• ramorris86

A Fleeting Smile

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

A cold breeze whipped across his face as he stepped out of the station. The chill in the air shocked him momentarily, forcefully reminding him that Christmas was rapidly approaching. He paused briefly, taking in the busy street ahead of him. Oxford Circus was bustling with tourists and Christmas shoppers, all walking into each other in their hurry to buy the latest clothes, gadgets or toys. His silent contemplation of the trial ahead was suddenly interrupted as a petite woman pushed past him to exit the station, sighing and rolling her eyes in frustration as she did so. Embarrassed and a little annoyed with himself, he hurried out onto the street, heading towards Selfridges, where he planned to do his own shopping. He squeezed past a large couple, who appeared not to have noticed the crowds trying to make their way past, and reached the crossing, slightly flustered. Using the brief pause as he waited for the lights to compose himself, he began making a mental list of the presents he was hoping to leave with by the end of the day. Handbag for Rosie (there was some specific brand she was keen on...Blackberry, maybe? Blueberry? Some kind of berry anyway - the shop people would presumably know), new iPad for Dad. Mum’s present was already sorted, thankfully - he’d booked her trip to Italy the minute he got this year’s bonus through (the rest of which was paying for Dad and Rosie’s presents). He finished his list just as the lights changed and, pleased with himself, got off to a quick start, beating the confused German next to him (who promptly stepped on two other people as he tried to ascertain which side of the road he was aiming for).

He had just stepped onto the curb at the other side when he saw her. Hovering uncertainly near the window of Benetton, her dark blonde hair flying around her face in the wind, her large eyes blinking at the cold air, she drew his attention immediately. Her high heeled boots bringing her up to around 5’ 6”, she had an air of self-conscious confidence that reminded him of himself just after university - determined to prove to the world that he wasn’t lost or confused, he just didn’t know quite where he was right now…

She finished rummaging in her bag, zipping it up purposefully and straightening herself before heading towards the crossing he had just left.

She glanced up, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes and the world stood still.

Unfortunately, he didn’t.

Instead he continued to walk, despite that fact that his brain had clearly disengaged, resulting in the following collision.

“I’m so sorry. Are you ok? I didn’t realise I was still… I mean I thought I had… Oh dear, your bag!” Rambling incoherently, he stopped to help her gather her things, thanking his lucky stars they were still on the pavement. She seemed more confused than upset so, when he had handed over the last of her belongings, he did something unexpected: “I really am sorry - look, can I get you a coffee or something? To apologise? I promise not to spill it all over you...!” He held his breath as she looked at him, considering the suggestion. “Alright. I suppose it’s only fair to let you redeem yourself”, she smiled at him. “Where do you suggest?” His years in London finally proved an advantage, as he steered her smoothly towards St Christopher’s Place, stopping at the first little cafe they saw. “What can I get you? Coffee, tea, cakes, all of the above?” She smiled again, amused at his eagerness to please. “A cappuccino please and maybe half a brownie...if you’re happy to share?”

He headed to the counter with alacrity, determined to get this right, prove to her that he wasn’t the bumbling idiot she’d seen so far.

Returning to their table, he’d finally managed to regain his composure, though he still had to stop himself from apologising again. Their order arrived, steam rising from her cappuccino and his latte, the brownie oozing slightly as the chocolate melted. “So. As the injured party, I think it’s only fair that I should get first taste.” She smiled cheekily at him before scooping up a spoonful of brownie, indicating to him that he should do the same as it melted in her mouth. He laughed and followed suit. As they made their way through the brownie, they relaxed into the conversation, losing the edge of apprehension that comes from meeting a stranger and chatting as if they had been friends for years. He learned that she was an artist. She had studied fine art at St Martin’s and wanted to be an illustrator. Sally (her name was Sally, she told him, in return for learning that his was Richard) had already sent her portfolio to a number of publishers in the hope that they might have projects that would be suitable. Out of 15, she had managed to obtain a response from only one, but that had resulted in a meeting, which would take place the following day. She had come up to London from Sussex, where her parents lived, but hoped to move there one day, once she could afford it. By the time they left the cafe, he had wished her luck for the following day and had convinced her to give him her number and agree to a ‘debrief’ session after her meeting.

