I’m almost quaking in my books when Sax drapes his arm around me and introduces me to his lively group of friends. I can do this, I tell myself. I can socialise with new people. I can mingle with twenty-somethings without making myself look or feel old. And I can do it without embarrassing myself – after all, this is nothing compared with being the hostess with the mostest where every minor detail of a formal dinner has to be utter perfection. Where the slightest faux pas could mean a tumbling in the rankings of Dick’s business and social standing and the cold shoulder for me.
Yes, this is easy compared with metaphorically juggling hundreds of plates in the air for hours at a time, making sure none of them sustains so much as a chip. All for Dick. For his future. For his needs. Not mine. This is for me. I need friends. I need companionship and, even if I never see these people again, I need to know that I can get out there. I can meet new people. I can be carefree – selfish even, doing things just for me. For my happiness. For my future. For my present. No pressure. Just enjoyment. Come on, Bella … ‘just do it’.
I give them a huge grin in an attempt to fit in with the rowdy joviality I’d witnessed through the window … but then I realise that they’re all silent and staring at me. Upon taking in the array of raised eyebrows and smirks, my generous toothy smile becomes frozen, like rigor mortis but painful. Sax looks from them to me and back again, his brow furrowed. Oh god, did I utter that phrase out loud? Do they think I’m so lame as to a sportswear brand for motivational advice on how to live my life? Oh crap, I am lame and I must have muttered it out loud. Why else are they all staring at me like I’m a total loser?
Still grinning like The Joker, I hear Sax burst out laughing … a real belly laugh that booms around the busy bar. I look to him in confusion, I mean it wasn’t that funny, but he’s holding on to the table literally cracking up, so I look back to his friends who now look like they’re witnessing a zombie apocolypse. That’s when I realise my cheeks have relaxed from my maniacal grin but my lips are stuck to my teeth. I’ve gone from Batman’s Joker to The Shining’s ‘here’s Johnny’ in seconds. Who knew I was so adept at Jack Nicholson impersonations – certainly not me.
I attempt to smile again. My dry lips stretch to the point where they feel like they’re going to split. I want to get out of here but I can’t. It’s not just my lips that are frozen in place, my feet are showing solidarity. All I can do is stand here, listening to Sax laughing hysterically when he catches sight of my face. They look from him to me, a totally captivated audience. I hope their expressions convey bemusement but I fear I’m being optimistic – they look like they’re watching complete carnage unfold before their very eyes. Like rubberneckers witnessing a pile-up on the opposite carriageway of a motorway; they know they should look away but morbid curiosity has them spellbound.
Sticking out the tip of my tongue, I try to lick my teeth to free my trapped lips but my mouth is devoid of saliva. Doh! Of course it is, that’s why my lips are welded to my teeth. So I’m left, standing here like a weird hybrid of bug eyed lizard, complete with flicky out tongue and a silently snarling Rottweiler. Actually, can something snarl silently? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Whoa! I’m dragged from my unfathomable ponderings of the English language when I’m dragged by a forceful arm into Sax’s side. “No!” he says, barely managing to speak through his laughter. “This isn’t her.”
“No?” asks an immaculately turned out brunette at the front of the bunch, giving me an extra thorough onceover with her meticulously made up eyes. She looks like she’s one third of a girl-band who grace the cover of shiny magazines that I now feel too old to buy. She also looks like she’s having trouble believing whatever it is that Sax is trying to say.
I’m lost, looking around me with my lipless smile still in full force. I notice that Sax now has a bottle of beer in his hand. Without thinking, I grab it and take a swig, swooshing it around my mouth like Listerine. It frees my lips but my initial lipless contact with the mouth of the bottle results in beer dribbling down my chin. I hastily wipe it with the back of my other hand as I hear Sax say, “No. That’s Charlotte, not Bella.”
“Phew,” says the gorgeous brunette, introducing herself as Phoebe. “Pleased to meet you Bella, not Charlotte. There’s only room in this group for one sexual predator and that’s me.” She laughs good naturedly. But Sax leans in and whispers, “You think she’s joking …”, making me raise my eyebrows and giggle, although I’m really not sure he’s just joshing.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Bella,” says an intellectual looking guy with floppy hair and gooey treacle eyes, while the others chuckle at the misunderstanding. If Richard Curtis ever stops me in the street, telling me he’s searching for another Hugh Grant, he’s the man for the job. “For fear of further confusion, I shall call them Salacious Charlotte and Beautiful Bella.” He reaches forward and takes my free hand, bringing it to his mouth where he brushes soft lips against the back of it, all the time looking into my eyes.
