The most romantic thing that ever happened to me. 14-02-10

It had been a wonderful holiday. I had always longed to visit Egypt and it had been everything that I had hoped. I had wandered round bazaars in Cairo, seen Tutankhamun’s treasure, crawled into  pyramids carrying an oil lamp, walked in the valley of the kings and cruised down the nile to marvel at temples and wonder at a strange horizontal landscape made from straight lines. Barren desert gave way to the most fertile land I had ever seen with nothing in between. Perfect. I was on my own but it was so exciting that I had needed little company and when I did want to talk I had found a small group of middle aged ladies who were happy to chat to me. I suppose they may have thought it strange that a young woman in her early twenties had come on holiday alone but it hadn’t bothered me.

The final night of the tour was a gala dinner at the Mena House Oberoi, a venerable palace hotel in the shadow of the pyramids which has played host to kings and emperors. A stunning venue full of romance and history. Somebody who should have known better had placed me on a table with three couples, all young, wrapped up in each other and eager to share their memories of their past few weeks of holiday. Jewellery bought in the bazaars as a special gift was shown off and each of the young women was admired and spoiled. They all looked lovely, especially the one with long dark hair, who was wearing a new dramatic silver necklace and a pale floaty dress. By the time I had sat through several hours of this love in, accompanied by delicious food and belly dancers, I was getting just a little fed up. Not that I was ignored, they were friendly and polite, the point was made without anyone needing to rub it in. I was on my own.  I had enjoyed my own company for three weeks, but somehow it didn’t seem the same any more. I had never had what they had and as I listened to them I convinced myself that I was never going to. It had been the best holiday that I had ever had, a dream come true, and it was only as I watched them that I realised how much better it would have been if there had been someone for me to share it with.

At the end of the dinner we all got up to leave the table. Each of the young men picked a red rose from the table display and gave it to their partner. I watched them with gritted teeth. Then the thin sandy haired man who had been sitting next to me turned back. He picked out another rose from the display and held it out to me.

“I think it’s about time you had one of those.”

He won’t even remember doing that now, wherever he is, but the young girl whose night he saved still remembers his gesture thirty years later.

Short story. Off Out.

