The church was chilly. This came as a surprise to Lizzie Harris, walking in out of the summer sunshine, and she pulled her jacket more tightly around her for comfort. She almost hadn’t come today. As she got ready that morning, she had thought about what would happen if she simply didn’t turn up. No one would come to find her. Nothing would change. She would simply be living up to expectations. But she had come. She had come because of one person; the person she cared most about in the world and one of the few who cared about her.
So Lizzie had pulled herself together, put on the purple dress she’d bought especially for the occasion, dragged herself into her car and arrived uncharacteristically early. She had watched as other people arrived, keeping a safe distance, not wanting to attract anyone’s attention. Not yet. She wasn’t quite ready to face it yet. Every time she spotted a recognisable face, she closed her eyes and told herself that she was doing the right thing. She had to see this through, had to be strong. She waited until five minutes before the service was due to start. Only a few stragglers were entering the church now. It wasn’t seemly to be late on such an occasion. Lizzie had to tell her feet to keep walking as she made her way up the path and into the church. Breathe and walk. Her stomach was churning with nerves as she looked around the packed church. She spotted Joe sitting at the front, his arm wrapped around Sam, who looked impossibly small for a boy of ten. They were both staring out towards the front of the church, where the coffin sat draped in a purple silk Pashmina. One mourner, a man of around fifty, approached them, resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked round and smiled weakly at him. Lizzie wondered if he might recognise her and lifted her hand in greeting but he turned to the front again, his face glassy with grief, pulling his son closer to him. The congregation was a riot of colour, the women all dressed in varying shades of purple, the men wearing purple ties or buttonholes as requested. The church was heavy with the scent of lavender and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ was piping through the speakers to the accompanying sound of subdued whispers and the occasional loud sniff.
Lizzie was wondering where to sit when she became aware of someone standing next to her. She turned and looked into the face of a woman worn down by grief.
‘Hello, Mum,’ said Lizzie in a hoarse whisper.
Her mother surveyed her as someone might look at a persistent stain and Lizzie noticed something else behind this, something which she had always seen in her mother’s eyes: disappointment.
‘Well at least you’ve made it to your sister’s funeral,’ she said. ‘But I hope you’re not thinking of embarrassing me by skulking at the back. At least do Bea the final courtesy of sitting at the front with her family.’ And with that she turned, her skirt a flash of purple as she made her way down the nave and took her place to Joe’s right.
Lizzie remained frozen to the spot. She had a sudden urge to rush out of the church, drive home and lock the door on the world. After all, who would really care if she did? It would confirm all her mother’s worst opinions of her and Joe would understand if she put it down to grief. He was hardly a man to challenge anyone; he’d certainly never challenged his wife.
Olivia Newton-John’s plaintive tones were fading and the congregation quietened in readiness for the service to begin. One of the vergers approached Lizzie and touched her gently on the elbow.
‘Lizzie?’ She turned to face a woman she recognised from her childhood; Evelyn Chambers, the vicar’s wife. ‘Do you want to go and take your place at the front?’ she said, ushering her forwards with practised efficiency. ‘The service is about to start.’
Lizzie wasn’t sure what she was doing as she made her way down the nave. She felt numb, almost as if she was watching herself from above, unable to control her own body. She had no choice but to keep going. She noticed the odd nudged elbow and whispered comment as she passed. She reached the front and looked to her mother, who ignored her with stiff-lipped coldness. Joe glanced up and gave her a grateful smile of recognition, gesturing for her to sit to Sam’s left. Lizzie took a deep breath and settled next to her nephew. He looked up at her in surprise and then, frowning at this father, said in a loud whisper, ‘Who is that?’ Lizzie could feel people around her shift at his words but kept her face fixed to the front as the service began.
Everyone agreed that it had been a wonderful send-off; a fitting tribute to a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and sister. The vicar had spoken warmly of the woman he’d known through childhood and into her adult life and the choir had sung with reverent fondness. Once Joe had delivered his trembling eulogy and the funeral cortege had carried Bea’s coffin down the central aisle with Sam leading them towards the door, the sobbing had reached a crescendo. Only Lizzie and her mother remained dry-eyed. Lizzie knew that her mother was not one to show her grief in public and Bea had given her sister strict instructions.
‘No wailing like a banshee during my big finale, Lizzie Lou. We’ve done our crying. I don’t want my last exit to be ruined by your mucus-stained face,’ she had grinned. Lizzie had worried whether she would be able to obey these wishes. It was all very well agreeing to these things when Bea was alive. It was the easiest thing in the world to make promises when the person you loved most in the world was still there. It was a different matter when they were no longer there to guide you. Lizzie hadn’t thought she would break down in a fit of hysterical sobbing but she was surprised at how surreal she found the experience of sitting in the church, staring at her sister’s coffin. She felt like a spectator, almost cocooned from the reality of the situation. She had no place here among these people. She was merely watching from the sidelines and she couldn’t connect the sister she had known with the body in the coffin. Lizzie felt numb as if momentarily anaesthetised against the grief of her loss; it was still there but buried deep inside.
The mourners in the pews behind them waited patiently for Lizzie and her mother to walk out together following the coffin. Ignoring her daughter completely, Stella Harris made her way out into the aisle behind the procession. Lizzie felt panicked as all eyes were drawn to her. She could almost hear their thoughts. Surely she should be supporting her mother on today of all days. Mind you, she’s hardly been the supportive one. Not like Bea. Lizzie avoided their critical glances, concentrating instead on her sister’s coffin, taking courage from her presence in death as she had in life. She fell in step behind her mother and followed her out of the church.
Once outside, Lizzie felt the sunshine warm her face and shielded her eyes as she watched Joe and the other attendants slide her sister’s coffin into the waiting hearse. There was to be a cremation but Bea hadn’t wanted anyone to be there. ‘Too bloody sad. When they shut that curtain like the door finally closing on your life? No thanks. I want it to be a celebration. I want it to be like the kind of party I would enjoy. Why does everyone get so hung up and sad about death when it’s actually as natural as life?’ Most people didn’t share Bea’s sentiment. They honoured her wishes; they wore purple and played the music she’d requested, but they were the ones left behind. They were the ones who had to deal with life without her and particularly when they saw Sam, a ten-year-old robbed of his mother, it couldn’t be a celebration. It was a tragedy playing out in front of them.
It was different for Lizzie. She didn’t know their version of Bea’s world. She only knew the world of Lizzie and Bea as sisters. She wasn’t part of Bea’s life in this community, as a successful lawyer, devoted wife and mother, beloved daughter. To Lizzie, she was Bea. Just Bea. The one who had picked her up so many times, who had always been there for her. She was the only reason Lizzie was here now and as she watched the hearse pull away, she could see no other reason to linger.
As the mourners began to disperse, Lizzie decided to escape. She planned to go back home, put on her pyjamas and watch Bea’s and her favourite film, Grease, whilst drinking as much red wine as she could handle or possibly a little more. She wanted to slip away from the helpless feeling that her life was like a ship, cut loose by her sister’s death, with no hope of getting back on course. How would she cope without Bea to guide and protect her? She had known this moment was coming for the past six months. She and Bea had talked about it but still, nothing quite prepared you. In a fight or flight world, Lizzie’s instinct had always been to flee but you couldn’t flee death. You could ignore it, pretend it wouldn’t happen, dismiss it from your mind, but you couldn’t escape its inevitability.
When Joe had phoned Lizzie to tell her that Bea had died, she had greeted his call with quiet resignation. It had felt odd to be receiving news about her sister from a man she hardly knew. She had wanted to end the call as quickly as possible. Joe’s voice had been heavy with grief and Lizzie had no idea what to say to him.
‘Thank you for letting me know,’ she had said, embarrassed by the inadequacy of her response.
‘I’ll call you with the funeral arrangements,’ he had said before ringing off.