Overwhelmed with his success, he hurried through the rest of his shopping, succeeding in finding Rosie’s bag (Mulberry, the shop assistant assured him) and his father’s iPad before Selfridges closed for the day. He walked home in a daze, reliving their meeting, and was twice lucky not to be run over. By the time he went to bed, he had married her several times over, chosen the song for the first dance and named all of their children (they would either have two, a boy and a girl, or possibly three, a boy followed by twin girls).

*

He walked briskly towards the restaurant, completely oblivious to the two people he stepped on on his way. It was the best idea. It made so much sense, surely she would agree? Nevertheless, he was nervous. It had only been six months after all, maybe she would think it was too soon... He’d been thinking about it since she’d won the commission for that first children’s book - she needed to be in London, she was starting to get work, but she’d be able to speed things up so much if she was freer to go to meetings regularly. Alright, she couldn’t really afford it yet, but that was what made it such a good idea. In his preoccupation, he strode confidently past the door, realising two shops along and embarrassedly turning on his heels and returning the way he had come.

She was already there, sitting by herself at their table, idly watching people come and go. He stopped for a minute before sitting down, taking the time before she saw him to remind himself again of how lucky he was. She jumped when he sat, so absorbed was she in the fate of one particular waiter, who had dropped two things already and seemed perpetually on the brink of dropping his third. He smiled to himself, then suggested they order. The food, when it arrived, was good and she was in good form, having secured a commission for the illustration of a trilogy that morning, but he was struggling to focus. Any time there was a lull in conversation, he found his thoughts drifting. He finally gave up when their pudding arrived, interrupting her anecdote just before its punchline. “So… with this trilogy, you’ll probably have to come up to London a lot more.” She nodded. “So I was thinking, that must get very annoying. Maybe it would be better if you lived in London?” She looked at him blankly, waiting for him to clarify. “Well?” “Well what? Would it be easier to live in London? Of course it would. You know I can’t afford it.” “Oh. Sorry. I meant with me. Did I not say that?” She started to laugh, helplessly giggling as he looked increasingly annoyed at her reaction. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry...You’re just such an idiot sometimes.” He sighed and rolled his eyes at her, waiting for her response. She finally composed herself for long enough to say something. “Ok, ok. Firstly, thank you. that’s incredibly sweet of you. I guess it depends on how much you’ll want in rent. I can probably afford up to about £600 a month, does that sound like enough?” She looked at him slightly anxiously, hoping that this might be the solution to her problems. He smiled at her eager expression, before telling that £600 a month was plenty - as long as she was sure she could cope with living with him. To his great irritation, this prompted another fit of the giggles before Sally was able to set his mind at ease. Rolling his eyes at her yet again, Richard moved the conversation on to the question of timings - when would she tell her parents, how long did she think it would take her to pack, he was free next weekend, was that too soon - so that by the time they left the restaurant, they had a firm plan to move Sally to London in two weeks.

*

“You’re back! How did it go?”

“Great, they loved them! They got so excited, they signed me up for the whole series on the spot. We went out for drinks to celebrate, which is why I’m a bit late… Apparently they’d been looking for an illustrator for three months, so I can imagine they were a bit sick of it…”

“Wow! Congrats! We should do something to celebrate this weekend. Oh, that reminds me - have you eaten yet?”

“Nope, I wanted to wait ‘till I got home to you…”

“Aw, how sweet… I’ve made stir fry, that ok?”

“Sounds perfect!”

