Ever known that person who is a whirlwind of bad romantic choices, has a love for all things sparkly and doesn’t have a filter but has a heart of gold? Meet Zara Brunel. A young, professional woman living her best London life with her baby girl and a man who dotes on the pair of them. Life is perfect in Zara’s world until someone from her past resurfaces. Can she put what’s happened, behind her once and for all, or, like a moth to a flame, head for a fall once again?
Understanding that his embrace was yet another snub to her advances, Zara lay dejected in Aiden’s arms, searching beyond the stillness of night for an answer to his constant lack of desire for intimacy. Unable to sleep, she struggled to piece together the timeline of developments leading to his preference for a celibate relationship, none of which made any sense to her. Staring at the silhouettes of nodding branches tapping against the bay window, she pulled the duvet beneath her nose for comfort, her mind a whorl of nonsensical scenarios; if he wasn’t at work, he was with his “beautiful queen” and “perfect princess”. Wincing with the effort of thinking too much, it suddenly came to her. It was someone at work. Yes of course. It had to be! The new girl on his team fawns over Aiden as if he’s a demigod. She, as a trainee and he, as a newly appointed lawyer, it’s obvious. Why didn’t she think of it before? Zara could feel her heart beating so fast that it made her want to puke. Glancing over her shoulder, she caught sight of his eyes darting beneath their lids, deep in peaceful sleep whilst she lay awake, slumber failing to brush over her wretched thoughts. I bet he’s dreaming about her. Returning to face the window with a melancholic turn of her head, Zara sank into pitiful reflection…
Ava, Zara’s baby, had decided that she wanted to make an early appearance and a dramatic turn of events during labour resulted in the immediate need for a c-section.
In her mind they were the perfect little family; Nick, Ava’s biological father had relinquished all responsibility of his child early on in the pregnancy, therefore giving Zara the opportunity to forge a relationship with Aiden. He had brought balance and love into her world— so she thought. Was he regretting his decision to take mother and baby under his wing now that his career was taking off? After all, he was young, handsome and had great prospects ahead of him; women would be falling over themselves to get to know him. Were she and Ava the ball and chain around his ankle that he wanted to cut himself away from?
Nibbling on a piece of toast, Ines sat by the tall window in the kitchen, captivated by the puffs of clouds bumping each other along like lambs gambolling in a meadow. It was hard to believe it was a year ago that she had made the crazy last-minute decision to catch the flight, Luke, her better half — a rank he’d honoured himself with, that Ines will always contradict —was on, and put everyone, including themselves, out of their misery.
A twinge of sadness prickled at her heart, thinking of how broken-hearted he had been, her pain-the-bum-Luke, because of the presumptions she had made…
Like a shuriken, the toast she held in her hand was sent flying into the air at the unexpected interruption. ‘For crying out loud!’ Slumping her shoulders at the sight of her breakfast, buttered side down, Ines leaned down to retrieve the solitary crusty piece of toast, muttering profanities. ‘Of course, it would fall wrong side up. Why wouldn’t it?’
The shrill tones seemed intent on ruining her morning quietude. ‘I hear you! Bloody hell.’ Scratching through her bag, she clawed at anything in the way to retrieve the rogue phone, surmising that her partner would be in his element if he were here. Forever lecturing her about how the purpose of an inside pocket of a bag was to hold a mobile phone and not remnants of chocolate wrappers and discarded tissues, she prayed to her Angels of Calamity that the caller wasn’t him. The swine would know she’d misplaced her phone in the abyss of her bag, once again. Then she realised it couldn’t be him anyway, it wasn’t his designated ringtone, much to her relief. Spotting the LED flashing like a beacon in the corner of her bag, her determined hands delved in deeper. Snatching her prize, victorious that she had caught it before the caller had given up, her gaze met the screen. Luke!? Bum.
‘Bonjour my little butterfly. Have trouble locating your phone in that dustbin you call a handbag, hmm?’
Responding by waggling a two-finger salute at the phone, puffing like an insubordinate teen, she switched him to loudspeaker. ‘No. I was about to make a coffee. I don’t have my phone stuck to me, you know.’
‘Of course, you were. Like all the other times.’
I really don’t like you, right now. Ines chose to ignore his cocky powers of perception. ‘Anyway, what’s up?’
‘I’m coming home on Thursday; I’ve taken a few days off. This romance at a distance thing is shit. Although not being made to eat the food you cook compensates for it.’
‘I’m going to ignore you. Your opinions are irrelevant.’
‘So, will you be at arrivals with open arms, or will I be greeted by a snarky imp?’ Sometimes Luke balanced on a knife edge.
Sidling past the window, she reached the cupboard handle in search for another slice of bread and popped it in the toaster. Slapping the lever down with deftness, her face broke into a mischievous smile. ‘I’ll be there. I’ve nothing better to do.’ Touché. Ending the call, Ines’ heart fluttered with the warmth of a fire on a winter’s night. Luke was coming home! Taking a jaunty step to the coffee machine, she flicked the switch and watched the viscous liquid chugging and gurgling into her favourite cup, a tiny crescent for a smile forming at the side of her face.
Feeling the strap tighten around her slim arm, Ines watched the monitor as the numbers blinked their way to a final reading.
‘Ines, your blood pressure is elevated. You’ve either not been drinking enough water this morning or you’ve been causing trouble on the hospital grounds again. Which one is it?’ Josephine was a tall, robust young woman, and Ines often considered that if she was to take one swipe with her large hand it would send her into the middle of next week. Conversely, the older woman spoke with such a soft tone, she often struggled to hear the nurse’s sweet voice.
‘Ah, yes. Well, the café refused to sell me my twentieth crème egg, so I got a little feisty.’
‘Well, you need some water to settle your nerves. Drink plenty before we get started, unless you want to stay with us a few more hours.’
Shaking her head with the vehemence of a small child being offered the choice of cabbage stew instead of a burger for dinner, Ines poured herself a beaker of water from the jug that the nurse had nudged in her direction.
Observing Josephine flicking the I.V. drip clear of bubbles, Ines marvelled at how she was now dependent on the clear, innocuous-looking liquid in a bag forever more, to protect her from potential disability. The monthly infusions were more of a social union for her and the others in the same situation and she somehow found herself looking forward to her visits every month. The group often had a laugh and were a raucous bunch, each of them serving a purpose for one another — to alleviate the time and remind themselves that they weren’t alone on this journey.
As with all bands of people, there’s always someone you click straight away with and for Ines, it was Toby. He was a funny, sensitive soul with a love for satire and a cheeky grin. To look at him, you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was a player, a rogue. Sitting beside each other in vinyl covered reclining chairs while the medication trickled through clear tubes into a canula fed into a vein, the two friends remained in companiable silence, Ines reading a book and Toby munching through the last of his dumplings from the stew his girlfriend had made for him. Watching him place the lid back on the food container, he smacked his lips with indulgent bravado and smirked fiendishly knowing that noisy eaters could send his friend over the edge and finding it a great form of entertainment to see her practicing self-control. Her tourmaline eyes darted to the corner where he sat, the angled edge of her jawline pulsating. Feigning disinterest, she composed herself with admirable stoicism and returned to the paragraph she had been attempting to read for a few minutes.
Contorting his heart-shaped face with the effort of tearing open his biscuits, small puffs of exertion escaped his twisted mouth and the apples of his cheeks reddened with every determined pull. The struggle between man and biscuit was beginning to irk his treatment buddy. A weary gaze skimmed over the top of the book, a compelling need to snatch the biscuits away from him and open them was strong. Dropping the book away from her face, Ines gasped her compassion. ‘Oh my God, Tobes, let me do it for you. At this rate, you’ll be keeling over with sugar depravation.’ Grabbing what was now a twisted hash out of his trembling hands, she smiled at the resignation in the face he had pulled. Toby’s condition was far more advanced than Ines’, and the dexterity and strength in his arms had diminished.
Adopting the persona of Yoda, Toby pointed a jittery finger. ‘Impatient, you are.’
Tearing the cellophane with her teeth, Ines shrugged. ‘Whatever. Do you want these ginger nuts or not?’
‘Snaps. These are ginger snaps I’ll have you know. Do you actually think …’ Toby was now jabbing the air towards his friend… ‘that I would let your teeth near my nuts, Vampira?’
Ines could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks. Embarrassed yet amused, she could not get her words out quick enough for a retort, achieving nothing more than a bray. ‘Can you stop? Everyone can hear you!’
Feigning hurt, Toby dropped his head. ‘I assured Mr Benoit that I’d keep the momentum going and embarrass you constantly until his return. When is he coming back, anyways?’
‘Thursday. I’m picking him from the airport.’ Ines’ face lit up at the thought of him.
‘And he trusts you to drive his car again, after leaving it to roll into a wall?’ Raising a thick eyebrow towards his scruffy brown hair, Toby’s countenance became one of concern.
‘Ah. Phew. I thought he’d taken leave of his senses. Train it is, then. You two have come a long way since that time.’ Tapping the clear bag of medication back to life, he peered at the tube leading to his arm and looked back at his friend for confirmation.
