“I knew you were sex,” Jimmy says. “Sex in a dress.”
“Talk romantic to me,” Natalie says, and her voice has that venom in it that shoots right down Jimmy's spine. She rolls onto her side, away from him, and sighs like she's going to sleep.
Jimmy stares up at the ceiling. After a moment he says, “I wasn't tryin' to get romantic.”
“Jesus,” Natalie says into the pillow. “I could fuckin' see that.”
“You wanna go somewhere?” Jimmy shoves his hands in his pockets, with some difficulty. His jeans are too tight for casual stances.
“Go where?” Natalie asks. “You haven't got any bleedin' money.”
“I could do you a pint,” Jimmy says, not offended in the slightest.
She looks rather touched, and he wishes he'd asked her sooner. She's always had a soft spot for him, and he's starting to feel bad about never taking her somewhere proper. On a date or something. He doesn't know why it's taken him so long to give in to it. To admit that maybe he likes her a little more than is sensible.
“You don't have to take me places, Jimmy,” she says.
He knows that. He's not sure why he's offered. She's making him feel a bit of a fool.
She's just a ride.
“But all right,” she says. She combs her fingers through her hair, doing a much better job of casual than Jimmy ever could. “Where d'you wanna go?”
He takes her to the pub down the road. She don't seem that impressed, but Jimmy figures it's the thought that counts. Besides, she spelled it out first: He doesn't have any bleedin' money.
Her place is small and almost as poxy as Jimmy's place, but here there aren't any brothers or sisters runnin' around. And it's not like Bernie's place, with a million kids screamin' for their dinner. Not that he's ever spent any time in Bernie's bedroom.
The wallpaper in Natalie's place is so faded he can't tell if there's meant to be a pattern on it, and the carpets don't go all the way to the wall. But the bed is always made and everything is clean. There's a faint smell of wood polish and lavender somewhere. It's not unpleasant.
“Make yourself at home,” she says, the first time she takes him there. “There's beer in the fridge.”
She goes to the shower and he's not sure if he's meant to follow or not.
He takes a beer and drinks half of it in one go before he follows her into the tiny bathroom. Tiles are missing and the pipes squeal when hot water runs through them.
She keeps turned away from him, but he watches the water run over her skin, and he soaps her back.
Natalie's got a great back.
There are busted springs in her mattress that poke into Jimmy's spine unless he presses himself right up alongside her.
“Never took you for a cuddler,” she says. Her breath is still heavy. Her back moves deeply with each gasp into her lungs.
“I'm not,” Jimmy says. “It's your fuckin' mattress. It's killin' me.”
She gives a throaty chuckle and his stomach tightens.
“Jesus,” he says, “you've got a deadly voice, Natalie.”
“You what?” she asks. “Where'd that come from? I never said anythin'.” She pauses for a minute. “Did I? What did I say?”
He smirks at the sudden nervousness in her voice. “Nothin' I haven't heard before.”
She slides back into sarcasm and venom. “Jesus.”
He reaches across her and cups a breast in his hand, because he can, and because she's sweet on him. “You could go far, you know.”
“Ah,” she says in disgust. “It's over, Jimmy. The band's done.”
“Not the band. Fuck the band.” He doesn't mean to let so much bitterness taint his voice. He curls into the pillows and frowns deeply, trying to calm down a bit. “I meant you. I mean, we could give it a go. I'd be your manager.”
Natalie moves over on the narrow bed, pulling herself out of his grasp. “Don't think so,” she says, in a tone that says to Jimmy there's no 'think' about it. “Stardom's not for the likes of us, Jimmy.”
“Bollocks,” he mutters. “Why the fuck not?”
She doesn't answer.
He doesn't offer to take her anywhere else. He just shows up at her place from time to time. She asks after him and she asks him things that make him a little uncomfortable – his opinion on what she's wearing, or how to do her hair.
He doesn't fuckin' know.
He tells her sometimes: “How the fuck should I know?”
She always flies straight back at him, pointed and hard. “I was only fuckin' askin'!”
She doesn't take his shit, but she's not like the others, either. She doesn't let it eat away at her, she doesn't thrive on aggression or fight to get in front.
