This was my entry to a #UKRomChat writing competition called #RomInAFlash. I’ve undone the belt-tightening, 2000 word restriction and let it breathe a bit in places, hence being a touch longer.
He blew the last of his cash on a bottle of champagne – an anonymous gift for the birthday girl’s table. He had nothing to celebrate himself.
Finally ready to tread the miles home, Thom picked up his walking stick, dead phone, and wallet shorn of funds. The strike wouldn’t end any time soon, and all the apps in the world couldn’t find him a taxi or minicab on that filthy night. Besides, there was no rush – no one waited at home.
He pushed open the bistro door and groaned. It was still torrential out there. Pools of water had become dark lakes, and water beaded and streamed off every street-lit surface.
For a moment, he contemplated ignoring the softly accented female voice. Instead, he sighed and turned.
‘That was really nice, what you did.’
He shrugged at the dark-haired bargirl. Girl? She was barely younger than his thirty years. He had thought of flirting with her but she was stunning, and out of his league. Like the sombre, plain woman in the corner, quietly celebrating her birthday while counting pennies with another sombre friend. They were all way out of his league.
He heard gasps of delight and excited chattering as the fizz was delivered by the other barman. Bar person. Whatever. And the inevitable question: ‘Who?’
He ducked out of sight, his exit halted only by a gentle hand on his arm. ‘Why leave now?’
‘Mystery is better than harsh reality. They’ll want a handsome prince, I’m a scarred toad.’
‘You are no toad.’
He shook his head. Maybe before the insurgents’ raid, he could have been considered handsome. Not now.
‘Have you far to go?’
‘A few miles.’
‘But, it’s pouring!’ She’d heard him on the phone. Seen him slump and accept his sodden fate, had given a sympathetic smile.
‘I was in the Army, it’s not far.’
‘But, your leg…’ she trailed off.
‘Legs.’ The prostheses clunked when he tapped them with his hated stick. ‘They’ll be fine.’ They weren’t fine – one cup chafed, and he could feel a sore developing.
‘Could you wait just a little longer?’
Thom drew his shoulders back, lifted his chin up. ‘Sorry, I have to go now. Goodnight.’ And stepped out into the deluge.
Fifty yards later, he was wishing he’d kept the cash to offer any driver still brave or foolish enough to be on the roads. Along with wishing that he’d chosen any other night to venture out. His blind date had failed to show, her message citing a work emergency. He suspected she’d arrived at the bistro, seen him and backed out. It wasn’t the first time that had happened.
He lifted his face to the darkened heavens, relishing the lash of autumn rain reminding him he was still alive. Unlike his mates, blown to bits in that desert-dry country. Until a pervasive trickle of water slithered into duller scar tissue.
Some bleak days, he thought his mates were the lucky ones – to have experienced a quick death rather than a protracted withering of body and mind. He still suffered most nights from replays, waking him screaming and sweating. Why even think of dating when a bed guest would have to put up with that too?
Single was better. Safer. Tears mixed with the rain. Lonely…
Enough malingering. He swiped his eyes and pulled his collar up. Focusing his eyes on the end of the street, the first leg as it were, he continued.
Such was his concentration in setting one foot in front of the other that he didn’t register the plea and buzzing to his right.
That voice again. This time louder. The girl from the bar, hunched on a moped, shadowing him on the road. He stopped. ‘What are you doing out here?’
The buzzing dwindled. She rested a foot down. ‘Would you like a ride? I have a spare helmet.’
He looked her over. A coat covered her torso, but a short skirt bared already-soaked thighs, water running into knee-high boots. ‘Aren’t you a little underdressed for this weather?’
‘I w-wanted to catch you. Please, get on.’
Thom wanted to say no. But…he sighed, and nodded. Her mouth twitched, flashing dimples. He took the helmet she offered, and clambered on.
‘Where do you live?’
‘10 Walmer Road.’ His hands barely touched her coat.
‘Hold me properly please. I don’t want to lose you.’
Her waist was narrow. He felt every breath, and soaked up the human contact. It had been so long. Since before that last deployment. He remembered soft kisses, seductive heat, and sweaty, rumpled sheets. Tears when he left. She had married shortly after he went away. Her husband liked to play golf.
He had ignored his ex-lover’s friend request. He couldn’t bear the thought of her pity. Pity not shown by the girl he had his hands around. Her eyes were as steady as her driving.
The streets didn’t exactly fly by – his sparse weight was enough to slow the machine – but they arrived at his building sooner than he’d wish. Thom’s hands reluctantly released her, and he busied himself with untangling his legs.
He handed the helmet back. ‘Thank you.’
‘It w-was an hon-honour.’ Her smile had stiffened, and her whole body tremored slightly.
‘Do…would you like to come in to dry off?’
A catch of breath, and her eyes shone along with her dimples. ‘W-would you mind?’
