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Excuse the Jess is a fictional story told over each season.
Written & Performed by: Jacquie J Sarah
Produced by: Deliciously Bright Productions
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Hello and welcome to episode 15 of season three of Excuse the Jess. Cardiff is the capital city of Wales, which is in the UK. It’s frequently voted one of the friendliest cities in the country, and there is plenty to see and do there. That concludes my ad for the Cardiff Tourist Board. Shall we start the ep?
The sentence read.
I am coming back to Cardiff for a week, and I would like to see you.
I froze. Panic set in. Niles sat next to me noticed immediately and asked what was wrong. I showed him the email. The email from my mother. Who I haven’t seen for nearly thirty years.
‘Jess, you are not in Cardiff. As far as she knows, you live in England. You don’t have to see her.’ Which is all well and good, but I knew I did.
I think it was the fact that I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. She was old, which meant I was getting old. I can’t explain how easy it’s been not to have her in my life all these years, but at the same time, it’s been hard. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. It’s been easy because I didn’t have to deal with her. The odd letters and then emails that said absolutely nothing about what was going on in our lives meant I could get on with things. She wasn’t bothering me; I didn’t have to put up with her and her husband. No deeply uncomfortable Sunday dinners or Christmases’. The best thing she ever did for me was to walk away from me, and I still believe that is true. When I was old enough to move out of the house, she moved herself and her husband to Australia. The furthest point she could have been away from me. At the same time, though, it deeply upset me that she was unkind to me before that and then left because what was wrong with me? I spoke at this at length to Esther the therapist I saw when I stopped eating, and admitted that, of course, it upsets me what she did. I had never admitted that to anyone before. It was always; it was the best thing she ever did for me. It was, but that was only half the story.
The plan was that we would go to Cardiff first and clear my house. I had asked the estate agents about the position of my buyers, and they were first-timers. We worked out between us that they could purchase the bulk of the furniture and white goods within the house as part of the purchase. I was practically giving it away, but I didn’t have any need for a washing machine or settee. The plan at that time was to stay in Reading to work out what to do next. I would have only ended up paying for storage. The couple were grateful too. Most of the stuff then was either being given away, chucked, or staying with me. Two weeks after that email, Niles and I were back in Cardiff, via Reading to collect my car, with the goal of clearing my house. We rented a two-bedroom flat because I did not want to stay in that house for a single night. The subject of Simon was completely off-limits, and in those first couple of days, we were so busy arranging everything that there was no time to think about the plans I had made to see Izzy, Ems, and my mother. Everything personal to me I was taking was all boxed up and ready to take to Reading. My home was gone. I was completely ruthless in what I threw out. It almost felt like it was another person’s house and stuff. That could have been because I felt I had moved on or I was completely disassociating. I would deal with that later.
When all that was left was the boxes to collect for Reading, we went back to the rented Cardiff apartment, showered, and lay on the bed because we were both completely exhausted. Niles had been brilliant throughout, even when I was finding it stressful.
‘Do you know what I really want Jess? He asked
And because he’d been brilliant, I would have given him just about anything at that moment. Even if I didn’t have the energy to lift my little finger.
‘Champagne and chips’, he announced.
‘You want champagne and crisps?’
‘No, I want champagne and fries. Not fries, you know the fat ones you Brits like. Potatoes in grease and let’s have the fish too wrapped in crap. Proper British fish and chips. My stomach won’t rest tonight but fuck it. It’ll be worth it.’
It sounded perfect.
The following day we hung around the apartment for a bit and then wandered around Cardiff for a bit more sightseeing. I think Niles was more interested in finding a nice place to eat and drink for lunch which suggests our previous sightseeing tour was more about spending time with me. My critical brain was still having problems dealing with that. Then he headed back to the apartment, and I had to meet Izzy.
Izzy was my path of least distress, so I thought I would see her first. Coward that I am. We were meeting in a cafe bar so it could be for coffee or cocktails. My favourite of all the c’s, well if you include chocolate and crisps too. I picked a decaf coffee initially because I was gutless, and I really wanted a cocktail and laugh with Izzy and pretend the last couple of years hadn’t happened. They had though, and here we were.
She smiled wearily at me when she arrived, and I returned with a real smile. I didn’t stand to greet her for a hug, so she sat down opposite me.
‘You look well, Jess’. Did she mean fat? I thought. She couldn’t. I wasn’t any bigger than when I left but was it coded or was it and who gives a flying fuck anyway.
‘Thank you, so do you.’ I said in reply.
