Parallel Portraits (Picture-Perfect 2)

*** SPOILER ALERT ***

IF YOU HAVEN’T READ PICTURE-PERFECT IN FULL THEN YOU MAY WANT TO LOOK AWAY NOW BEFORE ITS SEQUEL GRIPS YOU TO A POINT OF NO RETURN!! 

Welcome back, Layla Griffiths. The delightfully dreamy painter who finally found love with fantasy writer, Benjamin Turner. After such a long journey, you’d think everything would be, well, ‘picture-perfect’ – right? But this is Layla we’re talking about. And her unpredictable voyage is far from over. In fact, it’s about to begin all over again…

 

CHAPTER 1

 

March 2017

                

Everyone told me Barry was a nerd, but I only truly believed it when he fired me.

It was then that I first noticed the Avengers lunchbox placed on his desk, neatly dividing himself from anyone who sat opposite. Maybe he thought it would protect him from my wrath? Or, perhaps he had an emergency stash of tissues inside? Most possibly, though, it probably just contained his lunch. Isn’t it strange how unexpected moments like these can bring all of life’s finer details into some kind of distracting perspective? I suppose it’s our brain’s way of tolerating events we wish would end. Like the time when all I could think about was getting my mouth around a McDonald’s burger during the painful viewing of the Cinderella Man. That really was a dreadful film. So dreadful that I left early just to get that very plastic burger I salivated so longingly for. Funny thing is though, I don’t even remember if it was worth it.

  I wonder if Barry is going to eat a burger after this…

“Layla – did you hear what I just said?” Barry’s faint offering of words corrupted my fixation to the angry green Hulk on the side of his red lunch box.

From my position on the sailor-blue swivel chair, I looked up at him and nodded, then returned to a blank stare as I let his previous sentence sink in.

The company has got into…a rather sticky wicket. I won’t go into detail because it’s all rather complicated. But you need to understand that the decisions that have been made as a consequence of it are of no reflection on you, Miss Griffiths. It comes with great sadness that I have to release people from their positions in the artistic unit – yours being one of them.

Even in a case of reminiscence, his old-fashioned prose resided every time I relayed the words, ‘sticky wicket’.

“I wish that there was another way around this, but unless you want to become the office cleaner, I’m afraid I have to give you up. Of course, with this being no fault of your own, I will give you your month’s wages in advance. But as of this week’s end, you will no longer be an employee at Kreationz Industries.”

His words blended hypnotically with the Chicago album playing softly through his office speakers. Peter Cetera certainly had a beautiful way to soften the blow.

I nodded once again and began to lift myself up from the rotating seat. My body’s response was on some sort of professional autopilot, offering him yet another nod and a thank you as I began to make my exit.

As I walked towards the glass-framed door, I began to hum along to the 70’s melody floating in the background, singing the lyrics in my head.

Oohoohooh, baby, please don’t go.

But once I’d reached the door, ready to let myself out, my stilted politeness diminished. Robotically, I turned around and strode back over to his desk, placing my sweaty palms on his desk. Silently, he stared at me, confused by my sudden change in direction.

With glowering eyes, I looked back at him, wincing slightly as I quoted, “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

And then threw his lunchbox out of the third-storey window.

 

Our illuminated porch always did have a romantic feel to it. The way the submersible lights twinkled at night made me think of the Milky Way – brightening up a sheet of darkness with its spherical glow. It made me smile. However, that night, was the only exception.

As I pulled into the driveway, rain obscuring my view and tyres slowly rolling over the floor’s glittering stars, I was lost in silence.

Following my earlier episode with Barry, I still couldn’t shift his words from my mind. What he’d said, what it meant for my future, where I go from here – did I really throw his lunchbox out of the window?

I didn’t even remember the drive home.

Pulling up my handbrake and turning off the ignition, I sat quietly in the peace of my warm leather seat, staring at the lights that usually glowed with romance as they played spotlight to the many water droplets that splashed onto my windscreen.

Knock, knock, knock!

Swiftly pulled out of my trance, I saw Benjamin tapping at my passenger-side window, the rain weighing down his darkened fringe and showering his glasses.