Of course, I blush instantly but at least I’m able to coyly smile my thanks now that my face is working properly again. Several dozen butterflies take flight in my stomach as I realise that this is the closest I’ve come to flirting in … well, more years than I’d care to admit.
“Good one, Hugh,” Sax says, taking his beer from my hand and reaching forward to tap the bottle against Hugh’s. “I’ll drink to that.” The rest of the group joins in with mutterings of ‘cheers’ and bottle clinks of varying enthusiasm, making me feel like a spare part. I grasp the bottle back from Sax and join in, tapping the bottle against Hugh’s (of course his name is Hugh, what else would it be?) and he rewards me with a smile that melts those treacly eyes another few degrees and, let me tell you, that’s not all it melts.
I feel myself looking up at him through my lashes as he bathes me in sweet sunshine. And the butterflies that were fluttering gracefully around my insides? They’re now soaring on the currents of a heady cyclone of something I can’t quite put my finger on that’s bubbling up unbidden inside me. I can practically hear them whooping in delight at this unexpected opportunity to unfold their dusty wings and it’s all I can do not to join in. Space is made for me to sit between Sax and Hugh: a rose between two horn-inducing males.
The final half an hour of our lunch break goes by way too quickly. In that time, I’m aroused (alas, merely my curiousity) and stimulated (conversationally). I make the most of every single minute, not knowing when I’ll have an opportunity to be not only accepted, but embraced into a fun-loving group like this again. They’re a patchwork of personalities, a jumble of fashions and styles, a hotchpotch of opinions, a medley of vocal volumes with such diversity of dialogue … in short, they’re a breath of fresh air in the stagnant troposphere that is my social life.
As people begin to reach for coats and scarves, Hugh leans down and whispers, “I hope you’ll join us again very soon,” in my ear. His warm breath tickles the sensitive skin behind my ear sending a troupe and tap-dancers pattering down my spine. I resist the desire to shiver and instead inform him that I’d like that very much. He takes my hand and chastely kisses the back of it, making me blush outwardly and swoon inwardly, until Sax loudly clears his throat and glares at Hugh who takes the hint and backs off with a wink in my direction.
We spill out onto the pavement, the air full of promises to meet up in the near future as others ratify previous engagements or hastily reschedule. I feel ostracised slightly, not by them, but by the realisation that I don’t have any social commitments, not a single one – despite the calendar hanging in my kitchen being full of the things. They’re Dick’s commitments, not mine.
Phoebe air kisses me gracefully before kissing Sax full on the lips. “See you later, darling,” she says, immediately piquing my interest. She pulls away and gives me a smile before hastily looking back to Sax. “What about inviting …” she says, seemingly changing her mind, although she’s looking at Sax pointedly. His eyebrows are raised as he chews on his bottom lip, seemingly mulling something over.
“Not yet, Phoebs,” he says, nodding as if to convince himself. “Too soon.”
She returns his nod, bids us goodbye and then sleeks off, as graceful as any catwalk model. I’ll bet she knows her way around the latest Prada collection. From that exchange, I’ll bet she knows her way around Sax’s anatomy too. Either they’ve been a couple or they’re a thoroughly modern pair who give in to their carnal desires on a regular basis with no strings and all that. Whatever it is, I can’t help but feel a teensy bit jealous. But then, I’m envious of anyone getting any. Soon, my cobwebs will have cobwebs. I need someone with a big, stiff broom to sweep them away. And surely, regular sweepings will be in order. Maybe with the same broom. Maybe with a selection of brooms.
The light carefreeness of the past half an hour begins to settle heavily as everyone begins to go their separate ways. Sax takes my hand in his, like we’ve been friends for years, and tugs me towards the office with tales of how much his friends like me and how much other friends, who weren’t there today, will adore me. With every step we take, my footsteps become lighter, carefree even. That’s the Sax effect; he has Sax appeal. And he has it in spades. Buckets even. I know he was the centre of attention today because they were celebrating the first day of his new job, but I suspect he’s the glue holding that diverse friendship group together. I’d witnessed friends seeking his advice, informing him of news, and requesting his presence at various get-togethers. He’s one of those people who don’t live life on the outskirts, they’re always smack bang in the centre of all the action: the centrality of the glorious gallimaufry of the gathering. Put simply, he’s the sun. Everyone else are planets.
