Outside, the storm rumbled on, leaving the rain-slicked car park almost empty. Chris headed for his usual table by the window, wet hair dripping onto his tray. He had picked the wrong day to cycle. With half an hour until his evening shift started, he set down his coffee and toasted teacake and shouldered off his backpack, leaving a puddle on the floor. He’d been turning up for work early these past few months, and the rest of his day had become a prelude to sitting in the supermarket café, in the hope Gemma was working. Chris sat facing the counter, raised his mug at her and smiled. The waitress nodded back from her cash register, but she seemed tired – not her usual sparky self at all. She was busy serving the only other customer, so he dragged his eyes away and remembered to check the old shoebox in his bag.
At least by wrapping it in a plastic carrier before leaving his mum’s nursing home, he’d ensured the whole thing wasn’t reduced to mush. The box was still dry, but the ragged corners were held together by peeling tape. Chris lifted the lid on his mother’s memories to examine the contents. He considered lovestruck newlyweds on the brink of parenthood, and family snapshots with Chris on his father’s sandy shoulders. It pleased him how many remnants of his mother’s past they’d managed to label with names and years today.
Chris yawned and ruffled his hair. He needed this coffee tonight. Packing up someone else’s life was exhausting, and he welcomed the caffeine as he took his first sip. He wondered whether he could release the top button of his trousers discreetly to be comfortable, without looking creepy. His waistband had been digging into his skin lately, leaving a red stripe along his belly like a scar. He should start running or something. There were four individual butters with peel-off lids on his plate. Two were low-fat margarine, two were the good stuff. Best just make it margarine. Back when he’d started here, he could chase after a shoplifter, fast as a whippet. But now? He shook his head. This whole security guard thing was only ever meant to be temporary after his redundancy, but everyone here was nice, and time kept slipping away. He’d be thirty-four soon.
Gemma laughed at something with her customer. How someone could look so lovely wearing a hair net and uniform was beyond him. It was as if her cheeks had been sprinkled with cinnamon and everyone knew Chris had a weakness for those freckles. He wondered sometimes if she’d known it too, back when they were at school. Lately he’d been thinking of the day they all went rollerblading through Finsbury Park as teenagers. Gemma cried with laughter each time she helped him up from the ground. Of course, she’d preferred Tom Alexander, all the girls did, and she’d dated that kid who went on to play professional tennis for a while too. Then she moved away and returned to London years later, married to a shifty looking guy Chris had heard sleazy rumours about.
He looked down at a photo of his parents, their cheeks pressed together, wearing matching red Santa hats. It must have been taken a year before his dad died. They’d deserved more time together. Chris tried to imagine growing older with his last girlfriend, but the only image he could muster was of two bored people sat at opposite ends of the sofa, with nothing left to say to each other. It should never have lasted as long as it did.
When he looked up, Gemma was marching toward him, a dish cloth balled in her fist. She stopped at the next table, wiping it down aggressively before tucking in a red chair. Something flickered in his stomach, like fish darting around.
She straightened up, hand on hip. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you actually, Chris.”
“About your last shift?”
She rolled her hand, eyebrows raised, as if he’d forgotten his cue. “Eventful, was it?”
Okay, there was definitely an undercurrent here. Potential for choppy waters. Where was she going with this?
He nodded slowly. “There was a lady in the carpark. I lent her my phone when she locked her keys and handbag in the boot of the car.”
Gemma tapped her foot, shaking her head. Something else, then.
He rubbed the back of his neck. There was that boy he’d stopped. Darryl? Chris had noticed him lurking around, picking up a bottle of vodka, checking over his shoulder. It looked like he’d stashed it in his jacket, but the boy must have thought better of it, concealing packets of Maltesers up his sleeves instead.
“You mean that kid I had to give a scare out the back?”
“Bingo! He’s got it!” Gemma raised her hands as if to an audience, but there was only a blue-suited man engrossed in a newspaper.
“I thought he’d stolen some booze, but when I realised –”
“Booze? That was my nephew! Darren’s sixteen; he’s not going to steal alcohol. At least not from the place his auntie works, is he?”
