My chance encounter with a random stranger left me buzzing. I walked the rest of my short, one mile journey home along Cloud Nine Highway. I wasn't sure if it was the fact that I was feeling the Samaritan’s glow of altruism or whether I was just flushed after meeting a tall, dark, and handsome stranger. Probably the latter, to be honest. I mean, on reflection, he was actually gorgeous. He wasn’t what might be called conventionally handsome but he’d still got my heart rate up, and I couldn't wipe the grin from my face. The thought whipped across my mind that my attraction to him was because I was a sexually frustrated twenty seven year old with no life, but I didn’t want to do him the injustice of thinking so.
I let myself into my tiny, semi-detached house and immediately slipped on a pile of junk letters and takeaway flyers that had built up on the mat. I caught myself on the doorframe, clutching it to stop myself skidding and landing on my arse. I didn't want Kit thinking I had had more to drink than I had. My housemate called up to me from the basement a minute later, “Alyssa? Is that you?”
“Yeah,” I said disconsolately, shovelling up the post and dumping it on the little table along with my house keys.
“You said you’d be back late!” he said, coming up the stairs with a massive box of beer bottles in his arms, and blinking as the harsh yellow light from the bare bulb in the hall assaulted his eyes. He looked pointedly at his watch, shuffling the cardboard box temporarily into the crook of one arm. “This is not late. This is ten thirty.” He scanned me from head to toe with his ice blue eyes and added, “And this is pathetic.”
“Well, actually, this just saved a total stranger’s life, so you can keep your smarmy remarks to yourself,” I retorted playfully.
“You did what?” he asked, nodding towards the kitchen and indicating that I should follow him. I slid my feet out of my tall boots and kicked them aside where they lay pathetically on the ancient, cheap, beige carpet.
I watched his back retreat into the kitchen along the dank hallway and smiled. Kit was my twin brother’s best friend, and had come to treat me like his own little sister since Luke had joined the Army. His baggy red tartan shirt was draped with spiders’ webs from the basement, and I brushed them off his back as he set the box down on the counter. Living with him had been an adjustment after living alone for so long, but he'd needed a kindness after his fiancée had walked out on him a year ago – thought maybe 'flounced out' might be more accurate - and I had come to enjoy not living alone any more.
“Well,” I qualified my previous statement, “I was walking back from Emily’s boring party,” I got a look for my use of the word ‘boring’, and ignored it, tossing my long red hair back out of my eyes, “And I heard the sounds of a scuffle.”
“You didn’t leap in and break up a mugging, did you?” he asked, only half joking as he paused, concerned. When the fridge had been re-stocked with beer, its usual basic inventory of milk, beer, eggs, bacon and grapes would be complete. We were a frugal pair, and the grapes were only in there because I felt they were the least evil of the five-a-day brigade. Maybe that was why my five foot five body wasn't as slender as it might have been if I'd kept up with going to the gym.
I gave him a look of my own, and said, “Oh come on, no, of course I didn't! I’m a woman in a sad, patriarchal society: I hid in a hedge until they’d gone…”
“So when they’d run off, I went round the corner and found this guy lying on the pavement. Turned out he was blind and needed a walking stick, and they’d beaten him up to see if he had anything of value on him, which he didn’t.”
“Jeez,” he whistled, disgusted. “I didn’t think this was the kind of neighbourhood where old people got beaten up."
“He wasn’t old though,” I countered. “He was about my age.”
“With a walking stick?” Kit looked puzzled.
“Yeah,” I said, indicating a beer, “Mind if I have one?”
“Sure, go for it,” he said, adding a heartbeat later, “But only if you can open it on the counter like I showed you.”
“Oh, well, that's the end of that idea then,” I chuckled, remembering the good twenty minutes we’d spent trying to get me to flick the top off on the counter.
He stretched out his hand and showed me again. “There. Like that.”
“Show off,” I muttered, hoovering up the froth that rose up the neck of the bottle with my lips.
“So this guy was young then?” Kit asked, cracking a bottle open for himself. He was only a year older than me and Luke, but somehow he seemed much older to me. “Wow, that’s tough. Was he ok?”
I shrugged. “He seemed fine. I mean, he had an epic stammer, and he took a bit of a pounding, but he wouldn’t let me call an ambulance. He talked me – quite convincingly – out of phoning the police as well. They didn’t take anything from him, and he said the police wouldn’t take him seriously!”
“What?” he asked astonished. The way he was leaning against the counter reminded me of the way my brother lounged about the place like an overgrown housecat, and I felt a great pang of fear in my chest as I thought of him out on patrol. He was due to return to Bastion any day now, and I knew I would hear from him only when he was back at base, but not before. And any number of IED-related things could happen to him in between.
I dragged my mind back from the hell hole of sand and incendiaries, back to our quiet little suburb, and tried to continue the conversation. “Yeah, er, he said he’s ‘been there, done that’ apparently… So anyway, I walked him home, and saw him inside. There was someone else there, so it’s not really my responsibility any more.”
It had never crossed my mind that he’d have a carer. Why would they be there at ten o’clock at night? “I shouldn't think so,” I said dismissively. “He was gorgeous: she was most likely his girlfriend. Anyway, how was your meeting about the Denman project?"
