“Lisa!” The shout echoed around the Holby Shopping Mall, disguising it's origin.
Duffy turned gingerly to see if the call was directed at her, while simultaneously trying not to look like that was what she was doing - just in case there was another Lisa in the vicinity. The complex was surprisingly full for an early morning, but then it was the summer holidays, but after two seconds scanning the crowd she saw a figure rushing towards her, and waved at him. Max.
She could only remember one other time when he’d called her ‘Lisa’ rather than ‘Duffy’ like the rest of her colleagues did, and the memory brought a smile to her lips. It had been the night she’d spent at his place, two days after her 39th birthday, the night of her Sister’s interview - the 13th November 1999. She’d never forget that night. Never.
Everything had been so perfect, and although she wondered in some of her more down to earth moments whether any night spent with someone, rather than simply next to Andrew would conjure up a similar feeling of ecstasy, deep down she knew that it really had been special. Max was a hell of a lover, not that Andrew wasn’t, but by the time of his death, and in fact long before, he just hadn’t been trying anymore. He didn’t make her feel like Max had, he didn’t make her feel desired…
Max came to a stop in front of her, and she felt her cheeks burn red.
“Max! I wasn’t sure you were calling to me at first…”
“I tried shouting ‘Duffy‘, but I don’t think you heard. Anyway, you did once tell me that your name was Lisa…”
He grinned at her, and she knew her blush was taking over her face. Why don’t they have better air conditioning in shopping centres? She avoided his gaze and flicked her long hair back over her shoulder.
“Max…”she frowned, embarrassed, even though secretly she was pleased that he obviously remembered that night as well as she did. It was silly really, but she always wanted her lovers to call her by her real name; ‘Duffy’ just didn’t sound right under those circumstances.
“So,” he started, clearly trying to change the subject and lift the slightly awkward atmosphere, “no work today?”
“I’m only rostered for half a shift, so I have the morning off!”
“Are you busy? Maybe we could go for a coffee or something? Catch up?”
“I’m not busy, just out buying a few school things for the boys, and picking up my dress for tonight from the dry cleaners, but I think I’m done now. I’d love a coffee”.
She glanced up at him and smiled, not quite remembering the last time she’d felt so inclined to smile, and also not quite sure why the offer of a coffee was making her feel like a dizzy schoolgirl.
“Dress for tonight?” he queried.
“The hospital’s dance, I finally decided that I deserve a night out the same as anyone else so I bought a ticket.”
“Ahh,” he nodded, “You know, I’d completely forgotten about that”.
“But you will be there…? I mean, well, I remember you bought a ticket way back”. She looked hopefully at him. Seeing him at the dance wasn’t something she had consciously thought about before, she’d just been looking forward to a night enjoying herself, but now, seeing Max again after so many weeks, she realised how much she wanted to spend time with him again.
He sighed, “You think I should go back to the hospital after the way they treated me? Besides, I don’t think I’d be welcome, do you?”
“You’d get to catch up with everyone…? And it is a charity event, no one will turn you away”.
The more she thought about it the better it all sounded. The hospital’s charity events were always well organised, and socialising would be a welcome change from nappy changing, but she had been well aware that she wouldn’t have a partner for the night. If Max went though, they could go together. It’d be fun, and who knows where it might lead…
“We’ll see. Here, I’ll help you with those…” He bent to take hold of the multicoloured jumble of carrier bags she was holding, and as she released her grip on the handles in favour of his, their fingers brushed. Just the tiniest of touches, and he didn’t even seem to notice, but it sent a shiver right up her arm.
“Thanks, I was starting to think my arms would fall off!”
“There’s certainly a lot here, ” he said, making an exaggerated hoisting motion and earning himself a playful slap on the arm from Duffy.
“You don’t have to take them”.
“I wouldn’t want to be seen as un-gentlemanly!”
“I wouldn’t think that…” Feeling the atmosphere tense up again, she cleared her throat with a slight cough. “Anyway, you know how fast kids grow out of things. That’s if they aren’t knackering them. The amount of jumpers that have been destroyed because they’ve been used as goalposts is amazing.”
