“So we have the veg covered; on to poultry, then there’s just ingredients for desserts and hmm, anything else?”
“Wine, lots of wine.”
Copious amounts of alcohol would be the only way of getting through yet another dinner party with the awful couple from across the road Angela was so bloody obsessed with. She pretended she hadn’t heard my comment, as usual. The joys of Tescos.
“So you still O.K to take the kids out later?” She asked, whilst trying to select the best from a bunch of identical apples.
“Yeah sure, I’m a bit jealous of them actually.” I remarked.
She lifted her head briefly from apple duties to give me a disapproving look.
“Why on earth would you be jealous of a bunch of teenagers thrashing around to rock music and spilling drinks all over one another?”
“Because that sounds incredible.” I replied honestly. God, I couldn’t even remember the last time I was out past midnight. I’m sure I used to have fun. Angela tutted in response,
“Right, these should do fine. Let’s head over to the baking stuff.”
“Sounds absolutely thrilling, darling.”
“You go and get the wine then, make yourself useful.” Angela ordered, in a tone that reminded me of my mother.
I trudged over to the vast alcohol isle, passing a group of lads debating whether or not they would get served for their four litre bottle of cider. Those were the days.
So did the Wilson-Jones’ prefer Italian or French red? Who cares, I thought, grabbing a decent looking £5.99 bottle. Suddenly there was a loud clunk from behind me, followed by the unmistakeable sound of glass shattering. I looked around to survey the damage.
“S**t, s**t, sh**t!” A flame haired woman cried, as a pool of berry red liquid spread over her biker boots.
“Hope that wasn’t a dear bottle.” I said to her, looking around for a member of staff to help.
“As if I’m paying for it anyway! It’s their own fault for cramming too much on a shelf.” She thundered. This woman certainly knew how to make a scene. A bored looking teenage assistant had noticed the commotion, and was making his way over at a snail’s pace.
“Here, I’ve got some tissues you can sort your shoes with.” I said, offering her a pocket sized pack of Kleenex.
“Thanks.” As she accepted them, I looked at her face properly for the first time and instantly knew it was her; twenty four years later. She looked exactly the same.
She looked at me quizzically as she mopped at her boots with the rapidly disintegrating paper. I realised my hand had remained outstretched, me staring at her all the while, after she’d helped herself to the packet.
“Um, sorry. I need to get something.” I stuttered, turning on my heel and heading in the opposite direction. As I reached the end of the aisle I recognised that my hands were unacceptably empty. I’d put the wine back on the shelf after she distracted me.
She was still there, scolding the indifferent member of staff cleaning her mess rather than accepting any responsibility and apologising for it. I relocated the cheap wine and hesitated.
She caught my eye again. I’d clearly made an impression as the wine drinking, supermarket roaming oddball.
“Thanks again for the tissues.” She called, nodding in my general direction.
I found myself, I suppose you would call it, giggling and producing odd grunts rather than anything close to coherent language. She’d already made to leave the crime scene and was heading back the way she came, the shop assistant sighing as the sour scent of wine no doubt ingrained itself into his skin and the fabric of his uniform.
I made to follow her.
“Um, hi, again.” I said, sheepishly tapping her shoulder.
She raised her eyebrows at me as if challenging me to a dare.
“Can I help you, mate?”
“Well, yes. Do you…do you recognise me, from anywhere?”
“Yes, Ray. Cracking Hugh Grant impression, by the way.”
That caught me off guard, as did the smile afterward.
“Well, um, haha. Yes. I guess it was a little, erm…”
“You’re still doing it.”
“Nice to see you.”
“You too, how long have you-“
“Ray! Ray! I’ve got the rest of the stuff. That better not be your mess I almost broke my neck on.” Angela scolded. The clatter of her heels grew in intensity before she reached my side.
“Nope, that would be mine.” She smiled and with that, was moving away again.
Francesca. Usually Fran, never Frankie. God forbid if she knew people went by “Cesca” these days.
“Who was that?” Angela asked, momentarily distracted from assassinating my character in public.
“No idea.” I smiled
We were at the till, Angela packing with military position and me fumbling with the perforated edges of the week’s valid coupons when she appeared again. She had unloaded her one basket onto the conveyor belt unnoticed, until her hand was briefly in my pocket. I felt my cheeks flush and instinctively darted a glance at Angela, who was still engrossed in her game of packing faster than the cashier could scan. I felt inside the pocket, giving her a sideways glance and pulled out an old receipt with “Fran” and her phone number, scrawled thickly over the bill.
She winked and signalled to the till with a tilt of her head. The cashier stared at me, waiting to take my payment and put her out of her misery.
“Right, yes.” I mumbled, for no apparent reason. I looked back once before we left and Fran seemed to be laughing at me.
