Storming through the hotel lobby as fast as her towering peep-toe heels would allow, Eva Larch swore under her breath. Her boyfriend of more than two years followed close behind-so close he was in danger of treading on her gown. He was always doing that, trailing after her like a yappy little puppy. And like a puppy, he had been snapping at her all evening.
It had started as soon as they sat down to dinner. As there were no formal seating plans, it was up to them which of the large circular tables they chose to sit at. Eva and Callum naturally decided to sit with the rest of their friendship group, which just so happened to include Eva’s ex-boyfriend. By pure chance, Eva found herself seated between Callum and Carl, only Callum didn’t believe that it was pure chance. He seemed to think it was the result of some stealthy manoeuvring on Eva’s part, and immediately began nettling her about it.
‘I should have known you’d end up sitting there,’ he muttered as she leaned across him for the red wine.
‘What’s your point?’ she murmured back, her voice light and non-confrontational.
‘It’s just typical, isn’t it?’
‘If you say so.’
Determined not to let Callum’s insecurity ruin her evening, Eva refused to be drawn on the subject and instead threw herself into celebrating. Having missed her Year 11 prom due to a family holiday, she had decided to go all-out for this one.
She had spent hours scouring the shops for her perfect dress, eventually settling on a floor-length, dark red number with spaghetti straps and a rose corsage. The colour suited her perfectly and matched the frames of her Dolce and Gabbana glasses. Eager to make an impression, she had teamed the dress with sparkly silver jewellery and elbow length-black gloves. Her hair was curled and pinned back behind her ears, the rollers having gone in the night before. Sleeping in them was the only option if Eva wanted her curls to have any chance of holding. Much like her, her hair was exceedingly stubborn and not at all fond of being manipulated.
The first two courses passed without incident, unless you counted Callum’s constant jibes at how much Eva was drinking. A whole three glasses of wine, who’d have thought it? Three glasses of wine to celebrate the end of a year during which she had worked her backside off making sure she got the best possible grades. The way she Eva saw it, she deserved this blowout. All three glasses of it.
Every now and then she spoke to Carl. Casual, offhand comments about nothing of any consequence. At one point he asked her what the small, orange fruit garnishing their dessert was.
‘I don’t know,’ Eva said with a nonchalant shrug. ‘It’s nice though, you should try it.’
She watched as Carl popped the fruit in his mouth (a cape gooseberry, as she would later discover), bit down on it and immediately pulled a face.
‘It is not nice,’ he spluttered, continuing to grimace as he forced himself to chew. His aversion to this innocuous little fruit made Eva giggle, and seeing her giggle made him smile. But then she looked to her left to find Callum scowling at her, and her own smile flickered and died.
‘What?’ she whispered through gritted teeth.
‘You know what,’ Callum replied, taking a big swig of wine.
‘I was just talking to him. That’s all.’
It was clear from the way Callum avoided her eyes that he didn’t approve of her and Carl talking, not even about fruit.
‘You were flirting with him.’
Eva almost choked on her wine.
‘You think that was flirting?’
The boy had no idea. Eva and Carl were only together briefly, but they had been very good at flirting. What they weren’t so good at was having a natural conversation outside of the flirting, but then the same was true of most fifteen-year-olds. Three years later, they were much easier in each other’s company, and Callum did not like that.
Eva jabbed her cheesecake rather aggressively, causing the biscuit base to shatter and sending crumbs of digestive firing off in all directions.
If you knew half the things he said to me when we were going out, she thought. Part of her was tempted to tell Callum just to see his scandalised reaction, but doing so would only provoke his ire further. Besides, she had never repeated those things to anyone, partly because it made her blush just thinking about them, and partly because they were her own, jealously guarded secrets.
‘Trust me, you’d know if I was flirting,’ she said through clenched teeth.
Across the table, Eva’s best friend, Isobel, had spotted that something was wrong. As they locked eyes, Isobel cocked her head to one side ever so slightly, her forehead creasing into the merest trace of a frown. Without moving her head, Eva looked sideways at Callum. Isobel gave a tiny nod that said, I should have known, and promptly got to her feet.
‘I’m just popping to the loo,’ she announced, picking up her black clutch bag. ‘Back in a mo.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ Eva said, recognising the ploy for what it was.
Thirty seconds later they were sequestered in the ladies’ toilet, away from prying eyes and free to talk openly.
‘What’s he doing now?’ Isobel asked as soon as the door was closed.