Lizzie had stared at the phone after he’d gone wondering how she was supposed to feel. Bea was gone. It was over. Lizzie was alone now. And yet, there she stood, two feet on the ground, the sun shining outside, life continuing without her sister. Part of her was stunned. She had half-expected the walls to start closing in or the ground beneath her feet to shift at the moment of Bea’s death. She had also expected tears – wracking sobs of loss and grief – but none came. Minutes became hours became days. Lizzie thought about Bea during every waking second at her job in the bookshop, on trips to the shops, whilst making dinner but still no tears came. Every night she would fall into bed exhausted from thoughts of her sister but did not cry; she couldn’t and the worst thing was, Lizzie didn’t know why. She had thought that the funeral might be a catalyst for tears but she remained dry-eyed. The grief was still there though. It felt like something heavy and solid at the very centre of her being.
She could see Joe and her mother surrounded by people, all wanting to offer their condolences, as if their words could soothe away the pain of loss. They were all glad it wasn’t one of their loved ones and who could blame them? No one approached her and she felt this gave her the permission she needed to escape. She put on her sunglasses and started to walk to her car without a backward glance. Once inside she exhaled with relief and placed the keys in the ignition. It was at this moment that she heard a light tapping on her window. She glanced over to see Joe’s worried face peering in at her with a frowning Sam at his side. She felt her insides sink with shame as she pressed the button to open the window. How could she let this poor bereaved man and his son follow her as she tried to escape? His opening words made her feel even worse.
‘’llo, Lizzie. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to speak to you in the church. I just wanted to say thank you for coming.’
Lizzie mumbled a response along the lines of, ‘of course’. There was an awkward pause and she wondered if it would be okay to start the car, whilst inwardly praying that she didn’t run over her brother-in-law’s foot as she sped off.
‘We’re having a party for Mum,’ said Sam, his face fierce and suspicious. He was clearly offering her a dare.
‘Oh right, well I’m not sure if –’ stammered Lizzie.
‘You should come,’ said Sam as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
‘Sam, I’m not sure if Lizzie is able to come,’ said Joe, trying to placate the situation and making Lizzie feel both grateful and wretched at the same time.
‘Why not? Mum would want her to be there. She’s her sister,’ declared Sam.
‘Well of course, if you would like to come, we would love you to,’ said Joe.
Lizzie looked at Sam and knew that there was no getting out of this. He had an air of Bea in his frowning face; it was a look that said, ‘Come on sis, do it for me.’ And like everything else her sister had ever asked her to do, Lizzie agreed without question.
‘I’d love to come,’ she said with a small smile.
‘Excellent,’ said Joe. ‘We’ll see you back at the house.’
The Goode Family lived just outside Smallchurch very close to where Lizzie and Bea had grown up. When Bea and Joe married, she had made it clear that she wanted to stay near to her parents and give their children the countryside upbringing that she had enjoyed. Joe had been so in love with Bea that he would have lived in a sewer if she’d told him to and so they settled in a rambling old farmhouse surrounded by large fields and impressive views over rural Kent. Bea loved it because its boundary was flanked by cobnut bushes and fruit trees. The house itself needed a great deal of work and they had spent a lot of money and time making it into a comfortable family home.
Lizzie had never been to the house but she wasn’t surprised by its size or decor. Her sister had always had great taste and an eye for style. She felt sick as she parked her car at one corner of the gravel drive and made her way through the open front door. An impressively large staircase sat in the middle of the hall, sweeping up towards a wide landing. Lizzie imagined an exquisitely decorated Christmas tree sitting at the top of the stairs. When Bea and Joe bought the house, she remembered her sister telling her that, ‘it has room for two Christmas trees. I’ve always wanted a house big enough for two Christmas trees!’ Along with a lifelong passion for the musical achievements of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Bea was also hopelessly devoted to all things festive. Lizzie smiled at the memory but the moment was interrupted as she heard voices approaching the door of the room to the right of the staircase. She made a beeline for the left-hand room. She needed to give herself a little more time before speaking to anyone. A buffet was laid out on a long rectangular table, which flanked one wall. Lizzie had been too nervous to eat breakfast that morning and felt queasy at the sight and smell of the food. She turned away and immediately caught sight of Sam. He was standing in front of the fireplace staring up at a large canvas photograph of him with his mother and father. It was an informal shot of the three of them, wide-eyed and laughing. Lizzie noticed Bea’s arms locked protectively around Sam’s body. If it hadn’t been for her sister staring down at her, Lizzie could have been looking at a photograph of any family. She felt as if she were intruding. This place had nothing to do with her. As she hesitated, Sam turned round to face her. It was like an electric shock jolting through her body. His resemblance to Bea was astonishing.
He didn’t smile but he wasn’t frowning any more either. His face was more a picture of curiosity. ‘Do you want a cake?’ he asked, wandering over to the food table and helping himself to a large chocolate muffin. ‘Mum and I made these before she died. We put them in the freezer so that they didn’t go off before the funeral,’ he added.
Lizzie’s stomach groaned with a mixture of nerves and hunger but there was something about Sam’s casual acceptance of her that made her take one. She nibbled the top. ‘They’re delicious,’ she said.
Sam seemed satisfied. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you my rope swing.’
She watched him walk towards the door, unsure whether she should follow. She had been on the verge of leaving and yet she was torn. He paused in the doorway and looked her straight in the eye. There it was again. That look. That determination.
‘Come on,’ he repeated.
Lizzie couldn’t refuse him any more than she could refuse his mother. She followed him out into the garden, across the sweeping lawn which led down to a stream. The rope swing hung from the bough of a sturdy-looking apple tree.
‘Can you hold my cake please?’ asked Sam. Lizzie obliged and watched as he took hold of the fat stick which served as a seat and swung across without a sound. He stared at her triumphantly. Lizzie realised that some sort of reaction was required so she said, ‘That’s very clever,’ although it sounded flat to her ears. Sam probably felt this too and swung back to stand next to her and reclaim his cake.
‘You can have a go if you want,’ he said offering her the stick. Lizzie didn’t think her mother would appreciate her estranged daughter making an exhibition of herself at Bea’s wake, although she suspected that Bea would have loved it.
‘It’s all right. I’m enjoying watching you,’ she said, realising that this was true. Sam nodded solemnly and embarked on another swing, cake in hand this time.
‘Why haven’t you ever come here before?’ he asked once he was back at her side. Lizzie admired his candour. For Sam, this was merely a question that needed an answer, whereas for Lizzie, it was a can of worms she’d stuffed in the back of the cupboard a long time ago. Why hadn’t she returned to the place of her childhood for fifteen years? Why had she stayed away so long?
‘Well, I live a little way from here.’
‘Just outside London,’ said Lizzie hoping Sam’s geography wasn’t up to much.
‘That’s not far,’ he declared. Damn, thought Lizzie, why are kids so clued up these days?
‘Well I work a lot,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Sam, seeming to understand this. ‘Mum used to work a lot too before she got sick.’ Lizzie nodded, hoping the subject was closed. It wasn’t. ‘I suppose we could have come to visit you though.’
‘I suppose you could have.’
‘Why didn’t we then?’
Lizzie didn’t know what to say. This was the first time she’d properly met Sam and it was clear that he and Bea shared more than just facial resemblance. There was something in his honest and direct questioning that reminded her so much of her sister. ‘You’re very like your mum,’ she said fondly, hoping to buy a little time.
‘Everyone says that,’ observed Sam, sounding bored. ‘So why didn’t we see you then?’
Lizzie sighed. ‘It’s complicated.’
Sam kicked at a stone. ‘Adults always say that.’
Lizzie didn’t feel qualified to deal with this. Sam needed answers. She just wasn’t sure that she was the one to give them. ‘I used to see your mum.’ She knew how inadequate a response this was even before the words were out of her mouth.
Sam narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t you like kids?’ It was black and white to Sam. You chose not to see me. You don’t like me.
‘It’s not that.’
‘What then?’ Lizzie was silent. ‘Is it something to do with Granny?’
‘Yes,’ said Lizzie uncertainly.
‘Because she never mentions you. Or rather we’re not supposed to mention you when she’s around.’
‘Oh. Right.’ At least I know where I stand, thought Lizzie. ‘Did your Mum ever talk about me?’