*

Thank God. After a long and stressful week, Richard was home at last, he couldn’t wait to sit down in his cosy sitting room with a nice warm meal and just forget all about it. He turned his key in the lock smiling with anticipation, only to find it wouldn’t budge. Perplexed, he tried it the other way - it had been stressful, after all, maybe he’d just forgotten which way it turned - and succeeded in turning the key, hearing a satisfying clunk as the lock opened. He pushed the door. He pushed harder. After the third try, he put his key back in the lock and tried the other way again. Finally the door opened. “For God’s sake”, he muttered to himself, “the fucking thing was open all along.”

“Sally? Sally, are you here?” Hearing no answer, he made his way through to the kitchen, tripping over a bin that had been left lying in the hall as went. As he surveyed the carnage in the kitchen, the plates covered in crumbs, the cups half full of tea, the food sitting open on the counter, he heard the sitting room door open.

Sally poked her head out, looking surprised and concerned at the racket. The moment he saw her face, Richard’s anger melted away and he smiled at her. “What’s all the noise?”, she asked, confusedly. “Oh, nothing - I just tripped over this bin”, he explained, gesturing towards the bin in question. “Any idea why it might be out here?” She looked in the direction he was pointing and swore loudly on seeing the bin. “I’m so sorry - I took it out to change the bin liner and I must have forgotten it. Here, let me put it away.”

*

Richard opened the front door, sighing to himself as he saw the trail of plates, cups, book and general rubbish strewn along the hall. He knew Sally was out tonight, so there was little point in getting angry… but he did wish he could come home to a clean house once in a while… He put his coat and briefcase down in the bedroom before beginning to pick up the mess Sally had left behind.

*

It had been a long week and Richard was looking forward to a quiet night in with Sally, after six days of late nights, weekend work and deadlines. He turned his key in the lock, tutting to himself as he realised the door had been left open again. He hated it when Sally did this - didn’t she realise how easy it would be for any random stranger to walk into his house? His relief at being home was beginning to wear off, as he anticipated the mess he knew he would find inside.

He walked into his bedroom, intending to drop off his bag and coat as usual before beginning to clear up and was startled to find his right foot sliding out from under him. He skidded uncontrollably across the floor for a minute or two before regaining his balance, heart beating wildly. When he had recovered from the shock, he began casting around for the culprit, finally spotting the be-crumbed plate lying in the centre of the room, where it had slid after he lifted his foot off it. He could feel himself getting angrier, all semblance of post-work calm evaporating as he contemplated yet another evening spent tidying and cleaning to return the flat to a livable state. Just as he reached his angriest, he heard a slight click as the front door opened.

“Sally! Where the hell were you?!”

“...I had a meeting… What’s up with you?”

“What’s up with me?! Maybe the fact that the fucking door was left unlocked, the kitchen is a fucking state and I nearly broke my fucking legs tripping over this fucking plate YOU have left out! Is the idea to make my house so filthy that any burglar coming in through the door YOU left open would decide not to steal all my stuff?”

Your stuff? Your house? What happened to ‘You pay rent too, it’s as much your flat as mine’? Was that all just to get me to move here?!”

“That was something I said before I realised ‘moving into my house’ meant trashing my house! For God’s sake, you’re an adult!”

“Well, fuck you.” She sniffed and a tear crept out and trailed along her cheek. “I had some amazing news today, some news I was looking forward to sharing with you and now you don’t wanttohearanythi….” The end of her sentence trailed off as she burst into tears, her disappointment at his reaction overwhelming her.

“Oh no, Sally, don’t cry…” He ran over to comfort her. “I’m so sorry, it’s been a long week and I just overreacted, I’m sorry… Look it’ll take 5, maybe 10 minutes to clean it all up and then we can have a lovely supper, how does that sound?”

She sniffed again, visibly pulling herself together. “I’m so sorry Richard. I never meant for you to come home to such a mess - I thought I’d be back much sooner, but the meeting overran...”

They hugged silently for a minute, before Sally picked herself up. “Now. Do you want to tidy while I cook or the other way around?”

