Authors: Sarah Painter
Bex felt light-headed. She wondered if she’d been holding on to the past too tightly.
‘Are we all just going to sit here and listen to this nonsense? “Gifts”? How gullible do you think I am?’ Mr Farrier, to give him his due, wasn’t going down without a fight.
Mrs Farrier gave him a piercing look and he closed his mouth. She leaned forward, towards Iris. ‘What happened next? After your mum got the cufflinks?’
Iris shrugged. ‘She put them in one of the dishes on her dressing table. Well, she wasn’t very well, so I put them there for her. She was taking pills from the doctor by then. She thought they dulled the gift, made it less likely to happen.’
‘Did they work?’ Mrs Farrier asked, looking a little sad.
‘No. But they helped her forget what was happening. Took the edges off the world.’
Mrs Farrier nodded and lifted her glass. When she found it was empty, she held it out to Bex.
‘All gone,’ Bex said. ‘Sorry.’
‘Right.’ Iris seemed to rouse herself. ‘It’s time.’ She pointed to Mr Farrier. ‘You’ve just taken a truth potion. You are now bound to tell the truth and you are going to write Rebecca a reference. The one she deserves.’
‘Oh, make it a good one,’ Mrs Farrier said, putting her hand on her husband’s arm. ‘She’s been ever so good. The children adore her.’
‘Not Tarquin,’ Bex said, sadly. ‘I just annoy him, I think.’ Bex told herself to shut up and stop ruining her chances of a decent reference. Then her mind caught on to what Iris had just said:
Truth potion. What the Hell?
‘Oh, no. Tarquin loves you,’ Mrs Farrier said. Tears appeared in her eyes. ‘I don’t think he likes me very much.’
‘That’s just his age,’ Iris said briskly. ‘Pull yourselves together.’
‘I need to spend more time with him.’ Mrs Farrier looked beseechingly at Bex. ‘Don’t you think?’
‘Maybe,’ Bex said. ‘Although he really likes being left alone. He likes to stay in his room.’
Mrs Farrier slumped back. ‘Oh, yes. I forgot.’
‘He really loves Pink, though,’ Bex said. ‘And she’s touring. You could take him. And a friend.’
‘You think he’d go with me?’
I think he’d suffer your presence if it meant going to see Pink, Bex thought. The urge to say the words out loud was suddenly very strong and she clamped her mouth shut.
Mrs Farrier was biting her lip, clearly thinking hard. ‘I could do that,’ she began.
‘Why did you call him Tarquin?’ Bex said and then put her hand over her mouth. ‘Sorry. That just slipped out.’
‘He prefers Tarc,’ Mrs Farrier said, staring mournfully at her empty glass.
‘I’m not surprised,’ Bex said from behind her fingers.
At that moment, they were distracted by Mr Farrier’s raised voice. He had got up and moved to Iris’s chair and was weaving slightly, his eyes slightly unfocused. ‘So,’ Mr Farrier said, as if about to prove a point. ‘If I threw the cufflinks away and they magically appeared’ – he made sarcastic bunny ears around the word ‘magically’ – ‘where are they now?’
‘Here.’ Iris delved into her bag and produced a pair of cufflinks. They were gold and lumpy-looking. On closer inspection, Bex realised they were moulded into the shape of a lion’s head.
‘Oh, Alistair,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘Those are so ugly. You never mentioned they were ugly.’
‘I thought they were cool when I was young,’ he said. And then put a hand to his mouth as if he hadn’t intended to say any such thing. The words kept coming, though. ‘He was such a straight-laced person. These seemed really exotic.’
‘Such bad taste,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘I’m glad you threw them away.’
‘This doesn’t change anything.’ Mr Farrier didn’t seem able to look away from the cufflinks ‘We only have your weird story. Bex could’ve given you these and asked you to concoct this bit of theatre, just for –’
‘Why would I do that?’ Bex said.
‘And why would I?’ Iris shook her head. ‘No, you’re going to have to do better than that.’ She stood up, suddenly not looking frail or old. She pointed at Mr Farrier. ‘The elderflower wine was laced with lemon verbena and now you are all bound to tell the truth. You falsely accused Bex of stealing cufflinks which you knew you had thrown away years before.’
Mrs Farrier patted his arm. ‘Never mind, dear,’ she said. ‘It’s all over now. Bex will come back to work and we can put this behind us.’ She smiled. ‘Now I know there’s nothing going on between you two. No hard feelings.’
‘No,’ Bex said. ‘I just want my reference and then I’ll leave.’