‘Oh, the usual. Being paranoid about Carl. Thinks I’m flirting with him.’
Isobel let out an enormous sigh and rolled her eyes at the ceiling.
‘Not again. I’m sick of hearing about this.’
‘You and me both.’
‘This is every week now, Eva.’
‘I mean, do you really need this in your life?’
Eva didn’t answer. It wasn’t the first time Isobel had asked her that. She had posed the very same question just a few weeks ago, when Callum worked himself up into such a paranoid frenzy that he was physically sick.
It was the day after Isobel’s eighteenth birthday, and she, Eva and two other friends had been out clubbing the night before. In truth, Eva hadn’t been hugely excited by the prospect. She had never been clubbing, and the idea of being surrounded by sweaty drunks on a crowded, sticky dancefloor was not one that appealed to her. Still, it was what Isobel wanted, and so she had gone along with it. They shared two jugs of Sex on the Beach in Wetherspoons, before heading to a club where they spent the next couple of hours dancing to terrible drum and base music as their faces strobed in and out of visibility. It was like watching a stop motion film of themselves, and Eva had found it rather disorientating. They stopped for cheesy garlic bread on the way home, and by one o’clock they were all safely tucked up in bed.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad night. Even the terrible music had been rendered bearable by the company and the fact it was a special occasion. And as no one had got drunk or done anything stupid, Eva had not expected there to be any repercussions. Sadly, she was mistaken.
Callum was sulky for the whole of the following morning. He barely spoke to Eva during form time, preferring instead to glare at the tabletop with his jaw clenched. Her attempts to get him to talk elicited no reaction, and so she gave up and left him to stew. Then, halfway through their Double Biology lesson, he suddenly ducked out to go to the bathroom. He came back looking sheepish, and admitted to Eva that he had been sick.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked under her breath. ‘Are you ill?’
‘What is it then?’
That was when he told her. Callum had been so worried by the prospect of Eva going out drinking that he had worked himself up into a state of hysteria. Apparently, he had been convinced that she would ‘meet someone and do something’ on this night out, an insinuation Eva found as infuriating as it was idiotic. Far from garnering sympathy, his reaction only served to rile her up, to such an extent that she considered ending things there and then.
‘Do you not trust me?’ she asked him the moment they left the classroom.
‘I do,’ he insisted, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. ‘I just don’t trust other people.’
‘But you know I would never cheat. You know that no amount of alcohol could ever make me be unfaithful. You see, Callum, I have this wonderful little thing called discipline. You should get some, it’s really useful.’
She knew that last line was petty. She knew it was spiteful. But it was also the truth. No matter how much she loved him, Eva had to admit that Callum was severely lacking in the discipline department. He was notorious for not revising in the run-up to exams, preferring instead to play video games, and then acting surprised when his grades weren’t as high as he would have liked. Eva had tried getting him to revise multiple times, even offering to help him herself, but he wouldn’t have it.
‘Do you want to come revise with me?’ she had asked him one evening a few weeks back. She was sitting at his desk, shuffling the stack of multicoloured flashcards she had made for their upcoming Biology exam. Callum, who was busy slicing through the arteries of a giant worm on his X-Box, didn’t even look up.
‘I’m OK thanks.’
‘OK, it’s just that these exams will determine whether or not we get into our first choice of uni, so I figured the more we do, the better.’
There was silence for a few moments as Callum jabbed at the buttons, a look of intense concentration on his face.
‘I’m OK thanks,’ he repeated in exactly the same tone as the first time.
Eva gave up after that. Turning her attention to the flashcards, she set about revising the structure of the kidney while doing her best to ignore the sound of revving chainsaws.
Isobel had looked stunned when Eva told her about Callum being sick.
‘I may have been a little harsh with him,’ she admitted, half wishing she could take back the comment about him getting some discipline. Isobel disagreed.
‘You weren’t harsh enough. The boy’s pathetic. Do you really need this in your life?’
Do you really need this in your life?
If she was really, brutally honest, Eva didn’t think she did. Isobel watched her knowingly, reading her silence like a book.
‘You do what you think is best,’ she said, checking her makeup in the large rectangular mirror above the sinks. ‘But you know what I think.’
Just as they were leaving the bathroom, Isobel leaned forward and said in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘Carl looks good in that waistcoat, doesn’t he?’
Eva tried to keep her expression neutral, but her mouth seemed determined to curl itself into a smile despite her best efforts.
