by Janet Howson
Lauren admitted to herself that she wasn’t really coping well with all the pressures and responsibilities she was facing at the moment with her father’s hospitalisation and increasing dependency on her and the Homelands Estate Agency in Mayfair had got off to a slow start leaving her wondering if she would be able to keep all the staff on. The planning of her marriage to Chris had been put on hold and this had affected their relationship and now she had four weeks to rehearse the Drama Group’s Murder Mystery production, to be shown at her golf club. She couldn’t refuse the role of director as she was Lady Captain at the golf club and this was a yearly social event that she had started about three years ago.
She was about to call it a day and lock up the office when she heard her name being called. She swung round to see her PA, Charmaine, running across their car park, der hair uncharacteristically out of its neat French plait, flying dramatically behind her. Not for the first time Lauren was impressed by Charmaine’s toned, fit body. She knew how to look after herself. She had been Lauren’s PA for ten years and she could rely on her for anything. When things were proving difficult, she would take over to give Lauren a break. She organised her diary for her and never made a mistake. Over the years they had become more than employer, employee, they had become best of friends. She was wonderful when her father was in hospital and Lauren was visiting him every day. She didn’t know what she would do without her. The only setback was that Chris didn’t like her. Right from the first introductions Chris didn’t have a good thing to say about her. Was she jealous of the relationship between her and Charmaine?
“Lauren, I was half way home and I realised I hadn’t given you the message from Chris. I tried your mobile but you must have it turned off.” She caught her breath before carrying on. “She said she would meet you at the White Feathers at eight o’clock. I am so sorry. It isn’t at all like me. I must be tired. You still have about five minutes to get there. You could try her mobile?” She sounded so upset that Lauren’s heart went out to her. She was the kindest person she knew. Most people wouldn’t have bothered to return with the message.
“The problem is I came by tube? My car has gone for it’s first service.” She was trying Chris’s phone but only getting the recorded message. “Damn it, no answer, I will just have to risk it and get there late.”
“Look, it’s all my fault, I’ll order an Uber then run us both round to the pub and wait outside in case she's gone, then if she isn’t there I’ll get the Uber to drop you off at your tube station and then me at mine.”
“You needn’t do that.”
“No. I want to. It’ll make me feel a bit better about my negligence.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
The Uber soon arrived and Lauren and Chris got in and they gave instructions to the driver and quickly found themselves at the popular and crowded White Feathers. A pub popular with the gay fraternity.
“You go and find Chris then come out and give me the thumbs up. Good luck, I’ll see you tomorrow at work.”
“Thanks, Charmaine.” Lauren checked her watch, “only fifteen minutes late. She will have got herself a drink I am sure, see you in a moment when I find her, won’t be long.”
Lauren pushed her way through the crowded bar area checking faces. No sign of Chris. She then searched every corner of the seating area, then outside in the smoking area and lastly the toilets. There wasn’t a sign of her. Then she had a thought. Maybe she had sent a text. She had been in too much of a rush to check her messages. She pulled out her phone that had been turned onto silent whilst she had been in a meeting. There was a WhatsApp message from Chris.
‘Gone. When you can fit me in between your father, your work and your precious drama group, let me know.’
Lauren read it again. She had never known Chris to be so vitriolic. Surely, she could understand how vulnerable she was feeling after her father’s stroke and how important her work was to her. She had worked so hard to get to where she was. She had never pretended otherwise. The remark about the Drama Group being precious stung Lauren. She had helped to start it up ten years ago with Shirley. She had been only twenty- five and wanted to find some kind of release from the pressures of work. She had loved it and was soon directing and writing plays.
Charmaine. She had forgotten she was still waiting for her in the Uber with the clock ticking. She ran outside to the taxi beckoning to Charmaine, who on seeing her got out looking worried.
“What’s the matter? Have you forgotten something?”
“No, she isn’t there,” she showed her the text. There was nothing they didn’t share.
