Read Meet Me Under the Mistletoe Online

Authors: Abby Clements

Tags: #General, #Fiction

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (4 page)

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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Laurie wasn’t headed straight home. She stopped at the flat next door to her own and leaned down to open the letterbox. ‘Hey,’ she called through it. ‘Siobhan. Are you in?’

She heard a shuffling of feet and a moment later was greeted at the door by her neighbour Siobhan, in checked pyjamas, her hair bundled into a towel turban, bright-green eyes shining out from her pretty, freckled face. A streak of tabby curled round her legs and purred. Mr Ripley – tabby with white paws – was Jay’s cat, officially. He fed him, but Mr Ripley spent as much time ducking in and out of all the other rooms in the block, finding his way in through doors and windows left ajar, making each flat his home.

‘If it isn’t the style police,’ Siobhan said, greeting Laurie with a smile, undoing the towel around her hair and beginning to scrub it dry roughly. ‘You’ve caught me unawares.’

‘I’m strictly off duty this evening,’ Laurie said, raising a weary smile. Siobhan took a step back and motioned for Laurie to come in.

In architectural terms, Siobhan’s flat was a mirror image of Laurie’s – but that was as far as it went. While in Laurie’s flat sparse, Japanese-style furniture and white carpets set the minimalist tone, here in Siobhan’s there were decorative gilt mirrors, crocheted blankets and ethnic ornaments Laurie would never have let anywhere near her own front door.

Laurie walked through into Siobhan’s kitchen, briefly turning to make sure her friend was behind her. ‘Can I?’ she asked, opening the fridge without waiting for an answer and taking out an open bottle of wine. ‘Thanks.’ She got jewel-coloured glasses from the wooden shelf and started to pour.

As the wine hit the sides of the glasses, Laurie recalled the day she’d moved into the block, four years ago.

‘Imelda Marcos has nothing on you,’ Siobhan had said, surveying the shoeboxes that covered almost every inch of the entrance hall. She was only a fraction taller than five feet, but with long fiery-red hair and a loud, Irish-accented voice, she was hard to miss.

‘Regretting it now,’ Laurie had laughed wryly. She didn’t have much furniture to speak of – during her twenties she’d moved from one furnished rental to another, upgrading with each pay rise – but her accessories collection was unrivalled. The removal men she’d hired had unceremoniously dumped her boxes of shoes and clothes in the hall and then left her.

‘Come on,’ Siobhan had said. ‘If you give me a pair I’ll help you out. Got any spare size threes?’

Together they’d lugged all the boxes upstairs, and when they’d brought the last one up Laurie opened a bottle of red wine, filling mugs – the only things she could find – for them both.

‘Here’s to your new flat – welcome to Goldhawk Mansions,’ Siobhan said, chinking her mug of wine with Laurie’s. And there – in her new place, the first four walls she’d ever owned, with a new ally and drinking buddy, Laurie had felt truly at home.

‘Whoa, there,’ Siobhan said now, stepping in to put her hand over one of the glasses to stop Laurie filling it right to the top. ‘It’s a school night for some of us.’ Back then, Siobhan had been a newly qualified teacher at the local comp, now she was Head of the Art Department, her evenings more often filled with parents’ evenings and marking than nights at the pub. She had a few fine lines around her bright green eyes these days – one for each OFSTED inspection, she liked to say.

‘She can’t be more than twenty-five,’ Laurie said, still fixated on the girl downstairs. ‘Can she?’ She took a large sip of wine and walked through into Siobhan’s living room, taking a seat on her antique, green-velvet sofa.

‘I haven’t seen her up close,’ Siobhan said, shrugging and taking a seat on the fifties armchair opposite, raking her hands through her wet hair to pull out the tangles.

‘She was going up to Jay’s flat, you know. Again.’

Siobhan sank back into her seat. ‘Look, I hate to say it, Laurie, but Jay’s a free agent.’

Laurie glumly took off her boots and brought her knees towards her, hugging them.

‘I know. To be honest, it’s not just that,’ she said, memories of her humiliating exit from the office returning. ‘God, it’s just been a really crappy couple of days, Siobhan.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked.

‘Work,’ Laurie said, biting her lip. ‘It’s bad.’