Giving a slow, deliberate nod, Ines took a distracted bite out of her friend’s biscuit. Theirs is a frustrating story, often recounted by those involved. They had a chemistry that was obvious for all to see, but that they denied existed. Having been invited to her co-worker’s glamorous wedding, Ines had asked Luke, with reluctance, if he’d be her “plus one” given that nobody else was available. It was during that weekend in Devon the two friends had realised that they were meant to be a couple. After having spent a few blissful days together, they returned to London high on honeymoon fever. However, in her infinite wisdom, she had decided that he should not be with someone who had MS and that he could do better — the fact that she didn’t actually discuss her thoughts with him to allay her concerns prior to breaking the news caused a spiralling frenzy of tears and heartache all round, with urgent talks held by the outspoken Zara and diplomatic Sally to convince their friend otherwise. Meanwhile, Luke had taken a dramatic course of action and planned to return to France. Somehow, there but for the grace of sympathetic airline passenger attendants, they were reunited, and the rest is, as they say, history.
‘Yup. It’s crazy to think I could have lost him because of my dumb assertions. It doesn’t change the fact that he won’t let me touch his car, let alone drive it, though. So, it’s cabs or public transport for me.’ She had come to terms with the fact that it would be a while before Luke would trust her behind the wheel of his beloved car again but had undertaken the mission as a work in progress.
A smirk crept across his face. ‘So, not only are you a bad driver, but you’re a biscuit thief.’
With an indulgent smile, she crammed the last morsel into her mouth, tiny specks of golden-brown crumbs scattering around her chin. Brushing the debris away with an expert flick of her hand, Ines peered over the book she had lifted from her lap and blinked a cheeky ‘yep’ as a denouement to her friend’s quip.
Content, Ines lay across Luke’s lap, his low mutterings of discord at the meagre choice of tv there was to watch, echoing through her ears.
‘Psssh, how much do we pay for this?’
Rounding up a figure, her eyes rolling from side to side in visual recall of their bank statement, she replied, dubious of where this question and the answer was going. ‘Umm fifty-five pounds.’
Luke’s mouth puckered, ‘and barely two decent channels out of God knows how many. Thieving pigs.’
Pulling herself up, she twisted round to look at her boyfriend frowning his discontent. There was only one way, no, actually, two, which were guaranteed to make him smile when he was in this mood. The first, he’d already had the pleasure of, and the second was cheese. Making a deliberate reach for a large chunk of Comté from the plate brimming with an array of charcuterie and cheese in front of them, she cast a sneaky glimpse at the sourpuss beside her before sweeping it under his nose, the mild nutty aroma piquing his nostrils.
Bouncing the morsel in a pincer grip, Ines sang her words, like a breathless four-year-old marching its way through a nonsensical ditty. ‘Oooh Monsieur Benwaaahahahahahhhh, why the grouchy face? Doncha wan’ my cheese? Does it not please you?’ The mockery turned to a sudden gargled yelp as it rose out of her throat, ‘Eeek!!’
In one fell swoop, she had been grappled to the floor, a doll in his grasp. Straddling the curve of her hips, he began to lower his angular face in slow, seductive moves, the cheese, gripped, titillating, between his teeth. Snatching a breath, her smiling mouth parted as she closed her eyes in sweet anticipation of cheese à deux and a sensuous kiss. Hovering over her mouth, within a hair’s breadth, he brushed her lips gently against the crown of his cheekbone, the earthy scent of red wine on each breath he took. Arching her body to reach him, a beguiling groan heaved itself out of her chest, her heart drumming in both ears. She needed to feel him once more. He was right, this relationship-at-a-distance thing was not as easy as they thought it would be.
Reeling his broad shoulders away from the sultry young woman’s writhing body, his eyes turned the colour of darkened fern when they met hers, shut and fluttering with excitement. It was at that exact moment Luke did to his girlfriend what he had been longing to do for the last few minutes… blew into her expectant face.
‘Aargh!!! You bloody animal. You’re disgusting!’ Appalled, she pushed the hulk of muscled body that had been balancing precariously on its knees, tipping it over. Rendered breathless with laughter, he struggled to find his words the moment his sparkling eyes lit on her astounded doe-like face, freckled with Comté. Holding his midriff, Luke threw his head back, the echoes of his puerility carrying through the tall sash windows.
Mounted across his quaking body, a vengeful glint in her eyes, Ines dragged the detritus in large, disgusted sweeps with her sticky hands through his hair and over his tee shirt in petty retaliation. Grinning like a vacuous adolescent, she placed a victorious “L” hand signal and smirked through her words. ‘L …l …loser! Take the L, loser Luke! Ha! Take that and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine!’ Pointing to the mess, Ines made a wiggle dance of triumph. Searching for a hint of what was going to be his next move, her countenance soon turned to stone, a shaped eyebrow cocked in a show of defiance that dared the apathetic man to make the next move. Small puffs of shallow breathing were the only sound that could be heard, as their eyes followed each and every one of each other’s moves. His mouth set, Luke’s poker face was very much in place. ‘Apologise.’
His eyes glinted. Something wicked was brewing in his head. Bum. Regardless of feeling a little unnerved, Ines refused to show any sign of disquiet and chose instead to continue with playing psych-out by folding both arms behind her head, affecting a relaxed pose and closing her eyes. ‘You’re boring me now. I’m going to sleep. Nighty n…aaaah! No! Stop! Luke, stop it. Where are you taking me? Luuuuke!’
Treading down the large steps of the Georgian villa, Luke gripped Ines’ flailing ankles over his chest, her knuckles pounding his back as her head bounced rhythmically with every trot of his long stride. Curious bystanders stopped to watch the amusing spectacle of the tall guy carrying a petite hellion, over his shoulders, her hair swaying like corkscrew willow branches in the breeze. Strutting through the square, Luke continued to grin, fuelled by wails of indignation slicing through the air, his determined pace creating a flurry of blossom petals to whirl and toss, like confetti in his wake.
‘Put me down!’
‘With pleasure my little butterfly.’
Doomph. ‘Voila! I have put you down, at your request, mademoiselle.’
Horrified yet tickled pink, Ines looked around her. She had been placed without ceremony atop a litter bin. ‘Get me down.’ Pumping the air with both fists balled into angry knots, she snorted in between her words, uncertain of how she was going to jump off without causing herself mischief. A wide smile reached his eyes, laughing at the sight of her flailing like a tortoise on its back. Enveloping both hands around her back, he circled a thumb on her waist, leaning back to assess the vision before him and began to pat his jaw with a long finger. ‘Hmmm. You resemble a very naughty imp. You can redeem yourself if you say sorry. Then I’ll release you.’
Cupping his ear as if to hear better, Luke leaned in. ‘Pardon me?’
‘I said sorry!! Now please get me down.’
Wrapping her arms around his neck in presupposition, Luke remained steadfast at the audacity. Narrowing his eyes, the corner of his mouth twitched. ‘You’ve got a nerve assuming I’m going to carry you.’
Reflecting the stare with matching equivocality, Ines jutted her jaw at the incredulous man who was still holding her. In truth, she knew that he could quite easily prolong the farce, even leave her to find a way out of the pickle she’d gotten herself into and so, yes, she was at his mercy but the strong-willed streak that coursed through her DNA refused to allow it. ‘What. Ever.’
Puffing out his cheeks and making a resolute shake of his head he yielded to the fact that that his obstinate other half was not loosening her grip and the subject was now closed, and so he found himself sweeping her up and over his shoulder once again. Catching the words in her throat, Ines whooped aloud. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Carrying you home. Me man, you wo-man.’ Grunting like a Neanderthal, Luke loped back towards the flat. ‘Plus, you don’t have anything on your feet. They’re gnarly enough as it is, without adding road dirt to them.’
Plonked onto the black and white checkered floor, Ines’ toes curled with the sensation of the cold tiles beneath her feet. Pursing her lips in distaste, she gave Luke a long petulant stare. Unaffected by the surly imp’s discontent, Luke watched behind amused eyes as Ines turned and began to shuffle down the long hallway to the bathroom, grumbling words of discourse. ‘I need a shower AGAIN because of you.’
Accustomed to her short-lived outbursts, he followed close behind, shepherding her towards the bathroom. ‘Are you bum rushing me, Benoit?’
‘It’s no less than what you deserve. Allez go, you smell.’ Watching her peeling her jeans off, Luke’s eyes roamed over the curves he loved and gave a lascivious grin.
‘Go!’ Coy, Ines laughed at his amorous mien and watched him feign dejection. ‘Go!’
Bowing out of the bathroom, he pulled the door behind him, hollering, ‘you can’t blame me for trying!’
Standing in front of the butcher’s console, Luke had made the decision to start preparing dinner. There was no such thing as a quick shower in Ines’ world. Her idea of quick was comparable to a sloth on tranquillisers.
