‘Can you imagine? Imagine if we’d arranged to meet and I didn’t show up. And you’re just left sitting here, waiting... wondering...’
The shadow of his words.
Words he’d spoken the night he said, I love you. The night he said she knew more than anyone else. When he promised that soon, there’d be nothing she didn’t know.
The night he lied.
She’d been waiting two hours now. Waiting, but no longer wondering. An ending too disillusioning to elicit anything more than apathetic disbelief. Like finishing a book you’ve been unable to put down and realising, that’s it? All that commitment, trust, love, and that’s how it ends?
And you turn the page in anticipation, hoping for a cheeky final chapter, an epilogue, the hint of a sequel… only to be met with empty promises.
Pages barren of answers.
Pregnant with questions.
It was when The City was at its best. Or worst, depending on one’s ethical, and/or moral standpoint. The era when Dom Perignon replaced San Pellegrino and caviar replaced peanuts. Where one of each referred not to the type of water, but the colour of wine. Where sole existed only on menus. Dover, of course.
A time of long, boozy lunches, eye-wateringly expensive dinners, and endless, extravagant entertaining. Racing fast cars and betting on fast horses. Gin palace cruising in The Med. Choppers to Gleneagles. Wine tasting at Chateau Margaux. A furious yet fun, brutal yet brilliant, harsh yet hedonistic lifestyle. Work hard… play harder.
With money, status, power and control at the core of everything in London’s Square Mile, it was a breeding ground for competition. A playground for ambition. An open opportunity to prove what one was made of, whatever that may take.
She was a female in a male world, ‘in’ it from the moment she left university, and eight years on, very definitely ‘of’ it. Being unbreakable was necessary to both thrive and survive, something she had managed to master, and now embraced. She was the girl who wore kick-arse heels and a perfectly cut suit of armour.
For her, the say-it-as-it-fucking-is, just-get-it-fucking-done and don’t-take-it-fucking-personally environment was exhilarating. It reassured her of her strength. Her ability to meet adversity nose-to-nose. And she enjoyed working with men. Appreciated their emotional simplicity - no mind games or grudges. She understood how they operated. In business at least.
He, on the other hand, was a newcomer to that world, only days into his first civilian job after more than a decade of active service in some of the world’s bloodiest conflict zones. Excitable and socially naïve for a thirty-year-old, he was full of awe for his new world, thrilled to find himself at the very centre of the corporate credit card culture, and immediately seduced by the shallow, self-indulgent bubble of The City.
The night they first met, the moment he spotted her, he knew.
‘You walked down the stairs and without knowing a thing about you, I thought - that’s the girl I’m gonna marry.’
But his unsolicited introduction made no impact.
Aside from his rather amateur approach, her mind was elsewhere, preoccupied by promotion having previously lost out to a colleague, subordinate in terms of age, experience and grey matter. Because despite the fact her rival, with a 2:2 in economics and four years in finance, still thought an IPO was a thirst-quenching beverage, his golf handicap of 3 and VIP status in the city’s strip clubs, were merits with which she’d been unable to compete. Nor could she argue that he was bringing in the money, with almost ninety percent of his commission generated from the firm’s most difficult client. An industry stalwart, with an extremely reputable surname, extremely committed to ensuring that his one and only son would be acknowledged for the business he wrote, rather than his ever enthusiastic and increasingly unsubtle Class A and hooker habit.
She’d therefore been playing the game. Fraternising with those who mattered. The men who she could, and should, bond with in order to assist her ambitions. Not strictly sycophantic, both her attention and intention genuine, but she was hungry, and realised that if she was going to truly make it in this male-dominated world, she’d need support. And more importantly respect. Which meant making friends in high places.
An hour after his first attempt, he tried again to make conversation, his chat however was clumsy, spilling from his lips, colourful and unruly like a dropped bag of skittles. It wasn’t even two minutes before he lost her interest and was met with a turned back.
So instead, he had to make do with observing, intently following her every move for the rest of the night. He studied how she commanded the room, exuding a quiet confidence as she did the rounds, moving in a way which unintentionally attracted interest. Gracefully, on tip-toe, a ballet dancer traversing a stage, eyes drawn to her perfect posture and the subtle but beguiling sway in her hips.
As the evening progressed, he also saw how she no longer had to mingle, remaining in the same spot for drink after drink as people migrated her way. Seeking her out from within the crowd, all vying for an audience with the Ice Queen.
It intrigued him to witness the different approaches. The chancers, edging ever closer, hoping for an ‘accidental’ opportunity to chat. The strategic, with a clear game plan, tactically executed. The dons, those of the higher echelon, their natural and entitled conviction allowing them to steal her attention unapologetically. Others operated in a pack, excited hyenas waiting to pounce on another’s kill. Then there were the inebriated, emboldened by a Viking mentality and undeterred by spectators, shamelessly sweeping aside their challengers to get to the goods.
