Untitled – Part 4

I didn’t wait for the lift. The stairs suited me just fine. I was too wired to be standing about waiting for a ride down one level, and racing down the stairs was a good way to stop me losing what little self-respect I had left by doing something stupid outside the elevator doors whilst waiting.

As I rounded the corner and into the reception area of Alan Jackson’s office, I was greeted by the rat like face of Tim Clements who was stopping a very harried Branwen from getting past him.

‘Come on, Bran. You know you want to.’

She attempted to side step him but he cut her off and I grinned when I saw her straighten her back and glare up at him. Branwen didn’t take any crap from anyone – that was another thing I loved about her.

‘As usual, you’re wrong, Tim. It is way too late for that.’ She tried to dodge past him again but Tim stopped her once more, placing his hands on her upper arms. I felt a growl of anger surge from my gut, the feeling accompanying the clenching of my fists.

However, something very unusual happened. Something I did not expect to happen in a million years. Tim Clements looked straight at me, his dark eyes widening slightly. At this point I thought he would get out of Branwen’s way and let her pass, but no. He gave me a slight wink before he focused his full attention on the woman who was trying to look bored by his behaviour.

‘Look, Bran. Erin Staunton likes you. She does. Now you don’t work for her there’s nothing to stop you asking her out is there?’

Branwen’s shoulders seemed to sag slightly, and I heard a sigh escape from her mouth. I wanted to say something but I was too stunned to get the words out. Actually, I had to lean on the side of the door frame for support.

‘You’re just saying that, Tim. She doesn’t want me that way. I saw the picture of her and her ex.’ Another sigh accompanied a gesture with her hand as if she was dismissing something.

‘Yes. Her ex, Bran. Ex.’ Branwen made to turn but Tim caught her and pulled her back to face him. If she had turned, Branwen Campbell would have seen a mesmerised me propped in the doorway.

‘Look. Tim. No offense, but you didn’t see the photo of them together. Didn’t hear her tell me how wonderful Erin is. As if I didn’t know that already.’ She rubbed her hands over her face before looking back at Tim. ‘That’s why I asked to leave. It was obvious that the letter and photo were sent as a reminder of how wonderful their relationship had been.’

Four strides. That’s all it took me to be behind her. Four strides and I was touching her shoulder making her spin around to me, her facial expression that of absolute horror. I didn’t speak. Couldn’t. My hands lifted swiftly, cupping her jaw and leaning forwards to claim those lips that I had thought about so often but hadn’t even realised I had thought about until this moment.. But even my subconscious thoughts of those perfect lips paled in comparison to the feel of them underneath mine. Initially, her lips reflected the shock of being discovered, but I pressed more firmly with mine, moving my mouth slightly until I felt her return the action. My fingers dipped into her hair, the silken strands of darkness caressing my skin, making me pull her closer, hold her more tightly, press her against me with just my will, my mouth and my hands.

Then, I felt her fingers slip up the front of me, felt them glance over my chest, along my throat and rest at the sides of my face as if she was holding me in place or trying to work out who was kissing her.

Branwen pressed even more against me, her tongue tentatively slipping between parted lips. A moan left my mouth and entered hers and I felt a hunger I had not felt for a long long time overcome me.

But this was not the time or the place to satiate this raging need. Purposefully, I slowed the kiss, Branwen following my lead.

Pulling away from her was an agony, but it had to be done. Our hands were still on faces, still in hair, eyes locked, green into brown, brown into green. Branwen was slightly shorter than me so I leaned forward, my forehead resting on hers, our ragged breaths mingling. The heat coming from her was radiant, just like her.

Her pupils were dilated making her eyes appear darker, but there was a sparkle swimming around the glorious irises that illuminated the life welling from her. When she blinked, it seemed as if she did so with agonising deliberateness, as if it was a snippet of film slowed to project every nuance, every detail.

When her voice came, it was perfectly pitched for our proximity.

‘You don’t know how long I’ve waited for you to do that.’

With her words, my stomach clenched delectably and I couldn’t help but kiss her again. I felt as if I could keep kissing her for the rest of my life and never tire of it.

As I pulled my mouth away once again, I murmured, ‘Same here.’ It wasn’t until I actually said those two words that I realised how long my wait for our kiss had actually been.

Branwen lifted her hand and placed her finger on the bridge of my nose for a moment before trailing it downward and toward my lips, her eyes following the path before they seemed to spring back to meet my gaze – the same action Carilyn Phillips had done, but the effect so very different.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ I loved her voice. Loved it. Especially this close.

I nodded, my smile open and honest.

‘What about Shannon McEwen?’

My forehead furrowed into a frown. I think this action was mainly because I wasn’t too sure why she was asking about my ex at this precise moment.

I felt her pull away slightly, but I didn’t relinquish my hold of her.

I repeated her question, although my tone was different. ‘What about Shannon McEwen?’

This time Branwen managed to pull back as she stepped out from our inner sanctum. I was surprised all over again to realise we were still in the reception area, Tim Clements nowhere in sight.

It was at this moment that I realised what she meant when she had asked about Shannon.

‘We are not an item.’ Fuck. I knew as soon as my words hit the air they were the wrong ones. I’d just announced that I didn’t believe Branwen and I were an item and not Shannon and myself. If I hadn’t worked it out with just the words, the crushed expression on Branwen’s face should have been enough to alert me of my oral faux pas. Stupidly, I tried to rectify it by blurting out something I thought would show Branwen that Shannon was with someone else. ‘The wedding is set for New Year’s Eve.’

I should’ve been clearer.

Branwen’s mouth initially dropped, then she blurted ‘You are getting married to her and you come and kiss me like this? What kind of woman are you?’

‘No, no! You don’t understand.’ My voice sounded panicky, and I’m not surprised Branwen stepped further away from me, her body language closing up. ‘Would you like to come to a wedding?’

Her lips tightened until I saw a white line. Stupidly, I couldn’t understand why she was so angry. All she had to do was say no, she had other plans.

‘How dare you. What would your intended say if she knew what you had just done?’ Branwen stepped forward. ‘To think I really liked you. Really respected you. God!’

‘I don’t understand what …’

‘When I met her on Friday, I was crushed. She was the woman who held your heart, the same heart I had yearned for since I’d started working for you.’

‘But …’

‘When she told me how wonderful you were and to give you the letter, I wanted to hide it. That way …’ Branwen dramatically threw her hands into the air. ‘Never mind, eh? Shannon won after all. It was a good job I decided to take Alan up on his offer.’

‘No. You’ve got it wrong, Branwen. Sha …’

‘Yes! I did get it wrong. Very wrong.’ Finally. ‘I should’ve pushed you off me as soon as you kissed me.’

‘I don’t think …’

‘No. You don’t. That’s the whole …’

Once again my mouth met hers, as it seemed the only way I could get my point across without her getting the wrong end of the stick.

She tried to pull away, but I wasn’t having any of it. My lips were staying against hers until she responded. Then, and only then, would I feel it would be safe to release my hold of her without repercussions. However, when she did respond, I completely forgot why I had launched my kissing attack in the first place. Well, until the kiss came to a natural end and I dreamily pulled my mouth free from hers.

A sad smile flittered over Branwen’s face and I felt the ache of it in my chest.