Chopping up potatoes to fry in a little of the fat from the tin of duck confit he’d brought back with him from Avignon, he added some wild garlic and watched it sizzle as the juices were shocked into a culinary frenzy over the gas stove. Realising that the aroma was already penetrating the walls within the flat, Luke slapped the spatula down and shifted with wide, smart steps along the quartz worktop, to the window. Unclasping the lock, he lifted the bottom sash fully and noticed, under the pewter light of dusk, a figure he thought he recognised on the other side of the square. It looked like Zara; the gait was reminiscent of Ines’ bubble-headed friend, but it couldn’t be. She normally has a baby in tow, these days. ‘Weird. It looks like her, but it can’t be,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Maybe she’s got a doppelgänger…it’s a cruel world if she has!’ Chuckling to himself, he shrugged his way back to the cooking. Luke’s senses were roused by the scent of amber and vanilla contending with the delicious aromas of his culinary skills. As predicted, he watched Ines scoot across the threshold, knowing what her next move would be. Raising an eyebrow, his mouth broke into a lopsided smirk. Sidling up beside him, she stretched up on her tippy toes, reaching for the extractor fan. As she waggled the tips of her fingers, the button slid into life, launching a grumbling whir and sucking up the plumes of steam emanating from the pan spitting out hot fat. Blanching at the fumes of hot oil, Ines edged away from the threat of smelling of fried food and headed towards the cool evening air flowing from the window. Sundown had turned the sky into dark sheets of iron, laden with steely grey clouds threatening to burst at the seams, leaving Ines in no doubt that she was pleased to be indoors and not risking having her curly mane turn into an oversized orb of frizz. Looking across the square, she noticed the silhouette of a familiar figure in the shaft of light projecting from the boutique next to the artisanal bakery. Uncertain of whether she had seen clearly, Ines shoved the orchid plant to one side, its rubbery heads shaking in protest. To verify her suspicions, she craned her neck for a less obscured view and squeezed her eyes in quick succession.
Alerted by a blanket of ghostly silence that had descended on the room, Luke stole a quick glance over his shoulder whilst sautéing the potatoes into crispy golden cubes. Meeting her wide-eyes and wordless explanation that something underhand was happening beyond the wrought iron railings of Montague Square, he concluded that the figure he’d seen a few minutes ago, must have been Zara…but why was Ines so flummoxed? In a nimble move, she ducked from the window, and crouched out of sight, waving with enthusiasm to catch Luke’s attention who was by now focused on not burning the food. Out of the corner of his eye, his curiosity was roused by her manic waving and curls bouncing in a flurry of dark coils. Raising a weary head to then find what resembled a fish out of water gasping for air in a bid for survival, a deep “11” formed between his eyes; his usual astuteness had taken a nosedive at the strange behaviour coming from his girlfriend. An enquiring tilt of his head in perplexity at what she was trying to convey, Luke concurred that his suspicions that Ines became a little cockeyed when she needed feeding were not unfounded. Slicing her hand back and forth, indicating decapitation, Luke bristled at the theatrics and chose to ignore her… he had a meal to prepare and the sooner he fed her the better.
‘Pssst, oiii! Psssssst!’ Ines’ vying for his attention was relentless.
Sliding the food out of the pan and onto two warm plates, Luke adopted a look of derision when the hissing coming from beneath the windowsill became more frantic. ‘Okay Clouseau, mind your business—you sound like a radiator being bled making that psss psss noise.’ As he placed the plated food upon the bistro table, the clinking of china on marble sang out across the silent kitchen.
All of a sudden, she felt hungry as aromatic ribbons of steam rose from the meal in front of her. Sliding into the chair Luke had pulled out for her, she babbled her appreciation. ‘This smells and looks delicious. Thank you.’
Lowering himself into the chair opposite, he nodded once in acknowledgment, shifting his long legs at an angle and tore a chunk out of the baguette in front of them, soaking it in the duck jus. ‘Bon appétit.’
Savouring the flavours of the meal he had prepared; Luke noticed the wine that had been opened earlier had yet to be poured. Wrapping a deft hand around the bottle, he decanted Pinot Noir into balloon-shaped glasses. Ines looked through the damp tendrils hanging over her face with delight as she watched the concentration stretch into a frown and his jaw slacken just enough to hear him breathing through the ritual.
‘You look so serious when you’re focusing.’
Jutting his jaw to indicate that she should stop talking and raise her glass, he saw a small crescent form at the corners of her mouth. Hooking two fingers around the stem, she held out an arm to clink glasses. Ines always felt that in the years that she’d known Luke, no matter how many times she had drunk with him, she would always become bashful when their eyes would meet. Try as she might to hold his clear gaze, she always found herself detracting at the first given opportunity. This was just one of the many quirks Ines possessed that Luke found charming. Taking an appreciative gulp of wine, he placed the glass back on the table and leaned forward to meet Ines’ regard.
‘So, are you going to tell me what was so exciting that had you looking demented?’ Stabbing a succulent piece of duck with his fork, he looked up to meet her eyes.
‘The moment’s passed. You wouldn’t be interested anyway.’ Chewing on a crispy potato, the salty sweetness a melody of flavours in her mouth, Ines chose to say nothing else save only to enjoy the sensation. She took one last sip before lancing a slither of duck meat. ‘Anyway, you’re not interested in what Zara does. You still call her Me Me or Bubblehead,’ She cocked an eyebrow at his enquiring countenance, putting a full stop to the conversation.
Pulling a face with indifference, the shadow cast from the light above him accentuated the razored line leading down from his cheekbones. ‘That’s up to you, my little butterfly.’ Shrugging, he took another bite of his food, leaving Ines speechless, which had been his intention. Happy he’d succeeded, he continued to eat.
Sitting at her chaotic but somehow organised desk, Ines couldn’t help but think back to the previous night when she’d seen Zara standing with questionable purpose with a guy in a parka on the other side of the square. Absorbed in her thoughts, Ines glided back and forth on her chair, the whirring steel castors in sync with her musings. Swallowing a large gulp of coffee, Ines winced as it burned its way down her throat. ‘Aargh, shit!’ Fanning her mouth with desperate sweeps, Ines snatched the bottle of water beside the monitor. Tipping her head back, the hapless young woman took long greedy swigs as though she were suffering from dehydration, unaware of who was standing at the end of her desk.
‘Oooh Ines, you look as if you’ve been overexerting yourself.’ Raising a sapphire-adorned finger to a perfectly applied rouged cheek, Echo gave a patronising smirk before she scuttled off.
Now that Ines’ troubles had settled, life too had returned to its regular routine. Although the dynamics had changed and new bonds were formed with her co-workers, the things that irked her before, continued to do so. She was grateful to them for their support during her diagnosis of MS and their part in getting she and Luke together, but nobody, including herself, had had a drastic personality transformation — nor had David and Martha, the team’s answer to Hans Solo and Princess Leia (without the love). Ines was reeled back into the present when the sound of their voices could be heard from across the office floor…
‘…one day, David, you’ll hopefully become a responsible adult, albeit still an oaf, and understand.’
‘Aye, because filtering yer face beyond recognition is really grown up.’ David’s laugh boomed across the office floor, a benchmark for the rest of the staff that he was doing what pleased him the most in his working day— winding Martha up.
Here we go.
‘It’s par for the course on social media. If you actually got with the programme, you’d know. Everyone does it.’ Lifting a haughty chin, Martha looked more like a stroppy teen than a thirty-three-year-old mother of two.
‘Aye, ye keep telling herself that sunshine. If it puts a smile on that boat of yers, it’s got to be worth it.’
From the puzzled look on Martha’s face, it was clear she was unsure of what David was implying with the word ‘boat’ but could tell by his tone that it was most likely a derogatory term. By now, the confrontational duo had a small audience. Silence fell across the open plan room, eager eyes on expectant faces stared in amusement at the pair.
Realising that Martha hadn’t quite understood the idiom, David stopped biting at the skin around his nail and framed his gleeful ruddy face with two large hands, then dropping them as abruptly as he raised them. ‘Boat race Martha. It rhymes with face. Now d’ya get it?’
Glaring behind penetrating eyes at his mocking of her limited knowledge of slang, a crooked pompous smile crept across Martha’s face. ‘I’m sorry David. I’m not accustomed to street talk. I’ll leave that to your domain.’
Nodding, David’s narrow lips formed a tight line across his face. ‘I canny argue with that Martha. You are but a lady and I, a lowly peasant.’ A self-satisfied nod came from Martha, speaking through a tight smile, ‘I’m glad that you at least agree with myself and others in the room,’ sweeping her arm out in a wide arc, ‘that you are nothing more than an ignoramus.’ At that very moment, David turned on his heels to leave, releasing an odious gas in his trail, reaching his work nemesis at the instant she’d sucked in the air with petty exultance. Gagging, the unfortunate woman began to retch, turning a shade of vermilion at the effort of not bringing up her breakfast.
Seeing Martha struggling to compose herself and David walking with a moronic smile, back to the cluster of merchandisers at their desks, left Stevie and the rest of the team in no doubt of the gift he had left her with. Entertained by the antics from the other end of the office, Ines was glad her co-worker’s back was facing her. Observing Martha’s body convulsing in uncontrollable spasms was too much. Sliding the monitor closer, she dipped her head and laughed, her shoulders shaking in silent amusement.
Alerted by the message tone, she leaned back to see who the sender was. Wiping her eyes, wet with laughter, she opened the message to read it. Zara.
-Zara: Hey sweetie, how are you? How’s everything? Need to talk to you asap. Are you free?