“I was much the same when I was a kid. Frank too, as I recall. It’s a boy thing; climbing trees, splashing through puddles…”
“I don’t know, I did a bit of that when I was little”.
“You!” He laughed, cocking his head towards the coffee bar a couple of shops along and starting to walk toward it. “I had you more down as the pink ribbons and dolls house type of girl”.
Duffy caught up the few paces to walk alongside him. “It was a phase I grew out of, but you’ve gotta remember that I’m a local country girl at ‘art,” she said, forcing her usually well hidden Holby accent to the fore as she spoke.
He looked at her, surprise evident in his expression. “I didn’t know that”.
“Oh yeah,” she replied, returning to her ordinary speaking voice, “I’ve always lived in the area, I’ve just found that people don’t always take me seriously when I speak like that… So, what do you want? My treat.”
Duffy indicated the rows of pastries lined up under the glass counter of the coffee shop. They all looked so inviting, if only she wasn’t so busy dieting she could really go for a vanilla slice…
“I think I’ll have a Danish Swirl… and a simple frothless coffee. But I’ll pay, I suggested this”.
“Well, if you insist! I’ll have coffee, same as you”.
“With my figure!” she laughed mirthlessly, “I’m the wrong side of forty and I’ve had three children”.
He looked at her, looked properly, and even though she knew that he could only be seeing her jeans and the baggy jumper that covered all her offending areas, the look he gave her when he spoke took her back to that night when he’d undressed her in his living room; they hadn’t even made it into the bedroom the first time.
“You have a fantastic figure, Duffy”.
“I still better not; it’ll spoil my lunch”.
He shrugged. “Very responsible of you,” and attracted the attention of the lady behind the counter with one of his fantastic smiles.
Duffy waited in silence as Max ordered, paid, and chatted about nothing to the woman as she poured their beverages. Responsible. He’d called her responsible. It hurt her; in her mind responsible equated to dull, boring - not words she wanted to be associated with, even if she knew that was how people saw her. Good old Duffy, responsible, sensible, dependable; mother to everyone, lover to none.
In her head she wasn’t like that. Beneath the nurses uniform and the cuddly Mum image there was a woman desperately wanting to be seen as exciting, as sexy, if only she had someone who made her feel comfortable acting like that. She’d thought Max was that person, but maybe he didn’t understand the real her any better than anyone else did? She remember those words she’d practically spat at Charlie when he’d told her that she wasn’t behaving like herself by having an affair: ‘Oh but I am Charlie. I certainly am’*. Hadn’t lasted long though, had it?
She followed Max across the small shop to a little plastic coated table in the corner and they sat roughly opposite each other, the steaming drinks between them, and half of Max’s pastry already disappearing in a flurry of crumbs. Duffy watched him as he chewed, wondering what he was thinking. If he was remembering their night together and trying to make sense of it like she was.
It wasn’t just the sex, she told herself, it was the whole experience of being close to him, falling asleep in his arms, the look he’d given her that told her she was the only woman he wanted to be with. Then at least. It hadn’t taken him long to replace her with Tina. Talk about being traded in for a younger model!
But then she had been the one to call it off, he’d have been happy to carry on the affair past that first blissful night - but he’d have carried on the affair, he’d have shared her with Andrew and that wasn’t love. Or would he have fought for her? If Charlie hadn’t got in the way, giving his little hypocritical speeches - it wasn’t that long ago he was confessing his own affair to her, at his wedding reception no less. She’d accepted he was just trying to help at the time, but now she couldn’t help but wonder ‘what if…’.
“Penny for ‘em?” Max interrupted, taking a sip of his coffee and making a face as it scolded his tongue.
“Penny for your thoughts? You look like you’re having an argument with yourself, I just wondered what about?”
“Oh, I was just… wondering if… if I can afford this pair of shoes I saw earlier” She nodded to herself, trying to prove to him that she was telling the truth. He didn’t look utterly convinced, but said nothing. “I probably wouldn’t ever wear them anyway, I never really go out anywhere these days. Tonight’s dance will be my first time out since, well, you know ”.
“How are things? You coping okay?”