Watching them was when he learned of ‘the look’ for which she was so famous. The one which matched her moniker, triggering a tangible hush amongst the audience - the dimming of lights and rising of the curtain, two flaring nostrils spotlighting the stage for the opening of the show. A spectacle in which no one wanted to hold the starring role, intoxicated or not.
And finally, there were ‘the lucky ones’, a chosen few, whose appearance sparked an open pair of arms and a hug of genuine affection. A moment of intimacy. A secret tenderness.
An exchange which sent envy crawling into his blood.
One day, he’d be one of those fortunate few.
But he knew he’d need to bide his time.
For the right time.
The night it became real. Almost a decade later. When he’d lie naked in her arms and whisper, ‘I was right to wait. You were always gonna be mine. But I needed you to realise for yourself. I never wanted to force you. I never wanted what wasn’t mine.’
The mountains glowed, fresh from the shower, bodies dusted in a layer of shimmering powder, heads topped in fluffy white turbans. Powder-puff clouds sprinkled the sky, melting under stretching sunbeams, dissolving into a brilliant azure as pure as the blanket which swathed the landscape below.
Still early, the air stung skin and stole breath. But the slopes appeared reserved solely for them, their tracks the first to autograph each of the pristine pistes as the group escaped civilization, travelling into a land so white and magical, a talking lion and flute playing faun would not have seemed amiss.
Officially, the trip was business. A select group, off-site for three days intense, face-to-face negotiation. Unofficially, it was a boozy long-weekend with mates, deals conducted in fresh mountain air between runs, an ice-cold beer or glass of velvety red brokering the transaction.
They skied without stopping, the hours evaporating like the virgin snowfall, until their growling stomachs eventually called time on their fun. One chairlift now separated them from the inviting little cabin which always smelt of smouldering logs and gooey cheese, their mission to the top flanked by a parade of majestic peaks, presenting arms, piercing the sky above.
Ignoring their stunning surroundings completely, the group piled through the barriers, rowdy and impatient, a bunch of hungry schoolboys jostling in the lunch queue.
Hanging back, she watched with wry amusement as they fought over the metal Ts, their boisterous banter carried into the wind as one-by-one they bounced onto the slope. As tranquillity gradually returned, she inched forward, readying herself for the ride, excited by the idea of a few precious moments of quiet reflection. A rare relaxation of the mind, nature’s meditation allowing her to venture somewhere normally as inaccessible as the mountaintops.
“And then there were two…. Woah, ohh shiiiiit - shiiiiit - watchit doll...”
His loss of control, as unexpected as his invasion, left no time for escape, his flailing arms, loose legs and robust body, catapulting her into a mound of sleeping snow.
“Shiiiit! Sorry - sorry doll.” He fumbled for her wrists, his poles in duel like the swords of two novice knights. “Sorry - so sorry. Didn’t mean - ski got caught - too fast - waited - wanted to get you alone...”
When excited or nervous, he vomited words. Adamant it was only ever she who incited this behaviour, he accused her of making him both.
In the early days, he had been notorious for his hyperactivity, though this trait had calmed over the years. His nerves however, had always, and still appeared to be reserved solely for her.
Tugging her to standing, he endeavoured to dust her down. But his strength and her svelte size, as incompatible as cats and mice, instantly threw their bodies together in another ungainly collision, their helmets clashing like the meeting of antlers.
“Jeeze I’m really fuckin this one up, aren’t I?” He groaned, his lips twitching only inches from her own, the miniscule movements both bashful and confident. “I just wanted to get you alone, that’s all.” His grip on her wrists tightened, their goggles fogging under his breath.
A bark of French cut through the peculiar quiet, the foreign castigation from behind, spurring them both into action. Manoeuvring them back onto the path, he seized the next lift, hurriedly tucking it under their buttocks before securing his arm around her shoulders as they juddered into take-off.
Nine years had now passed since the night he’d first seen her. In that time, he’d remained consistent with his affections, and openly candid about his ambition to someday make her ‘the future Mrs’. Which had always caused much hilarity, given he was the antithesis of the self-assured, phlegmatic alphas to whom she was naturally attracted.
One had to agree, he was undeniably good-looking. A cliche of chiselled-cheekbones, a jaw-carved-from-granite, and eyes-as-blue-as-oceans. But he was vertically challenged. Stocky, with muscles which didn’t quite fit his height. Like the Action Man toys her friends’ brothers used to play with when they were little.
And that was an automatic no for her. She didn’t do short. She wanted, needed, a man to whom she could look up, when wearing her trademark heels. A man who was impressive. In every sense of the word.
Her resistance to his charm was unusual however. To most, the combination of his solid physique, handsome face and childlike energy was entrancing. It drew girls to him like kittens to catnip, and fascinated women, confusing them as to whether it was they who wanted to be held in his arms, or him they wanted to hold in theirs. It was exactly this which had always niggled her, the combination incongruous, and strangely unappealing.
“This is cosy isn’t it doll?” He squeezed her shoulders, his sentence and their skis on the snow, the only sounds in their cotton-wool world.
