Regret one: When Hannah came into work looking for her apron, and crying, I might have told her where it was. Instead, I let Tony think she was useless, and fire her.
Other people keep their mistakes locked away. Hidden between layers of cortex in the reptilian part of the brain, where they’re shut in, and won’t easily be able to slide out. I like mine where I can see them. Written on index cards, and kept in a rosewood box which I keep in the hall.
This, I think, is the best way to keep myself from making the same mistake twice.
Regret two: There was this man called Roger, and I thought I loved him. I met him one day at Tony’s Bar & Grill, where he turned up with his pushbike and backpack, and twinkled at me until I was helpless. He was there to meet friends, and that let me think he was normal.
We’d been together three months when his landlord served him notice. He didn’t have anywhere else to go, or so he said, so I let him move in with me. Only after two months of cigarette butts and empty beer bottles in the sink, did I realize that Roger was taking advantage. He was not a spiritual guy, or a deep thinker, or any of the other things he’d claimed to be. All he was, was a waste of space who wanted a cheap place to live.
It took me months to get the smell of cigarette smoke out of the cushions.
My system is cleaner than psychotherapy, and cheaper, too. I spot patterns in the cards, and that lets me change them. So you see:
Regret three: Working on the meat counter, at Sainsbury’s. They wanted somebody to cover Stella, and I said I’d do it. Wanting to look keen, I suppose. The section leader, James, made me sweep up all of the mystery bits that had fallen off, and I didn’t even know what some of them were. I’ve never been able to look at a hamburger the same way since.
Regret four: Waitressing at Tony’s Bar & Grill on Abingdon Road was great, until Hannah started. That was when it all turned nasty. She was a new girl, slim and pretty, and Minty and the others took against her. Minty had shown me how to do the job, but she wouldn’t do the same for Hannah. They used to put her orders to the back of the line in the kitchen, so her customers would complain, and the chef would think she was stupid.
That time with the apron, she was crying, and she asked me what she’d done to upset everybody so much, and I didn’t say anything. After that, I never wanted to be a waitress any more.
Drove me out of the service industry, and into Bleasedale’s Office Solutions.
This was a place where I wore a white blouse every day, and sat at a desk in front of the lift doors. It was a multi-client office block, where nobody went up without a pass, and if they wanted to see somebody upstairs, it had to be through me. I said: “Can I help you?” and, “Have you got an appointment?” and, “I’m sorry, he’s not in right now, can I take a message?”
It was so easy, and I loved it.
In the evenings, I went home to my dockside flat, with its solid doors, and the box in the hall, and my toy dog with a lot of pug in him. George would jump up onto the sofa beside me, and we’d curl up together to watch a film. The place was just right for the two of us, and I didn’t want to let anybody else in.
By the time I had been at Bleasedale’s a year, I had nearly caught up to myself. I found that it wasn’t really worth writing a card for the small things – letting milk go sour in the fridge, say. I once caught myself talking to George as though he were my husband, but by that time I had written nearly all of the big things down, and decided that one didn’t merit a card.
Men asked me out sometimes, and I always said no. Eight different companies worked upstairs at Bleasedale’s, and they all invited me to their Christmas do. I said yes to every one. For three weeks in early December, I was constantly either drunk or hungover. I could have written cards for some of the daft things I said or did when I was drunk, but since everybody else there had been drunk too, it hardly seemed to matter. In any case, it was fun.
Regret five: Not taking enough photographs.
Every morning people came into the building still trailing party streamers from their clothes and shoes. I gave the worst casualties tins of Red Bull from the stash under my desk. They were always grateful, and one or two started to linger by my desk.
Danny worked in the IT company upstairs. He was a sweet man, compact, with dark hair and tidy clothes, and he came down to bring me a packet of Rolos from their office selection box because, he said, none of the boys upstairs liked them. Before I knew it, I also had a new mouse mat, an ergonomic mouse, a 12Gb flash drive filled with music and films, and extra memory in my computer.
I didn’t know how I’d watch the films at home, but Danny said: “No problem, I’ll lend you a laptop with VLC Player on it.” He also said, “I couldn’t put Meet the Crackers on there, because it’s only just come out. But if you want to see it, we could go to the cinema together.”
“What?” I said, because I’d never even heard of Meet the Crackers.
“Don’t worry about it,” he answered, “It’s fine.” Then when he brought the laptop at five o’clock, he just dropped it on my desk, and ran out into the darkness without saying anything.