I watched the glass fog as the heat from my balmy palms slowly melted the ice served with the drink I was cradling. My feet were tapping involuntarily and completely out of time with the Fleetwood Mac song someone had selected from the juke box. I liked this place. It wasn’t here when I was younger but was meant to be a sort of revival bar, an old fashioned pub where teenagers were not the target market. Even though some had started to frequent it in an ironic “throwback” kind of way. It was for soppy, middle aged idiots like myself; an idiot who had lied to his wife about where he was.
We’d agreed to meet at eight thirty but from what I could remember, timekeeping was not her strong point. I drained my now room temperature amaretto and headed back to the bar for another. It was then that she crept up on me, placing her hands over my eyes in a move that brought back the uncharacteristic giggle.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Yeah, red wine please. Large. Just get the cheapest if you want, I’m not fussy.” She declared with a smile.
We sat back at the table in the corner I’d selected earlier, behind the door and away from any windows. I didn’t fancy my chances at explaining myself if we were spotted.
“So why did you want to meet me?” She asked.
“To catch up, see how you were-“
“No kids, string of boyfriends but no husbands. O.K. job. You?”
“Two kids, one wife, Business Analyst.”
“Nice. So we’re caught up. What next?” Her eyes glittered as she said that.
“We slept together when I was still your best mate’s girlfriend then you never heard from me again. You thought maybe we would what, discover that we were soul mates after all?”
“No!” I protested, a little too loudly, causing the blokes at the pool table next to us to look our way. “I haven’t kept in touch with many people from back then, that’s all.”
“What, not even Finch?”
“Nope. He, well…stopped speaking to me, after I told him about us.”
“You told him? Jesus, you’re an idiot.”
“He was my friend! He was gutted when you announced you were moving the day after. He couldn’t work out why you’d planned it all behind his back, so I felt guilty.”
“You had nothing to do with it, fool. Suppose I wasted my time letting him down gently…”
“You told him not to follow you and split up with him on the spot!”
“It was a long time ago. And I was certainly not going to live happily ever after with Finch. He was just a boy.”
Matthew Finch. I had absolutely no idea where the man was and I’d once cared about him enough to confess my sins. Strange how things worked out.
“Well I’m relieved you don’t think we’re re-enacting some sort of God awful rom-com. You managed to keep it in your pants with your wife, then?”
“Yes I have, thanks. Married twenty years in May.”
She drained the last of her wine and held up the empty glass in a mock “cheers”, before getting up and heading to the bar wordlessly. She returned with two tumblers of an unmistakeable amber liquid, complete with slices of lemon on the side. Tequila.
“Seriously? I think we need a word about your motives, Fran. You were the one who gave me your phone number. I think you might be trying to get me drunk and take advantage…”
“Don’t flatter yourself, love.”
We clinked glasses and knocked the liquid back, chased with a bite of lemon. The bitter taste was not my favourite.
“I won’t tease you any longer Ray, promise. I do have an ulterior motive in coming back here.”
“Go on then, enlighten me.”
“I need you to get me something. From your work.”
The alcohol mist that was collecting in my brain suddenly cleared.
“From the office?”
“Yes. It sounds odd I know but I’ve left something in there that I need to get back.”
“When have you ever been at the office? I don’t understand.”
“It’s probably better if you keep the questions to a minimum, it will save us both a lot of time.”
She had changed now, to a Fran I didn’t remember. Business like, firm. Her body was still slightly plump as it had always been, soft around the edges. Yet there was definitely more of a hardness in the way she held herself now, as she spoke seriously.
“Ray I don’t want you to flip or anything, it’s just a favour for an old friend. The gal you stole from Finch. You know me.” She said, her gaze intense.
“I don’t know, I can’t make sense of what you’re asking me.”
I studied my lined hands and the grit beneath my fingernails. One of Fran’s hands reached over and covered mine. I flinched away, we hadn’t touched since that night.
“My job is a bit…unique. The less you know about it the better, really. For both of us.”
“Is this the job you left for, all that time ago?”
“What did you…misplace?”
“A pen drive.”
The James Bond mission was complete the following Monday, I traversed the office building stealthily on my lunch break and found the requested item in…Tina from HR’s lost property box. I decided to take Fran’s advice and put a lid on the questioning. She clearly hadn’t been here for an interview. Our next illicit rendezvous was scheduled for 4:15pm sharp, at a little park in town.
Back at my desk I studied the thin metal item, covered in a black plastic. I turned it over repeatedly in my palms, passing it from one hand to the other. It was none of my business what the drive held but curiosity was eating away at me. I set it down to one side and began scrolling through my emails. None of them were of any real significance. They could wait. Before I could deter myself the pen drive was fixed in my computer, a blue light flashing to indicate it was in use. I held my breath and selected “Open folder to view files”. One folder cryptically labelled 3321 appeared. I clicked its representative icon twice and held on to my next inward breath, when a dialogue box appeared, requesting a password. I typed RayPhillips as a joke between me and myself and was denied access, as expected. I sighed and ejected the impenetrable object, placing it in my breast pocket for safe keeping.
