Pursue Friendship
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Pursue Friendship cover

Chapter 1

Freezer

Scenes of Crime Officer

Did the sicko set that up? In the freezer drawer, the fingers of a human hand — severed at the wrist — reached for a strawberry Cornetto. The Scenes of Crime Officer snapped a set of pictures with her Nikon and realised she was whistling the tune from the TV ad.

Busy first day back. Fatal road traffic collision then this gore-fest. Who said Edinburgh was too restrained?

“Just One Cornetto…” the detective sergeant sang, “give it to me… delicious ice-cream… of Italy.

“All done, sir.” She might take a couple more pics of the concrete stairwell leading up to this flat.

The man picked a strip off his fingernail and dropped it over the bloody patch on the carpet. No point telling him not to contaminate the scene — just look at his pullover. He waggled a raggedy thumb at the freezer. “D’you reckon there’s an entire corpse in there?”

She shrugged. “I’m just a SOCO, sir.”

He made a V with two fingers, and pointed at his eyes. “You have these,” he said. “What’s your guess?”

“I’d guess not the entire corpse, sir,” she said. “Because what’s there is in different states.”

“States?” A crust of snot fluttered at his nostril.

She lowered her voice. “Some body parts are cooked.”

The man turned his mouth down, picked the edge of his nose with his thumb and flicked that piece of snot free. “Disgusting.”

He hummed the TV ad again. She’d started something vile.

One last scan of the odd little kitchen-cum-bedroom. If her Keith kept his flat this clean, she’d marry him. Satisfied she’d captured everything, she zipped her camera into the top of her bag.

Before exiting, she pointed her senior officer at the innocuous looking plastic football under the bed beside the jigsaw. “Worth taking a look at that ball, sir.”

Who drew something like that on a football?

She started whistling again, damn it, and the detective sergeant placed a fist over his heart. “Give me Cornetto… from Wall’s Ice-cre-he-he-heam.”


Chapter 2

Brewing trouble

(Friday, 25 November —
several weeks earlier)

Frank

Still adrift in the bliss of his dream, Frank Friendship flopped a big arm across Irene’s chest, turned to plant another kiss and met only pillow. His face sank down, and he dozed on top of her for a bit, content but wondering where her head could have got to, until he’d gathered enough sense to send his arm fishing below the bed.

Nothing.

He opened one eye to double-check that her head had indeed gone, sent his arm away again. It crashed onto the bedside cabinet. Fat fingers fumbled back and forth along the lamp flex until they met the torpedo switch.

Now resentful of being at least half awake, he levered himself up on his hands, leaned over the edge to peer under the bed and saw only his Family of Dolphins jigsaw.

He sat up, scanned the room, and smiled. “There you are,” he said. “Hiding.”

The unheated air of his single-room flat lapped at Frank’s arms and legs. He lumbered to the front door, scooped up the football, and collapsed back on top of Dummy Irene — an Irene he’d made of rolled up towels, spare pillows and laundry, tucked tight in a sheet. He recapitated her. “You look beaut’ful,” he said, kissed the tight-shut eyes he’d drawn, his Movember moustache scraping on the plastic, kissed the giant pouting mouth, then slammed himself onto his back as though flung there.

“What? Not again, woman.” He laughed, and hoisted up his pyjama T-shirt. “Okay, Irene. Go on then. You can rub my front.”

Before Irene could lay a finger on his expectant belly, Frank’s Timex beeped for work.

Marek.

The head rolled off the bed.

Frank’s blood became ice water, but he folded an arm over his eyes and told himself he just had to stay calm. Hold on. Weather the coming storm.


Phyllis

The dark November morning blew a Co-op carrier bag across the threshold of the shop in pursuit of Phyllis Long, as she herself was lashed and whipped into the icy bright interior of Friendship Cafe. Inside, the gale blew harder than on the street and the bag slalomed her boots, dodged her stamping foot then skittered across the mosaic tiles, under the counter, toward the kitchen where Frank should have been.

That’s when she saw him with the door flung wide, standing out back, T-shirt billowing, washing graffiti off the rear window, one letter U still visible. The U was four feet high, daubed in crimson. And Phyllis could guess the word before it had not been ‘Bless’.

Open-Closed-Open fluttered in her face. She banged the door shut, turned the sign to tell Edinburgh they were still closed and chilled her forehead on the glass. If only she had the stamina to give up.

“Bird poop on here,” Frank hollered in when he saw her. A cut and a bruise marked his cheek. Parting shot from Marek, no doubt.

“Must have been a big bird,” she shouted back. Phyllis hung her Burberry next to Frank’s sopping duffle, eye averted so as not to catch her monstrous reflection.

“Splatters,” he said.

The window brush zipped up and down. If vigour counted for anything, beefy Frank Friendship out there — with a chest like Bluto’s and moustache fuller than the brush head — would be her star employee. Frank, though, didn’t play well with others.

“Finish with the window and come in,” Phyllis said. “I don’t pay you to wash windows.”

She scraped her fingers across her uneven scalp to gather then snare her wire-wool hair in three twists, deploying one of the red rubber bands her postman persisted in dropping under the mailbox at the gates of her estate.

Frank doused the panes with the dregs from his bucket. The suds slumped and slid away. After dribbling the residue on the cobbles, he clattered back inside and laid Mr Squiggles, the draught excluder snake, down across the gap between the stone floor and the door, then patted its head.

“Stay,” he said. “Good snake.”

She watched Frank soap and rinse his hands under the cold tap, dry them, squirt out a gob of antibacterial gel, then pull on a fresh pair of Plastico gloves before he would attend to the deli. He’d already distributed the bakery delivery between the baskets. A fresh pair of gloves for that too, no doubt.

“Who do you think invented stuffed olives?”

“Sit down, Frank,” Phyllis said, and pulled out a spindly stool for him.

He watched her, his face greying, then staggered onto the seat.

Phyllis examined her nails. “Why would Marek be too scared of you to come into work?”

“He said that?” Frank said.

“Three days ago.”

Frank compressed his walrus moustache against his bottom lip, thought about that, rubbed his eye with his wrist, then shook his head as though in pain.

“I didn’t catch your answer.”

He shook his head again.

“My conclusion, Frank, is you must at the very least have threatened him.” Her missing eye twitched. “I can’t have bullying.”

He looked up at the ceiling.

“Marek also told Heidi you’ve been putting food out for tramps and bums.” Not a day went by these days but Ellie — their poor cleaner — had to clear human faeces from the office doorways.

Phyllis took an envelope from her coat, put it in his gloved hands. “You’ll want to read that carefully, but I’ll tell you what’s in it.”