It was the end of the day, last one before the Christmas break, and I couldn’t run after him because Shirley was standing by my desk telling me all about some man she’d met in Vodka Revolution, a recent divorcee who’d kept on bringing her coconut Daiquiris and then drinking them himself. He wasn’t good for anything when she’d got him home, she said, just sleeping, and he’d passed out on her sofa with all of this pink dribble from the cocktails foaming out of his mouth. I had one arm in my coat sleeve and my epaulettes caught on the adjustor on the back of my seat, and couldn’t do a thing.
“So are you seeing him again?” I asked.
“Oh Katie,” she said, guffawing, “You’re so funny!”
Over Christmas, I went back to my parents’ house. It drove us all mad. In the mornings, I’d wake up to hear what I thought was the tail end of one of their arguments. Then in daylight, I’d go into the living room to find them sitting together on the sofa, as though they were having their picture taken. I knew for sure that I had made a huge mistake, but I was away from my cards and I couldn’t write it down: I couldn’t wait to get back to my little dockside flat, and back to my own things.
Instead, I spent the holidays eating Quality Street, watching films on a borrowed laptop, and feeling a little sad.
Regret six: That I didn’t say yes the first time.
The first days at work after the holidays were hard. Danny didn’t want to see me any more. He scurried past my desk like a cat with its eye on a tail of yarn.
Shirley didn’t notice; she kept on telling me about her exploits. “I told him,” she said. “I don’t believe this story about a ‘psycho ex’ for a second. The reason why you’ve got no picture on your dating profile is because you’re married.” She had, she said, also spent time chatting to a man who wanted her to go on a date with him to soft play, because he had his children for the weekend. “I ask you, are there any decent ones left?” she sighed. Then: “Are you even listening to me?”
I was, but I also had to abandon my desk. “Here, look after reception for a few minutes. I’m just going up to the third floor.”
Danny was engrossed in writing code. He had his headphones on and didn’t notice me at first, then seemed surprised to see me.
The rest of them seemed surprised, too. This was a new thing for all of them – me being upstairs. A man across the desk kept staring at me, as though he’d never seen a woman before.
“Can we still go?” I asked. I was embarrassed about asking him, in front of all those pairs of staring eyes. “To the cinema, I mean. Will you still go?” What had come over me, I don’t know. Maybe I was still a bit drunk from the night before.
He seemed flustered, and clicked around trying to close the window he’d been working in. Then he knocked over a cup of coffee, and then he apologised and tried to clean it out of the carpet, and then he showed me a funny cat video on YouTube, and then he said yes.
Then his phone rang, and it was Shirley. “Are you coming back down, or what?” she said. “Because I’ve got work to do too, you know.”
After Danny and I were married, we moved somewhere bigger. I left a lot of my old things behind. The chocolate fountain that somebody had bought me one birthday, and the set of scales that read our your weight as “Gorgeous!”
One thing that I didn’t leave behind was my old regret index. Danny saw it in the hallway of my flat and said, “You’re not leaving that behind, are you? It’s a lovely cabinet.”
It would have taken too long to explain what it was, so I just said, “Yes, I’ll bring it,” and told him that I had lost the key.
I put it in the spare room in our new house where, it later turned out, was where we kept all of our mess. Trousers: the cabinet became a sort of hanger. The spare room was also where we kept the ironing board, the foot spa, and everything else that we couldn’t think what to do with.
My husband said, “We really should do something about that box.” He meant that we should get a locksmith out, to make us a new key.
I said, “Of course,” and told him that I would look for one on Yell.com.
But the truth was, it didn’t seem at all important to me, to be able to get back inside to look at the cards. When I thought about them, they seemed to be very old. I thought they could have been written by an old explorer – somebody who had set out across the sea, not knowing where they were going, and who’d had to write everything down to keep track of where they were.
That person wasn’t somebody I knew. It wasn’t me: I was a girl who lived in a stone cottage, with a shiny new kitchen, and a clawfoot bath. I had a handsome husband, a dog, and a mortgage. I was the sort of person who tried new recipes, and did crosswords.
In the end, I threw them all away.
SJ Bradley is a writer from Leeds, UK, whose short fiction has been published widely in the US & UK, including in Litro magazine and December mag. She is the director of the Northern Short Story Festival and her second novel, Guest, will be published in June 2017 by Dead Ink Books. She can be found online at www.sjbradleybooks.blogspot.com and @bradleybooks on twitter.