John Edward Reynolds hated mornings. It’s not that he wasn’t a morning person, he was, it was that nothing surprising or even interesting ever happened in the morning; or so he had thought until this morning. Sat in the back of a taxi with a well-packed suitcase and enough food to last him all week, he still couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Maybe it was arrogance, but he had never even considered the fact that his wife might accuse him of having an affair. He knew he had been acting strangely, he knew he had been sneaking around and he knew he was raising suspicion; what he didn’t know and didn’t guess was the conclusion his wife would come to. Not for the first time in his life, he had underestimated his wife and now he was having to pay for that mistake.
The taxi journey was not nearly long enough for John to arrange his thoughts. By the time he was pulling up outside of the office, he still had 20 or 30 emails to read, five or six texts to reply to and a couple of phone calls to return, he also had to decide what to do about his wife and prepare for the four meetings he had that day. As he paid the taxi driver, John found himself feeling something unfamiliar, he wished he could curl up in a ball and hide. Instead of hiding, John did what he always did; he strode into the building ignoring everyone around him. He strode into the lift, thankful that he was the only occupant. He strode out of the lift, avoiding eye contact with the few of his employees who were there. He strode into his office and slammed the door behind him. Once inside the security of his private office John Edward Reynolds sat at his desk, put his head in his hands and sighed.
Before there was time to fully regain his composure, there was a knock on the door,
“Sorry Mr Reynolds,” the team secretary poked her head around the door, “there is a guy at reception downstairs to see you, they’ve sent him up.”
John didn’t look up. He listened as the secretary tiptoed away and gently closed the door.
“There’s no rest for the wicked,” John said under his breath as he got up to meet Billy at the lift.
To say John was finding the morning difficult would be an understatement, he was struggling to focus on anything at all and that was a problem because he needed to focus. He knew that the file he had retrieved from the taxi driver was important, he needed to watch that DVD urgently, and as he placed it in the CD tray on his laptop he knew that it would contain exactly what he needed. He knew these things, but still he was finding it difficult to focus his mind.
As the screen of the laptop changed from his generic background to the blackness before the recording, John found his mind instantly jumping into serious mode. The recording had started, but at first John couldn’t see anything; the screen was dark. As his eyes started to make sense of the darkness, John could see the faint outline of the inside of an office. He could see desks and computers and empty chairs; this video had been made at night. For a few minutes there was nothing, the camera was still and there was no noise or movement. Then in the corner of the screen, he saw something. There was someone moving, they must have just come through a door because they weren’t there a second earlier. As the person moved around the darkened office, they gradually got closer to the camera. John was straining to see if he recognised the person. As they passed a window, John caught a glimpse of their blonde hair.
John kept watching and saw the person moving around the office in the darkness. They were walking from desk to desk, inspecting the computers. Occasionally the figure would disappear under a desk for a minute or two and then re-emerge and continue their walk. John watched as the person, who he could now see clearly was male, made his way to a computer nearer the camera. He watched and clearly saw the man under the desk. He appeared to be attaching something to the hard drive. After a couple of minutes of fiddling with wires, the man got up and walked past the camera. John paused the DVD. Rewound it a few seconds. Played it. Paused it as the man’s face came into focus. “I have him,” John grinned with achievement.
“Ok,” they were in Louise’s flat and Mark was watching as she struggled to find something to put the remaining flowers into, “what was that about at the station?”
“What?” Louise was shocked, Mark never confronted her about anything.
“The thing with the flowers honey. Is everything ok?”
“Well, I don’t know what to say. I just feel like I’m not very important to you,” Louise was finding it difficult to put how she was feeling into words, “like how you chose to go out last night when you knew you were coming to see me.”
“Don’t you want me to go out?”
“No, don’t be stupid, it’s not that. I just wish you would put me first a bit more.”
The look on Mark’s face said everything. He was shocked and he was hurt. Louise couldn’t bring herself to look at him, she almost felt as though what she was saying was unfair; almost. After a few minutes of silence Mark finally managed to say,
“So are we going to Ikea or not? You are in desperate need of some furniture.”
The day had started like every other; 20 or 30 emails before 8am, five or six texts and the odd phone call. The day had started like every other, except today Mrs Reynolds had snapped.
“Where’s my phone Julie?” John shouted from the bottom of the stairs. In answer to his question his phone flew down the stairs and straight for his head. John was lucky his wife had terrible aim. “What’s wrong Julie?” John asked, his tone more fed-up than angry.
Julie Reynolds was not a stupid woman. She was the only one of her four brothers and sisters to go to university and she was the only one of her four brothers and sisters to have a job. Julie Reynolds was not a pretty woman. She was short and stocky; but what she lacked in physical attributes she made up for with her genuinely good nature and sharp wit. She was just the kind of sensible woman that a man like John Edward Reynolds needed, her told her so right before he proposed.
“Why do you keep getting phone calls, texts and emails at all hours of the day and night,” she was practically running down the stairs towards him.
“It’s just work dear,” John walked towards the kitchen. Julie followed, “you know what it’s like.”
“Why are you keeping it secret from me?” she had barricaded herself into the doorway so there was no way for John to leave. He sat down on one of the chairs at the kitchen table.
“I’m not. What are you on about?”
“Whenever you get a phone call you leave the room. You have changed the password on your phone and computer. You are out all night and I have no idea what you’re doing,” she was trying to be strong, but Julie felt tears running down her face, “Mum told me you were no good.”
John Edward Reynolds was genuinely confused, and he hated it, “what has this got to do with your Mum?”
“Are you having an affair John?” Julie slumped down into a seat opposite him. John didn’t answer, for once in his life he was lost for words. “I found a long blonde hair on your suit jacket the other day, and I saw you get into that taxi yesterday.”