“This better not be another written warning,” Frank said.

“It’s a demotion.”

His mouth dropped open. “A demotion? But — ”

“You can’t be the manager if you bully. Your new title is Junior Assistant.”

“But I didn’t bully — ” He stopped himself, clearly fighting tears. “I’ll take a pay cut. I’m not taking a demotion.” He waved the envelope. “If Irene found out I was just a… a Junior Assistant, she’d never come back.”

Seventeen years after Irene left him, Frank still seemed to believe his wife would come back. “Junior Assistant,” Phyllis said.

“But it’s Friendship’s Cafe.”

“Friendship,” Phyllis said. “Not Friendship’s. That’s the only reason you and Rosy got away with changing the sign. It’s still my cafe, and I don’t need a Friendship behind the counter. Understood?”

No answer.

“Frank?”

He folded his arms and narrowed his eyes. “Assistant Manager,” he said.

“The door is right there, Junior Assistant Friendship.”

He flattened his moustache again then threw his hands out. “Who’s the new manager? Mr Squiggles?”

“The new manager,” Phyllis said, “is me, for the foreseeable future. Now, shall we draw a line under this whole mess?”

She reached into her coat again and pulled out a blue envelope. “Happy birthday.”

He didn’t open the envelope, just pushed it into the pocket inside his duffel coat, then stood at the sink.

“I brought you some pick-and-mix too,” Phyllis said. She set the bag of sweets down. “They were all out of sherbet flying saucers.”

She watched his shoulders rise then fall in a sigh.

Too bad. She couldn’t allow herself to be manipulated. Marek wouldn’t even return her calls. Whatever Frank had done this time, he’d gone too far.


Frank

Junior Assistant.

Frank whistled to lift his spirits — what tune, he wasn’t sure, just something that spiralled greenish purple across his vision — and he split the cabbage, sliced it like cross-sections of the Great Gonzo’s brain. Customers came in just for Frank’s coleslaw.

He missed his special knife.

He closed his eyes to shut out all but the almost-colours and almost-shapes his synaesthesia created for him from the sounds in the cafe. The blue triangles that clacked from Phyllis’s shoes. The golden squiggled drip of the tap. The drip had an almost-taste too. Metallic.

That same message had been on the window today again:

SAW U.


Rosy — Frank’s baby, his daughter — has been trying to make changes in the cafe — his cafe — and now as he’s locking up, she tries to give him a book. The Beancounter’s Cafe Handbook: How to run a successful coffee shop.

He rejects it. He doesn’t need a book about that. He’s been doing that for over half his life.

He heads for the Shawford office with the day’s takings, then Rosy shouts at him at the top of her lungs, her voice lit with angry colours and shapes. “She’s going to shut the cafe down.”

The words hit Frank with the force of a slap. That’s not true. He knows that’s not true. But the words sting just the same.

“Where will your regulars be then?” Rosy says and marches up behind him. “Where will you be then?”

Now it’s Frank’s turn for anger and he faces her down. “Shows what you know. Phyllis would never do that. Ask me how I know.”

“How do you know, Frank?” Rosy says, and tries to shove him. “How do you know?”

Her attempt to push him does nothing but stoke Frank’s temper. “Because when nobody else would touch me,” he says, “Phyllis gave me a job. When Findlay and Irene landed me in Young Offenders, Phyllis got me out, and guess what? I still had a job. Other, fancier places have come and gone.” He’s watched them open, watched them close. “But, oh, look at that.” He points at the Tasty Bite, his cafe. “My cafe is still there. I still have a job. Nobody can come between me and Phyllis. You want to know why?” he says, and even though he’s known it forever, seen it deep in Phyllis’s disapproving little eye, what he says next comes as a revelation to him. “Because Phyllis Long is my guardian angel.” He drills his gaze into Rosy’s, then heads for Shawford.

But Rosy isn’t done. “She’s going to shut the place down.” Her voice is steady now and the colours blaze back at him. “She told me. The day I first came to the cafe. You’ll be moved out to work at her estate.”

The foundation stone of Frank’s world wobbles. Rosy’s words are icy fingers squirming in his stomach, sliding up to clutch Frank’s heart. “Her estate?”

“I’m trying to save your job, you stupid man,” she says, and walks away.

The bag with the takings slides from Frank’s shoulder. He hardly notices.

Would Phyllis say such a thing? Would Phyllis do that to him? Close his cafe down and send him to Balewood? After all that happened out there with Frank’s dad? Would her heart be so cold that she’d do such a thing? To Frank?


Happy birthday. Yeah, sure.

Bad things happened on Frank’s birthday. Some of Frank’s worst memories were birthdays. Seventh: lost his dad. Sixteenth: his honeymoon night. Eighteenth: Phyllis took his Escort off him for driving like a maniac. He’d loved that car.

Yeah, happy birthday, Frank.

Thirty-five. Thirty-five and back to being a Junior Assistant after nineteen years’ service. He didn’t want to read the letter. If his wages had been docked, Irene’s share would be bigger than his. No way he could adjust the amount down, or she’d know. She’d know he was a failure. She’d have something to point to, something to justify staying with Findlay.

He dosed a bowl with Frank’s Special Mayonnaise and churned the vegetables around to coat them. Frank’s Special Coleslaw. Now, didn’t that look beaut’ful? Wasn’t that the best coleslaw? Coleslaw like that was manager level, not Junior Assistant level. Coleslaw in other places looked like animal food. Not Frank’s.

He opened the bag of sweets. No sherbet flying saucers. His birthday and no flying saucers. He took out a jelly snake, slid it under his tongue, closed his eyes, let the snake’s sweetness well up.

He couldn’t work at Balewood. He’d rather be in prison. Which was just as well, because that’s likely where he’d wind up. Cafe shut down. Frank locked up. Story all over the newspaper. The Friendship name once again dragged in the dirt. And as a final insult, the reporters would describe him as a Junior Assistant. He could see it now, his face in a police mugshot: Frank Friendship, thirty-five-year-old Junior Assistant.

SAW U.

All because of Marek. Bastard.

The snake slid from beneath Frank’s tongue and he bit off its head.


Findlay

Third morning in a row, Findlay Dickson woke with a smile. The pillow beside him still held the dent of Irene’s head. His Irene. His wonderful, wonderful woman, off to work in the biscuit factory. God bless.

He reached for the remote of their new Samsung. The money for that TV came from the savings account Frank Friendship topped up monthly. They’d bought a forty-inch, the biggest the wall would accommodate, but Findlay didn’t look up at the screen. He hit the button marked 1 and listened to the BBC news headlines.

