"Oooh!" said Scary Karen, squeezing past me on her way down the narrow stairs. "This reminds me of the time I got trapped in a lift with three bodybuilders and Sean Connery."
"Ungnh..." I grunted, caught between her ample form and the bed-settee which was wedged on the half-landing.
"Course, that took three weeks of planning."
"Ah, hngh..." I nodded, unsure whether this revelation or my actual predicament was the more likely to cause me nightmares. It was a close call. I tried to forget both and concentrated on not blacking out from lack of oxygen.
"We're going to have to back up," said Mike from behind the settee somewhere, "then tip it sideways so we can get round the banister."
"Right you are," said Trevor and started to shove up from below.
"Let me out of the way first!" shrieked Rob as the sofa pinned him to a wall.
"And me," I added. At least that's what I tried to say. It came out more like, "Ungheeee!" and trailed off into a whimper.
"Don't know your own strength, do you, my little honey-munchkin?" said Karen, finally compressing me enough to squash by and emerge next to Trevor with an audible pop. She grasped one of his bulging biceps appreciatively and tickled him under the beard.
"Not now, love," said Trevor. He was supporting most of the weight of the bed-settee. He was also, apparently, ticklish. My whole world started to wobble and shake.
"And why's that?" Karen said. "You're the one showing off your muscles." She started to snog him very loudly.
"Big sofa..." I gasped. "About... wheeze... to kill us all..."
"Couldn't you have found someone else to help?" muttered Rob under his breath, still trapped.
"You're the one who was too much of a cheapskate to hire removal people but then decided to move midweek so all your other mates had the handy excuse of being at work to avoid helping."
My words were mostly drowned out, however, by the sink-plunging noises coming from Karen and Trevor.
"Can't hear you," said Rob.
"Never mind," I said. "Almost done now."
It was true. Our various children had been farmed out to friends and relatives and we'd spent a couple of hours loading the contents of Rob's flat into a van. We'd then popped round quickly to my place merely to pick up my surplus bed-settee on the way to his new house. Since he was about to have plenty of extra space and I said he could have the sofa for free, he was more than willing to take it. Getting it downstairs to the front door from our lounge was proving trickier than I'd imagined, though.
"Where's Steve?" croaked Rob. "Has he sloped off again."
"He's not with me," grunted Mike's disembodied voice.
"Haven't seen him," I said.
Then, seemingly on cue, Useless Dad emerged from the direction of the kitchen, cheerily waving a mug around. "Cup of tea, any...?" he began and then noticed Karen and Trevor. He stopped and stared at them for a moment and then backed away hastily.
Luckily, it was enough to distract Karen from sucking Trevor's whiskers off. "Milk and four sugars for me! I'll lend a hand." She gave Trevor's backside a firm fondle and then followed Steve.
There was a muffled squeal of fright from the kitchen but I ignored it as the rest of us turned our full attention to the sofa. There was a great deal of huffing and shoving and turning and then somehow we were in the narrow hall and out the door with only minor strains and bruises. Trevor unlocked the rented van and we loaded up.
The bed-settee didn't fit.
Rob swore. "It's almost in. Maybe if we move some of the other stuff around..."
"Not worth it," said Mike. "We'd have to completely unload. We'd be as well taking what we've got to the house and then coming back."
"I suppose," said Rob, shrugging. "Let's get the sofa inside."
I shook my head. "There's no room on the ground floor. We'd need to get it up the stairs again."
No one liked the sound of that.
"We could just put some bin-liners over it or something and leave it in the driveway," said Rob.
I disagreed. "This is the centre of Edinburgh. If we leave it out here, someone will try to make off with it. I put a broken 28-inch telly out for the council to collect once. No way one person on their own could get far with it. Still disappeared within half an hour and that was in the middle of the night."
Steve and Karen brought the tea out as we discussed options. I took a sip of mine and nearly gagged. "I think I got yours, Karen."
Steve signed frantically behind her back, making it clear I was somehow in dangerous territory.