Sam shrugged. ‘Sometimes. She said you’d fallen out with Granny and so didn’t want to come home.’
Lizzie nodded. ‘That’s about the size of it.’
‘Do you miss my mum?’ he asked, eyeing her closely.
‘Very much,’ said Lizzie without hesitation.
Sam nodded, satisfied that he was getting an honest answer. ‘I’m going to get another cake,’ he said, heading back up the lawn without a backward glance.
Part of Lizzie longed for him to stay. It might be odd to confide your innermost feelings to a ten-year-old but Lizzie got the sense that he understood, that he knew Bea like she knew Bea; an uncomplicated relationship based on love and trust. They had both lost the source of their comfort and protection. The difference was that whereas Sam had his father and grandmother and no doubt plenty of friends to envelop and help him through his grief, Lizzie had no one. She was alone. She had deliberately built her life in this way because she’d always had Bea. Now that Bea was gone, she literally had no one to turn to. She felt her stomach twist with panic at the realisation of this truth. She stared at the house, trying to imagine her sister appearing at the back door, waving and wandering down the garden to join her.
‘I miss you Bea,’ she whispered. She considered going back inside to find Sam but then she risked bumping into Joe or, even worse, her mother. It was at that moment that she noticed a male figure make his way out onto the lawn and walk towards her. At first she thought it might be Joe but as she shielded her eyes against the sun, she recognised him. She felt an overwhelming urge to run away but he was striding purposefully towards her, waving and smiling so she stayed rooted to the spot. It was fifteen years since she had seen him and as she watched him stroll down towards her she was immediately transported back in time. She remembered how her heart had surged whenever he had walked into the room, her teenage self filled with longing for his attention. He had made her feel protected and special until it had all turned sour. He must have noticed her guarded expression because at first he looked unsure, studying her face for a clue as to whether he was welcome. She told herself to stay calm. She didn’t need to deal with this now, in fact she was unsure if she ever wanted to deal with the hurt this man had caused her. She wanted to be on her way. She looked into his clear blue eyes and did her best to keep her face neutral. He smiled confidently. He had always been confident. It had been one of the things she had liked most about him. As a teenager he had been boyishly good-looking with the charm of youth to carry him. Age had allowed him to grow into his looks, and his once dark hair was now flecked with a little grey.
‘Hello, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you.’ His voice was warm and genuine but Lizzie wasn’t about to be drawn in by his easy charm. Too much had happened since the time she had been his girlfriend. He had been one of the reasons she’d left Smallchurch and one of the reasons why she hadn’t come back until now.
‘Hello, Alex,’ she said coldly. He either didn’t pick up on her tone or chose to ignore it.
‘How are you holding up?’ he asked, reaching out to touch her on the arm.
She took a step back. ‘Yes, okay thanks,’ she said. It was a complete lie but she wasn’t about to share confidences with this man. ‘I was just leaving actually.’
He looked surprised but gave a small nod of his head. ‘Of course. I just had to tell you how sorry I am about Bea. I know how close you were.’ His eyes misted with grief and Lizzie felt enraged. How dare he try to hijack her loss? How dare he try to act as if he understood anything? ‘If there’s anything I can do,’ he said.
Such kind words, thought Lizzie, if they were uttered by another person, but from Alex they were like a cheap unwanted gift. She could have reacted in a hundred different ways, said everything she’d practised in her head over the years, but today wasn’t about Alex Chambers. Today was about Bea; her darling lost sister. ‘I’ll be fine thank you,’ she said turning away and walking back towards the house. It was another neat lie. Five reassuring words that meant nothing.
She hurried through the patio door, past a small gathering of people chatting in hushed tones over the strawberry pavlova. They turned as she entered but she ignored them all. She was giving herself permission to flee. Bea wouldn’t want her to stay, not after her encounter with Alex. She had almost made it to the front door when she heard a voice behind her.
‘Oh Lizzie. I didn’t realise you were here.’ From another person, this might have been a declaration of pure joy but from Stella Harris it managed to sound both cold and critical.
Lizzie turned to face her mother. In the gloom of the church, she hadn’t looked at her mother’s features properly. Now, in Bea’s brightly lit hall with the sun streaming into Stella’s face, Lizzie was shocked by how much she had aged in fifteen years. Her mother had been forty-five when she had last seen her. If someone had described Stella as being in her late sixties, Lizzie would have believed it. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, like a map of her life’s experiences. She observed her daughter, unsmiling, unimpressed. Lizzie couldn’t bear that look. ‘I’m going now. Would you say goodbye to Joe for me?’
‘I most certainly shall not,’ snapped Stella.
Her mother wanted a fight. Lizzie saw this now. ‘Goodbye,’ said Lizzie turning away. She couldn’t handle this. Not today. She knew it had been a mistake coming to the house. It was like being smacked in the face by the past over and over again. She might have been able to deal with this if Bea had been here but not on her own.
‘Well I don’t suppose I’ll see you again then,’ said her mother. There was something about the way she said this that was less critical and more regretful.
Lizzie turned back and looked at her, seeing sadness in her face that mirrored her own. She couldn’t bear it. ‘Goodbye, Mum,’ she repeated.
She hurried to her car and flung open the door, flopping down into the driver’s seat and telling herself that it was nearly done. She had almost made it through the day. All she had to do was drive home and she would be safe. Someone tapped on her window and she jumped. It was Joe. He was holding his hands up in apology, a parcel tucked under his arm. She sighed as she wound down the window.
‘Hi, Joe. Sorry, I was going to say goodbye but I couldn’t find you,’ she lied.
‘No worries,’ said Joe ever reasonable. ‘I just have something I need to give you. From Bea.’ He held out the parcel and Lizzie stared at it. As soon as she saw Bea’s writing and the name, ‘Lizzie Lou’, she felt her pulse quicken.
‘Do you know what’s inside?’ asked Lizzie, her voice almost a whisper as he handed the parcel through the open window.
Joe shook his head. ‘No, but Bea was very precise in her instructions. I was to give it to you on the day of her funeral. You know what she was like,’ he said with a fond smile.
Lizzie nodded. She looked down at the writing and ran her hand across it. Joe took a step back as if he were intruding on a private moment. ‘Well, I should let you go,’ he said. ‘Thank you for coming. It meant a lot to Sam and me.’
Lizzie knew that she should have a better response for Joe, something heartfelt and consoling, but she was too caught up with thoughts of Bea’s parcel and the need to be on her way. She laid it carefully on the seat next to her, like a mother placing her newborn in a cot.
‘Thank you, Joe. Goodbye,’ was all she could manage before she drove off. She didn’t make it very far before she pulled over at the side of the road and sat with her hands on the steering wheel, staring out at the bright summer sky, her mind racing with thoughts of her sister. She picked up the parcel and hugged it to her chest as the tears fell easily and the sobs overcame her so that she thought they would never stop.
I woke the next day with a start, being quite simply torn from a dream about Jack – a memory of playing with him on the beach as he tried to put wet seaweed down my back. As I became more conscious, the loss of losing him hit me all over again.
I knew immediately that someone was in the room with me. I was face down on my pillow and I leaned up and swept my curtain of tangled brown hair off my face. Harry was sitting next to me on the bed, sipping his coffee and reading my very dog-eared copy of The Hobbit.
I scowled at him. I wasn’t a morning person.
‘Do you not knock?’
Harry’s attention didn’t even waver from the page he was reading. ‘You gave me a key.’
‘I could have been naked.’
He put his book down and looked at me. ‘All the more reason for me not to knock.’
I blushed and climbed off the bed.
Most mornings I woke to this. I must admit, it was a lovely way to wake up. One night, after these early morning visits had become more regular, I went to bed in my sexiest lingerie in the hope that the following morning he would come in and be so turned on that he might immediately ravish me. But not only did he not even bat an eyelid when he saw me in my black, satin nightie, he was more excited about his McDonalds breakfast and the free hash brown he had been given by the girl flirting with him behind the counter than what I had to offer. To add insult to injury, as I tried to arrange myself subtly into a sexy pose on the bed next to him as he chomped through his Bacon and Egg McMuffin, I had simply slithered off the bed into a crumpled heap on the floor. Nowadays it seemed much easier and more comfortable to sleep in my regular pyjamas.
