I'm sitting here, tears drying on my cheeks and there is no one to blame for the situation I find myself in - but me.
My memory runs back to this December morning, a damn December morning a few weeks ago when everything started.
Christmas shopping was never my favourite.
I disliked shopping generally, but pre Christmas season seemed to do 'something' to normal people. They changed into zombies, hungry for goods, trashing carefully arranged displays and leaving clothes in a messy heap on the floors. I hated all that the rush and noise, silly sugary songs playing in every shop and people drooling over kitsch decorations.
And, last insult, coffee shops were always overfilled and no sitting spaces left - and I can't function without a cup of coffee every few hours.
Usually well organised I tried to have gifts and all necessary Christmas related items ready before frenzies started, but this year - due to bad fate and terrible economical situation - I wasn't able to stock up.
I woke up that morning and my eyes wandered onto the top of my wardrobe where my 'not so secret' gift hiding place is. And all I could see was a lonely box filled with 'emergency' birthday gifts.
Maybe a couple of cob webs and an inch thick layer of dust but not a single prezzie.
Closing my eyes I realised it was less than two weeks to Christmas and this year, to make things worse, family would be gathering in our home to celebrate.
"Oh shit... Shit, shit, shit and more shit," I mumbled to myself, kicking the duvet off and getting up, not happy as I was hoping to lie in that day.
I set feet on the floor and decided maybe a quick shower would help me focus better. Mumbling to myself and cursing the cold corridor, creaky floorboards and early hour I headed to the bathroom.
"Wake up, I'm going out. I need you to do school runs," I shouted at Rob's bedroom door.
"Where are you going?" I heard his sleepy voice though the closed door.
"Shopping," I replied, walking past his room and straight into the bathroom.
"What?" he asked again and I could almost picture his frowning in surprise.
"Shopping!" I shouted while turning the shower on and making funny face at him. I slipped out of my nightie and stepped under the hot stream of water.
I could hear my husband saying something over the noise of his electric shower and running water, but I couldn't make the words out, which didn't improve my bad already mood.
"If you want something come and talk to me, I can't hear the bloody words you are mumbling in there!!" I shouted at the top of my voice, squeezing angrily a blob of toothpaste on my toothbrush. I started to vigorously brush and soon I heard him opening the bathroom door and walking in, without a word of warning. I peeked from behind the curtain, dripping with water, but he remained silent.
Bed hair, puffy from sleep face and a stubble didn't do much to his looks. I turned around, pulled curtain as far as I could and continued scrubbing and showering.
"Why are you going shopping? Thought food was delivered yesterday?" he asked.
"Umm... yeah but it's almost Christmas, no?" I asked, water pouring over my face.
"Yeah..." was his reply.
"So... what are you planning on giving your mum?" I asked, pouring shampoo on my hands.
I leathered my hair generously, massaging the scalp and my short dark hair.
"Dunno..." he mumbled back.
"And kids? What are the kids getting for Christmas?" I asked, shutting my eyes tight and rinsing soap.
"Ah. Right," he said, sitting himself on the toilet seat.
I hate that too, violating my privacy, him sitting there, so thick. I could almost see him staring at the bath towels and dressing gowns and not even looking at me.
I felt fury arising. Not only was I not a morning type of person, I had a day of shopping ahead of me, but he always somehow managed to piss me off, pushing all of my invisible buttons, making things even worse.
"Ah... Right," I parodied his voice, knowing well I was being childish, not helping the situation, but not being able to help myself. I turned shower off and stepped out, reaching for the towel. As the bathroom is small I was standing right near him, in fact so close my legs were touched against his knees. He quickly turned away, face distant, not looking at me.
Patting my face and body dry I said, "So. You mind the kids and I will do my best not to kill anyone or cause any harm." This was a well known joke between us. "And by the evening we should have at least some stuff in... Rest I order online and pop out tomorrow morning..."
"Right!" my husband answered.
I walked back to my bedroom, leaving him behind. I found clean panties, black and white satin briefs and black plunge bra and funky fishnet-like knee high socks for my feet. Next from the wardrobe I pulled out a clean pair of denims and black low cut wrap around top. Whilst I was dressing he walked into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. Another bitter sting of fury... "How dare he?" I thought.
