I have left up my very first workings of my very first draft, which you are more than welcome to read, but they have already changed enormously since...
As soon as her hand touched his, she felt the same tingle shooting through her arm as before. Shutting the front door behind him, she enjoyed the close proximity to him as they stood in the entrance, able to smell the lingering scent of day-old aftershave on him. “Can I take your jacket?”
“Thanks,” he said, shrugging out of it. The space was so confined that he couldn’t help but brush against her by accident, triggering a cluster bomb effect of goose-bumps wherever he happened to touch her.
“After you,” she said, ushering him into her front room whilst she hung his jacket up on one of the coat hooks, secretly grateful for having such a small entrance porch.
Karen knew her house wasn’t much to look at, being a simple two-up two-down terrace but at least it was hers. There hadn’t been much of a divorce payout but it had been enough to put down a deposit on the house and her part-time admin job at the school, combined with the child maintenance from Rob covered the mortgage. She tried to picture the room through Scott’s eyes: it was admittedly quite small but it was clean and reasonably tidy, with mocha-coloured painted walls teamed with bright textiles and accessories that she’d picked out to contrast with the neutral easy-maintenance carpet and décor, injecting a splash of colour. She didn’t have much furniture, preferring to keep the space clear for the girls to play in, but it still felt homely. There was a large comfy-looking sofa in the centre of the room and two hot pink beanbags beside it, as well as a mass of brightly coloured plastic toys stacked away at one end making it clear that this was a family home. A couple of large portraits of the girls were hanging either side of the fireplace creating a feature, along with several other framed snapshots dotted throughout the room. They were all of the girls of course; she was an expert at avoiding the camera these days and enjoyed having the excuse of being the one taking the photos.
As she poured Scott a glass of wine, she noticed that he was studying one picture in particular and walked over to see which one had garnered such interest from him. “These have got to be your daughters,” he said assuredly as she approached, “they look just like you, but especially this one,” he said, pointing to the eldest of the two. “She has your eyes and the shape of her face is the same.”
“Yes, that’s Jess, my eldest” she said, a little astounded, “and that’s Molly who you had the misfortune of meeting, or rather hearing, this afternoon,” pointing to the younger of the two girls.
He hadn’t even looked up at her when he’d commented on her daughters’ likeness, yet he had recognised her eyes in Jess instantly. It had been far too dark for him to see them when they were at the front door so he can only have remembered them from earlier. Either he was extraordinarily observant with a photographic memory or she had made quite an impact on him too.
They are beautiful,” he said, turning his attention on her as she handed the glass to him.
“Thanks, I think so too,” she said, still flustered by the possibility of him being interested in her; although it could also explain his strange behaviour at the door, if he had been under the illusion that she was married. “Please, have a seat,” she said, signalling the sofa, “unless you’d prefer a beanbag of course?” She raised her eyebrows, pretending she was serious.
Sitting himself down at one end of the sofa, he looked like he was trying to figure something out before he spoke again. “You must have been very young when you had Jess?” he asked innocently, unwittingly hitting a raw nerve of hers. “She must be what, six? Seven?”
“Good guess,” she said. “She’s six, turning seven in a few weeks, and I was eighteen.”
He nodded as though satisfied.
She usually hated talking about how young she was when she’d had Jess but she found herself wanting to talk to him about it rather than take offence and use her usual deflection tactics. “She wasn’t planned, as you can probably guess, in fact I was already four and a half months gone before we found out I was pregnant.”
“Wow, that’s late. It must have come as a shock?” he said, taken aback.
“It was and it was so stupid really,” she said, nodding in agreement. “We thought we were being so careful and smart with me going on the pill as soon as I was sixteen,” she said, wondering what kind of impression he was now forming about her, “but I was young and naïve and thought I was invincible.”
“Didn’t we all at that age?” He didn’t look disgusted or repelled so she figured he couldn’t be thinking that harshly of her.
“I didn’t realise that something as straight-forward as a twenty-four-hour tummy bug could affect it like that,” she continued, “so when I finally ended up going to see a Doctor, feeling unwell and tired all the time and complaining of a swollen tummy,” she laughed at how ridiculous it sounded now, but it failed to reach her eyes. “The Doctor asked me straightaway if I could be pregnant and I actually laughed at the absurd idea, but,” she shrugged, ”one little blood test later and my life had been taken down a completely different path.”