He sits beside her on the bed one night and says, “If everyone in the band had been like you, we would've made it.”
“Leave it go,” she says. “It's over.”
He can't. They were this close and he's still fucked off about it.
He's getting better at sex.
There have never been any complaints but he's definitely getting better at it. Natalie buries herself in his mind and somehow it all works out in favour of a good ride.
“You're not my manager anymore,” she tells him one morning.
He's perched at the top of the stairs outside her door, ready to disappear out into the grey sunlight. A cigarette is already hanging from his lip, unlit. “What?” he asks.
“You don't have to fight so hard,” she says, and there's less aggression in her voice than there is desperation.
Jimmy's heart sinks. He hates it when she somehow points out she likes him more than he likes her.
Because it's not exactly true.
“I know I’m not your manager,” he says feebly. “I haven't mentioned the band in weeks.”
“That's not what I meant,” she snaps. The door slams and Jimmy's left in the stairwell, alone.
“Jesus,” he mutters. He stands there for a minute, wondering if he should knock on the door and apologise.
He stomps down the stairs as loudly as he can, cursing every moment he's ever tried to forge something more than just a quick fuck.
It's not sex that complicates everything. It's the stuff that comes with sex – the expectations and the emotions and all the other bullshit women get into their heads.
Jimmy sometimes thinks he liked Natalie a lot more before they started sleeping together; before she started getting so sharp with him.
“You were a lot nicer to me when I was your manager,” he says one afternoon, before he's even said hello.
“That's because I thought you were makin' me famous,” she says, not missing a beat. “What d'you want?”
“What d'you think?” he asks, shrugging out of his jacket.
She glares at him. “Y'know why I was nicer to you when you were my manager?” she asks, folding her arms across her chest. “It's because you were nicer, too, Jimmy Rabbitte. Jesus fuck. Sometimes I think you only come 'round here because you want to talk about the fuckin' band. D'you even think about me?”
“Of course I fuckin' do!” he says, confused and angry.
“I mean without thinkin' of the others!” she says. “D'you think of me, or d'you think of The Commitments?”
You, Natalie, for fuck's sake.
He says, “Fuck this.” He pulls his jacket back on and and heads for the stairwell again.
“I never asked you for much!” she shouts at his back. “And I still don't!”
He turns and looks at her. She looks fuckin' furious.
“Don't come back,” she spits at him. “You're just like the others. Only lookin' out for yourself and what you want. Fuck you.”
“Fuck you too,” he says, but her words sting him, and when he shrugs into bed later, alone, he can't stop hearing her door slamming shut.
He dreams about her wearing black dresses, with smoky mascara and eyeliner and her hair all down around her bare shoulders.
He wakes up with a rapid heartbeat and sweat on his skin.
“Fuck,” he says, bitterly annoyed.
He waits outside the factory with a cheap bunch of daisies in his hand. It's the best he can afford but it feels poxy. He tries to smooth his hair down but the wind is fuckin' it all up and there's a bunch of kids on the corner, gathered around a drum with a smoky fire in it. He thinks they're laughing at him and it's not helping his resolve.
He's close to walking off, but the cheap flowers cost him too much to just toss into the gutter, and Natalie's shift will be finished soon.
Gulls wheel about overhead, ugly noisy things, and the stink of the harbour is in each sharp slice of the wind.
Natalie's alone in the hundreds of people that pour out of the factory, her head down. She looks pale and pretty.
Jimmy fights against the tide of people moving out of the gate until he's in front of her.
“Sorry,” he says, holding the flowers out to her.
There's a wolf-whistle from somewhere to the side.
“Fuck off!” Natalie snaps in the same direction. She takes Jimmy's arm and walks with him through the gate.
“So I’m forgiven then?” Jimmy says.
“I dunno.” She kicks her boots a little, like she's looking for pebbles to send across the street. “I'm sick of fighting, Jimmy.”
“It's passion,” he says.
“It doesn't feel very passionate,” Natalie says dully.