*

The door opened with a crash, as it knocked some shoes left in hall, which clipped a table leg, tipping the precariously balanced stack of plates over the edges. Two of the plates shattered, while a third miraculously bounced and righted itself on the floor.

“For fuck’s sake.” He sighed and rolled his eyes, walking past the mess to the bedroom, where he put down his briefcase and took of his shoes. He placed them carefully at the bottom of his wardrobe, in a line with the rest of his belongings, then left the room in search of his girlfriend.

“Sally? Sally..? SALLY!” At the last yell, her head popped out from the study, where she had been immersed in work. “WHAT?!” she snapped. “Why the FUCK is the hall full of plates?” he asked, enunciating every word with exaggerated precision, “Oh, wait, no - I meant bits of plate.”

“Really? You interrupted my work for THIS?” She tutted irritably and turned to go back into the study.

“Sally. This is important. I can’t keep living like this - I’ve had to clean the house every night for the last month, because it’s such a state by the time I get home.”

“Well, no one’s making you. I’ve told you a million times I’ll clean it up myself, you just have to let me finish working first!”

“You don’t finish work till midnight - we haven’t gone to sleep together in weeks!”

“So I’ll clean at midnight. So what?”

“So, you wake me up. you may not have to get up ‘till 10, but I have to be in the office by 7!”

“Oh, and that makes you more important than me? I work best in the evening!”

“I’M NOT TRYING TO STOP YOU! How many times?! You can work whenever you want, just don’t be so fucking inconsiderate about it!”

“I’m inconsiderate? I’M INCONSIDERATE?! At least I would never interrupt you in a client meeting to complain about housework!” “That’s not same and you know it isn’t!”

“Why, because my work doesn't count? My work isn’t real work? Fuck you Richard.” He sighed, dropping his shoulders in defeat.

“Fine. I can’t argue with you anymore Sally, I just can’t. I think you should move out, it’ll be best for both of us.”

She stared at him in shock, which turned to anger as she realised he meant it. “You think you can live without me Richard? Well fucking fine. I’m going. I’ll stay in a hotel tonight and pick my stuff up tomorrow. You won’t see me again.”

She stalked out through the door, her fury evident with every step. The door slammed behind her, her departure echoing through the house.

***

Hovering uncertainly near the window of Benetton, her dark blonde hair flying around her face in the wind, her large eyes blinking at the cold air, she drew his attention immediately. Her high heeled boots bringing her up to around 5' 6", she had an air of self-conscious confidence that reminded him of himself just after university - determined to prove to the world that he wasn’t lost or confused, he just didn’t know quite where he was right now…

She finished rummaging in her bag, zipping it up purposefully and straightening herself before heading towards the crossing he had just left.

She glanced up, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes and the world stood still.

Richard held his breath for a moment, before realising he was still walking. At the last minute, he managed to avoid a head-on collision, sidestepping her just as her partially open bag dropped to the floor, its contents cascading out into the paths of a hundred strangers. He leapt to her aid, gathering purses, hairbrushes, makeup and returning them to her before all her worldly possessions were scattered into oncoming traffic.

He found himself slightly embarrassed in the face of her effusive reaction, but nevertheless accepted her invitation to coffee ‘to thank him’.

And so, in the Starbucks on Bond Street he learned her name was Sally, she was hoping to become an illustrator and wanted to live in London, though she couldn’t afford it yet.

He left with her number and the promise of a debrief after her important meeting the following day.

*

“Ok, so you’re all packed?”

“Yep! Everything except my toothbrush!” “Great. I’ll get there tomorrow at around 9, so we should have tons of time to load up the car and move your stuff up here.”

“Sounds perfect - Mum might be in her pyjamas though, so as long as you can cope with that…”

“I think I can handle it… Cool, I think that’s everything - oh actually wait! I was thinking it might be worth getting a cleaner, but I wanted to run it by you first, as you’ll be in the flat more than I will…”

“Really? Do you think that’s necessary?”

