Soundtrack To My Youth (book 1)

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Put Yourself In My Place

Thirty two hours on the most turbulent plane ride with an hour lay over in Singapore to refuel, being crammed into a seat that clearly wasn’t designed to fit my 6′4" length, my head cranked to the side to watch the movies that were being shown on the communal screen, I drank beer out of a plastic cup while the overweight, unwashed cretin in the seat next to me, on the last leg of the flight, snored so loudly that I’m surprised the people seated near us were able to get any sleep because I sure didn’t.

By the time I arrived at Heathrow Airport I was tired, irritable and in desperate need of a nice, long, hot shower and a comfy bed to crash down upon. It wasn’t the flight that was affecting my mood, in the three years since Dad and I moved to Australia I’d flown back to England twice, in similar conditions as this flight and it had never bothered me this much but this time was different, the fight I had had with Veronica the day before was weighing heavily on my mind. It pissed me off to no end that she couldn’t see where I was coming from, I know Lucas better than anyone, the lad is a game player and this whole ‘good guy act’ was completely transparent to me, it was just another attempt to weasel his way back into my girlfriends panties and what pissed me off more than anything was that she was falling for it, yet again and somehow I’m the villain in all of this.

When she walked away from me I didn’t chase after her, like I had done every other time that we’d fight, I was afraid that if I did then I’d say something I’d regret and lose her forever, to him. Instead I went home, finished packing, ate an earlier dinner with Dad and Celeste, set my alarm for 4 am and then lay awake all night wishing she was laying next to me.

We had a plan leading up to when I was leaving for the week, Veronica was going to stay over, I was going to cook her dinner and watch sappy romantic movies together, her idea, not mine, she’d come to the airport with me, we’d say a tearful goodbye, I’d hand her the keys to my truck and she’d drive it home but instead, I drove to the airport alone, parked in the long term car parking, checked my phone a thousand times for messages from her but had none, waited for her to show up but she didn’t so by the time I took my seat on the plane I was in the foulest mood you could imagine.

I turned my phone back on while I waited in line at the car rental stand and placed it back in my pocket while it booted up. Looking around the airport at everyone walking around in tank tops and shorts and here I was dressed in jeans and a sweater, I’d forgotten that I was coming into a Summer climate, well as much as you could call it Summer, compared to Australia it felt more like a warm Spring day but the English would have you believe that this was a heat wave.

After giving my details and parting with a large sum of money, which was only the deposit, I was handed the keys to Mini Coupe and given direction of where it was located. Great, another small space I’d have to cram myself into. Dragging my small suit case across the busy parking lot to the box on wheels, I smiled to myself, thinking about how Veronica would have made me pack a hell of a lot more than what I considered to be the necessary bare essentials, the girl takes a months worth of clothing on a weekend trip.

I threw my bag into the back of the car, stripping off my sweater and letting the warmth of the sun kiss my Wintery pale skin for a moment before climbing into the drivers seat, my knees sitting just under the steering wheel, I placed the key in the ignition and was about to turn it when I heard the familiar tone of my phone, indication a message had come through. I assumed it would be from Dad, I’d told him I’d let him know when I landed and had completely forgotten until now but I was surprised to find Veronica’s name on the screen.

I’m sorry I didn’t come see you off, after yesterday I think we just need some space to cool off but I love you and am missing you already xx

I reread the message another four times, all my anger and frustration that I had carried with me here just melted away. I was tempted to call her, just to hear her voice but with the 8 hour time difference it was 3 am her time so I’d have to wait a few more hours. I didn’t text her back, I wanted her to hear me tell her how much I loved her, she deserved to not have it just written in a text but said out loud.

The drive from the airport to my nana’s house in my hometown of Leigh took about an hour and a half. It was interesting how many subtle changes I’d notice along the way, new building going up, old shops that had once done a roaring trade where now boarded up with signs up deterring squatters from entering, not that they paid much attention to those signs.

