Lucy saw me first, so I didn’t have a chance to avoid her this time.
We were standing on opposite sides of the narrow road that ran along the beach, her by the sea and me in front of the shops. She had one hand at her hip, thumb up and forefinger pointed at me. ‘Hey Craig!’ she shouted, and when I looked over she pretended to shoot me with her finger and blow imaginary smoke from its tip.
I clutched at my chest, which was the accepted response to this little in-joke of ours, while Lucy laughed and mimed holstering her hand-gun. With her other hand she pulled her sunglasses off – big bee-eye frames that covered half her face – and she waved at me with them.
Lucy stepped off the curb and dashed over to me through a break in the traffic. She jumped up and hugged me, kissing my cheek and swinging from my neck, perfume and sunscreen rubbing into my tee-shirt, her too-big beach bag crushed between us. She was twenty six, five years older than me, but in her excitement she seemed almost childlike.
She let go and stepped back. There was a navy blue lock in her hair. That was new. Even with hair as dark as hers it stood out, and I wondered how you got away with that working in a bank.
‘They let you out of head office?’ I said.
She smiled and nodded. ‘They let me come back here at night and weekends. It’s been ages, Craig,’ she said. ‘I miss you.’ There was a pause, just a beat, and then she said ‘I mean, I miss all of you guys.’
‘Yeah, me too,’ I said, and then played the same game back at her: ‘Everyone misses you too.’ I hadn’t seen her since Christmas, when she’d left our local branch of the bank to work in London. We said we’d keep in touch, but I’d put a wedge of distance between us as soon as she left.
I nodded towards the Starbucks on the corner. ‘Have you got time for a coffee?’ I asked, thinking that she would say no, that she was on her way to the beach, and we would say how nice it was to bump into each other and leave it at that. I could carry on with avoiding her, and forgetting about her. But instead Lucy blinked in the sun, dark blue eye shadow over light blue eyes, and nodded to The Ship on the other corner.
‘Or a proper drink?’ she said.
We bought drinks and sat on high stools in the window, looking out to sea around a barrel that had been converted into a table, and I realised that the last time we were here alone was the night she had kissed me.
That was payday drinks, a year ago. One minute it was eight o’clock. What felt like half an hour later it was closing time, my head was spinning, and only Lucy and I were left in the pub. There’s a gap in my memory. I can’t recall leaving, but I remember the two of us standing at the bus stop just outside. Lucy leaned in to me and said ‘see you tomorrow, Craig,’ when her bus turned the corner onto the seafront. But then she pressed her lips onto mine, one hand cupping the back of my neck, one grabbing the front of my sweater, guiding me toward her, keeping me in place, both of us drunk and unsteady. I kissed her back, my fingers curling around the toggle buttons of her coat, but she pulled away.
She smiled and stepped onto the bus. She didn’t look back, just walked to the back and sat down on the far side. She wiped condensation from the window with her sleeve and stared out at the sea as the bus pulled away, but it was so late and so dark that she must have seen only her reflection staring back at her.
I stood at the bus stop with my mouth still open, swaying and shocked at a little kiss, as if it had changed my whole world.
The next day I suggested a drink after work. Lucy said no, and joked that after last night she was never drinking again. There was no awkwardness, but also no mention of what had happened between us, and I wondered if she even remembered it.
I shook the memory away.
‘—and the people are really nice,’ Lucy said. She was talking about her promotion, something to do with managing the accounts of the bank’s wealthiest customers. ‘It’s so corporate though,’ she said. ‘Not like here.’
I looked at her hair again, and that blue band of dye running through it like the shine on an old vinyl record.
‘And how are things with you?’ she said.
‘My contract comes to an end in August,’ I said, and I realised as soon as I said it that this was like a rumble of thunder, rolling in to rain on the good mood we were both in.
There was a pause, and then Lucy said: ‘Well, once you finish up you can do anything you want.’ She had suggested a proper drink, but while I’d ordered a pint, Lucy was drinking lime and soda through a straw, the bee-eye sunglasses lying upside down on a beermat on the barrel-table between us. She had slipped her sandals off, and was tapping her naked feet on the sides of the barrel.
‘Yeah, I suppose I could travel,’ I said.
Lucy put her drink down. ‘You could,’ she said. ‘There’ll still be some summer left here, but you could go on a big trip like you always wanted to. Chase the sun!’ She grabbed her glass again and smiled as she put the straw between her teeth.
‘Chase the sun,’ I repeated. I liked that. I liked the way that Lucy put things. And she was right. I could see out the contract and then have an adventure chasing the sun wherever I wanted. But was that true? My job didn’t pay well, and I’d have to get another one quickly.