John sighed and held his head in his hands. He couldn’t believe what he was about to say, “it’s one of the girls from work. Julie, I’m sorry. It’s nothing to do with you, it’s me. She not even half as intelligent as you.” He looked up sheepishly, his wife was the only person he was genuinely afraid of.
“But she’s younger and prettier than me?” Julie couldn’t control the tears any longer. John looked on as the woman he loved cried, knowing he was the one making her cry, “I’m not stupid John. I knew it.”
“I’m so sorry,” John didn’t know what else to say, “I hate hiding things from you.”
Julie didn’t answer. She got up from the kitchen table and went into their bedroom. She packed a suitcase with suits, shirts, pants, ties and socks and carried it back into the kitchen. She took a cool-box from the cupboard and filled it with food and snacks. When she did speak again, she was calling a taxi and telling her husband to leave.
It had been a restless night and Louise wasn’t looking forward to morning. She had spent the night in a swirl of thoughts and confusion and was unable to control the jumble of images and words in her head. One moment she was walking hand-in-hand with Mark, then Tim, then Dan, then Becky. Louise knew she hadn’t done anything wrong with Tim or Dan, she was just being herself and one thing had led to another.
“And anyway,” her thoughts were loud in her head, “it’s not as if I’m going to see Dan again. And Tim’s just a little boy; I was doing him a favour. And if I saw Mark more often none of this would have happened.”
Louise’s feelings of innocence were soon replaced with a conviction of Mark’s guilt. She had been living in London for almost a month and he hadn’t even bothered to come down to see her. She knew that if he really cared he would have made some effort, but instead he was enjoying his freedom and going out every night with his idiot friends. There were girls in the office whose boyfriends came to visit them every weekend and called them every night. Mark barely even bothered to pick up the phone anymore. The more Louise thought about it the more she knew that Mark was glad she was so far away, “he’s always been looking for a way to get rid of me,” she assured herself.
By the time the sun peeped its head through her curtains, Louise’s feelings of anger and rejection were directed totally at Mark. Reluctantly she dragged herself out of bed and into the shower, still unable and unwilling to shake the feeling that Mark had treated her terribly. As she was deliberating over what to wear, her phone buzzed with a text from Mark,
‘Good Morning Honey. I missed the train so won’t get to you till about midday. Can’t wait to see you though xxx’
“Typical,” Louise thought as she flung the phone onto the bed and herself down next to it, “he can’t even wake-up on time!”
Mark and Louise weren’t the type of couple to argue. They weren’t the type of couple to have any issues at all. To everyone who knew them, and even those who saw them only in passing, they were the perfect couple. Even in both of their minds they knew they were perfect couple. Within weeks of meeting each other they both knew they had found their soul mate and over their three years of dating, nothing had happened to challenge that perception. If ever the occasion for an argument arose, they would work hard to stop it from ever appearing. Sometimes, even Louise would have to admit, her whims and requests would cause a little turbulence; but even with Louise’s sometimes demanding temperament, she and Mark never argued. A lesser man might have crumbled under the pressure of Louise’s occasional teenage-style tantrums but if ever there was a cause for disagreement, Mark would give in wholeheartedly before Louise got too upset.
Thinking things through in her current angered state, Louise realised that a lot of the things she used to love about Mark were beginning to infuriate her. His laid-back outlook for example, “surely if a man really loves you he’ll have passionate feelings about you that make arguments inevitable,” she thought to herself, unsure of whether this was really true. “And I don’t understand how anyone can love living at home that much,” in fact, the more Louise thought about it, the more she couldn’t understand what she actually liked about Mark. He was beginning to seem less and less like her soul mate and more and more like a boy she’d left behind. By the time she was ready to leave to meet him at the station, she wished his text had said he couldn’t make it.
Louise had taken the slow route to Kings Cross, she knew Mark would be off the train by the time she got there. The thought of him waiting, frantically calling her mobile although she had no signal, made her chuckle a bit inside. Louise did feel a bit ashamed that she was having these feelings about Mark on their anniversary, but she still felt that he deserved every ounce of her anger. When she came out of the tube, Louise had 4 missed calls on her phone all from Mark. She listened to his voicemail messages one after the other,
“I’m here babe. I guess you must be on the tube.”
“I’m waiting in the ticket hall, hurry up. I miss you.”
“Still waiting honey, I’ve got a surprise for you!”
“This being late must be your new London thing. You sure know how to keep a man on his toes. Can’t wait to see you!”
Louise put her phone back in her bag and headed for the ticket hall. The slow motion of tourists that she usually found infuriating was a welcome dampener to her speed and she found herself intentionally stuck behind a large group of Japanese tourists. By the time she had made her way to his waiting place, she could see Mark pacing up and down in an agitated fashion and checking his watch. He must have felt her looking at him because he turned around to see his gorgeous girlfriend walking towards him. Mark waved excitedly and picking up his bag and a massive bunch of flowers ran towards her.
“Baby,” he cried as he flung his arms around her neck and planted soggy kisses all over her face.
“Honey, sorry,” Louise mumbled, “the tube was a nightmare.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mark grinned, “you’re worth the wait.” Louise fidgeted from one foot to another, “I bought you some flowers,” Mark exclaimed holding them out to her.
“Why did you miss your train?” Louise asked, taking the flowers from him.
“Oh,” Mark laughed, “I over slept.”
“Did you go out last night?” Louise was looking down, talking into the flowers.
“Yeah, but only with the guys and only into town,” Mark could feel an argument brewing, one that he wasn’t prepared for and wasn’t sure how to dodge.
