1. The Letter
Sorry about the drama of sending a secret letter, but I figured I don’t have much to lose.
I’m Luci, the ‘big girl’ from IT who always wears stripy jumpers… I’m also the near-invisible woman who brings weekly sales reports to your Monday department briefings – and who takes your department’s IT support calls.
Anyway, that’s me. Luci. Big clothes… big heart… big problem…
I have a boyfriend, but there’s never been any love there, and I crave to be with the person I follow up staircase D each workday.
And that’s why you, Nathan Charles, Assistant Sales Manager for the North West Region, are reading the letter I shoved into your coat pocket as I rushed past you on the stairs this morning.
I could have emailed you, but I think you’re the kind of man who might just appreciate the old school approach.
Will you meet me tonight in the back room of Coriander on Wilson Street? We can sit somewhere private. I’ll get there for 5:30. I’ll wait, but not forever, and the drinks are on me...
Love (I hope)
Luci’s inbox piled up with unread emails, her coffee cup was regularly refilled and emptied, and her trips to the bathroom were many.
After four hours of almost work-free waiting, Nathan’s reply bounced into Luci’s already full email queue. She took a deep breath and crossed her fingers...
“Hey Luci, Of course I know who you are. And yes, I’m free to meet at Coriander. But, just so you know, I don’t mess around with girls who are already taken. I’ll come for a coffee, but that’s it. I’m no bit on the side, however cute you might be. Nathan x
PS: Seriously, who marks their envelope with ‘SWALK’!? See you later.”
Luci’s curves melted into the spinning office chair. Suddenly, the clarity she’d experienced when writing the letter, and the terrible stomach pain she’d suffered since the moment she stuffed it into Nathan’s pocket, mingled and transformed into powerful and debilitating heart palpitations.
She breathed deeply - calm, Luce, calm.
With two hours to go, she already felt sick with excitement...
Coriander was heaving as Luci arrived. That, combined with her fear and embarrassment, meant that she even considered leaving. Instead, she waited, nervy and apprehensive, at the back of the heaving crowd. But suddenly everything cleared. The coach party was served and had departed en masse for the beer garden.
Luci took out her phone. 5:15…
‘Alright, darling,’ the bar-woman said, knocking her hair spikes against the Bacardi optic. Donna was chunky, pierced and was a surprisingly brilliant deputy manager.
‘How’ve you been, chick?’ Donna asked.
‘I’m OK. How was the Arena?’ The gig date was just the latest of date requests that Luci had turned down from Donna.
‘You missed a good one there, Luce.’
‘Yeah, sorry, I just wasn’t free.’
‘You up to much?’
‘Just meeting someone. Hopefully.’
‘Yes. I asked him out by letter.’
‘My God, Luce. That’s insane.’
‘It felt like a good idea at the time…’
Donna shook her head, banging the longest spike into the Smirnoff optic.
‘What you having?’
‘Regular latte. Caramel syrup.’
Donna glanced over Luci’s shoulder and towards the door.
‘What’s your guy look like?’ she whispered.
‘Tall. Curly red hair. Beard.’
Luci turned around, and Nathan smiled a little as he walked towards her. His expression was guarded, but he seemed as naturally confident as ever.
‘Hello, stripy jumper,’ he said. ‘Thanks for asking me out. I’m flattered. What are you having?’
‘I’ve ordered already.’
‘What you want, mate?’ Donna asked.
‘Just tea for now, please and a couple of those cherry and coconut slice things.’
Donna busied herself with the order while Luci and Nathan stood, smiling awkwardly.
It didn’t take long for their order to be placed on the bar front next to them.
‘So, are we sitting down?’ Luci said. Nathan nodded, and it dislodged the curl that had been framing his right ear. Luci longed to reach over and tuck it back in, but instead, and the pair of them made their way to a secluded table.
Luci’s hands were shaking as she put her drink on the table. Nathan pushed one of the slices over to her.
‘Thanks. My favourite.’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘So…’
Each took a simultaneous bite of their coconut slices.
‘Do you often ask men out?’
‘Believe me; I have never asked anyone out.’
‘So why now?’
Luci shrugged, reddened and looked down at her lap.