We talked for a while about his latest job and then, when I had grown tired of engineering talk, I chucked my empty beer bottle in the recycling and went quietly upstairs to shower before bed.
I dreaded work the next day. Normally I liked what I did, but when I woke to the thrashing of rain against the glass, I just wanted to stay curled under the blankets and not go out. It would be a soggy walk to the bus stop. However, as often happened to me when I was out in the rain, a kind of inner zen descended on me as water droplets bounced off my coat and spattered off my hood, and I walked straight past the first bus stop and on towards the road where I'd met Caleb. There’s just something about walking in the rain.
The hedge where I’d dived in like a terrified field mouse the night before suddenly looked a lot smaller and had a lot more holes in than I’d realised. With a jolt I thought that I’d probably been quite lucky not to have been seen. I glanced to my right and saw that the street where I’d found him was empty, the grey morning light smeared silver with the sheeting rain which sent rivulets running down the edge of the road where the gentle camber met the pavement. Something swilled and sent water swirling into turbulence in the gutter. Was it something that had been dropped in the dark scuffle the previous night? I found myself following my feet towards it.
Squinting as the rain lashed my make-up free eyes, I trotted down the road. As I neared the small dark object, I saw it was a smart, black leather wallet. I fished it from the water and shook it. Opening it to find out if it was Caleb's, I found that all the notes, damp as they were, were folded in different ways: fives one way, the ten another, and a twenty differently still. If the ID card inside hadn't had his name and picture on, I still would have assumed it was his from that. Our notes are all different sizes anyway, but I figured it’d give him a way to recognise them instantly. I also saw from the ID card that he was twenty nine years old, worked for a big technology magazine, and that his last name was Starling.
Deciding that being late for work because of this was definitely a good enough excuse, I retraced my steps from the previous night, and made my way towards Caleb's house. I looked up at the sleepy house and shivered as droplets of rain slithered down my collar, shaken loose by the movement. It only occurred to me after I had knocked and had been standing there for a few minutes that it was quarter to eight in the morning and they may not be up yet. I had been about to turn away when there was a scurry of footsteps from inside, and a moment later the latch rattled and the door opened a little way, chain still on. And I stared at an empty space, surprised.
Then I looked down and found a pair of bright green eyes staring up at me. A small girl of about ten or eleven years old stood there, blinked, equally surprised by the strange face she saw, and then said, "Yes?"
"Hi," I said, feeling awkward. I don't get on with kids. I have nothing against them, but I just don't know what to do around them; how to act or what to say. It’s awkward, and my mother says it’s not a good sign. I don’t want kids anyway. "I... My name is Alyssa, and I -" I didn't get any further because, to my shock and surprise, the door was slammed shut in my face.
I blinked on the doorstep and wondered what to do. Leave?
Then the latch rattled a second time and the door opened fully. The girl standing before me had wispy blonde hair that brushed against her shoulders and was tied up in pigtails. She wore a dark blue uniform which I recognised as the local secondary school's, so she must have been about eleven years old, probably in her first year there. "Cay-Cay!" she shouted over her shoulder, grinning. "She's here!"
"She is? She's early..." a quiet, low voice replied from a nearby room, deep and almost sleepy sounding. I was still smiling at the fact that she'd called him 'Cay-Cay’.
"No, not Molly,” she said as if he was being extremely stupid, “She's not picking me up til ten past eight. It's Alyssa!" she giggled, springing her heels up and down and making her golden pigtails dance.
Was that fear? There was a small scrambling noise followed by a little grunt, like the sound someone makes when standing up after being in a comfy chair for a long time, and then the tall man I recognised as Caleb came through the doorway into the hall. The cut on his forehead was smaller and less dramatic than it had looked the previous evening, and he looked better than the last time I'd seen him. I said so, adding, "I hope you don't think I'm intruding, it's just that I was passing your road on my way to work and noticed a wallet lying there. Turns out it's yours."
Relief washed over him and he even gripped the doorframe for an instant, before breathing, "Thank you. I thought when I g-got home that they had taken it after all."
"It's a bit soggy," I giggled, "But it seems all present and correct." I handed it to the girl who took it over to him. I was trying to work out who this small child was in relation to him. She seemed a bit too young to be a sibling, and too old to be a child. I hoped.
Caleb took the wallet and then seemed incapable of speech, but I couldn't tell if it was his stammer or shyness which held his tongue fast. It was the girl who broke the silence. "Caleb told me about last night, and he said you saved him."
His cheeks flushed a beautiful bashful pink and, hands still busy with the wallet, he said, "I m-might have said y-y-you appeared at j-j-j..." the sound ground to a halt at the tip of his tongue and he muttered, "Excuse me,” the pink deepening to a red on his cheeks, “said that y-you appeared at j-just the r-right m-moment."
"Happy I was able to help," I put in awkwardly. I glanced back at the sullen rain outside and then sighed. "Well, as much as I want to put it off, I have to get to work."