“Did you stay out for long?”
“Well we only went for one drink, because Phil got a promotion, but then we met Kelley and her mates…”
“You met Kelley,” Louise cut him off, “And she convinced you to stay out? Kept you up all night?”
“Hey? What?” Mark was genuinely confused, “No, it’s nothing like that. You know who Kelley is right? She’s the mechanic.”
“So you stayed up all night with the greasy mechanic girl, missed your train, and bought me some flowers to make up for it?” Louise practically shouted flinging the flowers onto the floor. She stood for a moment looking at the flowers she had thrown away and felt tears dripping down her cheeks. Louise turned to storm off, the perfect finish to the perfect row, but Mark caught hold of her arm.
“Babe,” he almost whispered, “are you ok?”
“Sorry,” Louise mumbled, “I just.” She didn’t finish her sentence, instead she bent down and started to pick up the broken blossoms. The tears in her eyes were too much, and Louise could barely see what she was doing. She felt too ashamed to ask Mark for help, but wished that he would help her like he always did. Finally she felt Mark’s arm around her shoulders and saw his hand helping her collect the flowers. As they walked from the station hand in hand, neither of them had noticed the photographer capturing their row, and neither of them felt his eyes as they walked past his seat in Starbucks.
To say the day dragged for Billy and Mina would be an understatement. Both were too excited by their date that evening to focus on anything else. Mina spent the day boring her friends, colleagues and anyone who would listen with the story of how her new man surprised her with flowers in the morning,
“Before we’ve even had our first date!” she gushed at the lady in Starbucks.
Billy spent the morning aimlessly driving around London ignoring the calls from his office to pick up passengers. After lunch he was feeling a little more motivated so decided he should take some photographs. If he was completely honest with himself, his main motivation was having some amazing shots to impress Mina, but even without her as the catalyst he thought it was high time he regained his focus in that area.
For many of his younger years, Billy had been a devotee of nature photography. He had loved to capture the world in its rawness and realness and to a teenage Billy, nothing was more magical than capturing the image of a bird in flight or the sun rippling through the leaves of an ancient tree. Since moving to the hustle and bustle of London, Billy had become much more interested in people. His constant aim was to capture people in their natural habitat and living their everyday lives. If he could snatch a photo of someone doing something unexpected or, even better, someone doing something completely mundane in an unexpected place or with a surreal background, he was happy. He found that often the best time to collect these types of images was at night, when people were drunk or less inhibited, but as it was day time he decided to head for his second favourite people watching place: Kings Cross train station.
Sat in his prime people-watching position, a coffee shop that looked over the ticket hall, with a cappuccino in one hand and his Nikon in the other, Billy was on the lookout for something extraordinary. Watching the hordes of people with suitcases and holdalls rush and struggle and amble by, he watched and he waited. As a group of Japanese students trugged past, dressed in Micky Mouse ears and “I ❤ London” tops, he snapped a quick shot of them. “Nothing extraordinary,” he thought to himself as looked back over the picture, “but there are some interesting colours in there.” As the minutes ticked past Billy managed to get a photo of a businessman’s suitcase falling open with papers and mobile phones sliding across the ticket hall, and a toddler in a push chair lifting up the skirt of shocked old lady. Billy loved watching the way strangers interacted with each other, how they avoided all contact even when it might be easier to talk. He loved the contrast between busy men and women in suits and confused tourists with their backpacks across their chests.
Billy kept snapping and photographing unsuspecting passers-by until something at the far corner of the ticket hall caught his eye. He quickly changed lenses and zoomed in to get a closer look. He saw a man, who was probably in his mid-twenties and very conventionally good looking, handing a massive bunch of flowers to a girl. But it was the girl who had caught his eye, from far away Billy thought that she was the running blonde but that was almost impossible. Snap. Billy took a picture just as she took the flowers from the man. Snap. He took another as she studied the flowers for a moment. Snap. He took the third as the flung the flowers to the floor, sending blossoms and stalks skidding across the polished floor. Snap. He took another as she turned to walk away and the man caught hold of her arm. Snap. He took the last as she crouched down on the floor, crying, surrounded by thrown flowers, the young man standing over her but looking away. Billy kept watching the rowing couple but he didn’t take any more pictures. He felt as though he was intruding on something. He watched as the girl tried to gather up the flowers and as the young man eventually bent down beside her and helped. He watched as the girl cried and the young man comforted her. He watched as they eventually walked past him, hand in hand, towards the tube.
Waiting outside of Coven Garden station, Billy was early. He hadn’t wanted to make Mina wait so he had rushed out of his flat at 6.30. Billy wasn’t one to pay much attention to what he was wearing, but this evening was different. After staring into his wardrobe for what seemed like hours and realising he only owned jeans, Billy decided his best option was to keep wearing the ones that had on. But he didn’t want to look too scruffy, he had told Mina to wear something nice, so he pulled out his only expensive shirt. It was Paul Smith and had been a present from his Mum. He had never worn it, but thought today was as good a day as any to try the shirt and jeans thing. When Mina walked around the corner, he knew he’d made the right decision. She looked elegant and sexy at the same time in a bright red, skin tight mini dress, leather jacket and ankle boots.
“You look nice,” Mina said as she gave him a quick kiss on the lips.
Billy felt weak at the knees, “You look, amazing,” he stammered. Quickly regaining his senses he grabbed her by the hand and led her to the restaurant.
“So what was this plan?” Mina asked as the main courses were cleared away.
“Oh,” Billy wasn’t too sure how to say it, “well you know I’m a photographer? I thought I could take some pictures of you.”
Mina rolled her eyes.