Floods and a beheading in the Middle East and extremist bombings and a missing toddler and who gave a shit? Why nothing about an Edinburgh murder?

His smile became a scowl and he scrubbed at his scalp.

Third day and no news.

How could that be? There’d been no mistaking Marek’s text from three nights back: Curtain up. Findlay had sat on his hands, so the show should have played out, uninterrupted. By now, there should be bodies.

He farted into the mattress.

Where the fuck were the bodies?


Chapter 3

Removals

Annie

By the time they pulled up in Kaitlin’s Jeep, the removal van was already parked outside Annie’s inherited Georgian flat and Annie, in her inherited shoes, found herself running up the few stone steps to the entrance to prevent imminent humiliation.

Too late. The idiots had stacked the entrance with her junk.

Her face grew warm as she passed her collapsing sofa, dismantled hand-me-down bed frame, yellowing mattress. The hallway looked like they’d dredged a river. She should have hired a skip, not a removals firm.

“Don’t take anything else out of the van until I tell you where it goes,” Annie said. “I don’t want neighbours falling over things.” Falling over themselves, more like. With laughter.

The cheeky furniture mover, the one who’d asked if her bed had seen much action post World War One, carried on his game, drew a dozen white carnations from behind his back. “Show me to the bedroom, doll, and I’ll take these in with me.”

With every quip, his tip grew smaller. Annie grabbed the flowers and gestured him away from the door. “Stay put. I need to put the alarm off first.”

“First? Then the bedroom?” His laugh echoed, chill in that ancient hallway with its porcelain light, cracked chequerboard tiles and no carpet.

Kaitlin laughed, and wagged a finger. “Now, Pad, I hope you’re not two-timing me?”

Pad? Kaitlin already knew his name? Annie rolled her eyes at her friend.

“What?” Kaitlin said.

As soon as Annie unlocked the door, the speaker started its two tone yip-yap. The alarm code was in her purse, scrawled on a note. Becky’s writing.

Annie felt tears fill her eyes. Another random reminder of her sister. They kept hitting without warning. A crappy Royal Bank of Scotland mug from the nineties triggered the last bout, this time an alarm code.

Annie turned her back to the hall, shut off the beeping and frantically dabbed her eyes while Kaitlin clonked in.

“Wow, this place will be stunning. Your sister had great taste.” She stopped. “Oh, Annie — ”

“I’m fine. I’m fine.”

“Two minutes, gents.” Kaitlin pushed Pad back out into the lobby. “Wow, great pecs. Very firm. You work out, don’t you?”

Annie laughed through her sniffles.

“Gimme those,” Kaitlin said, and relieved her of the bouquet. “You sort yourself out and I’ll find a vase.”

“I said, I’m fine.” Annie wrested the flowers back. No need to read the card. She did anyway:

Enjoy your new home, babe. Judd.

His own writing, not the florist’s. He’d been here.

She took the bouquet to the newly installed Belfast sink in the kitchen and Kaitlin followed her.

“Wow, I love this place.” Kaitlin twirled, graceful despite her bulk and those hefty mules. The belt from her coat trailed on the floorboards. “So bright for an old property.”

“You’re about to lose that belt again.”

Annie turned on the water, lifted the guard from the drain. She shoved the flowers in, stem first, and turned on the waste disposal. The mechanism growled. The carnations turned and jerked, but didn’t disappear the way she’d hoped and she had to mash them.

Kaitlin tutted, shook her head. “That’s not like you, Annie.”

“No?” Annie flicked the switch off, jetted the water around the sink with the retractable stainless steel hose Becky had adored that only made Annie think of autopsies. “Well, maybe I’m tired of acting like me.”

“You’re not taking him back, then?” her big friend said.

Annie shivered and turned the central heating on. “I didn’t want him in the first place.” Off in a cupboard somewhere — she couldn’t remember which — the boiler thumped to life. “Judd wore me down, then cast me aside as soon as I showed interest. No, I’m not taking him back.”

“Shall I tell the moving boys they can come in now?”

Annie blew her nose, wiped her eyes and nodded.

“He likes you. Pad out there. He really fancies you,” Kaitlin said. “He’s hunky, too. Big strapping guy.”

“He doesn’t fancy me,” Annie said. “He made a fool of me.”

“He’s flirting with you.”

Flirting? Annie felt her mouth drop open, closed it again. “I don’t understand men. Lesbians must have such a great life.”

“Well?” Kaitlin said.

“Well, what, Kaitlin? He’s a removal man. You think I’m so desperate I’ll hitch up with a furniture mover?”

“I’m not talking about a relationship. Meaningless sex. I think it would do you good.”

Annie barked a laugh. “Boost my self-esteem? Does that work for your clients?”

“Yes.”

Her friend’s earnest expression shut off Annie’s protests.

“I thought you were tired of acting like you?” Kaitlin said. “That’s good. Becky may have had a short life, but from what you’ve told me, she knew how to party. You’re allowed some fun, too. Even Annie Brinkland is allowed a one-night stand.”

“Hello?”

The voice made Annie jump.

The cheeky one — Pad — stuck his head around the door. “We have another job after this, princess,” he said. “We need to get motoring.”

“Fine,” Annie said.

He cupped one side of his chest, looked at Annie far, far too long, smiled, then ducked out.

He’d heard.

“No,” Annie said, before Kaitlin could start. “It’s not going to happen. He’s not even my type.”

“His full name is Paddington.” Kaitlin smiled. “Apparently, his mum liked the bear. He’s thirty-two. Just for information.”


Frank

Junior Assistant. He still couldn’t believe it. He should go Junior Assist Phyllis’s Aston Martin through her office window.

All Frank’s years of service, all his work to turn this place around, everything tossed in the pan, shit on and flushed. And all because of Marek.

What more could Phyllis ask of Frank? Look at this place. It was beaut’ful.

Or would be if his view weren’t presently obstructed by a rabble in rainwear. At the head of the queue, a coat with a button gone dripped all over Frank’s mosaic tiles, and the customer inside the coat had taken way too long to pick a sandwich.

“If you need any help with the fillings there…” Frank said. “Cheddar — that’s sorta cheesy. Ham — that’s your basic meat.”

“What’s that there?” the customer said, and pointed.

“Glass,” Frank said. “It stops you putting your fingers in the savoury cheese.”

The customer in the coat narrowed his eyes but Frank smiled to let the guy know he was being served by a Junior Assistant fool.

“I’ll take the savoury cheese with salad,” the customer said in a slow, not-sure-about-you colour of voice.

Frank lifted out the white ceramic dish and placed it on the counter. “May I recommend our choker baguette?”