“Are you sure I look all right in this?”
The pile of clothes on the bed was getting bigger and bigger and Amy had twirled around in front of her bedroom mirror in most of them, in an unsuccessful attempt to see her rear view. Normally her rear view was something she would rather forget, or at least wilfully ignore, but she hadn’t left her flat after seven o’clock at night for almost a month and her best friend Chloe was sitting on the bed in a satin top and black trousers looking amazing. Amazing and just a bit pissed off.
“Don’t be daft. You look fab. Now get a move on.”
The emphasis was on get a move on rather than fab. Amy was young, slim and very pretty but that wasn’t what she saw looking back at her in the mirror.
“You’re just saying that.”
Chloe rolled her eyes.
“You’re fine.”
“I might be better wearing a skirt.”
“If you think a skirt is going to turn you into Sienna Miller then get one put on. Otherwise you’re fine.”
Amy shook her head.
“You’re a bloody menace you are. I’d far rather stay here.”
“Well you’re not. You’re off out and you’re going to enjoy yourself.”
There was a sudden silence. They both knew that the chances of Amy enjoying herself were pretty much zero, unless Jack turned up unexpectedly in the club and rushed into her arms declaring his undying love. Since he had done a very thorough job of dumping her almost a month ago, underlining his intentions by moving in quite suddenly with a tall thin blonde, that wasn’t going to happen. It was going to be a long tedious night for both of them.
Amy gave herself one last despairing look in the mirror. At least her hair looked good, long and thick with a bit of bounce in it. Jack would have said that she looked beautiful and she would have believed him. Not that he meant it of course, she knew that now. He hadn’t meant any of it. That was why it hurt so damn much. Chloe saw the tears building up in Amy’s eyes and swung into action.
“Right. Come on madam. Out the door. Now.”
Amy gave in and did as she was told.
Thursday night was lasses night in their lively shabby and weather-beaten seaside town. As usual they started at the top of town and worked downwards towards the harbour, just two more shivering girlies being herded downhill, through the large grubby, open plan pubs with empty floors and vacant flashing lights, towards the clubs on the high street. After four, or was it five, dirt cheap Bacardi Breezers life was beginning to look a bit better. Amy waved her latest half empty bottle at Chloe through the noise of the dance floor.
“You know what? Stuff him. I’m better off without him.”
“Course you are. Do you fancy doing some karaoke in the White Horse?”
“Bugger off.”
Half an hour later Amy was waiting for her turn to sing Never Gonna Give You Up at the White Horse karaoke. Chloe had chosen the song and she was beside herself with excitement. Amy watched her sceptically.
“I have no idea why I am doing this.”
“Go on, it’ll be a laugh.”
A laugh was Chloe’s reason for doing most things, especially if it involved embarrassing somebody else. She was genuinely convinced that standing up there making a complete arse of herself would be good for Amy. It would take her out of herself. She needed to lighten up a bit. When Amy’s name was called it was Chloe who was on her feet first, clapping her hands above her head.
“Go girl!”
Amy crept up onto the stage, shielding her eyes against the lights and searching for the screen which would scroll the words. Nobody expects you to be good, she kept telling herself. Just give it some welly and you’ll be fine. Which is what she did.
“Never gonna give you up, never gonna say goodbye, never gonna run around and hurt you….”
The howling screech which came out of her mouth was fuelled by what were now almost certainly eight Bacardi Breezers and an almost complete lack of talent. Even so she managed to finish by punching the air in triumph to a huge round of applause. She sashayed back towards a waiting hug from Chloe, who was well impressed.
“Awesome!”
Amy put her hands over her face and groaned.
“I am so going to regret that tomorrow morning.”
“See that lad over there- he were watching you.”
“No!”
“He was. Honestly.”
“Which one?”
There were quite a few lads to choose from up by the bar. None of them looked like much to write home about but Chloe was beginning to find it difficult to focus so it was hard to be sure.
“The dark haired one. Skinny. Red tee shirt.”
“Oh my God!”
Chloe was always trying to wind her up but Amy realised she might just be telling the truth this time. He looked ok. Dark floppy fringe and long legs. He wasn’t talking to his mates and she was in danger of catching his eye if she wasn’t careful.
“Go and get another drink. See what he does.”
“Do you not think I’ve had enough bother with blokes? Calm down will you.”
Chloe’s mouth settled into a sulky pout.
“Just trying to be helpful. I’m telling you he’s after you. Take no notice if you want- I’m not bothered.”
Their eyes met and Chloe gave a tiny nod.
“Go on. I’m telling you, he was watching you.”