“No, oh nothing like that,” Billy blushed, “some nice ones. Just out and about in London.”
“I don’t know,” Mina was flattered, but her mind jumped back to the conversation she’d been having with Becky and Louise a day earlier.
“How about you look at some of the stuff I do, and you can see if you like it? Trust me, it’s nothing dodgy.”
Billy walked around the table and sat next to Mina, bringing his camera with him. As he was flicking through the pictures, she put her hand on his leg. As he got to the pictures he had taken earlier that day, Mina’s grip tightened.
“Wait a minute,” she said as she grabbed the camera from his hands, “I know that girl.”
Billy looked at her in shock.
“That’s Louise and that must be Mark. Did they have a fight in the station? Maybe he found out about Tim.”
“They had a kind of row, but then they made up. I think it was more her than him,” Billy quickly took the camera back and examined the picture himself, “How do you know her?”
“Louise? She works with me.”
The arrival of morning was a relief. For the first night in his life, Billy had been unable to sleep and instead had been running through conversations and scenarios in his head, trying to cover every eventuality and ensure his date that night went perfectly. It was 7am when he got a text:
‘Don’t forget the folder,’ it was from John.
He didn’t bother replying. Instead he went into his bathroom and had a shower and a shave. If Billy ever found himself awake before 9am, he wouldn’t get out of bed. If, for some reason, he did have to be out of bed before 9 he would never have a shower and would definitely never shave, but today was different. After an uncharacteristic amount of time in the bathroom (a whole 15 minutes), Billy went to his wardrobe and picked out his best and cleanest jeans. He thought better of wearing a shirt, and instead put on one of his more expensive t-shirts. Looking at himself in the mirror, he was surprised at how attractive he looked when he made some effort. Smiling at the memory of his own reflection, he picked up the folder and headed out into the cool London morning.
Billy parked his cab opposite the familiar office block and checked the time, 8.30. It was early, especially for a Friday, and he guessed that nobody would be at work at the time. Well nobody except the dedicated and hard-working John Edward Reynolds. He walked into reception and was directed to the fifth floor, apparently Mr Reynolds was expecting him. The lift doors opened effortlessly and as he stepped out he was greeted with a handshake and a suspicious look,
“You look different,” John Reynolds looked confused.
“Oh yeah, thanks,” Billy mumbled uncomfortably.
John led him into his office and stood with his back to his desk,
“The folder?” He demanded.
“Here it is,” Billy handed him the folder hoping he couldn’t tell that Billy had seen what was inside, “it’s a good job you noticed it was missing. It had fallen under the seat, I wouldn’t have seen it.”
“And you didn’t look inside?”
“Of course not,” Billy hated lying, and hoped he didn’t give himself away. John was too busy checking the contents of the folder to notice. He stood watching John leaf through every page in the folder, when he got to the CD Billy was surprised to see John finger it with a look of excitement on his face. “Is there anything else?” Billy asked checking his watch.
“No that’s it,” John looked up, “oh, but what are the flowers for?”
Billy looked around the small office anxiously, “well, I’m dating a girl who works here. And I thought if she saw me she might get suspicious.”
“Ok,” John shrugged. He heard enough about the sex lives of his colleagues from them, he didn’t need to hear about it from taxi drivers as well.
“I don’t suppose you could tell me which desk is hers?” Billy knew he was pushing his luck, he could see he was wasting Mr Reynolds’ precious time, “her name’s Mina. I don’t know her surname.”
“Oh her,” John gave Billy a look that he didn’t understand, “her desk is at the back of this floor, in the art department. You’ll know it’s hers. She has loads of black and white prints of old film stars.”
As he stepped out into the open plan office floor, Billy was surprised to see that there people sat at some of the desks. He wanted to be inconspicuous, but none of the female members of staff could avoid staring at the handsome man carrying a bunch of flowers, who had he come to see? As he walked past desk after desk, getting slowly closer to the one which must be hers, Billy was relieved to see that the Art Department was more deserted than the one he had just walked through. In fact, only one of the desks seemed to be occupied. He walked closer and couldn’t fail to recognise the perfectly glossy ebony of Mina’s hair. His heart jumped into his throat as she turned and saw him,
“Oh my god!” she practically jumped out of her seat, “what are you doing here? I look like a tramp.” She blushed and covered her face with her hands.
“You look stunning,” Billy tried to regain himself, “I just wanted to bring you some flowers,” he said, awkwardly handing them to her.
“Thanks,” Mina flashed him her perfect smile as she took them and set them down on her desk. John had been right about the photos, her noticeboard was covered in them. “But I am seeing you tonight?”
“Yeah, but what are you meant to do with a bunch of flowers when we’re having dinner?” Billy had always been good at thinking of his feet.
“True,” Mina smiled and stood up, “well they’re beautiful. Thank you. And you look really good!”
Now it was Billy’s turn to blush, he looked down at the floor. When he looked up again Mina was standing directly in front of him.
“Well, I better go and let you do some work,” he said not really wanting to leave. As he turned to go, Mina caught him by the arm. He turned to face her. She was smiling as she kissed him in the middle of the Art Department. Billy was smiling all the way back to his cab.
Billy could not believe the day he’d had. It was 10:30 at night and he was only just dropping his troublesome passenger back at his Crouch End home. As John Edward Reynolds closed the door and Billy started the drive to his flat, neither of them noticed the grey folder that had slid under the back seat of the cab. In his minimalist hallway John was too busy defending the attacks of “where have you been” from his wife to realise he was missing something from his briefcase. Trying to juggle driving and texting, Billy was too busy sending the last ‘good night’ text to Mina to notice his well-paying customer had left something behind. It was only when he was finally left alone in his study to think over the day’s events that John Edward Reynolds, the man who never forgets anything, realised that he had indeed forgotten something and something profoundly important.
