How would you feel if you were stood up? Embarrassed? Upset? Pissed off?
Juliet was all three. Sitting conspicuously by herself at a table for two in a fashionable bar-cum-restaurant in Soho, she glanced self-consciously at her watch -- nearly 7:30 -- and tried to ignore the pitying glances of the cozy couples around her. She was going to kill Will. Being stood up was bad enough, but by her boyfriend.
She'd been waiting for over half an hour, which didn't seem like a long time when she was curled up at home on the sofa watching Sex and the City -- one minute it was the opening credits and Sarah Jessica Parker was stumbling around in a tutu, the next it was all over and the commercials were on -- but it was a completely different storyline when she was marooned in the West End in a brand new pair of killer heels and a dress that should read "do not wear unaccompanied" next to the dry-clean-only instructions. The outfit was meant to get Will's attention, not that of the minicab driver, the workmen on the corner with their hard hats and hard-ons, and the suited cityboys at the bar.
Draining the lukewarm dregs of her "house speciality" cocktail she toyed with the idea of another round. She'd already finished off the complimentary olives -- and she didn't even like olives, nasty bitter bloody things -- read the Evening Standard from cover to cover, including the boring pink bit that came in the middle, and sent text messages to everyone she could think of on her mobile. Now it was make her mind up time. Should she order another drink and give Will ten more minutes? Or go home, put a bunny on the boil and lie in wait for him with a bread knife?
Juliet stabbed her last remaining ice cube with her straw. Feeling as she did right at that moment, she was sorely tempted to go for the bunny option. But instead she did what every female does in times of emotional crisis. She called her best friend.
The answering machine picked up immediately. "Hi, you've reached Trudy Bernstein designs..." Email, fax and mobile numbers followed, plus an entire electronically piped verse of Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" that seemed to go on forever. Finally there was the beep to record. "It's me, pick up the phone," hissed Juliet.
She knew Trudy was at home screening her calls. She'd been doing nothing else since she'd met her new fling, Fergus, three weeks ago. Not that she was trying to avoid him: on the contrary, she was desperate to see him. But she didn't want him to know that. A firm believer in playing hard to get, Trudy wanted Fergus to think she was a cool, independent woman with a hectic social life, not a mass of insecurities who stayed in every night, glued to the phone like an elastoplast waiting for his call.
Trying to hide from the inquisitive stares of the other diners, Juliet pressed her mobile to her mouth, hunched her shoulders and sank like the Titanic into the depths of her coat. And tried again: "Trudy, this is really important..." Her pleading voice wavered as she locked eyes with the alarmingly hirsute waiter leaning against the bar. Juliet winced -- she could smell his Kouros aftershave from where she was sitting -- and dived back under her sheepskin collars. "For Godsakes Trudy, I know you're there..."
"How do you know?" A sudden voice gasped indignantly. "I could be at some wild party, taking shitloads of drugs, drinking endless supplies of champagne, being chatted up by dozens of fabulous men..."
Hearing Trudy's unmistakable New York accent -- Woody Allen with a twist of Rhoda's Brenda -- Juliet felt her panic being swallowed up by immense relief. In fact she didn't think she'd ever been so relieved to listen to one of Trudy's neurotic monologues. "But you're not at some party," she interrupted.
She was cut down.
"Gee, thanks a lot. Is there really any need to hammer home the abysmal reality that I'm alone, I'm wearing sweatpants, and the only drugs in my possession are junior-fucking-aspirin?"
Trudy stopped, suddenly aware of silence on the other end of the line. "Jules? Are you still there?"
"I'm not sure. Is it safe?"
There was a sigh. Trudy's temper evaporated as quickly as it had ignited. "Oh gawd, I'm sorry, Jules. What's up? Don't tell me you've had another row with Will."
"I thought he was taking you out for dinner."
"So did I."
A pause, and then a yelp as the penny dropped. "You cannot be serious!" Trudy could do a pretty good impersonation of McEnroe circa Wimbledon 1981 when she wanted to.
"Do you hear me laughing?"
"Where are you now?"
"At the restaurant."
"Ohmygawd. You're there by yourself?"
Juliet didn't answer. She was beginning to regret the phone call. The idea was supposed to be that Trudy would make her feel better, not even worse.
"Where the hell is Will?"
"I don't know."
There was another "Ohmygawd," as, oblivious to her discomfort, Trudy continued. "What's the matter with him these days? He's acting like such an asshole. I thought tonight was supposed to be a big deal. For Christsakes you've been looking forward to it for weeks..."
"Months," corrected Juliet. "In fact, make that six months. Ever since Will started up his bloody landscape gardening business we haven't had a night out." She fingered the hem of the dress she'd bought especially for tonight, a luscious raspberry red swathe of silk embroidered with tiny flowers that emphasized all the right bits, and tried not to think of the price tag. "Unless of course you count the movies."