-Ines: Hello you, yep, I’m ok. I’m around later if you want to pop over. How’s my goddaughter?
-Zara: She’s a little pudding. Is 7 okay?
-Ines: Perfect. See you later xx
Ines ran around the apartment, opening windows and disinfecting every surface she could see. Everything had to be perfectly clean for the arrival of Zara and her little pudding.
Standing in the doorway watching her busy herself with a mop and spray, Luke looked on at the Tasmanian devil with a sense of awe at the desperation in which she seemed to fling herself around the flat.
‘You do know that Ava isn’t crawling yet, yes? And that actually, it’s good to build the immune system with germs.’
Plopping the mop onto the floor, she took wide sweeping strokes across the flagstones, ‘I know.’ Panting a breath with the effort, Ines blew the loose spirals of hair swinging with every move of her head. ‘I’m just cleaning. It’s what I do.’
‘On a Monday evening?’
‘Yes. So what?’ Simmering at the inquisition, she swerved the mop close enough to Luke’s feet for him to take a precautionary step back.
Watching her feigning diligence, he grinned, his eyes never leaving her swaying bottom. ‘Just saying, you’re not usually inspired to start cleaning on a Monday evening…well, most evenings for that matter.’ He curled his toes under in an attempt to avoid them being drenched in pine-scented disinfectant as Ines drove the mop dangerously close to his feet, projecting droplets of cleaning fluid upon the hem of both legs of his jeans. Jumping back, fearing for his feet as the rubber edge of the mop swerved close to him, Luke delivered an exasperated gasp. ‘It’s this kind of steering that confirms my justification in not letting you behind the wheel of my car ever again.’
Her frantic cleaning came to a halt, and she rested her chin over a fist, considering his announcement. ‘Whatever. I can go without it. Like sex. No car, no sex. Same thing. It’s overrated. Well, it is with you anyway.’ Blowing a raspberry into his face, Ines saw the tiny pleats fanning at the corners of his eyes and a roguish glint following her impertinent smirk. ‘You!’ A leery grin shot across his mouth, preceding a smart lunge forward to grab her waist, causing Ines to let out a squeal whilst wriggling from her captor’s grasp. ‘Merde! You’re like an eel.’ Laughing at her determination to escape using all the strength she could muster; he loosened his grip leading her into a false sense of achievement. Like a trapped animal who’d found a way out from captivity, she made a valiant attempt to slither away in a nifty twist of her body. Lurching away from his grasp, she hadn’t felt his hooked finger over the waistband of the joggers she was wearing. Luke watched with puerile glee as the back of her joggers stretched away from his grip, while Ines could feel a tug preventing any further advancement. Making one last ditch attempt to escape, she used every little bit of strength she could muster. Tottering precariously on her toes, the waistband snapped against the back of her legs, exposing a smooth butter-pecan, bare cheek.
‘Well, hello there, little minx.’ Luke slapped her bottom, watching in reverie as the flesh jiggled. Like a discarded blanket, he hunched two muscular arms over her slender shoulders.
‘You’re heavy.’ Casting the weighted plumb-lines that were his arms, Ines freed herself from her amorous boyfriend.
Unperturbed, he nuzzled her neck, every murmur, zinging through her limbs. Bringing his warm mouth close to an ear, the hairs on her neck prickled in turn. ‘I can show my little butterfly how light I can be.’
With weakening resolve, Ines uttered, ‘Zara will be here soon.’
‘We have time,’ he whispered in enunciated French inflection, as his hands glided in slow, seductive moves beneath her vest, causing goosebumps to sprout at every touch like the first seedlings of spring. As he continued his exploration of her soft, dewy skin, his kisses more fervent with every caress of bare neck, Ines’ willpower had ceased to exist. Melting into him, she fumbled with the hem of his t -shirt, before lifting it over his head with urgency. Feeling expert hands rolling the slim fitting joggers far enough until they no longer needed encouraging, she stepped out with ease leaving a pool of navy around her feet, her body aching to be consumed by Luke’s hold.
Startled out of the slumber they’d fallen into after their lovemaking, Ines flapped around in a dozy stupor, scrambling around the floor in search of the clothes strewn across the kitchen in the throes of passion. ‘Luke! Wake up, Zara’s here!’ Kicking him into life with the side of her foot, she hopped about, trying to wriggle her joggers up over her hips.
Bzzz Bzz Bzzzzz!! Zara was losing patience.
‘Hang on, I’m coming! One sec!’ She looked down in despair at Luke lying prostrate, his gentle snores trailing his slow breathing – the man was showing no signs of moving, let alone waking. Berating him before slamming the kitchen door behind her, she cursed his ability to sleep anywhere. In an attempt to placate her friend, she took quick strides towards the intercom, tripping over an abandoned slipper — ‘Oww, shit! Bloody stupid slipper!’ — and snatched the receiver up to an ear, catching the long breath she’d been holding during the furore. Clearing her dry throat, she sang out, feigning calm within Casa Garcia-Benoit. ‘Hel-lo!’
‘Bloody hell, Ini, what’s taken you so long?’
‘I was in the bathroom. Come in and hush up with your impatient self.’
Ever glamorous, it was hard to believe that Zara was a new mother. Hauling Ava in her car seat across the threshold, its plastic handle dug into her fleshy arm, causing the new mum to grimace. Bumping through the doorway to where a beaming Ines stood against the wall, Zara let out a breathy ‘hey,’ smiling through the effort of carrying the miniature queen in her chariot. Beneath a multitude of fluffy pink layers, Ava’s eyes shone with delight, when at once her curiosity had rested upon her Auntie Ini. Cooing with a gummy smile, the baby kicked at her blankets with the gusto of a mule.
With eager hands, Ines began unfastening the safety clasp.
‘Hellooo precious. You look just like a little pearl in an oyster shell. I’ve missed my little boo, have you missed your…’
‘Crikey Ini, at least let me place her on the floor. Do you know how heavy this thing is? I’ve got guns bodybuilders would envy.’ Lowering Ava onto the floor, Zara rolled her sleeves up to prove her point.
‘Is Mummy being a whining wench?’ Wittering in the way people do when faced with a baby or a pet, all self-respecting adult composure forgotten, Ines scooped the baby out of her seat and leaned in to kiss her head, intoxicated by the baby smell.
Scanning a sharp eye around the flat for evidence of her daughter’s godfather, Zara asked, ‘is Luke here?’ Pressing down on the brass handle on the door leading to the kitchen, she was alarmed by the garbled scream behind her, the panic in her friend’s objection, a warning not to go in. The cry resonated through the hallway, startling the baby, her head wobbling like a bobblehead doll. Instinctively pulling Ava into her chest, Ines rested her hands over the soft tufts of burnished golden-brown ringlets. Realising the reason for the outburst, Zara let out a dirty laugh. ‘You two! Couldn’t make it to the bedroom huh?’ In a sudden rare show of melancholia, Zara’s face sunk. ‘I wish I could say the same for me and Aiden.’
Understanding that this was the reason for the visit, Ines ushered mother and baby to the lounge. Fussing the sofa cushions into something more appealing than a squashed padded envelope, she kicked the partner to the slipper that she’d tripped over in the hallway out of sight — what Luke had been doing with his slippers to leave them at such random positions around their home was a mystery that she didn’t want to consume her brain space. Patting the seat, a signal for the depleted young woman to sit beside her, she shuffled her bottom around to face her friend, a warm smile lightening the mood. Flopping back into the silk cushions, Zara let her head sink into the back of the sofa, the cooling sensation of the leather offering relief against the nape of her neck.
Unsettled at the sight of her friend looking so dejected, Ines decided it was time for a glass of wine and nice food to cheer her up and some crudités for her teething goddaughter. ‘Right, I’m going to pour us some wine and get some essential food for the ladies,’ she nodded inanely at Ava who had decided that the tassels on the rug Ines had bought from the Kasbah in Marrakesh were more fascinating than the play mat her mother had laid her upon. Squeaky toys and phoney mirrors are only good for dribbling on. Nothing feels as good as tugging stubborn bits of woollen threads and sucking on them. Unravelling herself from the comfortable position she was in, Ines stood up, leaving an imprint of her body in the seat, and tidied herself up. Pulling her sweater down, she clapped her hands in conclusion. ‘Right, off I go to get m’lady some sustenance.’
Spiking the air with her arm like a jouster, Ines performed a flamboyant pirouette in purple diamanté studded flip flops before heading forthwith down the hallway. ‘At your service, my damsels. I shall endeavour to return with food and drink fit for your royal highnesses.’ Cantering down the pale blue, long hall, the echoes of her sandals squeaked along the way, fading into the distance.
Opening the door with caution, Ines slid sideways through the narrow space, an act of discretion for Zara’s benefit, should she happen to pass. Seeing Luke in all his naked glory would make for giggles and acute embarrassment for all concerned and Ines was certain that her ditsy friend would never be able to look him in the eye ever again. Wait, what? Where’s the naked prostrate body that had been laying on the flagstones? Resembling a sparrow eagerly seeking out worms, Ines took jaunty steps through the kitchen for signs of discarded clothing and, more importantly, her boyfriend, both of which presented no signs of their presence. Baffled, she flip-flapped back to the hallway. Passing their bedroom, a nagging feeling of dread whipped through the pit of her stomach. Don’t be pulling any stupid pranks, Benoit. ‘Luke, where are you?’ No answer. ‘Luuuke! Where are you?’
