I’m back! There have been a lot of changes in my life in the last two years, including my recent relocation from suburban London to rural Wales. I’m hoping things are going to be more straightforward in the future. There will be future Scarlet Series novels, and I’ve also some other interesting projects.
In the meantime, this is the extension of an earlier short story. Enjoy.
He spent the last of his cash on a bottle of champagne, to be delivered to the birthday girl’s table. He had nothing to celebrate himself.
Finally ready to tread the miles home, he picked up his walking stick, dead phone, and wallet shorn of emergency 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 for him 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 girl who’d been serving behind the bar all evening. 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, plain 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 from the recipient, ‘Who?’
He ducked out of sight, his exit halted only by a gentle hand on his arm. ‘Why are you leaving now?’
‘A little 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, with your leg…’ she trailed off.
‘Legs.’ The prosthetics clunked when he tapped them with his hated stick. ‘They’ll be fine.’ They weren’t fine – the fit of one cup wasn’t quite right, and he could feel a sore developing.
‘Could you wait just a little longer?’
He 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 arranged date had failed to show, her message citing a work emergency. He suspected she’d arrived at the restaurant, seen him and backed out.
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 that 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 the 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?
It was better to be single. Safer. Tears mixed with the rain. Lonely…
Enough malingering. He swiped his eyes and pulled his collar up. Focussing 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 her already-soaked thighs, running with water into her knee-high boots. ‘Aren’t you a little underdressed for this weather?’
‘My shift just finished and I w-wanted to catch you. Please, get on.’
He wanted to say no. But she had gone to so much effort. He sighed, and nodded. The corners of her mouth twitched up, 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 and he could feel her every breath. He soaked up the human contact. It had been so long. Since before he had headed overseas that last time. 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 the girl he currently had his hands around hadn’t shown. She had just observed him with steady eyes. As steady as her current 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. His 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 dismounted, locked her scooter and they walked up the path 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?’ He unlocked the door. Clean towels from a nearby cupboard were on hand. A wave of exhaustion hit, and he collapsed on the nearby wheelchair, wiping his face. Disconcertingly warm drafts of air washed over him.
She began drying off too. Driving the moped into the rain meant she was even more soaked than him. ‘My father? A long time ago. When we were safe, he returned to fight. A car bomb.’
Bomb! The air grew hotter. Screaming. Some of it his own.
‘You’re in your home and you’re safe with me. You’re safe in your home with me. You’re safe in your home with me.’
The steady, calming voice eventually got through to him, past the memory. He blinked.
‘You’re safe in your home with me.’
He moved. He had to stand. She passed over his stick. He yanked the door open, and stepped 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. ‘Do you take sugar?’
He hobbled in. ‘Not usually, but I’ll have one.’
The contents of the mug steamed deliciously. He sipped, feeling normality return and watching her pour her own. ‘I’m sorry-‘
‘Don’t be. My brother had PTSD.’
‘Had? I didn’t think it ever went away?’
‘Nowadays, he has very few attacks. Technically, it’s a different condition when you are able manage it.’ Her lips curled upwards. ‘My mother remarried. As I said, time passes.’
‘That’s how you knew what to do?’
She nodded, her fingers drawing patterns on the kitchen worktop. ‘You had the same thousand-yard stare. I’m sorry if my words triggered it.’
A contradicting headshake. ‘It was the draft of hot air. Being warm and clammy, sat.’ His shake turned into a shudder.
‘It is really warm in here.’ The discarded towel sat neatly folded on the counter, and she wasn’t shivering any more. 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? That is why I’ve not seen you in the bistro before.’
‘I’ve only lived here a few weeks. A friend recommended it, but the bistro wouldn’t be my usual haunt.’
Her shoulders slumped. ‘That’s a shame. We don’t have many interesting people come in.’
She blew 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.’
He chuckled. ‘If you’d been a bouncer in some of the places I’ve been, you’d be glad of the quiet life.’
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. Nevertheless, something which lifted his spirits. ‘I promise I’ll call in again, but I’ll probably be alone so you’ll have to talk to me.’
‘I’ll look forward to it. But why would you be by yourself?’
The reminder of his situation broke the mood. His half-empty mug took his attention. He could feel her eyes on him. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have any biscuits to offer you.’
‘Give that here.’
‘Come with me.’ Soft hands removed the mug from his hands. Those same hands led him into his living room, and gently pushed him onto the cushions. She returned to the kitchen for their mugs and sat next to him. ‘My name’s Katrina.’
‘Katrina. Ummm, Thomas.’ The mug she passed over had been refilled.