‘Go on,’ Siobhan prompted her, ‘elaborate.’

‘Big mistake,’ Laurie said, tears springing to her eyes. ‘A really stupid one.’

‘Yes?’

‘I messed up the design on our most important new bag. The Navajo – you know the one I’ve been talking about since the summer?’

Siobhan’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Oh no! I mean, sorry – God, that’s awful. You’ve been working so hard on that.’

‘I know. So now Danny wants me to have some time off. Two months, he said, “To get my focus back”. He texted me to confirm it this morning – I’m off on full pay, but he doesn’t want me back until the first of February. I’m lucky he didn’t sack me. I mean, I deserve it, Siobhan. I’ve really let him down.’ She tried to stop the tears that were building. ‘Out in China – I don’t know. I wasn’t myself. My head was all over the place.’

Laurie had been thrown off course, and there was only one reason. She thought back to the summer only a few months before – but with the November wind whistling outside Siobhan’s window, and her life in tatters, being with Jay felt like a lifetime ago.

Jay had been sitting in the striped hammock on Laurie’s roof terrace, rocking gently in it as he opened a beer for her. Seventies rare groove drifted out of Laurie’s iPod dock, a lilting soundtrack to the hot summer night. They’d all been out together that night, to an outdoor film screening in the park – but before midnight Siobhan had fallen asleep downstairs on Laurie’s bed.

Laurie sat down beside him, and he passed her the open bottle of Corona – she noticed how his white and grey striped T-shirt, worn with faded jeans, set off his tanned skin. He’d discarded his flip-flops alongside hers. There was plenty of space in the hammock, it was a double one Laurie’s mum had sent over from Spain, but gravity had brought the two of them together awkwardly in the middle. Laurie glanced over at him. With a day’s stubble on his jaw, and his dark hair a little longer now, he looked just like he had the first day they’d met, when he was carrying his guitar case up to his new flat. Jay turned to her and smiled. As if he’d hardly noticed the fact that one side of her body, clad in a strapless turquoise jumpsuit, was now pressed inappropriately closely against his.

‘Siobhan’s missing an amazing night sky,’ Jay said, tilting his head to look back. Laurie leaned into the hammock and looked up. Even with all the artificial light from south London’s bars, offices and shops, the stars shone out brightly.

‘She is,’ Laurie said, conscious again of Jay’s body against hers. The warmth of his arms, the faint, clean smell of him, a hint of cinnamon. Stop being weird, she told herself. She must be drunker than she thought. She took a sip of her beer, then rested it on the small wooden bench he’d made her that spring when he’d started renting his carpentry workshop.

‘Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,’ Jay said, his warm brown eyes resting on hers, ‘that Siobhan fell asleep.’

Jay’s voice sounded different, softer than usual. It wasn’t that usual tone, the one he used when he did neighbourly stuff, like lending her milk, or asking to borrow her
Mad Men
box set.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, I like being alone with you,’ he said, his gaze unwavering.

OK, Laurie thought. Now this was definitely getting weird. She looked away, hurriedly thinking of escape plans. ‘Do you think the music’s a bit loud?’ she said, moving to get up.

‘It’s fine,’ he reassured her. ‘Really.’ He took her hand before she could get to her feet. It felt sort of nice, her slim hand in his larger one. Her heart thudded in her chest.

And then – Jay moved towards her and they were kissing. His hands were on the bare skin of her arms, and she was kissing him, kissing Jay. Jay from downstairs. And it felt good.

She pulled away, and he smoothed her dark hair back behind her ear. They looked at each other and then finally he laughed, breaking the tension. ‘This is strange, isn’t it?’ he said, toying with her hand, running a finger over her palm. She nodded. A year of being friends – and now this. Yes, she’d felt something when she first met him – she’d realised right away that her new downstairs neighbour was hot. But then they’d become friends, got to know each other and the chemistry had seemed to soften to something easier to live with. Now that rush of desire was back, and it was all the stronger for knowing him better. He kissed her again, bringing her into his arms so they were lying down in the hammock together. They stayed up there, kissing, chatting and laughing for the whole warm night.