Harry handed me a coffee fresh from the café round the corner. I took a sip – it was made exactly how I liked it, with three sugars and a dash of hazelnut syrup. As I went to take another sip, I realised that a small heart had been drawn in the froth on the top. I smiled and hovered near his side, peering round him to the brown paper bag I could see tucked by his hip.
He was busy reading so I coughed loudly to gain his attention. When he glanced up, I looked deliberately at the bag.
‘How do you know this is for you?’
‘Because you always bring me nice things from the café. What is it this morning, an apricot Danish, ooh a walnut plait or…’
He whisked it out the bag and showed it to me, and the words dried in my throat. Iced into the top of my favourite cinnamon swirl were the words ‘Marry Me.’
I had almost forgotten about this silly hundred proposals thing. I’d hoped he’d forgotten as well. But now it looked like he really did mean to torture me. One hundred days. One hundred different ways to break my heart.
I looked at him and he was watching me hopefully.
‘It’s certainly unique.’ I took the bun from him, and picked a currant out of it, averting my gaze from his. I forced my voice to sound normal before I spoke again. ‘If I bite into this am I at risk of swallowing a diamond ring?’
He shook his head. ‘No ring. You said a ring was clichéd. Besides, why propose with diamonds when you can propose with cinnamon and coffee?’
‘You should take a picture of it before I eat it. Put it on the blog.’ I had a huge lump in my throat.
‘Good idea.’ He whipped out his phone, pressed a few buttons and pointed it in my direction. I held it out for him to get a good angle and realised my hands were shaking. Harry realised it too. To my shame, tears swam in my eyes.
Harry was off the bed in a second. ‘What’s wrong, what’s happened?’
‘Nothing, I’m fine. Just tired.’ I stepped away from him but he pulled me back, holding me tight and squashing the bun between us. I breathed him in, his wonderful earthy smell as he started to stroke my back.
‘Did something happen with Tiny Tim?’
I couldn’t keep up with the lie any longer and it had achieved nothing anyway.
‘We broke up,’ I said into his chest, hoping that would explain why I was soaking his shirt with my tears.
‘Oh honey, I’m sorry.’ His hand moved to my hair and my breath caught in my throat. ‘Had you been seeing him long?’
Oh what a tangled web we weave.
‘A few weeks. It wasn’t serious, but I really liked him. But obviously I liked him more than he liked me.’
‘Well then the man’s an idiot. Who wouldn’t love a girl in a cow print onesie?’
He tilted my face up to look at him.
‘Right, enough tears. Any man who makes you cry is not worth it.’
If only he knew.
‘Anyway, I have a day out planned for you today, so stop moping around and get yourself showered and dressed.’
He released me and we both looked at the squashed bun. Although it looked a bit worse for wear, the words ‘Marry Me’ were still very obvious on the top. Harry took a photo and I quickly ate it so I wouldn’t have to stare at the empty words any longer. It tasted good, despite the fact that with every mouthful my heart broke a little bit more.
‘So, as proposals go, is this what you imagined for yourself?’ Harry asked, when it was gone.
‘Undoubtedly. The perfect proposal. So you don’t have to bother with the other ninety-eight different ways now. Write on the blog that you bought me a cinnamon swirl and I caved. I’m a cheap date, easily pleased.’
Harry pulled a face. ‘It was a bit cheap and naff, wasn’t it? Ok, for my next one it will be something huge.’
‘Really, the cinnamon swirl was cute… and don’t underestimate the value of cute.’
But Harry was already walking away into the office, scrolling through his phone as he went.
‘Harry, are you listening? Nothing says ‘I love you’ like a personalised cinnamon swirl.’
‘Get in the shower, woman, I need to make some calls.’
I sighed. I had to sway him from this path. Ninety-eight heart-breaking days stretched ahead of me like an endless desert, with no respite from the sun.
I got in the shower and stuck my head under the stream.
No, I could do this. Proposals were my entire waking life. My dreams were plagued by them too. Something like this could only be good for business. I just had to become immune to the words. They were empty and meaningless. And now I knew that I was to expect it every day, I could prepare myself for it, pretend in my head the words meant something else.
I got dressed quickly and walked into the office.
‘Hey.’ Harry was busy typing. ‘Our blog has nineteen followers already.’
‘Our Proposer’s Blog? This hundred proposals malarkey?’
‘Malarkey? I’m offended.’ He smiled up at me briefly before returning his attention to the screen. ‘Yes, I guess they want to see what I come up with next.’
I leaned over him to see what he had written and caught a whiff of his wonderful clean earthy smell. There was the close-up picture of my squashed bun, and another picture I hadn’t realised he had taken – of me eating it, my hair a full bird’s nest, my face red and blotchy from the tears, dressed in my rather unflattering cow print onesie. Great!
Under the picture was Harry’s blog.
Day 2: The Cinnamon Swirl Proposal. Location: Suzie’s bedroom (I assure you, nothing saucy going on here).
Is the way to a woman’s heart through her stomach?
Our Suzie McKenzie has a very sweet tooth and so I thought to charm her with a sweet proposal of her own. Nadia’s Bakery, St Patrick’s Road makes the best Cinnamon Swirls in the world and it’s one of Suzie’s all-time favourite things to eat for breakfast. So when I explained the situation to the lovely Nadia this morning she was more than happy to provide me with a personalised one along with a heart-topped latte.
So what was Suzie’s reaction? She seemed a bit blasé about it actually. Wolfed it down and barely registered the words.
That wasn’t true of course, but it was better he wrote that than writing that I burst into tears.
I always thought those proposers that pop the question with a ring at the bottom of the champagne glass were silly – who wants to fish the diamond ring out of the toilet a few days later? Though now Suzie’s eaten my proposal, there’s nothing left of it apart from the icing on her lips.
I immediately checked my lips and I saw Harry smirk out of the corner of my eye.
Next time, I will do something grand. Something she can’t possibly miss. Plus, who would really say yes over a 59p Cinnamon Swirl?
‘That makes me sound shallow,’ I said, squeezing past him to log on to my own computer.
‘Not shallow, just greedy. And don’t bother logging on, we’re going out.’
‘I can’t, it’s our busiest time of the year, you know that. Three days before Valentine’s Day, all those last minute Larrys will be phoning us up for support.’
‘I’ve already diverted the calls to your mobile and you can still pick up your emails, besides today is completely work orientated – we’re sourcing new locations, so stop making excuses and get your boots on.’
When I hesitated, he grabbed my hand and pulled me out the office.
I laughed. ‘Where are we going?’
‘First stop, we’re going to buy you some decent pyjamas, so the next boyfriend won’t be scared off by seeing you in that onesie.’
I stopped dead and when he turned to look at me, his eyes were kind.
‘Jack bought it for me,’ I said, quietly.
‘I’m not getting rid of it.’
‘I’m not saying throw it out. But I know Jack, he had a wicked sense of humour and you know as well as I do that he bought it for you as a joke because you used to take the piss out of onesies and people that wore them. You know that he never intended for you to wear it at all let alone every day since his death. If you want to keep it, keep it. All I’m talking about is options. Something else you could wear that would show off that fabulous figure of yours.’
I opened my mouth to protest as the last words he said slammed into my brain. Fabulous figure?
He moved his hands to my shoulders and when he spoke his voice was soft.
‘I know you’re trying to keep your brother alive, keep him close, but he would be cringing if he could see you wearing that thing and you know that. Keep him close with your memories of him, not by compromising who you are.’
I blinked. That was very profound for half nine on a Thursday morning.
‘I’m just saying, the Suzie McKenzie I know and love wouldn’t be caught dead in something like that.’
‘I think it’s funny.’ I knew I sounded like a petulant child.
‘Yes, for about five minutes after you opened your present – it’s not quite so funny eight months later.’
He had a point. I’d washed it so many times that the white patches were now grey and the udders were looking decidedly limp.