"What? Sitting in the pitch black, not speaking for two hours," scoffed Trudy. "I'd hardly call that going out."
"Need I say more..."
Noticing the silence on the other end of the line it dawned on Trudy that no, she didn't need to say any more. In fact she'd said quite enough. As a dutiful friend she shouldn't be bitching about Will, however tempting it might be, knowing all the effort Juliet had gone to for tonight -- maxing-out her credit card in Bond Street on an outfit to wear, spending her lunch hour freewheeling around Boots, a further two hours after work at the gym, not to mention the time spent in the changing room doing a makeover Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen would be proud of. No, she should be offering reassurance, comfort, support in times of crisis and ignoring the fact that she wanted nothing more than to kick Will's ass.
She made a swift U-turn. "Look, I'm sure he'll be turning up any second now with his tail between those goddamn skinny legs of his." She forced a laugh. Canned laughter would have been more realistic. "What time are you supposed to be meeting?"
"It's half past."
"I know," muttered Juliet miserably. Casting another hopeful glance at the door, she caught the eye of the hirsute waiter. Picking his teeth with a cocktail stick he was staring right at what little cleavage she'd managed to create with her bought-specially-for-tonight plunge bra from the Salon Rose range at M&S. Cursing Will for the hundredth time that evening she wrapped her coat protectively around her chest like a bullet-proof vest.
"Have you called him?" Trudy was doing her best at trying to be helpful -- not one of her strongest points -- and had resorted to asking the obvious.
"His phone's on voicemail."
"Did you leave a message?"
"Does shouting 'you bastard' down the phone count?"
Trudy laughed grimly. "In that case he's definitely got the message. So what are you going to do?"
"I'm supposed to ask you that."
Trudy knew what she'd do, but then that probably explained why all her relationships (note plural) had failed and Juliet's relationship (note singular) hadn't. Well, not yet. She tried to adopt a mature sitting-on-the-fence attitude. "There's got to be a perfectly good reason why he's late..." She paused, trying to think of something feasible. A head-on collision? Pulmonary embolism? Her ER-fueled imagination went into overdrive, before she remembered that even though Juliet was pissed off with Will, suggesting that he could be on the critical list in A&E might not count as a good reason. "I think you should give him another fifteen minutes..."
"And then what?"
"Come over to my place. I'll order takeout from Chopstix on the corner." Comfort eating was Trudy's answer to everything. "They do an awesome chow mein."
"I can't wait." Juliet knew she should at least sound more grateful, but she'd been looking forward to a romantic evening, eating deliciously expensive food from large white plates and getting slowly drunk on champagne. Sitting in Trudy's drafty Hampstead flat, picking at soggy spring rolls and sweet'n'sour pork from a tinfoil tray, while drinking a choice of flat Diet Coke or black "cawfee" wasn't much of a consolation.
Promising to call Trudy back, she hung up and beckoned the waiter. Sinking into a pit of depression she ordered another drink. After all, it was supposed to be happy hour. She looked at her watch.
Will had fifteen minutes to go.
Squashing a teabag against the side of his chipped mug, Will squeezed out the last few drops before dropping it, still stuck to the teaspoon, into the sink. It sank without a trace into the washing-up water that had gone cold, its bubbles long since dissolved by the greasy vindaloo ring that clung around the edges of the white porcelain butler sink. It was his turn to do the dishes, but as usual he'd left it until every utensil in the flat had been used -- even the gravy boat that his mum gave him had found a use as a soup bowl -- and now he couldn't face it. He'd just got in from work. He was knackered. He'd do it later.
Kicking off his mud-caked boots and sprinkling dried clods of dirt all over the kitchen floor he picked up his mug and padded into the living room, snagging his sock again on the nail that needed hammering down on one of the floorboards. Ignoring it, he flopped on the sofa and stretched out happily. Juliet was always nagging him to get changed out of his work gear, especially since they'd just splurged on a new velvet three-seater from Habitat, but what she didn't see she wouldn't know.
Will wasn't used to being home alone. Arriving back at the flat a few moments ago, he'd been surprised to discover it empty. Since setting up Dig It Designs he worked late most nights and Juliet was at home when he walked through the front door; there would be an aroma of cooking, the sound of the TV blaring from the living room. But tonight there was nothing but silent darkness. He must have fogotten she was working late, he thought, feeling around the edges of the cushions for the remote control. Or maybe she'd gone to Trudy's. Still, having the flat to himself for a bit wasn't such a bad thing, he mused, digging the remote out from underneath him.