“Are you coming in?” He pointed towards our house with a rain-soaked finger, wincing as he spoke.

In all honesty, I couldn’t hear him past the rain’s persistent splashing, but for the third time that day, I silently nodded, and pulled myself out of the comfort of my seat to leave the car.

 

My personalised Star Wars cup arrived, placed carefully on the coffee table in front of me, gently swaying scents of hot chocolate into the room.

“Unusual.’ I began, “You never make hot chocolate.” I said, following Benjamin as he walked towards me blowing on a cup for himself.

He smiled as he sat down beside me, placing his own matching cup on an adjacent coaster.

“Sometimes, tea just doesn’t quite cut it.”

Our lounge was dimly lit. The relaxing lighting made it all too easy to drift away again with the sounds of the rain pitter-pattering against the house. But even with the calming water trotting down the glass, my own drifting was disrupted by the buzz of my phone.

With a roll of the eyes and rippled sigh, I picked up my phone from the sofa’s arm. Near enough twenty rectangular notifications had absorbed the top half of my screen, all commenting on my change of work status.

What?! PM me!

  Are you okay, Layla?

  …Promotion…?

  Disgruntled, I abruptly chucked the phone down the side of the couch and reached for my hot chocolate.

“Stupid phone.”

I assumed Benjamin hadn’t been online in the last few hours because he maintained his befuddled, care to explain? expression as he stared at my own, life sucks! one.

Concerned, he took off his glasses and placed them on the table, before shifting himself closer to me. My knees were crouched underneath my slumped torso, carefully leaning on the edge of the couch, with only the grip of my bent feet supporting me from an imminent slip.

“Do you know how I know when you’re upset?” Benjamin said to me.

I turned to face him, “How?”

He smiled.

  “A few things give it away.’ He began, still smiling, “Firstly, you become super quiet. Which – if I know you as well as I think I do – means something’s on your mind.’

Well, obviously. But yes, that’s true.

  “Secondly, when you do say something, it’s usually about how much you hate technology. It’s like, your go-to gripe.’

Well, you would too, if your phone buzzed so much it felt like there was a bee constantly flying about in your pocket. But yes, again, also true.

  “And thirdly, you execute The Thinker look so convincingly, I genuinely start to believe your furrowed brow is actually carved out of bronze.”

Excuse me?!

  That made me soon release from my statuesque pose.

“You’re an arse!” I said, leaning into him, trying to hide my embarrassed smile into his navy-blue jumper.

I felt the warmth of his arm wrap itself around my exposed side, brushing me reassuringly, still laughing at my pretend sulking.

“I can feel you smiling.” He observed, looking down at my head buried in the folds of the jumper’s fabric.

Muffled, I replied, “I’m not.”

It was then that he carefully released himself from our cosied sprawl and gently ushered my limp body to move slightly so he could look at me.

I still pretended to be grumpy.

“What?” I mumbled, protruding my bottom lip.

He continued to smile kindly at me, softly blinking and stroking the side of my cheek.

“You do know I’m here to support you, no matter what, okay?” He said, his blue eyes twinkling at me consolingly.

At that moment, it was as if all of my immediate problems had melted away, like icicles in view of the sun, and I felt release from my overwhelming sadness. And the more I stared at him, the more I was overwhelmed by something else.

I kissed him – passionately, gripping tightly onto his body as I slid myself up towards him, just wanting to feel every part of him close to me.

I don’t know what it was that took over me. I don’t think Benjamin did either. But by the time his navy-blue jumper had knocked both of our mugs onto the floor; I don’t think either of us cared.

CHAPTER 2

 

Never had I seen such a dirty knob. Sara’s front porch didn’t look like it had been cleaned in months. Usually, it was so pristine. She’d always be out there on her days off giving it the once over, broom in one hand and shine polish in the other. But, I suppose, all of the wedding planning had taken over her head. It was all she talked about. Wedding fair this, cake styles and guest seating that, whether or not she should invite her awkward Uncle Norris and shove him on the equivalent to Table 19 with all the other rejected people she didn’t really want to invite but felt she had to. It took over her entire life.