“Oh, I just figured it might help avoid arguments over whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or who left that plate lying around…”

“I don’t know, I mean I’m pretty tidy - it just feels like it might be a bit of a waste, no?”

“Well, how about we try it and if we don’t think it’s helping, we can get rid of her after a few weeks?”

“Yeah, that works. I’m so excited! I can’t believe I’m moving to London!”

“See you tomorrow!”

*

He glanced up nervously, thinking he had heard the doorbell ring, then looked back at his newspaper. The cleaner wasn’t due for another 5 minutes, and he was finding the waiting stressful. Richard was used to cleaning for himself and wasn’t sure quite how he would feel about having someone else in his house every weekend (as Sally worked on weekdays, they felt it might be too distracting to have another person invading her space).

The bell rang loudly, breaking into his anxious speculation and he jumped up to answer it. He opened the door and stood staring gormlessly, every word of welcome forgotten. At the door stood the most beautiful girl he had seen in his life - bar none. Her polite greeting roused him sufficiently to usher her in and, having offered her a cup of tea, he explained what needed to be done. Pleasantries over, he left her to it, heading out to meet Sally for lunch. She had spent the morning with some friends of hers from university and he was looking forward to seeing her again.

*

Richard glanced up at the sound of a key turning in the lock and smiled at Marianna as she walked in. Though she had only been cleaning their place for the last four weeks, he already felt that he knew her well. As a cleaner, she had proved to be efficient and thorough, turning a chaotic flat covered with shoes, bags and random pieces of crockery into a sparklingly clean and tidy home. This was the third time he had been in the flat when she cleaned and he had found her friendly and chatty, continuing to clean as they swapped anecdotes about their respective weeks. He had begun to find himself looking forward to her arrival - he had seen less and less of Sally in the last few weeks as she worked late (often coming to bed two or three hours after he had gone to sleep) and spent most of her weekends with her friends, saying she needed some excitement after her quiet weeks.

*

He could feel the butterflies forming in his stomach as he sat at the breakfast table with his coffee, watching the clock tick ever closer to 10. He couldn’t quite believe how soon she would be here - because of her holiday, it had now been almost three weeks since he’d seen Marianna and he couldn’t wait. If it occurred to him that this excitement was inappropriate for a man who had been living with another woman for the last four months, he brushed it aside, telling himself that he was simply looking forward to seeing a friend and to having some company in the flat. Right on time, the key turned in the lock and in walked Marianna. She was just as beautiful as he remembered, her long blonde hair shimmering down her back as she took off her coat and sorted out her cleaning things. They began chatting almost immediately, Marianna filling him in on her two weeks in Spain as she cleaned the kitchen floor, while Richard listened, interjecting little jokes as she talked.

They worked their way through the house, Richard chatting and Marianna cleaning until she had finished all but the entrance hall. She carried the bucket of water in carefully, setting it down gently on the floor before turning to pick up her mop. Finding it, she began her work on the hall, listening to Richard’s latest story about his stupidest client. So engaged was he in relating this story that he failed to notice his left foot approaching the carefully placed bucket of water. The next thing he knew, Marianna was jumping to rescue the bucket as its soapy contents emptied themselves over the floor. His heart sank. How could he have knocked this over, he had ruined all her hard work. He knew he was clumsy, but this was a step too far. He rushed to help, succeeding only in colliding head first with Marianna, sending her falling to the floor. He bent down to help her up, muttering incoherent apologies which petered out as she lifted her large blue eyes to meet his.He wasn’t quite sure how it happened, but the next thing he knew he was kissing her, feeling happy for the first time in months as she kissed him back.

His happiness intensified, overwhelming him completely - that is, until he remembered that Sally was due back any minute now. He leapt away from Marianna, nearly pushing her over in his haste to get away. She looked at him, hurt and confused.