"Rob, are you going to be OK with the kids?" I asked, remaining composed, just in case, but really not caring for his reply.\
"Yeah, sure, why wouldn't I?" Rob answered.
"OK, so get moving; it's a quarter to eight, boy needs to be in school in an hour," I said. "I'll wake him up, you dress," I added, walking out.
A few minutes later the kids and Rob were sitting by the kitchen table eating breakfast, he chatting to the kids. I remained standing, packing the school bag and brewing fresh coffee, toasting the bread and pouring milk over a second helping of cereal. I fed the cats and dog, making sure they had a bowl of fresh water.
After the meal, while Rob walked the dog, I helped the kids dress and made sure Jake's lunch box was packed and Melody's hair was pleated and waved them goodbye.
"Love you! Have great day, you lot!" I said to my kids. "Don't forget to pick Melody up at 12.30, would you... And then Jake at 3, OK?" I said, turning to Rob.
"Of course I will!" Rob puffed at me, but he knew well I had my point. It happened in the past that he lost track of time and was late to pick the children up.
"I'll ring you at 12," I said. "And at 2.30..."
Quickly tidying up around the kitchen and around the living room, I got washing out from washer and hung it to dry. Then I went back upstairs, smoothed the beds and opened the windows. In the bathroom I moisturised my face and dabbed some foundation on my pale face. Not much chance this year to add tan to my complexion, dull wet summer. Little bit of pale pink and dark purple eye shadow on my eyelids, mascara for eyelashes and a dab of perfume behind my ears and between the breasts. Quick brush for my almost dry hair and I was ready.
Downstairs I put on my favourite high heeled black ankle boots, black winter coat and handbag. I dug my iPod out of the bag and placed it in the coat pocket, setting it to shuffle through all songs. After making sure I had enough change for the bus fare and all lights were off I locked the door behind myself and headed to the bus stop. It was a cold day, with the sun slowly rising from behind the buildings and a clear sky. Puddles were covered in a layer of ice and car screens were shining with frost. I inhaled deeply, so deeply my lungs hurt and I felt light headed.
A few moments later I was sitting comfortably on the bus, music playing in my ears, scribbling a list of people I needed gifts for on a piece of paper propped over my knee. It was a lovely day, sunny yet cold, air crisp and fresh.
Twenty minutes later the bus arrived in the town centre. It was very crowded, as usual. A multicoloured mass of people, each speaking a different language, tourists mixing with locals, people either rushing around or choosing to stand in the most awkward places; on the middle of the pavements, doorways, some of them ever present tourists admiring the architecture and swanky Christmas decorations, some locals engaged deep in conversation, mums with pushchairs and elderly people pushing shopping trolleys, the rest of the passers by, just like myself, browsing the shops, searching for perfect gifts.
I closed my eyes for second or two, catching warm sun on my rosy from cold cheeks and instantly delicate heat made me remember the first Autumn months when I'd arrived in this strange town. Lazy Sundays spent with nothing more than a cup of takeout coffee and a bunch of grapes, sitting on the steps of the monument soaking up the sun, enjoying freedom, reading book or simply just watching crowds passing by. Nostalgia flooded my heart, longing for something that would never be again and what couldn't be changed, thoughts of things that could be and those that couldn't be undone crept in and filled my eyes with bitter tears. I swallowed the tears and with great effort I composed myself.
"No nonsense, woman," I whispered to myself, flicked though the tracks on iPod, changing music to more cheerful and decided to get a move on.
I got off and started slowly, shop by shop, methodically browsing, comparing and buying needed items.
A couple of hours later my feet were sore and hands ached from heavy carrier bags. Cursing my own stupidity at choosing to wear high heels - after all I should have known I would walk miles and miles around the town, I decided it was time for a small break and cup of coffee.
Hoping I could get a table I headed towards my favourite place in town - and probably one of busier cafés in the city too.
By the time I got to the shop my feet felt like they were on fire and one of the bags started to tear. As soon as I walked in I dumped the bags by the wall and patiently stood in the line, waiting to be served and checked today's specials and tried to choose what to have for lunch. My tummy was rumbling, the smells of freshly brewed coffee and the sight of deliciously looking sandwiches and salads, huge blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies the size of an average dessert plate made my mouth water.
