‘Ava, you really should go home. You’ve not been right all week.’ Sally’s concerned voice comes through the cubicle door. I heave myself up on a sigh and flush the chain before exiting to splash my face and wash my hands.
‘Stupid bug hanging around.’ I mutter. I glance at Sal and admire her grey pencil skirt and black blouse. She really has transformed. The dowdy A-line skirts and high necked shirts are a distant memory. I haven’t asked, but with this consistent new attire, I assume dating is going well. ‘Are you still seeing that internet bloke?’ I ask. I would refer to him by name, but I have no idea what he’s called.
‘Mick?’ She giggles. ‘Yes, I am.’
‘And it’s going well?’ I turn and lean against the sink, watching as she starts brushing down her skirt, then proceeds to smooth her high ponytail.
‘Yes!’ she squeals, making me jump. ‘He really is perfect, Ava.’
I smile. ‘What does he do?’
‘Oh, some sort professional nonsense. I don’t pretend to understand.’
I laugh. ‘Good.’ I was just about to say be yourself, but I think it’s a little too late for that. She certainly isn’t the old Sal anymore. I hear my phone shouting from my new desk. ‘Excuse me, Sal.’ I leave her in the mirror, re-applying her red lipstick.
Approaching my new, L-shaped, hardwood desk, I ignore the deep seated disappointment because I’m not hearing Angel, but I can’t ignore my exasperation when I see the caller is Ruth Quinn, my tiresome but infectiously enthusiastic client, whom I have spent way too much time on this week.
‘Ava, you still sound terrible.’
I know, and I probably look terrible, too. ‘I’m feeling much better, Ruth.’ That’s because I’ve just emptied my stomach again.
‘Oh good. Can we arrange a meeting?’ She doesn’t sound so concerned for me, anymore.
‘Is there a problem?’ I ask, hoping to God there isn’t. I’m trying to keep this project as smooth as possible because even though Ruth seems pleasant enough, I predict a tricky customer if things don’t go her way.
‘No problem. I just want to clarify a few details.’
‘We can do that over the phone.’ I prompt.
‘I would prefer to see you.’ she informs me. I sag in my chair. Of course she would. She always prefers to see me. Her final invoice is going to be astronomical. One hour here and two hours there. She’ll have spent more money on my time than on the actual works. ‘Today.’ she adds.
I sag further on an audible groan. I am not ending my shitty week with Ruth Quinn. I practically started it with Ruth on Tuesday, and I’ve had a mid-week interlude on Wednesday. Anyway, it’s three in the afternoon. Does she think she’s my only client? I wouldn’t mind, but she spends ten minutes clarifying what has already been clarified, then the next hour feeding me endless cups of tea and trying to convince me to join her for drinks.
‘Ruth, I really can’t do today.’
‘You can’t?’ She sounds irritated.
‘Monday?’ Why did I say that? I’ll be starting my week off with Ruth Quinn again.
‘Monday. Yes. We’ll do Monday. Eleven okay?’
‘I can do eleven.’ I flick through my diary and pencil her in.
‘Lovely.’ She’s back to chirpy Ruth. ‘Have you anything nice planned for the weekend?’
I stop writing, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable. I don’t have anything nice planned for the weekend, apart from nursing my breaking heart, but before I can really consider what I’m about to say, I come right out and say it. ‘No, nothing much.’
‘Oh? Me either.’ She’s going to do it again, I know it. ‘We should do drinks!’
My forehead hits the desk. She either can’t, or simply won’t, take a hint. I pull my heavy head up. ‘Actually, Ruth. I said nothing much, but I’m visiting my parents in Cornwall. It’s not much really, not fun, anyway.’
She laughs. ‘Don’t let your parents hear you say that!’
I force myself to laugh along with her. ‘I won’t.’
‘Well, have a nice weekend doing nothing much with your parents, and I’ll see you on Monday.’
‘Thanks, Ruth.’ I hang up and glance at the clock. Another hour and I can escape.
* * *
I drag my exhausted body up the stairs to Kate’s flat and head straight for the kitchen, opening the fridge and being immediately confronted with a bottle of wine. I just stare at it. I don’t know how long for, but my eyes are fixed on the damn thing. It takes the sound of a very familiar voice to pull my eyes away, and I turn, seeing Kate, but hers wasn’t the familiar voice that caught my attention. Dan walks in. They both look as guilty as sin.
‘What’s going on?’ I ask, slamming the fridge door. Kate flinches, but remains quiet. My brother doesn’t, though.
‘None of your business.’ he snipes, slipping his hand around Kate’s waist from behind, and then kissing her cheek. This is the first time I’ve seen or spoken to him since my wedding, and it’s not playing out to be a happy reunion, either. He frowns at me. ‘Maybe I should ask you what’s going on. Why are you here?’
I freeze in position and flick wide eyes to Kate, catching her very faint head shake. She’s not told him. ‘Just swinging by after work.’ I return my eyes to Dan. ‘When are you going back to Australia?’
‘Dunno.’ He shrugs, brushing my question off rapidly. ‘I’m off.’
‘Bye.’ I spit, turning and re-opening the fridge to grab that bottle of wine. It shouldn’t be happening, given my own current state of affairs, but I can’t help interfering on this. Kate is asking for trouble, and I’m liking my brother less and less by the day. I never thought I’d be glad to see the back of him. I ignore the exchange of goodbyes going on behind me and focus my attention on pouring a big glass of wine.