“I’m so sorry Marianna, I really am. But Sally will be coming back and we shouldn’t be doing this, it isn’t fair to her. Or to you. I...I’m not sure exactly what you’re looking for from this, but no matter what I’ll need to speak with Sally first. I think I need to work out what’s going on with us before I think about anything else. Is that ok?”

She sighed and looked down. After a minute or two of silence, she lifted her head, smiling sadly at him. “Of course that makes sense Richard. I think maybe I should stop cleaning here while you work that out though. I’ll send a replacement next week.”

With that, she got to her feet and began picking up her things, checking to make sure she hadn’t left anything behind, then letting herself out quietly.

*

Two days later, Richard had convinced Sally to finish work early so they could eat together. He had ordered Chinese, which was already distributed between their two plates and waiting by the time Sally stopped work and joined him, twenty minutes late.

“So what’s all this in aid of? Are you just missing me so much you felt the need to bribe me with Chinese?”

“I just thought we should talk, you know. I don’t see a whole lot of you and…”

“And?”

“Well, last week… Um… Marianna won’t be cleaning for us anymore.”

“...Why not?”

Richard couldn’t bring himself to tell her what had happened, so he ate some more noodles as the silence between them lengthened.

“Richard? What did you do?”

He looked down at his plate, struggling to find the words to explain.

Sally continued to wait, icily angry.

Finally, as the silence became too hard to bear, Richard began to speak, his words falling over each other in his hurry to get them out, explaining that he didn’t know what had happened or how it had happened, that it was all because he missed her and hadn’t seen her in weeks, that he felt like they were drifting… As he ran through his list of excuses, Sally looked increasingly disappointed, finally interrupting him. “You know what the sad thing is Richard? I’m not even sure I care.”

With that, she walked away, leaving her food to congeal on her plate, slowly starting to pack up her things as he sat, stunned at how fast things seemed to have changed. He still hadn’t moved when, two hours later, she came over to tell him that she was leaving to stay with a friend, and would return for her belongings the following week.

***

Hovering uncertainly near the window of Benetton, her dark blonde hair flying around her face in the wind, her large eyes blinking at the cold air, she drew his attention immediately. Her high heeled boots bringing her up to around 5' 6", she had an air of self-conscious confidence that reminded him of himself just after university - determined to prove to the world that he wasn’t lost or confused, he just didn’t know quite where he was right now…

She finished rummaging in her bag, zipping it up purposefully and straightening herself before heading towards the crossing he had just left.

She glanced up, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes and the world stood still.

Richard held his breath for a moment, before realising he was still walking. At the last minute, he managed to avoid a head-on collision, turning to catch the partially open bag that was spilling out of her arms. Clutching her belongings, he followed her off the crossing and out of the way of the tourists, pausing only to pick up a hairbrush that had escaped his grasp.

Once out of the way, they stopped, giving the girl a chance to catch her breath and repack her bag. Order restored, she turned her attention to her rescuer, immediately inviting him for a coffee to thank him.

*

Dropping his head, Richard sighed. He had been interviewing cleaners all morning, before Sally’s arrival, but had yet to find one who seemed suitable. They had agreed that the best time for a cleaner to arrive would be early on a weekday, when Richard was in work and Sally was normally in bed. As she said herself, having a stranger wandering into her home seemed likely to prompt her to get out of bed and ‘sort her life out’.

The doorbell rang and he dragged himself out of his armchair, hoping against hope that this, his last interview of the day, would prove productive. He faltered for a moment as he answered the door, finding himself face to face with possibly the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She introduced herself as Marianna and proceeded to start the interview by describing to him exactly what, in her opinion, needed cleaning in the house as it was and how she would go about it. After a few questions, it became clear that she was by far the strongest candidate, so Richard invited her to begin cleaning the following Thursday. After all, he told himself, he wouldn’t be in when she was cleaning, so her looks didn’t really matter one way or the other.

*

“So, my most beautiful of Sallys, I was thinking we could maybe go out for lunch? There are a few good places around here I still need to show you!” “That sounds amazing! I am meeting my friend Lucy at 2 though, is that ok? We could maybe go before?”

