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September 2008, the end of everything…

Trauma freezes time. It was most likely September. It may have been August. It would not have been October. October would have been too late. That was the only way Amyas would remember. October would have been too late so what would it have mattered? Each day would roll into the next, indistinguishable from the previous or the following. A black and white film. Nothing moved on. Everything was colourless.

He would open his eyes to see the white ceiling and walls. He would roll over and see the matching white oak nightstand, wardrobes and chest of drawers. His head would rest on a goose-down surround pillow encased in Mayfair bedlinen, all bought at The White Company. And at the end of the bed was the small minimalist wooden desk. Four thin cylinder legs and a shallow top, all a hand-painted shade of lily. It was meant to be where he would start writing poetry or songs again. In one corner was the metal desk lamp and in the other the silver vanity mirror. Where writing paper, a notebook or a laptop should have been, there was a small eggshell makeup bag. Before, he had been so proud of this room. It was evidence that he had made it: he had finally become a proper grown-up. Now all he did was focus on the vacant space beside him, where she should have been.

The living room had his two black leather sofas and the open-plan kitchen was covered in dark grey granite work surfaces and the latest chrome appliances he never used. Even the pictures on the walls were black and white prints ordered from the National Portrait Gallery. He spent hour upon hour in that room, watching day turn into night, waiting for it to end.

Amyas stood in front of the mirror. It was the piece of furniture that obviously did not belong. It stood in the space that marked the living room ending and the kitchen beginning. It rested against the wall, overlapping two of the sash windows. The mirror was massive. It towered over Amyas and he was not short by any stretch of the imagination. Well, perhaps compared to Nick, but as he was six foot five most people were. The mirror was three years old. Amyas had bought it with Nick on a trip to Ikea to furnish the ex-council flat they had rented on first moving to London. It was bordered by thick black wood, a fist in depth and a hand in diameter, and was immensely heavy. The two of them had poured sweat shifting it just from the estate’s carpark to the rusting iron security entrance and then into the lift. It was meant to have been wall mounted lengthways: a panoramic reflection of the room. But it took them all their strength to raise it just three inches off the floor so on the floor was where it stayed. When Nick moved in with Kate, Amyas had got custody of the mirror and when he moved to Highbury it followed. And when he replaced all the other furniture from the Wells House days, which combined cost less than one of his National Portrait Gallery prints, he still kept the mirror.

Now it was the only thing he had even a fleeting human emotion for. He missed the old flat. He missed his old life. He missed being incomplete and naïve. He brushed his dark overgrown hair away from his eyes. His face was as pale as he’d ever seen it and his eyes were dark: both he attributed to the pills. He zipped up his black hoodie. It was for armour rather than warmth. He had somewhere to be.

He stepped off the Circle line onto the platform. Two or three people brushed past him as he stood still staring at the exposed brickwork and columns lining the platform walls. He looked up and there was daylight. Forward, and he noticed the columns were linked by multiple arches, like he was staring at a viaduct. He did not know why he was suddenly taking in his surroundings as he was. The majority of tube stations were modern with shiny tiles, enormous film posters and speeding trains hundreds of meters underground. Amyas had loved that about London: how he could get anywhere in minutes, feeling the rapid acceleration as the tube train moved, being part of a network of eight million commuters. Now he was suddenly comforted by Paddington’s lack modernisation and lack of people. Or at least that specific part of Paddington: the forgotten Circle line, the poor relation to its flagship Bakerloo and Hammersmith & City cousins. The platform could have been a hundred and fifty years old. Grey stone ground and yellowy brown brick. He was in a different time and it was like medicine. The world was no longer rushing past him leaving him God knew when. To his left he saw a sign saying Way Out and Praed Street. It was the exit he wanted. It was on the map in the leaflet Dr Stella had given him.

In a maze of hospital and clinic buildings he found the correct intercom.

“Hello?” said the voice on the other side. It threw Amyas. He hoped he was in the right place. Why had they not said the name of the clinic?

“Hello? I was referred here by my doctor,” said Amyas. As the door buzzed open Amyas answered his own question. It was part of the reason he wanted to be there in the first place.

Before long he was in a reception room. It was just him and the receptionist, a girl probably his age with her brown hair tied back.

“You’re really supposed to make an appointment,” she said, staring at her computer screen. She was repeatedly clicking her mouse and frowning.

“Sorry, I didn’t realise,” said Amyas in his tired, passive voice. “My doctor gave me this.” He handed over the leaflet with the details of the clinic. The girl looked up at him but instead of frowning she gave him a small sympathetic smile.

“Wait one minute, I’ll see if I can find someone.” She rose from her seat, pressed a key card against a door behind her and left the room. She returned a short time later.

“If you would like to come with me, there is a doctor free.”

He was sitting on a hospital bed in another room, similar to the consulting rooms on the wards where he had recently become so accustomed to waiting. In walked the doctor. She was tall with long straight dark hair. She wore a lanyard around her neck with her ID card and was dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved black top. She was probably not much older than the receptionist but he would not have referred to her as being a girl as she was a woman, a real grown-up. He could tell she was a doctor before she introduced herself: she had instantly looked him in the eye, given him what he thought was a kind smile and called him by his name waiting for him to confirm; “Amyas?” He told her why he was there, what had happened over those days and weeks, what he remembered and what he probably never would remember.

“Are you familiar with what we do here?” she asked.

“My doctor said you provide counselling?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she said. She smiled again. “That is part of what we do. We start by offering examinations, discreet and confidential. We can then work with you if you want to go to the police and help every step of the way. As you say you have already been to University College London and because of the time that has passed I do not think this will be relevant in your case.” She then paused, her smile now apologetic, before relaying her disappointing news.

“We do offer counselling services but not till at least eight weeks after the event.” The doctor carried on explaining to Amyas the need to let time pass before therapy could commence.

Amyas thanked her for her time. He said thank you to the receptionist on his way out. Leaving the clinic he exhaled and closed his eyes. He was tired. He needed to be back at home. He had not been given the fix, the solution he wanted. He could not change the past but surely if he did what he was told, if he was sensible, he could be fixed and emerge unscathed. But now they were telling him to do nothing. To wait. Just him and the nothingness. The memories and the void. When he opened his eyes he was back at Paddington station. When he looked around he was in his flat, staring at the white walls, walking over to the window. It was a beautifully bright summer’s day with light piercing through the fresh greens leaves of the tall trees which lined his street. Then when he looked down he saw the leaves had turned gold and brown and were piling up on the pavement and parked cars. The sky was suddenly grey and passers-by wore their autumnal coats and scarves to shield them from the wind and rains now crashing down and pelting the window panes in front of him. September, August, October. Trauma freezes time. And puts an end to everything else.

2. July 2008, we were happy…

Everything was perfect. Well, almost everything. Everything was about to be perfect. In fact that was what worried him. It was that sudden doubt that would rear its head whenever she was away, on a night shift, at work drinks, seeing friends. It was all going too well and life should never go that well. That was what his anxieties and insecurities had taught him. Even in his mid-twenties in a job he loved and with a girl he loved, part of him would feel he was living someone else’s life and have to give it back at any second. In those moments he would have to remind himself he was not a teenager anymore. He was not the only child, from modest, humble hard-working parents who would get overawed by his wealthier, confident, better-with-girls classmates. He was a twenty-six-year-old man with an important job, his own house and an incredibly beautiful girlfriend. He had nothing to feel anxious about anymore.

Well, the job had the potential to be important. He enjoyed it, that was the main thing and it paid more than that awkward teenager would have dreamt possible. And he owned a flat rather than a house, but who owned a house in London, let alone in middle-class Highbury? And then there was Hannah. She truly was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. If his school friends could see him now. But God, being able to call her his girlfriend with confidence... That involved months of silencing every one of his demons and riding out wave after wave of self-doubt. And it had been thoroughly worth it.