‘I am so flattered, anyway, but just curious.’
‘Were you? Didn’t you have any idea before you got the letter?’
‘No idea at all, but I pretty much walk around in a bubble. It took me till lunchtime to find it in my pocket, and I replied as soon after as I could. But when I didn’t get any reply from your email, I wondered if someone was playing an elaborate practical joke. Anyway, I thought, what the hell, so I turned up, and the rest is history.’
‘I can’t believe I’ve done this.’
‘You have regrets?’
Luci shook her head, took a coconutty bite and looked down at her lap again. She brushed a creamy-white coconut chip from her trousers and sighed.
‘We won’t talk about that.’
‘To be honest, it sounds like we should, Luce. So, what’s the problem?’
‘I have never had feelings for him. I just feel sorry for him.’
‘Hell’s bells, Luce. You need to break it off, no matter what else happens.’
‘Is something likely to happen I mean, between us?’
‘Believe me, I’ve been lazily lusting after you for years now, so I’d be up for it .’
Luci knew what she had to do. And she had to do it that night.
Luci’s bus dropped her off at the end of her road, only twenty minutes after Nathan had walked her to the stop and given her what he described as a platonic hug. But Luci had never before received a platonic hug that intense.
His final words: It’s been amazing, but let me know when you’re a free girl again, OK?
It was almost quarter to eight when Luci walked up her path, steeling herself to end things with Steve, but any intention to do so disappeared when he appeared at the door.
‘What’s going on’, she said, as he pushed past.
‘Mum rang in a right state. Granddad’s had another stroke. I've got to go. Love you.’
Luci wasn’t even sure that he had heard her unsure platitude ‘Love you’ in return.
She lay on the couch and, logged into her work emails. As soon as the server processed her access request, her laptop pinged, alerting her to a message from Nathan.
‘They were a lovely couple of innocent hours. Remember what I said, Luce. I meant it.’
She replied quickly. ‘So did I. But I can’t break things off with Steve yet. He has a family crisis. I will, though, and soon.’
Her body ached for him and his so-called platonic hug. There was only one thing for it.
YouTube true crime.
Later, feeling uncharacteristically virtuous, Luci popped a single slice of Warburtons white bread into the toaster, but immediately changed her mind and rummaged for another piece to accompany it. Stressed, disappointed, excited, upset, elated, worried… whatever. There weren’t many confusion-related adjectives that didn’t apply to her current state.
Luci found the butter and scraped a few chunks around with the serrated knife. Soon she was lying on the sofa with her third coffee of the evening, and two pieces of far-too buttery toast. A drip of dairy fat fell onto her shirt. Bored with YouTube, she ignored the laptop and the fat stain, and switched on the television.
Escapism was required, but Luci was presented only with soaps and B movies, and all that coffee would be sure to keep her miserably awake. She’d just got herself undressed for bed and was reading while snuggled in her fluffiest robe when her phone’s ringtone rumbled quietly. It was Steve’s ringtone.
‘Granddad’s gone,’ he’d typed.
Damn. On so many levels.
5. Terrible Timing
Strangely, sleep came quickly, and Luci slept deep till her alarm woke her.
Friday morning, she turned around to an otherwise empty bed. The mystery was solved when she checked her phone. Another message.
‘Am staying with Mum and Gran for a few days. Sorry.’
It wasn’t a problem. Not in the slightest.
‘OK. Am sorry about Granddad. Give Mum and Gran my love, and look after yourself.’
Luci was in work less than an hour later, in her bumblebee striped jumper that she’d decided to match with her nicest tightest jeans and a pair of slightly heeled boots. At her desk, she stroked her cheek with blusher and highlighter and had even painted dark lines around her eyes. With shaking hands, she fitted her nose ring then immediately removed it.
‘I’m not that person anymore’ she mumbled. ‘Not that person at all.’
As soon as she hit her desk, she checked her emails. There was one network access request which she completed within five minutes. Another six tasks were awaiting her attention, but none were urgent or interesting.
She removed her phone from her top drawer and texted Nathan.
‘Steve’s Granddad died last night. Terrible timing.’
‘You’re telling me.’