By the time I’ve sipped half, I hear footsteps going down the stairs, and I turn to face my stupid, red head friend. ‘Are you fucking mad?’ I wave my wine glass at her.
‘Probably,’ she grumbles, sitting herself down on a chair and signalling for some wine. ‘How are you feeling?’
‘Fine!’ I grab another glass and pour some, passing it over the table to her. ‘You really are getting yourself in a mess.’
She scoffs and takes a quick slurp. ‘Ava, shall we re-evaluate the situation here? You’re the one who’s been married for less than a week, has left your husband and is knocked up.’
I recoil at her harshness as she eyes up the glass I’m clenching. I’m instantly on the defence. ‘I’m a few weeks. Some women don’t find out until they’re three months.’ I’m trying to dampen down the burning guilt that’s simmering in my gut.
She gets up, climbs onto the worktop and lights a cigarette. ‘A few drinks won’t hurt you, not that it matters.’ she says, opening the kitchen window and draping her arm over the ledge.
‘Not that what matters?’ I frown, and take a more reluctant sip.
‘Well, you’re getting rid of it, aren’t you?’ She raises her pale brows at me.
The insensitive words spike at my conscience, but it doesn’t stop me slurping more wine. I think I’m more in denial now than I ever was. ‘Yes.’ I mutter, sinking onto a chair, my thoughts wandering off somewhere.
‘Right!’ Kate’s assertive tone snaps me from my reverie. ‘We’re going out.’
‘Are we?’ I blurt. That’s the last thing I want to do.
‘Yes, I’m not letting you mope around any longer. Has he called?’ She takes a drag of her fag and looks at me expectantly.
I wish I could say yes. ‘No,’
Her lips purse, and I know she’s thinking it’s strange, too. ‘Get showered. We’re going for a quiet drink, not too much, though.’ she looks at my glass. ‘Not that it matters, I suppose.
‘I don’t think so,’ I shake my head, her further blasé words eating me up inside. She sighs and flicks her cigarette butt from the window before closing it and lowering herself down. ‘Come on, Ava. We’ve not been out together for weeks. Just a sensible glass, and a chat, not about Jesse or Sam or Dan, just us two like old times, before all of these men got between us.’ By old times, she means post-Matt and pre-Jesse. We did have some laughs in those four weeks, before The Lord of the Sex Manor turned my life upside down.
‘Okay,’ I get up from the table. ‘You’re right. I’ll get ready.’
‘Thank you for not telling Dan why I’m here.’
She smiles and we leave the kitchen together to get ready for a quiet drink and a chat.
* * *
He’s constantly on my mind, and I’m trying my hardest to put him to the back, but when we walk into Baroque and the first person I see is Jay, the doorman, I give in. He frowns at me as I walk past, dropping all conversation with a fellow guard, but I proceed to the bar without a word to the obviously curious skinhead.
‘Wine?’ Kate asks, as she muscles in at the bar.
‘Please,’ I cast my eyes around our preferred watering hole and immediately spot Tom and Victoria. I don’t even feel bad for being disappointed that they’re here. I tap Kate on the shoulder and she turns her head slightly. ‘Did you know they would be here?’ I ask.
I nod in the direction of my gay friend and sassy, sometimes a bit dim, work colleague who are dancing over. They have no idea what’s happening in my life. ‘Barbie and Ken.’ I quip dryly. I can tell by Kate’s eye roll that she didn’t.
‘Love the dress!’ Tom croons, stroking my midriff.
I look down at the tight, black jersey dress that I borrowed from Kate. ‘Thanks,’ I take the glass being handed over Kate’s shoulder. ‘You okay?’ I ask Victoria.
She fluffs her hair and sweeps it over her shoulder. ‘Amazing.’
Oh? Not good or great, but amazing? ‘That good?’ I ask, wishing she could transfer some of that amazing over to me.
‘Yes, that good.’ She giggles.
‘She’s in love again.’ Tom nudges Victoria in the side, spiking a heavy scowl from the pretty blonde.
‘I’m not, and that’s rich, coming from the man-whore here!’
Tom looks genuinely shocked, and for the first time in days, I laugh. It feels good. Kate joins us, and with a lack of free tables, we just stand near the bar, chatting. He’s still floating around in my mind, of course, but my cunning best friend is doing a great job of distracting me for a while.
That is until I look up and see him.
My heart doesn’t speed up… it stops. I’ve not seen him since Monday, and if it’s even possible, he looks more devastating than ever. I know immediately that Jay has called him, and I also know I’m probably going to be dragged from the bar, but that doesn’t stop my eyes from slowly dragging up his jean clad legs, onto his white shirt, up his neck and finally onto his face—the one that sends my eyes delirious with pleasure, even when I’m mad with him. He doesn’t look mad and he doesn’t look like he’s been drinking. He looks fresh, healthy and as spectacular as ever. And every other woman in the bar thinks so, too. They have noticed this breath-taking male, who’s striding across the bar, some even following him. His sparkling greens land on me briefly and my heart resumes beating… very very fast. His face is expressionless as he stares at me for a few seconds before he slowly pulling his gaze away without so much as an acknowledgment to my presence. Then he continues to the bar with a flurry of women in tow.