Amyas would smile watching Hannah attempt to arrange a double date for them with her friend Mary. It was reminiscent of those early days, and not so early days, of dating Hannah. He would lean back on his side of the sofa, his long legs stretched out resting on the coffee table, and run his hand through his mesh of dark brown hair, laughing every time she would laugh, her suddenly decisive energy infectious as she would turn herself to face him, her beaming mock-outraged smile, declaring they will have their double date.

Six nights arranged, and six night cancelled. Hannah would say; “Mary’s had to bale, they’ve got a flat viewing they really want,” “I asked Mary if we could make it another time, I’m exhausted. Do you mind if we just have a quiet night round yours?” At the start of the year he knew such messages well. But that came hand-in-hand with dating a mental health nurse, especially one on a ward with constantly changing shifts and last minute emergencies. She made it clear to him from the outset, though when he was on the end of the cancellations he could not help the twinge of disappointment. And of course anxiety. When she was around he was confident. Not a single negative thought could enter his head. When she wasn’t around, well it was self-doubt once more. But now Amyas could see things from the other perspective. “They need me to cover tomorrow’s early shift,” meant exactly that; Hannah would need to be home in Streatham by nine o’clock in anticipation of her alarm having to go off at five in the morning the next day. And now the excuses were not aimed at him. In fact her crazy hours were his gain. A gruelling week on nights would find Hannah using his spare key to let herself into his flat and he would come home to a beautiful, lithe, petite redhead lying in his bed.

“Oh my God, we are definitely having this double date, if it’s the last thing I do!” she exclaimed late one night as they sat drinking wine in his flat. She had on her big smile and was sitting cross-legged on the sofa, holding her glass on her lap. “No girl has ever had a boyfriend this long that her best friend hasn’t seen. It’s reached the ridiculous stage now. She thinks you keep me locked away as your sex slave.” She leant forward, open-mouthed, to slap him on the arm with a giggle. “Definitely next Thursday. I’ll call her now. She’ll be awake.” And as Hannah reached down for her phone on the floor, Amyas sat back again watching her smile, watching her flick away that stray lock of long auburn hair that always fell in front of her eyes. He stroked her knee smiling at how childishly happy she was. She was the cool girl when they first met; the girl with the posh accent who wore sexy, stylish clothes and seemed to have an effortless, blasé confidence. Now her accent gravitated back to the West London flat accent, as had his. There was no need to pretend to be someone different anymore. He observed her petite body clad in jeans and cotton top, the dress-down, behind-closed-doors attire they now wore when together that succeeded the dresses and dress-shirts when they were at the dating stage of the relationship, almost bouncing in animation as she laughed on the phone to Mary trying to negotiate a day for their long overdue meeting.

Hannah had told him that Mary and her fiancé were both flight attendants, hence the difficulty pinning down the elusive date. But Amyas’s friends were all based in London. Hannah had met them all at his housewarming party but that was only once and all the way back in February. Since then they would spend most of their free time together and then separately see their own friends. Both kept that one degree of separation between both worlds. Amyas tried not to overanalyse it. But he was an analyst, that was his day job and he couldn’t help it. For himself separation was maintaining the status quo. With his friends he could regress and be the same kid who liked going to pubs and dancing to indie music. With Hannah he had to at least at first appear more mature and then more recently, with her, he felt himself actually growing up for real. No more awkward teenager. For Hannah he knew the separation meant that no matter how well things were going behind closed doors, if one of them decided to end things they would be spared the humiliation of explaining why the relationship failed. If their friends saw them as a couple it would hurt all the more: public humiliation added to heartbreak. And Hannah was no stranger to heartbreak.

So they kept themselves behind closed doors. And hence everything was not quite perfect. Yet. They needed that first proper night as an outed couple. Though Amyas adored having Hannah to himself and having those nights staying up talking together on the sofa till the early hours of the morning he knew that elusive double date was a milestone in any relationship. After all, he was about to reach the biggest milestone of all the next week; meeting Hannah’s family. All her family. His insecurities and self-doubts would have a field day. So in anticipation, and as warning shot to those gathering demons, Amyas set down a marker.

As Hannah continued to negotiate with Mary dates, times, places and anything else that had made its way onto the agenda he put his hand into his jeans pocket, taking out his Nokia. “You’re free Wednesday?” he mouthed. She nodded, smiling eyes on him and still listening to Mary. He wrote a text. He received a text. He wrote another back.

“Mary definitely will be at Sam’s party,” said Hannah after putting her phone back down. “I said we’ll go for a drink with them just before and we’ll do a proper evening the week after.”

“That’s good,” smiled Amyas. He then casually leant over, took her wine glass from off her lap and kissed her beautiful smiling mouth. “Because how do you fancy spending an evening with Nick and Kate? As I get to meet the most important people in your life it’s only fair you get to meet those in mine.”

“They said they’re running a bit late,” said Amyas coming back from the bar and placing Hannah’s glass of pinot noir in front of her on the light wood table. “Well, Kate says she’s limping a bit late. She’s got a gammy leg from a 10k she did. I always forgot she’s from Yorkshire, originally.”

“Where do you associate her being from then, darling?” smiled Hannah, finishing placing the strap of her shiny black purse over the back of her chair. She was all in black – her dress-down sexy outfit she called it; tights, short skirt, low cut top. Just sexy drastically understated the impact, thought Amyas.

“I don’t know. I never really think about where any of us are from.” Amyas pulled back the wooden chair and before he sat opposite Hannah he adjusted his shirt making sure it was still creaseless and tucked into dark Diesel jeans: his smart casual to complement Hannah’s dress-down sexy. “Come to think of it, Joan, Kate’s old flatmate, I don’t think I’ve ever asked him where he’s from. Here’s where we lived so to me Nick and Kate will always be King and Queen of Clerkenwell.” They were in a bar called The Green, imaginatively titled, thought Amyas, being on Clerkenwell Green. The Green was more upmarket than the pubs Amyas used to drink in during his years living a five-minute walk up the road. It had candles on square immaculately sanded wooden tables and a proper wine list written out in cursive white chalk on a large blackboard. The blackboard was on the wall to the left of the Parisian style sleek wooden bar: varnished and curved and lined with wine glasses and bottles, with a bartender standing behind wearing a black apron. Hannah had never been to Clerkenwell, or what was more appropriate to say, he had never taken Hannah to Clerkenwell though it had always been the first port of call whenever on a night with Nick, Kate and Joan. Absently shifting his chair backwards and then forwards again he felt himself biting the nail of his left thumb, looking quickly at his phone again assessing just how late Nick and Kate would be.

“You’re nervous!” beamed Hannah, almost delighted at noticing the fact. “I don’t think I’ve seen you nervous before.”

“I keep it hidden well,” he said with a small laugh. Two worlds were about to collide. He hoped Hannah would like Nick and Kate, and Nick and Kate would like Hannah. Especially Kate, who had told him to stand up to the cool girl and not think he was lucky to be going out with her. “I just want the evening to go okay and just hope they’re not too late,” he said.

“So if you’re nervous about this, how are you feeling about Saturday?” she said playfully but she could not have asked a more poignant question.

“Honestly? Terrified!” Amyas said, trying to sound jovial but aware he probably did look somewhat terrified.

“How come?” laughed Hannah. “It’s only a party.”