6. Same Time, Same Place
An afternoon of spreadsheet analysis and SadBoyProlific on the headphones was threatening to push Luci over the edge into a pit of sadness and regret when she noticed that she’d missed a phone call from Nathan. He’d texted too. ‘Give us a call, lass?’
She picked up the office phone and pressed 126. Nathan answered immediately.
‘You free after work tonight? Same time, same place?’
Cinnamon’s bar staff were unusually loyal, and its turnover rate exceptionally low for a bar/coffee shop.
Luci had always assumed this was owing to the manager’s usual absence and the strong yet sweet deputy management style of Donna. The handy location, the surrounding greenery and the friendly atmosphere couldn’t have harmed either.
Luci was fairly certain that Donna would be working when she arrived, and she was delighted when she spotted her replacing the vodka optic. Donn also had a very much shorter set of spikes.
‘Love the hair,’ Luci said. ‘Much less dangerous.’
‘Cheers, Luce. It was about time. So, you’re here again?’ said Donna.
‘And the big curly-headed guy?’
‘You’re a glutton for punishment.’
Luci stiffened. ‘Do you know something I don’t.’
‘No. Just messing, you know. Harmless flirting or something. Do you want a drink now, or shall I wait till the big guy gets here?’
‘I’ll wait in the circular booth.’
‘I’ll come over to give you waitress service,’ said Donna. ‘It’s for you, remember. Not him!’
Shaking her head, Luci walked over to the booth, pulling her wasp jumper over her head as she did so. She almost tripped over as a pair of strong hands grasped her waist.
‘Donna, get off!’ Luci shrieked, then turned and melted as she pulled her head free of its woolly blindfold.
It was Nathan grinning cheekily down at her, and his body guided her to the booth and onto the expensive orange leather sofa. His hands on her flesh, Luci shivered.
They melted into each other’s bodies, but from inches apart. No kiss thought Luci. No kiss. That would not be fair.
‘I can’t stop thinking of you. Is everything OK?’ Nathan asked breathlessly.
‘Yeah. Just thought you were someone else.’
‘Her over there? Donna? Well, she does have the hots for you.’
‘Oh, yes. Many times.’
Luci was acutely aware of the feel of Nathan’s hand on her waist.
She moved her own hands down to remove his, but as their fingers touched, she knew she couldn’t push him away. Facing each other and touching awkwardly, she sighed.
‘I can hardly breathe.’
‘Me neither,’ admitted Nathan, ‘but I think it’s because all the blood in my body has zoomed somewhere it shouldn’t be.’
‘Inappropriate, but nice to know.’
‘Maybe. But I have to tell you something. I wasn’t entirely truthful yesterday. I’ve had a thing about you for years. It was because I thought you were with Donna.’
‘Really? Why would you think that?’
‘I came in about 18 months ago, and I saw you holding hands, pretty much like this.’ He gestured towards their entwined hands.
Suddenly it came to her. ‘Arm wrestling.’
Everyone had noticed Donna’s flirting back then.Luci remembered one occasion very well as Donna had ended up on top of her, holding her hands.
‘That was why I thought it was a joke when I got your letter.’
‘That makes sense.’ Luci moved away from him a little. ‘Now I guess it will be easier to talk.’
But it wasn’t. Even without the touch of Nathan’s skin, Luci was transfixed.
‘I lust you,’ Luci whispered, as she watched him return with their second round. Nathan’s eyes said just the same.
I will not have an affair, Luci told herself. But another little voice inside her head was laughing maliciously.
Well, the deed was done. Luci knew how selfish it was for her not to wait until Steve had got over his grief, but from experience, she knew that his resilience was low. It had taken him six months to mourn Billie, his hamster.
The worst part of the entire ‘breaking up with Steve’ episode was his poor neglected puppy expression as she left the house to let him calm down.
The second worst was his list of questions.
‘Don’t you love me anymore?’
‘What did I do wrong?’
‘Have you met somebody else?’
‘Couldn’t you stop it from happening?’
‘When did it start?’
She thought he’d finished talking, but he was just taking a break before delivering his final statement.
‘You’re not having the house.’