Will flicked on the telly. Pretty boring as usual, just the usual soaps and a holiday program. Oh hang on, what was that? Top Gear? Aside from architecture, Will's passion was cars, especially sportscars, and he could see Jeremy Clarkson filling the screen in his SwapShop jumper. Test-driving a canary yellow convertible, the presenter was blasting through the British countryside with the roof down, his droning voice barely audible above the roar of the 16-valve engine. Chuffed at his discovery, Will grinned to himself and sipping his tea, lay back against the cushions.
He must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew he'd woken up with a start.
Will wiped a gloop of spit that was trickling out of the side of his mouth. What time was it? Groggy with sleep he sat up, spilling the tea which had been balanced on his lap. Shit. Frantically rubbing the velvet cushions with the sleeve of his jumper, he tried to mop up the cold PG Tips before it stained forever. Shit, Shit, Shit.
The flat was in darkness, apart from the glow from the telly, and switching on the light Will peered at his watch. Seven-thirty. He furrowed his brow -- where was Juliet? She should be home by now. His eye fell on a stale, half-smoked roll-up loitering in the ashtray, and with no one around to tell him he was being disgusting, he relit it and walked across to the window. Cupping his hand around his eyes, he peered out into the rainy darkness, half expecting to catch sight of her walking down the street. But there was no sign of her, just a few people sheltering from the drizzle at the bus stop and the obligatory traffic warden gleefully pouncing on the motorists who'd left their cars on double yellows, foolish enough to think flashing hazard lights would protect them while they nipped into Oddbins.
Frowning, he caught sight of his reflection in the double-glazing. Crumpled. Knackered. Hair all over the place. Bags under his eyes. Clothes like a tramp. Bloody hell, I look like shit. I need a shower, a haircut...he rubbed the bristles on his chin...a shave. Turning side-on he checked out his silhouette, sucking in his stomach and then letting it deflate like a soufflé over the waistband of his jeans. Christ I look pregnant, no wonder Juliet's always messing around and saying she can feel it kicking.
Will rubbed his belly protectively. All it needed was a few more sessions down the gym, a few sit-ups and he'd give Beckham a run for his six-pack. In fact maybe he should go tonight, lift a few weights, do a session on the running machine...Yawning, he breathed out a cloud of smoke and ran his fingers through the strands of his dirty blond hair, still damp from the rain. Then again, maybe he'd go tomorrow, after all, it was getting pretty late, and Juliet would be home any time. Which reminded him...
Digging out his mobile from his back pocket, he began looking around for the charger. The battery had gone down at lunchtime and he hadn't been able to receive any calls. Maybe Juliet had left a message saying she was working late. His stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten all day. And he was starving. Maybe he should ring her at the office and ask her to pick up a takeaway on the way home.
Perked up by the idea of chicken jalfrezi, he began searching for the charger, scouring the shelves jammed with dog-eared Rough Guides, his collection of CDs -- long since separated from their cases -- Juliet's stash of magazines which she insisted on hoarding, even though they dated back to the nineties -- and a jumble of photo frames all vying for space. No nothing there.
He crouched on the floor and began tracing the knotted cluster of wires behind the TV. It was full of crap there, but among the plugs, dust and long-forgotten Blockbuster videos, he finally found what he was looking for. Relieved, he was about to plug in his mobile when he noticed a piece of paper underneath the coffee table. Probably a flyer for some new pizza restaurant, or maybe one of those annoying book-club supplements that always fell out of the Sunday papers.
Under normal circumstances, Will would have left it there -- tidying up wasn't one of his strong points -- but curiosity got the better of him and he pulled it out. It was an envelope with his name on it. He stared at it. It must have fallen off the fireplace. It must have been put there by Juliet. To be opened when he got home from work. Alone.
For a crazy moment Will wondered what he'd do if it was a "Dear John" letter but then dismissed the idea. As if, he thought. Juliet and I are rock solid. So what if we've had a few arguments recently, what couple doesn't? Grinning at the absurdity of the thought, he began ripping open the envelope.
The shrill ringing tone of his mobile interrupted him. He glanced at the screen as DIVERTED CALL flashed up, grabbed the phone and cradled it in the crook of his neck. The automated voicemail service told him he had one new message.
"You bastard," Juliet's voice yelled into his ear.
What the hell...Will stopped as something clicked in his head like a 100-watt bulb being switched on. And he remembered. Don't say it's today. Don't say it's today I'm supposed to be taking her out for dinner...
He glanced down at the card he'd just pulled from the envelope. The heart on the front made his own plummet to somewhere around his ankles as he read the three dreaded words.
Happy Valentines' Day.
Will groaned. He was in deep, deep shit.
Copyright © 2002 by Alexandra Potter