“A party with the entirety of your friends and family.” When she had first asked him he could not have been happier. He was her boyfriend and she wanted him there with her, letting everyone she knew know he was her man. “I want them to like me. I don’t want to end up saying something stupid to your mum, offend anyone or worse; get tongue-tied and people think I’m dull, especially your brothers.” Amyas was trying to sound light-hearted but thought he might have let out more than he intended. He did not want to disappoint her. When it was just her and him he was fine. He was the best version of himself. Other people complicated things. If he was not instantly the best version of himself in front of them the obvious question would be raised; “what on Earth is she doing with him?” He was still excited but with half a week to go his self-doubts were in danger of paralysing him.

“My brothers are wrong ’uns.” The words still sounded strange in Hannah’s middle-class tones. “It’s good you don’t do drugs or haven’t been to dodgy strip clubs off your face. I told you those stories about Raj and them because it reflects well on you. It’s why I like you.”

“Thanks,” he said. He gave a small slightly embarrassed smile.

“And I’m sure my mum will love you. You are quite charming, you realise.” Amyas felt his self-confidence grow. “My uncle will probably talk to you about your job. You’ll be on to winner there.”

“You know, I’m meant to be the one reassuring you here,” he said taking her hand. “I’m the one who’s meant to tell you how beautiful, perfect and enchanting you are and how everything will be absolutely fine.” Enough self-doubt, he decided, and smiled at her.

“Actually I’ve got a favour to ask you,” Hannah said. “My uncles and aunts need to stay round mine on Saturday so there won’t be much space. Do you think I can stay round yours that night?” She gave a little smile; of course she already knew the answer.

“Well,” he gave a pretend dramatic sigh, “I think it might be possible. You will owe me though.”

“Oh will I? Were you planning on taking someone else home? If I am staying at yours on Saturday night, why don’t I come over straight after work on Friday? If I pack a bag we could try spending the whole weekend together. Perhaps a trial run for that inconsequential thing you casually offered last week.” She raised her eyebrows and then suddenly grinned broadly. Amyas gave a light chuckle, but was unable to stop a huge beaming smile.

“I don’t know. It’s a big step. Spending the weekend together, that is. What if you suddenly decide you need your own space?” Again, Hannah raised her eyebrows.

“I guess I won’t know until I give it a try. But I think I might like to. The weekend that is. Unless you were talking about something else.” She leant forward resting her chin on the palm of her hand, fixing him with her seductive double-meaning stare. Six months was surely too soon to ask his girlfriend to move in, he knew that. But it hadn’t stopped him asking or made him want it any less.

“But, Kate, I don’t know how you have the patience. If I had to deal with bureaucrats I think I’d end up drowning myself in a vat of wine. Give me psychotic teenagers any day!” The evening was going even better than he had hoped. Any concerns he may have had that Hannah and Kate would not get on were unfounded. Kate was simply herself, polite and interested in Hannah’s job: basically, the nicest person in the world who gave everybody a chance. And Hannah was intoxicatingly charming; her flirtatious, intrigued smiles and her ability to talk to people like she had known them years.

“So how did you both meet?” beamed Hannah to Kate and Nick, sitting across the table. It was that spell Amyas knew well. That intrigued stare and reassuring smile that could make the most introverted person open up. Nick sat forward philosophically, his hand to his thick dark stubble. When he sat up straight, Nick’s height was far more noticeable. It was something Amyas himself would hardly notice anymore, those details of physical appearances such as Nick being almost six and half foot in height, though to be fair he did tend to slouch and lean. But it was something else. Kate next to him looked radiant too. Her golden brown hair was flowing, her lips and cheeks tinted red and her black top was decorated in sequins which sparkled. And that was it. Amyas knew what was different. It was him. He had never sat opposite the two being part of another couple with all of them making an effort; dressing up and drinking wine rather than beer, not playing silly card games.

“It was love at first sight, my dear,” Nick said overly formally, making a show of leaning back slowly. “It was the second day of freshers’ week and our eyes met across a crowded room. Well, a crowded bar to be specific. And we have never been parted since.” Kate in the meantime was rolling her eyes.

“That was not how we met,” she said. “That was how those two met.” And she nodded to the smirking Amyas and Nick. “I do feel bad though for getting in the way of young love. In fact I was never sure who Nick moved to London to be with.”

“If I start paying you compliments now you’ll realise how much you’ve been slumming it these last eight years,” Nick said, putting his arm around Kate. At the same time Amyas felt Hannah take his hand, holding it under the table.

“Actually we both ended up following Kate,” began Amyas, explaining to Hannah. “Kate was the first one to move to London proper. She and our two other university friends found a bargain of a flat just down the road from here. I was still living at my parents’…”

“And I was still on the south coast contemplating if a history and politics degree had any use whatsoever,” added Nick.

“And when we finally got our first jobs here, Nick met me in a pub, got this huge cyclist’s map of London out, pointed to this area right above central London and just below Angel saying no one ever talks about Clerkenwell so we could get something there for a steal.”

“And that was it,” said Nick. “We convinced some estate agent we were students. Found a beautiful flat on the Spa Green estate and it was job done. Admittedly we had to paint over what looked like a crime scene when we first moved in and then had half our windows broken by the estate scallies throwing stones on the weekend. But oh, how I miss it!” It was bittersweet for Amyas, listening. Everyone has their first flat and everyone has to grow up sooner or later. Eighteen months ago they had been packing up the flat, Nick about to move in with Kate, and would have been sitting at the Belgium pub with Joan and the others having one last game of cards. And part of Amyas missed those days of no money and no responsibilities, just spending days and nights in pubs with friends. And part of him was relieved Hannah hadn’t met him back then because what could he have offered?

As Kate discussed with Nick what amounted to their actual first meeting, outside a lecture hall in the second week or the night they swapped phone numbers in the student bar, Amyas looked over their shoulders to watch Hannah return from the bathroom. She had to descend an iron spiral staircase. She looked incredible. Her legs were the perfect combination of slender and strong. Her skirt was shaped around her bum. Her top, simply emphasising her prominently contrasting features; the slim waist and large full breasts. And then there was the smiling face of the prettiest girl he had ever seen.

As Hannah sat down and Nick and Kate continued to talk she leant over and whispered into his ear, “I’m having a lovely time.” She then leant her head to the side and kissed him, softly at first and then opening her mouth, encouraging him to do the same. Self-consciously he hoped Nick and Kate did not notice, but it felt perfect. Every moment of passion and trust in one long kiss, as if it was only the two of them in the world. As she placed a last kiss onto his bottom lip and sat back, the light from an overhead lamp illuminated her long scarlet hair and her snow soft skin. He loved those pale pink lips and just sat staring into those enthralling green eyes. She was perfect. Everything was perfect.

They arrived back at the flat and Hannah said all she wanted to do was kick her shoes off and crawl into bed. On the tube home the wine and tiredness had seemed to hit her as she rested her head in his lap till they reached Arsenal. In fact Hannah did just that; her shoes and tights were on the floor as Amyas entered the bedroom and Hannah was lying on her side, still in her dress, head on the pillow and breathing deeply, already asleep. Amyas unbuttoned his shirt and put it over his desk chair. He got changed down to his briefs, picked up a t-shirt and put it on, climbing onto the bed next to Hannah. As he lay there he was soon also unable to keep his own eyes open. He flicked off the bedside lamp, placed a kiss into her hair and in the dark they slept.

After what had felt like the briefest of dreams he felt her stirring, waking him. She had turned over and was staring at him, her mouth breathing against his. Without a word she kissed him, hard and then frantically as her hand reached for his t-shirt forcibly pulling it up to his shoulders and briefly stopping kissing him so he could remove it. She then kissed him again raising her arms above her head, inviting him to do the same with her dress. He was kissing her neck as he felt her bra loosen and he pushed it down her arms and cast it aside. He felt her leg wrap around his hip and she rolled onto her back, allowing her other leg to do the same. As he looked down from upon her she was looking at him with half closed eyes and a mouth breathlessly half open.