‘And while we’re on the subject. You can stop wearing black as well. We’re not in the Victorian times anymore.’
He pulled me into the bedroom and I followed, still in shock over his brutal honesty. He opened my wardrobe and pulled out my favourite scarlet jumper dress. ‘You can wear this today with those purple leggings.’
They would clash horribly. I smiled
‘And you can wear them with those Barbie pink boots you love so much and…’ He rooted around in one of my drawers, finally found what he had been looking for, pulled it out and thrust it into my face. ‘This. You’ll wear this.’
‘No buts. Get changed. You have five minutes.’
I stared after his retreating back and then down at the black shirt and black trousers I had put on out of habit. In the months after Jack’s death my taste in bright and garish clothes had seemed disrespectful somehow. Was one month too soon to return back to my colourful spots, stripes and swirls? Was two months? But now it had been eight months and I had seemingly been wearing black ever since. My bright clothes even seemed to have a thin layer of dust on them as they hung forgotten in my wardrobe. Harry had a point. Again.
I came downstairs a few minutes later, dressed in my purple leggings, scarlet jumper, pink boots and my red and gold spotted sequinned beret that I adored and Jack hated because he said I looked like a toadstool. I felt lighter already.
Harry grinned when he saw me. ‘You look beautiful.’ He offered me his arm. ‘Now let’s go.’
I leaned into him and walked out into the early morning sunshine.
‘No way. I’m not doing that,’ I said, staring at the scene before me in horror. ‘There’s nothing romantic about that.’
‘Who says proposals have to be romantic?’ Harry said as he bent down to forcefully remove my boots.
‘It’s the rules. Flowers, fireworks, chocolates. A stuffed teddy with the words emblazoned across a red heart. Not this. Never this.’
‘You would,’ I said as Harry pushed me gently but forcibly forwards in the queue.
‘I think proposals can be weird, funny or in the case of this little adventure, adrenaline filled.’
I was next.
‘If I die –’
‘I’ll wear a cow print onesie to your funeral. Now get up there.’
My phone rang in my pocket.
‘Oh I have to get that, shame I’ll miss my turn.’
But to my annoyance, Harry had already wrestled my phone from my pocket and had answered it. He was more than capable of dealing with our customers and he knew I knew that.
‘Are you going or what, love?’ asked a big gruff man whose face looked like it had been punched several times. His nose was bent in two places and he had a huge scar across his forehead. Had he sustained these injuries doing this? I shrunk back but Harry pushed me forward.
‘Yes she is, and send her as high as you can.’
The man nodded, somewhat evilly I thought.
I climbed the steps to my doom and they attached thin rubber cables to my harness. I kept my eyes on Harry as the man bounced behind me for a few seconds, causing me to bounce as well. A moment later I was propelled some ten feet into the air, a scream tearing from my throat. I fell back to the earth but no sooner had I touched the ground than I was sent back into the air again, this time even higher than the last.
We had been walking along the Thames when the sounds of screams had attracted us. As we rounded the corner, we saw the bungee trampolines and watched with amusement as we saw people screaming, being bounced higher and higher in the air. My amusement had quickly turned to horror when I realised Harry had paid for me to have a go, and that we had come here deliberately for this reason.
I screamed again as I flailed in the air, kicking my legs helplessly in the hope that it would slow my descent. Each time I thought I was going to crash into the ground, I came to a slow stop, bounced gracefully off the trampoline and was propelled back into the air again. As I was thrust into the air for the fifth time, a bubble of laughter escaped my throat. It was a rush – a terrifying, brilliant rush. The man bounced with me, sending me higher, and I roared with joy.
All too soon the experience was over, and the man slowed me down and stopped me. He unhooked me and I quickly clambered down the steps and ran straight into Harry’s arms, still laughing uncontrollably.
Finally my laughter subsided.
‘You’re very welcome,’ he said, into my forehead. ‘You see, at this point, while your heart is still pounding furiously and with the grin plastered on your face, I would propose.’
‘And I would say yes.’
I felt him smile into my hair.
‘So one we can definitely add to our repertoire?’
‘Yes, I take it all back. I love it.’
‘They’re not here all the time, but the guy is going to give me his card as they go all round the UK. We can phone them up if need be and find out where they are.’
‘Excellent, it’s great to get contacts like this.’
‘Are you ready for the next part of our day?’
I pulled back, intrigued. ‘There’s more?’
‘Yes.’ He chivalrously picked up the bag containing the pyjamas he had bought me earlier. Very simple, very elegant satin pyjamas. I’d liked the black but Harry put his foot down and we’d eventually agreed on a dusty rose.
‘Was the phone call anything good?’
‘I’ve emailed over to him our basic package.’
I sighed. ‘That’s the fourth today.’
‘Hey, the basic package is a good little money earner. You know – on average – half the customers that buy the twenty pound package from us, come back and spend ten times that on a big extravagant proposal.’
‘I know, but at this time of year I kind of expect to get more big proposals rather than so many basic packages.’
Harry was right, we earned quite a bit from our basic package. For twenty pounds, we sent our customers a brochure of our top fifty proposals. Ideas ranging from the romantic to the ridiculous, top class restaurants to tiny little tucked away cafés strewn with fairy lights. We included days out, fun experiences and romantic getaways. We also included vouchers for discounts and special offers at these hotels and restaurants and if our customers went there, we also got ten percent of their final bill from the companies for introducing our customers to them in the first place. It also gave brief details of more elaborate proposals, something only we could organise, with the promise of a refund of the twenty pounds if they were to book one of the grander proposals with us.
‘Romance isn’t always about big gestures though,’ Harry said. ‘Sometimes it’s the words the man finds or the effort that he has gone to. It doesn’t have to be something expensive.’
‘I know that, the smaller gestures are sometimes the best, a message written in the sand on a favourite beach or a personalised cinnamon swirl.’ I nudged him as we walked along the road and he smiled. ‘But from a business point of view I’m not sure people paying us twenty pounds to send them to propose elsewhere is the best idea. They could spend a hundred pounds or more at these posh places. That’s a hundred pounds they could have spent with us.’
Harry switched sides with me and I wondered why as he put himself between me and two men who were arguing, placing his hand on the small of my back as he nudged me round them. I felt embarrassed by the goose bumps that suddenly exploded over my body at his touch.
Harry continued on as if he hadn’t noticed my heart leap out of my chest. ‘Most people have in their mind what kind of proposal they want to do before they contact us. For most of them it would involve some kind of romantic meal, so they’re not likely to spend their money with us anyway. By providing them with a list of romantic places to eat, not only do we get the twenty pounds but also any kickbacks from the restaurants too. We’ve probably earned more money from the basic package than we have from the big proposals – so I wouldn’t knock the smaller gestures if I were you. Come on, through here.’
Harry ducked into a tiny alleyway that wound round the corner out of sight. He knew London like the back of his hand and very rarely went on the underground. There was always so much more to see when on foot. I followed him, his hulking frame almost filling the alley wall to wall. The walls were covered in graffiti and chewing gum, but some of the pictures sprayed on the bricks were very skilful. As we came to an old boarded-up window, he stopped and as I drew near he pulled me to his side, with his hand at my waist, sending delicious shivers down my spine.
‘There’s a place called Bubblegum Alley in California, and a Chewing Gum Wall in Seattle, where millions of pieces of gum have been stuck on the walls. It’s so bright and colourful that what started as something gross has now been declared an official tourist attraction. People travel from miles around to see it and to add their own gum to it. Some have even created little works of art amongst the thousands of globules.’
He stood back a bit and pointed to the wall. There in a heart made from pink chewing gum were the words ‘Annie, marry me,’ also made from chewing gum.
‘Love can be found in the most unlikely of places, you just have to look for it.’
He stared down at me and for a moment I wasn’t sure if he was talking about him, or about me and him.
‘It doesn’t need to be about romance, just little heartfelt gestures.’
I smiled. ‘I wonder if she said yes.’
Harry pointed to the green letters written in globules of chewing gum underneath the heart. In big proud letters, the word ‘Yes’, stood out.