As the sun rose over the city, they crept back downstairs and Jay walked Laurie over to her flat’s front door. They talked in hushed tones as Siobhan slept on in Laurie’s bed.

‘I had a really good night,’ Jay said, smiling. ‘A really, really good night.’

Laurie gasped as Mr Ripley jumped on to her lap, bringing her back to reality with a bump. ‘What is with this cat?’ she said, stroking his back. ‘Is there anywhere he isn’t?’

‘He’s just being friendly,’ Siobhan said. ‘I don’t think he means to creep up.’

‘Anyway,’ Siobhan went on, ‘Danny might be right, Laurie. You have been stressed out lately – work, then all this stuff with Jay. Maybe a break isn’t such a bad idea. I can think of worse things, can’t you?’ Siobhan let the question linger. Slowly, she took a Nina Simone record out of its sleeve and put it on her vintage record player.

Laurie raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you know me?’

‘OK, I see what you mean.’

‘I hate relaxing, love my work – Siobhan, that’s who I am. Simple as that.’

‘I’ve a short memory, you’re right. After all, you must be the only person ever to stay at a spa and spend the weekend scanning her iPhone and pacing around, insisting there must be something better to do than have massages and let piranhas nibble at your feet.’

Laurie smiled. That particular spa break hadn’t been a friendship high point.

‘What about an activity holiday, though?’ Siobhan said, her eyes drifting to the window as she thought, ‘you know – maybe not a yoga retreat, but painting in Cornwall, bird-watching in—’

‘OK, stop right there,’ Laurie said, raising a hand. ‘You know you are planning your own holiday, don’t you? Those all sound like my idea of hell. Bird-watching. Are you kidding me?’

‘I’ve always thought those trips sounded fun.’

‘My point exactly,’ Laurie said. ‘Maybe you’re right about making the most of this break though. I’m gutted about what’s happened, but I really don’t want to be sitting around in my flat watching
Judge Judy
.

‘Argh … this is so frustrating,’ Laurie said, covering her face with her hands. ‘I’ve slogged my guts out this year proving I’m good enough for this new role and now I’ve messed up and Danny’s lost all faith in me.’

‘It doesn’t sound like that to me,’ Siobhan said, draping her towel around her shoulders to catch any final drips from her hair. ‘Danny’s supporting you by letting you take time off – don’t knock it. He clearly believes in you, Laurie, he just wants you back to your best.’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ she said glumly. Perhaps it wasn’t Danny, but Laurie herself who had lost faith in her abilities – she just couldn’t picture returning to Seamless and doing her job well. ‘Let’s talk about something else. Distract me,’ she said. ‘How was your day?’

‘Not bad actually.’ Siobhan said, looking up at Laurie with a cheeky glint in her eye. ‘Went for a drink after work with Mr Ferguson. Ed.’

‘P.E. teacher Ed?’ Laurie said. She watched her friend’s face light up as she nodded. ‘Are you interested?’

Siobhan settled her small glass of wine on an art deco side table. ‘I might be,’ she said. ‘I didn’t want to date anyone at work, but I have to say I’m tempted. I’ve been in the desert so long though, I might need a private P.E. class to remind me how it all works.’ She let out a little snort as she laughed.

Laurie laughed too, in spite of herself – their parallel love droughts had gone on for over a year, and they’d shared every step. They’d both kissed enough frogs in their twenties – and in their mid-thirties were looking for something more – but the quality and quantity of available men seemed to have dropped through the floor. While the hot city summer had been full of good times, free festivals and Notting Hill Carnival, it had been resolutely flingless. Laurie had thought things were changing, when she got together with Jay … but by the end of September, as the leaves turned to orange and brown and conkers fell on the Windermere Road pavement, she was single again.

The record got caught in a groove, Nina Simone’s rich vocals warped on a loop. ‘Are you never getting an iPod dock?’ she asked Siobhan, as her friend adjusted the needle. ‘I mean, there’s cute-retro, and then there’s living in a time warp. How about I help you get this place ready to bring a man—’ Laurie was cut short by an embroidered cushion flying at her face.

CHAPTER
4

 

Thursday 23rd November

Milly,

Hi! It was great to hang out with you at the pub the other night – I’m glad we managed to persuade you and Kate to stay till closing.

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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