He took a step forward, his black cane making a deep clunk on the wooden floor of the hall. He wasn't wearing his glasses like yesterday which gave him a more relaxed appearance, but he had his eyes closed softly, as though he was asleep on his feet. He’s like an angel, I thought, surprising myself with the sentiment and trying to concentrate as he spoke again. "L-Listen, I said this yesterday... I know I c-came acr-across as a gr-grumpy old man, but I'm honestly very gr-grateful for your help."
"You're welcome," I said, with a warmth of feeling I hadn't intended to show, and he smiled. I turned on the doorstep and walked down the path towards the gate, my footsteps splashing though a series of little puddles. As I closed the little gate's iron latch, I looked up to see him coming down the path with just his walking cane, no white cane. He trod softly, his black trainers making little noise, and he wore softly crumpled jeans and a white t-shirt, which rapidly became soggy, sticking slightly to his chest and shoulders, showing the ghost of a good body under his shy exterior. "Don't get soaked on my account!" I blustered, holding my hands up in alarm.
"It's g-going to be w-worth it, I hope," he grinned, and I liked this sudden, sexy confidence he was now showing. "Because I'm hoping y-you'll say y-yes wh-wh-when I ask you for a dr-drink some time." He paused a heartbeat and then added, "So, w-will you?"
I laughed. Not a cruel laugh, though the sound of it was a bit brash for our rain-soaked bit of suburbia and he looked suddenly nervous. "I'd love that," I said truthfully and then he chuckled too. "Do you want to give me your number and we can work something out?" I asked, blinking water from my eyes and beginning to shiver a bit.
He shuffled his weight and seemed to shrink a little in height. "I d-don't do too w-w-well on the phone, for f-fairly obvious r-r-reasons..." He was beginning to get really wet now, his hair darkening and sticking together in little spikes.
"I was going to text you," I said, assuming there'd be some kind of app to read texts to him.
"That's fine," he smiled, shoulders loosening. "I c-can do w-words wh-when they're wr-wr-written..."
I shared his laugh, took his number, and excused myself and headed to work, trying to put my excitement into a mental box to keep it contained for the day. The image of his smile as I left was harder to forget though.
As I'd expected, my boss was grumpy. She was nearly always grumpy anyway, but I was late. The giveaway that she was especially grumpy that morning was that she made me unpick three necklace chains which had come into her jewellery store so badly knotted that it'd be cheaper to cut the pendants off, melt the silver down and buy new chains with the proceeds. Nevertheless, I pinned the chains to the mat and began the laborious and exceedingly boring job of teasing the knots out. I was finished by lunchtime, which astounded both myself and my boss.
Julie, her mood lightening as the rain eased and the caffeine sank in, asked me to re-set some stones, which was something my jewellery course had actually qualified me to do, unlike the crappy 3D jigsaw puzzle from the morning. By five o'clock I had a small pile of completed jobs sitting on my workbench and I headed out into a now clear December evening, with the first stars just kindling into life above me. Little did I know that my day was about to become about as close to perfect as it was possible to get.
Traffic was bad and the bus got lodged in a traffic jam like a log in a slow, muddy river, so I was home later than usual, and as I slid the key into the lock, I heard the phone ringing in the hall. By the time I eventually got the key in, I thought it would have stopped ringing, but it kept going just long enough for me to fling my stuff down, door still open, and pick up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Lyss? It's me," said a beautifully familiar voice at the other end. The line was crackly and there was a strange echo, but I would know that voice anywhere, and tears welled up in my eyes.
"Luke," I breathed, nibbling my lip and squealing with excitement. "I wasn't expecting you to ring today! It's lucky you caught me. How are you?"
"I'm well," he said. "Got back to Bastion today," my heart lurched with relief as I looked at the clock on my phone and saw it was just after six o'clock. Afghanistan was three and a half hours ahead, and he must be exhausted. "The boys are really tired," he said, as if responding to my thoughts. "I wanted to thank you for your letter and parcel which I got when I got back. Made my whole bloody tour that did."
"I'm glad," I said, tears flowing down my face. "I love you, Luke."
"Love you too, little sis," he chuckled fondly. Although we were twins, I was born a minute and twenty eight seconds after him, technically making me his younger sister. "How’s things at home?" he asked quietly. He always liked to hear about home before he’d talk about himself.
"Same as ever, pretty much," I said. "Kit will be sorry to have missed you," I added. "He's out on a project and isn't due back til late tonight."
"Well say hi for me. And is Julie still treating you like shit?" he asked gravely.
"Ah, she's not so bad," I said generously. "She even let me play with precious stones today. I felt like Gollum.” He laughed again and I chanced it, “How are things for you?"
He sighed, sounding tired. "It's ok. We had an 'interesting' day yesterday, but it's all quiet now."
"Interesting?" I asked. I was always cautious about asking too much, because although I liked him to open up to me, and share some of the awful mental burden of what he saw out there as a medic, I never wanted to force it.
"Had a run-in with some insurgents..." he said evasively. "Took some fire, but no one was hurt."
"I'm glad you're all ok," I said earnestly, sensing him pulling away from me. "Oh, I forgot to tell you, I'm a hero too... I mean, not in quite the same sense as you boys and girls out there, but..."
"A hero too?" he asked, and I could hear the puzzled frown in his voice. "What do you mean? Not been putting yourself in danger, have you?"