‘Eeeeek!’ Releasing a heart-stopping screech, Ines’ mouth was smothered by lemony scented broad fingers.
‘Well, hello again. Looking to go for round two, are we?’ Luke, but this time fully clothed and with a boyish grin.
‘For crying out loud, what are you doing? You frightened the life out of me!’ Stamping her foot in frustration, the beads on her anklet tinkled against one another.
Running a tongue over his teeth, Luke leaned into her ear and spoke in hushed tones. ‘Shht. I need to check something.’ Spinning the perturbed young woman round, he then proceeded to make a brusque sweep of her bottom with authoritative hands and shook his head in sullen contemplation. ‘Hmm, yes, I can tell. I think the fright left a mark in your trousers. Shall I help you out of them?’
Wide-eyed, her finger flew straight to her twisted mouth, stifling a giggle.
Waving a finger of warning to his laughing mouth, a thick murmur resonated, ‘Shhh, shush, you’ll wake the baby …’
‘…the baby’s not asleep,’ she interjected.
Winking, with an insouciant roll of his shoulder, he hiked his eyebrows. ‘Even better, she’ll be with her mother.’
‘I don’t know what’s got into you! You’re behaving like a horny teenager at the moment. Anyway, Zara’s in the lounge with the baby. She’s sad.’ Thumbing the air behind her, indicating the close proximity, Ines straightened her appearance for the second time this evening.
‘Aiden cut her Botox and fillers allowance?’
‘Be kind. My friend’s troubled.’
Rubbing his whiskered chin, Luke couldn’t disagree with that. ‘More affected, I’d say.’ He wasn’t the easiest person to convince of the troubles of drama queens. ‘OUCH! What was that for?’ Nursing a tender nipple, Luke pouted.
‘Shut up or go out for a while if you can’t be nice.’
Luke considered his options. ‘I’ll babysit. That poor child needs guidance when her dad’s not around.’
Leaving the bedroom, they both parted ways. Ines headed for the kitchen and Luke skulked off to the lounge, to find Zara texting, and Ava playing with her favourite toy. Too engrossed in a conversation she was having on her phone, Zara hadn’t noticed Luke moving light-footed across the rug. Ava gurgled happy bubbles at the silly man pulling a face at her as he rolled down to scoop her in his arms.
As Luke walked off with the delighted baby, Zara still hadn’t realised what had happened. ‘Silly Maman, I could be a kidnapper.’ As he drifted into the spare room, he noticed the moon had begun to rise as the sun made its final descent, swathes of bluish mauve scattered across the whitewash floorboards. Raising and swooping the baby through the air as though she were a toy plane, Luke was in his element. ‘Vrooom whishhh!’ Ava yelped in delight and dribble began to stretch like a bungee towards his upturned face. ‘Yeuch.’ Wiping his eye with one hand, the baby teetered precariously in the grip of the other.
A guttural wail carried through the walls. ‘Ava! Where’s my baby?’
Luke stopped in his tracks with outstretched arms, the baby’s legs dangling like two chipolatas in the butcher’s window, and both play mates chuckled for their own reasons.
‘Hmm, I think your Maman’s realised you’re not chewing on Auntie Ini’s rug tassels anymore. Let’s tell her.’ Luke’s voice rumbled across the bedroom as he moved away from the large sash windows, with Ava now tucked in his arms. ‘Zara, I’ve got her.’ Loping across the room, he found a flushed Zara reaching out with outspread fingers to grab her baby back.
‘I thought something had happened.’ Holding Ava in one arm, her heart with the other, it was difficult to gauge what Zara was truly feeling given her recent top-up of Botox.
With a weary tone in his voice, Luke spoke. ‘Well, she’s not exactly going to walk off, heh?’ It was Zara’s turn to figure out what he was feeling with such an impassive appearance. Unnerved by his response, she wheeled round, heading for the kitchen to seek solace in her friend. ‘Where’s Ini? Iniii?’ Oomph ‘Ooh Ini, sorry!’
Nursing her foot with the other, Ines waved her hand dismissively, signalling that it was ‘ok’. ‘What’s going on?’ Firing the question like a heat-seeking missile at her boyfriend, Ines’ demeanour was of bubbling discontent preparing itself to dive out and rear its small but mighty form.
Jittery, Zara stood between the Gallic giant and the Latina-Guyanese imp, apparently concerned for where this was leading. Ines had the shrewd perception of a hawk and the protective instincts of a lioness.
Smirking, Luke leaned into his hip, dropping his head to the side. ‘Nothing my little butterfly. Zara thought the baby had picked herself up and gone out to meet her squad from the crèche…’ Looking from under his thick black eyelashes, a glint of green flashed beneath lucent strips emitting from the enormous pendant light. He was the devil himself at times, contrary to the halo gleaming around his hair.
Although her mouth was set and her stare bore through Luke’s eyes, she could feel her umbrage melting away as she tried to stand firm and make her point. It was a futile attempt at being cross with him. Holding his gaze was pointless. With an imperceptible turn of her head, Luke understood that Ines didn’t want him to tease Zara anymore.
‘…sooo, I told Ava she was too young to be going out and should hang out with her boring Tonton instead.’
Relieved that Luke had defused a potential meltdown of epic proportions, she laughed with a combination of relief and gratitude. Batting her hand as an indication that the situation was over, she began to speak. ‘Right. I’ve had an idea. How about we call Aiden to collect you, so you can have a couple of drinks and this little cutie can sleep in the spare room until Daddy comes to collect his favourite girls?’
From the safety of the armchair, in the furthest corner of the lounge, Luke played a word puzzle on his phone, his Air Pods placed firmly in his ears with the intention of drowning out the women’s incessant chatter. Meanwhile, Zara had been struggling to placate a squirming baby who seemed to be hellbent on not responding to her mother’s efforts to assuage her. ‘Ooh my little girl, what’s the matter?’ Cradling her child close to her bosom, she cooed the words to a nursery rhyme in the hope that it would calm her down, while stretching over her baby’s head to grab for another wedge of fresh bread soaking in olive oil. Ava began foraging for a breast and it was at that moment the slow realisation dawned that she hadn’t yet fed her child. Zara clucked her disapproval for being so negligent and, without warning hoisted her top, producing an engorged breast over the hungry baby’s searching mouth.
Sitting with her legs tucked beneath her bottom, involuntary whinnying filtered out of Ines’ throat. Her toes wiggled to the sounds she was making in nervous anticipation of Luke’s reaction if he caught sight of Zara at the wrong moment. Leaning in to reach one of the Honduran prawns she’d marinated earlier, she speared the largest amongst the appetising selection fanning out from the brightly hand-painted daisy in the centre of the platter. Although she knew that he supported women who breastfeed, she did know that he wouldn’t be comfortable in seeing her friend dropping a pendulous breast out of her top. Taking a bite of the coriander-dressed crustacean, languorous bulbs of oil dripped onto the serviette cradled beneath her chin as she took a surreptitious sideways glance in Luke’s direction, failing to notice that she had inadvertently missed her mouth on the second bite, dropping the prawn and its marinade down the channel of her open sweater. ‘Shit! Shit, shit, shit!’ Hissing self-deprecation, she leapt off the sofa, rummaging through the leather magazine rack in a desperate bid to find the wet wipes.
Blissfully unaware and too engrossed in the game and his music, Luke resembled a nodding dog, his head bobbing to the rhythm. However, his quietude came to a grinding halt the second his eyes skimmed across the room to find his topless girlfriend mopping herself and the stain clean, and Zara plunking the other breast into the baby’s waiting mouth. Crumpling his blushing face at the sight, he snapped back to his phone, intent on erasing the vision out of his mind’s eye.
Catching him looking aghast at the show of bare breasts, in a tortuous attempt to cover the pink flesh on show, Zara had unwittingly filled Ava’s nostril with a nipple. Panicked upon seeing the baby thrashing left and right, in search of air, she swung her breast out of the baby’s face, prompting howls of discontent. Flustered, she extended her arms and side swept the little bundle like a rugby ball to an unsuspecting Ines. ‘Quick take her!’
Instinctively, Ines pulled a now-screaming baby close to her naked chest. ‘My poor little niña, one minute you think you’re eating and the next it’s snatched away from you. Shh shh.’ Pouting words of censure, , she tried to calm the miniature banshee who seemed to be demonstrating her objection at an alarming rate of knots; nothing could comfort her. Throughout the scene unfurling, Luke’s mortified gaze remained fixed to his screen, determinedly oblivious to the furore behind him. Ines supposed that he didn’t fancy his chances of getting any peace and preferred to adhere to the adage of ignorance is bliss.