Trailing my thumb over her mouth, I asked, ‘What’s the matter, love?’

I could feel her shaking slightly, almost as if she was vibrating. ‘I can’t believe you could kiss me like that and be marrying someone else.’

‘Marrying someone else? Me? Marrying someone else?’ Branwen’s eyes opened widely. ‘I’m not marrying anyone else. If I was to marry anyone …’ I stopped before I made a complete fool out of myself. ‘Whatever gave you that idea?’

‘You said the wedding was set for New Year’s Eve.’ Her voice sounded a little unsure. Thankfully.

I held my hands out, totally at a loss for what to say. The situation seemed so stupid I believed if I spoke at that moment I would just cock it up even more.

Branwen looked up at me, those brown eyes absorbing me.

‘Just tell me the truth, Erin. Tell me what’s happening. If it hurts me, I’d prefer it to hurt me now rather than later.’

Reaching out, I lifted her hand and brought it to my lips. Once, twice, three times I left a kiss on her skin, my gaze never leaving hers.

‘I am not getting married to Shannon McEwen.’ Branwen just continued to look into my eyes. ‘Do you want to know the reason?’ She nodded once. Clear and sure.

With my free hand, I cupped her under her chin, lifting her face so it was in direct line to mine to make sure I had her full attention.

‘Shannon is marrying Leah on New Year’s eve. Marrying Leah. The woman she loves. Do you understand, Bran?’ It was the first time I had abbreviated her name and I liked how it felt on my lips.

‘But that isn’t the only reason why I am not getting married to Shannon on New Year’s Eve. Do you want to know the other reason?’ I stepped closer, mesmerised by how dark her eyes were becoming all over again. She nodded, again once, again, clearly and surely.

‘The reason I am not marrying Shannon McEwen on New Year’s Eve is because I am inexplicably, undoubtedly, resolutely and undeniably in love with you, that’s why.’

The kiss I received at that moment made all the other kisses pale in comparison.

Considering I’d always thought Christmas was a humbug time of year, I believed I’d found the true meaning of it as I held my future in my arms. Santa must have made his list, checked it twice, and then decided I was on the ‘Nice’ list after all. Branwen Campbell was the only thing I’d ever, or would ever want for Christmas for the rest of my life.

Now that’s what I call a gift that keeps on giving.

 

The End

 

 

Untitled – Part 3

Chloe just looked at me, her expression like a deer caught in the headlights. The scene she had just witnessed was not something a person would come across in the supposedly mundane world of an office, but there was not a lot I could do about that now.

All the energy seemed to have been drained from me and my legs decided I should sit down for a while.

As I slumped into the chair, I leaned forward and put my head in my hands, the effect of the action acting like a cocoon. It was at this precise moment that I realised just how shite my life truly was. Yes. I had been in a sexual relationship with Carilyn for getting on four years because sometimes it was better to be with a warm willing body and not just on my own all of the time. Our ‘sex only meetings’ suited us both just fine as neither of us wanted anything more. I had my work. That filled the rest of the hours in my day.

‘Did you want me for anything else?’ Chloe’s voice sounded distant, although I had thought she would have just scuttled off to her desk after the debacle she had just witnessed.

Slowly, I lifted my face from my hands, my fingers dragging downward until they were resting on the table top.

A soft sigh released itself from me and I gave Chloe a sad smile.

‘That’ll be all, Chloe.’ The young woman moved to leave. ‘As for the task I set you up with before…’ She turned back to face me. ‘Don’t bother finding out where Branwen Campbell has gone.’

‘Miss?’

‘Thank you.’

My final two words were a dismissal of sorts and Chloe knew it. She left without another word, and I sat for God knows how long just staring at the closed door of my office.

***

It was getting on for four o’clock when I realised I hadn’t had any lunch. No wonder I felt empty and lightheaded. However, even when I’d eaten a sandwich I bought from the small cafeteria based on the ground floor of our office block, the empty feeling was still there, although my head did feel a little clearer.

As I entered my outer office, Chloe was seated in the place where Branwen should have been sitting and the realisation that Branwen was no longer there seemed to hit me all over again. After the showdown with Carilyn, I hadn’t spoken to Chloe at all. No work, no coffee, no anything. Funnily enough, I hadn’t had any phone calls either, or been interrupted about fifty times like I usually was.

Strolling up to her desk, I noted her shrink back slightly as if she was expecting me to go off on one at her. Is that what my reputation said about me? That I liked to shout at secretaries?

For this reason, I purposefully softened my voice.

‘Hey, Chloe. Any chance of a coffee?’

Her mouth dropped open and she quickly nodded. ‘Sure. Erm … I mean of course, Ms Staunton.’

I smiled at her, the feeling of my lips moving into that shape feeling foreign. ‘No rush. When you’re ready.’

Without waiting for her reply, I entered my office. I knew I had one hundred and one things to do as my day had not been as productive as it should’ve been.

Settling myself at my desk, I clicked on Outlook and watched as my inbox filled with mail. Subject headings like ‘Where are you today?’, ‘Who is the Rottweiler outside your office?’, ‘Get back to me ASAP’ seemed to be the bulk of it. What did they mean where was I? I was, as always, in my office. And who the hell did they mean when they said Rottweiler? Certainly not Chloe. She was as timid as they came.

At that thought, the office door opened and Chloe came in carrying a cup of coffee and a plate of biscuits. As she placed them on my desk, she pushed the plate over to me. ‘A little treat to go with your coffee, Ms Staunton. Branwen said you liked something sweet in the afternoon with your drink.’

‘Did she now?’ My voice was light, teasing, and I think this disturbed Chloe even more. I picked up a digestive biscuit and took a bite. ‘Any … thing …’ I chewed frantically before swallowing with deliberate exaggeration before continuing, ‘else? I mean, did Branwen tell you anything else about me that you needed to know?’ I took another bite and leaned backwards on my chair, my body language indicating I was open to what she had to say.

‘Erm … Just a few tips to make sure your day runs smoothly.’

I smiled at Chloe then lifted the plate and offered her a biscuit. Tentatively, she took one and bit into it, her expression indicating that she still wasn’t too sure what was happening.

‘Like?’ I lifted my coffee and took a mouthful.

‘To make sure you always came first.’

With this statement, I spat my coffee straight out and over my desk. What the hell?

‘I’m sorry, Ms Staunton. Let me clean it up.’

I shook my hand in front of her, initially unable to speak. She finally stopped trying to dodge past me and wipe away the liquid, especially when I caught her by the wrist and raised it upwards before releasing her.

‘I’m sorry, Ms Staunton.’

‘Will you stop bloody apologising, Chloe.’ The words came out firmly, but I softened them with a smile. ‘It is coffee not acid.’ I pulled a tissue from the box on my desk and wiped the surface clean. ‘See? All gone.’

With a nod in her direction, I threw the soiled tissue into the bin at the side of my desk. I felt Chloe move to leave and part of me thought it would be for the best if I let her go. But there was also a more inquisitive side to me that had not yet been satiated.

Looking away as I spoke, I asked ‘Was there anything in particular that Branwen wanted you to know?’ I glimpsed quickly at Chloe before stretching out to pick up a pen from my desk, one of the ones that Carilyn had previously toppled over. Placing it between my lips, I started tapping the plastic onto my teeth as I waited for her response.