Billy was disappointed to see that this text was not from his new favourite girl,
‘Billy, its John. Why don’t you answer your god damn phone?! I left a grey folder in your car. Don’t look in it. Bring it to my office in the morning. 8.30.’
Billy found the folder and placed it on the arm of his sofa. He was not one of those people who find themselves unable to control the urge to do something once they have been told they shouldn’t. Billy wasn’t even nosey. He had become so used to ignoring the indiscretions of his passengers and the customers in his bar as they snuck girls into the bathroom, that he felt no urge at all to look in the folder. The fact that it was guaranteed to be full of girly magazine facts and figures only added to his disinterest. So instead of doing what a lesser man might he decided to tidy his flat, he might have company tomorrow.
As he finished pulling the hoover over his once white carpets, he look around and smiled, ‘almost perfect,’ he grinned. Out of the corner of his eye, something caught his attention: a ball of fluff on the sofa. ‘Oh well,’ Billy shrugged as he decided the easiest way to deal with it would be to suck it up and watch it swirl around in the see-through plastic of the Dyson. Something about attacking dust with the Dyson always made Billy smile, and he enjoyed disposing of this dust-bunny as much as he did every other. It might have been his triumphant excitement at destroying every piece of dirt in his small flat, it might have been the way he swung the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner around, but Billy knocked the grey folder from the arm of his sofa and onto the floor. The papers which had been hiding safely inside were now strewn across the newly cleaned carpet.
“Fuck,” Billy yelled, “I hope they’re numbered.”
He crouched down to pick up the papers and was relieved to see that the pages were both titled and numbered. As he looked more closely at the page he had in his hand, he was confused to see that it wasn’t about fashion or anything remotely girly. It was the last page of a set of company accounts, and not the accounts for Zing Magazine. Collecting more of the pages, Billy got the feeling he was seeing something he shouldn’t. There were more pages of accounts, but these weren’t just the accounts from one company, there were from 10 or 15 different companies and from all sectors. Confused, he reordered the pages and slid them back into the folder. He knew he shouldn’t have seen them, Mr Reynolds had told him not to open the file, but he also knew that John Edward Reynolds Head of Copywriting at Zing Magazine should not have all of this information. Underneath the last page that had fallen onto the floor, Billy found a CD; it wasn’t labelled. Knowing he had already seen more than he was allowed, he ignored the nagging voice telling him to see what was on it.
‘Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. I have the perfect dress in mind xx’ Mina’s text woke Billy from his confused thoughts. It dawned on him that he would see Mina tomorrow, and about 10 hours before she was expecting to see him. With more pressing issues, Billy drove thoughts about John Reynolds to the back of his mind. How on earth was he going to explain being in Mina’s office in the morning?
Billy was not the kind of guy to get nervous. Ever. In his short 28 years he had lived in more countries, had more job interviews, been on more adventures and not known what he should do more times than anyone else he had met, and still he had never been nervous. He was not unpopular with the opposite sex and never had any trouble meeting someone to entertain him for a week or two. In the past year alone he had been on more than 20 first dates and bedded at least six new women. And yet, as he took one last look around his now immaculate flat and headed to bed, he couldn’t get rid of the feeling of butterflies in his stomach.
It had been well over a year, and probably more than two, since he had been in anything resembling a relationship. When he was entirely honest with himself, Billy would admit that he had done everything he could to avoid being in a relationship. With his friends he would laugh and joke that there were too many hot women in London to tie himself down to just one, and the majority of the time he believed it; the evidence was all around. But sometimes, after a meaningless night with a meaningless girl, his mind would wonder back to his childhood home in Hampshire and his best friend from the age of five to 16, Serena. Even when they were both five at Primary School, he had been in love with her. She had always been daring, funny, cheeky and challenging. She had bought out the best and worst in him. The only regret he had about moving to London was leaving her. She had cried when he left. But five years later, at the age of 23, she had married his brother.
To say he had been heartbroken would have been an understatement. Billy fell into a dark pit that even his drunken Great Great Grandfather would have been proud of. For a year Billy attempted to drown his sorrows only to discover that they kept coming back, and each time more painful, every time he decided to take a break from the partying. It was only when an especially coked-up airhead suggested that he might have a problem that is dawned on him that he must have. That same night, and more than a little intoxicated, he packed a bag and jumped on a train to Dorset. He signed up for a photography course, which was run by a very old and very senile grey haired pensioner, and didn’t touch any alcohol for two years. By the time he returned to London, Billy had almost completely forgotten about his brother and his childhood sweetheart and had gained a new perspective. He was determined to make something of himself and to forget about women completely, and what better place to do it than the buzzing capital city.
And he had done a great job of forgetting about women, or at least of not falling in love with any. He made sure he only dated women who were a bit dim and apart from a small blip where he had been the boyfriend of the curator of an art gallery, his plan had been a success. His plan had been a perfect success until he had seen a beautiful woman with a sparkle in her eyes at the other end of his bar. Billy hoped he wasn’t getting carried away and too quickly, but he couldn’t help himself, he knew there was something special about this girl and he was excited and nervous to find out what it was.
As they walked back into the building, Mina skipped towards the stairs as usual. Becky took one look at the back of Mina’s glossy head, shrugged her shoulders and waited with Louise for the lift. Louise could feel Becky’s tension, and they stood side by side in silence. As the lift doors thudded shut Louise asked,
“Are you ok? You’ve been acting funny since Mina came.”
Becky just nodded her head.
“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Louise was scared of Becky’s answer, but she couldn’t stand feeling awkward around her friend.