And it’s not limited to his friends. I’m not blind to the looks we’re getting, well, that he’s getting. I have the feeling that I’m invisible to the majority although a few women give me evils as though they begrudge me the opportunity to be in this man’s presence, holding his hand as though there’s something between us. I find myself deflecting their daggers with smiles, haughtily giving the impression that they have reason to be envious. I can’t blame them. He is traffic-stoppingly good looking and that body … I’m half expecting a scout from a modelling agency to approach us at any moment.
I don’t kid myself; I don’t belong with him. He should be with some supermodel Sax equivalent with everyone gushing about how beautiful their offspring will be. And it not just his looks. He’s one of those people who are gorgeous inside as well as out. Why else does my hand feels so comfortable in his, and not at all weird, given that we’re practically strangers? Oh my god! It occurs to me that someone might see me with Sax and report back to Dick. I doubt he’d believe them. I don’t do things like this, you see. I used to. I was the life and soul of the party in my teens and twenties, until marriage to Dick slowly sucked the party-goer out of me. I picture my husband … soon to be ex-husband … and the look on his face if he could see me now and have to suck in my cheeks to prevent myself from bursting out laughing.
From nowhere, the idea of rebelling against his stereotype of me blooms in my mind. I am still the same party-goer inside, surely. This stick-in-the-mud, stick-up-the-arse impression of me, isn’t who I truly am, who I was born to be. I’m almost tempted to suggest playing hooky and I’ve never once done that – never playing truant in school nor even thinking of pulling a sicky. Yet, as he laughs and urges me into a run when huge raindrops begin bouncing off the ground around us, I’m hit by an almost unsurmountable urge to turn and scurry in the opposite direction. Anywhere. Everywhere. Oh, I don’t know … somewhere … somewhere I can be free … be me.
My horizons have been so limited, shrinking until all I had was whatever was best for Dick. My dreams, my ambitions, my desires … all thrown into a neglected corner of my mind. I guess it’s time to pull them out, dust them off and reignite them while I still have chance. I’m in my thirties. I’m in my prime. The time to be rebellious is now!
But then reality kicks in. This is Sax’s first day in the job. I can’t expect him not to complete his first day. And I need my job to stand any chance of keeping my home, if Dick will play fair, or finding somewhere half decent if he won’t. Rebellious partygoer I might be inside but sadly, for now at least, my Miss Sensible impersonation will have to continue. Hmmm, what about outside office hours? Now, that’s a different story.
The rain is pelting so hard now that it stings my face. The wind is driving it towards us with force it’s threatening to take my breath and running in stilettos in a river of rain isn’t good – but for Sax, I’m sure I’d have gone base over apex by now. I see a bus approaching on the road next to us, Sax abruptly, and none too gently, grabs me and pulls me into the doorway of the newsagent who closed down months ago. I open my mouth to question him when, from the corner of my eye, I spy a wall of water advancing towards us. I press myself into Sax in an attempt to get further away from it, and instantly, his arms band around me, holding me firmly against his firm chest. The tsunami lands with a chorus of splats and splashes where we’d have been, had Sax not anticipated it and taken evasive action. As it is, only my legs and feet get sprayed by rainwater ricocheting off the pavement.
Sax throws back his head and laughs. We’re soaked to the skin, embracing in a disused shop’s doorway and he’s laughing like the gurgling drain a few feet away. I don’t see what the joke is. All I can think of is that our wet bodies are pressed so tightly together that I can feel his heartbeat in the wall of muscle that passes for his chest. And that our faces are inches apart. His dark hair is almost black now it’s wet and those eyes, the colour of Jack Daniels, are dancing delightedly. Then they lock onto mine and it’s like the DJ has pulled the plug. The dancing stops. Dead.
A drop of water falls from his long eyelashes and journeys over those chiselled cheekbones towards those full, soft lips. Without thinking, because quite frankly if I had time to think about it, I’d never do something like this, I push up onto my tiptoes and intercept it as it reaches the corner of his mouth. When I say intercept it, I mean catch it with my lips. And when I say catch, I mean kiss.