I pulled into the one way, narrow, cobbled street that my Nana lived on, passing what was once my own house up until 3 years ago. Nana had lived two doors down from us, with Shayla and her family in between, she lived here alone after Pop had died in 1989 from a massive heart attack, he was only in his 50′s but lived off of a diet of deep fried everything, with his motto being ‘if you can eat why not fry it too?’ and I must admit the deep fried ice cream and mars bars were an absolute treat but I wouldn’t touch that shit these days.

I pulled into Nana’s driveway, her house never changed, painted in the same cream colour it had been given when it was built in the twenties, with the faded blue curtains that tried and failed, to hide what was in the sitting room, even from the driveway I could clearly see the telly flickering and the floral print lounge. If I concentrated hard enough I’m sure I’d be able to smell the moth balls that she filled the house with too.

I was grabbing my bag out of the back of the car when I heard the roar of an engine in the driveway next to me. The houses in Leigh were so close together that you practically lived on top of your neighbour, there was nowhere to hide if you were trying to avoid them either, although Shayla and I had managed to side step each other in my final six months of living next door to her but when I saw the fiery red-haired, Irish girl who had once been my best friend climb out of the blue Honda Civic I couldn’t help but stand there and admire her, her once porcelain skin was now made brighter with scattered tattoos, her hair now cut just under her ears and flipped out at the ends, even her style of clothing had changed, she had always worn these classic style dresses that her Mum had bought from Marks and Spencer but now she had a tartan skirt with safety pins at the side and a black crop top. She was definitely not the same Shayla I had grown up with.

“Sam Lions?” She shrieked, running up to me, I opened my arms and she came crashing into them. “Look at ya, you look so buff now” She still smelt like strawberries, a scent that took me right back to that day, the day we had taken our friendship a lot further than we should have and afterwards she tried to reassure me that it wouldn’t change anything. A lie to fool ourselves, I guess.

“And you look like a punk princess, I love this new look Shay, very cool” She stands back and twirls around, giving me the full look at all her changes, theres a tattoo of a caged blue bird on the back of one of her legs and on the other leg the bird is flying free, a detailed rose on her left arm and a rainbow on her left wrist. “I take it the rainbow means that you finally talked to your parents?”

“Ah yeah, I came out to them not long after you moved” She says shyly, her gave falling to the grass at our feet. “I’m so sorry Sam, I destroyed our friendship because I was scared of the truth. I thought if I just acted straight then all these thought and feeling I had for girls would just go away but sleeping with you just proved to me that I am and always was, a lesbian”

“How did your parents take it?” Shayla was from a very strict catholic family, her family had attended church together every Sunday for as long as I could remember, although she had a rebellious nature she still wanted to make them happy, which is why she wore the hideous clothes her mum would buy.

“Well I sat them down and I was as nervous as shit, thinking that Dad would kick me out of the house or Mum would send me to one of those God-loving conversion camps where they brainwash you into believing that you’re straight but they didn’t, they hugged me and said they knew and we’re just waiting for me to tell them” She smiles proudly up at me, her pale cheeks growing a rose red blush.

“They knew? That whole time?”

“Mum said what tipped them off was the Pamela Anderson poster I put up above my bed” She laughs.

“I think we both appreciated that poster” 14 year old me could never figure out why Shayla had covered her bedroom in posters of women when every other girl I knew had posters of Luke Perry and Will Smith, it wasn’t until I met Bridget, saw her bedroom was styled very similarly and pieced it all together. My best friend was a lesbian who was scared to come out, I guess that’s why I was so drawn to helping Bridget navigate her own sexuality, so she didn’t end up going down the same path as Shayla, trying to pretend to be straight out of fear.

“The only thing they got angry about was that I wasn’t being true to myself, that I was doing all these things to try and please them and they weren’t pleased anyway because I wasn’t happy so I threw away the dresses, cut my hair, moved to London, started studying art which led me to wanting to create art on people, so I became an apprentice at a tattoo parlour and am kicking some serious ass at it too.” That explained why I hadn’t run into her on all my other visits home, she had moved away and gotten this whole new life. “What about you Sammy? You moving back here? Please tell me you are so we can run a muck together”

“I’m here for a week” I watch her face fall with disappointment “But I am coming back, I got into Cambridge university on an athletic scholarship, I start school in September” Her face instantly brightens with the news of my return, making me feel good too, one apprehension about moving back was that I wouldn’t’t have anyone to talk to but with Shay in London and Me at Cambridge we could easily hang out often on weekends.