Amy tottered off, in a careful straight line, towards the bar. As soon as she got there she leaned on it as if it were a lifeline. Her feet were killing her. He was standing on her right and she carefully didn’t look in that direction as she ordered her drink. If he wanted to say something that was up to him. She could feel Chloe’s eyes burning into her back.
“Do you do a lot of karaoke then?”
She could see a bright red blur in the corner of her eye. It was his tee shirt.
“Sorry?”
“Karaoke. Do a lot do you?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“You were bloody awful.”
Something about his honesty punched its way through Amy’s slightly woozy thoughts and she turned to have a good look at him. The face which swam into focus seemed very familiar. She wondered if Chloe had realised who it was and sent her over on purpose.
“You don’t have to talk to me now- your brother dumped me.”
“I know he did. For some daft cow who’s already giving him the run-around.”
Amy would have liked to hear a lot more about that but she didn’t want to seem bitter. Maybe she could get off with his brother and make Jack sorry after all. The thought made her giggle. She clung onto her Bacardi Breezer, swaying helplessly.
“I like you Daniel. I’ve always liked you.”
He groaned.
“You’d better give me that.”
“S’my drink.”
“It’s safe enough with me. If you think I’m going to start downing Bacardi Breezers you’ve another think coming. You’ve had enough.”
“S’ok. I can manage.”
“Go and say goodbye to your friend and I’ll take you home.”
Amy nodded, rather too emphatically, happy that somebody was telling her what to do, and trotted off back to Chloe, who was bursting to know what was going on.
“I’m off home with Daniel. S’that all right?”
Chloe made tiny punches in the air with her fists.
“See, I told you you’d have a good night. Trust your Auntie Chloe.”
Amy shook her head blankly. Chloe wasn’t her Auntie.
“I said s’that all right?”
“Course it is. You get in there girl. I’ll text you tomorrow.”
When she got back to him Daniel put a hand on Amy’s shoulder and guided her carefully towards the door. As they walked out of the pub the cold air hit her and her knees buckled.
“Whoa there. Just hang on to me. You’ll be fine in a minute.”
Daniel sat Amy down on a bench facing the lights of the club entrance. Slowly the cold air brought her to her senses and she leaned forward with her head down. As soon as she had been quietly and thoroughly sick she felt a lot better. She had seen this kind of thing on television, binge drinking culture they called it, but she had never thought it would be her throwing up in the street. Jack was a total bastard and it was all his fault. She hardly ever had more than one drink- that’s probably why she had ended up like this.
“God, this is so embarrassing.”
Daniel produced a small bottle of fizzy water and took the top off.
“Have some of this.”
“Where did that come from?”
“I got it while you were saying goodbye to your friend. Thought it might be needed.”
Amy took it and tried a few tentative small sips.
“How did you know?”
“Let’s just say it wasn’t rocket science. Do you mind if we move on a bit?”
Amy leaned against him and walked slowly, carrying her shoes, until they were a few safe benches away. Daniel felt her weight against him with quiet satisfaction. It had taken him a fair while to get his hands on his brother’s girlfriend and he wasn’t going to blow his chance now. If she hadn’t been in this kind of state he would never have had the nerve. Typical that was. Not much fun in making a move on a lass who was blind drunk.
“Feeling a bit better now?”
“Think so.”
“Good.”
“Your bloody brother’s fault.”
Daniel closed his eyes for a moment. That was also typical. It wouldn’t be the first time that he had been stuck with one of Jack’s nice looking cast offs forced to listen to them talk about his brother all night.
“Yeah well, he’s got a lot to learn. I know he’s my brother but you’re well rid. He’s a great brother but I wouldn’t touch him with a barge pole if I was a woman.”
“My dad said he was feckless. Don’t know what it means but that’s what he called him. Feckless.”
“I dunno either but it sounds right.”
Amy snuggled against Daniel.
“You’re being very kind to me.”
“I know I am. You should go home now.”
Amy snuggled harder.
“I don’t want to go home. I want to stay here with you. I like you.”
“No you don’t. How many of these did you have?”
Daniel held up the Bacardi Breezer bottle in disgust.
Amy waved her arm dramatically.
“No idea. No idea at all.”
“You might at least rot your brain with something decent.”
“S’nice.”
“I’m putting it in the bin. This one here. Ok?”
Amy smiled happily.
“You’re very nice.”
“And then I’m calling a taxi.”
When the alarm woke her the next morning Amy had no memory of getting in the taxi. She crawled through her day at work, filing, photocopying and answering the phone with a bright voice that seemed to belong to somebody else. It wasn’t until she was sitting in front of Hollyoaks with a cup of coffee that she found the note in her trouser pocket.

