As the rich light of the golden hour began to creep into the corners of the studio apartment, Norah flopped down on the sofa. Six hours of almost uninterrupted unpacking later (not including the regular stops to lose herself in TikTok, of course) and the apartment was looking a little more like someone lived in it.
She had to, begrudgingly, admit to herself that whilst she could convince herself she did not miss a lot of things about being with Paige, she really did miss the efficiency with which she would have unpacked and set up the apartment. It was a stupid thought, she chided herself, because if she was still with Paige, she wouldn’t have needed to unpack into a new apartment at all.
Irritated, she roughly pulled something out from under her back and thew it across the room. It was her jacket which landed softly on the wooden floor and the card from the hazel-eyed woman poked out of the pocket, enticingly, like a siren’s song. Her heart started beating a little faster as she remembered how the woman’s smile had made her tummy flip in a way she had thought she was immune to nowadays.
Realising she didn’t even know the woman’s name, she cautiously approached the card, as if it might bite her hand. The cream-coloured card felt solid, not flimsy like the ones she had made last summer for her dog walking services.
Rachel Cloud – Junior Publisher, Kite House
A publisher! Right! That made sense Norah thought. That was why she was interested in the diary. A shot of disappointment ran down her spine at the idea that the whole interaction had just been a professional pitch.
However, she also felt a strange tingle of excitement at the idea that Margot’s story hidden for so long could be shared with the world. Margot deserved that.
Grabbing a can of cream soda from the fridge, Norah fished the diary out of her bag and settled herself back in her window seat. The sooner she finished the ‘book’, the sooner she could call, although she was not entirely sure if she was doing that for Margot’s sake or her own.
It’s been three days since I met with Nancy. Three whole days. I needed that time to check that it wasn’t a dream. That those minutes and hours spent together were real and not an elaborate fantasy I had concocted as an antidote to my dull existence.
I wanted to keep the memories of our time together to myself; to keep replaying each second over and over in my head but I worry that I’ll start to forget if I don’t write it down and I want to capture every perfect detail. Because that what it was - perfect. Nancy is perfect. It seems crazy to me to think that we’ve only spent one evening together; that she hasn’t always been a part of my life. It feels like she should have been.
As luck would have it, as I was walking home from the hospital, desperately trying to figure out a way in which I could be back there at 7pm, a call came from the Cotton’s house.
“Margot! Oh Margot! Do you have a minute?” the voice of Laura Cotton earnestly asked.
My thoughts were spinning around my head like the waltzers at the carnival and hearing Laura’s call bought them sharply to a stop.
“Of course Laura, anything for you, you know that” I replied forcing a smile onto my face.
Of all the lessons that my mother had instilled in me before my marriage, the importance of cordial neighbourly relations was the one that she had really hammered home. At the time I had thought them unnecessary but, my goodness, that evening I could have kissed her for that advice.
Laura’s face visibly relaxed as I walked towards her front gate. Sshe was looking a little dishevelled, a loose curl breaking free from its pin and bouncing in the wind on her pale forehead.
“I was wondering if I could ask a favour? It’s about watching the children for a night. I know it’s short notice but would you be able to watch them tomorrow night for me? You would really be saving my bacon. Matthew wouldn’t mind me saying I’m sure, but we can’t really afford a sitter at the moment and my sister is out of town visiting her husband’s family for the week. The children know you and they don’t sit well for a lot of people but they adore you and your little ones” She barely paused for breath as she looked at me beseechingly with her enormous blue eyes.
“It’s just tomorrow night could be a real big move for Matthew with the bosses at the Firm. It’s the first evening event he’s been invited to and he has been waiting for an invite for months - and we both know what it could lead to. I would do the same for you of course!”
A light beat of sweat gathered on Laura’s lip as she spoke at a rapid fire pace the anxiety radiating off of her. “No notice required at all. Heck! I’d even do tonight if you wanted me to.”
I tried to keep the delight off my face at her offer. If this wasn’t a sign that I should go, I didn’t know what was. I pretended to take some time to think about it before taking her hand in my own
“Oh Laura, I’m so pleased that you thought you could ask me. I would be delighted to look after them. They’re no trouble at all” I lied smoothly. “Actually, you would be doing me a huge favour. A friend of mine is back in town for the night; a High School friend I haven’t seen since she went and got herself married to a farmer and moved out to the sticks a few years back. That would work out perfectly.”