“Yeah. Well, coping I think is the operative word. Mum’s been a Godsend, and the boys are being pretty well behaved considering”.
“Same old same old, really. I… we all miss you. Can’t believe what that Goddard woman did!”
He raised an eyebrow, “You believe she was behind it then? I was starting to think I really am just paranoid”.
“Oh yeah. Besides she as much as admitted it. Charlie dumped her, you know. When he found out”.
“Bully for Charlie”.
“It’s not his fault!” Max twisted his lips into a rueful smile, and gently, almost imperceptibly shook his head. Duffy straightened in her chair. “What?”
“You two and your mutual appreciation society…”
Duffy made an offended little gasp, and leant closer to Max across the table. “Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh come on.” He stretched back in his chair, and took another sip of his coffee before continuing, all the time with Duffy glaring at him, her mouth slightly agape. “It’s always been blatantly obvious that in your eyes he can do no wrong. He says ‘jump‘, you say ‘how high?’.”
“That is not true! He’s been a friend, not to mention my boss for a long time. I respect his opinions, but I am not his lapdog! I am perfectly capable of making up my own mind about things”.
“Yeah?” He tilted his head to one side questioningly, his dark eyes ripping through her. There was no doubt now about what he was referring to.
“Yeah…” but the telltale uncertainty in her voice made him lean back in closer, his face now inches away from hers.
When he spoke it was in a breathy whisper, words not intended for the wider audience. “We could have been good together, Duffy.”
She felt the breeze of his bitter, caffeine-loaded breath, on her cheek as she answered “We still could be…?”
He lifted his hand to brush her hair back off her face, his fingers abnormally hot from holding the coffee mug. She tilted into his caress, wanting to be closer to him, closer than would be strictly appropriate for a busy café. She shifted forward, holding his gaze until the very last second and then closing her eyes as their lips met.
He seemed hesitant at first, but only for a moment, as her tongue tickled his lips and he gave in. She could feel everyone was watching, but was beyond caring about such things. That was the whole point wasn’t it? Breaking free of the prim and proper image she’d lumbered herself with, and it felt good to be free. Very good indeed…
The sound of ceramic on plastic snapped them out of their kiss. Her untouched drink had slipped across the table and was busily dripping onto the floor.
“Oh hell!” She screeched her chair back to save her clothes from being spoilt and grabbed a handful of super un-absorbent tissues from the table’s dispenser, which only served to slosh the liquid more speedily onto the floor. She could hear Max chuckling as she worked. “You could help!”
He lifted his arm and signalled to the woman behind the counter who soon appeared with a cloth and tidied up around them as Duffy mentally retreated into her shell and Max finished off his food and drink.
“It’s only coffee Duffy. People in coffee shops are bound to spill a bit of coffee every now and then. No one minds”. Max licked the end of his finger and proceeded to prod the crumbs on his plate and bring them up to his mouth.
“I mind. I feel stupid”. She sighed. “Can we go?”
“Go where?” he said, glancing up at her and realising that she was serious about wanting to leave.
“Yes! Mum and the boys are back at mine, we wouldn’t get any peace… or privacy…” Duffy deliberately let the words hang in the air, trying to get back the confidence she’d felt just a few short minutes ago. “It might be nice…”
She reached out and found his knee under the table, giving it a little squeeze and wishing that she’d sat next to him instead of opposite - her reach just wasn’t long enough. Trying to gauge his thoughts from the look on his face she decided that he understood exactly what she was getting at. He was grinning.
“Come on then” he stood up, and within seconds they were both out of the shop.
Duffy pulled her hairbrush out from her handbag and stood in front of the mirror in Max’s bedroom unable to keep the smile from her face. Running the brush half heartedly through her hair, she let her mind replay the events of morning. Only a few hours ago she had been sifting through the schoolwear range at BHS, watching all the other couples in the shop chatting, holding hands, arguing even, while she herself felt desperately lonely, but now things were so different. Now she was about as happy as she could ever remember being, dressed in Max’s pyjama top, her hair still damp from the shower they’d just shared.
“Knock, knock… room service for one Lisa Duffin”.