"I put four sugars in all of them," said Karen, "to boost your energy. Bit of sugar keeps you going." She winked at Trevor. "I gave you seven..."
"I..." I started to reply but Steve's flapping only increased. I noticed that his mug had an entire stick of shortbread poking out of it and realised he'd already had this argument and lost big time. "Er... How thoughtful..." I mumbled and sipped at the brew, feeling my teeth dissolve as I did so.
Eventually we decided that Rob and Karen would go in the van with Trevor, Mike would follow along behind in his car and I would remain to guard the sofa. I did suggest it might be a better use of resources if I helped with the heavy lifting and Mike or Karen stayed with the bed-settee. Mike had arranged to visit a church member who lived out in Rob's direction, though, and didn't have time for toing-and-froing. Karen, meanwhile, beat me in an arm wrestle.
I put on my coat, sat in the driveway and waved them off. Steve brought us both out a second mug of tea that was somewhat more drinkable, and kept me company. He couldn't stay long because he wanted to get to work in time to go for lunch.
I popped inside to find some biscuits. "How are things going in the consultancy business?" I asked when I returned with some chocolate digestives.
"Very well. Very well. There are plenty of firms desperate to cut costs right now."
"By hiring you at great expense to tell them to stop stocking free sanitary towels in the women's toilets?"
"Indeed," he said, entirely seriously.
I sighed and decided I really didn't want to know any more. "And what about your nanny situation?" I said, changing topic. "Fiona's bump looked the size of Switzerland this morning. Can't be long before she heads off on maternity leave. What are you going to do?"
"It's all under control. One of the other nannies we interviewed last year is only on a short-term contract and can take over when Fiona leaves in the middle of next month."
"Oh... That's good..." I tried to sound upbeat but Fiona had been chosen mainly by default on the basis that the others were unsuitable or positively certifiable.
"Yes, I called him myself. He was very enthusiastic."
I did a double-take. "The manny?" I was confused. The guy was a great choice but Steve had been utterly opposed to employing a man during the previous selection process. Nothing I, or his wife, Deborah, could say had been able to change his mind.
Steve mistook the reasons for my scepticism. "Come now, you of all people should know that men can look after children just as well as women. Ewan's extremely well qualified and the children really took to him. Of course, Deborah wasn't so sure but I managed to talk her round. He'll be a real asset to the household."
"Totally," I managed to mutter and then there was quiet as we drank our tea and I resisted the urge to slap him by texting Deborah to congratulate her on her exceptional powers of manipulation.
"Rather cold out here, isn't it?" said Steve after a while.
I nodded. "Uh-huh."
Then the first flakes of snow started to fall.
* * *
Trevor, Rob and Karen returned with the van, skidding up at the end of the drive with a screech of passengers.
I went out of the house with an umbrella to meet them. "That was quick."
"Karen gave Trevor a second cuppa at our place," replied Rob, staggering from the van. "Meant he unloaded the stuff pretty sharpish but I think it would be better if you drove until the sugar high wears off."
"Might be for the best," I said as we watched Trevor heft the settee into the van by himself then flex his muscles for our admiration.
We climbed in after the sofa and set about removing the protective bin-liners without dropping too much snow down behind the cushions. Rob chuckled. "I was expecting to find you and Steve still sitting in the driveway, frozen solid, with icicles dangling from your noses."
"Sorry to disappoint you. He 'remembered' an urgent memo he had to write the moment things turned wintry and I'm not entirely daft. I wasn't going to freeze to death protecting what is now, officially, your sofa. I went inside, turned on the heating and glanced out the window occasionally."
"Oy," called Karen. "Is that thing tied down?"
Rob shrugged. "Sort of."
"Me and Trevor can ride in the back and keep an eye on it if you want."
I'd have been nervous about driving the van under normal circumstances, and the Arctic conditions only made matters worse. The thought of Karen and Trevor alone in the back with excess energy and a bed-settee didn't exactly improve my state of mind.
"That's OK," said Rob, thankfully coming to the same conclusion. "Appreciate all the help but we can take it from here. You guys can head home."