Nothing forthcoming, I looked at Chloe again. Blue eyes were wide with what can only be described as shock. Hadn’t she seen a woman tap her teeth with a pen before?

I pulled the pen free of the tap tap tapping and placed it gently on my desk. Didn’t want to freak the poor girl out on her first day if that was the case, although to be honest, I didn’t really think she was looking at me. It seemed as if she was looking past me and onto my desk. I wanted to say once again that it was only coffee that had been spat over my desk, but she spoke.

‘She always said you were a gentle and kind woman, but no one believed her.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ My voice could have been perceived as harsh but Chloe just grinned.

‘Exactly that. All bark and no bite. She said you would do little things for her.’

‘Like?’ I was a little confused. I didn’t do little things for anyone. I worked and expected others to work in return.

‘You let her go home early if she needed to, bought her treats and left them on her desk, always asked how her day was, never treated her as if she was an idiot, especially when she first started working for you.’

It didn’t sound like me. At all. All I could remember doing was snapping at her or ignoring her.

‘You sent a wreath to her aunt’s funeral and donated to cancer research in her aunt’s name.’

I shrugged. To me that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.

‘You also …’

I held my hand up, stopping Chloe’s next sentence. ‘If I am so bloody marvellous, why did she leave me?’

Chloe frowned. ‘Leave you? She didn’t leave you.’

I laughed, nodding as I did so. ‘Yes she did. Because if she hadn’t left me, she would still be here.’

Chloe shook her head. ‘I told you before, Branwen was redeployed. She was only your temporary secretary.’  Her eyes flicked to the side and then returned to look back at me. ‘She didn’t want to leave here.’

The string of words that I thought were going to escape from my mouth never materialised. I didn’t comment on her being a temp, or her being redeployed, all I seemed to hone in on was the ‘She didn’t want to leave’ part.

‘She … she didn’t … want to … Hey.’ I don’t know why I thought standing would be better but I suddenly found myself on my feet. ‘How do you know all of this? When I asked you about her before it was as if the name Branwen Campbell was alien to you and you had no clue where on earth she had gone.’ Chloe blinked rapidly but I kept on staring into her eyes. ‘All you seemed to know was that she was redeployed, but now it feels as if you’ve known each other all your lives. What gives?’

‘Not exactly all our lives. Branwen is a few years older than me.’

I had no clue what Chloe was going on about. Was it me or was she talking in riddles?

I pushed back, my butt sliding onto the corner of the table, my arms crossing as my head tilted to one side.

A sigh left her mouth. ‘I’m Bran’s cousin. My mother was the one who died from breast cancer.’

It was beginning to make sense, although I was still unclear why Chloe pretended she didn’t really know who Branwen was. With this in mind, I opened my mouth to ask, but never got the question out. The phone on my desk rang, and before I had a chance to stop her, Chloe had picked it up, and was burbling ‘Ms Staunton’s office, Chloe speaking. How can I help you?’

I held out my hand as if to take the phone, but Chloe turned slightly to the side.

‘As I told you before, Mr Jackson, Ms Staunton is in a meeting and cannot be disturbed.’

What the fu …

‘Yes. I will tell her.’

Chloe didn’t even end the call with the usual, trite closing expected from a secretary to a client, although Jackson was a colleague who worked in the sales department one floor below mine.

She placed the phone on my desk and stepped backwards as if moving towards the door. ‘Branwen said you might need some time to yourself after the letter on Friday.’ She grinned and winked at me making my mouth drop open a little more.

‘What letter on …’

Chloe didn’t give me time to respond as she was making her way to the outer door. I was still in shock to realise how badly I had underestimated the young blond woman who was now standing in the doorway looking at me expectantly. At least I had found out who the Rottweiler was in my office.

Blue eyes flicked down to the pile of stuff crammed to the side of my desk where I had shoved them after the coffee incident, my attention flicking there too.

There, sticking out from the base of the pile was the envelope I had paused over when Carilyn had been in the room, the one with the familiar handwriting and the bright blue paper-clip on the corner. Tentatively, I stretched out and slipped my fingers around the corner of the white paper and pulled it slowly over to me, the blue inked ‘Erin’ screaming for my acknowledgment.

‘I’ll leave you to it.’ Chloe’s voice was gentle, and I nodded in her general direction whilst picking up the letter and holding it in front of me. It’d been so long since I’d seen that gentle, sloping cursive that I felt a sharp pang of nostalgia echo throughout me.

***

Shannon McEwen. I knew it just by the way the pen had caressed the E of my name. At least this had cleared up the mystery of why the photograph had appeared on my desk at home – the paper-clip put paid to that. It must’ve been where she had attached the photo to the outside of the envelope; the reasons why she did so unclear to me at that precise moment but knew it would become clearer once I read the letter. I had grabbed an armful of work to take home with me on Friday, and the photograph must have dislodged itself from the envelope. Not really a case for Sherlock Holmes.

Lifting the letter to my face, I inhaled as if I would be able to capture the essence of the woman I’d been in love with all of those years ago. A slight scent of perfume tickled my senses, evoking memories of soft kisses, warm bodies and tender lovemaking. Closing my eyes, I saw Shannon above me, those smoky grey eyes of hers half closed with lust, her perfectly formed mouth slightly open, her breathing hitching with each thrust of her hips.

A lump formed in my throat and it took me a couple of attempts to swallow it down. Those days were in the past. I didn’t make love anymore. I had encounters of a sexual nature – just enough contact with a living breathing person to alleviate sexual tension. Not the same as when I’d been with Shannon. Quite the opposite in fact.

It was at that precise moment that I knew I’d been kidding myself for the last ten years. Not that I was still in love with Shannon, no. That wasn’t it. It was that I wasn’t the hard-nosed, unfeeling, ‘solitary as an oyster’ character I’d tried to be. I had, as I’ve already said, tried to work all the hours I could, tried to get promoted and earn more money so I could take care of Shannon in the way I believed she deserved. What I hadn’t realised at the time was all she had really wanted was me with her, and if I hadn’t been so set on ‘getting on’ I would’ve realised that she should’ve been the only thing I needed in my life.

Flipping the envelope over, I peeled the seal open. Inside was a single sheet of lined paper, both sides full of Shannon’s neat handwriting. Leaning back, I rested my knee against the table top and balanced myself whilst reading through the note. I was surprised at what she had written after the initial salutation:

Counting the delivery of this note, I would’ve been in your office three times in less than a week. Well, not your office as such, but close enough to touch you, to talk to you, to see that smile of yours that used to be able to floor me in an instant. This is the main reason why I have written this letter and not spoken to you in person. I doubt I would’ve had the strength to tell you everything if those gorgeous green eyes of yours were looking at me.

I looked up from the page and stared at the wall. Shannon had been close enough to touch and talk to me and I hadn’t seen or sensed her. There had been a time when I would have known she was close even if I couldn’t see her.

A sigh slipped from my lips and I felt a wave of sadness wash over me. I found my place in her letter once again and continued to read. After all the build up to this moment, the bulk of the letter was not what I was expecting, although, to be honest, I wasn’t too sure what I’d thought I would find on one piece of lined A4 paper. Shannon was getting married. Moving away and getting married.