“Your nephew?” He chuckled, remembering the cheek he’d received. That soon stopped when Chris explained to him the decision he faced. Inform the police, leaving the kid with a big blot on his record, or Darren could agree to show a little more respect and Chris would let him walk away, as long as he never showed his face in here again.
“Yes.” Her foot was still tapping impatiently, like he was an imbecile. “A security guard stopped him and acted like a dickhead, apparently. Accused him of stealing alcohol, when it wasn’t true.” Her eyes flashed, colour rising around her collarbone. “Did you threaten him with a criminal record, even though he didn’t take anything?”
This was hard to believe. She was tearing a strip out of him for doing his job. The whole thing had been textbook: let the kid go with a warning but frighten him enough that he wouldn’t get into future trouble.
“Hey, I’m the good guy here! I let him off, even though he had half our confectionery delivery hidden up his sleeve. You should be thanking me.”
Her eyes widened fiercely so he tingled to the very roots of his hair. Heaping Chris with praise and gratitude was clearly not at the forefront of her mind, but when her mouth opened the words seemed to dissolve on her tongue. They stared at one another.
“I’m sorry. It’s just been a really tough month, with this and that.” She rubbed her temples for a moment, covering her face. “It’s been a lot, you know?”
He nodded, pulled out a chair.
Gemma glanced at the empty counter and sank down beside him. “Darren’s a good kid really. But my sister’s been struggling with him at home and I just don’t want him going off the rails.” She landed the softest punch on Chris’ arm. “I’m guessing you were a sweetheart dealing with him.”
He felt the heat rush to his cheeks as he watched a curl escape from her hair net. Gemma picked out a photo from the box and he stared at an indentation where her wedding ring should be. He coughed and quickly looked out the window. It was dark out now. The pelting rain had eased so all that remained of the storm was fine drizzle and shiny puddles, mirroring the headlights of cars crawling past.
Chris turned to face her fully. “Do you feel like talking about it?”
Tell me it’s true. Tell me you finally threw that Lothario out and he’s never coming back.
She shrugged and looked directly at him for a moment, spreading warmth through his chest like brandy.
“I’d rather talk about this.” She pinched her chin, examining the photo more closely. “What are you doing with a picture of a ridiculously handsome man in Speedos?!”
“That’s my dad.”
Her eyes twinkled, appraising Chris as he took another bite of teacake. “Hmm.”
“I know, the resemblance is uncanny, hey?” He smiled. His father must have been about Chris’ age now in that photo. “I’m going to put all these in albums. Thought it might be nice for Mum.”
“Is she getting more settled?”
He wrinkled his nose. “Depends. She was cheery today, chattering on, till she got confused. Other days she’s kind of vacant.”
Whenever he could, Chris dropped into his mother’s old flat, going through crowded cupboards and drawers where moths had died in grimy corners. This morning he’d sorted kitchen utensils for the charity shop and asked her neighbours if they’d like any of the twenty cake tins she’d squirreled away, before taking stacks of photographs over to the nursing home.
“You wouldn’t believe what people keep. And she has all these keys! I can’t throw any away in case they’re important.”
Gemma placed her hand over his for a moment, squeezing gently. “It must get overwhelming.”
Chris caught his breath and tried to look nonchalant when he shrugged. “We’ve whittled bags of random photos down to this lot.” He tapped the box with his knuckles and when she lifted her hand away, he still felt the ghost of her touch. “To be honest, it was kind of fun, getting all nostalgic – until Mum got all tangled up again and forgot who most of the family were halfway through. I’m not just talking about some distant, third cousin once-removed types either.” His laugh rang a little hollow as he held a polaroid out and turned it over.
She peered at his writing on the back, squinting. “Mick (your husband) with Chris (your son), Southend, 1986.” She shook her head and exhaled. “It’s really lovely how you take care of her.”
“By shoving her in a home? She’s the youngest one in there, you know.”
Gemma stood up and unpinned her name badge, reattaching it a little straighter as she spoke. “I want you to come over on Tuesday night. I know you’ll think it sounds lame, but I have a few friends over for scrapbooking every month. While we’re at it, we have a few drinks.”
Scrapbooking? It didn’t sound like his thing and clearly his expression betrayed him.