‘Yeah, he does,’ she said in as casual a tone as she could muster. There was no point pretending she hadn’t noticed; it would be like pretending not to notice that the floor was there.
‘And you look good in that dress,’ Isobel continued, her voice light and teasing.
‘Your point being?’
‘My point being that if I’ve noticed, then Carl has definitely noticed.’
By the time they got back to the dining hall, a team of waiting staff in white shirts were clearing the tables, and people were starting to make their way through a large set of double doors to disco next door. Callum was loitering near their table, a sour expression on his face as if he’d been sucking on a lemon.
‘Everything all right?’ Eva asked as she drew level with him. Isobel had slotted herself in among the rest of their friendship group as they edged towards the doors. Callum glared reproachfully at the back of her head before rounding on Eva.
‘Been talking about me, have you?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘Why else would you two disappear to the bathroom together?’
Eva made a show of pretending to think hard about it before replying, ‘Er, maybe because we needed the loo.’
He scoffed and turned away from her, and at that precise moment, Eva decided she had had enough.
Snatching up her bag, she stormed out of the dining hall and into the lobby, Callum following close behind her.
‘Eva,’ he hissed, ‘where are you going? Eva!’
He reached out and tried to grab hold of her wrist, but Eva wrenched it free. She whirled around to face him, her eyes sparking fury as the words burst from her mouth.
Those two little words exploded in the air with all the force of a grenade. Callum jolted as if he had walked into a brick wall, his whole body going rigid. His face registered shock, anger and dismay all in the space of a few seconds. Eva watched as he wrestled with his emotions, her own insides squirming with guilt. This wasn’t how she planned it. Not here. Not today. Not like this.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, wringing her black-gloved hands together. ‘I just can’t take this anymore. The constant jealousy, the insecurities. I’ve had enough.’
She tried to keep her voice down, but it was already too late. People in the adjoining bar were looking at them. Those who were halfway through drinks orders broke off mid-syllable, heads swivelling round to gawp at the unfolding drama. Among them was Eva’s least favourite person in their year group. She was leaning against the bar, sipping vodka and coke through a straw and looking positively delighted. No doubt she would be scurrying off to tell her friends just as soon as this was over. Eva didn’t care. She had bigger things to worry about right now than Amy Whiteley-Hunt.
Callum’s mouth was moving but nothing was coming out. He looked like a fish that had been removed from its tank and left to suffocate slowly. Some of the spectators found this amusing and began whispering behind their hands. Eva shot them a furious look and they immediately desisted, turning their backs on them once more.
‘You’re doing this here? Really?’
Callum’s voice, when he found it, was scathing and venomous.
‘I know it’s not ideal,’ Eva admitted, ‘but it was going to happen sooner or later.’
‘Not ideal is a bit of an understatement,’ Callum snapped.
He was right, of course. Prom was definitely not the ideal place for a breakup, if such a place even existed. But then if he didn’t want this to happen, he should have behaved better.
‘I didn’t plan it this way.’
‘Of course I didn’t. I’ve been looking forward to this for months. You know I have.’
‘I wonder why,’ Callum scoffed, voice dripping with sarcasm.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You and Carl. You can barely keep your eyes off each other. I’ve seen you.’
They stood glowering at each other for a few moments, hostility crackling in the air between them.
‘What do you want me to say?’ Eva asked at length.
‘You can’t even deny it,’ Callum said, unable to suppress the wounded note in his voice. Overcome by guilt, Eva dropped her gaze and stared at a scuff mark on the floor.
‘At least admit that you find him more attractive than me.’
You know I do.
Eva didn’t say it. There was no need. They both knew it was true. They had known since the start of their relationship some two and a half years ago.
The fact that Eva still harboured a fondness for her ex had long been a source of conflict between her and Callum. That Eva had an ex at all was also a source of conflict. She was Callum’s first girlfriend, and he hated knowing that someone else had beaten him to it, especially when that someone else was Carl. With his superior intellect, vast array of talents and strong work ethic, he was everything Callum wasn’t. Carl would never have passed up a night of revision in favour of slicing giant worm arteries, nor did he need reminding of the importance of exams.
Then there was the inescapable fact that Carl and Eva had a rapport. Their relationship may have been short-lived, but even the manner in which it began had helped fuel Callum’s insecurities. When Carl asked Eva out next to the fishpond near the art classrooms, she had responded with an immediate yes. When Callum did the same thirteen months later, she asked him if she could think about it. She could see now how the differing levels of enthusiasm had served to make Callum insecure, but at the time she was only being honest.