‘Not at all. You’d be welcome.’
‘Thank you.’ She locked her scooter and they walked towards the entrance of his ground floor flat. ‘You remind me of my father.’
She noticed. ‘That’s not a bad thing. You have his quiet patience. He needed it, getting us here.’ A deep sigh followed.
‘He’s gone?’ Thom unlocked the door and grabbed clean towels from the radiator. Disconcertingly warm air washed over him, along with a wave of exhaustion. He collapsed on the nearby wheelchair, wiping his face.
She began drying off too. Driving the moped into the rain meant she was even more soaked than him. ‘My father? Distant history. Once we were safe, he returned to fight. A car bomb.’
Bomb! Hot air. Screaming. Some of it his own.
‘You’re in your home and you’re safe with me. You’re safe at home.’
The steady, calming voice eventually overcame the memory. He blinked. She knelt a short distance away, patiently repeating, ‘You’re safe, at home.’
He moved. He had to stand. She passed over his stick. He yanked the door open, stepping back into the rain. The cool helped rinse away traces of the flashback, replacing the heat. Dark replacing that bright, eyeball-scorching light. Space replacing the claustrophobia of being trapped, hurting and helpless.
He took a few deep breaths, and returned to the warmth, removing his soaked coat and clammy suit jacket. He bypassed the chair, just using the towel to dab away enough of the raindrops.
In the tiny kitchen, the kettle was rumbling into a boil. ‘Sugar?’
He hobbled in. ‘Not usually, but I’ll have one.’
The contents of the mug steamed. He sipped, feeling normality return. ‘I’m sorry-‘
‘Don’t be. My brother had PTSD.’
‘Had? It goes?’
‘Technically, it’s a different condition when you have fewer, manageable attacks.’ Her lips curled upwards. ‘My mother remarried. As I said, time passes.’
‘That’s how you knew what to do?’
She nodded, grasping her mug. ‘I recognized the thousand-yard stare. I’m sorry if my words triggered it.’
A contradicting headshake. ‘It was the hot air. Being warm and clammy, sat.’ His shake became a shudder.
‘It is really warm in here.’ Her cheeks flushed becomingly.
He tore his eyes away. ‘Sorry about that. The thermostat was supposed to be fixed before I moved in.’
‘You’re new to the area?’
‘I moved here a few weeks ago. A friend recommended the bistro, but it wouldn’t be my usual haunt.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘Shame. We don’t have many interesting people come in.’
She puffed a drying strand of hair out of her eyes. ‘During the day, it’s businessmen, mummies or retirees. Evenings, the businessmen return plus a few quiet couples. Not exactly interesting or eventful.’
Thom chuckled. ‘A quiet life compared to some of the places I’ve been.’
That made her smile. ‘I’m not ungrateful, it means I can study. I just like more…stimulation.’
Something flashed between them, something he couldn’t identify. Something which lifted his spirits. ‘I promise I’ll call in, if you promise to talk to me.’
‘You’ll be flying solo again?’
The reminder of his dating failures broke the mood. His half-empty mug took his attention. He could feel her eyes on him. ‘I’m sorry there’s no biscuits to offer you.’
‘Give that here.’
‘Come.’ Soft hands removed the mug. Those same hands led him into his living room, and gently pushed him onto the cushions. She returned for their mugs and sat next to him. ‘I’m Katrina.’
‘Katrina. Ummm, Thomas.’
She passed over a refilled mug. ‘Thom OK?’ She flicked the television on, finding a comedy quiz.
‘Ummm, yeah.’ Her actions had left him speechless. And more than a little confused. An attractive woman on his sofa.
‘Thom. Mind if I make myself at home until the rain lightens up?’
‘Good. My good foot is unpleasantly damp.’ She leant forward and removed her boots.
He blinked. One of her legs went too. The boot had covered familiar prosthetic plastic.
‘Do you want to remove yours too. They’ll need drying out, otherwise you risk sores.’
‘Ummm.’ He fumbled with damp trousers. ‘I need to take these off.’
‘Bare legs aren’t a problem. Unless you go commando? I’m not that forward.’
His head shot up to see her wicked grin. The dimples were out again. He swallowed.
‘You are commando?’ Her eyebrows raised even further and eyes glinted.
‘N-no. Boxer briefs.’ His belt unbuckled easily, and he lifted his hips up to peel the clammy fabric off. His dead phone fell out of a pocket, and he plugged it into a nearby cable.
After the months of having strangers stare at his body, he didn’t feel terribly conscious sitting in his shirt and underwear, and Katrina was fussing with her flesh-and-blood leg anyway. Removing the sockets caused a wince. He’d been lucky with the scars healing, but he still had problems after a lot of standing or walking. The skin of one stump was dangerously reddened, but not blistered or broken.