Leah and I have been together for almost five years and I think it was about time we made honest women out of each other. I would invite you to the ceremony, but I don’t think you would want to travel down to Salisbury for the wedding on New Year’s Eve.

I really hope you are not working all the hours that you did when we were together, and, as a result of it, shutting yourself off from the world. The very first thing I noticed about you, Erin, was your love of life. You were so much fun, so free, so wonderfully unhampered by the stresses of the working world that I fell in love with that side of you. I’m going to attach a picture of us from that time as I am definite you won’t have any pictures. Maybe by looking at this you might remember how wonderful being in love could be. I haven’t got an envelope big enough so I will use a paper clip …

Just by her saying the paper clip bit, I felt better. Fucked up? You bet. Here was Shannon telling me about her marriage, insinuating I would be too busy or couldn’t be arsed to attend my first love’s wedding, reminding me of a time when life was less complicated, and all I was concerned about was the stationery. I would have left me if I had the chance.

I went back to the letter, but this time I tried to focus on what really mattered and not distract myself with petty asides.

But, as we both know, everything changed. Maybe it was all for the best, maybe we were too young to spend the rest of our lives together, maybe the bigger picture for us was other people who could bring out the best in us after all.

Don’t be blind to the world around you. You have so many people who long to be nearer the real you and not this workaholic figure you’ve pretended to be for so long. You don’t have to look far if my eyes haven’t been playing tricks on me. The young lady I have seen you talking to on occasion seems more than interested in you, and I recognise your body language as returning the attraction. I think her name is Branwen. She looks like a keeper, Erin. Don’t let her, like us, slip through your fingers …

Shit. Shit and shit. Too late.

I did like Branwen. I liked her a lot. I liked the way she smiled, the way she spoke, the way her hips would sway as she walked away from me to go back to her desk. I liked the way her eyes twinkled when she laughed, the way she tilted her head to the side as she was working something out or really listening to what I had to say. I liked the crooked smile she gave me when things eventually made sense, or when I thought she had been thinking of something else whilst I had been talking and that smile came out to tell me I was right.

What was I thinking? I didn’t like anything that Branwen had done or even who she was. No. I loved it. Loved all of it. And without knowing, I had fallen in love with a woman who I fully believed I’d barely spoken to. Fallen for her smile, her voice, her gentleness and charitableness. Fallen for the wonderful package that was Branwen Campbell.

Slam. My chair shot forward, my knee slipping down from where it had been resting against the table. My head was full of things I needed to sort out and none of them were work orientated.

Pressing with more force than was necessary on the intercom, I, once again, didn’t give Chloe a chance to say hello. ‘Tell me where I can find her.’

‘Who?’

I smiled at the machine, a knowing, cunning smile. ‘I think it is obvious don’t you, Chloe. I expect the place where she is to be in a mail as …’

Ping.

New message. Sender: Benson_C@gmail.com. Subject – about time.

As I read the content of the email, I started to laugh. Branwen was situated one floor below me and working for Alan Jackson – the same Alan Jackson who had called me not even thirty minutes previously. So that was probably the reason why Chloe didn’t want me to speak to him and had only tagged his message she was supposed to tell me as an afterthought to this mail ‘Branwen is a star. Can’t understand why you didn’t keep her.’

Neither could I, but I was going to start making amends for that now.

Before I had a chance to talk myself out of what I was going to do, I was outside my office.

‘Hold all my calls.’ Chloe’s eyes widened, followed by her smile. ‘As if you hadn’t been doing that all afternoon.’

Chloe’s grin became huge and I could actually see some family resemblance between her and Branwen. ‘Certainly, Ms Staunton.’

I was barely three steps away from her desk when I stopped and turned back to her. ‘Just one thing. If your cousin likes me too, why did she leave?’ Chloe opened her mouth to answer but I cut her off. ‘I know. You say she was redeployed. But why now? Why today?’

Chloe just smiled at me in that ‘I know, but you have to find out for yourself’ kind of smile.

And that was exactly what I was going to do.

 

Untitled – Part 2

Monday morning saw me at the office even earlier than usual. I was always the first person to enter the building and usually the last to leave, but not today. Today I was the second person in and that made me feel a little on edge. It wasn’t as if I was worried that the person who had beaten me to the desk was out to usurp me from my position. It was just because of who it was. Branwen Campbell.

Seeing her seated at her desk as I pushed open the outer door filled me with a mixed bag of feelings, the main one being guilt. Any other person would have bitten the bullet and made an apology, blamed the short and sharp response from the previous encounter on stress or being inundated with work. But not me. I just stood in the doorway and stared stupidly at her, my eyes willing her to look up and make some kind of connection without me having to do so. But it seemed as if she was so intent on what she was working on that I believed I would still be standing in the doorway when the rest of the office workers arrived if I didn’t do something.

I made to step more fully inside the office, but stopped before I did. From my viewpoint, I could see her perfectly. Her head was tilted to the side, her cheek resting on her upturned hand, those brown eyes seeming to caress the screen in front of her.

Caress? I honestly didn’t know why I had thought of that word in conjunction with the act of reading a computer monitor. But, if I am being honest here, I don’t think it had been the first time I had thought of that when looking at Branwen.

‘You’re early.’ My voice came out harsh and accusatory. Branwen jumped backwards, her expression reflecting the shock of being interrupted.

‘Good …’

‘Hold all my calls until ten thirty. Coffee when you have time.’ I’d done it again but this time with fucking bells on. I hadn’t even let her wish me good morning without cutting her off mid flow and barking some mundanely shite orders in her general direction. But, even though I knew I’d been a twat, I didn’t let my face contort into the gurning mask of the mortified until I was safely inside my office door, my back slammed firmly against the wood.

I had to wait a moment until I had stopped willing the ground to open up and swallow me whole before I made my way over to my desk and clicked on my computer.

This day was not going to go well.

***

I was right about the day not going well. I didn’t look in Branwen’s direction when she brought my coffee to me a little while later. I had so many things I wanted her to do throughout the morning, but I was too ashamed of my earlier behaviour to call her through and ask her to do any of them. By lunchtime I was nearly pulling my hair out. Being in the office for five hours without asking anyone to do anything was driving me mad. I emailed requests for work to be done, granted, but it wasn’t quite the same as discussing, in person, all the things I wanted her to do. And when I said ‘person’, I meant me discussing work stuff with Branwen.

It wasn’t until I had put myself into some kind of exile, or even a fucked up version of ‘Branwen Embargo’, that I realised how much I liked talking to her. Actually, it wasn’t just the talking to her I liked. I liked the way she would always look interested in whatever I said even if it was about numbers and charts and profits. I liked the way she would frown slightly when she didn’t quite get what I was asking her to do, but then how her face would seem to blossom when realisation hit, how her eyes would sparkle, her lips bud open and release a delightful sound of her understanding.

Shit. And then double shit.

I hadn’t thought of this before, not consciously. Yes, I’d noticed the how delectably brown her eyes were a few days before, just after noting the wonderful timbre of her voice. But I had honestly thought it was a new thing and not information my subconscious had been gleefully gathering so it could expose all my inner thoughts in one foul swoop and make me feel as if I couldn’t speak to Branwen Campbell for fear of baring my soul. Had my id taken over my ego and was secretly planning my ultimate downfall? Was it hoping I’d continue acting in a completely fucked up way and end up completely isolating myself in my office for the rest of the day?