Carl and Eva’s relationship was barely a month old when Carl ended things completely out of the blue. Eva was devastated, until she found out the reason, after which she was strangely flattered.
As a practising Christian, Carl wasn’t free to be physically intimate with Eva, however much he might want to. Purity culture and teenage hormones did not mix well, it turned out, and his solution had been to break things off with her. Knowing this had made Eva’s life easier. It was all the reassurance she needed that she was not repulsive-quite the opposite, in fact. But it had made Callum bitterly jealous, and who could blame him?
Because he knew. They all knew that given the choice, Eva would still be with Carl, and were it not for religion, he would still be with her. But Eva wasn’t given the choice, and she and Carl weren’t together. She loved Callum deeply, there was no doubt about that, and she would never have been unfaithful to him no matter how much alcohol was involved. The two years they had spent together had been happy, for the most part, although Carl’s shadow had continued to loom up between them from time to time. Whenever Carl paid Eva a compliment or made her laugh, Callum’s insecurities would rear their heads, and a row would inevitably ensue. It didn’t matter how many times Eva told Callum she loved him, or pointed out that their relationship had outlasted her previous one by more than two years. Callum remained bitter, paranoid and insecure, which did nothing to endear him to Eva.
She understood that it was hard for him, of course. Had their situations been reversed, she was not sure she would have handled it any better. But they weren’t reversed, and the more Callum harped on about Carl, the more appealing Carl looked. It was a vicious circle, and it was driving Eva insane. Better to free themselves from it than stay locked in this perpetual cycle of jealousy.
Callum was waiting for her to say something. He stood glaring at her, his hands on his hips, eyebrows cocked expectantly. But Eva was tired of talking. There was nothing she could say that she hadn’t said at least a dozen times before. As the seconds dragged by, and Callum realised he wasn’t going to get an answer, his expression changed from expectant to enraged.
‘Screw this,’ he spat, and turning on his heel, he stormed out as fast as the revolving door would allow.
Eva watched him go without the slightest hint of sadness or regret. Her expression was one of mild curiosity, as if she had spotted an unusual type of bird perched atop one of the cars outside. Her lack of reaction puzzled her, until she realised that she had in fact been psyching herself up for this ever since Isobel’s birthday.
She was free of him. What a strange thought. Strange, and exciting, and scary, and liberating, all at the same time. She watched with a sense of surreal detachment as he marched over to the taxi rank opposite the hotel, spoke to one of the drivers and got in. She waited until the cab had pulled away, and then headed to the bar.
‘A large Pinot Grigio please,’ she said to the bar tender, who responded with a chirpy, ‘Certainly, Madame.’
As he set the glass down in front of her, he asked, ‘Is everything OK? I don’t mean to be nosy. I just saw what happened out there.’ He nodded towards the lobby, a look of polite concern on his face.
‘It’s fine, thank you for asking.’
Eva thought about rejoining the others, but knew that returning alone would invite questions-questions she didn’t feel up to answering right now. So instead she headed for the far end of the bar where a cluster of large, squashy armchairs was currently going begging. She chose one directly in front of the window, the better for staring off into the distance, and sat there quietly sipping her wine. But she was too wired to sit for long, and after about ten minutes she got to her feet again. For the next half an hour she alternated between pacing back and forth and standing stock-still before the window.
The sky outside began to grow dark, the glorious golden blaze of late June dimming to pale blue. The floor hummed with the baselines of the music still pounding on the other side of the lobby. Eva was surprised no one had come to find her. She thought Isobel might have done, at the very least. Then again, maybe Isobel had thought it best to give them some space.
No sooner had Eva had this thought than she heard footsteps approaching. They were soft and slow, as if the person they belonged to was unsure whether she would want company. Eva’s first thought was that Isobel had come after all, but then those didn’t sound like Isobel’s footsteps. Besides, Isobel didn’t make the air crackle like that, as if with electricity. There was only one person capable of doing that, and it wasn’t the boy with whom she had just broken up.
‘I thought I might find you here.’
He was standing six feet away. Eva didn’t need to look behind her to know that. She could sense him, as surely as she could see the the car park behind the window. He took a step forwards, and Eva felt the air compress between them. She could see his reflection in the glass now. Isobel was right: he really did look good in that waistcoat.