Service was very slow that day, with only one person serving and one brewing drinks, slightly odd for a busy lunch hour. After a few minutes my aching feet started to remind themselves and I was getting bored with waiting. Shifting the weight of my body from one foot to another, trying to ease my pain, I started to look around, listening to peoples' conversations, curiosity getting the better of me. A few young mums were sitting in the circle, whispering, smiling lovingly and cuddling their precious sleeping babies, a couple of young couples were snuggling together on the sofas as the rest of the customers were either eating and chatting, working on their laptops or reading books.
An elderly couple was leaving the shop, the man visibly struggling with the heavy door. Without a thought I left my spot in line and headed to the doorway, wanting to help him and keep the door open. I put my hand flat on the door and obviously someone else had the same idea as another, much larger hand appeared near mine. I remembered the silky blonde hairs on the knuckles and neatly trimmed nails.
Surprised I looked over my shoulder and saw a man. He must have been in his mid thirties, his dark hair short and slightly tanned face smoothly shaved, with bright green eyes and broad lips. I looked in his eyes and he gently smiled, placed his hand on mine and pushed the door open. I could feel blush crawling on my cheeks and looked away. The faint smell of his aftershave, crisp and fresh, tickled my nose when his arm brushed against my shoulder. Suddenly I felt embarrassed and looked away.
After the old couple left I went back to my waiting spot, very hard trying not to look in his direction. I could almost feel his burning glance on the back of my head and my cheeks were turning a deeper shade of red.
Finally it was my turn to order coffee and, relieved, I asked for a large mocha with extra whipped cream and a tuna melt toastie. As I was ordering food I couldn't help myself and tried to steal a quick glance in the direction where the stranger was standing. He was watching me and our eyes met. A slow, lazy smile appeared on his handsome lips and he cocked his head slightly to the left, eyes sparkling and full of unspoken promises.
My mouth went instantly dry and my hands started to shake with emotion, feelings I never felt before rolled through my body. Never in my life had I felt such an instant and irrational attraction to someone. I looked away, gathered my thoughts and moved on to the serving point. Purposely I decided to stand with my back to him to avoid any eye contact.
The coffee was taking ages as well. Annoyed and running thin on patience, my feet hurting and feeling thirsty I started to regret choosing to come here. More and more people were gathering near me, everyone waiting for their brews and food, some of the customers complaining out loud and threatening to request their money back.
Half resigned I sighed deeply, propped my elbow on the bar and rested my head on one hand, trying to gather my thoughts and remember what else I needed to buy today. But the sight of the handsome stranger kept creeping in, his cheeky smile and bright eyes and warmth of his hand. I closed my eyes for a moment or two, trying to compose myself, trying to find rational me and talk myself out of that nonsense.
'Common girl, he was just polite... Good looking but polite, why would he be interested in me?' I thought. 'A stranger, nothing to dwell on.'
I took a deep breath and opened my eyes, only to see his smiling face just inches away. Surprised, thinking I might be still daydreaming, I blinked a few times, but he remained there, so close - our noses almost touched.
"Hello," he said.
"Hi," I replied, not sure where is this conversation going. But he didn't say another word, only pulled something out of his pocket and laid it on the bar top. I gazed down and it was a business card, usual stuff, name and address. He flicked the card upside down, pulled a stylish looking pen out of his pocket and quickly scribbled something on the reverse
The man pushed the card across the surface near me and said, "Bye, beautiful," and left the shop.
I could see him walking out through the door and disappearing in the crowd outside.
Curious, I picked the card and read the message he wrote on the reverse in tidy handwriting: "Randolph, room 235."
Frowning I turned the card around and read: "Arthur McKay, Managing Director," and the well known advertising company name and address, phone number, fax number, email and website.
That moment my coffee and food were served, I quickly shoved the card in my pocket, picked up the tray and went on to look for an empty table. Lucky for me a table nearby became vacant. I set the tray with food and drink down, picked up sugar and a spoon from the side trolley and went back to the shop area to gather my shopping bag. I took my coat off and hung it over the spare chair's back.