"Like I said, not in the way you do," I conceded with a smile. "No, but some guy got mugged, and I found him and helped him home."
"Proud of you, sis," he smiled. I could see that smile; his dark blond hair short and spiky, his green eyes - our green eyes - glittering, the sharp cheekbones that I wish I had, dancing high above his perfect white smile. "He was ok then?"
"Yeah, and he's asked me for drinks some time," I added.
"He has? How old is he?" he was suddenly in full big brother mode and his tone had changed immediately.
I laughed. Hard. Relief was washing over me, taking its time to filter through the protective layers I built in my brain to keep the fear for Luke from me. He was ok, at least for a while. "Only a bit older than me," I said. "I should text him actually. I said I would."
"You be careful..."
"I will," I promised. And I heard someone shouting something strident in the background.
"Listen, I've got to go, but tell Kit I said hi, and you stay safe."
"Look after yourself," I said. "I love you, Luke. Come home safe to us."
"Always," he said. "Gotta run. Love you."
And the phone went dead, and I was left standing in the empty hallway, holding the phone in my hand and I suddenly burst into tears. I should have expected it; after every phone call to Luke I always cried. The mixture of relief that he was ok combined with the terror that I'd never hear his voice again, curdling into panic in my chest and rushing in to fill the void his voice left. It turned me into a hysterically weeping mess for at least ten minutes until I got a hold of myself and reined in my emotions. It took a bit longer that night, but eventually I was back to normal, with only a blotchy red face to show there'd been any drama at all.
After heating up a fresh veg and noodle curry pot in the microwave, I curled up on the sofa and flicked through the TV channels. It was as I thought that it would be nice to have a cat to curl up on my lap or a dog to cuddle with that I realised, not for the first time, that without the influence of a man in my life, I was well on the way to becoming a crazy old cat lady. Nip that one in the bud, I thought, reaching for my phone to text Caleb at long last. I was rusty, and wasn't sure when he'd said 'drinks' if he meant morning coffee or evening alcohol. With a nicely open-ended message sent, I snuggled down to watch an old episode of House.
Half an hour later my phone buzzed, and when I saw a reply from Caleb my heart skipped. Crazy cat lady or love-struck thirteen year old? I quizzed myself as I picked it up.
Glad you're still ok to meet up. I'm good for a coffee on Saturday, or drinks at The Wheatsheaf on Friday after work - up to you. Looking forward to it, C.
I responded, feeling braver than usual, by saying that Friday evening drinks at the pub would be great. The adrenaline rush as I hit send was a clear indicator of just how sad my life had become, and I shook my head. The movement of my hair made me realise how disgusting that was too, and I felt somewhat ashamed that I had left the house with it so greasy and lank. The rain hadn’t helped either.
Kit came home while I was in the shower, and I crept back downstairs in my pyjamas to tell him about Luke's phone call. As predicted, I saw how sorry he was to have missed his best friend, but he was as pleased as I was that he had made it back to the relative safety of Bastion.
The week crawled by; I made a few simple gold wedding bands, re-sized a few engagement rings, and put a lot of new straps on old watches, but finally it was Friday. I hadn't heard from Caleb all week, and hadn't had the guts to text him - was it still schoolgirlish to worry about looking too 'forward'? My total lack of confidence in my ability to secure a date was disheartening to say the least. Finally, during my lunch break on Friday, I caved in and rattled out a quick message.
Hoping you're still on for tonight. I could certainly use a drink after a long week! A
I heard nothing, and I spent the afternoon polishing chains, a mind-numbingly boring task which required much concentration otherwise the wheel, spinning at a ridiculously frightening number of rpms, would grab the chain and fling it out across the workshop. It happened a couple of times, but luckily there was no damage.
I'd decided to wear my favourite pair of heels that day, but as I made my way unsteadily down the uneven pavement towards the pub, I began to question my decision to be glamorous. I couldn't help wondering whether he was going to bail - wouldn't be the first guy to back out of a date with me - and as I neared, I felt my phone vibrating in my handbag. “Here goes,” I mumbled dejectedly as I pulled it out and found a message from Caleb. Just on my way to the pub now. Looking forward to it. C
I read it through twice just to make sure it really did say that he was on his way, before I slid the phone back into the bag and kept walking. The pub was surprisingly quiet for half past five on a Friday night, and he wasn't anywhere to be seen as I pushed the heavy door open.
Standing a moment too long on my own in the middle of the dark, hardwood floor, I flushed the deep red that all auburn haired people go when they feel singled out, regardless whether anyone is taking the slightest bit of interest or not, and scuttled over to the bar to order a gin and tonic to take to a quiet corner where I could watch the entrance.
Twenty minutes passed, the pub filled up, and I was beginning to think about texting him when the door swung open and I saw a long white cane sweep once across the flagstone floor. The barman looked up and roared a jovial greeting. "Caleb! Been too long, mate, how are you?" A few people paused their conversations and followed the interaction, but the noise soon picked up again.