Lucy shook her head, as if she could read my mind. ‘You don’t have to go on a round-the-world cruise,’ she said. ‘But you can afford to go away somewhere, and it’ll do you the world of good!’ She nodded on the last word, as if that settled the matter.
I’d forgotten about this, her infectious enthusiasm, and the way she could turn the bad things in life on their head, as if they couldn’t touch her. It made her seem carefree, years younger than me instead of years older.
‘You could come with me!’ I said, and I cringed as soon as I said it, my toes curling into fists in my shoes. This felt very much like we were headed back into the territory of Making A Pass.
Lucy shook her head, still holding the straw between her lips. She gulped and put the glass down. ‘I’ll be away myself then,’ she said.
‘Where to?’ I tried to appear casually curious, but my voice sounded high-pitched and needy.
Lucy stared out of the window, to the sea beyond. I didn’t follow her gaze, but looked at her instead. She seemed serious now, the high spirits evaporated. ‘Just away for a week or two,’ she said. She added nothing else, no mention of where she was going, or who with.
I’d forgotten about this, too—the way she could seesaw between being over-friendly and aloof, when the focus shifted to her, when there was the chance that I might get a foot in the door of her life.
‘Oh, how lovely,’ was all I said back. It was as bland and lifeless as what she’d said to me, and it sounded almost sarcastic, as if I was making light of having just stepped in dogshit.
A song came on through the speaker above us—Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police. ‘I love this song,’ Lucy said. She sounded relieved, saved by the music and back on safe ground, talking about things that didn’t really matter and wouldn’t make either of us uncomfortable.
We’d heard this song before, Lucy and me, on the radio in her car, when she gave me a lift home from work one random rainy night, a few weeks after that kiss outside the pub.
Lucy had bounced along to the music in the driving seat as her Corsa inched through heavy traffic. While she stared at the road, I stared at her, watching her singing, rain drumming on the roof like a rapid heartbeat, almost drowning her and the radio out.
‘Do you want to go for a drink?’ I said.
She glanced over. ‘I’m driving,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Not now. Another time.’
Lucy frowned, as if mulling it over. ‘It’s payday drinks next week,’ she said.
‘No, not payday drinks,’ I said, worried that I hadn’t been clear, that I hadn’t been unequivocal. ‘Just you and me, on a date.’
We stopped at traffic lights, and Lucy turned the radio down and faced me. She smiled, but it wasn’t the kind of smile you want in response to being asked out on a date. It had pity in it. Embarrassment too. The smile you give your dog when the vet is about to put him to sleep; a smile that says sorry, this is going to be awful, but we’re going to get through this. We’re going to be okay.
‘Craig, we work together,’ she said.
‘I’ll resign,’ I said. I meant it as a joke, but it didn’t sound funny—it sounded desperate.
Lucy said nothing, just smiled that benign and pitying smile.
‘But you kissed me,’ I added. Now I sounded petulant, and entitled.
The traffic lights changed from red to green, and Lucy turned back to the road. She wasn’t smiling anymore. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘But it was just a drunken kiss Craig. Just something that happened in the moment.’ She glanced over, nibbling her lip, worried how I might react to being rejected. ‘It doesn’t have to mean anything more than that, you know?’
I smiled and nodded. ‘I know,’ I said, shifting to damage control mode, ready to downplay what I’d said and walk it all back. ‘It’s really fine. It was just an idea.’
Lucy smiled back, relieved. ‘Let’s just get you home,’ she said. ‘And maybe we can have that drink another time.’
It sounded like a gentle let down, and maybe it was, or maybe the timing was just off. I never got to find out, because a month later she was promoted to head office, a sudden departure, and I found myself promising to keep in touch at farewell drinks in The Ship, the conversation in the car never mentioned again.
Lucy finished her drink, mining the last of the lime and soda from the bottom of the glass with her straw. She put the bee-eye frames back on. ‘The beach awaits!’ she said.
We walked out into the sunshine, past the bus stop where we had kissed.
‘It was good to see you Craig,’ she said. She leaned in, hugging me goodbye, hands around my neck again, perfume and sunscreen on my tee-shirt. Then she kissed me, aiming for the cheek, but catching the side of my mouth. ‘Next time you see me,’ she said, ‘stop and say hello.’
I watched her walk towards the beach, wondering if she might turn around, but she didn’t look back. As she reached the steps leading to the sand she lifted one arm and flapped it behind her. It could have been a wave, but she didn’t turn her head, and I thought afterwards that maybe she had just been swatting a fly.