Creeping away from a sleeping Ava, it was hard for Zara to imagine that half-an-hour before, she was fraught with hysteria, kicking and flailing her body every which way. Now she looked cherubic, a mass of curls springing like velvet coils in stark contrast to the crisp white bedlinen she lay upon and her plump rosebud lips sucking a delicate brown thumb. ‘I could cry she’s so beautiful,’ sighed Zara, planting a soft kiss on her head. Ines, who had been holding the door open for her friend to make a discreet exit into the hallway, beckoned the besotted mum to leave. Raising a turquoise lacquered thumb, Zara took dainty steps across the room, smiling her relief that she had escaped without incident and, pulling it shut behind them, the soft click following her footsteps was the signal that “mission sleep” was complete.
Sitting on Ines’ favourite bench under the magnolia tree, the two friends huddled closer against the cool night air, the sound of tyres sloshing over wet tarmac a wordless rhythm in the night. Flicking the lighter’s spark wheel into life, Ines shielded the flame as she lit a cigarette, its end glowing with the deep inhale she had taken. With a long exhale, she watched plumes of smoke prancing a jagged dance into the darkness. Slumping back into the bench, she glanced sideways at her friend who’d been twirling her blonde hair around a finger, distractedly. Zara had given up smoking soon after two blue lines beamed from the pregnancy test window and Ines wondered if she ever craved a smoke. ‘Want one?’
Pulling two knees into her chest, Zara shook a few wavy locks out of her eyes and, after some moments of searching, found the perfect spot to nestle her face into.
Understanding that the effervescence the spunky young woman was known for had ebbed like a flame that was no longer being stoked, Ines was overcome with compassion. Brushing large circles across her friend’s back, she was distracted with her own thoughts; staring ahead at the apartment windows of the Georgian villa she and Luke lived in, she glimpsed shadows of people moving like spectres under aureate light. Making a mental note to close the blinds from now on to avoid being seen, she shuddered at the thought of Dylan, the domineering ex, spying on her. Although he was out of her life, she was still fearful of his penchant for vengeful tactics.
Toying with the laces on her trainers, Zara appeared preoccupied, an invisible cloud of incertitude hanging overhead. Observing her friend’s unusual demeanour, Ines took another long inhale of her cigarette and resolved to remain quiet and let Zara speak her troubles when she was ready.
A tiny voice broke the silence. ‘Ini, do you think I’m pretty?’
Taken aback by the words that came out of Zara, Ines released a steady stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth, furrowing her brow before she spoke. ‘What? Are you kidding me? Sweetie, you’re gorgeous. Why would you say such a thing?’ Her free hand waved from Zara’s head to toe. ‘I mean, come on. Look at you. Blonde, big blue eyes and a great figure. Why do you ask this?’
In one fell swoop, all the troubles within her were released in a large sigh. Dejected, Zara turned her head to face Ines. Chewing her lip, ruches of skin gathered around her face with the tremendous effort of not bursting into tears. Too late.
‘Oh no, Zara darling, don’t cry.’ Crushed with sympathy, Ines snapped her hand out across the bin, and, with a deft flick of the cigarette she left it to smoulder— a mirror to her friend’s anguish. Pulling Zara into a consoling embrace, Ines pondered how tonight was about comforting the Brunel-Flynn girls. One needed feeding and was overtired and the other? Well, she wasn’t known for bawling because she was hungry or needed sleep, so something was amiss. Ines spoke in hushed tones. ‘Want to talk about it?’ Like a magician performing the hankie trick, she pulled out a collection of tissues from her sleeve and presented them to her friend with a flourish. Picking the less crumpled looking one of the bunch, Zara blew her nose, its colour as pink as her cheeks.
What started out as a pitiful whimper swiftly turned into wailing of biblical proportions. Yes, Zara was known for her dramatic outbursts, but this seemed to be a genuine cry for help. ‘It’s Aiden. I don’t think he fancies me anymore. He won’t go near me.’ Sniffing between sobs, she wiped wet eyes with the back of a tear-soaked sleeve, dragging the remainder of mascara across ruddy cheeks. ‘If I try to touch him, he moves my hand away and just holds it. Like..like we’re kids having a first kiss or something.’
Rubbing a compassionate hand up Zara’s arm, Ines replied, ‘Would you not try talking to him? It may be something that’s stressing him at work or back home in Ireland. Not all men are good in admitting there’s a problem.’
Dropping her head against a quiet, rising and falling chest, Zara grabbed her stomach, bulging like an overfilled cup-cake and kneaded it into grotesque shape. ‘Look at me, Ini. I look like the Pillsbury Doughboy for Christ’s sake! No wonder he won’t go near me.’ Hitching her hoodie under a rounded chin, Zara continued her impassioned speech. ‘And this— prodding a tentative finger against a neat red line under the offending roll of excess stomach, ‘—this ugly line adds to the issue.’
Incredulous, Ines held her hand up, an indication for her self-deprecating friend to stop talking. ‘Woah woah woaaah. Where’s this coming from? First of all, you’ve had a c-section. That scar—’ waving a defiant finger in the gap between her and Zara’s stomach, ‘—is a badge of honour. You’ve been blessed with a beautiful baby and it’s a reminder of how strong you are to have endured the pain of bringing that little pudding sleeping in our spare room into the world.’ Tipping her chin towards their apartment for confirmation of Ava’s whereabouts, she turned to face her friend. ‘See what I mean?’
Humbled by the words resonating through her ears, Zara gave an imperceivable nod in acknowledgment. ‘Well, what’s wrong with me? What wrong with him?’
Raising her shoulders to her ears, Ines shook her head slowly. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you darling…as for Aiden, you need to talk to him. What would you say to me, if it was me?’
‘I’d tell you to talk about it.’
Affirming Zara’s reply with a slow nod, Ines gazed up at the window to their kitchen and caught sight of Luke having a drink. Watching him moving around was all the confirmation she needed to close the blinds from hereon in. The voice coming from beside her broke the train of thought.
‘We should go back in.’ Pulling herself from the bench, Zara straightened her clothes, tucking the offending bulge of flesh into her skinny jeans.
Rubbing both legs back to life when she rose from the dank seat, Ines steered them away from a murky puddle that lay ahead, her eyes darting in search of more that may be lurking under the gauze of moonlight. Changing the subject to something lighter, Ines asked, ‘Have you begun thinking about Ava’s first birthday?’
‘Kind of.’ An aching tugged in Zara’s stomach at the thought of Aiden. The consideration that they could be attending their daughter’s special day as co-parents, a situation she didn’t relish, sent a cold shiver through her body at the potential reality if they couldn’t resolve their situation. Taking small steps towards the gate leading to the square, Zara came to an abrupt halt, her eyes glittering like diamond dust in a clear night sky, her mouth open wide. Squeezing Ines’ shoulders, her face beamed at the eureka moment that hit her. ‘Why don’t we follow him? We can go to his office and do a stake-out.’ Yanking her arm out of Ines’ hold, the forlorn young woman had switched to an excitable girl who had been told that she could go to the party of all parties.
Staring back, Ines was struck mute for a few long moments. Finding her voice, the words came out in a higher pitch than was intended. ‘What’s with you and stalking your men, huh? It wasn’t that long ago that you wanted to set a honey-trap for Nick using Sal as bait…Zara, love, you can’t be doing this to every guy you have in your life.’
‘I was right though, wasn’t I? My gut feeling was strong.’
‘And what’s your gut telling you now?’ Ines softened.
‘It’s mixed up, Ini. I know something is wrong and I need to find out.’ Meeting her friend’s brown doe-eye gaze, Zara whispered. ‘Please?’
Dropping her arms by her side, Ines found herself agreeing, albeit with reluctance. ‘I think I need my head tested.’
Dodging the small puddles, she remained attentive to Zara’s enthusiastic plotting until they reached the sweeping steps at the entrance of the flat. Standing beneath the shaft of light glowing from the fanlight above the glossy peacoat blue door, Ines raised a small hand to stop Zara from talking any further. Catching her breath, she spoke in quick, successive words. ‘We keep this away from Luke. If he knew what we were doing, he’d be upset with us— me in particular for putting him in a position of secrets and lies.’ Entering the lobby, Ines spun to face her friend’s ominous grimace and gave a flowery salute with a nod of the head, resuming their chatter about her daughter’s first birthday.
Sitting in the company Smart car, Ines and Zara remained motionless, watching through two pairs of eyeholes they’d scrawled on the steamy windscreen, their breaths of silent anticipation the only sound. Without warning, Zara struck her hand behind the passenger seat. Bumping her body into the door, Ines wrinkled her nose, the freckles blending into the fine creases. ‘Don’t mind me, will you?’
The apples of her cheeks crept outwards as Zara demonstrated her delight with a toothy grin. ‘I won’t.’ She dropped a matted blonde wig and a baseball hat onto Ines’ lap, who stared down at it with distaste.
‘It’s for you. Part of the disguise, duh.’ Demonstrating a smug nod of authority, Zara urged, ‘go on, put it on,’ and squeezed her eyes at her friend’s grumbles of censure.
Ines tucked strands of hair under the lifeless nest of blonde nylon before donning the oversized cap, and Zara exuded vacuous approval.
‘I “heart” London. Cute. Y’know, actually, blonde suits you.’
Whipping her head round, Ines tweaked the brim of the cap over her narrowed eyes. ‘I’d quit while you’re ahead, missy.’
Her smiling mouth shutting as quick as a clam in danger, Zara remained wordless. The humming of traffic and passers-by, receded into the distance, shrouding their thoughts for a while.