Scott simply nodded, having listened intently to her story. He was a very good listener, she had to give him that, a rare quality in a man or so she’d been led to believe by her female friends.
“So how did your boyfriend take the news, and your family?” he asked. “Please feel free to tell me to butt out if you’d rather not tell me about it, you must think me really nosey?”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, surprisingly keen to continue. “You’re really easy to talk to, you know, but are you sure I’m not boring you?” his apparent interest puzzling her.
“No, not at all,” he said with absolute conviction. “This will probably sound really twee but I promise you it’s not bullshit,” he said, looking a bit bashful. “I’ve always been interested in hearing other people’s stories,” he shrugged his shoulders as though he couldn’t help himself, “so much so that when I was younger, I wanted to do some kind of job that would actually help people, like becoming a doctor or a counsellor or something like that.”
“So why didn’t you?” she asked.
“It just wasn’t to be,” he said, looking a little crestfallen and subdued.
“Alright, I’ll make a deal with you,” she said cheerily, trying to snap him out of it. “I’ll tell you my story if you agree to tell me yours.”
“You’re on,” he said, looking back at her and smiling. “You have yourself a deal.” He leaned back against the sofa, looking questioningly at her before prompting her to carry on. “So?”
“It was alright actually, the news went down surprisingly well,” she said. “Rob, that’s my ex-husband,” looking up at him for his reaction and found none, “he was great. He handled it brilliantly and was really supportive. He really came through for me.”
“I should hope so too,” he said, “and everyone else?”
“Everyone was shocked at first when we told them but not because I was pregnant,” she said, as he raised his eyebrows in surprise. “They were more put out that I was already over four months gone and nobody had suspected a thing.”
“So no scandal?” he asked.
“No, none at all,” she said. “Rob and I were childhood sweethearts and had already been together six or so years by then,” she explained. “Everyone had assumed by then that we’d settle down and have a family some day, so they were happy for us.”
“That nice,” he said. “And I take it the two of you married?”
She nodded. “Yeah, our families persuaded us to get married before Jess came along, so we had a quickie registry office wedding with very little fuss.” Her expression became wistful and a little sad. “It wasn’t at all how I imagined my wedding to be but it did teach me that life can’t always be one big fairytale.”
“And you must have managed okay, at least for a while, looking at the pictures of Jess and Molly,” he said, more as a statement than a question.
“We did okay considering we were both still so young. Rob was already working full-time, having gone into an apprenticeship straight from school and he’d just qualified. We’d always talked about moving in together as soon as he qualified and once I’d finished college and seeing as I had to drop out, we found ourselves a cheap flat to rent and got ready for Jess’ arrival.” She paused to sip her wine, smiling a little as some of the happier memories washed over her. “Molly came along just a few years later, very much planned this time though, and I naively thought we were one big happy family.” She frowned, sadness shrouding her brilliant eyes.
“Trouble in paradise?” he asked gently.
“Rob left me the following year,” she said nodding, taking a deep breath as she got her emotions back under control. “But at least I have my precious girls and no matter how hard it got, I never once regretted having them.”
He smiled encouragingly and was just starting to say something to her when his expression completely changed. He became totally distracted and looked puzzled as he sniffed the air, moving his head this way and that. “Can you smell burning?” he asked.
“Oh shoot!” she shrieked, jumping up and almost throwing her glass of wine over him as she dashed into the kitchen to try and salvage what was left of her meal. “Would you like some dinner?” she asked innocently from the adjoining kitchen door, revealing her blackened dinner that had become welded into its plastic tray.
“Bloody hell!” He looked from her to the tray of food she was holding and back to her again, his face aghast, grinning when he realised she was joking. “Would you mind if I pass on the food and just stick with the wine if that’s what you’re offering?” he said, tipping back his wine and emptying the glass then holding it up for a refill. “Whatever that thing is, it doesn’t look particularly appetising plus I really wouldn’t want to deprive you,” he said, acting all chivalrous again and making her giggle.
“Since when do I giggle?” she thought. She hadn’t drunk that much wine surely, but here she was... giggling!
“Wise choice,” she said, popping back into the kitchen to throw the burnt monstrosity in the bin before joining him back on the sofa and topping up his glass with the last of the wine. “I think I just lost my appetite.”