‘I like it.’ I grabbed my phone from my pocket and took a few shots. I had to put this on the website.
‘I knew you would.’
‘You see, I don’t need big gestures, so whatever you have planned for our next proposal, it doesn’t need to be a big yacht or a trip to the moon.’
He walked away, heading towards the sunlight that was piercing our gloom.
‘I’ll cancel the space rocket then.’
‘Harry, I’m serious. Don’t waste your money on me.’
He ignored me as we stepped out into the sunlight. He was incredibly generous with his money and he had a lot of it. He didn’t get a very good salary from me but he didn’t really need it. Years before, whilst travelling around America, he’d had the foresight to invest in a tiny little up-and-coming online social media site called Connected. He’d given a thousand dollars at the time, money he had won at a casino, and years later, when Connected had been the biggest social media site in America and probably the world he had sold his shares for a huge sum. He’d never told me how much he got from that little endeavour. But it was enough that he could afford the huge house on the other side of the green from me, bought when the property prices had plummeted. And he always seemed to have enough money for little gifts and meals out.
‘Spending money on you is never a waste. And we’re running late now so we’re going to have to run.’
He grabbed my hand and started jogging through the streets, winding his way expertly through the other people.
‘We could catch the tube,’ I whined, as I tried to keep up with his long-legged pace.
‘Running’s much more fun,’ Harry said, without breaking his stride.
The Glade at Sketch was like nothing I’d ever seen before. With its white bricked front, Sketch looked like a simple townhouse – and we’d actually walked past the place before we’d realised it was there. But down the darkened staircase and to the left, a tranquil wooded glade had been transported from some fairy tale forest to this seemingly unassuming restaurant in central London. Trees covered every wall and surface, the leaves of which were painted in every shade of green and gold imaginable. A huge chandelier dominated the ceiling, casting delicate lights over every surface from its tangle of branches. Tiny gold fireflies danced around the walls and floor. Mirrored panels near the roof moved slowly, catching the light from the huge sun roof above us and sending its rays across the room as if the sun was moving through the trees. Wicker chairs, tables and sofas with huge green embroidered cushions were placed casually throughout the room as if they were garden furniture and we were all just simply sitting out in the garden somewhere, enjoying the sun.
‘Harry Forbes, we have a reservation for afternoon tea.’ Harry said to the beautiful waitress who looked like a woodland nymph with the plaits and twists in her hair, and her floaty dress.
The waitress showed us to our table and we quickly placed an order for tea. Breakfast tea for me, something that sounded like a rare tropical disease for Harry.
‘Harry, this place is beautiful.’ I couldn’t stop looking around, until my eyes met with his and I realised he’d been watching me. ‘Thank you for today.’
‘My pleasure. I just wanted you to have some fun. You’ve been so down lately.’ He paused, awkwardly, while he rearranged the cups on the table. ‘The food here is amazing.’
I reached across and squeezed his hand. ‘Thank you.’
The afternoon tea arrived just as Harry was poised to say something else. I reluctantly let him go so there was room for our cake stand on the table.
Harry was right, the food looked and tasted amazing. The sandwiches were all topped with extras like quail eggs and caviar, bringing a simple egg mayonnaise sandwich alive with an assault of different flavours.
There was an array of cakes, all tiny, mouth-watering bites of pure pleasure, some kind of trifle and of course delicious fresh fruit scones.
‘So tell me,’ Harry said around a mouthful of something chocolaty, ‘Tiny Tim, did you and he…?’
Oh God, Tiny Tim was going to come back and haunt me forever.
I picked up some kind of pink meringue that literally dissolved as soon as it touched my tongue. I licked my lips as I played for time.
‘Did we what?’ I smirked as Harry shifted uncomfortably, waving his hands around in what I presumed was some kind of representation of the act. The man had no problem discussing his sordid sex life but he was still awkward when discussing mine. I wanted to play him at his own game.
‘He liked to dress up,’ I said as I popped some kind of fruit tart in my mouth. The fruit was crystalized and was like an explosion on my tongue.
Harry’s eyes widened. ‘Like air hostess, police woman, cheerleader, that kind of thing?’
I shook my head. ‘Lots of different things really. One of my favourites was dressing up as a unicorn and he was a lion. He liked to take me from behind and he would roar when he came.’
Harry stared at me, his face unblinking. I picked up a tiny coffee éclair and caught the eye of a tiny little old lady sitting at the next table, her fruit tart poised halfway to her mouth. I blushed, realising she had heard every word.
Still, there was no going back now.
‘He liked to dress up as one of the flower pot men, Bill normally, I’m not sure why. I was always the flower, Weed. Then Bill would come at me with his big hose.’
The old lady leaned over to me. ‘Dear, do you have the name of the shop where you bought these costumes?’
‘I don’t I’m afraid, Tim always brought them with him. I will miss his big hose.’
Harry was still staring at me. ‘I didn’t realise you were into all that weird stuff.’
I licked the icing off the top of the éclair and popped it in my mouth, trying desperately to suppress my laughter but it was to no avail. I snorted so hard that a bubble of snot burst from my nose and I quickly had to wipe it away on my beautiful cotton serviette.
‘You’re joking?’ Harry looked almost relieved.
‘Of course I am.’
‘So you guys… didn’t…’
‘It’s none of your business. Just because you like to talk about all your sexploits, doesn’t mean the rest of us do.’
‘That’s a ‘no’ if ever I heard one.’ He smiled smugly. I wasn’t going to let him get away with that.
‘It’s a ‘yes’ actually, but it was just regular sex.’ I wanted to expand on that, regular sex sounded so boring. ‘Well as regular as three hour sex marathons can be. He had the stamina of a horse. We’d do it all over the flat. On the dining table, up against a wall, in the shower, in the kitchen, on top of the washing machine, backwards, forwards, sideways, doggy style.’
The old lady choked on her fruit scone.
‘Sideways?’ asked Harry.
‘Yes. You should try it, it’s great fun. Can you pass the sugar?’
I stared down at my tea. Sideways, how exactly would that work?
‘Tell me about your plans for the summer. You said you were thinking about going to New Zealand.’
Harry recovered himself well. ‘The land of the hobbits. I would love to. Maybe hire a camper van and drive from North to South. There’s so many things I want to do, but it’s more fun doing them with someone else.’
‘Sexy Samantha not keen?’
‘She’s definitely not the camper van sort. She’s more of the ‘five star hotel with daily spa treatments’ kind of girl. We should go.’
‘I would love that, I want to see the world, every tiny little pocket of it, but no girlfriend of yours is going to be happy about you taking another woman off on holiday. Sleeping together in the back of the camper van.’ I blushed as Harry’s eyebrows shot up. ‘I meant actually sleeping – not having sex.’
The old lady leaned in closer again, ready to catch the next instalment in my sex life.
‘I should hope not,’ Harry said, his tongue licking seductively up the side of his éclair. ‘I don’t have a lion costume.’
I sat back and watched the gold fireflies chase each other up the walls. I was so uncomfortably full, but everything was so hard to resist, that I’d had to eat it all.
We’d had a lovely time, chatting all afternoon, but one of the main topics of conversation from the other guests was the toilets and how funny they were. I had to check them out myself.
I excused myself from the table and, following the directions of the woodland nymph waitress, I walked through another restaurant to a very white room on the other side.
The stairs leading up to the toilets were a brilliant opulent white – looking like they led to somewhere much grander than just some toilets. I walked upstairs to a brightly lit room, the ceiling decorated with beautiful rainbow tiles, but as I reached the top I stopped in my tracks. Several pods sat in a white chamber at the top of the stairs, looking like white cocoons from an alien spaceship. They were about seven foot tall and tapered off like eggs at the top.
I looked around for the toilets but there was nothing else up here. On the other side of the room were several more pods. These pods were clearly the toilets and were obviously the reason for such amusement from the other guests.
I opened the door on one of them, expecting to hear some kind of space age whoosh and was slightly disappointed when I didn’t.
