see a red Polo. Stupid really as Gemma probably has a different car now. I first met her six years ago; a few weeks after my twenty-third birthday. We dated for ten months and then rented a flat together; just about affordable with two incomes. We were happy; I thought.
One of the many reasons I despise January is because three years ago Gemma made our relationship her New Year’s resolution; and not in good way. With the chorus of Auld Lang Syne still echoing in my head, she sat me down in our local branch of Starbucks — presumably so I couldn’t make a scene — and delivered the news. She’d met someone else.
To really twist the knife Gemma confirmed she’d been fucking another man for months and felt it necessary to explain why. There were none of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ platitudes — it was all my fault apparently. I sat and listened as she reeled off an entire list of my negative traits: whiney, sarcastic, unambitious, judgemental, and a few others relating to my abilities in the bedroom. Offering to sleep in the wet patch does not make you a considerate lover; according to Gemma.
She is now married and, strangely, I didn’t receive an invite to the wedding.
After Gemma left, my sanity also decided it’d had enough and promptly followed her out the door. Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly in a good place before Gemma’s revelation so I only required a slight nudge to fall over the edge. I received far more than a nudge and by the end of January I had officially been diagnosed with depression. Twenty-seven days, and as many sleepless nights, spent imagining the love of my life in bed with another man proved more than enough to drag my mind into an inescapable pit of black thoughts.
It took five months of pills and therapy to escape, although I’ve remained close to the edge of that pit ever since — never more so than this morning.
I’m frozen to the bone by the time I step through the door of Red Rocket Marketing.
“Happy New Year, Toby,” the woman behind the reception desk chirps. She only started last month and I can’t recall her name.
There should be an arbitrary cut-off date where it becomes a criminal offence to wish someone a happy New Year. The second of January sounds about right.
“You too,” I reply, with a strained smile.
She shifts her attention back to the screen. I head to my office and close the door.
Never has my poky workspace felt more like a prison cell; albeit a cell housing an oversized desk and the three-month-old Apple iMac Pro on top. It’s a measure of my financial status that the computer is worth considerably more than my troublesome car. It’s a pity I own the car and not the computer.
Still enjoying a honeymoon period with the iMac, I slowly run my finger along the keyboard to a rush of endorphins. Give it a few more weeks and the final remnants of glee will ebb away. Perhaps I’ll invest in a shiny new toy from the Apple store to rekindle that glee. We’ll see.
Resigned to my daily fate, I slump down in my chair and boot up the iMac.
I’ve been at Red Rocket for eight years now; three of which have been as Social Media Manager. My job is to acquire and manage clients willing to pay large sums of money for a monthly spreadsheet of data they don’t understand. In most instances, that spreadsheet contains an array of statistics about social media engagement for their company — tweets, shares, pins, regrams, and the like. My dad thinks we’d be better off selling unicorn horns or fairy dust for all the good we do. I’ve long-since given up trying to explain the benefits of social media to a man who doesn’t even have a Facebook account.
The iMac wakes.
I check my diary and inwardly groan. Two company meetings and a new client to visit this afternoon. Checking emails only adds to the despondency as a string of emails cascade into my inbox; released from a stretch in cyberspace purgatory over the festive period.
Hoping at least one of the hundred-plus emails bears positive news, I begin sifting through them. Most are work related and I drop them into corresponding project folders where they’ll likely stay, unopened. At least a dozen are from online retailers wishing me a happy New Year, and confirming most of the items I purchased in December are now half price.
At last I find one email worthy of interest. It’s from my friend and fellow employee at Red Rocket, Danny Caudwell. The reason we’re friends, beyond the fact we work in the same building every day, is because we’re the same age and share a similar sense of humour. However, that’s where the similarities end. Danny is confident, outgoing and, as much as I hate to say it, good looking; whereas I’d describe myself as insecure and boringly ordinary in the looks department. Should I ever consider a career change, I’d be tempted to try armed robbery on the basis any witness would struggle to describe my appearance. I can imagine the police interview: Height? About average. Weight? Not fat, but not thin. Build? Um, average. Hair colour? Err, brownish.