He stopped, leaning heavily on the black cane, and smiled back. "I'm good," he said, sounding a little breathless. "You?" He pushed his dark glasses back up to the bridge of his nose with his left hand, leaving the cane dangling from his wrist by its strap. That’s a lot of hardware, I thought, wondering what I was getting myself into here, with the blind cane and the walking stick, and that mysteriously straight right leg? Was he an amputee as well? What are you doing, Lyss? I asked myself, green eyes watching all the while.
"Never better, mate, never better." The barman scurried over and said, "Let me take you to a table. What can I get you?"
"Actually, I'm here to m-meet someone," he said, looking a little shy.
"Ohh," the barman said with a grin and a dig in the ribs. "You know if she's here yet?"
Caleb gave a sad smile and said, "I've taken so l-l-long that she's either on her sixth dr-drink or she g-g-g-gave up ages ago." Again, his torso contracted almost violently, pumping the sound out repeatedly until he was able to shove it along.
I stood up and my beautiful lacy, high-heeled ankle boots clacked loudly on the stone floor as I came over. "Still here Caleb. And only on my first drink."
"W-well it's pr-pr-probably about time I b-b-bought you a sec-c-c..." his chest squeezed like a pair of bellows as he fired the sound out, "A second one then, excuse me."
It was almost a nervous tick, the way he said 'excuse me' when he got stuck. I found I liked it. "I'd not say no to another," I smiled. "Good to see you."
I flushed as I noticed the barman dig Caleb playfully in the ribs again as he went back behind the bar and poured Caleb a pint of local ale. I wondered with a slight hint of panic what the gesture meant, but left my worries unaired. While Caleb paid, I picked his pint and my second G&T up and said, "I'll take the drinks. I had been camped out in that corner over there, but would you prefer to sit somewhere else?"
"No, that c-corner over there is fine," he smiled. "I'll just follow the sound of those heels..."
I grinned. "I thought you'd like them," I said, glancing over my shoulder to see him smiling a broad and very cheeky smile. That’s a good omen, surely?
I put the drinks down and watched closely to see if he needed any help, but his searching cane found the leg of a chair, and his outstretched hand did the rest in finding somewhere to sit. I noticed that when he had lowered himself gently down into the chair, his right leg stayed straight until he leaned forward and clicked something beneath his jeans near the knee. He sighed, smiled, and said, "Now, wh-where's that beer?"
"Here," I said, sliding it across the wooden tabletop towards his softly waiting hand.
He raised the glass carefully to his lips and drew deeply on it, before setting it back down and leaning into the back of the seat with a sigh. "So, r-r-rescuer," he said, the stammer slow and sticky as sweet toffee, "I only kn-know your n-name, which is too hard for me to pr-pronounce pr-properly - doesn't that make a g-good start?” he chuckled, his humour echoing with a note of sourness that I sensed wasn’t directed at me, “And that your r-route to w-work takes you past m-my house. W-what else is there to you, Aly-ly-l...ssa?" His head nodded as he got stuck half way through my name, and my stomach lurched in that really good way. He sucked the sound back in to get past the letter 'l' each time he came to it, but he seemed a little less embarrassed about his stammer that evening. Like he'd just said 'what the hell, let's go for it'. I very much liked his confidence.
"Well, my name is Alyssa Bowmore -"
"L-like the whisky," he interrupted with a grin.
"Yup, same spelling," I smiled. "And I'm five foot five, got green eyes, pale skin, long red hair, and I'm a jeweller."
"A j-jeweller," he said in surprise. "What kind of j-jewellery do you make?"
"I mostly work with precious metals, but I do also like copper. The place where I work at the moment doesn't really let me do a huge amount of my own making on the clock, so it’s mostly repair work. Anything I do make, I have to do in my own time. I sell most of my stuff online, and work in the shop during the week."
"Impressive," he smiled, raising his glass to drink again. "And y-you say you're a r-r-redhead?" he added, grinning into his beer as he sipped it.
I laughed. "Whatever you've heard about us, it's not all true."
He smiled and said with feigned innocence, "I don't know wh-what you mean."
"Huh? That so? And what about you?" I asked.
"Well, I don't think I'm a redhead," he said, running a hand through his own deliciously brown hair, and I loved his straight-faced humour. "But if there's been an accident, I think it'd only be fair of y-you to tell me, don't you?"
I tried not to snort as my giggle met my gin and tonic and fizzed, unladylike, up my nose. "Your hair is the same dark brown as the day I met you."
"Good," he said. "I suppose you w-wanted a more serious answer. Well..." he paused and he did look serious for a moment. "My name is C-C-Caleb St-Starling, I joined the army str-straight out of sch-school, d-didn't st-st-st-stutter half as badly then though, and rose to the r-rank of c-captain..." My mind was grinding, revving in neutral. What were the fucking chances he'd joined the Army? I dreaded what was coming next. I knew what was coming. I could hear that news and my heart thudded in my chest, my lungs constricting. It was what every military family dreads, and second only to the news of killed in action: 'injured in the line of duty.' He continued on, oblivious to my complete and utter shock and discomfort, and I missed half of his story before I managed to tune back in. "And then, four years ago, I g-got bl-blown up and had to re-re-return to civilian life. Since then, I've been a tech j-journalist. I live with my little sister, well, half sister, Amy, whom y-you met this morning."