Becky didn’t answer, she just pushed the button for the ground floor and waited. When the doors opened onto the reception, she grabbed Louise by the hand and led her out of the block. Still holding onto her hand she led Louise down the street and into a nearby park. It was just gone 2pm, and all of the office workers who had spent their lunch break enjoying the mild weather were reluctantly on their way back to work. Becky walked them to a bench in the far corner of the park and sat down. Louise looked at her,
“Are you sure you’re ok?” she asked.
Becky had a look on her face as if she was about to say something terrible.
“Did something happen to you last night?” Becky had let go of Louise’s hand, but suddenly afraid that she might have been attacked, Louise grabbed her hand again and rested it in her lap.
“Oh no, it’s nothing like that,” Becky looked shocked, but she kept hold of Louise’s hand, “I just wanted to talk to you, that’s all.”
“Ok,” Louise was confused.
“I don’t really know how to say this,” Becky paused and looked Louise straight in the eyes. She freed her hand from Louise’s and then placed both hands on Louise’s thighs. Instinctively, Louise placed her hands on top of Becky’s. They sat like that for a second, Louise not knowing what was happening and Becky not knowing what to say. Instead of speaking, Becky leant forwards until Louise’s nose was only an inch away. She put her hand onto Louise’s face, pulling her closer. As they kissed on the park bench, Louise wondered why she didn’t resist. She wondered why she found herself kissing Becky back and why, as Becky tried to pull away, she felt her own hand pulling her back in.
Once again they were sat eye to eye on the park bench. Neither of the girls spoke, both of their heads were spinning.
“I’ve got to go,” Louise said suddenly standing up, “can you tell the others I’ve gone home sick? I’m ok. Mark’s coming tomorrow. Can we talk about this on Monday?”
She walked away from the bench and away from Becky without looking back,
“What on earth is happening to me?” she mumbled under her breath.
The alarm went off too early. Billy grunted, rolled over and checked the time. “Seven fucking forty five,” he mumbled under his breath, “and I think I’m still drunk from those cocktails.” He stumbled out of bed and into the jeans he had helpfully flung to the floor the night before. Underneath them was the torn off corner of a napkin and scrawled on that was a number.
“Mina,” he remembered, “it’s too soon to text her,” but as soon as the thought entered his head, he couldn’t get it out. He sat on the edge of his bed, phone in hand:
‘Hi, it’s Billy. Great to meet you last night. Sorry for the early morning text, I have a busy day ahead. We’ll have to catch up soon. Hope you’re ok x’
He was so unused to texting girls, or at least to texting girls he liked. Billy read the unsent message over and over. He checked the time: 08:05. Rushing out of the door he pushed send. It would have to do.
He pulled up outside the front door and waited.08:25. He had been instructed not to call or text when he got there, just to wait. From his pocket, his phone buzzed. An involuntary smile crept onto his lips as he realised it was Mina.
‘I wasn’t expecting you to text so soon, but I’m glad you did. What on earth are you up to today? I’ve just got the usual boring day behind my desk. When are you free to meet up then? x’
He didn’t have time to reply. As soon as he’d finished reading, the front door of number 29 opened and out stepped John Reynolds. He looked different to how Billy remembered, but that was probably because he was no longer covered in paint. In fact, Billy thought to himself, he looked very smart indeed. Suited and booted. Billy began to wonder if he was going to be spending the day chauffeuring two love birds around at all.
Silently, John climbed into the back of the cab. Silently, Billy pulled away and drove to the end of the road. If the journey could have continued silently Billy would have been more than happy for it to do so, but they were at a junction. Questions had to be asked,
“So,” Billy asked nervously, “where are we going?”
“To Minnow and Sons, the tailor, it’s just off New Bond Street. I need to be there at nine.”
“Nine?? Bloody hell, you haven’t left much time.”
“But we’ll get there?”
“Of course we’ll get there.” Billy was a lot of things, but he was never late even under the most difficult circumstances, and this was certainly going to be difficult, “it’s a good job I know plenty of back roads.”
John Edward Reynolds didn’t reply; he was busy on his phone. Billy got the feeling John was one of those silent customers. He didn’t mind. He didn’t imagine they’d have much in common anyway, except the two girls but he was trying not to think about either of them too much.
They got to Minnow and Sons at nine on the dot. John instructed Billy to wait outside, “I’ll be about 30 minutes. For god’s sake, don’t pick up any other passengers.”
“What?” Why…” Billy was about to ask why anyone would do such a thing, but John wasn’t listening.
“Oh, but you could pick me up a coffee, black, one sugar, and a croissant,” and he disappeared into the still closed shop.
“Who on earth does he think I am? His PA?”
Looking for a more suitable place to park, Billy got out his phone:
‘You’ll never guess what he’s got me doing? I’m on coffee duty! At least he gave me the money up front. I hope you’re day is going better than mine x’
The second text of the day and it was only 9am, he hoped he wasn’t being too keen. This wasn’t his usual style at all. Normally Billy would wait at least three days before contacting a girl and he would always call if he liked her even a little bit, then the next step was hers. Mina replied almost immediately. Billy thought better of texting her again, “I think I’d better play it cool,” he said to himself as he set out in search of a coffee shop.
By the time John emerged from the tailor’s, his coffee was cold. Billy would have offered to get him another one, but John didn’t seem to notice. John was silent as usual. Billy’s surprise at seeing a man leaving a tailor after an hour visit without a suit, or anything other than the briefcase he went in with, meant he could hardly say anything at all. By the time he did speak they were half way down the road,
“Where to now?”
“The Park Lane Hilton, I’ve got a meeting at 10. I’m late.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be there in no time.”