‘I mean it Jess’, she said. ‘England has obviously been very good for you.’ Izzy, I will point out here she is English so there was no slight there.
‘Thank you’, I repeated because it was the polite thing to do.
‘Do you mind if I get a drink?’ Izzy asked. ‘Let me buy you a wine.’ I considered it for a moment, and as the coffee was feeling lifeless without the caffeine, I said yes.
It was one of those places where you made the order through a QR code on the table, so Izzy didn’t have to move. She pressed the screen on her phone a few times and swiped. The job was done, so it meant we had to talk. We both went to speak together and then stopped, then again it happened, and she interrupted.
‘Please let me speak first?’
I nodded. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say anyway.
‘I’m so sorry. I know I put it in the email, but I need you to know how sorry I am. I didn’t realise. It wasn’t until you put it all together for me that it finally sunk in how I’d been treating you. I didn’t know how sick you were. I should have known. I should have been in touch, but I thought she’s jabbed now and it’s Jess. She’s strong. She can cope with anything. Which is rubbish of course. When you lost your job, I watched you suffer, and I still didn’t get it. I still was thoughtless. I still let Ems do that to you. I am a very bad friend.’
By this point, tears were forming in Izzy’s eyes, and I believed her. It was at that point that a young lad came over with our wine. If he clocked Izzy’s tears, he didn’t acknowledge it and went on his way. It had got very serious very quickly, but I always assumed it would.
Izzy took a large gulp of wine, ‘where was I? Yes, I am a rubbish friend.’
I waited because I didn’t know if she’d finished, but instead she stared at me as if to say, say something.
‘Sorry, I was waiting for you to say that I wasn’t perfect either.’
Izzy shook her head. ‘No, you’re not perfect. Nobody is. But as friends go. You’re as near as you can be.’
‘Thank you’, I said. That was the third time I had said it. I’d have to say something but what?
Izzy took another big gulp of wine. I realised I hadn’t even started mine. I would need to do something about that so picked up my glass and put it to my lips.
Izzy had stopped crying. She had got a tissue out of her bag and was dabbing it beneath her eyes.
‘Do I look okay?’ She asked.
‘You always look okay’, I told her. Which wasn’t a compliment, just a statement of fact.
Izzy smiled. ‘That’s what I mean. Always with kindness.’
I returned the smile, but we lost eye contact, and I am not sure either of us knew what to say. I was desperate to put her out of her misery. Tell her everything would be okay. Of course, we could go back to the ways things were, but that wasn’t possible anymore. Covid changed us, and me moving away had changed me.
‘I know what you said’, Izzy started. ‘But is there any way this could be day zero? A relationship separate from everyone else.’
She was talking about Ems. Izzy was obviously blaming Ems a little bit for what had happened, and to a certain extent, she was right. That was the breaking point.
‘How do you see that working?’ I asked with genuine wonder.
‘When you come back, we can go out together. Like this, or the hairdressers or beauticians. At least you don’t need Botox yet.’ She grinned, and I did laugh. I probably did.
‘The flaw in that though’, I began. ‘Is that I am not planning on coming back.’
Her face dropped. She had obviously built herself up to this. Obviously, thinking when Jess is back, things will change. Izzy was doing something I never thought she would do, she was fighting for our friendship, and it took me a little by surprise.
‘I knew we’d lose you. As soon as you left Cardiff, I said to Ems that this was it. Jess would leave it all behind.’
‘That wasn’t the plan then.’
Izzy started to nod her head vigorously. ‘I know, I know, it wasn’t. I just knew when you saw a different life, you would leave this and us behind.’
‘It was having Simon in the house that made me sell it. You must understand that.’
Izzy bowed her head. ‘I know. I’ve been naïve to what Simon did too. I am sorry.’
I nodded. I got she was sorry. I didn’t want to be on an infinite loop, so I moved the conversation on.
‘I am moving to New York to live with Niles.’
She lifted her head up, and she had the biggest broadest smile on her face.
‘Are you happy Jess?’
And I think that was the first time in a long time, if ever, someone had asked me that question, and I was taken aback. Was I happy? The last few weeks had been utterly miserable, but was I happy now? The answer was not straightforward. Not with having to see Mum and Ems in the next couple of days.
‘I think I will be.’
‘Good’, she smiled. ‘That’s all I want for you.’
And for the first time in a long time, I could see a way forward with our friendship.