“You've just walked away from guttin' fish,” Jimmy reasons. “Go on and shower, and I'll take you somewhere nice.”
“For a pint?”
“Nah, go on. Dinner.”
She perks up a bit. “Dinner? Where'd you get the money?”
“I sold me soul.” He winks at her and she laughs.
A weight lifts itself off of Jimmy's shoulders. Life's easier when he's in Natalie's good books.
She wears a black dress, one she used to wear when she sang in the band. Jimmy almost wishes she hadn't, but she looks fuckin' fantastic, so it's easy to forgive her.
The restaurant is one of those little places tucked away in a corner somewhere, all dim lighting and ridiculous Italian on the menu cards.
Jimmy doesn't swear aloud at the prices, but he comes close.
Natalie chooses something cheap and he knows it's because she knows he doesn't really have any money.
But he's making an effort. He's finally coming to realise that's all she really wants.
“You taste like spaghetti sauce.”
Jimmy grins in the dark, his arms around Natalie's waist. “Three days' wages on sauce that probably came out of a tin.”
She gives him the throaty chuckle that tightens his skin all over, and he buries his face against her neck. There's rain against the window, and Wilson Pickett is singing from a crackly record in the corner of the room.
Jimmy finds he can listen to him again now and not have that horrible bile taste in the back of his mouth.
He unzips the back of Natalie's dress, but it's too tight to fall away much. He slides his hand in against the small of her back.
“Did you miss me?” Natalie asks in a quavery voice.
“Of course I did,” Jimmy says. “And look how much it cost me, for fuck's sake.”
She curls her fingers over his shoulders. “You didn't have to buy me flowers. Or dinner.”
“That's not what you said earlier,” he mutters against her ear. He grins and slides his hand further inside her dress, kicking his shoes off.
“Sometimes I just want you to walk me home,” she says softly.
He doesn't know what she means for a moment, until he remembers a night of shouting and soft rain, and Natalie standing on the side of the road asking him to split a taxi.
And he'd said no because he was her fuckin' manager and it would only have led to trouble... Didn't sex always lead to trouble?
“Look, Natalie...” He pulls away from her and he doesn't know what the fuck to say.
She sits on the side of the bed, her dress undone and her hair around her shoulders. She looks fuckin' beautiful.
He sits beside her. Sometimes he wishes he could just say what he was thinking. His gut tightens at the thought of it.
“You don't play games,” he says eventually. “I mean, I don't think you do. Unless this last time was a game, y'know, to get me to take you to dinner...” He tries to laugh, but he can tell by the stony silence beside him he's said the wrong thing.
“Listen, Natalie...” He puts a hand out on her thigh. She doesn't freeze under his touch, which gives him a bit of confidence. “I've been a wanker.”
She makes the tiniest noise in the back of her throat. It sounds like agreement.
“It wasn't just the band, you know? It was...” He frowns down at the floor. Fuckin' Wilson Pickett is still singing away in the corner.
“You're the only one that still speaks to me,” Natalie says softly.
Jimmy lifts his head in surprise. “Bollocks.”
“Don't bollocks me,” she says, ice in her voice. “And you might know where we're all goin' next, Jimmy, but Outspan and Derek are the only ones who'll nod their heads at you.” She pulls her arms out of her dress and lifts herself off the bed just long enough to kick it to the floor. “Are you stayin' or what?”
“Yeah,” he says. “If you want.”
She fidgets beside him. “Yeah,” she says eventually. “If you want.”
“Of course I fuckin' want to,” he says. He barrels on before she can ice up again. “I fuckin' missed you, Natalie.”
Her voice is husky and warm when she speaks to him again. “Oh you did?”
“Been dreamin' of you singin', and in that fuckin' dress,” he mutters. “Can't argue with dreams like that.”
She laughs and rolls back onto her bed; back onto that lumpy fuckin' mattress. “Jesus, Jimmy,” she says fondly. “Figures we had to give up stardom to end up like this, eh?”
He grins. “Yeah,” he says. “Guess it hasn't worked out so poxy after all.”
The song changes. In the Midnight Hour.
Jimmy tangles his fingers in Natalie's hair and kisses her.