After, as they lay together in the middle of the night Hannah asked him to kiss down the length of her naked back. “Tickle my back, bite me,” she ordered, not letting him return to sleep.

“Tell me what you like,” she whispered. “In sex. Tell me what you like in sex.” Hannah would ask these questions in bed. Amyas would whisper back in her ear, bite her earlobe and kiss and place his teeth into her neck. He would run his fingers up and down her body indicating touches and places. He sometimes would take her hand and guide it across her own body letting her fingers stroke places his had just been and watch her heave as he glided them along and up her inner thigh till he was massaging them into herself. When Amyas returned the questions Hannah would usually act playfully coy and not tell him. That night, however her answer was different.

“I like to be taken from behind,” she whispered. “I want you to be forceful with me.” Whilst this was not a shocking statement, Amyas felt the simplicity of it highlighted a lag in sexual maturity he was trying to make up. What they had just done was his ideal of what sex should be. He took her hand to hold it. She was lying with her back to him and gently nestled into his body. He felt her taking deep sleep-inducing breaths. Though they were the same age she was the one with the two long-term relationships and self-confessed numerous one-night stands, (he had come to learn she never exaggerated), compared to his longest relationship lasting little over two months. She was experienced, a score of partners plus the two she would have practiced the deed with over and over. Hundreds of sexual encounters versus his ten and five partners. She was the teacher, he the student. She had preferences; he never even experimented with positions. I like to be taken from behind. I want you to be forceful with me. An invitation? More, an invitation to an invitation. She was letting him further, deeper. There were no more secrets and at last she was giving herself to him, everything, no more holding back. Well, in the future anyway. For the present, she was quiet, still, inhaling and exhaling in sleep and soon his own eyes could no longer stay open as tiredness descended and sleep took him too.

3. August 2008, the end of innocence…

He had had five hours sleep if that, but the relief had been immeasurable when he landed at Heathrow the night before. The black cab cost what he expected, a fortune, but the tube had stopped and he just wanted to get home. He had no idea how many hours he had been awake for and how many hours he had been holding at bay the nausea. It had to have been over thirty-six, perhaps forty-eight if he didn’t count the blackout. The longest hangover of his life, if it was a hangover, and after two days of no sleep and then the sun blazing through the Boeing 747 as he crossed the Atlantic, even only five hours was like medicine.

I miss you, he thought, putting on a clean shirt. The t-shirt he had bought at Chicago airport was in the wash. It reeked but was at least in a better state than the vomit-encrusted one he had been wearing on the flight from Vegas, now resting in an O’Hare rubbish bin. It had been his first shower in God knew when and he couldn’t stop staring at the Herbal Essences shampoo he had bought her that might not get used again. He could not stop thinking about her on the plane, what she was doing, what she had been doing while he was trying to forget her. He needed her. He needed her so much. He was late for work, but technically he was already a day late so what did another thirty minutes matter while he finished dressing himself? He was moving slowly, everything took effort and though he did not want to throw up anymore he did not feel remotely well; faint, weak, dehydrated, exhausted.

As he walked out of the lift he pushed through the frosted glass doors, entering the office. The sleek green glass reception was unmanned as usual at that time in the morning. Behind the reception desk he bypassed the frosted green glass partition, Harlem Baker Klaus Fund Management embossed in black, which led to the trading floor.

In front of him the day had begun. Most people were in; the five rows of desks had their analysts staring at their three large screens with stock market monitors flashing green and red, and the equity traders already had their headsets on making calls. The trouble with working for a smallish fund, where there were just thirty of them compared to the hundreds on the floors of the banks, was you were more noticeable. It had been what Amyas loved about his job, (the intimacy, the friendships and closer interactions) but all he wanted to do was get to the last bank of desks and fade into obscurity.

“Amyas, sounds like it was a big weekend!” said Jordan, the stock-lending junior trader, taking off his headset as Amyas entered the subsection of desks the stock-lending guys shared with his credit team. There was an array of expectant grinning faces looking up at him, apart from at the desk two from his by the window. There sat John Stamler, older than the others by five years or so, the experienced analyst Amyas had worked alongside for over a year. Where the other young men showed amusement, Stamler, the office’s New Yorker and usually the king of banter, sat silent, with a quizzical look, perhaps concern. Amyas tried to avoid his eyes.

“Yeah, Amyas we didn’t think you’d come back,” remarked Dan, Jordan’s colleague on the next desk. “I said you’d gone on a three-month sex tour of Vegas.” Amyas raised an appeasing smile. Despite what had happened at least he was back and not passed out on foreign soil. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake to have left the message with Dan when he had called from the pay-phone at O’Hare airport to say he had missed his flight and his phone had died. But he was not in the frame of mind to work out a plan B. His boss, Kamran, was never in that early, and John Stamler would have still been making his way into the office having booked himself on, and caught, the earlier flight out of Vegas.

It was Wednesday morning. He should have been back on Tuesday and he had to briefly let the eager faces around him know it was a big weekend. He said the Calzaghe fight had been epic and the corporate entertainment, the two nights in Las Vegas clubs, had indeed had him so caught up that he was still in America when he was due to be in the office.

When the initial humour and fuss had died down and the stock-lending boys had turned back around to their screens, John Stamler leant across his desk and whispered;

“Hey, dude, what happened? You weren’t back at the room when I left for the airport.” Amyas made some excuse. Kamran, his boss, arrived shortly after.

“Hey,” Kamran simply said as he sat down. “So it was a big weekend?” He was calm with no annoyance or sarcasm. Kamran was not one to get upset and for that reason Amyas felt he had let him down doubly.

“Kind of, Kam, I’m really sorry for…” Amyas began to outpour.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Kamran said. “We need to get a few things done. Can you…” And the day’s work began.

It was difficult. At least when he was busy he was distracted. It was when he was not busy that the pain would be most prominent and the waves of panic and exhaustion would engulf him. Why could he not remember? Why was every emotion inside him exploding and why could he hear a million indistinguishable voices in his head screaming every time he dared close his eyes? It was then that he wished he had made another excuse and not come in. It was then that he knew he should be somewhere else, trying to fix the problem, trying to figure out what had happened. But he didn’t know what to do. He could not tell anyone what had happened. He did not know himself.

“Are you okay?” John whispered again. Lost in his thoughts, Amyas had been sitting wide-eyed and deathly still. He nodded, said everything was fine and tried to give John a reassuring smile. Amyas then tried to draw his thoughts away from Vegas. The whole point of the trip was to clear his head, to reflect on him and Hannah and what had gone so wrong. She had been the only presence in his head before and even as it was all starting to unravel in the Las Vegas terminal she was still the hope he clung to, stemming the fear and uncertainty. He had read her favourite book on the outbound flight, he remembered. He remembered how he planned to tell her this and then let her know how much he was thinking of her.

Hey, I just finished reading Eleanor Rigby. It made me think of you a lot and maybe someday soon, when you’re ready, I can tell you what I thought and why I liked it. X

It was the first touch of normality he felt in a world that had become distinctly abnormal. Thinking of Hannah was the one thing that brought a spark to him, something resembling a flicker of courage. He needed to do something. So with his phone still in hand he sent a message to someone else. The only person he knew he could trust, no matter what.

At the end of the day Kamran asked to have a private word with him.

“I don’t mind you going to these events. I like how you can experience what I didn’t get the chance to when I was a junior on the desk.” Kamran spoke in his usual calm manner sitting opposite Amyas in the small side room.