Inside was the weirdest toilet I had ever seen. There was no seat at all. I walked in and closed the door behind me. It was obviously some foreign kind of toilet where you stand. A long ceramic oval hung from the wall jutting out at the bottom to catch the waste. I stared at it – how on earth was I supposed to pee in that? Backwards seemed the only safe option. With a bit of negotiating I pointed my bum in the right direction and leaned forward into a sort of half squat. I quickly finished and after redressing I left the pod, dying to tell Harry about the very weird toilets. He was standing right outside and looked shocked to see me coming out of one of the pods.
‘What?’ I said
‘These are the boys’ toilets.’
I laughed. ‘No they’re not, the waitress pointed me up these stairs.’
‘Yes, the girls’ pods are over there.’ He pointed to the other side of the stairs where several pods were bathed in pink lights in comparison to the pods where I was that were bathed in blue.
Harry peered over my shoulder and burst out laughing. ‘Did the urinals not give you a clue?’
I looked back and gasped in horror. I had just peed in a urinal. Now he had pointed it out to me it was obvious. It wasn’t some weird foreign type toilet at all, just a bog standard urinal. I felt my cheeks glow crimson.
‘I’m intrigued. How exactly did you manage to pee in there?’
I quickly hurried to the sinks and washed my hands. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
I heard Harry go into one of the pods, his laughter so loud I could hear him from the outside.
To see the rest of the story pre –order your copy of One Hundred Proposals now. http://amzn.to/1ouP9w0
Pre-order your copy of One Hundred Proposals now: Amazon UK
‘Ok, you can open your eyes now,’ Harry said.
I blinked in the gloom of the cave. Moonlight tumbled through the opening above us, reflecting off the waterfall as it cascaded into the pool below. We had been in Australia for just a few days but I knew it would never cease to amaze me. Dancing in the pockets of the cave walls were hundreds of fireflies, sparkling like fairy lights.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
The fireflies started to gather together and slowly a shape was formed. I frowned in confusion and then within seconds the words, ‘Suzie, Marry Me,’ stood proud against the cave walls, written by the fireflies.
I whirled round to face Harry in shock. ‘How did you do that?’ I looked back at the fireflies, not wanting to miss anything. Would they perhaps move to form the lyrics of my favourite song? Were they super trained fireflies and in a minute they’d all whip out their mini cheerleader pom-poms and start some kind of dance where they would balance precariously on each other’s backs?
‘It’s some kind of fruit juice, they love it.’
I fumbled in my bag for my camera. ‘We have to get a picture for the website.’
I fired off a couple of shots and I could see a few other tourists had entered the cave and were clearly waiting for my answer. They’d be waiting for a long time.
‘So what do you think?’ Harry said. ‘Is this the perfect proposal?’
‘It’s definitely one of your best, very romantic.’ I focused my attention on the photos I was taking. They were going to look fantastic with the waterfall in soft focus in the background and the fireflies in sharp detail set against the inky blue light of the moon.
‘But still not the perfect proposal?’
‘Not for me, but someone else would love it.’ I watched the faces of the other tourists fall at my callous response. ‘We’re not together, we just work with each other.’ One couple looked at me dubiously, so I pressed on. ‘Our company creates the perfect proposal, this kind of thing is our bread and butter.’
I resisted the sudden urge to rush over to them and start handing out business cards. As if reading my mind, Harry slung an arm round my shoulder, restraining me with his hand.
I looked up at him innocently but he didn’t seem convinced.
The tourists moved further down the cave, leaving us alone.
‘You always do that,’ Harry said.
‘What, promote our business? I know, I can’t help it. I’m just so proud of what we’ve achieved that I want to tell anyone that listens and anyone that doesn’t.’
‘No, not that. You always say our company, our business. It’s yours, you started it. I’m just the tech guy.’
It was just me to start with. I created the.PerfectProposal.com over two years ago when my boyfriend at the time proposed drunkenly to me over a greasy kebab. It struck me that maybe the menfolk of this world might need a little helping hand to create a proposal their girlfriends would remember forever. Although the greasy kebab is not one I’m likely to forget.
Harry was my web designer. When the business first started he would come by my office, the back bedroom in my home, every day to help update the website with my new ideas, photos and special offers. In the end it made sense to make him a permanent feature. Our website looked fantastic and as an online company this was integral to our success.
But Harry wasn’t just the geeky IT guy, far from it. He was the biggest man I had ever seen in my life, with large thighs and big feet. He had stubbly, dark hair and chocolate eyes. But he also had a vivid imagination – where I was organising the logistics for a champagne helicopter trip, he would be the one that would come up with something completely unique like using fireflies.
‘And you always put yourself down. We’re equal partners now, you helped to make the company a success too,’ I said.
He shrugged, never keen to accept that he played such an important part in it. He gestured to the fireflies that were starting to break formation now. ‘Is it too sickly?’
I let my camera hang round my neck and leaned into him, I loved the way I fitted against him. ‘I love it, I really do, it’s… magical. But there’s still something missing.’
Was there really such a thing as a perfect proposal? Three months ago, just before Valentine’s Day, Harry had made it his mission to provide me with one. But deep down I knew what I wanted and I doubted Harry would be able to deliver it. I should have told him that when he first started this wild goose chase. It would have saved me a lot of heartache.
Three Months Before
I put the phone down on another excited client and sighed. It was February 11th and we’d had a surge of customers all desperately wanting to propose on top of the Eiffel Tower on Valentine’s Day. I felt like screaming. It was only by careful planning that I’d arranged that my customers weren’t going to be there at the same time. That’s just what a girl wants to feel special, to see other girls being proposed to at the same place and time that she was. Was there no originality anymore? Harry was brilliant at coming up with unique proposals, but no matter how many times I had tried to sell Harry’s ideas to them, they wanted the traditional and that was that.
‘Another Eiffel Tower?’ asked Harry as he absentmindedly uploaded photos to our rolling gallery.
‘He wants a dozen red roses delivered to the observation deck at eight.’ I rubbed my head in defeat. ‘What about something different, going to the ballet or proposing over a bag of chips at the end of Brighton Pier?’
He swivelled in his chair. ‘What would be your perfect proposal?’
I looked at him and had a sudden flash of him holding me in his arms and asking me to marry him.
‘I don’t know, the perfect guy would definitely be a bonus.’
‘Ok so you have your perfect guy and it’s not greasy kebab boy –’
‘Let’s be clear, it was the kebab that was greasy not the man.’
He waved away the details. ‘So Orlando Bloom or some other non-greasy hunk is asking you to marry him, how would he do it?’
I took a sip of tea whilst I pondered this. If one of my customers phoned up at a loss for inspiration I had a hundred ideas. But for me, my mind was blank.
‘I have an idea.’ Harry’s eyes were suddenly bright with excitement. He whirled round on his chair and started tapping away furiously on his computer. I peered over his shoulder at our website.
How Do You Propose to a Proposer?
Over the next hundred days I intend to find out. I will find one hundred ways to propose to our Chief Proposer Suzie McKenzie, and post the results here for your enjoyment. One thing’s for sure, not one of my proposals will be on top of the Eiffel Tower with a dozen red roses.
‘You can’t put that, we’ve had fifteen customers who want to propose like that over the last week,’ I said, ignoring the sudden thundering of my heart that Harry was going to propose to me.
‘Then maybe they’ll have a rethink.’ Harry was already uploading a picture of a diamond ring onto the blog.
‘Or ask for their money back.’
But Harry was still writing.
Day 1: The Traditional Proposal. Location: Our office.
He stood up and got down on one knee – yanking the snake ring off his thumb, he held it aloft to my shocked face.
‘Suzie McKenzie, you are my best friend and I cannot imagine finding anyone I would rather spend the rest of my life with. Marry me.’
The world stopped. My mouth was dry. How unfair was it that the one thing I wanted most in the world was happening right in front of me and it was as real as a pair of breasts on Sunset Boulevard.
I wanted to snatch the ring off him, stuff it on my finger and march him down to the nearest registry office. But I didn’t.
I cleared my throat of the huge lump. ‘Too clichéd, wrong location, wrong ring.’