‘I take it you heard what happened?’ Eva said, keeping her eyes trained on his reflection.
‘I figured it out.’
‘And now you’re here.’
‘Well, you look way too pretty to be stuck in here on your own.’
There it was: the compliment he had been waiting to pay her all night, and just like that, the latent fire in her blood was rekindled. Heat flooded her cheeks and radiated out from the pit of her stomach. He was directly behind her now, separated by a few inches only. Somehow, he had managed to close the gap between them without Eva noticing. The proximity made her pulse kick up a notch.
‘Callum got it into his head that we couldn’t keep our eyes off each other.’
‘Was I really that obvious? I was trying not to be.’
Eva was quiet, trying to smother the grin that was pulling at the corners of her mouth. Mistaking her lack of response for annoyance, Carl said, ‘He wasn’t angry at you, was he? Because I’d hate to think I’d caused trouble between you.’
‘You’ve been causing trouble between us from the moment we got together.’
It was astonishing, that such a perceptive, intelligent boy could have missed the undercurrents of tension he was causing, albeit inadvertently. Eva, watching his reflection, saw his eyebrows contract and knew she had to say something before he had time to feel guilty.
‘Don’t be sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m not.’
There was a brief pause, during which she teetered on the edge of saying everything. Three years ago she would have backed out, shut the conversation down before it strayed anywhere near this dangerous territory. But that was then. She had since learned that opportunities were there to be seized, not waved at as they passed you by.
‘Callum was under the impression that I always found you more attractive than him.’
Now it was Carl’s turn to be silent. They stood motionless, gazing at each other’s reflections with such intensity it was a wonder the glass hadn’t shattered.
‘Do you?’ Carl murmured softly after what felt like an age.
Eva nodded. Behind her, Carl made a noise that was halfway between a sigh and a chuckle.
‘I’m so relieved,’ he said, his voice now no more than a half-whisper.
‘Why are you relieved?’
This was a favourite trick of Eva’s: pretending not to understand so that boys were forced to say precisely what they meant. Her voice was light and casual, masking the frantic drumbeat of her heart.
‘Because I should never have let you go.’
For three years Eva had been aching to hear those words. Now her wait was over. Slowly, she turned on the spot to face him. She kept her eyes downcast, her gaze trained on the buttons of his grey waistcoat. His face was mere inches from hers, and yet part of her was terrified that if she looked at him, he would flit away like some timid woodland creature and she would never find him again.
As if he could read her thoughts, Carl inclined his head to look quizzically at her. With the index finger of his right hand he gently tilted her chin up, so that her eyes had no choice but to follow. At the same moment he took the wineglass from her and set it down on a nearby ledge. The brush of his fingers against hers triggered a wave of tiny explosions in Eva’s skin. Those explosions lit fuses which raced along her nerves, flaring and sparking as they ignited her from within. He had always had this power-this ability to trigger maximum sensation from minimal contact. Callum never had, and while that wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t Eva’s either.
‘There you are,’ said Carl as her gaze came up to meet his. He smiled, and Eva felt the breath snag in her throat. She looked into those beautiful, honey-coloured eyes, whose light and warmth she had never forgotten, and felt that she was home.
‘How would you feel about potentially giving things another go?’ Carl asked, before hastily adding, ‘When you’ve had some time, obviously.’
‘A proper go this time?’ Eva said, thinking of their infuriatingly short five-week romance back when they were fifteen.
She pretended to think about it for a few moments, as if there was any chance of her saying no.
‘I’d really like that,’ she said, firelight blazing in her eyes. Carl responded by leaning his forehead against hers, setting off a whole new wave of explosions. Eva closed her eyes and inhaled the clean, masculine scent of him, so familiar and yet so novel.
This was as far as it would go tonight. As glad as Eva was to be rid of Callum, she wasn’t about to besmirch his memory by diving straight into a new relationship with Carl, however much she might want to. Carl knew that, and he would respect it, until such time as she felt ready. And when she did, he would be there waiting for her.
It had been an eventful night, but not in any of the ways Eva had anticipated. Callum was gone. She was free. The promise of a future with Carl seemed to glitter in the air all around her, as if a fairy had sprinkled the two of them with golden dust. Even if it wasn’t forever, and it probably wouldn’t be, it would surely prove more satisfying than their first attempt. After all, forever wasn’t the only thing worth striving for.