John was on his phone again. As much as Billy knew it was rude, and as much as he always made an effort to ignore anything that happened in the back of his cab, he couldn’t withhold his curiosity and stop himself from listening to the conversation.
“Yes, it’s just as we thought,” John was talking quietly into his mobile, “No. I’ve checked it 20 times, it’s definitely happening to them too. It’s like an epidemic… Well Terry reckons he’s got a lead so I’m meeting him and some of the others now… We’ll get this under control.”
From his rear-view mirror, Billy saw John look up; he had caught him listening. They were both silent for a moment, neither knowing what to say,
“We’re just having a problem with a rival magazine stealing our stories,” John explained, “it’s a nightmare. All of our exclusives are getting out. We need to find out where the leak is coming from.”
Billy just nodded and wondered what all that had to do with a tailor, but maybe that was something else. “He’s going on like he’s a spy or something,” Billy thought to himself as he pulled up outside the hotel, “what a strange man. All this secrecy for a fashion magazine? Ridiculous!”
“I’ll probably be a couple of hours,” John said as he stepped out of the taxi, “I’ll call you when I’m done. Don’t go too far. Oh,” shouted as he walked away, “and that coffee was cold.”
Billy sat in the car and stared out of the window. “What an odd couple of weeks this has been,” he thought to himself, “I need to get away, London is a crazy place full of crazy people who take themselves too seriously. God.” He reached under his seat and pulled out his camera, “I’ve not even taken any photos for days.” His mind wondered onto Mina and how gorgeous she’d looked last night; he had been surprised she wasn’t a model, he would love to photograph her. He pulled out his phone and re-read her last message:
‘My day’s just started, but it’s already great. The office arsehole is out for the whole day. Perfect. The guy your driving round must be his brother or something. If you’re free tomorrow, maybe I could cheer you up xx’
“Two kisses this time,” Billy smiled, “and if only she knew that the office arsehole and my passenger were one and the same.” Billy felt as though he needed a change, his life had become something he never wanted it to be: predictable. Predictable apart from the events of the past few days at least.
Sat in the cab, camera in hand, staring at the grey front of the Park Lane Hilton a vision of Billy’s father, Harrison Van Boesekom, appeared in front of his eyes,
“You’re wasting your time William. You’ll never become anything if you carry on like this,” it was a speech Billy was familiar with, “Why don’t you try to make something of your life, like your brothers? They’re both top surgeons. I know you’re not as bright as them, but you do have some brains. Use them for god’s sake. What good is running off to London going to do? You’re just going to become a nobody. You’ll shame our good name.”
Billy began to wonder if he had become a nobody, if he had ever been anything else. But he knew his photographs were good, and he knew he was doing what he had to do to be a success. All he needed now was a great set of pictures, something to make him stand out from all of the others. “And now,” he thought, “I’ve found my muse.”
‘There are too many arseholes in London but I’m sure you could cheer me up. How about I take you for dinner? Shall we say 7.30 Covent Garden? And wear something nice, I have an idea xx’
Becky and Louise sat opposite each other, pushing their food around their plates.
“Hangovers and food don’t mix,” Becky said half under her breath.
“Agreed,” Louise pushed the plate of food away from herself, “you know what this calls for?”
Becky looked up questioningly.
“Hair of the dog!” and signalling the waiter she ordered two vodka and Diet Coke’s.
“Oh god, I don’t think this is a good idea,” Becky shook her head.
“It can’t make us feel any worse,” Louise shrugged.
They sat in awkward silence until the drinks arrived.
“So?” Louise didn’t know what to say, but she could tell that Becky was feeling uncomfortable.
“Erm,” Becky was staring down into the brown/black drink in front of her, “look. I’m not too sure how to do this but I need to talk to you about last night.”
“Last night?” Louise asked, trying to sound innocent.
“What happened last night?” Both girls looked up to see Mina smiling next to them, “I’ve been looking for you two everywhere!” Mina pulled up a chair and started eating off the two untouched plates.
“Really?” Becky looked annoyed.
“Yeah,” Mina said with a mouth full of chips, “God, you two look rough. What did you get up to last night?”
“Oh, we just went for a drink,” Louise answered, glad for the interruption.
“Looks like you had more than one!”
“Well yeah,” Becky pulled her plate back from Mina’s hungry hands, “I thought it might be nice to get to know our new friend a bit better.”
Mina gave Becky a knowing look, and they sat in silence for a minute.
“Anyway, what did you get up to last night? You seem cheery?” Louise was happy to turn the topic of conversation away from herself.
“Well,” Mina lent forward in her chair, “I met a boy,” she giggled, “a man really.”
“Oh yeah? Tell all!” Louise was genuinely excited, she couldn’t understand why someone as gorgeous as Mina was single.
“I was at a bar with some friends, he works there. No don’t look like that,” Mina saw Becky pull a disgusted face, “he’s really nice and intelligent. He just works there for extra money.”
“So what else does he do?” Becky asked as she piled her fork with food, along with her appetite she seemed to have found he a bit of a mean streak.
“He’s a cab driver,” Mina sounded unsure, “and a photographer.”
“Oh great,” Becky sighed, “you’re always falling for these useless guys with no jobs. Next thing you know he’ll be putting naked pictures of you up on the internet. Again.”
Mina looked embarrassed.
“No, don’t be mean,” Louise felt she had to say something, “Mina, I’m sure he’s a nice guy. Have you heard from him today?”
“Yeah, we’ve been texting all morning. He is nice,” she glared at Becky, “apparently he’s driving some knobby guy around London all day. And getting paid a small fortune for the privilege.”