I was speechless. Immobile. Couldn’t even blink. The terrible, fearful awful image of dust blowing sky high and bodies being flung through the air was all I could see in my mind.
"Y-you still there?" he asked. "D-did I t-tell you too m-much?"
"Uh..." I croaked. I coughed some life back into my vocal chords, but my voice was strained and awkward. "No. It's just... I never imagined that was... was what happened to you."
"I don't n-normally g-g-get qu-quite that r-r-reaction, I'll be honest..."
"Utter shock... Are you alright? If I'd have kn-known, I w-wouldn't have said anything."
"No, it's fine," I finally blustered. "My twin brother is out there at the moment. Amy medic. Returned to Bastion last night after a fortnight at some forward operating base in the arse-end of hell... That's just, like, one of the family's worst nightmares, and I freaked myself out. Not your fault. I'm glad you told me."
"Shit. I'm sorry," he said, drinking deeply from his pint and sitting back against the wooden back of the chair with a grunt. "How long is he out there for?"
"This one is a three month tour," I said, taking a huge gulp of my drink. "He’s been with the Army for nine years now. He's got another month left before decompression in Cyprus."
"Best bit is that free holiday at the end," he said flippantly. "Anyway, l-let's steer away from that for now?"
"Agreed," I said with a shiver. "I'm glad you told me who Amy is, because I had been wondering. How old is she?"
He laughed and said, "She's eleven. My m-mum had me when she was s-sixteen..." he paused, looking embarrassed, and then said, "And then she met my step-dad and had Amy. They divorced when Amy w-was thr-thr-thr-thr..." the repetition wasn't going to ease up so he stopped it and tried again. "Excuse me, thr-three years old, and then when m-mum died, Amy lived with me and our gr-grandmother."
"That's quite the story," I said, thinking how 'white picket fence' my life had been by comparison. "My parents met at university, married, popped out twins, and then retired to a dainty little stone cottage in the Cotswolds!"
He chuckled attractively again. "Y-yeah, I c-can't say l-life has been uneventful!" he sighed good-naturedly. "I'd be l-lost without l-l-little Amy. She's brilliant."
He seemed so proud of her, and I smiled. I raised the dregs of my second G&T and chunked it against his pint glass and said, "Here's to family, eh?"
"I'll drink to that," he smiled. After a bit of a pause, he asked, "So what do you l-like to do wh-when you're not making j-jewellery?"
I dread that question. I'm like the laziest bugger you'll ever meet. I don't do anything in my spare time because it's free time! Friends of mine like Emily will go sailing or kayaking or hiking at the weekend, and Kay will be out painting something somewhere, but mostly, I spend it curled up in my pyjamas watching stuff on Netflix. In an attempt to make myself not sound like such a couch potato, I said, "Well, work's pretty busy so I usually try and keep things relaxed at the weekend... What about you?"
"Well, my l-leg k-k-keeps me from doing the things I used to l-love, l-like running, but I tr-try and get out for a bit. I w-w-walk along the river a l-lot, head out to the l-l-lake sometimes, but if it's cr-crap weather, I'll stay home and write, or d-do stuff with Amy." He swilled the dregs of his beer around and gauged there wasn't much left. "C-c-can I g-g-g-g..." the sound lodged at the back of his throat and the gulping sound and his cheeks flushed. "Excuse me," he mumbled, taking a breath and starting again. "W-would you l-l-like another dr-dr-drink...?"
I wanted a beer really, but I wanted to try and appear at least a little refined. I couldn't decide what to have. The G&Ts that I'd had weren't that strong, but I couldn't remember what the rule was about the order of mixing drinks... Beer before liquor never sicker? Was that it? Should I have wine, or would that be worse? Fuck it. "I'll actually have a beer I think," I said.
He grinned. "I like that," he said. "Is Tony still at the bar?"
"I don't know his name, but I can go if you'd like...?"
He shook his head. "That wasn't why I asked. If the same g-guy who greeted me earlier is still there, I'll just yell from here. People think you have a sixth sense if you're bl-blind, and I get a k-kick out of p-perpetuating the m-myth..."
I laughed. "What's it worth to you?" I asked playfully.
He hadn’t expected me to be cheeky, and seemed to like the game. "I'll buy the drinks if you tell me," he grinned.
I wondered how hard a bargain I could drive. "Mmm, I'm tempted, but..."
I saw his eyebrows rise above the rims of his glasses. "W-well, aren't you a hard one to pl-please..." he joked. At least I hoped he was joking. "Alright then, if y-you don't tell me, I'll say I'll c-call you back after this, b-but then maybe I won't..."
"Ouch," I breathed, half offended, half amused. The sad thing was, he’d cut very close to the nerve with that one. Wouldn't have been the first time someone had promised to call me and just wandered off into the great blue yonder without so much as a farewell. "Harsh. Well, since I would like to see you again, I can confirm that the same guy is behind the bar."
He grinned in boyish triumph and called across the fairly quiet room, "Tony? You got a sec...?"
"How the fuck, mate, how the fuck!?" He chuckled, coming to the end of the bar counter that was near our little table.