I feel his head jerk up in surprise. He smiles down at me as his arms let go of me. I land back on the soles of my feet with a defected thud. “Come on, Bella the Beautiful. We’re going to be late back,” he says, and then tugs me out of the doorway and over the remaining 500 metres to the office. I feel Shallot’s narrowed eyes on me before she looks to the clock on the back wall. I follow her eyes. We are indeed late. Almost five minutes to be exact. I hurry towards my desk and feel Shania’s questioning gaze. No doubt they’re both curious as to why we’re both turning up late. Together.
Once more, I get that urge to rebel. Instead of quickly settling behind my desk and setting about completing mine and Shallot’s work for the day, I head to the ladies’ and spend the best part of ten minutes drying my hair with the hand dryer and reapplying my makeup. I can’t believe I just tried to kiss a co-worker. How humiliating. But nowhere near as humiliating as his blatant rejection of me. How could I have read it so wrong? At least he was kind. He didn’t belittle me or make a fuss, he just brushed it off. For that, I’m thankful. I clearly need practice in the art of seduction.
Maybe I should ask Shania – she’s a shameless flirt and self-confessed partaker in one night stands. Although I doubt I could bring myself to confess my blatant propositioning of Sax, never mind his rebuttal. In a filthy, urine drenched doorway of an abandoned newsagents. Ooh classy, Bella. Way to go, girl. No wonder he wasn’t prepared for it. I stare at my reflection and attempt to convince myself that’s the only reason he pulled away. I’m not bad looking. I’m always told my natural light blonde hair is exactly the shade others pay hair salons to replicate. My skin is clear with a healthy glow, despite traces of my hangover in the vague shadows under my eyes. My lips are full, newly rouged thanks to my trusty Dior lipstick. Perfectly kissable. It’s his loss, right? My grey eyes stare back at me blankly, not stupid enough to fall for such an obvious ruse.
Predictably, I emerge to an office of observers. Shania calls over, asking for my help with something or another. I know she’s only after gossip so I ignore her, hitting up my bestie for a cappuccino before disappearing behind my monitor, keeping my head down for the entire afternoon. Whatever idea Shallot had wanted to run by me was forgotten in her attempts to dry hump Sax, well maybe dry humping is a bit of an exaggeration … but only a little. If she were a dog, she’d have been firmly attached to his leg, furiously twerking, for want of a better expression. At least my attempt to get his attention wasn’t witnessed by the whole office. Shallot clearly has no shame. Shameless Shallot.
My rebellious streak only extends as far as persuading me to shut down my computer at bang on five o’clock. I always work late, preferring to take a later train back to Chester. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune of travelling on Miseryrail during rush hour will testify that it is indeed a miserable experience from start to finish. But today, I need to get out of the office at the earliest opportunity, even if only to be squeezed into an overflowing rail carriage. At least I’ll be on my way home. I’ve felt increasingly restless since lunchtime. Although, I can’t explain why.
I guess it has to do with the stark reality that I have no friends to meet up with at lunchtime. Outside of work, I have precisely nothing to do. All I can see are long, empty winter evenings stretching out in front of me as I sit by the fire, getting slowly drunk. Alone. I can’t shake the feeling that life is passing me by. My life … just sliding quietly by. Yes, I’m sure that’s what it is. Stripped bare as Bella, not Bella and Richard – just Bella, what is there? Where are my friends? My social life? What’s my career? My hopes? My dreams? My bucket list? What do I have to show for my thirty-four year existence?
So many questions, but right now, the only one that is occupying my mind is what the hell do I do about it? I don’t even know where to start. Seeing Sax and company at lunchtime has triggered an itch that’s demanding to be scratched. But how? It’s like having an itch in the centre of your back that you can’t reach, no matter what you do. Maybe I need help. Maybe, I need a backscratcher.
I grab my coat and bid my colleagues goodnight as I hurry through the office towards the door, noticing how dark and gloomy it is, yet it’s only five o’clock. Where did summer go? And autumn? I hurry for James Street Station, desperate to get on the toy train that will take me to my princess castle. Every single twinkling tree I pass, every single decoration, and every mention of the word Christmas threatens to overwhelm me. I can’t face the thought of spending Christmas alone. Yes, I can go to my parents’ so technically, I won’t be alone but, for the first time in what … fifteen years? I’ll be spending the holidays as a single person, not part of a couple. I’m not sure I can get my head around that just yet. I’m not ready. All I want is the comfort and security of home that settles around me like a well-worn and expertly tailored cloak, the minute I set foot inside.