The next day and memories of the night before came too soon for Louise. The sun shone through her bedroom window, waking her up and bringing the pounding of her hangover to the front of her head. And now there was a ringing noise, “what on earth is that?” it took a few seconds for her to realise that it was her phone. She reached down onto the floor next to her, trying her best to ignore the swimming feeling of nausea. She looked at the lit up screen. It was Mark. He never called in the morning. What could he want? She answered reluctantly.
“Hello honey,” she tried her best to conceal her hangover.
“Hi. How are you this morning?” Mark sounded cheerful.
“I’m good honey, running a bit late I think,” Louise tried to sound cheerful, “This is a surprise.”
“Well yeah,” Louise sat up in bed and looked around her room. Last night’s clothes were all over the place, “you don’t normally call in the morning.”
“Oh, I guess not,” Mark paused, “are you ok? You sound tired.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just woke up,” Louise tried to sound fine.
“You are running late,” Mark laughed, “Well I won’t keep you. You need to hurry up and get ready sleepy head. I just called to say happy anniversary.”
“It’s been three years today!”
“Wow,” she couldn’t believe she’d forgotten, “how time flies! I know.”
“And I get to see you tomorrow,”
Double shit. “I can’t wait,” Louise tried to hide her shock, “I’ve got so much planned!”
“So much furniture shopping,” Mark was still laughing, “I know what you’re like.”
Hanging up the phone Louise could have kicked herself, how could she be so forgetful, except she didn’t have time. Instead she rushed to get dressed, rushed to the tube and rushed to forget last night’s antics. But she knew she wouldn’t be able to forget. Standing, cramped and hung over in the rush hour train, Louise couldn’t forget the look on Becky’s face. She’d have some explaining to do once she got to work.
For the second time, Louise found herself running down that road, except this time, if anyone was watching they weren’t looking for her. Louise quickly found that running and hangovers don’t mix and as she entered the building, instead of running into the waiting lift, she ran into the downstairs toilets to be sick. Groggy and still with a lingering taste of vomit in her mouth, she sat down at her desk and tried to hide her face. Louise started at her reflection in the computer screen, “I look pasty,” she thought and looked away.
In her head the blurry drunken images of the night before played over and over. Sometimes, when looking back over past actions it can feel like watching a film, which is exactly how Louise felt in these memories. She recognised the main character as herself, but the actions were somehow detached from who she was in reality. She imagined that some people might feel guilty about what had happened, and that some people (and probably Becky) might expect her to feel guilty about what had happened; but she just didn’t and she couldn’t imagine that she ever would. She knew she had done nothing wrong.
A paper Starbucks cup woke her out of her thoughts. “I thought you might need this,” Becky was standing over her, sleepily wielding her own paper Starbucks cup.
“Thank you,” sheepishly Louise took a sip of the much needed coffee, “how’s your head?”
“Pounding,” Becky managed a half smile, “I can barely remember anything from last night,”
“Thank god,” Louise thought to herself and then added out loud, “me either. Maybe drinking on a school night isn’t such a good idea.”
“Maybe not,” Becky agreed. As she started to walk away she added, “Can we have a chat at lunch time?”
Louise attempted to ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach as she nodded her head,
“Of course,” she tried to sound cheerful and quickly took another sip of her coffee.
Usually, Louise hated the quietness of Thursday mornings. The busy influx of work that piled up at the beginning of the week had been dealt with, the last minute rush of Friday afternoon was over 24 hours away; she and everyone else in the department had nothing to do. Usually, Louise hated having nothing to do; she thrived on busy and flourished under pressure, even her CV said so. This Thursday Louise wasn’t feeling as flourishy as usual; the thudding in her head meant even answering emails was a challenge. But as well as the usual Thursday deadness, today was quiet for another reason: John Reynolds was out all day. The department had noticed he’d been missing more days of work recently, and without explanation. Obviously he was seeing one of his bits-on-the-side. Everyone felt sorry for his wife, partly because she was married to him in the first place and partly because he was a cheating lying scum-bag. Without him anxiously looking over their shoulders, the Copy Writing department were left to discuss their plans for the weekend.
“And you’re off tomorrow?” Tim asked, standing a little too close behind Louise’s chair.
“Have you got any plans?”
“Oh course she has plans,” Hannah interrupted, “her boyfriend is coming. Isn’t he? So I bet they have all kinds of plans.”
“I need to go furniture shopping,” Louise mumbled.
“Furniture shopping?” Hannah giggled, “planning on breaking the bed.”
Tim went red.
Louise went redder, “Oh my God, Hannah. Grow up! All I own is a bed!”
“I can’t see what the problem is then,” seeing the angry look on Louise’s face, Hannah quickly changed track, “but don’t you think you should do something romantic. It is your anniversary.”
“Yeah,” Tim agreed, his cheeks still flushed.
“We could see a show?” Louise had no idea what they could do that would be romantic, the last thoughts in her head right now were romantic, “he is going to be here for the whole weekend. I got tickets to see Chelsea tomorrow.”
“Yuck!,” Hannah groaned, “I hope he gets you something nice in return.”
“I would never make my girlfriend watch football on our anniversary,” Tim gave Louise a knowing look.
“You don’t have a girlfriend, Tim.” Hannah laughed.
“I was just saying.”
“That was very sweet,” Louise smiled, putting her had on Tim’s arm, “but the tickets are my present to him. Anyway, I don’t mind as long as it’s not raining. I guess we’ll just go for dinner Friday night. Where’s good?”
The pressure of trying to organise her forgotten anniversary weekend soon saw Louise’s hangover off. It also saw the morning off, and before she knew it Becky was standing by her desk waiting to go to lunch.