Caleb barked a laugh, muttered, "Told you," to me, and stood awkwardly with a big wince breaking across his handsome face, leaning heavily on the table and then flicking his leg backwards a little, which caused a mechanical click somewhere near the knee of his right leg. Was he wearing a prosthetic? He’d said his leg stopped him doing stuff, and I’d seen the Paralympics. Nothing seemed to keep those guys and girls back, but I had no idea about any of that, and if he'd been blown up, maybe his leg had been blown off?
I did wonder for a moment what the hell I was doing – I’d not dated a guy in three years at least, and here I was, way over my head with someone who was pretty darned disabled. Was I even up to dating, let alone up to disability? He took his black cane with him, but left the white one folded up on the table next to me, and I let my eyes wander over it for a moment, wondering what it would be like to have to feel your way through the world with a skinny white stick. The idea terrified me and I turned my attention back to the bar, where Caleb and the barman were speaking together, their voices hushed and their shoulders hunched conspiratorially. I frowned and Tony saw me looking and he let out a quick, hoarse laugh. That didn't seem good. I blushed deep crimson and let my hair fall in front of my face.
Then Caleb was coming back to me, though he was slightly off course, heading too far to his right. Before I could correct him though, Tony called softly, "Bit more to your left, mate."
"What were you two talking about?" I asked with exaggerated suspicion, hoping to guide him in with my voice without being obvious about it.
A flash of pain crossed his handsome face as he lowered himself down a second time, and he took a moment to reply. Then his expression cleared and he smiled. "I j-just wanted to know if y-you'd told me the tr-truth..." He leaned forward and released his knee again.
"What?" I asked, actually offended this time. "Truth about what?"
His laughter only made me more cross and he took his time to clarify things, clearly enjoying himself. "It w-w-w-wouldn't be the first t-t-time I've been told o-one thing and in r-reality it's qu-qu-quite different..."
"I still don't know what I would have lied about," I said, fully aware that I sounded like a petulant child.
"I asked him wh-what you l-l-look l-like. He told me y-you have very l-long r-r-r-red hair – y-you n-neglected to tell me it w-was l-long, by the w-way..." Was his stammer worse?
“I did not,” I countered. “I definitely told you it was long.”
“Not half way down y-y-your back,” he grinned.
If I could have seen his eyes, I suspect they would have been glittering. "I didn't realise you wanted my full vital stats," I chirped. "And if you do, that'll have to wait."
He chuckled, softening and becoming almost sweet. "He also said y-you seemed nice, and..." that blush crept up his cheeks again and I suppressed a smile. "And that you're pr-pretty."
"I think you need to revaluate your trust in people," I quipped, immediately regretting it. All my life I'd been a shy, spotty ginger, and now I had one chance to impress someone with my character first, and here I was, busy screwing that up too.
"I'm a pr-pretty g-g-g-good judge normally," he said seriously.
Our pints came and we chatted about our lives, about university in my case, and the army in his, and the pub began filling up around us and the noise level rose so much that he had to lean his elbows on the table to hear me properly. I got a good chance to look carefully at his face then, and it gave me a rush to be closer than maybe another couple on a first date might have been. There were a few scars around his eyebrows and two small white lines on his right cheek below the rim of his sunglasses, but other than that, his face was flawlessly handsome. The time ticked by and suddenly I noticed it was ten o’clock. He began to yawn, and I noticed his right hand moving to his right hip more and more frequently to rub pain away, so eventually I said that I was tired after a long week, and should probably head home soon. His stammer had reduced a bit after his third pint, but it was beginning to return. I was sure he must have seen thought my thin lie about being tired, because I felt livelier and happier than I had in months, not that he could have known that, but I have never been known for my acting abilities.
"Yeah, I should pr-pr-pr-probably g-g-g-g..." sigh, "G-g-get home too. Amy w-w-will be asleep, but Nan w-will w-w-w-w-wonder wh-wh-wh..." he gave up with a sigh as the sound made circles on his tongue. He waved a hand and made a disgusted sound, adding, "Ach, wh-when I c-can't speak any m-more, it's d-definitely p-past my bedtime. I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it," I smiled. "Like I said, I'm shattered, but I've had the best evening I've had in a very long time, so thank you."
"Better than that p-party y-you went to l-last w-w-weekend?" he joked.
"I dunno," I said, "If I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have met you, but then if it had been a good party, I wouldn't have left early either, so..."
He laughed, pushing the chair back from the table. "I've had too m-much to dr-drink to follow that l-l-logic pr-properly." He stood, gave a sharp grunt of pain, bending forward with a grimace as he clamped a hand to his hip, kneading the muscle as though trying to free everything up. He exhaled slowly through hard, pursed lips and moved his hand back to the table, searching for his folded cane. It took him a while, but he found it just as I’d stretched my own hand out to help him. When he'd unfolded the sections of it, he tapped it once on the ground to make sure it was all properly aligned, and then paused. He moved his head around, as though listening to snippets of everyone’s conversations, concentrating hard. He turned his head back towards where I had been, looking suddenly desperately sad, and asked, "It's busy in here now... C-can I hang on to y-you instead of g-going it alone?"
I had moved silently since he'd stood, and I surprised him by appearing at his elbow. "Sure," I smiled, standing very close. Closer than I’d ordinarily have dared.