“That’s fantastic Sammy, I’m so happy for ya” She throws her arms around my neck and kisses me on the cheek, a gesture she had been doing since we were kids, one that made me think she had feelings for me so long ago but now I know it as just Shayla being friendly.“I should let you go though, your dear old nan will be wondering what’s keepin ya. Lovely woman that Francesca is, real salt of the earth.”

We say our goodbyes with plans to meet up later in the week, after my interview and I head towards Nan’s house and Shayla slips inside her parents. Nana answers the door before I even have a chance to knock, dressed in a brunch dress with a floral apron wrapped around her rounded waist. At 4′2 she only comes up to my chest so I hunch down to wrap her up in a giant, loving hug.

“I saw you outside talking to Shayla O’Malley, I didn’t want to interrupt you” Nana says as I plant a kiss on her soft, wrinkled cheek. “Lovely girl she is, brings me flowers whenever she visits and always asking about you”

I step inside and am hit with an array of smells, firstly there’s the ever present scent of mothballs, followed by the overpowering smell of a roast chicken, cooking in the oven and as I wander further through the house, into her tiny kitchen I’m hit with the scent of a warm apple pie, cooling on the windowsill. “I cooked all your favourites, only the best for my grandson”

“Nana, I hope you spoil all your grandkids like this” I’m the youngest of five grandchildren, the other four, girls, all live near by with my Aunties, Mum’s sisters, who I’m sure will be stopping by within the next week.

“They’re all married with families of their own now but they do still pop by from time to time, your cousin, Elizabeth is so strict with her son, no sugary treats but kids need treats, it makes them happy so I like to sneak them to him. She’ll be by later for dinner.” My nana’s house is always filled with sweets, she just loves seeing kids faces light up when they get a lolly. “You go settle in, Ive set up the room for you and theres fresh towels hanging in the bathroom, make yourself at home and I’ll call you in a few hours when dinner is done”

I lug my suitcase up the creaking stairs, to the room at the end of the hall, the bed cover is older than I am, probably even older than Dad but the material looks immaculate and well kept, no tears or loose stitching, of course its floral print though, everything in this house is floral print, from the toilet cover to the dinning chairs, nana loved floral print.

I kicked my shoes off and threw myself onto the bed which had no give, it was as stiff as a board and the pillows did very little to provide comfort. I would have to pick up a pillow while I was here or else risk getting a crook neck. I dug around in my pocket and grabbed out my keys and phone, placing them on the old, wooden nightstand beside the bed, taking note of the time on the digital clock, the only new item in the whole room. It was late enough to call her now and I desperately needed to hear her voice, even if it was going to cost me a fortune.

I my phone back up and punched in her number, remembering to include the country and area code, there was a long pause while the call waited to connect before it started ringing and when she picked up on the third ring my heart soared.

“Sam, are you ok? Why are calling? Did something happen?” I could hear the panic in her voice, I’d told her that I’d only call if it was an emergency but hearing her voice seemed to be emergent enough to justify the call.

“I love you bunny girl, I just needed to tell you that” I could hear her start to whimper as I spoke, I didn’t want to upset her, not when I couldn’t be there with her to comfort her.

“Oh Sammy bear, I miss you, I love you too, I’m so sorry with how we left things, I haven’t been able to sleep and Kelsey sent me home early from work because I couldn’t concentrate. I should have come to the airport, I should have kissed you goodbye and now I’m scared I’ll never get to kiss you ever again” She whimpers down the phone.

“I’ll kiss you all over your body when I come home, I can promise you that.” I’ll do more than just kiss her but laying on a bed inside my Nana’s house, it felt a little inappropriate to elaborate.

“Don’t be kissing anyone else while you’re away” She tells me firmly, like I could, she’s the only girl I want.