‘Are you sure?’ Iris said.
‘Right then.’ Iris produced a pad of pale blue letter paper from her bag, waving it at Mr Farrier. ‘You can write it now.’
‘I’ll do it on the computer in the morning,’ Mr Farrier said, sagging a little. ‘I’ll email it to you.’
‘A digital copy would be good,’ Bex said.
‘In addition to the handwritten one you’ll be making right now,’ Iris said in a voice that rang with authority. ‘Then I can leave you in peace.’
Mr Farrier sat down looking tired and almost tearful. Mrs Farrier went to find a pen and Iris began clearing away the plastic cups.
Bex was finding it difficult to concentrate on Iris and the Farriers. None of it mattered. She should go and see Jon. She should tell him how she felt. Iris had helped her, which meant she was worth helping. Maybe she was worth loving, too?
‘There,’ Mr Farrier said.
Bex took the handwritten reference, skim-read it and checked the signature and date. She was happy and none of this mattered, but she wasn’t an idiot. She still needed to find a new job in the morning. ‘Cannot live on love alone,’ she said, then put her hand over her mouth. That bloody truth wine.
Iris had gathered her things together and was shaking hands briskly with the assembled people.
They were heading down the hallway when the doorbell chimed. ‘I’ll get it,’ Bex called through to the living room.
A lanky figure with rather too much brown hair and a couple of days’ beard growth was on the doorstep. Jon.
‘Why are you here?’ Bex said before her brain could.
Jon looked uncomfortable. ‘I heard you talking. My window was open and I heard you and Iris and I thought I could help. Give you a character reference. See if I could get your job back for you.’
‘You didn’t need to do that,’ Bex said, glowing pink.
‘Is it all sorted, then?’ He looked at Iris who nodded.
‘Forgot my bag,’ she said and retreated back down the hall, leaving Bex and Jon alone.
‘Well, that’s good, then,’ Jon said, not looking especially happy.
‘It’s nice that you came,’ Bex said. ‘I appreciate it.’
He smiled, still awkward. ‘I wanted to help.’
Bex reached out and pulled him into the light of the hallway so that she could see his face more clearly. She loved his smile. It was so warm. And inviting. It made her want to kiss his mouth. Of course, everything made her want to kiss his mouth. Bex realised that she was staring at the lower half of Jon’s face and that he’d been speaking.
‘Sorry, what? I was watching your mouth.’
‘I said …’ Jon took a deep breath. ‘I wish you’d let me take care of you sometimes. I like you, you know.’
Bex felt foggy as if she were in a dream. She shook her head lightly. ‘What?’
‘You heard,’ Jon said. He glanced away, as if considering making a run for it.
Truth potion, Bex thought. Now or never. ‘I like you, too,’ she said, not trusting the electricity that suddenly seemed to be running through the air.
‘I know,’ he said, looking sad, and Bex felt the weight of disappointment hit her. This was it. He was going to say ‘I’m sorry, I just want to be friends’, the words she’d been both dreading and expecting for the last twelve months since that night in the bar when she’d felt her stomach flip.
‘You like me as a friend,’ he said, moving back through the doorway and onto the street.
Bex followed him, unable to stop herself. The words tumbled out: ‘More than a friend, actually.’
There was a moment of silence. Bex felt like everything else in the world had gone away and it was just her and Jon standing both uncomfortably close and too far away from each other on the dark street.
‘A really good friend?’ His voice was husky and Bex could hear the need underneath it, and suddenly she knew that it mirrored her own.
‘More than that,’ she said.
‘Oh, thank God,’ Jon said. He leaned down to kiss her and she stepped into his arms.
After a few moments, moments which could have lasted anything from a few seconds to twenty minutes, Bex became aware of her surroundings. The cool night air on the bare skin of her arms, the sound of Iris Harper clearing her throat as she hoisted her bag over her shoulder and closed the Farriers’ front door. Without the light from the hall it was harder to see Jon’s face, but she could still see his wide grin. He looked wildly, loopily happy and Bex had the feeling that she looked the same. For one thing, her cheeks were beginning to ache from smiling.
‘I’ve liked you for so long,’ he said quietly.
‘Don’t mind me,’ Iris said, moving past them on the pavement.
‘I didn’t realise,’ Bex said, thinking that if she got any happier, she was actually going to start floating off the ground.
He squeezed her hand. ‘Yeah. Didn’t you wonder why I kept suggesting film nights? Why Ben never joined us for
Life of Brian
? I’d told him to give us some space.’