Let me know how you are this morning, and don’t sing. Daniel. 07794261343

How had she got home? And what had happened when she got there? Amy racked her brains but the last thing she could remember was being horribly sick. In front of her ex boyfriend’s brother. That was bad enough. She could remember singing before that, and she could remember meeting Daniel, just about, but after that everything was a blank. Everything. Exactly what had she done? What had she done that might have led to a note like that in her trouser pocket and who had taken off her clothes? She hoped to God it was her. Nightmare. She would remember, surely? It took a full hour before she rang Daniel’s number, and after a few minutes teasing and polite conversation she managed to ask him.
“So did you bring me home last night then?”
There was a laugh on the other end of the phone.
“It’s a good job somebody did. You were well out of it.”
Amy held her breath.
“When we got back here, did we……do anything?”
There was a long cold silence.
“Give me some credit.”
“No, I mean I wasn’t trying to suggest, it’s just I can’t bloody remember that’s all. I needed to hear you say it.”
“I’m not the sort of bloke who takes advantage of drunken girlies. You were in a right state. I looked after you and got you back home. A thank you might be nice.”
“I know, and I am grateful. You must think I’m a complete Muppet.”
“Yep.”
“I’m so sorry. I probably spoiled your night and everything.”
“Not really. I like Muppets.”
A blush spread over Amy’s face as she remembered how safe she had felt leaning against Daniel.
“Stop it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow night then shall I? For a coffee.”
Amy nodded happily, forgetting that he couldn’t see her. She liked Daniel. She really liked him. His brother was nowhere near as nice and not half as good looking.
“Amy?”
“Coffee? Yes?”
“If you like.”
Both of them stood very still, with grins so wide that you could even feel them beaming their way across space and shining out of a mobile phone handset.

Short Story: Birthday ghosts.