The coat folded its arms. “Are you taking the piss?”

“Let me check with the manager,” Frank said and turned to Phyllis who looked like she might want that birthday card back.

Screw her. Just a Junior Assistant, now, lady. “Is a baguette the wrong carbohydrate for savoury cheese?” Frank said.

The coat’s arms went up. “A baguette is fine. And I’ll take a small soya latte.”

“My small non-dairy manager will take your beverage order, sir,” Frank said. “I’m a Junior Assistant. I’d only get the milk wrong and give you the shits.”


After Phyllis had made the coat its coffee, she slid Frank a note:

One more and you’re going home. Do not test me.

Frank covered his eyes with a fat forearm. What to do? Not just about his title, but about Marek. And the witness out there who’d painted a message on the cafe kitchen window three times in a row now? SAW U. SAW U. SAW U. 

The bell above the door dinged happy orange sparkles above the wet grey rustle of another customer cramming into Friendship Cafe.

Junior Assistant. And all Frank could do was cling on and pray.

“Peekaboo,” said a voice that couldn’t possibly have joined the line without him noticing.

Frank peered over his arm.

“Happy birthday, Frank,” Rosy said. “Need a hand?”


Annie

When the removal men left, Pad came into the lounge and handed Annie a piece of paper with the name of a bar, the word Pad, and his phone number written on it in letters a seven-year-old would be embarrassed about. “See you later, princess. See you later, Kaitlin.” He winked at Kaitlin.

“He’s hedging his bets with the fat bird in case the pretty one was only toying with him,” Kaitlin said when the door rattled shut. “That’s the problem. You can never find a loyal quick shag.”

A furniture mover? What had Annie gone and done? As soon as she’d agreed to a drink, she’d noticed the freakish gape of Pad’s nostrils: two black circles like a monkey’s. His wink to Kaitlin had raised Annie’s hopes of escape.

“Look at this room,” Kaitlin said, and waltzed around on the red floral carpet, an unseen partner in her arms. “Look at that ceiling.”

The owner before Becky had restored the ceiling and decorative mouldings. Way up there, it was intricate and perfect as a wedding cake. That ceiling was the reason Becky bought the flat.

Kaitlin’s stomach gave an unladylike growl. “Let’s go grab a bite to eat,” she said. “I’m starved.”

“I’m not so hungry.” Pad already preyed on her mind.

“You always say that until you see food — ” Kaitlin stopped, crossed to the sash window and put her fingers on the crumbling gloss paint. “Ah, looks like Judd’s not the only one with a younger woman.”

Annie peeked out and saw a girl about seventeen cuddle against a man in his early forties, one of those tweed wearers with slicked red hair. Ah, Mr 1950’s. Becky had talked about him. A lecher, maybe, but a gentlemanly one: he held his raincoat up to protect his girlfriend’s perfect bob.

“Remember when your hair used to look like that?”

“My hair never looked that good,” Annie said.

“No, and you’re certainly not a looker now. In fact, you should wear a bag with holes for eyes. Pad must be blind.”

“Becky was the pretty one.”

“Oh, fuck Becky,” Kaitlin said. “Sorry, but you do make me so mad. With your looks, I’d be unstoppable.”

Was Judd’s girlfriend as young as that?

Annie felt a draught. Single-paned windows. Great. “Come on, Kaitlin, let’s go get something to eat. My knees suddenly feel weak.”

“Thinking about Pad, are we? Can’t wait to unwrap those big furniture-moving muscles?”

“Don’t remind me.” That hung over Annie like a dental appointment. “Maybe I should ring Judd. To thank him for the flowers.”

Kaitlin stared at her.

“Okay, maybe not.”

“Wait at the door,” Kaitlin said. “I’ll bring the Jeep up.”

“Let’s walk,” Annie said.

Kaitlin stared at her again.

Judd, Pad, Kaitlin. Everybody was taking decisions for her. Even Becky from beyond the grave. Especially Becky with this draughty old money pit flat.

“I need air,” Annie said. “I want to walk.”


Along with a flat Annie could never have afforded, she’d inherited Edinburgh. In Becky’s accounts of the place, the flat was a mere step or two from a buzzing social scene.

Standing in the lea of Kaitlin, rain smacking into her forehead, gusts forcing her breath back into her throat, on a deserted street with nothing but a single pretentious cafe to break up the charity shops and offices, Annie knew with a sad certainty that her world would always be a grey version of the iridescent Becky’s and that in reality Edinburgh, like Irvine, was just another shit-hole.

“There.” Kaitlin pointed across the road at the cafe Annie had instantly dismissed: Friendship.

Rain glistened on the shop sign, a mosaic fit for the floor of a basilica, sepia with gold and crimson highlights: Friendship.

Didn’t the name just say it all? An independent cafe with personality, where everybody knew everybody and you’d have to interact with a woman in a hand-knit for a bespoke approximation of a tuna sandwich.

“Bus stop, there,” Annie shouted against the wind. “Let’s find a Pret A Manger.”

“Pret is McDonald’s, Annie.”

“So what?”

Her friend grabbed Annie’s hand.

“Kaitlin, wait — ”

Kaitlin hauled Annie across the road in front of a bus they’d have been better catching, almost colliding on the pavement with a creepy homeless guy in furs. Sheltered by the buildings, the man appeared quite dry. Annie recoiled when she looked more closely at his fur coat. The fur had to have come from cats and dogs.

“He has the hots for you, hun,” Kaitlin said. “You take him out tonight. I’ll have the furniture mover.”

The vagrant did seem to be staring at Annie, his eyes so blue, they looked like marbles driven into his withered head.

Annie shuddered, and shoved Kaitlin. “C’mon. Let’s get inside.”


Chapter 4

Impulse

Frank

A brief lull had allowed Frank to bundle his daughter off into the kitchen.

“What are you doing here, baby?”

“It’s your birthday,” Rosy said, “and I only had one lecture this afternoon, so I thought I’d help out here.” She winced and touched his cheek. “What happened to your face?”

“He ran into a Pole,” Phyllis said from behind them.

Rosy looked from Phyllis to Frank. “Where is Marek?”

“Yes, Frank,” Phyllis said. “Where is Marek?”

Frank wanted to squeeze himself into the broom cupboard and pull the door shut.

SAW U.

Why couldn’t everybody just shut the fuck up about Marek? He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

“Can I have a minute alone with my dad?” Rosy said to Phyllis. “Please?”

The old woman’s shoes clacked away in a trail of not-quite-there blue triangles across Frank’s vision. Rosy took a stool.