I was happy for Sara and Joseph, I really was. I mean, all of us together, me and Sara, Benjamin and Joseph, it was the ideal friendship clique where everybody liked everybody – a bit like the British version of Friends, but with more tea and fewer romances awkwardly intertwining with one another’s. However, the fact that Sara’s permanent procrastination meant she’d also left her front door unlocked; now that was something else.

It was 11 am, the time she asked me to meet her at her house ready for bridal shopping, and she wasn’t even there to greet me.

“Sara…?” I called out in her empty lounge.

Puzzled, I stood there, suddenly worried that maybe she was being held hostage somewhere and that if I shouted too loudly then I would be next.

Zoning into the silence, I picked up on what sounded like music coming from upstairs, and I quietly began to make my way up the pine staircase to follow it. My heart was racing. My mind was still picturing images of poor Sara, bound and tethered in a chair, being interrogated by a hoodlum in a balaclava. I juddered as I breathed out.

The music became clearer as I turned the corner. A drumbeat enveloped by a deep bass thumped through the walls. And the moment I could hear the female vocals my fear subsided.

I shook my head, “Typical Sara.”

Now smiling, I walked towards her closed bedroom door, thinking I’d catch her dancing mid-song. She always did love to boogie.

I reached for the handle quietly, not wanting to ruin the element of surprise. Holding back the laughter caught in my outstretched grin, I pulled down the handle and flew the door open, ready to see her shocked face as I entered the room with my fingers animatedly pointing at her.

“Caught y…OH, MY GOD!!”

Facing me was Joseph’s arched back, moving slowly up and down as if he were operating a pump trolley. Only, underneath him was no rail track. It was Sara. And before that detailed nanosecond view had vanished from time, I slammed the door back shut in grossed out horror.

“Oh, my God!” I repeated, panting in the empty hallway against the door, surrounded only by the vision embedded in my head and the song I could now detect as Alannah Myles’, ‘Love Is’ playing in the background.

Love is (love is) what you want it to be
Love is (love is) Heaven to the lonely                                                                                         
Show me what you want me to do                                                                                            Cause love is what I got for you

  But before I could come to terms with everything I’d seen, the bedroom door abruptly opened and I fell backwards onto the floor, only to be greeted to an upside-down viewing of Sara now wrapped in a white fluffy dressing gown, hair like tumbleweed and face painted with embarrassment.

“Layla!” She yelped.

Awkwardly smiling, I slurred back, “…Heyyy, Sara…”

I still didn’t know where to look, so just continued to smile and turned my head away from the upwards direction, saying whatever popped into my frazzled mind.

“…New carpet?”

She rolled her eyes.

“It’s Saxony.” She replied.

“Ah!’ I said far too excitedly, ‘It’s lovely! Very…soft.”

And before any further carpet conversation could be had, she offered me a hand and pulled me up off the floor.

 

Even with the contents of a strong coffee swilling about in my stomach, wandering around bridal boutiques full of pretty dresses, I still couldn’t quite distract myself from the image I’d witnessed a mere two hours prior. Sara was doing her best to flutter white frills under my nose and asking my opinion on whether getting a rose gold dress would be a nice change from the norm, but the events from earlier continued to play on loop in my head, like some kind of irksome advert you keep seeing no matter how many times you change the channel. Still, it worked well to replace the annoying reminder of being jobless, again. Except as soon as I thought that, it came flouncing back into my mind, just like wedding dress number 73 Sara was showing me.

“What do you reckon to the open back – too sexy? I quite like it.”

I wasn’t sure if she was actually asking me or whether she was redundantly throwing it out there as a means for me to simply tell her I liked it too, and since we’d been wandering about shops for so long that my feet began to feel partially eroded, I did what any good best friend would do – tell her what she wanted to hear.

“It’s nice. Plus, the mermaid tail makes it look classy.”

To this, she made a slight grumbling sound, as if she’d suddenly decided that she was no longer convinced.

“I’m too short for the mermaid tail, though. I’ll probably end up tripping up on it.”

She proceeded to hang it back on the rack, much to the dismay of the shop assistant lurking around behind us who impatiently rolled her eyes whilst pretending to search for something else that matched Sara’s never-ending list of wedding dress criterion.