Decision made, although I hadn’t realised I’d been making one until I was half way to the door. I was going to talk to Branwen like a normal human being and not splutter, shout, act churlish or be a bitch. Quite an achievement for me, and not just of late.

In less than thirty seconds, I was in the reception area and staring at a petite blonde woman who was seated in Branwen’s chair.

‘Who are you?’ My voice seemed too loud for the area, but I didn’t care.

Blue eyes shot up to meet mine and the woman opened her mouth and closed it again.

Leaning forward, my hands on the desk, I asked her again, but this time my voice came out lower although not friendlier. ‘Who are you?’

‘Erm.’ The blonde stood up and held her hand out in greeting. I just stared at it before looking her straight in her eyes again, my head tilting slightly to the side as I waited. ‘Chloe Benson.’

‘Yes. But who are you?’ I was beginning to think the woman in front of me was an idiot – a glowing red idiot at that.

Chloe dropped her hand, her body language screaming ‘flustered’. I leaned even more forward making the young woman move backwards, her back touching the wall behind her.

‘I’m … I’m your new secretary.’

‘You’re my WHAT?’ What the fuck? A new secretary? Why on earth would I have a new secretary when I already had a perfectly good secretary in Branwen?

Chloe seemed to shrink slightly at the volume of my question, her body inching to the side as if she was going to make a dash for it. I moved to block her escape. Frantic eyes flicked to the gap, to my face, and to the gap once again. What was I doing? I was terrifying a woman I had just been introduced to and it was getting me nowhere.

Lifting my hands, I held them up in surrender. ‘Hey, hey, hey. I’m sorry.’ I took a step forward, but she seemed jumpy once again so I moved backwards. ‘Didn’t mean to startle you, but I was expecting to see Branwen here.’ I released a nervous laugh right after I said the last bit, almost as if I was illustrating my vulnerability to the woman who was obviously trying to work me out. ‘Sorry if I was a tad aggressive.’ Tad being an understatement. ‘It’s just that when came in this morning, Branwen was here … she brought me coffee …’

‘She’s been redeployed.’ Chloe’s voice was cautious as if she expected me to leap the desk and pin her by her throat. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure if I wasn’t going to do just that – my record of late had been a little disconcerting.

I pressed my lips together and silently counted to five before asking, ‘And, if it is not too much trouble, could you tell me where has she been redeployed to?’ The smile I conjured didn’t feel genuine. I could feel the tightness of it across my cheeks and lips.

‘I am not too sure.’ With those words, I felt my smile slip slightly. Chloe seemed to notice the slight shift so I pulled it back into place as if it was tethered to my visage by invisible corded ropes.

I nodded, my eyes blinking to give my appearance one of condescension. Sometimes I really despised myself and my penchant for being a fucker. But needs must.

‘Well, Chloe.’ I nodded at her. ‘Let’s make it your first job shall we?’

She frowned at me as if she didn’t quite understand where our conversation was going. Not the best way to impress your new boss, but I let it slide.

‘You have thirty minutes to find out where Branwen Campbell is. Do you understand?’

Chloe nodded, but I shook my head.

‘Alas, Miss …’ I waved my hand at her.

‘Benson.’

‘Thank you. As I was saying … Alas, Miss Benson, I don’t think you do understand.’ I leaned over the desk at her once again. ‘You have thirty minutes to find her or else you will find I have no use for you in this office.’

‘But I …’

‘Yes you had.’

With the last few words, I turned and re-entered my office, the door slamming shut behind me.

***

As soon the door closed I felt a sickness wash over me. Branwen had left. Gone. Disappeared. And I would probably never see her again. How could I apologise to her if I didn’t know where she’d gone?

Fuck. It wasn’t just about me apologising to her for why I was so gutted. Branwen was the first woman to get through to me since Shannon had left, and if I was absolutely honest with myself, it was probably longer than that. The problem with this titbit of information is that I had only just recognised that this was the case – a bit like shutting the gate after the horse had bolted.

I pressed my back against the wood of the door and closed my eyes. Inhaling deeply, I allowed the image of Branwen to infiltrate my consciousness. Those gorgeously dark eyes that seemed to absorb me completely on one look; those perfectly full lips … the way she would chew the inside of her mouth when she was reading back through her notes or checking through the ones I had given her. Thick dark hair that framed her beautiful face and dipped just past her shoulders; full, rich hair that, subconsciously, I’d always wanted to run my fingers through.

The breath I had inhaled eased out through my lips, but the feeling of panic was still rampant, so I inhaled once again – held it – released it, and continued to do so until I knew I could move from the door to my desk without my legs giving way.

My body hit my chair with some force, the effort of seeming weightless completely leaving me to make me feel heavy and so very tired as all my energy seeped away and evaporated into the air.

Slouching forward, I placed my head into my hands. More images of Branwen came crashing into my mind. Her laughing with other members of the team and then stopping as soon as she saw me approach. It was amazing to see how she could suddenly shift from playful to professional in the blink of an eye, although by my acknowledging that, I also had to acknowledge that Branwen didn’t see me as someone she could have fun around.

Who am I kidding? Of course she couldn’t have fun around me. I am – was – her boss! She didn’t have time to joke around. This was an …

Fuck. What had I become? Couldn’t have a joke because there was work to be done? Couldn’t make connections, build relationships with colleagues because there was fucking boxes to tick and columns to fill?

A groan escaped my lips and I pushed my fingers into my hair to grip and pull. Even the pain of this action paled in comparison to the pain in my chest. No wonder Branwen hadn’t bothered telling me she was moving to a different office. She was probably glad to get away from me.

A knock sounded on my office door and I shot to my feet, my legs feeling slightly shaky.

‘Come in!’ And just like my legs, my voice was slightly shaking too. I think they both believed that the knock had been made by the woman I had spent the last ten minutes agonising over.

Chloe’s head peaked around the partly opened door and initially I felt disappointed. But then my hopes began to lift once again. Maybe she had found Branwen in less than the allotted thirty minutes. Maybe she wasn’t as useless after all.

‘Sorry to interrupt, Ms Staunton, but you have someone here who would like to see you.’

A grin split my face. I don’t honestly know why I thought it was Branwen Campbell come back to apologise for leaving me with a thick blonde piece of ass, but maybe it was because I was even more stupid than I thought I was.

I hadn’t even announced ‘Send her in’ when Chloe seemed to be pushed out of the way, the door flinging backwards.

It was at this precise moment I wished I had stayed in bed after all.

***

Standing before me was someone I was hoping I could have avoided for just a while longer. Carilyn Phillips. The same Carilyn Phillips that I was supposed to be meeting for lunch but I had completely forgotten about. And again, the same Carilyn Phillips whom I had been having sex with for the last god knows how many years. Sex with no strings attached. That Carilyn Phillips.

‘Erin, baby!’ Her voice sounded harsh, almost painfully shrill. ‘And here I was thinking you must have either been in a very important meeting or …’ Carilyn made her way over to the front of my desk and stopped. Her face turned to where Chloe was standing open mouthed. ‘Why are you still here?’