Karen looked slightly disappointed but then I added, "Aren't your kids going to be at your mum's for another couple of hours? You could get some stuff done round the flat or..."
Before I could finish, Karen screamed as Trevor hefted her up in a fireman's lift and jogged off down the road amidst a mix of shrieks and giggles.
"Er, yes, or I suppose you could do that..." I trailed off.
Rob and I looked at each other. "Time to go?" he said hurriedly.
"Definitely," I replied.
* * *
The journey to the outskirts of town was slow and the return trip to the van hire place was even slower, traffic crawling along in the light flurries of snow that count as a blizzard round here. Rob came back with me, just to make sure if I skidded off the road and lay dying in a ditch, that I wouldn't be lonely. We didn't talk much. I concentrated on the way ahead, he fiddled incessantly with the radio.
It was a relief to finally arrive.
"Might as well see you home," said Rob, once we'd handed in the keys.
"I'm 35, it's snowing and you've got unpacking to be doing. You don't need to walk me the couple of streets to my door."
"Humour me," he said, slinging a hold-all over his shoulder and setting off into the wind and a stinging barrage of sleet.
"What's in the bag?" I called after him.
"It's a surprise."
He didn't give me any further hints and, hunched over, we struggled onwards, icy rain attempting to rip our faces off. We did nothing but grunt and grumble for several minutes before tumbling in through my front door. I dripped over the carpet and put the kettle on. "It's not some old tat you found at the bottom of a cupboard that you're trying to palm off on me is it?"
"What is it then?"
Rob looked a little embarrassed. "Living across town is going to make meeting up harder - what with both of us having kids now, and all. I was thinking we should try and organise some regular online gaming to keep in touch. We can still shoot each other and chat and drink beer but we won't have to be in the same room."
I shook my head. "Nice idea but you have a PS3 and I have an Xbox - we're on opposite sides of the gaming divide."
"Er, you know how I never got round to buying you a gift for being my best man?"
"It had crossed my mind," I said but I was suddenly too excited to sound appropriately annoyed.
He handed me the bag. "They had a real bargain in the window of the secondhand place when I went past the other day. Happy belated wedding-help thank you!"
I unzipped the bag with shaking fingers, hardly daring to hope what might be inside. It was...
I stared at the contents in disbelief.
"It's a PlayStation 3," said Rob helpfully.
"Er, yeah," I said, "but why's it orange?"
"The casing's battered. Some genius tried to touch it up with an airbrush and give it a face-lift in the process. Still works, though. Well, it would, if it had a controller and cables."
"This gets better."
Rob had obviously expected this reaction and practised on his sales pitch. "I thought if anyone was likely to have the right wires lying around, it would be you."
I took a closer looker. "Maybe... The AV cable from my PS2 might work and the power cord from a desktop."
"And you'd be wanting to buy one of the newer controllers that has rumble anyway."
"True." I checked my watch. "I've just enough time to get to GAME and back before I have to collect Marie and then go along to school for the boys..." I put the console safely on the kitchen table, flung on a second scarf and ushered Rob towards the snowstorm, the thought of hot drinks forgotten.
"Come on, admit it, you're pleased," said Rob as we headed out the door.
"Oh, all right. If it works, I'm delighted. Thanks very much. It'll be a pleasure filling you full of lead, even if it's from a distance."
"Excellent," he shouted over the wind. "How about Wednesday nights?"
"Sounds good. Now, you really need to get home and help Kate with the unpacking."
We parted company at the gate, shaking hands in an almost formal goodbye. It was weird. He's only moved out near the zoo but, all at once, it felt like a huge distance. Getting together will be much more of an effort from now on. As we trudged off along the pavement in opposite directions, I was briefly sad.
Then I remembered that he'll still be working quite close - once Marie starts school full-time in September, I'll be free to meet him for lunch whenever. I took some comfort from this...
Also, I had a PS3!
Despite a small sense of loss and the imminent threat of my ears falling off from the cold, it was hard not to grin...
Yours in a woman's world,
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