The strong smell of roses was giving me a headache. I was sure they were only artificial ones hanging in the window, but just being around them and watching Sara rifle aimlessly through the plethora of dresses left me feeling angst-ridden, and with every grating slide of a hanger dragged along the golden rail, I was now, inevitably, itching to go.

“Maybe we should grab some lunch first and then come back?” I nonchalantly stated, my demand hidden in the form of polite question.

Looking away from the price tag she clasped in her hand, Sara eventually let out a defeated sigh and nodded.

“Okay, I could do with some food. Nothing with bread, though. I don’t want to be bloated later.”

The shop assistant looked joyously relieved that we were finally going, and at the same time, completely miffed at the prospect that we’d be coming back.  It was written across her porcelain face more clearly than the ‘£2000 and under’ sign was inscribed above the overly priced dresses. Sara, however, being in a world of her own, didn’t seem to notice.

“Thank you!” She said, smiling as she waved goodbye to the haughty assistant through the door.

It was the only time I saw the ivory woman’s face twitch enough to form a returning grin; the moment we both exited with the tinkle of the door’s hanging bell.

 

 

Despite her earlier protest, Sara looked pretty happy as she bit into her cheese and ham toastie, occasionally making audible moans of satisfaction. I tried to erase the looping nanosecond video that began to play in my head again.

“Don’t judge me.” She spouted, mayonnaise lounging on her chin like a holidaymaker trying to catch a tan.

I picked at my goat’s cheese salad, pushing around the pine nuts and pomegranate jewels so that they’d hopefully cling together and stop falling off my fork every time I attempted a mouthful.

“I’m not.’ I lied. ‘Who am I to judge a woman for wanting a cheese and ham sarnie? Cheese is what got me to where I am today!”

A momentary reflection of mine and Benjamin’s first conversation came to my mind. It was the first time that afternoon whereby a thought actually made me feel relaxed for a change.

I smiled, and then ate a bite of my salad.

“Firstly, it’s not a sarnie, it’s a Croque Monsieur.’ She corrected – as if saying the same thing in French somehow made it better – whilst carefully dabbing her chin of the renegade mayonnaise fleck.

“And secondly, are you okay? You’re exceptionally quiet today.’

I looked up at her; sensing the imminent ramble coming by the way she swished her blonde ponytail over her shoulder.

“I mean, if it’s because of what you saw earlier, I understand, and I am sorry. It won’t happen again. Well, it will, but next time you won’t see it, is what I mean. But, if it’s because of something else, like me, or Benjamin, or…work? You know you can talk to me? I know I’m a bit caught up in wedding stuff right now but I still want to know you’re okay. I still care.”

She rambled on for a bit longer which gave me ample opportunity to position my next mouthful onto the fork before resting it on the side of my plate. I didn’t want to come across as ungrateful to her pledge of help, but it was just so hard to wear a show-face all day. It felt like déjà vu. Here I was, back again, jobless, and having my best friend play agony aunt to the troubles in my life. This wasn’t where I imagined being at 28-years-old.

There was a time when I’d have poured out my heart to Sara. It wasn’t really that long ago. I think that was part of the problem; feeling like you’ve come so far only to discover you’re right back where you started. I felt ashamed – embarrassed. Everyone’s life was going full-speed ahead. For an obvious start, there was hers and Joseph’s wedding coming up. Who could forget that was happening? Then, there was my mum and her business of Pa‘Liss’erie, ever-gaining fandom from posh country magazines and Sussex folk who enjoyed scones and tea parties. Thankfully, she abstained from getting romantically involved with Barry as well, much to my relief. In fact, she remained single for a while. However, I should’ve realised there’d be an ulterior reason for it. Apparently, her solo entrepreneur lifestyle caught the eye of many eligible bachelors, all asking her out on extravagant romantic dates on a weekly basis. Having your own successful business making pretty cakes, it seemed, attracted more than just well-paying customers.

Layla, if I’ve learned anything about the male species it’s that they love it when you make them work for your attention. And what better way to do that than to show them how in demand you are? I don’t know why I wasted so many years committing to silly men. THIS is where the fun is at. Plus, I’ve had so many nice free dinners.