“Please don’t call me doll,” she sighed.
“Sorry doll. Ooops - sorry.”
His eyes flashed against the pearly surrounds, blue-green opals which constantly changed with the light. Like the Indian Ocean, the place she’d learnt to dive, where she’d discovered a whole other life, secrets lying beneath the surface which she could never have imagined from above.
“And there I was thinking I was going to be allowed a bit of me-time,” she muttered.
“It’s much nicer to have someone to share the journey, no?” His voice was as sincere as his smile. “Now then doll, tell me - how you doing? Enjoying the trip?”
“We’re spoiled sometimes.” Looking out at the stunning scenery, she sighed a smile. “The perks of the job huh. Helps justify selling our souls.” She shivered as the sun vanished behind an icy crest.
Straight away, he unzipped his jacket and unravelled his scarf, coiling it around her neck, entirely unconcerned by the precarious wobbles which accompanied every loop of merino.
“Better?” He inched back, inspecting his work with a satisfied little nod. “So then, you gonna tell me what happened? Last summer. Was convinced I’d won you over, ‘n then you did it again - just disappeared on me. Again!”
“I didn’t disappear...”
“You did! We had a lovely night and then you went all aloof. Aloof - your middle name. Was certain that date might’ve been the start...”
“It wasn’t a date.”
“Yes it was!”
“No, it was a drink. And you knew I was seeing other people, I told you that.”
“You said none of them were serious… And we had such a lovely evening?”
“We did. It was very pleasant.”
“Pleasant? We’re not talking about tea with the queen! Gorgeous summer’s night, cocktails by the river, amazing company - what more could you ask for? It was perfect date material.”
“But it wasn’t a date.”
“It was that guy, wasn’t it? The one you turned me down for the next night? Ergh. I really thought I was in with a chance - the night had gone so well - I’d been so determined to make it up to you… y’know after that other time.”
There had been two occasions when she’d met with him outside work. Dates, he liked to claim. Drinks, she was sure to correct.
The first time she’d barely known him, a few transitory interactions leaving her with nothing more than a rather disparaging view. But she’d bumped into him one day after a meeting in his office block and, looking to kill some time before supper with friends, had ended up giving in to his insistence of a drink.
Having said he needed to ‘grab’ something from his desk, he’d finally joined her in the bar when she was half-way through her second Tanqueray, his excuses breakneck and nonsensical, like a misunderstood game of Mad Libs.
With only twenty minutes before she needed to leave, and a point she needed to prove, she’d coolly declined another round. But he’d ignored the snub entirely, waving away her protestations as he’d ordered two cocktails designed for the taste buds of a teenage girl, before launching into an aggressively enthusiastic interrogation, allowing no space for response. Seeing her shrug on her coat and reach for her bag, he’d lunged, pinning her to the sofa, threatening not to let her leave, puerilely intimidating as his school-ground flirtation quickly became embarrassing, and uncomfortably physical.
Finally, she’d managed to flee, inhaling an icy freedom as she escaped onto the street and waved down a getaway driver with an enthusiasm usually reserved for the stands at Twickenham. But as she’d reached for the door handle, without warning, he’d twisted her around, landing his lips on hers, one palm grazing her buttocks as he secured the final nail in his coffin.
His subsequent contact had been relentless. Inane messages about dinner or drinks, walks or runs, the cinema or theatre, populating her phone almost daily. Her knock-backs were met with skin as thick as a rhino and in the end, she’d had to simply ignore him and wait for him to go away.
Fortunately, the two of them had worked in different markets back then, so it was rare for their paths to cross. It was only in the last couple of years that their encounters had become more frequent, a new role granting him access to the circles in which she already moved.
At first, she’d gone out of her way to avoid him, but having been forced into a few obligatory interactions, she’d quickly noticed how much he’d grown. Both as a market player, and as a man. Mellower. More in control. And whereas his exuberance for life had once struck as disingenuous, it now appeared strangely admirable, a refreshing optimism rarely found in their selfish and competitive environment.
So, when he’d suggested another drink at the end of last summer, she’d thrown caution to the wind, intrigued by his evolution, and subsequently surprised by how much she ended up enjoying the evening. Especially considering its terrible start.
As the night had concluded, he’d walked her to the bridge where he’d placed a goodbye peck on her cheek, his hands firmly in his pockets.
‘Are you really going out with other people?’ he’d asked, wrinkling his nose as she nodded. ‘Date me instead?’
‘This wasn’t a date.’
‘What was it then?’
‘Well how about a date tomorrow? Start the weekend nicely.’
‘Oh. Ergh - you’re out with someone else, aren’t you? I’m telling you now, he won’t be as fun as me - and nowhere near as handsome - but fine…You know I’ll wait for you? I’ve waited almost eight years, so I can wait a little bit longer. We will end up together - I know we will. It’ll all happen just as it’s meant to... when the time’s right.’