The tone of her voice at that precise moment made all my attempts at being an ogre in the workplace seem tame. Chloe’s eyes widened in shock and she started to scuttle backwards, her hand grasping for the door handle in the process.

Slam. And then there were two.

Carilyn turned back to face me, a self-satisfied smile distorting what could have been a beautiful face. Her hand swept back the stack of papers on my desk and my eyes followed its movement, the red nails glinting in the fake office light. An envelope caught my attention and I wasn’t sure if it was because of the bright blue paper clip attached to it or whether it was the familiar neat handwriting. I stretched out my hand to grab it but was stopped by the appearance of Carilyn’s backside that had landed on the sleek, wooden surface.

‘As I was saying …’ Carilyn leaned closer to my face, her ice blue eyes cutting through me. ‘There must have been a very good reason why you left me waiting for over an hour at the hotel restaurant.’ She placed the tip of her index finger on the bridge of my nose and trailed it down to the tip, then over and onto my lips.

I moved away from her touch, shaking my head a little as if to dispel the sensation she had left.

‘I haven’t got time for this, Cari. I’m busy.’

Carilyn tilted her head, her eyes trawling up from my chest before glancing disinterestedly into mine. Her expression seemed bored, and this was backed up when she sighed and stood up.

‘That was the whole point, wasn’t it? A warm body when one was needed?’ Her fingertips danced over the tops of my pens in the pot before hooking one and pulling the pot over, the contents spilling and rolling over the desk as if trying to escape the confrontation that was obviously going to happen. ‘You are always busy, Erin. That’s why I am so convenient for you.’

I leaned back in my chair, my hands interlocking with each other and creating a steepled effect. ‘Didn’t hear you complaining before, Cari. Thought we were each other’s convenient fuck.’ Carilyn flinched at the coarse term but didn’t pull me up on it, probably because it was true. ‘So if you …’

‘You are going to end up on your own, do you know that?’ The words were not spoken to warn me about my future of solitude. They were more like a gypsy curse, condemning me to a life deprived of contact, devoid of love.

I laughed without humour, the reaction only infuriating Carilyn even more.

‘You’re a little late for that, honey.’ The endearment sounded hollow. ‘I’m already on my own.’ She pursed her lips as if she was going to respond but shrugged instead.

‘Well …’ Carilyn stepped back and turned her body slightly towards the door. ‘I hope you tell that secretary of yours that she hasn’t got a cat in hell’s chance of getting anything more than a quick fuck from her boss. I’d hate for her to find out what an unfeeling cow you really are after you’ve shagged her.’ Cold blue eyes turned my way, a half smile adorning her face. I shrugged, my outward appearance of nonchalance whilst inside I was seething.

‘No hard feelings, Erin. I know how much you’d like to show her who’s boss, but …’

‘For fuck’s sake, Cari. She only started working for me twenty minutes ago.’ I stood, leaned over the table, my expression showing her that I wanted her to leave, preferably without saying another word.

Unfortunately, Carilyn was not the kind of woman that could read body language unless it was sending out signals for unbridled and uncomplicated sex.

‘No she hasn’t. She’s been here for at least six months.’

I slammed my hand onto my intercom and didn’t even wait for Chloe to speak before asking, ‘Can you come in here for a moment?’

It was as if I lifted my fingers off the call button and the door opened to announce a very nervous looking Chloe.

‘How long have you worked for me?’

‘Worked for you? Erm …’ Her eyes glanced at the clock on the wall behind my head. ‘About half an …’

‘Not her. The other one.’ Carilyn turned in my direction. ‘The gorgeous brunette. The one with …’ She lifted her hands and mimicked an ample bosom.

The anger coursing through me was immediate.

‘How dare you disrespect a member of my team.’ I could barely get the words out, the fury immediate and pulsating. ‘Branwen Campbell is one hell of a worker. One I would never disrespect with such degrading actions or suggestions.’

Instead of backing down or showing any remorse, Carilyn laughed at my ire. ‘Disrespect? When have you ever giving a flying fuck for anyone apart from yourself?’ She moved closer to me, her heels making her a tad taller than myself, not that her slight height advantage bothered me at all. ‘What’s the matter? You actually fancy her or something?’

I opened my mouth to refute her claim but stopped.

Carilyn’s eyes widened, a laugh of disbelief shooting out. ‘You like her.’ Another laugh. I just shook my head, the words not coming. ‘You do. You fancy your secretary.’ Her head shot back to release a manic cackle into the air. ‘This is absolute class. Talk about karma.’

Before I had a chance to respond, Carilyn was at the door, Chloe anxiously looking up at her.

‘I imagine this is goodbye, yes?’ She didn’t give me a chance to answer. ‘For your sake, Erin, I hope you do the right thing this time.’ It was to be the first and last time I ever heard Carilyn Phillips speak with a modicum of concern for anyone other than herself.

Maybe we were suited after all.

 

 

Untitled – Part 1

Not even two weeks left until the big day and I hadn’t bought anything – not even a roll of wrapping paper. To be honest, I didn’t care that I hadn’t bought any gifts. Christmas for me was the time of year I usually wanted to avoid. It was a time that had progressively become more commercial, focusing less and less on the values I’d expected Christmas to hold. Goodwill to all men, love thy neighbour, spending time with people I care about and love beyond reason. It wasn’t about who could get the latest gadget, the ‘toy of the moment’, the prize turkey in the poulterer’s window mentioned in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

What am I saying?

I didn’t believe in the values of the season any more than I believed Father Christmas actually existed, and as for the ‘prize turkey’, I believe I had cooked mine a long time ago. People like me are definitely on the naughty list when it comes to Christmas, not that I gave two shits what the judgmental bastard from the North Pole thought about my year long activities. Even less so considering he is a figment of kids’ imaginations promoted by knackered parents in times of stress, especially in the run up to the festive season.

‘Father Christmas won’t come.’

Who cares? Not me, especially this year. And the reason I didn’t care this year? No reason really. I just didn’t care any year, and each year I didn’t care, the next year I cared even less. The older I became, the less I thought about the season of goodwill.

2014 is no different to 2013, even though I had mentioned the lack of Christmas cheer constantly decreasing. And as I’ve already indicated, the calendar on my desk highlighted two weeks until the big day and I was sans everything associated with the season.

It didn’t help my mood that I could hear the constant seasonal noises coming from the reception area – laughter especially. The sound of the guffawing made my teeth painfully grind together. Well, all the laughter apart from one person’s laugh – and that was only because Branwen Campbell was my secretary. No other reason than that. She was a good worker – conscientious, intelligent, punctual. Branwen didn’t moan if I wanted her to work late, or even work through her lunch. She was willing to give one hundred percent, unlike most of the other people who worked in my office.

‘Come on, Bran. You know you want to.’ The sound of Tim Clement’s rat like voice drifted through the gap in my door and I wanted to get up and tell him I didn’t give two fucks what he wanted Branwen to do, but could he please just go and do it someplace else. I had work to do.

‘Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Tim. I don’t want to. I’d rather stay here late than do that.’

At this admission from Branwen, I lifted my head and looked towards the door, the spreadsheet forgotten.

‘But …’ His voice showed he was unhappy by Branwen admitting that, I assumed, she would rather work than go out on a date with him, but that was the only word he said. I heard a few whisperings, but the conversation and giggling seemed to be over for now.