  And then there was Benjamin. How much our stories had changed since we’d first met. Our time together will always be my favourite fairy-tale. It’s just a shame that, unlike before, our paths were soon to be taken in different directions. It wouldn’t be long before he was venturing off to LA for the filming of his world-famous book, The Bridge of Destiny, and the only way I’d be able to see him for the next few months would be via a fuzzy Skype screen every once in a while. And although initially, I thought that would work out fine, what with me having a job to occupy most of my time and plenty of other people around me, I now feared his imminent leave. But how could I tell him that? He was so excited about seeing his beloved novel finally hit the big screen. Apart from the token conversation the other day about me losing my job, most of our chats somehow managed to labyrinth their way back to filming in LA. I still remember his face when the call came in telling him it was happening. Never had I seen an expression that reminded me of the OMG cat more than his did that day. It was hilarious.

If I could jump back in time to meet the old me who stood in Waterstones, looking at the star-stacked tower of those metallic blue hardbacks and say, “Hey, guess what? That’ll be made into a film soon! How awesome is that?!” I’d have gone into full-on fangirl mode and done some sort of celebratory dance. But that was before I knew him. That was before our lives intertwined.

And so, whilst I always remained proud of his achievements and obviously excited for his stories being brought to life, it was also tinged with an irrevocable sadness. Perhaps it was my life’s recent dramatic turn of events that made me think it, but sometimes, I wondered if whether I’d have been happier having never met him. Not because I didn’t love him, but because I loved him so much.

All of those thoughts circulated my mind, quickly spinning like a Mini trapped on a roundabout. Nevertheless, I fixed a smile on my face and attempted to find words that would not only sound grateful but also like I had everything under control. Airing my heart’s concerns in a local café was the last thing I wanted.

“Honestly, it’s fine.’ I lied, again. “I’ll sort it out. I’m a big girl. But thank you for your kindness. It means a lot.”

Sara released an unconvinced smile on her face. I waited for her to dig for more information like she used to. Or, with any luck, order a tub of ice cream for me to take home and wallow with. But, instead, she fingered through her bridal magazine on the table and looked at the must-have accessories to look perfect for the big day, mentally ticking off whether she’d already bought the many items glamorously pictured on the pages.

“Have you ever used this charcoal stuff to whiten your teeth? Apparently, it’s all the rage.”

I didn’t hear the words “Ben” or “Jerry’s” once in that sentence, and before my mind could compute an answer that sounded remotely diplomatic, she jumped in with yet another trivial query.

“Do you think my teeth are yellow…?”

Her eyes bulged with genuine concern and she commenced to grab a knife to check their reflection.

Is this what they mean by Bridezilla?

For some reason, the conversation’s swift drift between the emotional and the topical rendered my mouth completely stalled for a bit, and all I could do in my rather conflicted state was, after a slight delay, shake my head. Until eventually, a regrettably diffident response drove its way out.

“…no? I mean, no! No.”

The table caught her dropped jaw.

An abrupt slap of the magazine pages sounded and made me jump in my plastic chair. A few of the other surprised customers turned to see what was happening, but Sara was too overwrought with unnecessary fret to realise.

“That’s it. I’m going to have to get some. Oh, why! Why is getting married so damn expensive?!”

Even though she still had half a sandwich left on her plate and I’d only eaten around 3 mouthfuls of my salad, she rose up from the table, put one hand over her mouth and used the other hand to clasp my own. And without any further delay, we vacated the little café.

CHAPTER 3

 

Isn’t it odd how sometimes your mind can be taken to another time or place when you’re doing something robotically? Like, when you clean or pick up the groceries; you’re not really thinking about it, you’re just doing it. My poor brain missed challenges. It missed creating visions of art and that sense of wonderment that came with it. Maybe that’s why I was so reflective, so easily distracted. With its only activities limited to job trawling, Facebook trawling and when either of those became tiresome, online shop trawling – not that I’d ever buy anything, I just built pointless baskets until I’d scoured the cyber-shop long enough for me to go and make tea no. 105 of the day – I felt like a shell of my former self.