“Were you drunk? Was that why you missed your flight?” Amyas nodded. Kamran sighed.

“I know you want to have a good time and occasionally these things happen. But it is lucky the sales guys didn’t see you in that state, let alone their clients. And if you have to call the office make sure it’s either me or John you speak to. We could have said you’d booked the day off rather than the whole office knowing why you weren’t in.” Nothing in Kamran’s tone had been stern or reproachful or sarcastic. It was the disappointment that hit hard.

“Well you look like you need a good night’s sleep. I suggest you head home and get an early night.” With his head down Amyas left the meeting room and, trying not to make eye contact with anyone, walked past the banks of desks, through reception and out of the office.

4. January 2008, we were beginning…

Oxford Circus was flooded with endless crowds from the tube station exits. Despite Christmas coming and going and January two weeks new, London’s premier high street still drew the shoppers, tourists and partygoers alike in their vast numbers. Some flocked there for the late night opening of department stores, others wore crisp shirts and sleek dresses ready for Thursday evening cocktails and an early start to the weekend.

He had asked Hannah to meet him there. Since he had moved out of Clerkenwell it had become his favourite place to drink. It was convenient, being on the Central line to take him back to his parents’ house in Ealing, and it was well placed for meeting his friends after work. In fact, his friend Joan would invite him to club nights playing indie music in basement bars all around the Oxford Street. And it was also a short walk from his new work and he had spent the previous nine months being introduced to new bars down hidden side streets and dotted around Soho.

It was to be their first date. In a way it felt strange to call it that. It was three weeks since they met on that dancefloor. And since then they had exchanged text messages every other day. Countless messages, friendly, open and flirtatious, back and forth. Usually if he swapped phone numbers with a girl the date would either follow the next week or never happen. With Hannah it was different. It felt different. Obviously, the week directly after they had met had been Christmas. Then it was New Year. And then it was Hannah’s job. She was a nurse working in mental health. She worked on a ward at London Bridge looking after teenagers. It was shift work involving long erratic hours, and over Christmas and New Year had been writing an assignment to get her to the next level of nursing. With that handed in the previous Friday they were finally able to meet again.

As Amyas approached the crowded tube station exits of the Circus he took out his phone and called Hannah. There were thousands of people around him as he tried to locate her. “Hello,” said a girl’s voice answering his call. He could feel his heart rate escalate. It was the first time he had heard her voice since the night they met. It all started to feel suddenly real. With text messages it was easy. In fact it was lazy. He could be the best version of himself. He was not on the spot. But now he felt nervous: really nervous. He was about to see a girl he had met only once and had already become slightly smitten with. “Hi, it’s Amyas,” he said. “I’ve just reached Oxford Circus. Are you there yet?” He was smiling ferociously, hoping positive vibes would somehow transmit over the phone line.

“I’m standing at The Gap,” she said. “Can you see me? Where are you?” His nerves kicked in further. All he remembered from that night before Christmas was that she was beautiful: an angel. But nothing specific that would help him pick her out in a crowd. It was over three weeks ago, it had been late and, if he was honest, he had drunk a boat load. He was not sure if he was relying on patchy memories or if he had built up a fantasy in his head. And more worryingly, would she have done the same? Would he be a disappointment?

“I can see The Gap. I’m there. Whereabouts are you?” His voice trailed away as he examined the shopfront, expecting or at least hoping to see a pretty girl on her mobile phone. No girl was holding a phone. There were just countless people standing and waiting, trying to keep out of the way of the sea of pedestrians. “I’m looking around for you,” she said. “I’m wearing a white winter coat. Can you see me yet?” Amyas’s eyes darted back and forth at every person in his vicinity. There was one girl in a white coat but she was not on the phone. He looked at her and they made eye contact. Amyas smiled and the girl then gave him a puzzled why are you looking at me? expression and looked away. He quickly shifted his gaze and continued to look.

“I’m standing by the railings wearing a greenish jacket. We must be quite near.”

“Yes, sorry about this. I’m looking over at the railings…” As she spoke Amyas glanced back at the girl in the white coat. Her mouth was moving in time with Hannah’s voice on the phone. He approached the girl. She looked at him suspiciously.

“Hannah?” he asked.

“Yes,” the girl said, surprised.

“It’s Amyas.” He tried not to look embarrassed or disappointed by the fact she had no idea who he was.

“Oh, sorry! Hi, nice to see you again.” And from suspicion, she beamed at him. She stepped forward and kissed him on each cheek; very chic, he thought. She then removed an earphone that had been hidden under her long hair: a hands-free kit. He couldn’t help grinning as he glanced at it. She noticed. “I keep forgetting I’m wearing it. You must have thought I was a crazy girl talking to herself!” As she smiled he immediately recognised her as the same beautiful girl who was suddenly standing in front of him that night before Christmas.

“I know a bar a short walk away,” he said, having to move out of the way of a wave of people threatening to swallow him up and drag him away. “It’s just far enough away from the crowds so we can have a relaxed drink. What do you think?” Again they had to step to the side as a family of American tourists brushed past them entering the store, a large child shouting, “Daddy, I need pants. The England ones don’t fit me.” Both Amyas and Hannah smirked.

“A relaxed drink sounds perfect,” she replied and allowed Amyas to lead the way.

“I was terrified I wasn’t going to recognise you tonight,” Amyas admitted with a nervous sideways glance to Hannah as they walked down Carnaby Street. “In fact I almost didn’t…” She smiled. It had not gone unnoticed.

“Oh I am so sorry about that. When I got here this really creepy older man kept staring at me. Because it was quite late when we met I was scared that I was drunker than I thought and he was you! I was very relieved when you came over.” He liked her accent. It was soft. A little posh. Not quite Chelsea, but not quite not.

At the end of Carnaby Street he took them left. At first glance the street looked deserted. Then a small blue sign revealed the Soho bar Amyas hoped would be appropriate for a first date.

Immediately the contrast was clear. A glow spilled out onto the street as Amyas opened a tall, wide glass door for Hannah to enter. The glow seemed to emanate from a long cocktail bar at the back, which had shelves of countless bottles going up to the ceiling, all lit up in brilliant white light. It was busy without being oppressive. There were people standing at the bar ordering drinks and talking in groups. There were a series of square wooden tables with young men and women gathered around and with bottles of lager and tall glasses of ice and colourful liquid placed upon them. Unlike in all the other nearby pubs and bars not a single person wore a suit or looked like they had spent the day in an office. Everyone was more casually dressed; either V-necked t-shirts and checked shirts for the men or checked shirts and scoop-necked t-shirts for the girls. It was the exact ambiance Amyas hoping for; relaxed, cool, nonconformist, a little bit different. As Hannah looked around the bar Amyas pointed to a stairwell. Walking down they were led to a basement floor with softer, more atmospheric lighting and an assortment of contrasting styled sofas, chairs and stools, again obviously being cool through nonconformity. At the back of the room was a small DJ booth in one corner and a tiki bar in the other. They chose a small coffee table with two cushioned stools.

“What would you like to drink?” smiled Amyas, putting down his coat as Hannah took off hers.

“Hmmm, vodka-tonic I think.” She grinned, almost apologetically embarrassed. He smirked, making her smile. It was a conversation picking up where they had left off. Too many vodka-tonics, she had told him during their exchange of texts the day after they had met. She joked they were her weakness and blamed them for her hangover and why she had stayed out longer than she had planned.

