Authors: Sarah Painter
Bex both valued her independence and felt it was something of a burden. There were times when it would have been nice to lay her head on a comforting shoulder and have someone else sort things out for her. Like now. A comforting shoulder right about now would be perfect, but she knew from past experience that she wasn’t the leaning type.
Jon was finishing up his set. Bex knew this because he always played the same bluesy number last, his eyes closed as he put his heart into the music. He always looked so vulnerable in that moment. A sharp contrast to his usual, guarded expression. Bex knew that was what she’d fallen in love with. However clichéd it was to be attracted to a musician, she couldn’t help herself. The very first night she’d seen him play, she had watched his sure hands moving on the fret board and heard the catch in his voice as he sang, and she’d been hopelessly lost.
He finished the song and opened his eyes, looking around the room as if surfacing from a dream. Bex made her way to the bar to get him a post-set pint, stopping to chat with Mel who was working tonight. There was no point rushing back to her table, as Jon would be a while yet. It didn’t matter that the Red Lion wasn’t exactly a jumping gig venue; there would still be at least one fan who went up to talk to Jon, maybe to offer a telephone number or talk about guitars. That was one downside with the music crowd, Bex thought; they could talk about guitars for hours. Nicola was going to find that out if she went out with Jon. Bex squashed that painful thought and carried the drinks back.
Despite her excitement on the phone earlier, Nicola had arrived late and, apart from giving Bex the promised bag of cashews, hadn’t been the best company. Bex tried again to start a conversation, but Nicola didn’t react. She was too busy gazing raptly at Jon as he put his guitar away in its moulded case and unplugged his amp. The mic was a new one and had cost Jon two weeks’ wages. It came with an aluminium case, its own little bed of high-density foam. Any girlfriend of Jon had to realise super-quick that they weren’t going to have expensive gifts or meals out; every spare penny went on his musical equipment. Which was fair enough. That’s what happened when you had a passion, a calling. Bex admired his dedication.
‘Did you like the set?’ Bex said, trying again to make conversation.
Nicola turned to her, eyes shining. ‘It was amazing. Why didn’t you tell me he was so good?’
‘I’m pretty sure I did,’ Bex said.
‘I’m going to freshen up,’ Nicola said, fussing with her hair. ‘You sure he’ll come over here?’
‘I’m sure,’ Bex said. ‘I’ve got his beer.’
Nicola headed to the bathroom and Bex fiddled with her phone while she waited.
‘Bexter,’ Jon said, folding his long legs under the table and looking so pleased to see her that Bex could pretend, just for a moment, that her feelings were mirrored. He grabbed his pint gratefully and took a long pull. ‘You are an angel of mercy.’
‘It’s your round next,’ Bex replied.
He put his glass down, half empty already. ‘Who’s your friend? She looked like she was really into it.’
‘Nicola,’ Bex said, keeping her tone neutral. ‘She likes you.’
‘Well,’ Jon said, smirking a little. ‘She’s only human.’
Bex hit his arm.
‘Hey! Watch the money. If I can’t play, you’ll owe me big time.’
‘I thought you played for pints.’
‘And tips,’ Jon said, shaking his head. ‘Don’t forget the tips.’
Jon was smiling, his eyes crinkled with happiness. It was a perfect moment, spoiled all too quickly when Nicola knocked into their table. She’d obviously taken a little too much Dutch courage and fell into the spare seat messily. ‘You were great,’ she said, nodding vigorously. ‘Really, really good.’ She slouched across the table, displaying an impressive cleavage, which Jon looked at. Of course he did. It was hard to miss, but still.
Bex drained her pint and stood up. Nicola was talking a mile-a-minute to Jon about something – it was impossible to say what – and he was drooling into her bosom. Later for all that. She’d done her duty as a friend and introduced them; it didn’t mean she had to stay and watch the show. Her stomach twisted at the thought.
‘Where are you going?’ Jon dragged his gaze from Nicola’s chest.
‘Home,’ Bex said.
‘I’ll come with,’ Jon said, knocking back the remains of his beer and getting to his feet.
‘No need,’ Bex said, mortified that he might have thought she was hinting. ‘You stay.’
‘Nah,’ Jon was already shrugging on his leather jacket. ‘I’m done in.’
‘Are you sure?’ Nicola was gazing up at Jon with shiny eyes. ‘It’s not late. I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff we could do –’
Bex stopped her eyes from rolling with an act of will. Nicola was her friend. She shouldn’t be mean.