The rest of the afternoon passed slowly, I feigned interest in my work and had a little chat with the cleaner, Marg as she hoovered the office. It had been a quiet day as my usual office companion, Rob, was in conference calls for most of the afternoon. My mobile buzzed from my desk drawer and I pulled it from amongst old papers to find a text message from my wife; she told me she would be home soon. Yes, dear I thought. What were the correct responses to those kinds of messages? I decided not to reply, she was home at the same time most evenings and if not, I would receive a clipped phone call asking me to quickly list anything I needed from the supermarket. Finally, the clock heaved its way to 4pm.
As I was turning out the lights I caught sight of one of the company’s promotional posters hanging on the wall, the telephone number was what had made me hesitate. The last four digits were 3321.
I was surprised to see Fran was the first to arrive at the designated handover point. Her hair caught my eye straight away, even though it was pulled back in a messy knot atop her head. The flash of crimson leapt out from the brown bench and fallen leaves around her, giving her away.
“You have it?” She asked eagerly, when I was still a few yards from her. I pulled the pen drive from my pocket and held it out in front of me until I was close enough to let her fingers close around it. “Stealthy…” she teased.
“That’s me. I moved Heaven and Earth to get this for you, darling.” I said, collapsing heavily onto the bench in mock exhaustion.
She nudged me with her shoulder.
“Well you’ve done me a much bigger favour than you think. Thanks so much, Ray.” She said in a rare moment of vulnerability, staring directly into my eyes.
“I’m quite liking the softer side of Fran, y’know. Maybe I’ll just hang on to this, get you to do my bidding!” I grabbed the drive before she could block me and held it above her head, like I used to do with my little sister’s dolls to taunt her.
“Give it back, moron!” Fran cried, playing her part perfectly and tickling me until my arm gave way. I couldn’t help but notice the intent behind her scratch as she retrieved the precious object once again. She opened a zip pocket in her handbag and stowed it securely before I could pounce.
“So you not telling what’s on there?” I asked hopefully.
“Not a chance.”
“Maybe I had a look myself.”
“You wouldn’t have been able to access it. Did you actually try?”
“Course I did! I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.”
“That’s for me to know and you to never find out.”
“Har har. Seriously though, do I need to worry about my job?” I felt my face moulding into a similar expression to hers when she thanked me.
The corners of her mouth upturned slightly but it wasn’t the most encouraging smile.
“I don’t know, to be honest. Hopefully it won’t come to that.”
“Well that’s ominous! Cheers, you could’ve lied.” I half joked.
She leaned her head on my shoulder and sighed.
“Think I owe you more than that.”
I relaxed my neck so that my head was also resting on hers.
“So where to next?”
“Back where I came from. I’m definitely in for a bollocking for all this though; sometimes I think I’m too old for that job. I’m getting rusty and missing stupid things all the time.”
“Maybe we’ll both be sacked, then.”
“You really do know how to make a woman feel better…”
“Ange would agree with you on that.”
“That the missus?”
We sat in comfortable silence for a few moments. Her body eventually stiffened and she made to sit up straight.
“I think that’s me out, Phillips.” That was what she used to call me when we were both friends with Finch.
“It’s been nice to see you again Fran.”
She said nothing more and a hug didn’t feel appropriate somehow. We smiled at one another a final time before she got to her feet and headed for the gate, probably never to be seen again. A real woman of mystery. I pulled my phone from my pocket and decided to reply to Angela. Home in 10.
I left the park the same way Fran had gone and found no trace of her. The buildings already seemed greyer without her scarlet mane for contrast. I rounded the corner and felt an urgency to get home to my family that was regretfully unfamiliar. I slowed to cross the road to where I’d left my car and was forced to come to a complete stop as a van careered toward me at a ridiculous speed. As it passed by, I saw that the sliding door at the back was partially open and was in the process of inwardly cursing all van drivers, not to mention taxi drivers for that matter- when an image so disturbing met my gaze I almost felt its impact physically, in my chest. A bearded man dressed in black was in the back of the van, struggling to close the door with his right hand. His left wore a leather glove and was clasped around a woman’s mouth, pressing her body to his. Her hands were behind her back and her eyes alone conveyed a pure, desperate fear. They met mine for a split second before the vehicle flew ahead and the door was closed upon her last hope.
The woman was Fran and that actually was the last time I saw her, scarlet mane and all.
About the Author
Data analyst by day, creative soul by nature. I’m from Wigan and spend most of my free time flitting between Manchester and Liverpool. I have a degree in English from the University of Liverpool and still like to write with a pen and paper. I’ve had work published online by Hello Giggles and Artmuso.
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