I could barely believe how easily I fabricated the tale. Me! The person who felt guilty telling Thomas about Santa Claus knowing he would one day realise it had all been a lie.
Laura fought and failed to keep the startled look off her face. She clearly had not been expecting me to take her up on her offer and especially not so soon. I couldn’t blame her. In the five years we had been neighbours, I had never once done anything socially without Ray in the evenings.
“They are with my mother at the moment but she will be bringing them back around 5ish, so they will be fed and I’ll bring them and their travel cots around to you at 6.30 with a couple of books they love for all the children to enjoy. Is that ok?”
Laura and I exchanged a few more pleasantries and thanks to each other for our neighbourly care and I had to stop myself from skipping home. I found myself humming a song I’d heard on the radio as I prepared the children’s dinner ahead of their arrival home and I treated myself to a mid-week bath, which felt like a luxury indeed not having to share it with any other family members.
The rest of the afternoon passed by in a bit of a blur. I was aware I was doing things but I couldn’t tell you how I did them. I have no idea what Thomas said to me when he came back from being with Grandma or whether Elise was calm or fidgety. The only thing I can remember is trying to choose an outfit and cursing that so much of my wardrobe made me look like a dowdy wife.
I settled on a navy blue dress that cinched me in at the waist a little more than my others - God knows, I needed it after the children, matching it with a pair of red leather shoes that matched my lipstick. I applied more make-up than I had since my wedding and twice during the process, I felt self-conscious and wiped it off before deciding that without it I looked like a Plain Jane.
As I closed the gate to Laura Cotton’s garden and walked in the direction of the hospital, I could feel my heart slamming against my rib cage. I definitely had not been this nervous the first time that I had gone out with Ray, but then I don’t think I’d ever felt the way I had when Nancy lightly touched my hip compared to when Ron touched me - well, anywhere.
Enough. I thought to myself. If I was going to do this, I needed to leave all thoughts of Ray and the children behind for the evening. I needed this. For myself. Whatever it was; however it went, this was something for me. Something I had needed for a long time.
When I saw her there, resting casually on the pole of the corner lamppost, I wished more than anything that I could just watch her for a while to see how she interacted with the world with such ease, such grace. She smiled warmly at colleagues as they passed by and as the wind threw out a sharp chill, she pulled the collar of her coat up around her neck so that it almost touched the bottom of the grey beret that was perched perfectly on her blonde hair.
She spotted me and I almost lamented the loss of my anonymity. Wandering over to me, a slight grin settled into the corner of her mouth.
“Spying on me were you?”
She stopped just a little closer than was appropriate in front of me, a light challenge in her eyes.
I swallowed, desperately trying to ignore the heat burning from my cheeks that felt even warmer in the crisp air. I opened my mouth to try and offer some smart retort, or perhaps an apology. I wasn’t even sure but it didn’t matter because nothing came out and I was left there gaping like a fish out of water.
This was not the way I had hoped that this evening would start and I was suddenly visited by a panic that I had not had to contend with since Thomas was born. My vision became tunnelled, my breath caught in my chest and I closed my eyes as embarrassment flooded over me. Soft, cool hands cupped my face and lifted my head until I was looking into eyes that looked like an endless blue sky.
“Hey” her voice was soft “it’s ok. Take a couple of deep breaths. I’m sorry if I upset you. That was my awkward attempt at humour. I don’t socialise much anymore.”
I smiled feebly at her.
“No, I was worried my spy cover had been blown.”
The sound that emitted from her as she threw her head back and laughed was a rich, deep sound and it was in that moment that I fell hopelessly in love with her. I could not have explained how I knew to myself or to anyone else, but it was now a concrete fact. I was in love with a woman. A woman that I knew nothing about.
“Are you feeling better now”’ her concern was laced with the lightness from her laugh.
I nodded firmly.
“Well then, let the evening begin.”
She linked arms with me and despite my usual need for personal physical boundaries, her closeness felt perfectly natural. She steered me back down the street I had come from.
“Come on, this way. I know a great little place we can get a drink and, maybe, even some little snacks”.
We stopped outside a small place almost tucked away despite it being in the middle of a main thoroughfare. It looked more like a house than a soda shop. The person behind the bar nodded at Nancy who nodded back. She was obviously a regular. Walking to the back of the room, she slid into one of the red and cream leather booth benches and had placed a menu in my hand before I’d even taken off my coat.