As soon as I could I sat down, stretching my legs and let my aching feet rest. I found my mobile and phoned Rob, checking on him and the kids. As he seemed to be OK, li'l girl safely back at home munching on her lunch, I told him I needed to go, as my drink was getting cold.
After a few sips of delicious coffee, with a sigh I closed my eyes and sat back in the comfortable chair, room slightly spinning around me.
'What a day...' I thought to myself. After a few deep breaths and a couple more sips of coffee I could slowly feel energy crawling back in my limbs and body.
Still slightly light headed I started to eat my tuna melt toasted sandwich. Every few seconds my thoughts turned back to the handsome man.
'Arthur...' I whispered to myself, his name rolling on my tongue, feeling strange and slightly harsh. 'Arthur,' I whispered again, feeling stupid and blushing.
Halfway though my coffee I leaned forward and found the business card in the pocket. It felt almost hot to the touch, my fingers were tingling and hand trembling. I read the printed words over and over, repeating his name under my breath. Then slowly I turned the card and read the handwritten note, wondering what he had in mind. I guessed he wanted to meet me there, but why?
Biting my bottom lip I brought the card to my nose and deeply inhaled. It smelled like he had when he'd brushed against me by the front door; bergamot and sandalwood and clean tones of citrus.
A slight shiver of excitement ran up my spine, causing hair on my neck to rise. The thought of him, a stranger, maybe waiting for me in a hotel room right now and the possibility of meeting him... and never seeing him again. The possibility of letting myself go and doing the most forbidden thing, for once being bad and getting what I wanted and needed, this set my brain and body on fire.
I inhaled one more time, my head slightly dizzy and my breasts suddenly aching with the nipples hardening, pressing against the fabric of my bra. Dreamily I finished my coffee, all of a sudden feeling not hungry, put away the card in the pocket and after a short prep talk I decided to stop that day dreaming nonsense and make a move on.
A couple of moments later I was back outside, bracing myself against the cold and trying to find the most comfortable way of carrying my bags and manoeuvring between the crowds. I found a shopping list scrunched in the pocket. Balancing the bags in one hand I pulled the paper out and one glance told me I needed to drift away from the town centre to the independent book shop near by Beaumont street. Partially relieved as people were getting on my nerves and partially annoyed, as I had to walk further, with heavy carrier bags hurting my hands, I started the journey.
On the way there I popped into a couple of small shops and bought a few more little bits and pieces. Feeling quite happy with myself and knowing I had one more place to go to, I continued my detour till a couple hundred yards away from bookstore when suddenly I realised I would have to walk by the hotel.
The thought made me stop in my steps, almost dropping the bags as a shiver climbed up my spine. Almost feeling his business card burning me through the pocket I walked past the front steps, my feet heavy, heart beating fast, temptation ever so strong. Gripping tight to the bags I walked past, the next few yards seemed to last forever and I almost ran into the shop.
Somehow absentminded I asked the keeper to find the book I wanted and gift wrap it for me. I paid, put the book in one of the bags and left the store.
I had the choice to go the long way round, which would add at least fifteen minutes to my walk and even more torture to my aching feet, or take the short route and pass by the hotel's entrance again.
My legs decided for me, carrying me towards the hotel. Heart beating fast, light headed, moving faster with every step, my body taking control of me, business card in pocket suddenly feeling very heavy and voices in my head repeating: 'Arthur... Arthur...'
Growing closer and closer with every step, I felt my heart in my throat as I found myself turning left and climbing hurriedly the few steps leading into the hotel's entrance. Walking through the door, my high heels loud on the marble floors of the hallway, walking past the receptionist and nodding politely in answer to her 'Hello', I walked straight to the elevator. The lift's door opened instantly and before I had chance to change my mind my hand- betraying alien pushed the button, sending me to the second floor. My cheeks were burning and head spinning, heart filled with a mixture of excitement, fright, anticipation and a sudden irrational and unexplained feeling of freedom.
I rushed out of the elevator when it stopped on the second floor and, following the signs in the dim hallway, I found room 235.