Charmaine read the message and looked at Lauren. “Are you okay? I feel terribly responsible. She obviously wanted to speak to you about something urgent and I have messed up your relationship.”
“Hey you two. Do you still need a taxi? I ain't got all night to sit around while you sort your lives out. I’m missing out on fares.”
“Oh, so sorry. Do you want him to drop you off at the tube or are you going to try and contact Chris?”
Lauren was about to get in when she stopped. “Do you fancy a drink, Charmaine? I don’t feel ready to go home yet and it would be good to talk.”
Charmaine paused a moment to take this in. “Well if you are absolutely sure Chris won’t mind, I would love a drink with you. It will make a nice change to office meetings with cold cups of take-away coffee. Let me pay for the taxi, though. It will make me feel better.”
“As long as I can pay for the first round.”
“A deal.” Charmaine paid the driver and followed Lauren into the pub which was getting busier and busier as the evening progressed. “This place never changes, no elbow room. I love the atmosphere though and the drinks are quite reasonable for London.”
Lauren stopped in her tracks and turned to Charmaine. “But this is a gay pub. Why do you come here? You were going out with a bloke called Simon for ages. Did you come here?”
“Yes, we did and that was Simone not Simon, I suppose we’ve never talked about it but I came out about three years ago. I have always kept my work life separate to my social life,”
“But the times you have supported me with my relationship with Chris and the problems I had telling my father. You never mentioned it. I bet you went through all sorts of soul searching, guilt and divided loyalties as I did. Oh, Charmaine you are a dark horse. Let me get the drinks then we will attempt to find a corner somewhere to talk. White wine?”
“Great.” Charmaine scanned the buzzing bar area and saw a couple leave a tiny table near the door so she shot across and literally jumped into one of the chairs, just beating another hopeful, by seconds. She pulled out her lipstick and applied a coat then brushed her hair that had gone quite wild out of its plait.” She watched out for Lauren and when she spotted her carrying two generous glasses of white wine she stood up and waved.
“Well done Charmain, trust you to sort it. I would probably be still wandering around aimlessly then drinking in the car-park.” She placed the drinks on the table, took her coat off and settled into the chair with a sigh. “It’s lovely to sit down and wind down after work. Why have we never done this before?”
“Because you are my boss and it would have been presumptive to ask you. Although I would have loved to have done. It often crossed my mind at Christmas but I just never thought the moment was right. Still, hadn’t you better ring Chris, perhaps she could join us?”
Lauren got her phone and as she unlocked it the earlier message from Chris flashed up. She read it again. ‘Arrived. You had gone. Not working, not with my father, not at a rehearsal. Was I expecting too much to expect you to be a bit supportive during this difficult time? Having a drink in the pub. If you are still interested in saving our relationship, I am on table near the door.’ She pressed the send button.
Putting her phone away she took a long drink of her wine and studied Charmaine. She had never guessed she was gay. Why should she?
“How difficult was it coming out, Charmaine? I have only recently told my father and he took it far better than I thought he would. I was quite surprised. He had even accepted that Chris and I were going to get married.” Lauren realised she had used were instead of are going to get married.
“My family are all old school Catholics. They could not accept it at all. They still think it’s a phase and it’ll pass and I will end up marrying a good local Catholic boy.” Charmaine stopped and Lauren could see how upset this made her. “I am literally cut off from all family occasions. My father and mother don’t bar me from the house, but I don’t feel welcome there anymore. My brother is quite supportive but he lives in Manchester so I hardly ever see him. But hey ho. That is life and I have a job I love and a boss I….” she hesitated, “admire and work well with.”
Lauren took all this in. After all these years she was seeing her loyal PA and friend in a different light. She had taken it for granted that the diligence and loyalty Charmaine had displayed were all just part of her work ethos and her ladder towards promotion. Now she wondered if it was more the fact that she liked Lauren not just as a friend but a potential partner. Chris must have recognised it hence her dislike and mistrust of her. How could she have been so blind?”