He grinned as he appraised his ring and stood up, clearly not fussed by this rejection. He started typing.
Crashed and Burned. Apparently a snake ring with evil red eyes and the beige walls of our cramped office isn’t good enough for her. I’ll try again tomorrow.
Surely not. A hundred days of this torment? I didn’t think I could bear it.
He looked at his watch. ‘Oh, I’ve got to go, hot date with Sexy Samantha again tonight.’
Samantha was his first girlfriend in nearly a year. When I first met him he seemed to go through a different girl each week, so I wasn’t sure why he’d gone through the sudden dry patch. But Samantha was definitely the type to tempt him out of it.
I’d had the pleasure of meeting Sexy Samantha the night before. Suspicious of Harry’s relationship with his best friend, she’d barrelled into my home and demanded that Harry introduce me. I came downstairs in leggings and an oversized black hoodie – I knew I was hardly dressed to impress. And impress her I didn’t. The look of relief when Samantha saw me was palpable. She, on the other hand, was a vision of heavenly loveliness. She was almost as tall as Harry, with long blonde hair and curves everywhere. My eyes were immediately drawn to a big pair of breasts, squeezed between an overly tight top. Harry was definitely a breast man. All of his girlfriends were very well-endowed in the breast department. Some of the breasts, I suspected, weren’t even real – though Harry didn’t seem to mind. I was more in the straight up, straight down department, definitely no curves and not really any breasts to speak of.
I watched Harry log off his computer with haste and obvious excitement about what Sexy Samantha had in store for him that night.
‘I have a hot date too,’ I blurted out, watching for any flicker of jealousy. Of course there was none.
‘That’s great Suze.’ He looked genuinely pleased. ‘You haven’t seen anyone since Jack…’ He trailed off. My life was defined into two segments. Before Jack and After Jack. I wondered if Jules felt the same. He grabbed his jacket, averting his eyes from me, perhaps knowing that he had said something he shouldn’t. ‘It’s about time you got back on the horse again. We can swap notes tomorrow.’
‘Or not.’ I couldn’t bear thinking about that conversation. The literal ins and outs of Harry’s date would be something I really didn’t want to hear. I’d changed the subject twice that morning already when he started giving me explicit details that would be right at home on the pages of an erotic fiction novel. Sexy Samantha was far kinkier than those baby blue eyes might suggest. Besides, what did I have to contribute to that conversation? My hot date consisted of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a night in with the beautiful Brad Pitt. I logged off my own computer, keen to show him I also had something exciting to run off to.
‘Where did you meet him?’
I racked my brain as I fluffed out my hair in the reflection of a photo showing me and Harry covered in snow and grinning ear to ear after sledging at the indoor Snow Zone. Before Jack.
‘Skiing,’ I said, then wished I hadn’t.
He stopped in his hasty exit. ‘Skiing? When have you been skiing?’
‘I go every Sunday, skiing lessons, he’s my ski instructor.’ I was making it worse.
‘You hate skiing.’
I had said that hadn’t I. Because this photo was taken when we had our first and last skiing lesson a year before. I had spent forty minutes falling on my bum – as kids as young as five glided effortlessly past me – and the last twenty minutes of the lesson, after Harry had been upgraded to the adult slopes, trying to get up and rolling around on the floor with my skis in the air, looking like an oversized beetle stranded on its back. Harry had felt sorry for me that I had failed so spectacularly and had taken me sledging instead. Much more up my street. There was no skill at all involved in sliding down a slope in a red plastic sledge.
‘I like it now. I’m very proficient. Obviously just needed the right instructor.’
‘Well that’s great, maybe we can go together sometime.’
I fixed a smile onto my face. ‘Maybe.’
‘What’s his name?’
I cast around for a suitable name and a suitable adjective to describe him, something comparable to Sexy Samantha. I had nothing, no names in my head at all. The only name in my head was Harry and that would be too weird. He was staring at me, waiting for me to come up with a name, the silence stretched on. I had to say something.
‘Tim.’ I almost shouted out with relief. ‘Tiny Tim.’
Great. Just great.
Harry’s face fell. ‘Tiny Tim?’
‘As in…’ he waggled his little finger at me.
‘No, no, of course not, he’s very big in that department. Big all over in fact. Huge. It’s kind of an ironic name.’
‘Big like me?’
‘Well I have no idea how big you are in that department.’ My eyes cast down to the sizeable bulge in his jeans and I felt my cheeks burn as he clearly saw me checking him out.
‘I meant in height,’ Harry said. I’m sure I saw his mouth twitch as he supressed a smile.
‘Oh yes, he’s very tall.’
‘Good. That’s good. I have a friend who’s a ski instructor at the Snow Zone, he might know your Tim. What’s his surname?’
I was a terrible liar.
A horn tooted outside and Harry peeled back the net curtain to wave at Sexy Samantha as she leaned on the bonnet of her sexy red convertible. I didn’t think I’d ever be so relieved to see her again.
‘Well have fun.’ Harry threw me a cursory wave as he thundered down the stairs. A second later I heard the front door slam.
I peered out the window, hoping not to be noticed as Harry swept Sexy Samantha into his arms and swung her round as if he hadn’t seen her in months. As he deposited her on the floor she waved up at me and I was forced to wave politely back.
With a wheel spin and the stereo blaring out something young and hip, the red convertible roared up the road, taking my heart with it.
I’d been in love with Harry for two long, painful years and we were further away today from getting together than we had been when we first met. We were now firmly in the friend zone and there was never any coming back from that.
Two years was way too long for unrequited love. It was time I moved on with someone else. I would just fall out of love with him, simple as that.
I sighed as I walked into my bedroom and got changed into my cow print onesie. I flicked through some songs on my iPod until I found something suitably rousing and as Gloria Gaynor started belting out ‘I am what I am’, I turned up the volume, leapt up onto the bed and danced and wiggled my bum in time with the lyrics. I was highly skilled in the playing of air drums and as Gloria reached a crescendo so did my frenetic drum playing. As the instrumental kicked in I leapt off the bed, doing the splits mid-air. I pulled a muscle in my groin and as I flicked my hair theatrically out of my face I saw Harry’s eyes widen in horror as I landed on top of him, one leg somehow hooked over his shoulder as my other foot kicked him square in his crotch.
He screamed in pain. I screamed with embarrassment as he staggered back and landed hard on his bum, my leg still wrapped round his neck.
Gloria was still singing loudly in the background as we stared at each other. Finally I managed to speak.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Currently, wondering if I’ll ever be able to have sex again. Can you please get off my lap?’
I quickly climbed off him, kneeing him in the face as I tried to stand up. He slowly staggered to his feet, doubled over in obvious pain.
‘I forgot my wallet,’ he said, by way of explanation.
I swallowed. ‘You saw me dance?’
He lifted his head and this time there was no mistaking the grin. ‘From the very beginning to the dramatic finale.’
‘I better go, Samantha will be wondering where I am. Nice onesie by the way. Does Tiny Tim have one too? A horse or a pig perhaps?’
I stared down at myself, at the pink udders hanging limply from my stomach, and wanted the ground to swallow me up. ‘He’s not coming round till later.’
‘Of course not. And I imagine he thinks you look quite cute in it.’
Cute? Puppies were cute. Is that how he thought of me, as a cute little puppy?
He moved to the top of the stairs and I followed him.
‘Do you think I look cute in it?’
He turned and walked back up a few stairs, kneeling on the stair below me so we were eye to eye. ‘Yes.’
My heart dropped. I was so far in the friend zone I was now categorised as cute. He’d be patting me on the back next and telling me he saw me like a sister.
My heart sank into my feet.
‘I bet Samantha would look sexy in it?’
‘I doubt it. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to look sexy in it.’
I felt slightly better at this.
‘And don’t underestimate the value of cute, it’s a great quality to have.’ He leaned forward and kissed me on the nose. ‘And don’t stay up too late, I have a big day planned for you tomorrow.’
He ran down the stairs and was gone a second later.
I touched my nose, still feeling the softness of his lips. He thought I was cute. I smiled as I fell in love with him all over again.