We started to talk properly again. About the last few months. About the changes in our lives. She admitted that she was thinking of emigrating with Jason James to Canada. Ems didn’t know, well she didn’t when she told me, and she was saying how tough the decision was to make. This country wasn’t the same one that Jason James moved to. After two glasses of wine, I realised we were at day zero. We barely talked about Ems, not because of anything to do with her. It was just that we were always a threesome. Behave! No, we needed to re-establish a relationship between just us two. It would never be a three again like it had been. She received a phone call and asked if she could invite Jason James because he would really like to see me.
‘If Niles can come?’ I said without thinking.
Her eyes widened. ‘He’s in Cardiff now?’
‘Of course, he’s with me.’ Even as I said it, I couldn’t quite believe it.
I phoned Niles immediately, told him where I was, and asked him to come. He was obviously bored because he jumped at the chance.
‘Right, I am getting a bottle in now because Niles is not paying for tonight’, I said about to scan the QR code.
Izzy moved my hand out of the way. ‘What kind of apologies drinks would this be if you paid.’
She didn’t even buy a cheap bottle. It was champagne. I bet they had to dig into the cellars for it. Then the young lad came back over with a bottle cooling in ice and four glasses. When he left, I looked to Izzy, ‘I want to move on.’
She gave me the biggest, dazzling smile. We would take it one day at a time.
I happened to look up as Niles walked into the bar and my stomach flipped. He was still doing that to me all these months later. I waved to get his attention, and he came over. He smiled warmly at Izzy and then slid next to me in our booth.
Izzy excused herself to go to the toilet so I took the opportunity to kiss Niles.
‘You look hot’, I told him and slid my hand up his thigh.
‘Don’t you dare’, he whispered as he moved my hand away.
‘Spoilsport’, I said.
Jason James was suddenly standing over us.
‘Hey’, Niles said and held his hand out to shake Jason James’s.
‘Good to see you buddy’, Jason James said, and I realised I had lost Niles already.
‘And you Jess. You look great.’
‘You too,’ I returned.
Jason James slid opposite us in the booth. Niles then very deliberately put his arm across the booth beneath my head so he could sit as close as possible to me.
‘You got champagne?’ Jason James asked.
‘That’s your missus’, I replied.
‘Then what are we waiting for?’
As I sat waiting for Ems the next morning, I knew this wasn’t going to be as easy. There was a sense of renewal with Izzy. There was a point we could move past. The evening had been pleasant. Lots of chatting and drinking. Jason James, I found out, had admonished Izzy when he found out about Simon living at the house and had not spoken to Simon since he heard what he did to me. We left it that we would keep in touch. It was also not going to be the last time I saw Izzy on this visit. I don’t know what Ems would do to change my mind, though. She sheepishly turned up about ten minutes late. I said I didn’t mind. I was hoping she had forgotten. Ems ordered a coffee and then sat opposite me. This time I opted for a little coffee shop in the city centre. One of the quieter ones in the arcades. There was what looked like a business meeting at a table of four, and in another space, there were two women with young children. It was too quiet in some ways, but it was only 10.30am. I remember hearing the song Crazy by Gnarls Barkley playing as Ems sat and I thought, yes, yes I am. We said hello, and Ems sat down. It was awkward. Really fucking awkward.
There was silence, and then Ems suddenly said, ‘I think you should know first that I am sorry.’
Was that an apology?
I nodded. I can’t really say thank you for that.
‘You’re going to make me work for it. I see. I probably deserve that.’
Okay, Ems was the victim again. Unless something changed in the next couple of minutes, I was going to leave. She continued.
‘I’m sorry. I really am. It was selfish what I did with Simon. I just wanted to move back home, and Samuel hated it at yours, so I did what I thought was most practical at the time.’
‘You put your needs first’, I completed her thought.
She nodded. ‘I just thought when you heard what Simon had to say, you would forgive him, and then all of it wouldn’t have been an issue.’
‘What makes you think I would ever forgive Simon?’
Ems looked at me. Just stared at me. It made me feel deeply uncomfortable.
‘Because you’re you.’, she said simply, and that was supposed to justify it. I don’t know how many responses went through my head at that moment, but I didn’t get to use any of them as Ems continued to speak.
‘You’ve got that empathy thing. I mean, I have empathy; I just mean you have it in spades.’
I took that to mean I was over-sensitive. ‘Oh wow how you compliment me’.
Ems made a deep sigh. ‘It was a compliment. You have the ability to see things others can’t.’
I still wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or rather a massive pain in my arse.
‘I don’t get it, Ems. What were my words when I left? Simon wasn’t to be in my house. You agreed to it. Said you understood it. It took you three months to renege on that.’