As he ordered at the bar, and Hannah’s vodka-tonic was being poured, Amyas looked over his shoulder back at Hannah, the cushioned stools and coffee table. She was sitting cross-legged wearing a grey dress with dark tights. He could not help glancing at her figure: petite with beautifully slender legs, the bottom of her thighs peeking out under the hem of her dress. He then recognised the dress. It was the one she had been wearing the night they met. It was a pleasant flashback. She had her handbag open upon her lap and Amyas could see her take out a bright pink book, thumb through a few pages and return it, closing the bag. She looked really pretty. Even just in the mannerism of looking down. Her long hair flowed down over her shoulders. She had perfect pink lips. He felt his nerves flicker again. He did not expect her to be that pretty. He expected some degree of beer goggles that night in the club. He suddenly flashed back to himself as a teenager. He would not have even been able to speak to a girl like that. Luckily at the age of twenty-six he had finally grown out of his adolescence… He realised he was obsessing. There was a pretty girl waiting to talk to him. He picked up their drinks and returned to her.

“This is a really nice bar,” said Hannah as Amyas sat next to her, placing their drinks on the coffee table in front of them. “So is this where you investment bankers take all your potential conquests?” She was grinning. Amyas had always dreaded small talk. It made him feel anxious. In contrast Hannah’s slightly sarcastic question suddenly made him feel at ease.

“I was hoping this would be a solace away from them. Media types and those cool creative people who do glamorous, exciting and totally made-up jobs. Plus, I don’t work in investment banking.” He mockingly straightened his back to sit pompously taller. “Hedge funds, don’t you know,” he said grinning back at her.

“Oh I’m sorry,” she smiled. “What’s the difference then?”

“Investment bankers can’t wear jeans.”

“Ah, so that explains it.” Still smiling, she looked him up and down. He was wearing his favourite shirt, a white one with subtle blue and purple dots, and his Firetrap jeans. “I dreaded you would turn up all suited and booted, take me to a champagne bar and bore me with stories about which yacht you were spending the summer on.” Amyas laughed. “I’m not kidding! I’ve had enough first dates with city boys recently to last a lifetime. There’s not been a second date in recent memory. But to be fair to them, I’ve already had my fill of derivative hedging and options volatility conversations.” As Hannah smirked Amyas felt his face shift to his quizzical expression. “My ex was a trader. Oh!” She put her hand to her mouth, mock apologetically as she was still smiling. “Did I just mention an ex-boyfriend? That’s terrible first date etiquette, isn’t it?”

“I think we can get over it. I’m not the best when it comes to etiquette.”

“Well that’s good. We’re likely to get on famously then. I really think I better shut up now before you think you’re trapped on night out with a total loon!” Again she smiled, big and full with a glow he found radiant. They picked up their drinks and Hannah put her straw to her lips. Amyas had a bottle of Czech lager. The music playing in the background was light, nonintrusive, with a decent beat. More people had descended the stairwell and a group of girls in pretty dresses and guys in shirts and jeans were gathering at a large section of sofas and chairs in front of them. One girl, wearing a white, strapless dress, was holding a purple ribbon leading to two silver helium balloons, one in the shape of a 2, the other a 5. Amyas then looked back at the smiling Hannah.

“Okay,” he said. “How about if I start with something more mundane? Embrace those first date formalities.”

“Probably a good idea. Go for it.”

“Your job. It sounds amazing. And incredibly difficult. What made you go into it?”

“You mean working with teenagers with mental health problems? It sounds a lot more hard-core than it is. To be honest I probably got into it just as a way not to nurse in hospital proper. Seriously, if I had to bed-bath another elderly man…” She gave a big faux sigh and made a show of throwing her head back to look to the skies. “See I’m a fraud. I’m terrible human being, really. I left school after A-levels to work in a bar. To me, I couldn’t think of anything better. You were being paid for getting drunk with customers and partying with your friends every night. Then, three years later… Don’t get me wrong. It was fun, and they did make me bar manager, but I needed something more. So I decided to be a nurse. And after emptying my thousandth bedpan, giving one too many enemas, thinking ‘this was another terrible idea, Hannah,’ I did my rotation on the mental health ward and it seemed to click. I liked the psychology, I liked working with the kids, I could relate with them, and the doctors and other nurses were really cool. Plus you get the best drugs. Obviously.” They both laughed and Amyas found that he had been staring at her, intently, not wanting her to stop talking.

“What about you, Mr City Trader? Now, that’s impressive, despite what I said about city boy bores.”

“It’s not that impressive,” he smiled feeling both grateful and bashful at the compliment. “To tell the truth, working at a bank or hedge fund was the last place I thought I’d end up.”

“Sounds intriguing,” smiled Hannah, sipping her drink. “Where was the first place, then?”

“Under an oak tree in Jane Austin country, writing poetry.” Hannah burst out laughing.

“I’m so sorry. There’s nothing funny about that. I’ve just known a few city boys and there is nothing poetic about them.” He smiled, taking it as a complement.

“I was going to do creative writing at university but that ended up freaking out my parents more than if I said I had wanted to become a drug dealer. You see, we were never rich. We had a small house in the suburbs of West London and as I was good at maths they sent me to a posh school on a part scholarship. Becoming a poet wasn’t exactly lucrative. In hindsight I can’t blame them, every parent wants their child to have it easier than they did.”

Hannah was looking at him with her head slightly cocked to the side. He noticed a lightness to her eyes as they unnervingly kept looking in to his even with the lights in the bar getting slightly dimmer, offsetting the music and background noise getting slightly louder as their stools gravitated slightly closer. “I guess that’s true,” she said. “Mine were too much the other way. Incredibly lovely and supportive whatever we did but at times I would have preferred them say ‘Hannah, seriously? Is this really what you want to do with your life?’” She smiled again. Amyas was finding it so easy talking to her. “So where do hedge funds fit into the life of the next poet laureate?”

“Economics degree. And I couldn’t live with myself if I became an accountant.” She laughed and said it was very true. “Plus in reality it’s not like those urban myths about the city with orgies and drug binges every other week. I work with a bunch of really friendly guys most of which have young families and spend their weekends doing DIY or spending time with their kids. And those of us my age spend the day talking about random things and going to the local pub on a Friday night. Also, half of us are analysts so spreadsheet geeks whose idea of a good time is creating formulas.” Hannah gave a light snort of a laugh. She flicked away a strand of hair which had fallen in front of her eyes.

“Seriously though, no orgies? Not even one? A girl shouldn’t say, but I may have once had a threesome.” And she casually sipped her drink, like it was the most natural thing in the world leaving Amyas unable to tell if she was joking.

“I woke up in the morning fully clothed, lying across my bed, with a pair of roller skates attached to my feet!” Hannah was beaming wide through her mirthful giggle as she described her recent twenty-sixth birthday. “Teaches me for letting my brothers organise a bar crawl.” Her smile was infectious. She sipped her drink, crossed her legs and wiped a tear from her eye. Her cheeks were pink and fresh from the continuous laughing.

“Sounds lovely. You have a really close family.”

“Yes, I guess we were,” she said. “I’m probably one of those annoying people who had the perfect childhood. Any drama came well after the age of eighteen, when I was meant to have become an adult. It was lovely. My dad was the vicar at St Mark’s in Shepherd’s Bush. It was me, Dad, Mum and my two brothers (two years older and two years younger), living in the beautiful church house. When we became teenagers and started going out drinking we would always bring friends home after and Mum would stay up and drink with us. Dad pretended he didn’t approve though he secretly enjoyed the house always being full.”