“I don’t want to talk about Marek, okay?” Frank said. “Not ever.”

“Okay.” She shrugged, then smiled. “Your moustache has come on great guns in two weeks.”

The world wasn’t all bad. Frank still had his mo. “It keeps getting awesomer,” he said. He’d never gone so much as a day unshaven before. Phyllis took a dim view of stubble, and Frank knew facial hair was unhygienic. But, man, he’d astonished himself with this beast. “I never knew I had it in me.” He bent down and stuck his chin out to give her the full awesome.

Rosy smoothed it with her fingers. “So soft,” she said, then tweaked his chin. “Suits you.”

He knew it did. Anybody would look awesome with an awesome mo like this, even Phyllis. This was premium, grade-A mo. He just felt embarrassed for the other runty little mos that slunk into the cafe.

Rosy drew up a stool for him, patted it and waited for him to sit.

“I won’t ask about Marek,” she said, “but I see Phyllis has put up a help-wanted sign, so I’m guessing he won’t be back.”

She said that like it was a bad thing.

“And I heard you working that smart mouth of yours with the customers.”

Junior Assistant. His ring finger twinged and he massaged the knuckle.

“Don’t throw away all the hard work we put in, Frank. All your hard work. Look at this place.” She waved a hand. “It’s amazing. But if you want to keep it open, you have to stop misbehaving.”

Frank sighed. “That’s like loading a trap with extra stinky cheddar and telling the mouse not to snack.”

“Mice don’t like cheese,” Rosy said.

Frank gaped. “They don’t? What about Tom and Jerry?”

“The cheese eating was made up.”

The door dinged and Frank could tell by the colour it was an innie, not an outie. He stood but Rosy grabbed his arm.

“Let Phyllis handle that. I have something for you.”

A carrier bag rested beside the borrowed coat and hat Rosy had worn to sneak in. She reached into the bag, pulled out a card and —

 “A wrapped present?” Frank didn’t even try to hide his delight. “Man, this is the best birthday ever.” Then, just to rob him of the moment, a voice in his head whispered, Junior Assistant.

“Open it, then,” Rosy said.

“You’re a student, Rosy.” He burst the paper apart. “You shouldn’t buy me — .” He unfolded a bright red Superdry hoodie. “Wow.” The colour sang. “Wow. Wow. Wow.”

“You like it?”

“Like it? Wow.” He pulled it to his nose, breathed in its newness. “Wait till I show Phyllis.”

“And…” Rosy said, reaching into the bag again. “I didn’t wrap this because it’s not new…”

She lifted out a box and sat it on his lap. Sony Ericsson.

“A mobile phone?” Frank said.

“My old one.” Rosy grinned. “The instructions and everything are in there. I’d show you but I’m sure you’ll work it out…”

Rosy carried on jabbering but Frank wasn’t listening. What the heck was he going to do with a mobile phone? The only person he knew was Rosy.

“… I did add two phone numbers in there — ”

Frank stopped her. “Two numbers? Your number and…?”

“Mum has a mobile phone,” Rosy said.

“Oh, man,” Frank said. He smoothed his mo. “Oh, man, oh, man. I’m gonna call Irene right this second, right this very second.”

Rosy spread her hand out on the box. “Later. And maybe a text message would be better to start with.” She picked up his hand. “But I’m telling you up front, Frank, you’re wasting your time. Findlay is her life partner now. Call Mum, get her out of your system, then move on.”

He nodded to keep Rosy happy. Frank, though, hadn’t spent these last months sat on his hairy butt. Well, he had, but he’d sat with purpose.

Frank had used the cafe laptop to go onto the internet and find out whole heaps about himself, had found out that asexuals could have normal sexual relationships to keep their one-track-minded partners perfectly fulfilled. He had also found lots of porn sites — hundreds of them — and after the cafe was closed he’d sat and watched until he’d become quite immune to the most revolting acts.

Sex was like emptying bins or cleaning the toilet: an unpleasant task that had to be done. And Frank could get the job done as long as he didn’t have to put his mouth anywhere… gack. He knew he could do the other stuff, could keep his willy up long enough and muscle through. He knew because he’d practised. Sometimes he had to tickle himself right at the end, but he could deliver. He fulfilled Dummy Irene at least once a week.

“Best birthday ever, baby.” Frank hugged Rosy to him. He couldn’t quite bring himself to kiss her hair. Kissing hair would take practice.


Annie

Annie scanned the cafe and realised the colour scheme would work in Becky’s flat — Annie’s flat. Stone-coloured walls, and a highlight wall in vivid blue-green. Clean, bright.

Mobbed too. There was nowhere decent to sit so Annie had to grab a low couch against the wall, which made her feel like a lazy slob.

Magenta wasn’t the colour of couch she’d have picked with that blue-green, but — fair was fair — it worked. Would work in Annie’s lounge if her carpet weren’t red.

“Ah, this is more like it,” Kaitlin said. “Lovely place, isn’t it? Look at that mosaic. Isn’t that gorgeous? Think of the work that went into that.”

“Could do with a good mop,” Annie said. “It’s all wet.”

Kaitlin rolled her eyes.

The place did look chic but Annie was hardly going to admit that to Kaitlin after being dragged in.

“You won’t have much time for coffee breaks, though, girlfriend,” Kaitlin said. “Could take you the rest of your natural life to finish that flat.”

“No,” Annie said. “It’ll be strictly time-boxed.” She lifted the salt shaker, salted the table, swept it clear, satisfied, dusted her hands. “I’ll do as much as I can in six months, then put it on the market, whatever state it’s in.”

“Then what? Move back into some bland, cheerless 1990’s Barratt Home?”

“Within my price range, yes, with windows that fit, and ceilings you don’t need to hire a crane to paint, and built-in wardrobes.” Ah, wardrobes. “I’m a low maintenance kind of a gal.”

“Oh, sure you are.” Kaitlin rolled her eyes.

“I mean, I’m into low maintenance.” Annie checked her phone, couldn’t quite believe there were no missed calls. One message: Fraud ops requirements need signed off by c.o.p. today.    

Annie tapped a reply: Not me now, sorry. Handed over to Maurice.

Bravest thing she’d ever done, taking voluntary redundancy. Thinking about that made her palms clammy.

Kaitlin was giving Annie the old slit-eyed stare. “I hope that’s not work.”

“Loose ends. Don’t worry.” Annie pocketed her phone. “I’m starved. It’s not exactly speedy service, is it?”

“Because I ordered panini and I asked them to hold the coffees back,” Kaitlin said. “Relax. You’re not in McDonalds.” She gestured with her head. “Do they employ her to scare away the kids?”