Jon picked up his guitar case. ‘I’m sure.’
Outside the spring weather was holding and the night was mild. The town was quiet, and Bex could hear the river, and a lonely nightingale calling, its chirrups and peeps echoing off the stone of the town bridge. It was easy to see the place as timeless, the ancient cottages with their tiny windows and lopsided walls, the cobbled streets and the countless feet that had polished them. A car appeared on the road and whooshed past and the spell was broken.
‘Why don’t we go to mine for a bit?’ Jon said, shifting his grip on his case. ‘If you’re not too tired?’
‘Sure,’ Bex said, ignoring the leaping in her heart. That was part of the pain and pleasure of being Jon’s friend. He wanted to spend time with her. She knew he liked her. More than that, he cared for her, looked out for her. If only that were enough. It hadn’t been enough when they’d met last year and it wasn’t enough now, but she wasn’t sensible enough to stay away from him. No matter how much it hurt, she couldn’t give it up. Give him up.
‘I’ll carry that.’ Bex went to take the small amp and their fingers brushed. Her pulse kicked up from the contact and she felt her cheeks flush. Something had to change or she was going to drop down of a heart attack. This much stuttering and racing and jumping couldn’t be healthy. Bex couldn’t believe Jon hadn’t noticed yet, hadn’t seen her heart leaping out of her chest like in a cartoon.
Jon lived in a shared house on Priory Lane. It had a sagging roof and a failed damp course along the back wall, but it was timber-beamed and pretty. On the outside, at least. Inside, the charm had been somewhat overlaid with music equipment courtesy of Jon, rugby kit courtesy of his housemate, Ben, and bicycles courtesy of both of them. Bex squeezed past the clutter in the narrow hall and into the tiny living room. There was a stone hearth with a wood burner, the effect slightly ruined by a clothes horse draped in shorts and t-shirts and jogging bottoms, steaming gently.
They slipped into their well-oiled routine. Bex closed the curtains and fetched the DVD while Jon made tea; then they sat on the sagging sofa to laugh through
Life of Brian
for what was probably the fiftieth time.
It was late and, despite the nearness of Jon and the funniness of the film, Bex felt her eyelids get heavy. She told herself that she wasn’t going to fall asleep in Jon’s house; that she was going to get up and go home like a sensible adult. It was insane to keep staying over on Jon’s sofa, no matter how welcome he made her feel. She was being pathetic and she ought to get up and walk home. One more minute and that was exactly what she was going to do.
Bex woke up lying on the sofa, alone. The television was switched off and there was a thick yellow blanket slung across her body. She pulled it over her shoulders and went back to sleep.
In the morning, Bex woke early. A shaft of light pierced a gap in the curtains, shining onto the
Life of Brian
DVD case on the floor like a message from God. The house was completely quiet and her neck felt stiff and sore from the sofa cushions. She tiptoed past Jon’s bedroom and opened and closed the front door as quietly as she could.
Outside, the sun was just up and the air was cool. It was pleasantly refreshing and Bex felt all the promise of a new day. There were advantages to waking up with a crick in her neck from Jon’s sofa; she was up early enough to swing home and wash her face and change her clothes before work.
On the way to the Farriers’ she gave herself the well-worn talk; this had to stop. She had to move on. She had to see less of Jon. She had to stop going to watch him play. She definitely had to stop watching films with him and falling asleep on his sofa. In short, she had to stop torturing herself with his friendship.
Bex speeded up her steps to add verve to the pep talk. She sailed through the quiet morning streets of Pendleford, and arrived at the Farriers’ slightly out of breath, but filled with renewed purpose. As always, she was five minutes early for her shift at the house. Bex prided herself on being good at her job and part of her personal criteria for that was being early for work every single morning. She didn’t want her employers to ever worry that she was going to be late; didn’t want to add stress to their busy morning routine.
Bex picked up several pairs of shoes that had spread across the hall floor during the night and put them back neatly on the rack. She called out a cheery ‘hello’, channelling Mary Poppins for all she was worth.
Mrs Farrier was usually in the hall by this time, waiting to rush out of the front door the moment Bex appeared. This morning, Bex found her in the kitchen, holding a mug in one hand and her BlackBerry in the other. Bex’s first thought was that she must be unwell, but Mrs Farrier was in her dark work suit, her glossy hair neatly blow-dried and a briefcase resting on the central island.
‘We need to talk,’ Mrs Farrier said. She sounded serious, but Mrs Farrier always sounded serious.