My mind is battling with the contradiction of wanting to be home but not wanting to be alone when I hear my name being called. I look back but see nobody I know, just commuters heading to the station on this dark, damp wintry evening. I’m reaching the conclusion that a pot of Ben and Jerry’s and a bottle of Chardonnay means I won’t actually be home alone when a hand lands on my shoulder.
If you’ve never found yourself in the middle of Liverpool, alone in darkness, you’ll probably not understand why I jump three feet into the air when I feel those strong fingers bite into my flesh. I jerk away, debating whether to run for the station or turn and fight my attacker – all in the space of one second flat. At it happens, all I do is secure my grip on my handbag and prepare for a struggle. My fight or flight survival instinct is clearly shagged. Oh well, at least part of me is getting some.
A vaguely familiar voice saying my name finally reaches my consciousness. I think it’s taken a second or two for my brain to process it, given that I’m preoccupied, thinking of nonsensical crap relating to my sex life.
“Bella, wait a second.”
I spin around and come face to face with Sax, who’s breathing heavily. “Sax? What the hell? I thought you were after my handbag.”
His eyes flick to it. “I could … do … with one … that colour,” he pants, making me burst out laughing.
“Do you catch a train here?” I ask, nodding my head towards the station and silently pleading with him to say yes … to Chester. Maybe that would improve my boring journey home each night. It’s at this moment that I realise I spent most of my lunch hour with him and his friends, yet I didn’t learn anything about him. Nothing at all. Yet they learned so much about me. Immediately, I feel guilty. I totally hijacked his celebratory lunchtime drink with his friends.
He shakes his head, still dragging down air to his lungs. He’s obviously had to run to get here. Yet he doesn’t use the station so he isn’t running to catch a train … interesting. My curiosity is definitely piqued.
“About earlier,” he says, suddenly looking less confident than I’ve seen all day. “I think we should meet up later.” His voice is quiet, overly so … as though he’s nervous.
I don’t know which are rounder – my eyes or my open mouth. I stand here. Speechless. Blinking as my brain processes his words and what I think they mean. Is he hitting on me? If so, why? He’s gorgeous and young and … why me? What about working together? Does he think I’m easy? And will he respect me if I fall into his bed? Maybe he can sense how long it’s been since I got laid.
All these thoughts converge on my brain at high speed, without giving me a chance to answer one of them. So I keep standing here with my eyes and my mouth wide open as thoughts blast through my skull like high speed trains. I can’t stop them. I must look so stupid.
I can’t get my brain to function but my mouth has no such trouble.
“I’m sorry, Sax. I have plans. Another time, yeah?” I hear my voice say with such raw confidence and feigned disinterest I didn’t know I was capable of. I don’t know who is more shocked. Judging from the fact that his jaw has hit the pavement, I think it’s a dead heat. Perversely, this reaffirms to my brain that it was the right thing to do and it steps up a gear, forcing me to flash him my megawatt smile, say, “See you at the office in the morning,” and walk off into the station. My heart’s banging like a whore’s headboard by the time I get to my train. Great … the train is packed. It’s standing room only and I always end up crushed against someone who needs lessons in personal hygiene. There should be a law against holding your arm up if you have B.O. It’s an offence to my sensibilities at the very least.
All the way home, my head is humming with thoughts, it’s like tinnitus. I feel like turning to the guy standing next to me on the train – a perfect stranger – and saying, ‘what the actual fuck did I just do?’ just to get it out. To hopefully make the noise stop. Thankfully, I don’t. I think my brain is done with its ‘let’s make Bella look like a right twat’ campaign.
In fact, by the time the credits of Dirty Dancing are rolling and I’m rolling my arse into bed, I’ve convinced myself that it was a genius move and that Sax will be redoubling his seduction efforts tomorrow. Although, to be honest, I think the half a dozen glasses of Chardonnay might have had something to do with this newfound confidence. My last waking thought is that I’ll probably regret this in the morning.
Clearly, I have no idea what a master of understatement my last waking thought is …
The Morning After … coming soon!