Hilary looked around the empty hall with some satisfaction. Everything was ready. The marquee was up, the sun was shining, and the little village hall had never looked better than it did now, with its jam jars of wild flowers, card tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths and home made heart shaped bunting. It had been a good idea to hire somewhere up here even if people would have to drive a bit further. Greg had got the projector working and there was a distracting clunk each time an image from her past emerged onto the white wall. There were ghostly grey fragments of holidays, smiling people, strange frocks and big hair, a stream of consciousness taking in fifty years of success and failure. Of course only success managed to flicker its way onto the peeling plaster just below the roof. There was no photo of the ex husband, no reminders of the affair with the beautiful young twenty year old who broke her heart, no record of her face at the moment she was told she hadn’t got the job which would have made all the difference, and thank God there was no reminder of how it had felt when she took the phone call telling her that her mother had died. The images would look better later on tonight in the darkness, and so did her life when she looked back at it through the distorting lens of its best moments.
“Are you OK mum?”
She turned to look at her son, and did a double take as a photo flashed up behind him and his features morphed into the five year old tiny king who had clutched his gift too tightly in the nativity play so that his fingers tore the paper, and worried about how to say frankincense.
“I said are you OK?”
“I’m fine.”
For a long time Hilary had told anybody who asked, and there weren’t many, that she would not be doing anything at all for her fiftieth birthday. It had been Greg who had insisted that she must celebrate and fear of a surprise party had finally forced her to agree. His blues band was providing the music and she had asked him to sack the drummer for the evening and play some Otis Redding and Bessie Smith. Quietly.
“I’ll get off then, if we’re all set. You know how to switch the projector off don’t you? Just don’t move any of the slides. Took me ages to sort it out.”
A quick wave of his hand and he was gone. He hadn’t asked if his father would be there. Since Hilary had not mentioned the invitation which she had sent he would be assuming not. She wondered if she should have told him about it. Probably, but after all it was her birthday, her half century, her business. He would have been expecting the wrong father in any case. There was no way she was allowing Keith through that door. As soon as she had looked into Greg’s eyes, seconds after he had been born, she had known that he was Sam’s child.
“He won’t come”, she told the empty hall defiantly. It was a stupid thing to do but it wasn’t going to make any difference. Bloody internet. People didn’t stay in the past where you had filed them away any more. All you had to do was click send in a moment of weakness and they were ready to jump out of cyberspace and bite you on the bum. She switched off the projector, bringing her past to a grinding uncertain halt, and rushed home to change into her black satin dress from Ghost. They wouldn’t know it came off Ebay…….would they?
The party had been going for well over an hour before Hilary began to relax. People had turned up, the buffet tables had been filled after all, and the guests were mostly settled with paper plates full of food in front of them. She had said hello and made polite conversation with almost a hundred of them. Duty had been done and now she could begin to think about letting her hair down. Greg, the one who had got her into all this, was doing his usual thing and lurking behind his amplifiers, having sent his new girlfriend, an earnest Goth, out into the hall to get him a six pack of beer. He had talked to nobody, busy in his own world. Finally, in a rush of hastily corrected feedback, the music boomed out and a few people got up to dance. She watched as her scruffy uncommunicative son came to life in front of the mike. Things were going well. She had got away with it. She might even get her best friend Susie up for a dance later.
Hilary was so busy being pleased with herself that she almost walked straight into Sam on her way outside for some fresh air.
“Hilary? You’re looking good.”
For a few seconds she stared at him while her brain rearranged the features of a good looking, sandy haired twenty five year old into the face of a man approaching middle age with silver flecked hair and the beginnings of a paunch. He was holding out a small package. She took it and thanked him, wondering what to with it and, more to the point, what to do with him.
“What the hell are you doing here? I mean, thank you.”
He laughed. It always did make him laugh when he managed to wrong foot her, she remembered that.
“I was invited.”
Of course he was- stupid thing to say.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
He looked at her wryly and she felt a nostalgic hit of the same charm which had knocked her for six twenty years ago. He still looked good. Well he was bound to have aged wasn’t he? He still looked bloody good. Don’t let him smile, please don’t let him smile.
“Have you brought anyone with you?”
He shrugged.
“Why would I do that?”
Hilary’s stomach flipped as she realised what that might mean, but she wasn’t ready to deal with this, not yet.
“No reason. Look, it’s great to see you, I’d better start circulating. Catch up with you later.”
She turned round at a speed that was far too fast to be dignified, headed to the dark corner where the bottles were piling up, poured herself a large glass of Merlot and went outside to hide herself. It was cool round the far side of the small marquee where the overspill buffet had been set up and you could see up into the woods. John had promised that he would bring his violin and she could hear the theme from Schindler’s list floating out plaintively towards the hills. Thanks John she thought bitterly. Great choice. Of course she could simply let Sam hang around for a while and go home. As if. Just forget it. The band were zipping through Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do back in the hall and she wondered if he would be watching them, and whether he would see himself looking back at him from the stage. No, he wouldn’t, of course he wouldn’t. He didn’t even know that Greg was her son, let alone his. If she wanted him to know, if she wanted Greg to know, then she would have to tell him. And she wasn’t going to do that. Was she? Of course not. She took a deep swig of wine and went back into the hall. After half an hour of flitting around talking about nothing she collapsed into a chair on the edge of the dance floor. Within a few minutes she heard the scrape of a chair and he was next to her, legs stretched out, surveying her with his head on one side.