Weirdly enough, I missed it. I liked to hear Branwen’s laughter, although I could do without the nasally timbre of Tim Clement’s whining voice.

My eyes drifted back to the spreadsheet in front of me. Thoughts of working on profit projections were the last thing I wanted to be thinking about at this moment, but I wasn’t too sure what else to do with my time. If I wasn’t working, or thinking about work, I felt like a fish out of water.

Click. The door closed softly, completely isolating me from what was happening just outside my door. I acutely felt the separation of me from Branwen.

I was not happy about this revelation at all.

***

After my realisation, I felt off kilter for the rest of the day. When Branwen popped in to ask if I wanted my afternoon coffee, it took all my strength to answer her without my voice vibrating. I tried to avoid looking at her directly whilst delivering my response, but when I did make eye contact I felt a clenching sensation in my gut, something I could not remember experiencing before. I always knew her eyes were brown, but it wasn’t until that exact moment that I discovered how absolutely delectably brown they really were. The words I intended to speak seemed to fizzle and fade into nothingness, and I cleared my throat and fiddled stupidly with my mouse. Branwen seemed to understand what I’d garbled and she turned to leave.

I noted each movement she made as she left the office to get the coffee without even looking in her direction mainly because I knew how she would move, where she would stop and check the plants, straighten the straight painting on the wall. My attention was fixed on the computer screen in front of me, the numbers from the last quarter’s sales dancing in front of me like elves on crack and the mouse’s cursor seeming to audition for Riverdance.

‘Here you go, Ms Staunton.’

I wanted to grunt a thank you, or nod at the place I wanted her to put the cup, but I found myself looking up and into those gorgeous eyes of hers once again.

‘Than … Thank you, Bran …wen.’ Her eyebrows furrowed slightly, but she seemed to change her expression so fluidly that I didn’t even see the shift from confusion to a wonderful lopsided smile. I was fascinated by her lips and found myself smiling back at her.

‘Are you okay, Ms Staunton?’ Initially I wanted to say I had never felt better, just before leading on to tell her to call me Erin, but then I realised what I was doing and shook my head before changing it to an almost demented nod, my hand gesticulating to the screen as if to tell her I needed to get back to work.

‘I’ll leave you to it. Give me a shout if you need me for anything.’ I had always thought Branwen had a beautiful voice, but it wasn’t until that moment that I felt as if it had seeped through my skin and was merrily making its way throughout my body.

I didn’t get a chance to respond as she was gone before I had metaphorically slapped myself from out of my stupor.

Resignedly, I slammed my head into my hands and groaned. This should not be happening. Not now, not with an employee, not with anyone.

‘Don’t forget …’ My head shot up and over to the doorway. Branwen was standing just inside my office, her expression concerned. ‘If you need anything, I’m just outside.’

All that afternoon I kept on going over how I had felt when the door had closed. And the more I thought about how I’d felt isolated from the jollities of a few workers and from Branwen, the more pissed off I became. I didn’t do sociable. I didn’t do ‘attracted’. Actually, I was beginning to think that a lot of the things ‘I didn’t do’ were being tested. I mean, I didn’t do Christmas but found myself contemplating looking for gifts to say thank you to employees by the end of the day. That would never do. I had a reputation to uphold.

‘Did you need me for anything else before I leave, Ms Staunton?’

I don’t know why I slammed the lid of my laptop closed. I’d recognised the voice to be that of Branwen Campbell, and I’d also noted she must’ve been at least ten feet away from me and not hovering over my shoulder prying into my personal life when she had spoken. I couldn’t understand why I had been so jumpy. It wasn’t as if I had actually Googled appropriate online shops to fit with my temporary lapse in my usual Christmas hating and was now sifting through my list when she had come into my office. However, I did have a great image of a Pandora bracelet on my screen when she had popped in and disturbed my research. Weirdly enough, I didn’t wear jewellery and I believe that was why my impulsive lid slamming had come about.

I stared at Branwen’s empty wrists and wanted to mentally slap myself stupid.

‘No.’ Decisive and sharp, and soon to be followed by, ‘You can go.’ My voice was cold – even I could feel the chill of it. I tried not to look at her, tried to fix my attention on lifting the lid back up on my laptop and entering my password instead of being civil to my secretary.

‘Well, erm … goodnight, Ms Staunton. Have a lovely weekend.’ It was the sound of her voice that made me look at her. It sounded completely different to her initial greeting from moments before. Branwen had turned, her back to me, but was still in the room. Her head was hanging slightly lower than usual and I wasn’t sure whether she was contemplating something or that my gruffness had upset her.

Shit. I couldn’t let her go without at least being civil – even just a ‘Thank you, Branwen. Have a lovely weekend, too’ would have been a start. However, I couldn’t think of anything to say at that moment to make her turn around – not even the previously stated ‘Thank you, Branwen. Have a lovely weekend, too’ as that only came with the gift of hindsight.

So, I gormlessly sat and watched her leave the office, the door pulling slowly closed behind her.

Click. As soon as the door met the frame, it was as if the spell had been broken. I wish I could say that I felt better now that she had gone, or that I didn’t feel the guilt of the way I had spoken to her, but that is not what I mean when I said the spell had been broken. What I should have said is the spell of staring at the place where she had been had been broken.

Well, after a few minutes any way.

 

***

I wanted my weekend to be mainly filled with work. I didn’t mind, as my weekend was always ‘mainly’ filled with work – it was something I felt comfortable with. I hadn’t wanted to stay late in the office on my own, so I grabbed a stack of work and shoved it into my briefcase, more than enough to keep me going for a couple of days.

However, I found myself moving away from my laptop a little too often over the course of the weekend and started to think I was coming down with a bug – or something just as sinister like a bad case of lazyitus. There had to be a reason for my lack of focus as bunking off work was something I didn’t do. I liked working. I liked the sense of achievement it gave me when everything came together. To me, feeling as if I had made a significant impact on whatever I was working on was better than sex.

But. As I said. Not this weekend. This weekend was a waste of time as far as work related things went. I couldn’t seem to settle in one place for more than a few minutes and I was getting more and more annoyed. Every time I tried to concentrate on what I classed to be important things, I kept on thinking about the slumped shoulders of my secretary and it was pissing me off. To think I was wasting my weekend being tormented by something as trivial as upsetting a member of staff was beyond me. I spoke to people that way all of the time. I was the boss after all – it was my right to be succinct and not molly coddle every one with weak words and phrases that were better suited to anything other than the workplace. It wasn’t as if I had made her stay later was it? I’d said that she could go, let her off early, let her slip out to maybe catch that date with Tim Clements after all.

‘Rat faced whiney voiced creepy fucker.’ I slammed my body back into my office chair, the wheels slipping over the stripped wood floor and taking me backwards about half a foot. Like everything else, this fucked me off even more than I had been previously and I leaned forward and gripped hold of the desk and pulled myself forward with a little too much zest. Slam. My kneecap hit the wood sending a shooting pain up the side of my leg.

‘For fuck’s sake!’ I stood up sharply and shoved the chair backwards with force. I didn’t even get the chance to explode about anything else as the chair flew backwards, bounced off the wall and sprung forward again at an astonishing speed.

That was the last thing I remembered for a while.