He grinned and reached his hand out for me, finding my shoulder first. He slid his hand down my arm slowly, maybe a fraction too slowly, but I wasn't complaining, and took my arm between strong but surprisingly gentle fingers, just above my elbow. He held the cane in front of him, but more as a kind of barrier than an aid. To me it seemed to say, 'this is my dance space,' and the thought of Dirty Dancing made me want to be closer to this semi-stranger. It gave me a thrill to have him touching me on our first date, even though it was more of a necessity than anything else. "Hang on, I'll j-just get Tony to c-call a c-c-c-c-c... a taxi," he said, smoothly substituting 'taxi' for 'cab' when the word failed him. "How are y-you getting home?" he asked.
"I was going to get the bus," I admitted once the cab had been ordered. "Or walk, depending on what time we finished."
"Wh-which one was for wh-which scenario?" he asked as we made our way towards the pub's porch to wait for the taxi. It wasn’t that hard to guide someone, but having the extra weight on the back reminded me of driving my dad’s caravan on the back of the car: I had to be extra careful about turning, taking more time with manoeuvres.
"I was going to walk if it hadn't gone well," I said. "As it is, we've been here ages, so I'll be taking the bus."
"No," he smiled. "Y-y-y-you said you l-l-live nearby. C-c-come w-with me and we'll drop y-you off first."
And he nodded with a handsome smile as we approached the threshold of the main door. I pulled the heavy door back, seeing his face reflected for a moment in the huge leaded glass pane as it swung open, and he reached out his left hand, cane clacking briefly against the wooden panel, holding the door while we passed through it. Unthinkingly, I passed through the doorway and stepped over the tiny threshold, but his toe caught on it and he stumbled, fingers clenching painfully into the muscles. “I’m sorry!” I hissed, thinking I’d screwed things up already.
“Don’t worry,” he smiled, and we stepped out into the chilly December air.
We paused in the quiet of the old pub's porch, and though he no longer needed to use me to guide him, he stood holding my arm in a friendly, easy silence for a few moments, a gesture I greatly appreciated after my faux pas of a few moments ago. "It's freezing," I noted, breath billowing into the sky.
"Y-y-you want to w-w-wait inside?" he asked gallantly.
I shook my head, my long hair tickling his hand as it swished. "I'm good here," I smiled. The air fairly crackled with anticipation and expectation, the way it does at the end of a really good date, of which I had known very few. This was it, the moment. All dates have them, and this, I knew instinctively was it. Too bad I don’t know what to do with the moment, I thought. I bit my lip. One idea did occur to me.
The sound of an engine growled softly in the distance and I stepped forward to see if it was our taxi, but he remained planted to the spot, and because he was holding my arm, my momentum swung me round a bit like a dancer, and I ended up facing him. "C-Come here a m-moment," he said, his voice a low rumble. It seemed from the angle of his face that his gaze was passing straight over my head, but his grin was directed right down at me.
And then in that moment I did something I never thought I'd be brave enough to do. I enacted my little idea. I reached up behind his head and pulled him into a kiss. If he was surprised, he wasn't affronted, and he certainly returned the gesture. It was one of those magical, lip tingling kisses that makes the world spin around you while it lasts. I suspected as our lips connected that he would have kissed me first if I had not beaten him to it. Our heights weren't all that different, and his left hand searched up my back until it tangled under my hair and reached the nape of my neck, where he held my head while we kissed. His cane tapped against the back of my leg as it dangled freely, and when we broke apart, I found he was smiling.
"I just broke one of the cardinal rules," I grinned, my heart racing.
"Wh-what's that?" he asked, his hand dropping down and lingering on my waist.
"Don't let him know you're too interested on the first date."
"Huh," he scoffed, "And w-women w-w-w-wonder why men don't c-call them..."
I laughed, the sound echoing around the deserted street. The sound of a distant car approaching caught my attention, and I saw a cab pulling up. I moved away, making sure he came with me this time. I opened the door for him and I let his hand slide all the way down my arm, like a child down a slide, until he found the doorframe and stepped awkwardly into the back of the taxi, left leg first, right leg trailing behind until he had flicked whatever it was that released his knee. I walked around the back of the car, heels clacking loudly on the tarmac, and slipped into the seat next to him to see his head tipped back, his right hand on his hip, breath hissing through pursed lips. Frozen, an effigy to pain, he was concentrating on that breathing, hand locked in place, not saying a word. The driver asked where we were headed, and I gave him my address without looking away from Caleb’s face.
The momentary pain passed, and he shuffled in the seat, puffing out a sigh before turning towards me a little. “Don’t worry,” he smiled.
“How did you know?” I asked, smiling back and putting my hand over his where he’d placed it on the seat. I didn’t let it linger there, just long enough to let him know I wasn’t put off or anything. He seemed like a man who was worth it.
“I’m g-good at r-reading people, re-remember?” he whispered, the breath hissing through his straight white teeth again, this time with a smile.
Now, when I think of that kiss and the end of that date, I see that smile, but above all I hear the sound of my ankle boots striking the pavement as we walked towards the waiting taxi. I knew they were going to be a fabulous investment when I'd spent almost a week's wages on them.
To be continued...