‘Okay.’ Bex hooked her tapestry rucksack on the rack behind the door, next to the pinboard that held, amongst other things, the Farrier children’s busy schedule. Today was piano lesson for Carly and fencing for Tarquin. Never a fun day as Carly invariably spent her lesson in tears and Tarquin had to be dragged both into – and away from – his.
Mrs Farrier hadn’t started speaking, which was very odd; she was usually in such a hurry, shouting clipped instructions and questions she rarely gave Bex time to answer. Bex turned away from the schedule and loaded a capsule into the Krups coffee machine. Caffeine – that was the ticket. The ominous silence continued. Perhaps Tarquin had complained about her again. He had got into a habit of blaming as many different people as possible for anything he thought he could get away with, but Mrs Farrier, to her credit, generally saw right through him. ‘Would you like an espresso?’ Bex asked, getting cups down from the dishwasher.
The silence continued and Bex looked across to see if Mrs Farrier had heard her question. She was frowning slightly.
‘My husband’s cufflinks are missing.’
The cufflinks. She hadn’t been able to find them and then Tarquin had stood his ground over screen time and she’d completely forgotten that she was supposed to locate them. Arse.
‘Yes, I know,’ Bex said. ‘Sorry. I did look for them, but then Tarquin was messing with the laundry and –’
‘This is very awkward,’ Mrs Farrier said, and Bex realised, with a sudden chill, that she really did look uncomfortable. ‘Alistair, uh, Mr Farrier, is sure that he left them on top of the chest in his dressing room.’
Bex shook her head. ‘I looked, but they weren’t there. I checked on the floor and underneath, in case they’d been brushed off –’
‘He’s sure,’ Mrs Farrier said. ‘Which puts us in a difficult position. You know how happy we’ve been to have you helping us and we appreciate everything you’ve done, but –’ The sentence remained unfinished and Mrs Farrier gazed fixedly at a spot somewhere behind Bex’s head.
The chill that Bex had felt run down her spine became a bath of ice water, dumped unceremoniously over her head. ‘You’re firing me?’
‘We’ll give you a week’s pay, but in the circumstances I’d appreciate it if you didn’t embarrass us by asking for a reference.’
‘But I haven’t done anything wrong.’ Bex was mortified when her voice cracked a little.
‘Theft is a serious business, Bex,’ Mrs Farrier said, finally looking into her face. ‘You should count yourself lucky that we’re not calling the police.’
‘I didn’t take his cufflinks,’ Bex managed through a thick throat. The word ‘theft’ seemed to reverberate through the air, setting off tremors through Bex’s entire being. ‘I would never –’ She didn’t finish the sentence. She couldn’t use that phrase in all conscience.
‘Mr Farrier wanted to call them, actually,’ Mrs Farrier continued, ‘but I said that I was sure his cufflinks would be back in the house by the time he got home from work this evening and there would be no need.’ She gave Bex a significant look.
‘Ex!’ A small shout was a short warning before a shape barrelled into the back of Bex’s legs, wrapping arms around her and almost bringing them both down onto the tile.
‘Hello, sweetheart,’ Bex said, trying not to look as if her world had just caved in.
‘I did a wee in the loo!’
Bex didn’t know if Carly was talking about yesterday’s triumph or a new event, but she said, ‘Well done!’ in a voice that sounded false even to herself.
‘Why is your face funny?’ Carly said, squinting up at her.
‘I have to go to work.’ Mrs Farrier picked up her keys and her case. She pulled a face that was sad and uncomfortable and impatient all at once.
‘Have you told her?’ Bex indicated the top of Carly’s head with a downward jerk of her chin.
‘Not yet,’ Mrs Farrier said, heading for the hallway. ‘We’ll probably do it on the weekend.’
Bex detached Carly from her front and followed, interpreting Mrs Farrier’s words as she moved. No room for messy scenes. No goodbye and no warning.
Mrs Farrier was already opening the front door. She clearly couldn’t wait to get out.
‘This discussion is not finished,’ Bex said, surprising herself.
Mrs Farrier paused, evidently a little surprised, too. ‘I’m going to be late.’ She bent down and kissed her daughter goodbye. ‘Be a good girl for Bex.’
Once the children were at school and nursery, Bex had a few hours of relative freedom. She was meant to spend these tidying, sorting laundry and cooking nutritious after-school snacks, but instead she put on her coat and walked out of the town centre towards End House.