Max stood in the doorway, his navy robe tied loosely around him, holding two glasses of white wine. She strolled over to him, kissing his cheek before taking one of the glasses off him and sipping delicately.
“Cheers!” Max said, raising his glass to his lips.
“I think we should make a toast,” she suggested, as she moved back to the bed and sat down. “How about… To second chances? New beginnings? Um, it all sounds so corny doesn’t it…”
He sat down next to her, running his fingers along her thigh and making her giggle at the sensation, but he didn’t answer, and he didn’t look at her. She placed the glass on the floor, and took hold of his hand in hers, composing herself in the process.
“What is it Max?”
He lifted his gaze, smiled awkwardly and brought his other hand up to her chin where her skin was starting to redden from where his stubble had grazed her. “I’m sorry”.
“It’ll go down. And at least I won’t have to explain it away this time. I’m not sure that Andrew really believed it was an allergic reaction…”
“No, that’s not… Duffy… I haven’t been completely honest with you”.
Duffy pulled back, away from his one hand, and letting go of his other. “In what way have you been dishonest, exactly?” She felt the nervous twinge in her stomach, the beginnings of panic rising through her.
Duffy cut him off. “That is the opposite of honest isn’t it?”
Max coughed, looking decidedly guilty all of a sudden and Duffy braced herself for what was bound to be terrible news. “I am, sort of, seeing someone already… Amanda. She got in contact after seeing that article in the paper, and we’ve been trying to work things out… Duffy?”
Her eyes sparkled as she held her expression sternly in check, too scared of letting her hurt feelings show. “Oh”.
He reached for her, but she stood up, grabbing her clothes from where they’d been discarded on the floor and hurriedly pulling them on. She could feel the searing pain of tears she didn’t want to let fall build behind her eyes, and bit firmly on her bottom lip hoping that her self inflicted pain would cancel out that caused by Max’s little revelation.
“Duffy, Lisa, please…”
She whirled around, fixing him with an icy glare. “Don’t!” she barked, “Don’t ‘Lisa’ me, not now. For God’s sake Max, just what are you playing at?”
“Look, I didn’t plan to see you again today, and didn’t expect for us to end up back here.”
“Oh what, I jumped you and you had no time to tell me that you were already involved with Amanda? Like Hell Max! You could have said something, you just wanted to get your leg over first!”
Ripping off the top she had been wearing she yanked her jumper back on, and used the motion to try to disguise the swipe of her hand across her tear filled eyes.
“Duffy will you calm down?”
“No!” The tremble was evident in her voice, and she hated herself for not being able to keep composed. But this wasn’t how it was supposed to work out, and the disappointment was more crushing than the betrayal of trust.
“Duffy”. He stood, grabbing her shoulders and she tried to maintain some dignity by refusing to squirm. “Would you listen?”
“Go on then, but make it quick eh? I have to be at work soon”. She sniffed, and glared at him.
He took a deep breath, “It’s not like we’re engaged again, Amanda and I. We’re working things through, slowly. It’s complicated, Duffy” She snorted derisively, he tried to ignore it. “When I saw you today I realised just how much I’ve missed you these last couple of months.”
“Missed me so much that you haven’t been in contact. You didn’t even tell me you were planning on resigning, I had to hear that from Anna!”
“I didn’t plan on resigning…”
“No things just happen to you, don’t they. You don’t ever plan anything”. She pulled away from him, slipped on her shoes, and thrust her hairbrush back into the recesses of her handbag. Moving quickly and decisively, he couldn’t catch hold of her again and soon she was standing in the doorway. “I’m going to work Max. I hope you and Amanda are very happy!”
Duffy turned swiftly on her heel and strode quickly out through the flat and down into the street, all the way she could here Max padding along behind her, pleading her ‘Duffy, Duffy, wait a minute!’ but she was determined not to turn around.
As she unlocked her car she saw him in the doorway, hugging his robe protectively around him, his dark eyes sad, and she paused momentarily wanting nothing more than to run back to him, but knowing that that wouldn’t solve anything. Why was nothing ever simple? She got into the car, started the engine, and drove away.
Go to Part Two