‘I thought he just had terrible taste in comedy.’
Jon shook his head, still smiling.
‘You must’ve known about me, though,’ Bex said. ‘What about all those times I stayed over.’
He shrugged. ‘I just thought it was convenient. After it had got so late. Or that you were interested in Ben. That’s another reason I always encouraged him to be elsewhere.’
Bex couldn’t believe his stupidity. ‘What about when I kept suggesting we play chess at eleven o’clock at night? That was just so it would get too late for me to go home and then I’d have to stay –’
Jon’s smile got even wider. ‘I just thought you were a genius.’
‘You always beat me,’ Bex said, laughing.
‘I thought you were letting me win.’
‘Ha,’ Bex said. ‘I don’t even like chess that much.’
Jon looked stunned. ‘You’re kidding? We’ve played loads of times.’
‘I just didn’t want you to think I was thick.’
Jon’s smile disappeared. ‘I would never think that.’
Bex caught sight of Iris moving away from them. ‘Hang on, we’ll walk you home.’
‘You’ll have a job,’ Iris said, over her shoulder. ‘I’m going to the pub.’
Bex opened her mouth to say ‘really?’, but closed it again when she saw Iris’s expression.
The front door opened, spilling light. It was Mrs Farrier. ‘I just wanted to say … sorry for the way things turned out.’
‘Don’t give it another thought,’ Bex said. She felt Jon’s hand take her own and there was no room in her mind for anything else.
‘You’ll come by tomorrow?’ Mrs Farrier said, her usual frown looking more concerned than severe.
‘Not to work,’ Bex clarified. ‘But I’ll visit Carly and Tarc and say goodbye.’
‘Okay,’ she nodded sadly. ‘Goodnight.’
Once the door closed, Bex went on tiptoe to kiss Jon again. She caught sight of Iris retreating down Silver Street and was seized with a sense of responsibility. Iris had been really poorly; she ought to keep an eye on her. ‘Shouldn’t we go after her?’
‘If she’s going to the Red Lion, Bob will drive her home,’ Jon said. ‘He’s done it before.’
‘If you’re sure,’ Bex said. She would call in on the old girl tomorrow, take her something to say thank you. ‘Do you think she likes flowers?’
‘Who? Iris?’ Jon said.
‘Probably prefer something practical,’ Bex said.
‘Do you want to finish
Walk the Line
?’ Jon said, as they turned towards home.
‘Why not?’ Bex said, loving the feel of him close to her side, his warm hand clasping hers.
Dusk was falling quickly into night and Bex snuggled closer to Jon as they walked. He released her hand in order to put his arm around her shoulder and she imagined how good it was going to feel sitting on the sofa with him in few minutes’ time. Anxiety fluttered through her stomach. How would they transition from friendship to relationship? They knew each other too well. Maybe it was too late for romance to work. Kissing him had felt wonderful, but perhaps that had mostly been relief that she hadn’t made a fool of herself, hadn’t lost him from her life? Maybe it would be too weird to be sitting in his house, watching a film on the sofa. Her stomach clenched. What if he expected everything to be on fast-forward because they knew each other so well?
He stopped walking. ‘I can hear you worrying, you know.’
‘I’m not worrying,’ Bex tried to say, but the words stuck in her throat. Bloody truth potion.
‘I’m really happy,’ Jon said.
‘Me, too,’ Bex said, feeling her breath catch as she looked at his face.
‘We don’t have to watch the film. Not tonight. We can watch it tomorrow or on the weekend or next month or whatever.’
‘I know,’ Bex said. ‘I’d like to, it’s just –’
‘You feel weird. About us.’
‘A bit,’ Bex said. ‘I’ve wanted this to happen for so long …’
‘It’s scary,’ he said, and she felt her worries disappear.
‘We could just watch a bit of the film tonight; we don’t have to do the whole thing.’
‘Okay, that sounds good. Start slow.’
They started walking again, hand in hand this time.
After a minute, Jon said, ‘Can I just check? We weren’t just talking about
Walk the Line
, were we?’
Bex squeezed his hand and felt his pulse answering her own.
Iris had a swift whisky and then accepted a lift home from the barman, a sweet boy whom she’d helped out the year before. She waved to him and then turned to the shadowy shape of her home. The thick scent of herbs wafted from the garden, but there was decay, too. Not the good earth smell of mulch, but something rotten and wrong. She felt her sense of contentment drain away.
No sooner had she got inside and put the kettle on for a hot drink than there was the sound of footsteps on the gravel path and a knocking on the door.