Ems started to bite her bottom lip. ‘You don’t understand how hard it was. I didn’t want to move back in with Simon but I wanted to be home.’
‘So ring me, tell me that. Ask for a refund for the upfront rent money so he can find somewhere else to live. Don’t pretend that was the only solution.’
‘It was the best solution’, Ems argued and I could see this would be her line. She was sorry she hurt me ,but it was best for her.
‘For you. For me, it’s selling my home.’
‘I spoke to Izzy. You’re moving to New York with Niles so you were selling it anyway.’
‘No’, I snapped. It surprised Ems, also the old couple on a table adjacent to us, so I toned it down.
‘I wasn’t selling it then. I took that decision on my own. Niles and I hadn’t even discussed moving yet. We even split up in that time, so this has nothing to do with Niles and everything to do with Simon.’
Ems threw her head back as if to stretch and closed her eyes. I couldn’t read her at that moment. Had no idea what she would come out with next. She moved back into an upright position and then looked at me earnestly.
‘What would you have done if Simon was Niles and I was you?’
It was a tough one because I knew what she was getting at. I wanted to tell her that Niles would never do that. However, I thought Simon would never have done that, but here we were.
‘I know that I would never try to force you to talk to him or move him into your house. What would I do about my personal relationship with him? I don’t know.’
But I think I did. I think if he tried to hit me or tried to intimidate my friends, I would cut him loose because he wouldn’t be the man I thought he was. I am just as happy single as not. Ems had to be with someone. She hated her own company. Which is probably why she hated being alone in my house. I began to feel sorry for her.
This fucking empathy thing. What was wrong with me?
‘You would consider a friendship with me, even if Simon and I got back together?’ There was a spark of hope in her eyes, and, like Izzy, I never considered that she wanted our friendship to continue.
‘This is not about Simon; this is about us and what you have done.’
I crushed her again, but I felt like I had to. There was no one else to blame here. Ems had to take responsibility or not. Then from nowhere she suddenly said.
‘I am truly sorry for the hurt I caused you, Jess. I have been utterly selfish at times and have done so because I thought you would always be there for me. I understand completely why you’ve reached the end of your tether and why you would wish to walk away. I would very much like it if you didn’t though, because you are one of the best people I know and I would like to make it up to you.’
I was stunned. Okay, it sounded a little rehearsed, but the fact that she had rehearsed it meant a lot anyway.
When I didn’t speak immediately, she continued.
‘I mean that. But…’ she paused. But’s are usually never good in sentences. I’d love to give you a £1,000 but I’d love to give you my Taylor Swift concert ticket but. You get it. Unless you’re Welsh and there’s a chance that butt just means friend or buddy so if a Welsh person says to you, I’d love to give you a £1,000 butt. You just might get it. I am wildly diverging off-topic here because I still can’t believe what Ems said next.
‘But there is something else you should know. I’ve been speaking to your mother online.’
My mother and Ems have never met. My mother was already living in Australia when I met Ems so this came as a huge shock.
‘Since she knew she was coming over?’
Ems shook her head. There was so much more to this.
‘How long then?’ I asked, and I could see Ems didn’t want to tell me, but she had to. I needed to know.
‘How long for Ems?’
‘About ten years.’
When I got back to the apartment, Niles was cooking in the kitchen area. He had his back to me so didn’t see my face. He was happy. Of course, Niles was happy. He’d had a pretty good life. A certain degree of luck too. Was I going to bring him down? He hadn’t looked at me as yet, but he went into the fridge to grab a bottle of wine to pour me a glass. When he finally looked at me, I guessed he saw straight through me because he handed me the glass of wine, told me to sit down ordered me to tell him everything. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy. Instead, I took a sip of wine and asked him to hug me. He leant back on the settee and put his arm up so I could snug into his chest. When I did so, I closed my eyes and decided this was it. I was never leaving this hug, this apartment, this city because I didn’t want anything anymore. I would just stay here.
That was the moment the buzzer on the intercom rang.
Niles went to move and I pulled him back.
‘It’s a mistake. No-one will be visiting here.’
‘You don’t know that.’
Niles kissed my forehead and released me from his arms. I was beginning to dislike Niles too. He leapt up and pressed the intercom without asking who it was.
‘Who is it?’
‘Did you see me ask?’
‘So we’re just inviting strangers in now, good to know.’
Niles disappeared from sight, presumably to let whomever it was in. I was not in the mood and was about to lose my temper.
I stood up ready to disappear into the bedroom for a bit. He came back all proud of himself.
‘I’ve got a taker for the second bedroom.’
‘What are you talking about?’