Drawing a smiley face on her window, Ines watched in wonderment at the friendly image becoming a jagged troll as the beads of condensation created a deformed version of the original. Like life. One minute it’s all lovely and the next it can turn ugly, she pondered. The moment was ruined when the sound of heavy breathing seeped into her ears.
‘Ugh, hmmph, bloody stupid thing.’ Twisting she found Zara struggling to pull on a gaudy purple sweater, and a grin of impish delight spread across her face. This was poetic justice at its finest. Zara’s head was stuck in the funnel of the polo-neck, her flailing arms trapped in the sleeves.
‘You look like a T-Rex in micro-fleece.’
Grunting futile efforts to break free, Zara appeared to entangle herself further amongst an explosion of purple. Her words, muffled within the cocoon, failed to rise to an audible level. ‘Can you help me instead of sitting there taking the piss?’
Laughing aloud at the sight before her, Ines took warped pleasure in watching her ditsy friend battling with the rogue sweater that seemed at this moment in time, to be winning. ‘Well, stop. I can’t help you when you keep moving.’ Snickering as she unwound the tangled sleeves above Zara’s head, Ines fed the flopping arms through until two manicured hands emerged. Wriggling her head through the folds of fleece with the impatience of a wilful toddler, Zara’s determination was thwarted by a swift tap. ‘Oww! That hurt.’
Snorting through gritted teeth, Ines strained to speak with the effort. ‘It’s…meant…to. Oh my God, can you stop moving?’ With one last pull of the hem, Zara’s head had, at last, been liberated.
Ruddy-cheeked and static hair crackling, she pouted two dermal-filled lips at the joyous face in front of her. ‘You enjoyed that, didn’t you? Now I know how Luke feels.’
‘Whatever. Put the rest of your get-up together, it’s six-fifteen. Aiden will be out soon, and we need to get to the café. We can get a coffee.’ With a curt nod in the direction of the parade of shops across the road, Ines delivered her words with a bag of dress-up clothes into Zara’s arms as a full-stop. Watching her rummage through the bag, it did cross Ines’ mind that the entire theatrics of this was nuts. ‘So, what’s it to be?’ Peering into the bag to view Zara’s options, she pinched her nose. ‘Pheewee, it honks in there. It smells funky.’
‘Well, yeah, it’s lost property from the office basement.’ Rummaging through the accoutrements, Zara whooped as if she had discovered something so great. ‘Look, there’s even some boxers!’
‘As in… men’s underwear?’
‘Yup. Some of it’s from the office parties.’
Recoiling at the very thought, knowing full well how these parties turned out, Ines suddenly felt itchy. An involuntary swell of nausea churned her stomach. Restraining the gagging reflex, she spoke through watery eyes. ‘Enough. I get it.’
It was Zara’s turn to giggle. Setting her hair into a bun, she rolled a ginger wig over with expert ease.
‘You did that a little too well. This isn’t your first time, is it?’
Giving her a cursory slide-eye under mascara loaded lashes, an enigmatic smirk formed beneath Zara’s nose. Rolling her eyes to the top of her head in exasperation, Ines concluded that it was best not to delve deeper. ‘You know what? Don’t tell me, I’ll leave you with your murky secrets and I’m sure you’ll ‘fess up when you’ve had too much to drink.’
‘I won’t.’ Affronted by her friend’s conjecture, Zara stared out of the makeshift eyeholes once again.
Answering with a wry smile, Ines bumped Zara’s thigh with her own. ‘Bet you do.’ Knowing that the tipsier Zara gets, the looser her tongue becomes, she remained reticent. If ever there was an opportunity to get information out of her, it would be times like those. In the meantime, she’d store this gem for the day that its owner reared her drunken head.
Exiting the little car, the two young women made their way across the street to the café. In synchronised motion, they skipped over the kerb towards the entrance. Finding themselves in a queue of stolid customers waiting to be served, the two friends shifted on their feet, uncertain of what they were even queuing for. Watching her ginger-wigged friend gazing at the menu board with indifference, Ines broke the silence. ‘So, see anything that tempts you?’
Responding with wide pools of cyan blue, Zara looked as if she were about to cry. Alarmed by the reaction, Ines placed a quiet hand on her shoulder. ‘We don’t have to do this, you know. We can get out of these godforsaken clothes and go home. Nobody will know anything happened…apart from Sal. Looking almost convinced until sense washed over her, Zara shook her head with vehemence. ‘No. We will do this. We will find out what Aiden is up to.’
Empathising with her friend’s need for an answer, Ines made an imperceptible show of understanding and returned her gaze to the menu board.
Making a casual turn to check out their surroundings, Ines caught a glimpse of their reflections in the wide, glass-fronted fascia. Thrilled, she grabbed a hold of an unsuspecting Zara, spinning her round to face the window. Braying with delight at the pair of clowns looking right back at them, Ines doubled over with hilarity. ‘Look at the state of us! Oh my God. We look so dodgy.’
Unable to disagree, Zara saw the funny side of their situation and joined in, her squeals attracting bored customers. Standing shoulder to shoulder, their laughter had reached a new level upon catching sight of the unbrushed ginger wig flapping, the surreal visions laughing back at them. Wiping gleeful tears, Zara inadvertently created smudges of black kohl across her face.
Breathless, Ines pointed an accusing finger at her dipsy friend. ‘Pahahaha, you look like a ginger clown… in purple. I can’t cope. Great bloody private eyes we are, look at the state of us!’
The fuchsia bobble on Zara’s hat juddered with every shake of her body. ‘Ini. Stop it! I’m going to pee my pants!’ exclaimed Zara, now in irrepressible fits of giggles, attracting a throng of curious bystanders. Realising that they now had an audience, Ines sobered up in an instant. ‘Shhh, stop it, we’re being watched,’ she hissed in theatrical whispers. Frozen on the spot, the two unlikely detectives suddenly felt exposed. Twisting her mouth, Ines’ eyes swung from one side to another, scoping the situation. ‘Right, fix-up and look normal. We are two friends meeting for a coffee and a chat. We are regular girls. Remember.Don’t look suspicious!’
Giving an inane nod in return, Zara cleared her throat. ‘Understood, Sergeant Panini ma’am.’
Ines nudged her friend forward, jolting her back into the line, to consider the menu board once again.
Sitting at the table, the two young women sipped their coffees in silence, both absorbed in their own thoughts. Consulting the time on her phone, Ines looked up to find Zara messaging. Thinking of the evening that she had seen Zara in front of the boutique across the square, the cogs in her brain began to work overtime. Who was the guy that she’d seen her with? The need to know was strong and she couldn’t wait any longer for Zara to mention it. She struggled briefly with her conscience— she had promised Luke that she would keep quiet and “mind her own business”. Sod it. Curiosity prevailed. ‘Umm, who are you messaging?’
Zara gave one final tap of the screen in conclusion and looked up to meet her inquisitor’s gaze. ‘Oh, Sal. Just checking on the baby.’
‘All this time you’ve been chatting to Sal?’
‘Yep. No. Shit. Ini, why do you do this to me?’
‘Psyche me out!’ Zara moaned.
Leaning into her chair, Ines drew the iced coffee out of a straw, with gusto. Through shrewd eyes, she seemed to get a mischievous kick out of watching her friend squirm. ‘I’m not psyching you out, I only asked you a question. It’s you who’s interpreting it as anything more.’
Plucking with compulsive tugs at a tiny fibre of bamboo beneath the table, Zara dropped her head, avoiding her friend’s scrutiny. Ducking to catch Zara’s guilt-laden face, Ines put her cup down and leaned closer in. ‘What’s going on, sweetie? You’re keeping something from me. I know you.’ Ines attempted to coax her friend, who was drumming freshly manicured fingers on the bobbled hem of the purple sleeve in front of her, into talking.
‘Samuel, Jonah’s brother is in touch with me. We bumped into each other a couple of weeks ago when I popped out for nappies, we got chatting and exchanged numbers. Now we’re in regular touch….’
Floored by what she heard, this was the last thing she expected to hear tumbling out of Zara’s mouth. Processing the words, Ines raised an eyebrow, sucking air between her teeth. ‘Jonah as in Jo-nah, Jonah—the guy you were crazy in love with, Jonah?’
Flushed, Zara nodded her embarrassment.
‘Shit, Zara. No wonder you’re in a tizz. Has he tried to contact you?’
Zara shook the answer with a small turn of her head; Ines fell back into the chair and snatched her coffee. The story of Jonah and Zara was a heart-rending one of impossible love, that involved a jealous ex-wife and the love for his children. ‘So, how do you feel? Is this not getting in the way of your relationship with Aiden and marring your judgment?’
Zara gave the little splinter of bamboo one last angry yank. ‘No! Aiden is a separate issue and I need to get to the bottom of things. Jonah and I are history. My life is with Aiden…or so I thought.’ Zara stabbed the pad of her finger with the shard from the hollow stem until an angry red blotch spread like a drop of vermillion in a painter’s jar, before Ines swiped her hand away. ‘Stop it. Whatever it is, Sal and I will help you through the problem.’