“That sounds a really happy childhood. I guess that explains why I’m finding it so easy to talk to you.” It was meant to have been a flirtatious remark as Amyas smiled at her. Amyas noticed a clock behind the bar which had just ticked past nine. He wanted to tell her he was having the best time. He liked her forwardness and how every time she asked him something it seemed deliberately flirtatious. But as he awaited her response Hannah seemed to have a faraway look. He saw her gaze down, as if she had drifted onto a forgotten thought. She stopped smiling. “Yes,” she said, softer. “It was happy.” And then she seemed to catch herself. She straightened up, her flirtatious, confident smile returned as she looked at him. “This is going well, is it?” she said, with a provocative smile.

“If you went to school in Ealing we would have grown up only a few miles apart,” Hannah commented as they started another drink. “I’m surprised we didn’t meet when we were younger. In some pub or dodgy party.”

“To be honest, if I had met you at school I’d be far too intimidated to talk to you.” He was trying to be self-deprecating.

“Me?” she beamed. “I’m not that scary, surely? It would be the other way round, I was such a wrong ’un. Anyway, we’re both now grownups and fully mature adults. Aren’t we?” They both grinned, clearly at twenty-six they were far from being either.

“Well, right now I’m back to living with my parents, so not quite.” He grinned again. He had told her that in one of his texts fearing it a deal-breaker (a twenty-six-year-old still living with his parents) and was relieved to have her say she would love to still live with hers. “When my best friend and housemate, Nick, and his girlfriend Kate decided to finally move in together I ended up giving up the flat too. Properly start from scratch. But hopefully that’s only for another month. My parents are moving to their much awaited retirement cottage in Cornwall and I’m moving into a new flat in Highbury.”

“So if we were to have sex tonight it would have to be round mine?” He was lucky he had finished his drink. He would have probably gulped or choked. Instead he felt his jaw drop and instantly knew he was blushing as he instinctively smiled wide. Hannah, though, was unmoved. She sat patiently waiting for him to answer, one hand holding her glass on her thigh and the other to her side as she leant casually. “I’m not sure how best to answer that question. I don’t think it came up in the Handbook of First Date Etiquette.”

“Oh, like you haven’t thought about it! This is London. It’s just first dates and one-night stands, isn’t it? That’s me anyway, since my ex.” She now had a provocative smile as she leant slightly further forward. Her legs were still crossed and her dress had moved high up her thigh. “A lot of first dates and far too many one-night stands with wrong ’un boys. No second dates, or breakfast the next day. Just a one-off drink or just one-off sex.” There was no exaggeration in her voice or even flirtatiousness. She said it matter-of-factly, perhaps with a little regret, judging by how she then looked down at her glass and absently stirred it with her straw. Then she then said with a smirk: “You see I’ve been told I’m popular with men. Because of my hourglass figure. A polite way of saying I’m small with big breasts. You’re now going to tell me you’ve not thought about them either.”

“Not once.”

“Liar!” she said laughing.

“I’ve been far too captivated by some of your other features.”

“Really, have you now?” She gave him a big smile and he thought she looked absolutely radiant. He couldn’t help but smile too, wide, fixing her with his own stare. He felt confident. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. Yes – he could not help glancing – she did have large breasts for a girl so petite and thin. “Which features?” she then asked. He thought for a second. He would go with the most obvious, and what he was starting to find quite adorable.

“Your gorgeous brown hair. And how this strand keeps falling in front of your eye.” He leant close to her, his face not too far from hers, and gently brushed the strand to the side.

“It’s actually red if you hadn’t noticed.” The attempted romantic moment was lost. She laughed, raising her eyebrows at the obvious fail. “Or strawberry blonde I’m told. I should be grateful you didn’t call me ginger. Okay, no more cringey conversations of compliments,” she continued. “What if I told you my best friend is my ex-boyfriend? Would you find that weird?” Amyas liked her openness. Her deliberate forwardness. The attempts to put him on the back foot and her use of sex as a weapon. But even after the most provocative of comments Amyas would notice Hannah’s radiant smile. The non-provocative smile. Considering Hannah’s question though he did not know anyone who had become best friends with an ex-partner. But he did know friends at university to still remain on good terms with past loves.

“Not weird at all,” said Amyas. “I guess it’s relatively normal to still be friends with someone you were close to.”

“I wouldn’t exactly say normal,” she laughed, “but if you’re with someone a long time you do become best friends and I don’t think that should end because you’re no longer a couple. Basically, I’ve had two long-term boyfriends. The first was Carl, from my days in Shepherd’s Bush. We were teenagers, together for years and then just grew apart. But we stayed friends. And now he’s like an annoying older brother. Him, me and Mary, my friend from the night we met, we’re all part of the same Shepherd’s Bush circle of friends and I see them as family. It’s the same with Raj. More recent, I give you that, but the friendship thing is still there. He knows all my family. He’s been coming to gatherings for years and at Christmas he even brought over champagne and spent it with us. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t believe in throwing away good friendships. But like I said, some would find it weird.” Amyas reassured her he did not, but this time actually meant it. She was addictively interesting. She had relationships which lasted years. His longest had been little over three months. She talked in a blasé way about numerous first dates and one-night stands. Amyas did have his share but they always seems to involve a lot more hard work and luck and were far more spaced out over the course of what seemed many years. When it came to women he did feel a bit incomplete. Listening to Hannah made him feel a special guest in a cool bohemian world.

Amyas came back from the bar with another glass of vodka-tonic and another bottle of beer. “Thanks,” said Hannah taking another sip through the straw. “This is going well, isn’t it?” she reiterated.

“You sound surprised,” smiled Amyas.

“I told you, over the last couple of years I’ve had a lot of first dates, a lot of stupid drunken one-night stands, but no second dates.” Sitting up she again held her straw to her pink lips, pinching it with the thumb and index finger of one hand while the other held up her glass. Beads of condensation ran down the glass. Amyas noticed one drip. It landed on the inside of her thigh. Her legs had been crossed and the hem of her pretty grey dress had ridden up. She lightly rubbed it away with the tip of a finger. Amyas would acknowledge he had a thing for girls in tights and a pretty dress.

“Is that by choice?”

“No,” she said effortlessly. “Just the way things have gone. Dates have gone okay. Okay enough for sex to seem a mutually pleasant end to the experience anyway.” She gave light smirk – not quite the same provocative smile she did earlier. She was gazing into her glass, gently stirring the ice with her straw. “But they never went well. Until now. Gosh, listen to me. How many drinks have we had? You’ve got a drunk girl wittering on at you.”

“I’m kind of hoping there might be a second date,” he said.

“It might mean I won’t have sex with you tonight though. If we were to have a second date. Defeats the purpose of a one-night stand, doesn’t it?” They both sat quietly smiling at each other. Their stools were almost touching and Hannah’s calf was lightly brushing Amyas’s. Amyas wondered if it was a good kissing moment. He wanted to. He wanted to move in, move her glass away and just let his lips touch hers. Hannah then straightened up.

“So I’ve shared my dating history: overshared, some might say! What about you? How come you’re single? You’re quite the catch, you realise.” Amyas contemplated telling of his previous girlfriends or alluding to a series of casual flings but both seemed like he was boasting. He decided on a change of tack.

“Why I’m single? Honestly? I’m hopeless with women.” As he said it he smiled as confidently as he had done all date. Hannah burst out laughing.

“I don’t think that’s something to admit on a first date. Now who’s not read the First Date Handbook!”

“It’s absolutely true. I went to an all-boys school till I was sixteen. I’d only spoken to one girl in my life up till then. When it became co-ed we were like, ‘who are all these strange creatures? Why do we feel so self-conscious? And why do they all ignore us and spend all their time smoking in the toilets?’” Hannah was still giggling, staring at him with a huge smile.

“So you never met the girl of your dreams or had a first teenage love?”