The door burst open and I heard,
And it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. But there she was, the beautiful lady Amy.
‘What the?’ I said because my eyes couldn’t believe what they were actually seeing. There was Amy, in fricking Cardiff.
It didn’t stop me from running over and giving her a hug.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Visit to the UK to see friends. Thought I’d visit the one in Cardiff first.’
‘You know someone in Cardiff?’ I asked. She didn’t directly answer.
‘I couldn’t let you see your mother without me being here. I mean how useless will this prick be?’ She said it looking at Niles who was just grinning.
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I asked looking at both of them.
‘That would negate the surprise element.’ Niles responded, completely deadpan.
I had gone from miserable to giddy in less than a minute and I preferred being giddy.
‘This is so amazing’
‘Do I get a hug?’ Niles asked me.
‘No’, I said and hugged Amy again.
‘Seriously, who is your friend?’ I asked.
Amy looked at her brother. ‘She doesn’t get it.’
Niles responded. ‘No, but try again.’
‘I am here for you Jess.’ Amy said looking me straight in the eye.
And I started to cry.
I had the best day with Niles and Amy. We did a bit of sightseeing. We didn’t get down the bay and Niles thought it was fun to wind up Amy with that. Then we went back to the apartment to drink more wine and eat the delicious food that Niles cooked. All in the knowledge that that sickly feeling at the bottom of my stomach was all about seeing a woman I hadn’t seen for thirty years who just happened to have given birth to me.
Niles and I had booked a small café from around 4pm the following day. I hadn’t told mum that place was ours. I hadn’t told her that Niles, Amy, Izzy, Ems, or Jason James would be there too. Ems told me she hadn’t told my mother she would be there. The story about how Ems and my mother came to be in touch was my mother had DM’d Ems on Facebook when she saw a picture of Ems and me on a night out. She was looking for me and, at that time, I had a Facebook account. Instead of contacting me though, she had contacted Ems and asked about me. Gave a sob story to Ems that I wouldn’t forgive her for emigrating but wanted to be Facebook friends. Instead of telling me though, Ems had given my mother regular updates instead, just to put her mind at rest. I don’t know which one of them was more manipulative. Of course, when Ems told me, and I asked the completely reasonable question of why she hadn’t told me. She advised that she felt sorry for my mother who just wanted to make sure I was okay. I couldn’t work out if Ems was naïve or just completely stupid. There was no excuse though. I left Ems a minute after she confessed, told her that it was too much to take in after everything. Ems had let me go but told me she would be here today, even after I told her not to bother. I had finally told Niles and Amy the evening before what had happened. Niles asked me what I needed and I said I needed both of their honest opinion. They looked at each other, Niles said that he didn’t believe that Ems was a supportive friend. I nodded and then looked to Amy.
‘Oh I fucking hate her.’ Amy said, which made me laugh.
When we got there, the café owner who was lovely, had just cleared up and put a notice on the door that it was a private event. Izzy and Jason James came soon afterwards and agreed to hang around outside until they saw my mother and Sean. They would have to go by pictures, which was what I would have done anyway. Ems turned up not long afterwards with Samuel. Using her child to try and win my favour. Samuel ran up to me and gave me a hug. Ems went to the counter to get them both a drink and I told the café owner to add them to my bill. Ems thanked me, kind of nodded in the distance at Niles and then sat with Samuel at a table away from me. Samuel was not impressed with that. The owner brought over drinks for Niles, Amy, and me. I couldn’t look at my dull decaffeinated coffee. Mainly because I felt sick, but also because I would have killed for a proper coffee. Why the hell was I putting myself through this? My mother only wants something. Money was my guess. I had never had money before but suddenly she finds out about Niles, or the job in Reading, or whatever information Ems and given her and suddenly she’s on a plane. It’s no coincidence. It was fine, I wasn’t doing it.
I stood up, slamming my chair backwards. Everyone, even Izzy outside, looked at me alarmed.
‘Let’s go’, I announced and started to move.
Niles leapt up and blocked me.
‘Everyone here loves you Jess. You’ve got this.’
But it didn’t matter if I did or didn’t. Izzy came running in, removing the sign from the door and giving it to the café owner. I could see an old couple getting out of a taxi, my mother was here. Of course, Sean was here too. She couldn’t do anything without her husband. Niles nodded to me, and he and Amy moved to a table but both facing me. Izzy and Jason James swiftly went to the table where their drinks sat, and they faced me.
This was it. The café door slowly opened. I was about to see my mother again for the first time in 30 years, and I was terrified.