Raising her head to meet her friend’s penetrating stare, Zara’s mouth rolled into a thin line before crumpling. ‘Oh nooo, no, no, Zara don’t cry, darling. We’ll fix this. Whatever happens, you’ve got us.’ Projecting an impassioned speech about supporting friends and always being there, Ines was on a roll when a fleshy hand flew to her mouth to silence the monologue. Wild-eyed, Zara jabbed the space over her shoulder. ‘He’s just walked past with her. Go go go! I’ll follow you.’
Scraping back the metal chair, the screech reverberated throughout the room, causing those of delicate ears to wince their neck into rigid shoulders. Like a smear of yellow flames, Ines’ nylon shock of hair trailed behind as she bolted past the window, into the ink-blue night.
Flapping like a headless chicken, Zara grabbed her phone and took one last look at it before shoving it down the front pocket of her jeans. A notification flashed across the cracked screen, from Samuel, but the words were not his own. They used the nickname that Jonah had for her, with the same endearing greeting. Frantic with making the decision of pursuing her friend who happened to be pursuing her partner— an idea that she had instigated — or opening the message, Zara’s eyes danced with indecision. Her trembling finger over the message hovered within a hair’s breadth. What to do, what to do? Her heart thumped its way to a throat wrapped in sunburned gravel. With a regretful twitch of the mouth, she slipped the phone into the back pocket of her jeans, out of reach. ‘You had your chance, Mr Tremblay.’ Twisting on her trainers, she — and they — squeaked out of the café in short, fast steps.
Approaching a slack-jawed figure with folded arms, Zara figured that the chase didn’t go to plan. ‘I take it you missed him?’
Shaking her head with emphatic vigour, Ines struggled to convey her exasperation. ‘I saw him alright…’ Swallowing hard, she stared back, her red wig blowing in the wind.
Placing a trembling hand on her chest, a nervous flicker began to spread across Zara’s wan face. ‘W …what d’you mean? Oh my God he’s with that girl from work, isn’t he?’ Zara appeared to wobble on her feet, unable to fathom what was occurring. For a fleeting second, she considered how Jonah’s message remained unopened in a bid to stay loyal to her relationship. ‘Ini, tell me what’s happened. You look like a wild woman about to burst. What’s going on?’
Sucking her breath between gritted teeth, Ines spread her fingers out as an indication to calm down — what she had to say was of great significance. Obeying, Zara remained open-mouthed, her neck mottling into a deep shade of crimson as she waited with bated breath. Edging closer, Ines’ dark eyes danced with an intensity that Zara rarely saw. This was going to be a momentous announcement, she could feel it. The anticipation was too much for her to bear. ‘Tell me!’
A torrent of words spilled out of Ines’ mouth, and she had no control over stopping it, even if she wanted to. Clasping two fleece shoulders, she looked up at Zara’s frightened kohl-streaked eyes. ‘Aiden was chatting with his co-worker as they walked towards Bank.’ Thumbing the air behind her, she jerked her chin up in conclusion. Realising that her friend had been holding her breath, Ines poked her gut. ‘Bloody hell, Zar, breathe will you.’ The sound of a windbag releasing air filled the space between the two friends. ‘Anyway, it seemed pretty platonic. There was no flirting or getting touchy-feely. I don’t think there’s anything to worry about, I really don’t.’ As if someone had flicked a switch, Zara began to sniffle sending Ines into a frenzy of reassurances. ‘Oh no, shit. Darling, it’s ok, don’t cry. I haven’t finished yet.’
Too late. Zara’s face crumpled, wails of utter despair becoming louder with every hysterical breath, she gasped,‘Now what? What’s he doing, then? Ini, I can’t cope with this!’
Shaking sense into her delirious friend, Ines watched Zara swaying like a rag doll until she came to a stop. ‘Shush, shshhhh. Listen to me.’ Wiping stained tears away from her face, Ines couldn’t help but liken Zara’s face to a Pierrot clown. The urgency to offer what she had to say was strong and Ines placed a small hand over her weeping friend’s contorted mouth. Startled by the crude obstruction, Zara shook it away. ‘You could have asked me to shut up,’ sulked Zara, rubbing beads of moisture from her chin.
‘I tried, but you were in another zone. Anyway, listen. Aiden might be all clear but Ryan could be another matter.’
Zara hitched the bobble-hat away from her head, rubbing at the rash that had broken out on her forehead, the relief of the cool air soothing the irritated skin. ‘What do you mean Ryan might be another matter?’
‘Well…’ Swinging out her hip, Ines dug her nails into the palm of her clenched hand. ‘Ryan was with a woman, chatting and laughing…’
‘So? That’s not exactly saucy, is it?’
Interjecting, Ines pointed a finger in the air, asserting the significance in her findings. ‘Ah, but he had his arm draped over her shoulder and he kissed her cheek, like this.’ Demonstrating with an invisible figure beside her and puckering a voluptuous pout, the figment of her imagined love interest disintegrated when a small knot of people scuttled past and gave quizzical glances. ‘And that’s that.’
Zara’s hand flew to her head, eyes on stalks. ‘Not Ryan. No way. Sal will be devastated. You must be wrong. Oh nonono. What do we do?’
Ines shrugged. ‘We’re going to have to tell her when we collect the baby. She has to know.’
Sitting in a checkered armchair, Sally held Ava in her arms, not daring to raise her chin from the security of the baby’s head, beads of silent tears speckling the myriad of silky curls. Cocooning their friend, Ines and Zara hushed words of consolation, their silent vow to wring Ryan’s neck, mirroring their sentiments. First Dylan, then Nick and now Ryan. What is wrong with these men? Ugh!
Transferring her weight from one foot to the other, Ines began to fidget with her thumb ring, her agitation increasing. ‘That’s it. I’m going outside for a smoke. I feel the need to keep busy.’
Sally snapped her head up to see an elfin face with sucked-in cheeks, accentuating her mood. Uh oh. ‘W …where are you going?’
Rummaging through the deep pockets of her jacket, Ines muttered words thick and fast. ‘As I said, outside.’ Finding what she was looking for, she shook them with triumphant aplomb. Heading to the front door, her hand hadn’t touched the lock before she heard a meek voice behind. ‘You’re only going for a cigarette, aren’t you? Ini, promise me that you aren’t going to do anything silly.’
Confounded that her friend should think that she would behave like a hot-headed woman, Ines tilted her head to one side, enquiring eyes shining with sympathy. Bringing a hand to her chest as if making a declaration of oath, she heaved the door open, leaving Sally and her suffering sigh in the hallway.
Sensing her anxiety, Zara chose to speak rather than wait to be spoken to. ‘Don’t worry, Sal. Ini wouldn’t do anything rash. She’s bat-shit crazy at times, but not silly. It’ll be fine. She’s just gone for a smoke. After the evening we’ve had, I’m surprised she hasn’t asked for a rum…’
Right on cue, the lounge door flung open, and Ines loped to the sofa opposite her friends. ‘Did anyone say rum…?’
Sipping from the heavy, iridescent tumbler, Ines flopped her head on to the back of the denim chenille sofa. ‘What a night. Phew. I mean what the hell-fire is going on? So, Aiden’s behaviour remains a mystery, and Ryan? Well, he’s the last person I expected to see.’
Interjecting, Sally leaned across her knees with quiet, clasped hands. ‘Ini, I don’t doubt what you think you saw, but do you not suppose that in the grand scheme of things, you might have misconstrued what you saw? After all, you and Zara were already determined that Aiden was having an affair with his co-worker.’ Sally’s words floated across the room like the last petals of spring. With an outstretched leg, Zara rocked a sleepy Ava in her car seat, watching the baby’s pursed mouth in suckling reflex, smiling at her with so much love. ‘Guys, this is all very mysterious. None of it makes sense. I mean… Aiden? Hmm, that’s possible. Just because he’s not screwing the intern, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anyone else.’ Waving a fanned palm in front of her to assert the potential in her supposition, she plunked her head on the edge of the winged armchair and let out a long sigh. ‘But Ryan? Anyone but him. He’s nervous around other women unless he knows them. Isn’t that so, Sal?’
Sally looked into the distance, in the hope that the answer would be lying in wait for her. It wasn’t. Raising two rigid shoulders towards her ears, her tasselled earrings jiggled with the disturbance. ‘I don’t know what to think anymore. All I know is that I thought Ryan was different from that idiot.’
‘Prick, you mean.’ Ines spoke with a menace in her tone that only came out when she spoke of Dylan, Nick or Mark, Sally’s ex-husband. Exasperated, Ines pulled a cushion into her chest. ‘So, now what?’
As if she’d asked them, ‘Which one of you is going to do a lap-dance for the local pervert?’, two blonde heads shook in despair. ‘I don’t know,’ came Sal’s weary reply. ‘I mean, I will have to have it out with him and see what he has to say.’
Biting her lip, it was Zara’s turn to answer. ‘I’m too nervous, what if I hear something I have been dreading?’
Draining the remainder of the rum, Ines placed the glass down in conclusion. ‘Well, you both need to suck it up and deal with it. You don’t want to go through the humiliation and shit that I did.’ Pulling herself up from the sumptuous comfort of the sofa, she grabbed her cigarettes and left her friends to mull over her point of view.