‘Thomas. May I call you Thom?’ She picked up the remote for the television and turned it on, flicking through the channels and stopping on a late-night comedy quiz.
‘Ummm, yeah.’ Her actions had left him speechless. And more than a little confused. A gorgeous 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 bent forward and took off her boots.
He blinked. One of her legs went too. The boot had covered familiar-looking prosthetic plastic.
‘Do you want to remove yours? They probably need drying out, otherwise you risk sores.’
‘Ummm.’ He fumbled with his damp trousers. ‘I need to take these off.’
‘That’s not 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 push 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 legs, 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 if he spent much time standing or walking. The skin of one stump was dangerously reddened but not blistered or broken.
He exhaled with relief. If not for Katrina’s intervention, he would have been back in his chair for a week or so, and being scolded by the nurses for overdoing it. He watched her for a few minutes. The plain, white blouse showed only a shadow of cleavage. Her black skirt completed the standard bartending ensemble. ‘Thank you, Katrina.’
‘It really was a pleasure. I wanted to speak to you all night, but I couldn’t think of anything to break the ice. I could hardly come up to you and say, “Hey, I’ve got a false leg too!” Could I?’
The absurdity struck him. He threw his head back and guffawed with laughter. She joined in. The nagging discomfort had dissipated with the removal of damp clothes and his legs. Somehow, they ended up snuggled together on the sofa.
Thom felt tired, but somehow content. He yawned. ‘Of all places to recommend for a date, I’m glad Rob recommended 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 pressed the power button on his phone, and put it back to one side. The screen lit, and as soon as a signal registered, it began to buzz and bleep.
Katrina patted his thigh. ‘Sounds like you’ll want to check that.’
He liked the feel of her hand on his skin. ‘If you don’t mind me being anti-social for a few minutes?’
‘I’ll do the same. My phone’s been off too, for work.’
Five minutes of quiet. Almost quiet – there were sounds coming from the television and their devices, plus the still-audible drumming of rain outside. He could feel her light breathing, 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 home.
Rob, you sly bastard.
??? What have I done? *confused face*
Thom snapped a photo of their damp prosthetics, lined up by the radiator.
Yes! *high-fives self* Tell her I said “hello”. She’s great, I knew you’d get on.
Because we’re both part-plastic?
Nah, she’s just really cool. Wicked sense of humour. Too intelligent to be interested in most of us dicks. She probably finds you more intriguing.
Thanks, mate.*chinny reckon*
Hah! Now, piss off and charm her. Or stay the strong and silent type – she must like that. Nn.
Thom chuckled as he put his phone down. ‘Rob says “hello”.’
‘He’s a good mate?’
‘Yeah, the best.’ Though 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 this?’ He gestured to the scars.
‘You would have been far too pretty before.
She had sat on his more-scarred side, with runnels carved from cheekbone up and past his hairline. He still wore his hair short, refusing to disguise his wounds. Smaller scars dotted his face, from flying glass and rescue. Thankfully, sunglasses had protected his eyes. Compared to some, he had got off lightly.
‘Dark nuttiness?’ The proffered bar only missed one block – the piece she was munching on.
She grinned. ‘Some might say that describes me, but it’s my favourite chocolate. Help yourself.’
‘Thanks.’ He snapped off a piece and popped it in his mouth. She was right – 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, skulduggery was planned and the chocolate duly liberated. The goods were split equally and savoured that night, under the stars.
She tutted softly. ‘Chocolate’s meant to make you happy, not cry.’
He smiled, tasting salt mixed in 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 a brief tale of their hi-jinks. He didn’t bother wiping the tears away. ‘The therapists encouraged me to express my feelings, said it was better than 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. ‘I haven’t needed to do that for a while though.’ Progress.
A gentle hand clasped his, fingers threaded through his. They fell into 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.’ Her voice was rough with drowsiness. ‘I’m free tomorrow. There’s supposed to be a good comedy on at the pictures.’
‘”At the pictures”? Not heard that expression for a long time.’
‘I find the old ones are the best. I’m studying English at the local college. ‘S fascinating. I want to become…a teacher.’ She yawned.
Teaching? He’d not considered that before. He had a degree, perhaps it was time to use it? Do something productive with his life. He’d ask her more about it tomorrow.
He glimpsed the blinking screen of his phone. Tomorrow? Today. A new day. Perhaps a new life for him?
Outside, the thrumming of rain gradually eased off. He considered waking her, but decided against it. Her leg still needed to dry, and the roads would be safer once the standing water had drained a little. Besides, he felt like a nap himself. He yawned.
As he 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.