Annie scolded her friend. She hadn’t wanted to stare but could now see the woman. One side of her face drooped, and on that side, only the eye had any animation. “Poor thing must have had a stroke.” The eyelid on the other side — the side where the muscles still worked — was closed in a perpetual wink. “She shouldn’t be running this place on her own.”

“She’s not on her own,” Kaitlin said. “Look.”

 Annie glanced up again and stared straight into eyes that made her lungs bunch up into her throat and her heart lurch in a double-beat. She had to snatch herself back.

Kaitlin fanned her face. “Suddenly, it feels like summer in here,” she said in a sing-song.

“Stop it, Kaitlin. You’ll draw attention.”

I’ll draw attention? I’m talking about you,” Kaitlin said. “Annie, your face has gone bright red. And here he comes…”

Annie forced herself to become preoccupied by the dish with the packets of sugar.

“Brie and bacon?” He spoke awkwardly, like every word demanded concentration. But his voice was as melting as the cheese.

Annie shook her head, had to glance at him. Her chest ceased to rise. Her breathing gave up any purpose but to deliver every molecule of his soapy, musky scent into the suddenly rigid tent of her nose.

Their server deposited a plated panini in front of Kaitlin, leaned towards Annie.

The air he displaced shivered against her skin.

“Tuna and tomato?” he said.

Annie moved her head just enough to be a nod. A strong hand set down her plate. Thick fingers. And at the sight of that big ring finger manacled by a gold band he’d never get off, Annie felt a tight little pain in her chest.

“Is there anything else I can get for you?” he said.

“We had coffees too?” Kaitlin said. “And tomato ketchup would be nice, hun.”

Only Kaitlin could put tomato ketchup on a brie and bacon panini.

“I’m on the case,” he said, and loped away.

“On the case,” Kaitlin said. “Hope he can manage on his own.”

“Uh. He’s adorable,” Annie whispered.

“Puppies are adorable. He’s a beast. Did you see the size of his arms?”

Annie waved Kaitlin to silence.

“Ketchup,” the man said, showed a bottle of Heinz like it was a Bordeaux, and placed the container on the table. “My daughter has your coffee order.”

His daughter.

“Impressive ’tache, hun,” Kaitlin said.

Annie cringed. Kaitlin was flirting with him.

He grinned like a proud father. “That’s my mo. For Movember. There’s time to sponsor it before tomorrow’s Mowdown.” He stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper, tore a pre-printed strip off.

“St Monan Motivators?” Kaitlin read.

“St Monan’s Parish Church. I’m in the team.” He turned the strip over in Kaitlin’s hand. “Website is there.” He pointed, then pointed at his chest. “And I’m Frank. The one with the awesomest mo.”

“I’ll bear it in mind,” Kaitlin said and laughed that donkey-bray laugh of hers.

Frank.

Annie watched him go, allowed her eyes to rest on his butt and felt a tumble in her tummy and a loosening in her panties.

“Hand me that,” she said and pointed at the slip of paper the man — Frank — had given Kaitlin.

Annie took out her phone and keyed in the Movember URL. Four men in their fifties plus Frank. Two pictures, disappointingly small — a before, and one from maybe a week back. Better without, she decided, but it didn’t much matter. That innocent smile of his dazzled like a four-hundred kilowatt bulb. He’d only raised eighty quid, which seemed unfair. A weasely little man had over a thousand. 

“Erm… Hello? Remember me?” Kaitlin said.

Annie flipped her phone case shut. “Sorry. Distracted.”

What was Annie doing even thinking such thoughts? She bent down and had a rummage in her bag for her lip gloss. “It’s not fair, Kaitlin. Why are the only ones I ever fancy always married — ?”

A young thing who could have walked straight off the set for a shampoo commercial put down a tray with two coffees.

Annie clamped her hand over her mouth and cringed.

“If it’s my dad you’re talking about,” the girl whispered, and smiled, “you can safely ignore the wedding ring.”

If the gap down the back of the sofa had been bigger, Annie would have slid right in there.

“What’s the problem?” Kaitlin said. “Sounds like he’s available.” Her friend shoved another piece of panini into her mouth but Annie saw the grin.

“A guy like that is hardly going to be interested in me, now, is he?”

“A guy who works in a cafe won’t be interested in a smart, pretty, professional lady with a big fancy flat.” Kaitlin shrugged. “What amazes me is, you’d have a lowly cafe worker as a boyfriend.”

Now it was Annie’s turn to be amazed. “Oh, I’d never have him as a boyfriend.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh my God, Kaitlin,” Annie said. “Like you weren’t the one giving me the advice? A one-night stand? Meaningless sex? Remember?”

Kaitlin’s lips drew into a white line. “Eat your panini, Annie.”

Annie rubbed her temples, confused and with an unaccountable new ache.


When Annie and Kaitlin left the cafe, the creepy destitute guy in the cat and dog fur coat was still hanging around outside. Eyes blue as the Aegean met Annie’s, held them. The police ought to move him on.

Annie drew her collar up against the wind. Rain felt close. “How much do you think a little cafe like that takes in?”

“Not a clue,” Kaitlin said. “How much did that come to, ten quid? Let’s say they average five customers like us per hour. Fifty quid an hour? Less their costs — raw ingredients, rates, wages, heating bill. Twenty-five quid an hour? Two hundred a day?”

“Ouch, low as that?”

“How would I know?” Kaitlin said. “I’m guessing.”

Annie’s phone chirped. She checked it then tutted. “Another contract Business Analyst role.”

“Isn’t this the ideal time to go into contracting?” Kaitlin said. “Look how it worked out for Becky.”

“I’m not Becky, am I? Patently.” If Becky had wanted that guy in the cafe, she could have snapped her fingers and had him. “I do fancy him, Kaitlin. Frank, I mean. That guy in the cafe. Not just a bit. I want to rip off his clothes.”

Kaitlin looped her arm through Annie’s. “First thing you should do is rip out that carpet and see what the floorboards are like.”

“It’s chipboard. Becky’s already been through that. The lounge floor has been replaced.”

“Chipboard? In an old house like that? Sacrilege. Who would do that?” Kaitlin shook her head. “Well, I’d have oak flooring. I’d buy the good stuff, not that laminate crap. Solid oak. A big Persian carpet in the middle. Oval. Red. Lush red curtains. With that ceiling…?” Kaitlin swept her hand out as though it were right there in front of them. “Phwoar, it would be stunning.”

“You’d have liked Becky, I think.” Persian carpets, oak flooring: Annie could be listening to Becky. “Bit over my budget, though, don’t you think?”

“The mortgage is paid off, so why not?”