“So how are you doing then?”
“I’m fine. You?”
“Not too shabby. Great band.”
“Do you still play?”
“I play bass in an eighties cover band. My speciality is A Town Called Malice. I’ve been to a hell of a lot of fortieth birthday parties.”
“The singer’s my son Greg.”
Damn. She hadn’t even meant to say that much. Sam nodded and watched Greg as he introduced the final song of the set, Foulsham Prison Blues.
“He’s pretty good. How old is he?”
“Almost twenty. Just about to start his last year at uni.”
“Twenty?”
“It was a rebound thing. Ended up in a crappy marriage.”
He nodded. Hilary drew breath. Sam never liked to think too deeply about things.
“I’ve no kids. I have a bit of a problem with commitment.”
Hilary couldn’t resist it.
“Really?”
He winced.
“Yes, really. It’s what split Joanna and I up as much as anything. She wanted them, I didn’t.”
“You with anyone now?”
Hilary knew that she shouldn’t be asking but since when had she ever been sensible when it came to Sam? He turned and looked her in the eyes.
“No, and I’m guessing you’re not either.”
Suddenly she didn’t have enough breath to speak. He looked at her sharply.
“Thought not. You’re looking well Hils anyway.”
“Thanks.”
As Hilary felt his eyes on her twenty years vanished into dust, and an unwanted private slide show of memories crashed into her head one by one. The time that they had gone up into the sand dunes above Saltburn. The way he would carefully tie up a packet of crisps after he had finished it. The way he could make her laugh about just about anything, even a tiny pot of UHT cream. His hair. His grey jumper. The slam of the door as he left her curled up, sobbing on the floor in the middle of the passageway when he walked out. He had a bloody cheek coming here, invited or not.
“What made you come Sam?”
“I don’t know. Curiosity perhaps? See how you were. Sending a message once in a blue moon didn’t seem enough any more.”
“After twenty years?”
“Why not?”
Why not? That was typical Sam that was. There was a list of reasons as long as your arm why not, but Hilary doubted whether he would want to hear any of them. He shrugged.
“We’re both single. It’s not going to upset anybody.”
“It might upset me. Had you thought about that?”
“I don’t think so.”
He rested his hand on her knee. She felt herself tense up, sending out a message that a few well chosen sentences would not be able to deny, even if she could find the words. Damn.
“Dance?”
Reluctantly Hilary allowed him to take her hand and pull her gently to her feet. Greg’s band were starting their second set with a storming version of Brown Sugar which was just as well. Susie would be wondering what the hell was going on already, without being treated to the sight of the two of them having a slow dance. Thankfully it would take a lot more than a slow dance before Greg would get round to wondering what was happening. Hilary jigged around doggedly, trying to put aside thoughts of exactly what kind of activity between her and Sam might send her son an unambiguous message. She could still feel that hand on her knee. Finally, after three songs, she was forced to give in. She waved her hand across her face, miming heat, and pointed towards the door.
“Sorry. I need a bit of air.”
Sam waved his hand in answer and began to direct his attention towards Hilary’s work colleague Rebecca, who was wearing the kind of low cut red frock and strappy shoes that Hilary had stopped trying to get away with ten years ago. He would like that.
It was cool outside and by the time she had finished another glass of wine and chatted about nothing for half an hour Hilary was calmer. Sam would probably have Rebecca draped around him by now. He wasn’t going to bother her, and she wasn’t going to tell him about Greg. Why should she? What people didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, and in particular what people didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
It was almost dark when he came outside to find her.
“Hi.”
She smiled, wondering if he was about to leave.
“Hi.”
“Having a good birthday?”
“Great thanks.”
“You forgot this.”
He held out the small package which he had brought with him. Hilary couldn’t even remember where she had put it down.
“Open it.”
It was a delicate necklace with a turquoise in the centre of it.
“Thank you Sam. It’s beautiful. You shouldn’t have brought anything. I said no presents.”
Hilary wanted to ask him if he remembered the turquoise earrings which he had given her for her thirtieth birthday twenty years earlier but that would mean admitting that she did, which would sound a bit sad after all this time. She was never able to say afterwards who moved first, but she never forgot the blistering warmth of the kiss that came next, or the way that she responded to it.
“Shouldn’t you ask permission before you do that?”
He grinned.
“I got permission. Didn’t I?”
Hilary laughed. Dammit he could always make her do that, even when she didn’t want to. Sam made a parody of a sad face and shrugged.
“I need to get moving I’m afraid. Thank you for a lovely evening.”
“No problem.”
“I’ll be in touch.”
“Yes, drop me a message sometime.”
He wouldn’t. They both knew that. In a few seconds he was going to turn around and walk away. He would never know. Hilary stood and watched as a part of her walked into the car park, pointed his car keys at an aging MX5 and drove away. She had done the right thing. Of course she had. She walked back into the hall and found Greg, needing a familiar face and anxious to show herself that he was all right.
“Thanks Greg. That was a great set. It’s been a wonderful party. I know I said I didn’t want it but it’s been wonderful.”
“No probs mum.”
He put his arms out and gave her a hug, something he had stopped doing when he was eight.
“I just wish dad could have been here too, but you can’t have everything.”