“Don’t pull a face!” She grabbed her dish cloth and gestured at the photos. “It’s ideal for all this. You can make something special for your mum. Help her remember things. Plus…” She tapped her chest and grinned. “You get to drink wine with a fun bunch of women. So, no excuses, okay?”
Chris Googled scrapbooking when he got home. It wasn’t something he’d be broadcasting around at work, but Gemma had entered her address into his phone and told him to arrive at eight with a bottle of red. Of course, he’d go. He wasn’t an idiot.
By Tuesday night, he didn’t want to seem too eager, so he arrived ten minutes late with cabernet sauvignon and a stronger shoebox. Laughter rang out through the window. Chris cleared his throat and composed himself in the small front garden, as wet feathery ferns brushed his clothes in the wind. When he knocked, the door swung open and a tall, skinny boy with too much hair gel stood bathed in light. The smile slipped from Chris’ face.
“Er, hello Darren.”
The kid sighed dramatically, like he was enacting a caricature of a stroppy teenager. “I thought she was effing joking!” He nodded and turned on his heel, shouting, “That security guard’s here!”
Chris watched him take the stairs two at a time, before disappearing. Women’s voices rose and fell in undulating waves, followed by more peals of laughter. Chris waited, hesitated, and went inside, closing the door behind him. He took a deep breath. The wall was crowded with coats, so he folded his own and tucked it on a shoe rack just as Gemma appeared in the hall holding a corkscrew.
“You came! Come in, come in.”
She had her hair twisted up somehow, like an old film star, and red lipstick on that she never wore to work. Chris tried not to stare.
“Thanks.” He quickly ruffled his hair when she turned around but regretted it instantly as he caught sight of his reflection in a mirror.
“Don’t mind my nephew. Did I say he’s staying with me now? Just for a month or two.” A light, fresh scent trailed behind her.
“That’s nice. I didn’t realise.”
She shrugged, looking over her shoulder. “I kind of like the company right now, actually. Come and meet everyone.”
He managed to remember three names: Annabel, a brunette he recognised from sixth form, Keisha and Liz. Questions were fired and talk was fast, splintering in different directions as a tribal drumbeat and vocals pulsed over a speaker. She liked Florence and the Machine.
Gemma handed him a big thick book like a ring binder and a glass of wine. “Twelve by twelve,” she grinned. “Because you have a lot to include. Help yourself to any paper and stickers you like. The acid-free tape is great for old photos, but you’ll need scotch glue for bulkier decorations like this.” She held up a tartan ribbon and gestured at a bewildering array of arty supplies spread across her table. “I’ll be over in a minute.”
The older woman, Liz, with short red-streaked hair and a Cardiff shirt, patted the seat next to her. “I’ll help you get started,” she said, offering him a plate of sausage rolls. “I like you already, Chris. You’re a brave man, joining this lot.”
“Or lucky.” He gestured around at all the women and quickly stuffed a sausage roll in his mouth.
Liz kindly ignored the failed attempt to sound smooth and nudged him. “We’re all in a celebratory mood tonight, aren’t we?”
“We are?” He licked flakes of pastry from his lips.
“Well, yeah. Since Gemma’s finally kicked that creep out.”
Chris took a swig of wine. “Wow.” He tried to look disappointed that Gemma’s marriage had crumbled, he really did. If he hadn’t heard whispers about the guy’s relentless cheating, it might have been genuine regret too.
Liz studied him and smiled. “Trust me, it’s been a long time coming.” She gestured at the shoebox. “So, what are we working with here?”
Chris explained why he’d come, and when he pulled out a Victoria sponge recipe his mother had scrawled years ago, the paper greasy and rumpled now – anyone would think he’d brought the winning lottery ticket along.
“Great idea! You have to include that!” Gemma said, appearing over his shoulder.
“I thought it might be silly. But I remember Mum always used the same one for baking, even when my head didn’t reach the kitchen counter.”
“Okay.” She handed him a Sharpie. “Write little captions and anecdotes underneath things, on stickers or pretty paper. Scrapbooking’s all about memory keeping. She’ll love it.”