Annie held up her hands. “How about the interest payments on a bridging loan to pay Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs their blood money?” Anger stirred afresh. “Their cut — up front, mind you — of my inheritance? Like they couldn’t wait a few months? As if they didn’t screw enough out of my sister already?” She shook her head. “That’s why not. I’m not wiping out my savings on luxuries. I’ll work with the carpets for now.”

“I thought you wanted to sell the place? You have to be bold, Annie. Faint heart never won fair maid.”

Annie stopped. “You’re right, Kaitlin. You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to ask that guy out for a drink. Frank. The guy who served us.”

“Whoa, horsey.” Kaitlin raised her hands like she’d been arrested. “Are you crazy? If you want one-night stand material, go with Pad, go to a club. No shortage of big blokes there. Gym bodies. Gagging for it. You don’t have one-night stands on your own doorstep. How could you pop in for lunch again after that? His daughter didn’t tip you off so you could have a quickie with her dad.” Kaitlin blew through her lips. “I worry about you, Annie, I really do.”

Annie wandered along behind Kaitlin. If there were some difference between meaningless sex with Pad and meaningless sex with Frank, Annie couldn’t see it. Except that meaningless sex with Frank would be meaningful.

“If we have the sensible Annie back,” Kaitlin said, “let’s grab the bus into town and look at curtains. How does that sound?”

Curtains. Soon it really would be curtains.

Annie imagined lying back in Frank’s big arms, and stopped walking. “I’m not interested in curtains, Kaitlin. Life’s too short. I’ve finally had an impulse and, by God, I’m going to act on it.”


Chapter 5

Date

Annie

Annie paused by the door of the cafe, closed her eyes, then stepped back into the warmth. The bell tinkled like icicles dropping down her back. The walk to the counter felt like a walk to the hangman’s noose.

The sex god, Frank, smiled. “Uh-oh,” he said. He wiped the counter and the muscles in his arm swelled and sank. “Did you forget something?” 

“No,” Annie managed. Her stomach had tied itself into a knot somewhere around her throat. “I…”

The smile left his eyes. “You want to use the ladies?”

 “I saw the notice,” Annie blurted. “Help wanted?”

“And?” He folded his arms.

The old woman was looking at Annie too. The part of Annie’s brain that made words stalled.

“She wants to apply for the job, Frank,” his daughter said.

Frank scowled. “Well, she can’t. She’s too… frilly.”

“Thank you, Frank.” The old woman mimed grabbing him around the throat in a strangulation grip. “Go wash something out. Like your mouth.” Beneath the hard edge, her speech had only the slightest slur from that stroke. Remarkable.

 The woman introduced herself as Phyllis. The owner, apparently. “You had any relevant experience?”

“I worked on tills in the supermarket as a summer job,” Annie said. Seventeen years ago. “And I cook.” Microwave meals.

Phyllis nodded. “You come around here, and I’ll be the customer. Let’s see how you do, shall we?”

Frank’s smile had evaporated. He looked worried.

Annie turned to him. “If you’d rather I didn’t apply, I understand…”

“Forget the monkey. I’m the organ grinder,” Phyllis said. “He’ll land me in jail one of these days. I’ll take a baguette with cheese.”

Annie frowned. “A baguette…? Oh… Oh.” She pulled on a pair of disposable gloves while she scanned the breads. “Okay… well we have a… wholemeal baguette and a white baguette, or there’s poppy seed?”

“Sesame.” Phyllis folded her arms.

“I’m afraid we’re out,” Annie said. “Poppy seed is my favourite — ”

Phyllis held up her hands. “Stow it. I’ve changed my mind. I’ll take a bagel.”

“We have this one.” Annie pointed. “Sort of multi-seed, I suppose you’d call it, and — oh! — we have sesame.”

Phyllis shook her head. “I don’t want a sandwich. I want a salad.”

“Is that to eat in or to take away?”

“To go. I’m not hanging around in this dump. What dressings do you have?”

Annie read the labels out.

“Forget the salad,” Phyllis said. “I’ll take a panini with gruyere and that pickle — pick out the carrots — some walnuts — crushed — sunblush tomatoes, a little celery, and a number eight from the menu there on wholegrain, hold the relish. And a large vanilla latte, with cream and a biscotti. All to go.”

“Is that everything?” Annie said.

“You got all that?” Phyllis said. Her eye had steel in it. “You didn’t write it down.”

“I got all that,” Frank said, “but you can pick out your own carrots.”

“I’ve got all that,” Annie said. She’d used a memory trick that came in handy as a business analyst: She’d mentally pegged the items to locations in her old flat. A little celery now stuck out of her toothbrush mug and unwanted relish slid down into the toilet bowl.

Frank’s daughter was grinning at her.

“Shake a leg then,” Phyllis said. “I’m in a hurry.”

Annie set to, picked out the carrots from the pickle and made up the panini, laid it on the machine. Number eight was ham and Emmental cheese. She wasn’t sure of categories, so she ignored the labelled buttons and keyed in the prices. “That’s eight eighty-five,” Annie said.

“You didn’t ring up the biscotti,” Phyllis said.

Annie frowned. “It says on the blackboard there, free biscotti with any large coffee.”

One side of Phyllis’s face smiled. “You’re still meant to ring it up,” she said, “and then override the price.”

Annie frowned. “Okay, I’d need somebody to show me that.”

“Frank never does it,” Phyllis said. “He adds it in his head, rings up the total and hands out stock like it’s a soup kitchen.”

Annie looked at Frank, who looked at his feet.

The door dinged. Kaitlin had been hovering outside and decided to come back in.

“Never mind your girlfriend, you’re serving me,” Phyllis said, “Where’s the celery?”

“It’s on there,” Annie said. “Would you like me to add some more?”

Kaitlin’s mouth had fallen open.

“No. I can’t stand celery.” Phyllis’s eye met hers. “Okay. I think you can hack it. Take that panini off and if nobody wants it, shove it in the bin. I’ll start you on a trial basis. Minimum wage for a week. If you cope, we’ll discuss it.”

Frank and Kaitlin were holding their heads, an expression of horror on both faces. Frank’s daughter smiled, gave a discreet thumbs up, and turned away.

“When do I start?” Annie said, hardly able to believe what her own mouth was saying.

“You can start now, dear,” Phyllis said.


Annie cowered as Kaitlin bundled her outside and pinned her against the window. “I can’t believe you. You’ve lost the plot. You were meant to be asking Extra Lardons for a date.”

“I need a part-time job,” Annie said.

Kaitlin made as if to choke her. “It’s a full-time job on minimum wage.” She raised her hands and growled. “You are mad, you know that?”