“The sodas are incredible. It’s only been open a month or two but it’s my new favourite spot that’s for sure. I had a really interesting chat with the owner when I came here last time.” She inclined her head towards the man at the bar.
“They seem pretty forward thinking, which is harder to come by in this part of the world than you’d think”.
I felt warm at the idea that she had bought me to her favourite spot; sharing that with me seemed strangely intimate, although, for all I knew, she regularly brought someone here - but I really hoped not.
“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Norah’s thoughts spilled out of her mouth. Was this the coffee shop that she had spent her eventful morning? She re-read the description of the place and given Teresa, the barista had said about the places history she decided there was a really strong chance that it was. Maybe she would go back tomorrow to ask a bit more about its past. If it was, it might give her a good reason to call the number on the card that Rachel had given her to see what her intentions might be – with the diary of course, Norah kept her line of thinking purely professional.
She hopped up from her seat to grab herself a packet of crisps and the last of the blueberry sodas. Filling her mouth with potato goodness, she settled back into her spot and continued reading. If only her English Literature teacher could see her now she thought, actually reading something that wasn’t just that ‘strange space stuff’ as he used to refer to the books Norah wrote about in her reports. He sure had been a stuffy old git, but she had been rather fond of him.
‘I laughed more freely that night then I think I had for many months. Not that I’d realised it. I thought I had been perfectly content and happy with my life but being around Nancy made me realise that wasn’t the case at all. Being with her just made everything seem easy. I wasn’t reaching for things to say, I wasn’t smiling along to what she was saying with no real interest. She fascinated me, every word out of her mouth was interesting.
Seeing my empty glass, she gestured towards the clock.
“Do you want to grab another one or do you need to be heading home?”
I wanted to pretend the clock didn’t exist at all - to swipe it off the wall so we wouldn’t have to be restricted by something so rudimentary as time. However, I knew I didn’t have that luxury, so I glanced towards and felt my heart lift. It was only 9pm and I had told Laura I wouldn’t be back until 10.30pm. Ray would be back by 11pm so it gave me time to make sure the children were settled and be in bed myself, so he wouldn’t notice a thing. Not that there was anything to notice, I reminded myself. The fact that I had fallen head over heels in love after a single meeting did not meet that the beautiful woman across from me had too, although, I had a little hope after seeing her eyes linger on me when she thought that I wasn’t watching.
“I could go for another. I’ll just have what you are having”
I held out my glass to her and our fingertips brushed, I almost dropped the glass in surprise. There had been a jolt between us, stronger than a regular electric shock. I was sure of it and looking at Nancy’s face, I saw the surprise mirrored in her face. It had sent pleasant shivers right to my core and I felt my body warming.
When she returned with the drinks, two cherry sodas, complete with cream and cherries on top, she didn’t slide back into her side of the bench but, after a moment’s contemplation, took a seat next to me.
I felt myself go rigid, suddenly very aware of every movement my body was making. What I wanted more than anything in the world was to move closer to her; to feel the warmth of her body next to my own like I had for those wonderous seconds in the hospital so, before I could think myself out of it, I did just that. I slid over in the seat so that the sides of our thighs were resting against each other. I resolutely did not look in her direction as I did so, twirling my straw as if it was the most captivating thing in the room.
Something about the ease in which I could be myself around her gave me a confidence, I would never have normally associated with myself. Slowly and cautiously, as if approaching a wild animal, I lowered my right hand onto my thigh and inch by inch moved it until my little finger was touching the fabric of Nancy’s chino trousers.
Seconds past that felt like torturous hours and just as I began to feel foolish that I had misunderstood every sign I thought had been aimed in my direction, I felt her hand brush along my own and our fingers became intertwined. It felt surprisingly cool next to my own hand which I was sure had become sticky with anticipation.
The silence between us in that moment was louder than any of the laughter we had shared the rest of that evening. We stayed, hands linked, for a while;, joined under the table, speaking their own language as we explored each other’s hands. Until a middle aged gentleman marched past our booth on the way to the toilet causing us both to jump and to retreat quickly.
I leant forward to take a sip from my drink for something to do and Nancy laughed lightly as I sat back.
“You’ve got something….here, let me.”