“Um… Sure, yeah, we can do that. We’ll make it coffee and go at 11! There’s an amazing little cafe that just opened up, so we could maybe try that? Apparently their chocolate cake is unbelievable”

“Mmmm, that sounds delicious… Just like you…”

*

“So, how do you feel about getting that lunch we talked about last week? There’s a pizza place around the corner?”

“Oh, I’m meeting Sophie for lunch, then I’m seeing Julia - how does supper sound?”

“Yeah, supper works. I think the pizza place shuts, but we could go to the pub down the road?”

“Great, I’ll meet you there at 7? I can’t stay out too late though, I’m getting up early to go shopping with Lucy tomorrow.” “With Lucy? I thought you saw her last weekend?”

“Yeah, but that was lunch. This is shopping. Completely different, silly!”

“Is that right? Well, I feel educated…”

*

“Sally, you about today? Sal?”

Richard pulled himself out of bed and wandered out of their bedroom, in search of his girlfriend. After a few minutes spent fruitlessly looking in various different rooms, he found a note on the table “Out with the girls, likely to be back late. See you later, much love. x”

Feeling a little disappointed, he ambled back to their room and climbed back into bed. Working late during the week, he savoured his lie-ins at the weekend, making it all the more disappointing that he wouldn’t be able to share this one with Sally.

It was the third week in a row that he’d woken to find her gone and he knew better than to try to arrange to meet her later - she would already have plans and tended to get irritated with him for making her feel guilty. Instead, he texted her suggesting lunch the following day, then put his phone down, not expecting a reply for the next couple of hours.

He drifted in and out of sleep for a while until he was woken at 11 by his phone buzzing with Sally’s reply. “Out tomorrow. Maybe next week?”

He was overwhelmed with a sense of desolation. He hadn’t realised quite how much he had been counting on seeing her that weekend. With their weekday schedules out of sync, he felt as though he had been living alone for the last few weeks. Struck by a sudden thought, he brightened. He could come home early on Monday. They weren’t restricted to weekends, it was the perfect solution! “How about Monday evening? I’ll make sure I’m back by 7, we can go somewhere nice? xx”

The reply came back almost immediately, surprising him somewhat. “For God’s sake Richard, you know I work week nights! We can do next weekend.”

He sighed, disappointed but not entirely surprised at her exasperated tone. She had been increasingly impatient with his attempts to spend time together in the last few weeks, something he was finding difficult to handle.

Oh well. He called up Simplicity, the nicest restaurant in their area, to make a reservation for the following Saturday, determined to make this happen, then set about deciding what to with his weekend.

*

He drummed his fingers on the table, smudging the shine slightly, as he tried to drown out the ticking of the clock. He’d been sitting inside Simplicity for 20 minutes now and Sally had yet to arrive. He had left a note on her desk the previous weekend with the details of the booking, but hadn’t had the chance to see her during the week, as he’d been working in Paris all week. He had sent her a text this morning confirming the time and place, but hadn’t yet had a reply. Giving up, he picked up his phone and called her. The phone rang three times, then redirected to voicemail. Now a little concerned, he left a message reiterating where he was and asking her to call him when she got the message. Knowing she rarely checked her voicemails, he also sent her a text checking she was ok, then decided to wait another ten minutes before leaving.

Just as he was beginning to gather his belongings, his phone buzzed with a message from Sally. “Richard. I told you I was meeting Emma this weekend. Why did you book lunch for today? x”

His head dropped as he read it, the sense of injustice at her reply (she definitely hadn’t told him) competing with the sadness he felt at missing out on seeing her yet again.

Sighing heavily, he picked his things and, apologising to the staff, left the restaurant and headed back to his empty flat.