Annie straightened her jacket. “I always wanted to work in a cafe.”

“That wasn’t your impulse, Annie. Your impulse was to lure the big boy into bed and screw the living shit out of him.”

“I know. But there’s something about him, Kaitlin. Something about that place.”

“There’s nothing about him. There’s nothing about that place. You didn’t even want to go in, for God’s sake. We were all set for Pret A Manger until I manhandled you in there.” Kaitlin looked like she might actually cry. “Oh, Annie. You quit work and turned down a contract role to fix up that flat. Now you’ll be working in a sandwich shop. What am I going to do with you?”

Annie opened her purse and took out the piece of paper with Pad’s juvenile scrawl, and pushed it into Kaitlin’s coat pocket. “Tell Pad I’m sorry, but make sure you have a nice time with him.” Him and his monkey nostrils.

Kaitlin gaped.

“Now, I’d best get back to work,” Annie said, and patted her friend’s arm. “I know what I’m doing. Don’t worry.”


Annie fell right into the swing of the cafe. Then it was closing time, and all she’d done was fill rolls and make coffee.

That wasn’t your impulse.

Kaitlin was right. Annie could see already where this little flirtation might lead. Hadn’t she been through this very scenario a half-dozen years ago with the twinkle-eyed hunk from Web Development? Months of pining, watching the flex of his butt against his Diesel stonewash until the paper jam at the photocopier, when Annie had the courage to squeak out and discovered he was leaving the country in two days to move in with his fiancée in Calgary.

Well, Annie mustn’t let romantic paralysis take over with Frank. And a chance had just presented itself: the old woman and Frank’s daughter were occupied, seeing the last of the customers out, and Frank was alone in the kitchen.

Seize the moment.

“Hello,” Annie said, and watched him jump.

“Hello,” Frank said. His brow had already creased.

“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward but…” She felt her toes grip the lining of her shoes. “Would you be up for dinner some evening?”

Frank looked at her and said nothing.

She squirmed. “Just to get to know each other. My treat,” she added.

He turned his head away like he had a translator on hand to make sense of this alien creature, then looked at her again. “Who’s all coming?”

“Oh. I meant…” — an intimate dinner — “… a simple dinner for two. That sort of thing. The two of us.”

He looked behind him and dropped his voice. “Did you have kissing in mind?”

Wow. He didn’t muck around. She glanced at his mouth and realised too late that she’d moistened her lips.

His eyes tracked back to hers.

How to answer without sounding like a tart? “I wouldn’t want to rule it out,” she said and cringed.

Annie studied those eyes, the flecks of amber on the edge of depths unknown. Frank, she only just noticed, had a slight squint. But somehow it made his eyes more beautiful. 

He flattened his moustache as though he might be preparing. “Can I think about it?” he said.

She blinked and stepped back. “Of course.”

His easy smile had gone. He’d outmanoeuvred her, could keep her dangling as long as he liked.

Why did she even ask him to dinner? He was meant to be a fling. God. What a screw up.

“I think white means surrender,” Phyllis said and pointed at the towel Annie had been shaking out and refolding like a stress test machine in the Kleenex factory. “Let’s go over to the office to sort out your contract of employment. We can leave Rosy and Frank to lock up.”


Frank

With Phyllis and the new woman — Annie — out of his hair, Frank was able to slip out the back door to the dumpsters and leave a ham and cheese panini for poor Catman, who must be starved.

Rosy stood, shaking her head, waiting for him when he came back inside. “One of these days, Phyllis is going to catch you doing that and you’ll be in big trouble.”

“I’m already in big trouble, baby.”

“Not if you can work along with Annie,” Rosy said. “And I think she already likes you.”

“Yeah. And that’s all I need. Another klingon.”

“Like me, you mean?” Rosy said.

“What?” Frank said. “Oh, no. I meant Heidi.” Heidi. Phyllis’s PA, Marek’s informant. “You’re my baby.” He walked over to Rosy and hugged her. “You can cling on all you want.”

“Good,” Rosy said, patted his chest, turned, pulled out a stool for him and one for her, then tapped for him to sit. “Because I thought I’d invite myself around for dinner, seeing as it’s your birthday. Is that okay?”

“Oh, yeah. I made a big broccoli and tomato quiche,” he said, saw Rosy wrinkle her nose then added, “or I could take a look in my freezer for some curry?”

“Curry would be awesome,” Rosy said. “Long as it’s not curried eggs.”

The quiche would keep, and if Frank didn’t lighten the load on his freezer, it’d soon fall through the floor. The curry was at the top. No need to disturb anything.

He looked at Rosy then looked down at his wedding ring. “Annie asked me out to dinner some evening.”

“Already?” Rosy leaned forward and rubbed his front. “You sexy dog. What did you say?”

Frank smiled despite himself. “I said I’d think about it.” 

“Don’t think about it, Frank. Just do it.”

He had to make friends with Annie, he knew that. Best friends, so Phyllis heard nothing but good reports about him. Any more boat-rocking after Marek, and the ship would go down, all hands on board. Marek loomed out there like an iceberg. But if somehow they steered past that, Frank’s future might well still hinge on keeping Annie sweet.

There was more going on for Annie than making friends, though. Frank could tell by the shifting colours in her voice. Then again, Annie’s breath didn’t smell and those teeth of hers looked clean enough. There were worse mouths to kiss. Like Heidi’s lying lips.

“Frank?” Rosy said. “Looks like you are thinking about it, aren’t you?”

He frowned at his daughter. “Would it be okay to string Annie along?” he said. “For kissing practice. For Irene.”

Rosy tutted and wagged a finger. “Of course not. Don’t exploit the woman. Make friends and if you like her as a friend, then it’d be okay to kiss her.”

Pfff.” Frank blew air through his lips. Rosy had just turned a practice kiss into a manned mission to Mars. “But wouldn’t that be more wrong?” he said. “I’m married. I shouldn’t be making kissing friends.”

“Oh, please,” Rosy said. “Since when did Frank Friendship ever do anything by the rules?”

When the rules suited him.

Frank looked at the kitchen window again.

SAW U. 

“You do seem distracted today, Frank,” Rosy said. “Is everything okay?”

The S in SAW had been the wrong way around from the outside, the right way around from inside the kitchen. There was no escaping it: That message was for Frank, and they’d seen him do the dirty deed.

Rosy was looking at him funny.

He allowed her words to process. “Huh? Oh, no, everything’s okay, Rosy. Don’t worry about me.”

SAW U.

“It’s nothing I can’t deal with,” he said.


Thank you

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