Since being out of work, I wasn’t really bothered by, or into, anything else but my wallowing. As the weeks drifted past and my online attempts at changing them proved fruitless, there was little that excited me. Even when I did nice things like, have everyone over for pizza and film nights, all I could do was sit there and think about things: what job I was meant to apply for, if I’d ever find something I’d enjoy, or, what if I have to go back into car sales…? I lived in hope it wouldn’t come to that last one.

  Apart from when I was painting, the only other time I felt remotely better was when I had something physically demanding to do. Although, saying that, as nice as it was to move, the most recent task I’d set myself wasn’t one that made that sentiment easy to achieve.

Tongue out and legs surfing the top of the step-ladder, my focus on the farewell party banner I was hanging up in the lounge was briefly thwarted and instead, directed to a noise coming from outside. It sounded like a low-level hum, constant, but not mechanical. Curious, I draped the shiny vinyl over the ladder and carefully trod down to find out what was going on.

As I walked into the garden, the hum grew louder. Fully captivated by this needless mission I’d set myself, I followed the sound as it led me over the fence. Perhaps I should’ve been less curious. In hindsight, I wish I had been.

Posing before me, upside down and basking in the spring sunlight, was my Scottish neighbour, Roger Taylor, wearing nothing more than a kilt that began to crawl its way up his thigh. Despite being in his late 60s, his stamina for yoga was phenomenal. And in a way, it was rather mesmerising to watch. But when the inadvertent viewing his underwear became apparent, my hypnotic state ceased.

“Oh, not again! Sorry, Mr Taylor!”

I seemed to be going through a terrible phase of catching people in awkward situations. This, I decided, was an undesired side-effect of being jobless.

After hearing my abrupt apology, Roger slowly ventured his legs down and stood himself up firmly, but not before stretching his arms out like a tree first.

“Ah, guid mornin’, Miss Griffiths! Beautiful day, aye?”

He appeared completely unaffected by my presence. Usually, I’d have repeatedly blasphemed out of shock, but his unperturbed and relaxed demeanour had me speechless. It was as if he was happy to see me. At least this time I didn’t have to worry about a Saxony carpet breaking my fall.

“Oh, erm, yes! Indeed, it is.”

“I see you’re having a wee party?” He commented, obviously noticing the many balloons I’d dotted about the garden and the empty buffet table.

“Sure am! I’m hoping the sun sticks around.” I replied, trying to sound as if I was excited about it.

“What’s the occasion, lass?”

I looked around, trying to work out what words to use that didn’t have any negative connotations that could render me breaking down in front of my nearly-naked pensioner neighbour, or being overtly positive and sounding like a swaggering wannabe.

“Oh, just a little farewell shindig for Benjamin. He’s off to the States for work.”

“Aye, yes! I think I remember him saying something aboot a film.”

Trust him to have mentioned it to anyone and everyone.

“That’s the one. He told you too, eh?”

“The lad is excited! Not surprising, really.’ Roger stated whilst grabbing his bottle of water perched on the lawn, “You must be prowd.”

“Yeah,’ I nodded, thinking about his comment, “it’s wonderful.”

And with that, I smiled and embarrassingly permitted him to continue on with his yoga, as if he somehow needed my go-ahead.

From the moment I clambered down and walked back into my lounge, reality hit me like a ton of bricks. As if it hadn’t done so already, but it was only when I looked at what the flappy vinyl banner was hanging beside that my heart was suddenly ripped.

There, in all its glory, was the most beautiful painting in the world. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but sometimes, when you catch yourself unaware, that’s when you feel that initial emotion come hurdling back. As soon as I clapped eyes on it, my heart rang like a church bell, swinging fast and loud, and yet, also tugging away heavily at my throat. They say love is a double-edged sword, they weren’t wrong.

Now in front of the oil-painted canvas, I reached out to touch it, carefully gliding my finger over the fairy-tale couple who sat in the centre. Although they were softly detailed, their surroundings were perfectly real. From the intricate facets of the leaves to the sharpness of the couple’s mahogany pew, their pretty environment was perfectly captured. The main differences that took it from real to surreal were the colours within the portrait. Each leaf was blended with dreamlike hues of reds and oranges, and the sky a mirror of pinks and yellows, giving a fiery glaze to a seamless puddle of scenery.

