Our serialised story by Queenie Young
Lucy sat at the bar on a precariously high stool and doodled her usual, favourite doodle of a sheep. In this particular sketch, she’d put comical eyelashes on Suzy, complete with a wide-brimmed hat and high heels.
She glanced at her watch for the fifteenth time in the last five minutes. She was ridiculously early. What did that mean? She pushed the thought away as she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Something inside her stomach contracted. It was a familiar feeling – one which she’d experienced over and over again since that day last week when she’d visited Jack’s school to talk to his teacher, Guy Evans, and had agreed to this drink. They’d got on so well, and he’d asked, and it had felt natural to say yes. She’d wanted to say yes.
Thoughts of Ben suddenly popped into her head unbidden. Immediately she felt a familiar pang of grief, edged this time with an intense feeling of guilt. Guilt. That’s what it was. She suddenly felt sick at the idea of what Ben would have thought about this meeting she’d set up. He was probably spinning in his grave right now at her show of disloyalty. OK, this was just a drink with Jack’s teacher. There was no agenda. But where might it lead? Worse still, was it possible that she might want it to go somewhere? After all, here she was, in a bar, dressed up to meet a man! How could she have entertained such an idea? It had only been just over a year!
Since moving to Wales, Lucy had been resolute that this was a fresh start for her and Jack: a new beginning. Not that she wanted to forget her past, far from it. But after months of mourning, she had finally felt ready to continue her life and take her finger off the pause button. Fate had dealt her young family a cruel hand – for Ben’s life to end so abruptly the way it had, with the aneurism that they’d never known about – it hadn’t been fair, and Lucy’s own life had almost crumbled as a result. Almost, because she recognised the need to keep it together, not for her own sake, but for Jack’s, and she’d just about managed it.
Lucy sighed. She’d been sitting in this bar in town for the past forty five minutes. She’d felt relatively calm for the past forty, but now…well now, actually, she just wanted to go home. She glanced at her watch again. Guy wasn’t due for another ten minutes. What should she do? She wasn’t the type of person to stand somebody up, but the guilt wasn’t just gnawing away at her, it was taking pie-slice bites out of her. Maybe she should just make her excuses and leave once Guy arrived.
Out of the corner of her eye she was aware that somebody was watching her. A man, with a smattering of grey peppering a head of dark hair was sitting just along the bar from her, swilling scotch around in his glass, ice cubes tinkling musically. Their eyes met and the man smiled.
“You must think I’m terribly rude,” he said, “practically hanging over your shoulder to look at your work.”
Lucy was puzzled. She hadn’t noticed. She’d been too caught up in her own thoughts. “It’s good. I like it,” he said, indicating with his tumbler Lucy’s doodle of Suzy. “Amusing even.”
Lucy was embarrassed. She was used to feedback from paying clients for commissioned work, but this, this was just a doodle – something to relax her mind, pass the time, nothing more. The man beside her fished into his jacket pocket and produced a card. He slid it along the bar to Lucy. “Listen, my name’s Ben.” She recoiled at the familiarity of the name. “I work for Watermark Cards. I like your work and I think a range with sketches like this could have possibilities.”
Lucy’s eyes widened. Watermark? They were the biggest greetings cards company in the UK, possibly even Europe. An illustrating gig with them was like gold dust, the lottery, basically very very good. Her heart, which moments ago had been steeped in feelings of guilt and grief, suddenly began to soar. And then she felt a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” said Guy, clearly seeing that he was interrupting and evidently feeling a bit awkward about it.
“Not at all,” said Ben Hartley, draining his tumbler and getting to his feet. “I was just on my way anyway.” He smiled and his eyes crinkled at the edges. He turned to Lucy. “Please do call me next week. You’ve got my card. I hope you have a lovely evening,” he said, addressing them both before he left.
Lucy was agog. In that moment she didn’t know what to do with her feelings. Part of her wanted to hug Guy and share what could possibly be life-changing news with him. The other part wanted to run as far away as possible from him. It didn’t help that he looked so attractive this evening in faded jeans and a linen shirt – it just intensified her feelings of guilt.
She held up her hand. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“This,” she nodded.
“What is this?” asked Guy, his eyes glittering with amusement.
She tried again. “What I mean is I can’t have this drink with you,” said Lucy getting up from her bar stool.
“Is my aftershave that bad?”
“It’s just complicated.” Lucy frowned, ignoring his quip. “I can’t explain.”
“You don’t have to,” said Guy, sincerely. “I’m not asking you to. All you need to do is sit there and watch me order from the barman and then drink the drink I buy for you. It’s really simple.”
Lucy shook her head and this time it was Guy who held up his hand. “Listen. I’ve spent the past thirty minutes trying to iron out the wrinkles in this shirt, only to find out that it’s supposed to be like that. Is it going to be for nothing?”
Lucy pursed her lips against the smile that was threatening to show.
“Come on. One drink,” he cajoled. “You don’t need to give me the complicated explanations, honestly.”
The way he put it set her mind at rest. He was right. It was just a drink and besides, next week she might even have a reason to celebrate. Not that she wanted to jump the gun where Watermark was concerned, but still. AND she’d gone to the bother of setting up a babysitter for Jack this evening. Which reminded her, as she hopped back onto the vertigo inducing barstool, she hadn’t checked her phone since she’d arrived.
Retrieving it from her bag, she was staggered to see fourteen missed calls. Fourteen? Fumbling with it she saw it had accidentally been switched to silent. Her heart thumped as she opened the text messages that accompanied the missed calls.
“Lucy? What is it?” asked Guy with concern. He saw Lucy’s face turn from flushed to ashen in an instant. She was hardly able to speak she was that choked with emotion. Guy was just able to hear her make out the word ‘Fire’ before Lucy slumped to the floor.