Thom exhaled. Katrina’s timely intervention had saved him from being confined to the chair for a week or so. His gaze returned to her. The plain, white blouse showed a shadow of cleavage. Her black skirt completed the standard bartending ensemble. ‘Thank you, Katrina.’
‘It really was a pleasure. I tried to chat with you earlier, but, “Hey, Leg Twinsie!” isn’t the best icebreaker.’
The absurdity struck him. He guffawed. She joined in. The nagging discomfort had dissipated with the removal of damp clothes and his legs. Somehow, they ended up snuggled together.
Thom felt tired, but somehow content. He yawned. ‘Of all places to recommend for a date, I’m glad Rob suggested the bistro.’
‘Rob? Rob Jones? Big guy, plays rugby?’
‘You know him? He was in my regiment.’
Katrina giggled. ‘I suspect Rob was playing matchmaker – he checked I was working a shift tonight.’
And, Rob had offered to pick him up, an offer echoed by some of his other mates. Thom had been too proud to accept, preferring to prove his independence. That was a mistake – the close call with his healing stumps had sobered him. ‘Yeah, he’s solid. He’ll want to know how the evening went.’
Thom powered up his phone. As soon as a signal registered, it began buzzing immediately.
Katrina patted his thigh. ‘Sounds like you’ll want to check that.’
He liked the feel of her hand. ‘If you don’t mind?’
‘I’ll do the same. My phone’s been off for work.’
Five minutes of almost-quiet apart from the television, their devices, and the still-audible drumming of rain. And her presence, distracting him from the multiple messages of concern.
Mate, you OK? How did the date go?
No show.*eye roll*
Oh, shit. Training ran over. Went by the bistro after but you’d already left. Get back OK?
Got a lift.
Rob, you sly bastard.
??? What have I done? *confused face*
Thom snapped a photo of their damp prostheses, lined up by the radiator.
Yes! *high-fives self* I knew you’d get on.
Because we’re both part plastic?
Nah, she’s just really cool. Wicked sense of humour. Too intelligent for most of us dicks. You must be more intriguing.
Thanks, mate.*chinny reckon*
Hah! Now, piss off and charm her. No remaining strong and silent. Nn.
Thom chuckled as he put his phone down.
Katrina grinned. ‘Rob’s a good mate?’
‘Yeah, the best.’ Some of the other lads were pretty epic too. Supportive, but wouldn’t hesitate to take the piss.
‘You should smile more often. It suits you.’
His smile turned sardonic. ‘Even with these scars?’
‘I bet you were far too pretty before.’
She had sat on his more-scarred side, with runnels carved from cheekbone up and past his hairline. Smaller scars dotted his face, from flying glass and rescue. Thankfully, sunglasses had protected his eyes. Compared to some, he had escaped lightly.
‘Dark nuttiness?’ She proffered a bar.
She grinned. ‘Me, and my favourite chocolate. Help yourself.’
‘Thanks.’ It was rich and tasty. It also brought back memories: good times having a laugh with his mates over rations. A bar of chocolate seldom survived transport without melting. When they heard of an officer hoarding a pristine stash, much skulduggery was planned and the chocolate duly ‘liberated’. The goods were split and savoured that night, under the stars.
She tutted softly. ‘Chocolate should make you happy, not cry.’
He smiled, tasting salt with the sweetness. ‘I am happy. Thank you. That’s the first good memory I’ve had from those days.’
‘Oh. Good. I’m glad it helped.’
He told her of their hi-jinks, face still damp with tears. ‘The therapists encouraged me to express my feelings, instead of bottling them up.’
‘I bet you were good at that.’
‘Yeah, I was. Until it became too much. Many a wall battered and fist bruised.’ He studied scarred knuckles, and realised something. ‘Not recently though.’ Progress.
A gentle hand threaded fingers together. A comfortable silence, sharing the chocolate and chuckling at the comedy programme. As the credits rolled, he felt Katrina’s head rest against his upper arm. It felt natural to wrap his arm around her, and she snuffled happily, wriggling closer.
His heart beat faster. ‘Katrina, would you like to go for a drink some time?’
‘I’d love to.’ Drowsiness roughened her voice. ‘Tomorrow. Comedy on at the pictures.’
‘I adore old expressions. I’m studying English at the local college. ‘S fascinating. I want to become…a teacher.’ She yawned.
Teaching? Something he’d not considered. Something productive, using his degree. He’d ask her more about it tomorrow.
Thom glimpsed his phone. Tomorrow? Today. A new day. Perhaps a new life for him?
Outside, the thrumming rain gradually eased. He decided against waking Katrina. Her leg still needed to dry, and the roads would be safer once the standing water had subsided.
He yawned. He quite fancied a nap himself.
As Thom relaxed back on the sofa with Katrina nestled under his arm, an unexpected feeling grew in his chest. Something light, something positive, something warming. Hope.