A sigh escaped me as an encapsulated memory pushed its way forward.

For your Renaissance.’

  Of course, at the time, I already thought that my rebirth had manifested. My life at Christmas last year was finally where I wanted to be – surrounded by beautiful friends and family, an amazing new home to live in and partner to share it with, a great job. But one-by-one those pieces of my life were slowly being taken away, and I felt powerless to stop it. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that it would get better, it had to.

As I stared for a little longer, I remembered how Benjamin had lit up when I’d opened that painting from its shiny red wrap last Christmas. He’d stitched an eager grin on his face so tightly that I thought he’d sewn the corners of his mouth to the lobes of his ears.

“It’s us! Just like that time in London last year – sat on the bench underneath the maple tree. Do you remember?” He asked me, his ocean stare brimming with hope.

  Looking at him then back at the painting, my smile was a mile-wide.

  “Oh my God, Benjamin, of course I do! How could I ever forget the magic of autumn? It’s…amazing. I love it. Thank you.”

And with a boom in my chest, I kissed him, just like the first time. No matter who was watching or what was happening, I’d lost sight of the world around me. It was only me and him, together as one.

Sadly, all it took was a fateful blink and that picture-perfect memory began to fade. But as soon as it did, I realised something. I’d spent the last few weeks being so committed to a relationship with self-pity that I actually forgot to pay proper attention to the real relationship in my life.

What was it I’d once said to him?

I’ve wasted far too many of my days not telling you how much you mean to me, but no more.”

 And with that thought now firmly in place, I picked up my shoes and quickly ran out the front door.

 

We only lived a stone’s throw away from our local library. It was situated on the corner of the roadside, suitably shaded by an oak tree that sat adjacent to an acacia bench; its silver arms nicely accentuated by the ashen bricks of the small building. On that bench sat Benjamin. I knew I’d find him there, just reading the morning away in the sun.

After realising I didn’t want any help with the decorations for his party, he’d gone out for a wander. So it didn’t take much guessing to realise where he’d end up.

“Hey there, Stranger,” I said as I parked myself next to him.

Looking up from his book, he smiled.

“Hey, you!’ He replied as he leaned in to kiss me on the cheek, ‘What brings you here? I thought you were playing House Doctor and transforming our downstairs into a party shack?”

He looked so handsome when the skylight skimmed his cheeks, it made his eyes peek in such a way that he would be forced to smile a somewhat cheeky grin just to make sure the glow didn’t steal his view.

“I was. But then I felt bad for kicking you out and being a general buzzkill before you went away.”

Placing a hand on mine, he began to rub my thumb with his own.

“Don’t be daft, I get that things aren’t going the way they should be and that it’s hard for you. Life’s given you a curveball and you don’t know how to hit it to get a home run. And yes, you have been a bit distant, but, I can understand why. I’m just glad you’re here now.”

Leaning on his shoulder, hands still clasped, I smiled. In pen and in word, Benjamin always knew the right thing to say.

After a few minutes of watching the world go by from our spot on the bench, I felt Benjamin’s head tilt to look at the sky.

“Fancy a stroll before we have to get back for the party?”

The day was surprisingly warm; it would have been a shame to waste it.

“Only – if we can go to my favourite place?” I requested, playfully.

He laughed whilst shaking his head, he knew where I meant.

“Deal.”

 

Down the narrow path, through the towering trees, and onto the pastures of the meadow, came the many sounds of the woodland. Chirping birds that perched high from overlooking branches, rustling leaves as animals scurried deep into their earthy homes, and us, tousling our way towards the unbound stretches of lush green fields like children, laughing away as we did so.

“You’re slacking, my nerdy writing friend!’ I teased to him as I jumped my way over the rooted branches on the floor, “Can’t you even keep up with a girl?”

Determination bleaching his stare, he picked up the pace.

“Oh, you’ve asked for it now!”

Suddenly, Benjamin was gaining on me. Through the congregation of trees came a black streak, running fast and breathing hard, red scarf flapping with every speedy tread. An excited bolt of adrenaline shot through me as I looked back, running faster, heart racing, smile fixed.