“Actually, joking aside,” he said, looking serious for a moment. “I had to work through my lunch today so I am pretty hungry. How about we get a takeaway in seeing as you haven’t eaten either?” He looked eagerly at her as he waited for her response, his big eyes reminding her of a sad puppy dog. The mental image of him pretending to beg like a dog made her smile which he clearly misread as a positive sign. “Do you like Chinese, the restaurant down the road does great food and I could pop out and collect it?”
She was wavering on whether to agree or not, hesitant about sharing a meal with him. A quick drink was one thing but a meal felt like something else entirely but as soon as he mentioned Chinese, it was a done deal.
“Okay, why not?” she said. “Chinese is my favourite,” a growl suddenly echoed from her stomach, emphasising the point and making him chuckle. “Something tells me you wouldn’t believe me anyway, if I tried to fob you off on the pretence of not being hungry after that delightful interruption.”
“Nope,” he said, his eyes twinkling happily. “Do you have a menu or do you already know what you want?”
Fetching a menu from the kitchen drawer, they pored over it together with their heads almost touching, neither of them bothered about their lack of personal space. Their choices finally made, she phoned the order through to the restaurant to save time whilst he grabbed his jacket and set off on foot to collect it all.
Alone again with her thoughts, she wondered what it was about this man that made her feel so open and relaxed. Scott was still a complete stranger after all, yet she’d invited him into her home with her precious girls asleep just a few feet away upstairs, and now she’d agreed to have a meal with him too. How was he able to cut through her carefully constructed barriers so easily when others had tried and failed?
Twenty minutes later, he returned bearing a steaming bag of mouth-watering Chinese food as well as another couple of bottles of wine that he’d picked up at the off-licence on the way. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched him make himself at home in her kitchen, going straight to the cupboard she kept the plates in whilst she grabbed the cutlery and set about laying the table. It was unnerving yet bizarrely natural how they worked side-by-side, especially considering how much she usually hated anybody else in her kitchen.
Sitting down to eat, she was a little anxious that the conversation would dry up and make their meal feel uncomfortable and awkward, so she was relieved when Scott picked up the questioning where he’d left off. “Do you have a big family then?” he asked.
“Not really, just the usual, I guess” she replied. “There’s my mum and dad, and my younger sister Lizzie, plus my two girls of course and that’s about the lot.”
He seemed to soaking up all the information she was sharing like a sponge, rather than letting it go in one ear and out the other, or taking a trip on the brain bypass as her sister liked to put it.
“I’m done,” he said casually. “I guess it’s my turn in the firing line now then?” he asked, looking across the table at her.
All the table was missing was a candle and a single bloom and it could easily have been mistaken for a romantic meal for two, she observed.
“Ooh yes, okay, it’s most definitely my turn to ask,” her voice tailing off at the end as her mind went uncharacteristically blank.
“Go on then, what would you like to know first?”
Although there was lots that she wanted to know about him, she didn’t feel brave or confident enough to ask any of the questions that first sprang to mind. “Umm…” she paused, stalling for time and frantically trying to think of something ‘safe’ to ask. “How old are you?”
“That’s it?” he asked, looking somewhat affronted before grinning. “I was expecting something far more creative.”
“I’m working on it,” she retorted. “I can’t eat and think of incriminating questions at the same time,” she said, sounding abrupt but her smile softening the words.
“Uh oh, should I have bought more food then?” he said, making her laugh.
Unfortunately, she’d had a mouthful of food at that precise moment and some of her foo-yung escaped as she laughed and landed on the table next to his wine glass, narrowly missing his plate. Her shoulders sagged and she closed her eyes feeling like a complete klutz.
“You know you’re very cute when you blush,” he said, chuckling when she turned an even deeper shade of pink. “Okay, I’m thirty-one,” he offered, taking pity on her and glossing over the whole spitting food across the table thing.
“Wow, really?” she said, swallowing quickly, surprised that she had been so far out with her estimate. “I thought you were younger than that, more my age,” she blurted out.
“Oh?” His eyebrows raised and he was scrutinising her again, as if trying to read her mind. She could feel her pulse-rate speeding up yet again under his gaze. “And your next question?”
Feeling rattled at what he was capable of doing to her without even trying, she found herself stuttering slightly. “W-what d-do you do at work?”