“I didn’t say that,” Amyas grinned. “In fact that experience is probably the reason why I’m single now. The one that got away.” He made a deep dramatic sigh that only intensified Hannah’s giggling. “I was ten years old and it was our first family holiday outside England: a coach trip to France with my dad’s work. Okay, to many that’s not exactly glamorous but to us it was huge and I’d never been as excited. Anyway, on this coach sitting across the aisle was a girl. At that age girls are pretty much the ultimate enemy but I couldn’t help thinking this one was really pretty. So I did what came naturally, and what I’ve done ever since; got incredibly shy and tried to impress her from afar by doing my maths homework.”

“Smooth,” Hannah said, beaming, leaning forward and holding him with her gaze.

“Well, she notices me doing sums. Asks if I can help her with her maths homework. And to cut a long story short, it was true love. A few games of hide and seek in a vineyard, watching Superman in a TV room while the adults were at dinner and then coming back to England and her disappearing off the coach for me never to see again.”

“That’s so sad! Romeo and Juliet eat your heart out!” Amyas noticed that while telling the story he and Hannah had got so close their hands were now touching. In fact as he felt the tips of her fingers caressing his, he held her hand.

“So, totally setting aside first date etiquette, and I’m probably going to hate myself for asking, but what happened between you and your ex?” The night had been moving on, they had had countless drinks and some of the groups of drinkers around them had started to thin out. It could have been the alcohol but Amyas could not recall having ever had a nicer evening with a girl. He wanted her to continue talking, and to know everything there was to know about her.

“Oh, I thought Raj and I were going to get married. Mary’s parents own a sandwich shop in the City and we used to waste time just hanging out there. Raj was a trader at a stockbrokers, used to come in at lunch, we flirted and then started going out. We were serious for over two years but then after his two brothers had both married white girls, Raj’s parents (still traditional though you wouldn’t know it),” her eyes narrowed slightly and a touch of bitterness entered her tone, “they said that he needed to marry an Indian girl to continue on the line. So he had to break up with me.” Hannah simply shrugged. Amyas thought as she was still best friends with the ex, Hannah was going to say it was another case of growing apart. He felt his face screw up into a puzzled frown.

“But… That’s actually really bad, isn’t it?” To Amyas it seemed a ridiculous reason to break up with someone. Love conquers all, surely? That was Amyas’s opinion on all matters of the heart. He was still holding her hand and he saw Hannah raise her eyebrows in an it-is-what-it-is expression.

“It’s okay,” she said. “We decided to still be friends. We went out afterward but always ended up getting drunk and kissing. For a while I was pretty convinced we were going to get back together but that was never the plan so we eventually just became friends. It was very weird especially when he started seeing someone else but now we’re best friends so I guess it all turned out okay.” Hannah smiled, appearing to be relaxed about what had happened, but Amyas noticed it was not the same natural, bright smile as she had had on the rest of the night.

“Well, I think he’s an idiot. A total idiot.” Amyas wanted to go as far as to ask how she could still be friends with him. Hannah seemed to notice though.

“A few months after Raj and I had broken up my dad passed away. “It was…” Amyas felt an icy chill. Hannah’s flirtatious smile was gone as she looked down. “It was a massive upheaval. Sam, my older brother, and I had been living with Mum and Dad but the house belonged to the church so we all got kicked out soon after. My mum could only afford a small one-bedroom flat so I ended up moving in with a friend…” A couple of frowns, a wince, and then a resolute look of determination as she strove to continue. “Sam moved in with his girlfriend but that has always been volatile. Basically they have a kid together, Noah who’s three, so when it didn’t work he ended up crashing at friends’ and now lives in a squat. My younger brother was living in Australia at the time. He’s a total wrong ’un. Joined the navy at sixteen. Got kicked out for smoking drugs. Moved to Oz. Got married. Got divorced. But he is really sensitive and when he came home for the funeral he didn’t want to go back. I actually live with him now down in Streatham in a house owned by his ex-wife’s parents. Basically, as you can tell, my family became dysfunctional.” Amyas started holding both her hands. She would look into the distance at times while telling the story. Around them everything was happening as normal: the girls in party dresses and guys in shirts talking animatedly, laughing and smiling. Around the edges of the room were sofas and the guys and girls in checked shirts were taking them up. There was a buzz in the bar but as Amyas held Hannah’s hand he wanted to shield her from it.

“But Raj was there through it all. Even though he was not my boyfriend anymore. He hangs out with my brothers. Helps out when they are being difficult, and my family and I really owe him. So he’s not all bad.” She gave a small smile. With her hands in his, he gently pulled her toward him. Her head was slightly to the side as she leant forward. He kissed her. It was soft at first, two sets of lips touching, waiting, getting comfortable with each other. And then more pronounced: mouths accepting, wanting. He felt her hair flick onto his face as they changed angles and the tip of her tongue and then her tongue against his, playful, teasing, withdrawing, then forceful. He felt her mouth and his become one and with his eyes closed he never wanted that kiss to end.

“I think you might get yourself a second date,” Hannah said as Amyas sat back down with their drinks. It was last orders at the bar. In the downstairs room there were still a few couples sitting together on the sofas and one small group sitting around the table. Another group of men and women had just walked past them and were ascending the stairwell out of the bar. Hannah and Amyas had agreed that though they probably had drunk enough already, they should stay for one last drink.

“Is that so?” he smiled.

“Think yourself lucky. I haven’t been on a second date in over a year. Plenty of first dates and one-night stands with wrong ’un boys, but never a second date.” Smiling, she ducked her head to sip her drink. Hannah then looked up at him, biting her lip.

“When I was a girl and all my friends dreamt of getting married to a prince or the like, I always fantasised about having affairs… No, it’s really bad.” Amyas was smiling flirtatiously but Hannah’s lack of smile told him it was not the moment. “I’m not proud of this, but when Raj and I broke up I ended up having an affair with a guy from work who was married. The marriage was all but over when we started seeing each other and he’s divorced now but we were on and off for around a year. It started out as just sex and being all about the danger and doing it in any place we could with the risk of getting caught. But then I properly fell for him. But he was really into the sex part, a little bit too into it at times and what he wanted to do got a little too intense so that’s when I knew it had to stop. When I was with Carl we were kids and with Raj I presumed that was love, but the affair, even though it was just an affair, I realised that he was the first man I actually really loved so that made it all the more difficult.”

He reached out to hold her hands again. She looked sad. She had a half-smile, half-frown. Her eyes were looking away.

“That sounds pretty intense,” he said.

“Not exactly the best way to end a first date. In fact probably not the conversation to have with someone you’ve just met, but hey, as we’ve pretty much ripped up the First Date Handbook…” They both gave a small laugh and Amyas again leant close to Hannah and brushed back the strand of hair that had again fallen in front of her eyes.

“I like the fact that you’ve told me. It makes me like you even more.”

“Really?” she laughed.

“You’re honest. You’re open. You’re worldly and seem to have gone through more than anyone I know. You are also intoxicatingly beautiful.” She laughed again as the sadness lessened, looking at him with her prominent green eyes. “You’ve lived. I can’t even imagine what any of it has been like and in comparison I seem to stumble through my own life. I like all these things about you and would love to know more. You’ve kind of got me pretty smitten if you hadn’t noticed.”

“Well I guess, if we are going to have a second date you should know these things about me. You can now decide you want to bail out.”

“I don’t think there’s any danger of me doing that,” he said in almost a whisper.

“Really?” she said, her mouth millimetres from his. “I’m a little bit mental, haven’t you realised?” And instead of him answering they just started to kiss.

Way back in April we were extemely fortunate to host authors Abiola Bello, Rebecca Ley, Eithne Nightingale and John McMenemie and hear them speak about the importance of promoting writing at the grass

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