“Oi!” Someone was yelling on the street outside. You could hear it when the music lulled. Then thunderous banging on the door. “Oi!” A man’s voice bellowed through the letterbox now.
Gemma froze. Everyone looked at her. Then each other.
“Get out here Gemma! If you ignore your phone, I’m going to come over, aren’t I?”
As Chris stood up, there was a pounding down the stairs, and someone tore out the house.
“Clear off!” Darren was shouting. “You’re not wanted here!”
Suddenly, there was a clamour for the door.
“You can’t treat Auntie Gemma like crap and come back demanding to see her.”
By the time Chris got outside, a man had the kid bent double in a headlock, dragging his face into the spotlight of a streetlamp by a fistful of hair.
“Get off him!” Gemma hit the man’s back, but he didn’t let go.
“Do we have a problem here?” Chris stood in front of them, folding his arms. He hoped his big bulky frame might threaten the guy, but none of Chris’ friends would exactly describe him as intimidating, regardless of how many shoplifters he’d stopped over the years.
“Who’s this?” The man sneered. His face was pushed close to Darren’s, but his eyes fixed on Chris.
“Let. Him. Go.” Chris’ voice came out as a growl.
The husband glanced at Gemma and snorted, like it was a joke. “Make me.”
Chris seized his arm and twisted it behind him, so he let out an involuntary yelp, before releasing his grip on the boy. Taking him out by his ankles and laying him on the ground was easier than Chris anticipated. He tried to ensure the idiot couldn’t move an inch, without smashing his face on the concrete. There wasn’t even much of a struggle. The guy seemed too shocked to react in time.
Chris caught his breath for a second. “Let’s you and I talk.”
In the kitchen, he found Gemma giving her nephew a steaming mug.
“I could’ve handled it,” the boy sniffed.
“I know.” Chris nodded.
The kid wiped his nose on his sleeve. “But thanks, like. For helping.”
“I also could have handled it, Darren.” Gemma’s voice was stern. “It’s not your job to protect me.” She turned to Chris. “Is he gone?”
He nodded again. “I think he’s got the message to stop bothering you.”
A sceptical half-laugh escaped her. “Yeah, sure.” She touched his arm. “Thanks.” Gemma clasped the back of her neck and exhaled slowly.
He knew it was ridiculous, but the adrenaline made him feel like a hero in a movie. He’d stepped in to help the kid out of a scrape, and the woman he’d spent the last fifteen years wondering about was looking at him admiringly. Well, gratefully maybe. Of course, he knew it was a fleeting moment that couldn’t last. If this were a movie, he’d sweep her up and kiss her – show her how he felt, and she’d feel the same. But he was not that guy. He’d always been clumsy – funny at best – destined to be quickly assigned the role of good friend. He knew just how awkwardly this night would pan out if he got carried away, with all those women in the next room, on-hand to dissect every misguided move he might make. And the last thing Gemma needed right now was more drama. Chris’ keys jangled as he fished them out his pocket. It was time to leave before he could make a fool of himself.
Gemma pointed her chin at the kitchen door, signalling that they could talk in the hall.
“Good to see you, Darren.” Chris patted the boy’s shoulder and walked out.
He was about to thank Gemma and gather up the old photographs, but when she stood in front of him, watching his lips, no words came out. They stood in silence, closer than ever before. Finally, she spoke.
“I know how to pick ’em, don’t I?”
Then she leaned back against the coats and pulled him toward her with both hands. Surprise tugged at the muscles in his face, his eyebrows, his growing smile.
Her mouth brushed his cheek. “Some of my most fun memories are with you, as teenagers. Did you know that?”
He shook his head, grinning. “Is that so?”
Gemma nodded. “And lately, the days you stop by for coffee are the highlight of my week.” Her breath felt deliciously warm against his ear. “I pick you this time,” she whispered. “I think maybe, it was always meant to be you.”
He kissed her, getting lost in the softness of her lips until it made his head spin.
Slowly, they pulled apart and Chris became aware of the whooping and cheering that swelled through the open doorway. Among the women, stood a teenage boy with his face in his palm. Darren shook his head but smiled up at them.
“I guess I can stay a bit longer,” Chris said, as Gemma laced her fingers through his.
“I’d really like that.”