Finally out of the shadowed forest and onto the sun-drenched pasture, I raised my arms in the air with triumph.

“I win! Victory is mine!” I cheered, still running.

Fuelled by glory, I turned around to look for Benjamin; he couldn’t have been far behind.

“Yo, sloth boy, where you at?” About five seconds of confusion went by before I found my answer.

“Hey, Mo Farah, who are you calling a sloth?”

And with that, he quickly scooped me up off the floor, carried me through the emerald fields and we tumbled into a kiss.

 

After a couple of hours in the great outdoors, I knew I’d never rid the grass stains from my jeans. But I didn’t care. Because as we lay there, lying on our stripped off jackets amongst the sea-green blades and butterflies twirling in the sky above, I knew I’d not be this happy again for a long time. And just for now, whilst I could, I wanted to make the most of it.

There was a gentle breeze stroking my skin. This had to have been the warmest March for years. Knowing England though, it wouldn’t last long. And usually, if we were lucky enough to have such beautiful weather, there would always be a grey cloud lurking amongst the cyan heavens, trying to remind you that good things simply can’t last forever.

It was then that I became all too aware of our reality outside the haven of the fields. Soon, we would have to head back. Back home for the party. A party which announced Bon Voyage to any moments like these from happening again. Well, not for a long time, at least.

“I wish you didn’t have to go, you know,” I said, intently looking up at the nearby Red Admiral as it danced in the air.

Waiting a second before replying, Benjamin watched me as I continued to stare straight ahead.

“Are you talking to me? Or the butterfly?” He replied, smiling as he did so.

I turned my head and pulled some grass out from the ground with my free hand, sprinkling him with a shower of pea-coloured dust. It felt only appropriate to cover him in contents as dry as his own wit.

“You, you great muppet.”

We laughed, and I shook my head jokingly.

Resting my hand on top of his chest, I stared at him. The nimble tips of grass that had caught strands of our hair drifted onto the floor. Flecks of jade swam in the cobalt pools of his eyes. And as if ushered by our closeness, the neighbouring butterfly flew its way towards us. Silently, we watched, as it lightly landed on my nose.

Beyond its outstretched inkblot wings, I could see Benjamin’s face, fully captivated by awe. Equally stunned, I crinkled my mouth into a smile. But the gentle breeze returned and encouragingly swept the butterfly back into the air; back to where it was free.

It could have only been a few seconds, but what was right there in front of us had now vanished from sight. Nothing left but the memory.

Noticing the sunken thought saturating my expression, Benjamin caressed my cheek.

“Beautiful, aren’t they – butterflies.” He said, encouraging my mouth to arc into a smile.

Silently, I nodded.

“It’s sad, really,’ he continued, “That they only live for a few weeks, some only a number of days. Imagine that? Trying to squeeze in all of life’s wonders in just 4 weeks – it’d be impossible!’

Pausing briefly, he took his caressing fingers to my chin and began to brush along the curve.

“If you think about it, we’re pretty lucky. We still have years ahead of us. And yes, with that comes some wrinkles and grey hairs, but it’s a small price to pay for all the time we get on this plane.’

A look of sincerity sat in his eyes; I knew what he was trying to say.

“It goes without saying that I’ll miss you so much, Layla. This really couldn’t have come at a more difficult time. But we’re made of strong stuff. And as hard as it’ll be, I know we’ll pull through, like we always do.’

“Anyway, if I were you, I’d make the most of it, because after that, you’re stuck with me forever. Which means it’ll be you who’s in charge of looking after the geriatric me; the one who needs help cleaning his dentures and plucking out all manky nasal hairs from his face.”

Winking at me, he smiled, and I bowed my head to stop a tear from falling. Even though what he’d said put things into perspective, I still didn’t want him to go.

In the sunlight, his watch glistened and I suddenly noticed the time. We’d been out there far longer than I’d assumed.

Wiping away my stray tear, we pulled ourselves off the verdant terrain and began to make our way back home. Hand-in-hand we walked, two grass-stained lovers freely floating through the meadow, just like the butterfly.

 

*************************************************************************************

FULL BOOK ON ITS WAY TO A STORE NEAR YOU SOON…

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