She lent in and her thumb gently wiped away cream that nestled into the corner of my mouth. Her hand cupped my face and the humour was replaced was something more intense. She stared into my eyes. I could feel the desire in them as her own eyes flicked down to my mouth and back up. I found myself doing the same and just as I began to almost involuntarily move towards her, she pulled her hand back abruptly, got up and moved herself to the other seat.
She wouldn’t look at me and any attempts at conversation on my part were met with little input. I felt deflated. Had I done something wrong? I thought we had both been on the same page and whilst this seemed both scary and exciting for me, part of me assumed as she had taken the lead in the hospital, that this wasn’t the first time she had done something like this. I started to feel embarrassed. For the feelings I had felt towards her; for the way I had acted and all I wanted was to be at home, on my own where no-one would be able to see the shame I felt.
I glanced at the clock.
“Oh I didn’t realise it was getting so late. I’d better be heading home. The children need settling.”
I rummaged in my bag for my purse and left my money for the sodas on the table making sure not to look at Nancy’s face for fear I might cry in front of her. I rose and made a swift exit from the bar.
I’d only taken a few steps before I suddenly found myself pulled into one of the darkened side streets. Before I could gasp, a hand pressed itself to my mouth. The perfume that wafted off the mystery person who had me pinned to the wall was familiar and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I stopped my struggle as I saw it was Nancy, her eyes wide as she held me in place.
“I’m sorry” she panted “for this and for how I acted in the bar just now. I…I panicked. I saw that man go into the bathroom and it spooked me and then I started worrying about other people and about whether I was being presumptuous. We’ve only just met and I didn’t want you to get the wrong impression. I really like you but I have to be careful. I… I’m sorry.”
All her confidence from earlier in the evening seem to have left her as stood pressed against me.
Her hand dropped from my mouth and rested on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have acted the way that I did. Not when we’d had such a lovely night together. I suppose I can just be a bit protective of myself. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve thought someone felt the same way as me and I’ve acted the fool and been hurt. And when I’m way off the mark, well that’s a whole other mess.”
I nodded as if I understood but I barely recognised what I was feeling myself or what these feelings meant in the wider world but she spoke with such conviction and emotion that I felt nodding was the only thing I could do.
“Anyway, I just didn’t want you to think that I hadn’t had a wonderful evening with you - because I did, I really did. The nicest I’ve had in I don’t even know how long to be honest and, if you wanted to, if this doesn’t also seem too much or too strange, then I would really like to do it again.”
She removed her hand from my shoulder and I felt the weight of her body lift from my own. As if being pulled by an invisible string, my body followed and almost as if I was no longer in control of my own movements, I found myself cupping her face and drawing it close to my own as I placed a gentle kiss on her lips.
There was a moments pause and then she was returning my kiss. Her body pushed back against mine once more and her hands were in my hair. Her lips, softer than I had expected, parted slightly and I found myself mirroring the movement.
We stayed like that for sometime until, slightly out of breath, I pulled back and whispered that I needed to get back to the children. The disappointment I saw in her face must have been like looking in a mirror.
“I need to see you again,” I said as we let go of each other’s hands, stepping back onto the main thoroughfare.
It was the most direct I had been the whole evening.
“ I know that might be wrong with the children and Ray but I need to see you again.” I repeated with extra conviction in my voice.
Holding my eye contact, Nancy gave me a slight nod.
“I would really like that. I’m working nights this week. Could you be free on Monday around lunchtime?”
“Yes,” I replied without hesitation.
“Meet me at the corner of Height Park, I’ve got somewhere I’d like to show you”
I barely remember the walk home. I felt like I was walking on air as I collected the children from Laura in a daze and got myself ready for bed. It felt strange to me, and still does, the lack of guilt I had.
It did not feel as if I had done something untoward or shameful by meeting Nancy even though I was going against my marriage vows with Ray. It was almost as if my eyes had been opened and I realised that I wasn’t in love with Ray, not really. I had never been. I loved him but that evening had showed me what being in love was supposed to be like and that was not something that either Ray or I had had.
I forced myself to sleep before Ray got home, not wanting to have to listen to him talk about his evening or to make up some story to explain my own. He would think that odd because I usually did wait up for him - the dutiful little wife, but that wasn’t who I was, not that night anyway. That night I’d had an awakening and nothing has been the same since.