“My lips are just for you, you’re the only thing on my mind” I reassure her, feeling a weight lift off of me, I hate fighting with her. “I’ll talk to you soon baby, I just got to my nanas and I’m so dead tired after the flight from hell, so I’m going to go to sleep now but I needed you to know that I love you”

“I love you too, stay safe, email me after your interview” She tearfully tells me before ending the call. I shoot off a quick text to my Dad, letting him know I arrived safely and am at Nana’s now. I’ll catch him up on how I ran into Shayla when I email him.

~~~

Nana came and woke me hours later, by now the sun had long set but the heat was still thick in the air. The whole house felt stuffy and humid because Nana didn’t believe in air-conditioning, just over head fans that did nothing but push the hot air around.

I could hear voices coming from downstairs and knew instantly that they belonged to my cousin, Elizabeth and her husband, Greg, there was the clanging of cutlery and the discussion of where everything should be placed on the table to make it flow easier.

I walk into the dinning room, wiping the sleep out of my eyes and almost trip over Brad, Elizabeths 7 year old son, playing with his Lego in the middle of the doorway, I step around him, careful not to land my bare feet on any pieces he has scattered around as I know that pain all too well.

“There he is, hey Sammy” Elizabeth calls out, her should length, brunette hair, bouncing as she sways up to me, holding two gravy boats in her hands. Elizabeth is 10 years older than I am but still doesn’t look a day over 20. She has the same shape eyes as my Mum had and the same button nose, a quality they both shared with Nana too, one that made my heart clench for a moment when I took in her appearance.

“Hey, how are you? I see Brad has grown at least two inches since I saw him last year” The lad was shaping up to be a fine midfielder at the rate he was growing.

“He has but you’ll be disappointed to learn that he doesn’t share your interest in football, for him life is all about building with those damn blocks and watching Pokemon” At the mention of Pokemon, Brad pulled some cards from his pocket and wandered over to show me, pictures of weird looking animals with odd names were fanned out before me, I fain interest for a minute as he raves on about specs of each card.

Greg came strolling into the room, carrying a tray of meat which he had carved up, he places it in the centre of the table and Elizabeth puts the two gravy boats she had been holding either side of the tray. Nana then put a bowl of roast potatoes and pumpkin at either end of the table, she had a strict ‘no green veggies with roast’ rule, one I’m sure Elizabeth scoffed at.

We take our seats and start filling our plates high, Nana always puts on a magnificent feast, enough to feed the whole neighbourhood. Brad had abandoned his lego in favour of dinner but the Pokemon cards had priority at the table, next to his plate.

“How’s your Dad doing Sam? Is he seeing anyone?” Elizabeth asked as she filled a small plate of food for Brad, the lad looking on, licking his lips when she put a potato on his plate. I wonder if she’d even allow a taste of the apple pie or would that be pushing it.

“He’s good, he’s been working at the hospital occasionally and he’s now working in a free clinic not far from where we live” I didn’t know how to answer the second part to her question, I didn’t really feel comfortable telling Nana that Dad had a new girlfriend, not when she was still grieving her daughter but Nana gave me a tight smile and a nod.

“I talk to your Dad often, Sammy, I know that he is seeing Celeste and I’m very happy for him, your Dad is a good man, any woman would be lucky to have him” Nana says, easing my troubled thoughts.

“Celeste is a gem, she makes the old man happy and she’s my girlfriend’s aunty”

“Oh he has a girlfriend?” Greg says, throwing a napkin at me, I bunch it up and throw it back at him, my aim better than his, hits him in the head, earning us both a look of disproval from Elizabeth. “I always thought you’d end up with that neighbour girl you couldn’t keep your eyes off.” Greg often made digs about the amount of time I had spent with Shayla, it was all in good fun though, we both knew that.

“Turns out the neighbour girl prefers the company of other women” I laugh, how foolish I had been not to pick up on that when I was younger, all the signs were there. “Veronica and I have been seeing each other since the start of the year, she’s pure perfection” There’s no other way to describe my girl.

“Well we can’t wait to meet her Sammy” Nana says to me, a glint in her eye.