*

A few weeks later, Richard turned his key in the lock, letting himself into the flat. He was tired, but feeling pleased with himself. It had been a busy few weeks, but today he had managed to get home by six thirty, which was unheard of and, to top it all off, had just heard that they had won the big pitch they had been working on for months.

He entered the flat, putting his briefcase down and hanging his jacket on the coat hook by the door. He took off his shoes as he walked into their bedroom, catching sight of himself in the mirror as he did so. He definitely looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes and his skin had suffered from the stress and exhaustion. He decided then and there that he needed to take a good long break to recover fully, and resolved to book it the following morning.

He wandered into the kitchen, planning to make himself something comforting for supper, when he saw the note on the table.

“Hey Richard,

Come get me from the office when you get in - I want to talk to you

Sally

xxx”

Confused and slightly apprehensive, Richard obeyed, knocking on the office door as he opened it. Sally looked up at him and smiled, putting down the picture she was working on. She got up from her seat and walked to the door, before suggesting they head to the kitchen and share a drink.

Drinks in their hands, they sat at the table, Richard waiting for Sally to begin. She looked at her drink, then took a deep breath. “Richard, I’m sorry. I haven’t been fair to you. I’ve been running around seeing my friends and working and I haven’t made time for you.”

Richard smiled at her and reached across the table to take her hand.

“Wait. I’m not finished. Sorry.” She pushed his hand away gently and carried on. “It isn’t fair on you. But, I’m not sure it’s something I can stop. I’m so sorry Richard, but I just don’t think I’m ready to settle down like this. I think you’re amazing, but I’m only 23. I’ve just moved to London, all my friends are here and I want to spend time with them. If I weren’t working so hard I’d have time for you both, but at this point in my career I need to be putting the hours in or I’ll never make it. I just don’t think this can work.”

She looked up at him nervously, waiting to see how he would take it.

He looked at her blankly. He was devastated - how could she have led him on like this? After all he had put up with, to break up with him this casually… how dare she?! And sitting there staring at him - it was like she expected him to thank her or something! How fucking selfish of her too, to pick a Friday night, guaranteeing his weekend would be ruined… He sat quietly for a while, nothing in his expression revealing the seething turmoil that was going on inside. He was determined not to let her know how much he cared. He cleared his throat and finally managed to answer her. “You’re right. This relationship hasn’t worked for a while. I think we’ll be better off when you leave.”

“I’ve already packed up my things - Lucy’s coming to pick me up. I’ll stay the night at hers. I should be able to collect all my stuff tomorrow, so I’ll be out of your hair soon. I’m so sorry Richard.” She leaned across the table and kissed him on the cheek.

Tears formed in his eyes and he sat, fighting back the rush of emotion, telling himself over and over that it was all for the best. He was so absorbed in his own thoughts he didn’t notice Sally leaving until the door shut behind her.

***

He had just stepped onto the curb at the other side when he saw her. Hovering uncertainly near the window of Benetton, her dark blonde hair flying around her face in the wind, her large eyes blinking at the cold air, she drew his attention immediately. Her high heeled boots bringing her up to around 5' 6", she had an air of self-conscious confidence that reminded him of himself just after university - determined to prove to the world that he wasn’t lost or confused, he just didn’t know quite where he was right now…

She finished rummaging in her bag, zipping it up purposefully and straightening herself before heading towards the crossing he had just left.

She glanced up, brushing a strand of hair out of her eyes and the world stood still.

Their eyes met, leaving Richard with the strong impression that he was anchored to the spot. She had such beautiful blue eyes, he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her. She smiled at him and his world crumbled. His mind was filled with visions of their future together, of the wonderful couple they would make, of how beautiful she would be in a wedding dress, of them laughing and joking in his flat…

A sudden jolt of pain brought him back to reality and in his momentary shock at having been stood on by a pair of new stilettos brushing past him, he lost her in the crowd.

Wistful at the thought of what might have been, Richard hurried on to Selfridges, the hustle and bustle of Oxford St shaking the images of his future with the girl out of his head.

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