The subject of said email is short and to the point: New Year’s Resolution. I open it up.
The content is equally to the point and states I should cancel any plans I had for tonight. I’ve been friends with Danny long enough he should know it’s unlikely I have any plans for tonight, or any other night. He concludes by saying he’ll message me later with the details. I’m intrigued but concerned. Danny has made it his mission over the last year to help me find a girlfriend, and I fear his New Year resolution is a continuation of that quest. I’d bet a penny to a pound Danny has lined me up with one of his rejects.
His heart is in the right place. His judgement less so.
Notwithstanding Danny’s efforts, I would concede my dating history since Gemma left hasn’t exactly been a roaring success — the demand for average-looking men on the brink of depression being limited. Initially, and in part to ease the lingering sense of loss, I convinced myself I should embrace the newfound freedom and play the field.
I discovered the field wasn’t as ripe as I might have hoped.
It began with Julie; an older woman. Prior to my relationship with Gemma, I’d only slept with two other women and my lack of experience told. I will give Julie credit for being a willing tutor, and I learnt an awful lot during our first two sessions in the bedroom. However, in the midst of the third session Julie casually suggested I might like to try ‘pegging’. Not wishing to reveal my sexual naivety, I agreed, and quickly withdrew that agreement once I discovered the true nature of pegging — being anally penetrated with a rubber phallus.
There ended my relationship with Julie.
Katherine came next; a woman much closer to my age. During our first date I asked if she’d heard of pegging and she returned a blank stare — we were off to a positive start. Sadly, it soon became clear why Katherine hadn’t snagged herself a boyfriend. When she wasn’t checking her phone, as she did most of the evening, she complained about the food, the service, my choice of shirt, and our fellow diners. And when she’d run out of things to bitch about, she talked about herself relentlessly. If I’d been in the market for a self-entitled narcissist, Katherine would have been my dream date.
The third and final attempt came in the form of Nicole. On paper, Nicole and I appeared a good match and our first date went well enough. We enjoyed another three dates, and I had high hopes for our fledgling relationship — until the psychotic behaviour began.
Like most people my age I have a lot of ‘friends’ on social media. In reality, I can count my true friends on one hand but nobody wants to appear unpopular so the friend count matters. Anyway, Nicole thought it would be a good idea to message every one of my female friends on Facebook to confirm my new relationship status. I might have considered her behaviour endearing until Nicole then emailed every female employee at Red Rocket with the same announcement. She then began turning up at my flat unannounced; each time demanding to check my bedroom for evidence of my imaginary infidelity. It happened eleven times before I conceded we weren’t a good fit, and it took a restraining order to extricate Nicole from my life.
One year on from my last foray into the dating scene and I’m still not sure the time is right for a return. But, with my thirtieth birthday fast approaching, time is not on my side.
When I left university, I had visions of the life I’d be living when I entered my fourth decade. I wanted the kind of lifestyle they promised in adverts. I’d own my own home and share it with my soul mate. I’d have set-up a successful business and the money would be rolling in. My soul mate and I would have a broad circle of friends and we’d enjoy an active social life; interspersed with holidays to exotic, far-flung corners of the world.
The reality is a far cry from that vision and every day the gap between those post-uni expectations and my actual life grows wider.
Last year, I discussed my fears with Dad and true to form he suggested my malaise is a generational issue as we all now live in the ‘age of expectation’. He claims his generation lived through the ‘age of aspiration’, in which you could have anything you wanted by rolling up your sleeves and working hard. Of course, he meant working hard at a proper job — the kind where you make things, fix things, or move things.
Dad left school in the mid-sixties and walked straight into a job as a plumber’s apprentice, and in Dad’s blinkered view no worthwhile work is accomplished by sitting on your arse and staring at a screen all day.
His words chime as I shift in my seat and stare at the high-resolution screen in front of me.
“It pays the bills,” I mumble under my breath. “Just.”
Worthwhile or not, I have work to do.