“It must have been so tough for you. I know what a close family you all were. Why didn’t you talk to me about it? The times I confided in you about my relationships and problems and you just kept quiet about yours. I feel awful I never spotted you were struggling with your divided loyalties. You always appear so calm and organised. In fact, you forgetting the message from Chris is so out of character.” She leant over and placed her hand over Charmaine’s, “I am so sorry for being so busy and preoccupied that I wasn’t there for you.”
“You two seem to be very cosy. Don’t mind me, I’m just the fiancée, no one important it seems. I would hate to break up this twosome by being a gooseberry.”
Lauren spun round to see Chris. She had never seen her like this before. Her face was twisted in anger, her eyes blazing, her hands on her hips in an aggressive pose.
“Chris. You didn’t answer my text, I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Well that’s quite obvious. You might need to reallocate this.” She pulled her engagement ring off and slung it on the table. “I hope you two are very happy together. I’ll warn you now, Charmaine, you will come very low down on the list of her priorities. You’ll be lucky if you get to go out once a week, and that’s normally squeezed in between other commitments. Good luck with her father. I felt I was never good enough for his precious daughter.”
“Chris, sit down this is so ridiculous. It was my fault Lauren didn’t get your original text. Please carry on with your evening, I’ll get a taxi home.” Charmaine proceeded to gather her things together, embarrassed and near to tears.
“No, sit down Charmaine. It’s not your fault. Chris you are totally over reacting. Charmaine kindly said she would stay on and keep me company whilst I had a drink. I didn’t want to go home so early.”
“Forget it, Lauren I have had enough. That was what I was going to tell you tonight. Hence the urgency. I can’t cope with this part time relationship any longer. I have met someone at the art gallery who wants to be with me all the time. I was feeling really guilty about it. I didn’t realise you had already moved on.”
Lauren couldn’t speak. She sat down with her back to Chris. After a pause Chris turned round and left the pub.
“Are you all right?” Charmaine’s concerned voice broke into Lauren’s thoughts.
“I think I’m supposed to feel broken hearted, but I don’t. Perhaps the reason I wasn’t seeing much of Chris was that I wasn’t sure it was really what I wanted. The relationship had grown stale. I was using my work, my father and my drama commitments as an excuse. I was seeing far more of you than I was her. She is right. I have grown very close to you.”
“I will be totally honest with you, Lauren. I have been standing on the side lines for so long with the faint hope that one day you would notice me? I kept on wanting to tell you how I felt but you were with Chris so I just accepted that. Now it looks like the engagement is over…”
“Do you know, I suddenly feel really relieved. It is if a heavy weight has been lifted off me. I am going to the bar and I am going to order a bottle of Champagne and we are going to raise a glass to the future. Our future.” Lauren added smiling at her loyal friend. A friend who now, hopefully, would be the partner she had been waiting for all her life. A partner she knew would understand why she had to devote time to her work, elderly father and her drama group. Perhaps she could involve her in the Murder Mystery? Who knows.
About the authorJanet Howson was born in Rochdale but moved to the South of England when she was seventeen. She loved writing and reading from an early age and wrote poetry and plays. She joined an amateur Drama group when she was eighteen and her love of the theatre began. She trained to be a teacher and her two subjects were English and Drama. She then went on to teach for thirty five years in Comprehensive schools in Redbridge, Havering and Essex. During this time she wrote and directed plays for the pupils and continued to be involved in Amateur Drama both as a performer and a director. Now she is retired, Janet has joined two writing groups and with the help and advice she has received here, started to write short stories and has had stories published in anthologies and her first novel, Charitable Thoughts can be found on Amazon Books. She intends to continue writing both novels and stories, adapting some of them into theatre scripts and radio plays.
The Best of CafeLit 8 an anthology published by Chapletown Books 2019
Stories included: Marking Time & Induction Day.
Nativity an anthology published by Bridge House 2019
Story included: Solution.
Charitable Thoughts a novella published by Austin Macauley
Can be found on Amazon Books
It happened in Essex tall tales from the Basildon Writers’ Group
Can be found on Amazon books