“Long distance is tough” Greg quips, dipping a potato into a pool of gravy, he didn’t just pour gravy all over his plate like any normal person would do, no, Greg had to keep all foods separated and had a small area where he would pour the gravy and control how much touched his food, it was one of his many quirks. “I had a girlfriend in high school who wanted to do long distance when we went to uni, she got into a school across the country and I stayed here but it was hard to keep things fresh once we were apart and she ended things, not before admitting she shagged someone else though, in a letter”

“Gregory, stop it, you’re scaring the boy.” Elizabeth scolds her husband and she’s not wrong, he’s speaking my biggest fear right now, that Veronica will cheat with Lucas and I’ll be left looking like the fool. “Things are much different now, what with the internet, it’s like you’re not even separated at all and your girlfriend was a floozy, everyone warned you of it, she was sleeping around with every Tom, Dick and Hairy when we went to school together”

“Can we talk about something else?” At this point I’d be happy to discuss Brads bowel movements, anything but be reminded of the distance I’m putting Veronica and I by leaving and what could happen.

“You got into Cambridge I hear?” Elizabeth asks, stepping to a change of subject without hesitation, I sense that she too was over talking about Gregs past love interest.

“Yeah, I have the interview with the Dean of Students on Monday, just to touch base but I’ve already been accepted for their next semester, which starts in September.”

“That’s impressive Sammy, that’s a tough school to get into but you’ve always made good grades, your Mum would be so proud” Elizabeth says, at the mention of Mum the whole table falls in to a quiet somber, except for Brad, who takes the opportunity of silence to start singing some tune about ‘catching them all’ whatever that means.

“Whose ready for dessert?” Nana breaks the mood of the table

“Me!” Brad shouts loudly, the lad hasn’t even finished half of the food on his plate, he picked at the chicken and ate the potato but knowing what Nana was like when I was a kid she will look past that and say he deserves the treat anyway.

“Brad, no dessert for you honey, it’s way too much sugar this close to bed time and you haven’t even touched your chicken” The buzzkill that is Elizabeth tells her son, who then pouts like this is the worst thing that has ever happened to him.

“Nonsense Lizzie, let the boy have a treat, he deserves it” Right on cue Nana. Elizabeth can see she’s not going to win this battle against Nana and if she doesn’t cave in then she’s going to have to put up with Brads bratitude all the way home.

“Alright, but he’s only having a small slice with cream, not ice cream” Brad opens his mouth to negotiate on the ice cream but is stopped by Greg.

“I wouldn’t push it, Mummy just budged at lot” Brad’s mouth closes, realising he has the win here, even without ice cream.

Nana and Elizabeth retreat back into the kitchen, returning moments later with bowls of apple pie toped with ice cream and a dollop of cream. I love Nana’s apple pies, nobody makes a pie like her, it’s mouthwatering, cinnamony goodness that she makes from scratch, no packet pastry for Nana. Mum tried to replicate it many years ago but even she admitted that it didn’t taste the same.

“So good” I say between mouthfuls. “Remind me to get this recipe from you before I fly home, Veronica would this”

“She must really love you if she’s willing to eat anything that you cook her” Greg laughs. “Remember the scone incident of 94? I bet your old house still smells like burnt scones”

“And we still had to eat them because you insisted that the burnt parts were done on purpose to make them crunchy, even with jam and cream you could still taste the burnt taste and they were so hard, I think Aunty Maggie cracked a tooth” Elizabeth almost chokes on her own laughter.

“In my defence, I was 12 and I’ve gotten a loads better since then” I chuckle, family, they never let you forget your mistakes.

“We may need proof of that Sammy, while you’re here you can bake us something scrummy to redeem yourself” Elizabeth says.

“You’re on” Never one to back away from a challenge. “I’ll prove that I can now bake a better scone than Jamie Oliver”

Our dinner banter when on for hours, sharing stories of the past, some that made us laugh, others that brought on tears, especially when the mention of either Mum or Pop came up and as much as I was missing Veronica, I felt more at home here than I ever did in Australia.

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