***

Waking up on the floor of my office was something I had never experienced before. I still wasn’t too sure about what had actually happened, but one thing I did know was that stripped wood was not the most comfortable place to be. I didn’t know how long I had been out for the count, but it must’ve been a fair while as I was a stiff as a board when I tried to move.

Grabbing hold of the desk, I pulled upwards, my body straining with the effort. This struck me as strange as I would have always classed myself as pretty fit. Instead of my thirty five years, I felt more like I was clocking on eighty – an unfit, chain smoking lard addicted eighty at that with a penchant for alcohol abuse.

Kneeling at the side of the desk, I sucked in a breath and held it inside. At least my lungs didn’t hurt – that was a big tick for me and my rapidly deteriorating health. Little lights hovered in front of my eyes almost like I had stared at a bright bulb for way too long. It was either that I had clocked an overly bright light, or I was on the verge of passing out. I wasn’t sure that a person would see little floating lights if they were on the verge of passing out, but I just felt as if that seemed apt somehow – probably because I just had woken up on the floor moments before.

Leaning forward, I attempted to grab the seat of the chair that had taken me out but paused just before I did. Why I deliberated I have no idea. It was not as if the chair had purposefully knocked me over and unconscious. That had just been bad luck coupled by my own stupidity. If I hadn’t shoved the chair so forcefully, then I wouldn’t be trying to clamber up from knee level.

Instead of using the chair, I decided the table was my safest option. Slipping my hand over the polished wood, I made to pull myself erect but stopped as my hand seemed to slip on the surface. Turning my attention to the spot where my hand sat, I saw there was something underneath it. Frowning, I lifted my hand and looked closer at the object. It was a photograph – but I think I knew that just by the sensation of my palm over glossy paper.

Picking it up, I brought it closer, my brain scrambling around for a reason why an unframed picture should have been lying on my desk in the first place. I didn’t have photos scattered around my office. Hell, I didn’t have photographs on display anywhere in my house. I knew that I hadn’t placed the picture there, but what was even more worrying was that I had not noticed it being there all of the time I had been working in that area. It had definitely not been there just before I slammed my chair into the wall – and said had returned the favour by slamming back into me – that I could almost guarantee.

More importantly, if there ever could be anything more important than finding a photograph on your desk after you had knocked yourself out (leaving only a potential burglar to have placed it there), I didn’t think I had a photograph of my ex-girlfriend in my house, never mind in my office.

Lifting the image closer to my face, I was greeted by a blast from the past – the smiling face of my one time lover and partner, Shannon McEwen. Shannon was beautiful in a classic primary school teacher kind of way. In the picture, we were seated on a bench recognisable in all picnic areas around the country, but, more specifically, a beautiful park just outside Matlock Bath in Derbyshire. I remembered the day well even though the snap must’ve been taken getting on for fifteen years ago. I had just turned twenty and life seemed so wonderful, so perfectly, gloriously wonderful. Being naïve, I hadn’t realised what a total crock of shit that actually was until about five years later.

***

I slumped back, my ass landing on my feet making sure I would not be moving anywhere anytime soon. As I held the photo, my thumb over the indentation probably caused by a paper-clip, or something similar, in the corner, I used the finger of my other hand to trace over the outline of the grinning woman in the shot. Not me as the grinning woman, I hasten to add. The other, more beautiful woman who was looking directly into the lens of the camera, her smoky grey eyes standing out against the paleness of her flawless skin.

Shannon McEwen had been my first love. She was the most beautiful creature I believed I’d ever seen. When I had first met her I was smitten by her initial smile in my direction. I hadn’t even realised I was a lesbian until that moment, and to be honest, what I had felt for her in that first sixty seconds had no name tag. I just knew that it felt right my being with her. More than right.

Tracing my finger over her lips, I released a sigh into the air. It hurt. The sigh I meant and not the fact that my legs were beginning to indicate they were not comfortable being pinned onto a hard wooden floor by the weight of the top half of my body. Pursing my lips, I made a smacking sound, almost as if I was kissing air.

Swapping my attention, I looked at my image. Young and stupidly in love. My focus was fixed on the side of Shannon’s face, my youthful grin so innocent, so naive.

Closing my eyes, I conjured the moment the picture was taken from the depths of my memories. I could feel the warmth in the air, the birds chattering in the branches above us. If I leaned forward just a tad I honestly believed I could smell Shannon’s scent.

‘Why Shan?’

The sound of my voice hitting the air surprised me. My eyes opened slowly almost as if I didn’t want to be brought back to the present. It hurt to see her smiling face now that I had experienced the loss of her all over again.

A lump formed at the back of my throat and I swallowed it down. It was too late to be crying over Shannon McEwen. She had long left me behind whilst she moved on with her stupid fucking career looking after someone else’s kids.

I knew that was a lie. Knew the reason why I’d let the woman I’d loved slip through my fingers was not because she was career orientated.

Unfortunately, that was my problem not hers, and the number one cause why she had left me nearly ten years ago. Shannon had never understood the motivation behind why I worked all the hours I did … she didn’t understand it wasn’t because I didn’t want to be with her. It was because I wanted to take care of her, build a career so I could afford to buy her the biggest and the best. I still felt the prickle of remorse when I remembered her standing in the front room of our home, her suitcases stacked in the doorway. Even then she had given me the chance to make things right by choosing ‘us’ over ‘me and my work’, but I had just told her that if she couldn’t accept that this is how things had to be, then her leaving was the best for the both of us.

A spurt of anger raced through me and I gripped the photograph as if to tear it in two.

But those eyes stopped me. That smile. I had long stopped being in love with Shannon McEwen, but I don’t think I had ever stopped wanting that connection again, that feeling of being totally and utterly in love.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, the air ballooning my lungs, the ache coinciding with the ache in my chest.

The knowledge of why I had the ache in my chest made me even angrier.

 

Nicki Minaj Meets Santa

tshirtI thought I would introduce my Christmas tale here on my blog just so you get an idea about what is happening. I don’t want you to be thinking ‘Just a mo … this doesn’t feel finished.’ The reason why you may be thinking this is because I have split it up in to four sections that I will be uploading from now until Christmas.

You may also be wondering ‘Why has she done that?’

Or you may not give a flying fig.

The answer? I felt like it. I felt like splitting it into sections. What I’d set out to do was to split it into twelve sections and do the twelve days of Christmas – I even split Scrivener into 12 sections and called them ‘days’ and everything. Then time started to play havoc. I know the twelve days of Christmas are not before Christmas – I’m not THAT stoopid. But, I also knew I wanted to give you something for Christmas.

Too many C words in the last paragraph.

Talking of which, after reading from a reviewer that I’d put in 18 f words in my story Mary Christmas (found in Unwrap these Presents), I’d just like to say there are 19 in this one.

Smile.

Seems like I am the Nicki Minaj of lesbian fiction – and if you want to get me a t-shirt for Chrimbo please see attached picture.

One final thing – I have no idea what to call this story. So, maybe we could have a little competition about the best title. Please avoid derogatory suggestions as I have used the lion’s share of them as I was writing it.

So … let me think. How about an ebook for the winner? You could even wait for the prize and hang out for the new revised version of Beginnings out in January. Your choice.

And on a final note … watch this space.