Luci slow-walked around the park, then wearily sat down on a bench that had been desperately in need of a coat of paint for the last five years. She remembered how often she and Steve had used it while looking after his mum’s dogs, but there was no smile accompanying that recollection. Surely in all the time they’d been together, some of their shared memories had been good?
Finally calm enough to use her phone, Luci texted Nathan, wriggling her feet to keep them warm. Orange leaves crunched beneath her feet, and, shivering in shock and relief, she pulled her cardigan a little closer.
‘We were nearly the greatest love affair that never was. But I did it. I am a single woman, and apparently am also a tart, a manipulator, a whore and a heartless bitch.’
Nathan’s reply arrived within a minute. ‘Wow. Honest? Wasn’t expecting that today. Are you sure you’re single? I’ll pick you up in the Hawthorns’ car park. You can come to mine and stay the night while you decide what to do. Promise no funny business. We’ll just talk.’
Not if she had anything to do with it.
‘I’ll be there in an hour.’
Surprisingly, Steve had reached the post-rejection angry stage far earlier than Luci had anticipated. She’d only been gone an hour or so, and he was already throwing stuff around. Oddly, the items he was damaging were mainly his own. Luci carefully stepped over his ‘lovably retro’ VHS video player as it was the only way she could get into the kitchen.
‘I’ve just come back to pack a bag, Steve, and I’ll be away for the night. Don’t you even think about destroying any of my stuff. I will call the police straight away if you do.’
Steve’s right eye twitched as he removed then inserted the batteries into the TV’s remote. He then repeated the action.
‘You’re staying with him, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, I am. Look, Steve, it wasn’t his fault. It was mine. I started everything. I just couldn’t live like this any longer, especially when I had such strong feelings for someone else.’
‘You never said you were unhappy.’
‘I did. Over and over, but you chose not to hear.’
Steve went back to his battery juggling, and Luci was able to get past in peace. Fortunately, her most regularly-worn clothes were just out of the dryer and piled in a messy heap on the kitchen unit above. She shoved the entire heap into a heavy-duty bin liner.
‘Just getting toiletries and then I’ll be gone.’
‘Don’t forget your pills. No doubt you’ll be needing birth control.’
He sneered at her, no doubt revelling in his cleverness.
‘I’m not sleeping with him, Steve.’ Not yet, she thought. ‘And it’s none of your business anyway. You and I didn’t make a conscious decision to be together.’
‘I did.’ Steve threw down the remote control.
‘No, you didn’t. You were homeless and made a conscious decision to find a girl who had a house. And, by the way, the house is mine. I paid the bills for five years before you came along, and I have never received a penny from you for anything. I might be leaving now, but the house is mine, and I’ll be back.’
‘Cow,’ Steve yelled and kicked her bin bag.
‘Loser,’ Luci hissed.
Nathan was already in the car park when Luci arrived, with a black bin bag and a small carrier bag of toiletries, both of which were becoming progressively more stretched and damaged with each step she took. At the sight of Nathan leaning against the passenger door, the niggling doubts that Luci had experienced about leaving Steve, completely disappeared. Nathan rushed to meet her halfway and carried her bags to the boot, opening the passenger door first to allow Luci to sit down.
‘Is everything OK?’ he asked as he sat in the driver’s seat.
‘Not really, but it was the right decision. I know it.’
‘I know it too.’
Nathan put out his hand to stroke her cheek. She flinched as if being electric-shocked as flesh met flesh, and he gently pulled her face towards him. He kissed her gently on the tip of her nose, making her entire body tingle.
‘Wow,’ she said.
‘Wow back at you.’
Luci’s fingers reached up to run through the ginger curls of his beard, then moved to stroke his bristled pale cheek. Gently, with one finger, she traced his mouth, his cheekbone, his eye socket, and traced the path of his nose.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ she said, and she pulled his head a little nearer to her own. Their lips met gently and for less than a second, yet it was as if everything in Luci’s life had been waiting for that moment.
As Luci opened her eyes that she noticed that Nathan wore black jeans, a yellow t-shirt and a commemorative Manchester bee badge on his black jacket.
She looked down at her favourite black and yellow jumper.
‘We are meant to be together,’ she said.
And she meant it.