Max was fast asleep on the bed when Amanda came in, and she found herself smiling at the way he’d contorted his gangly frame into the foetal position. A part of her wished he’d spend a little more time up and about, trying to find a new job, or at least some voluntary work to keep him occupied, but she had to admit, if only to herself that it was to have him around when she got in from her own job in the evening.
"Max…" she called in a singsong-y voice, "Wakey wakey!"
He grunted quietly but made no move, and she crossed the threshold into the room to shake his body in an effort to wake him up. It was only then that she saw the empty glass bottle clutched tightly in his hand and pressed against his chest. She reached to take it off him, feeling the strangely warm damp of the spilled spirit that surrounded it. Max was disinclined to let go though, holding it tight, the way she remembered her Ben gripping his comfort blanket when he was only little.
She released her own hold on it, wiping her hand on the bedspread, and stood surveying the scene again. Only a minute ago it had been , well, sweet. Now she didn’t quite know what to feel. Angry? Dissappointed? She shook him more violently, hoping that by the time he’d roused she’d have worked out what to do with an unemployed boyfriend who got plastered in the afternoon, but as she turned away from his slowly stretching figure she noticed something even disturbing. A hairbrush discarded by the end of the bed; and it wasn’t her own.
Duffy could sense there was something wrong. Her life to date had given that particular skill ample chance for honing. Charlie was chatting amiably enough with Josh and Colette and yet never uttered more than the bare minimum response to any question. He seemed to off on another planet entirely, a planet that required him to sit as far away from her as possible, and he was making even less eye contact than usual.
She longed to go over to him, to get back some of that wonderful closeness that had started her wondering about their relationship, but, if she hadn’t known any better, he seemed shy of her. When she did manage to catch his eye and smile at him, the smile he returned was awkward and fleeting.
Feeling a gentle nudge in her side, Duffy turned to face Colette, and Colette leant conspiratorially toward her, whispering, "You alright?"
"Fine," Duffy whispered back, glancing over to where Charlie sat, apparently on the receiving end of Josh’s dissertation on the pro’s and con’s of MDF for home improvement.
"You’ve seemed distracted all day…" Colette continued obviously convinced that neither man would be eavesdropping.
Duffy shrugged, "It’s nothing".
"Sure?" she asked earnestly, her eyebrows raised and her eyes wide, "Only it looks like you and Charlie need some space to talk things through".
"What makes you think that!?" Duffy replied a little to highly pitched to be convincingly nonchalant.
"Just the way you two have been acting around each other since we got here. And back at the hospital just before we left too. I thought maybe you had a row or something" She frowned, as though she didn’t quite believe the row theory but was stumped for a better one.
"I would like to speak to him…"
"Say no more" And with that she gave Duffy’s arm gentle rub before shifting closer to her husband and draping her arm around his neck. "How about a dance, eh?"
"Oh I don’t know…" He replied uncertainly, though completely distracted from his previous topic. Charlie, Duffy noted, looked visibly relieved.
"Yes you do, now get up and get on than dance floor!" She mock ordered him.
Colette stood up, edged around the small mahogany drinks table, and pulled at her husband’s arm.
"Aww, Colette, do I have to?"
He must have heard the growing exasperation in her voice, because he obediently stood and allowed himself to be led away from the table and into the middle of the slightly drunken throng of bodies.
Alone, or at least much more alone than they had been, Duffy turned back to where Charlie had been sitting to find he wasn’t there as excepted, he’d already risen from his seat.
"I’m off to the bar again. Want anything?"
"Not really. Charlie…?"
She faltered, on the one hand wanting to tell him to sit down and talk to her, and on the other not wanting to face a second confrontation in one day.
Max found Amanda sat on the edge of the lidded toilet in the bathroom, crying. He didn’t understand. His head felt heavy, his eyelids heavier, and he instinctively moved very slowly for fear of upsetting his delicate stomach. Disorientated was not a strong enough word to describe how he felt when he woke up.
Fumes from his vodka soaked bedspread stung his senses and although it was obvious that he’d been drinking he hadn’t yet pieced enough of the day together to work out why. Seeing Amanda sobbing triggered something in his subconscious though and it all flooded back a split second before Amanda stood up, brandishing a hairbrush in one hand and pointing to a soggy pile of towels on the floor with the other.
"Who was she?" She snarled through clenched teeth, as she simultaneously snorted back her tears.
"Amanda…" Max slurred, at a loss to explain himself. He held up his arms in a gesture of peace, but no more words came.
"It doesn’t matter I suppose," she said bitterly, "One slut is pretty much the same as any other".
Max blinked in shock at her words, his mouth opening without consent from his subdued brain, "Duffy’s not a slut!"
"Duffy!" Fury surged through her, and she flung the brush with all her might at Max. The throw was all power and no aim, and it bounced off the doorframe beside him, and dropped to the ground with a hollow thud. It did a good job of sobering him up though.
"Hey, now! It’s not what you think!"
"Not what I think!" she shrieked, "Not what I think! Then what is it Max? You sleep with her in our bed, you shower with her in our shower, you-"
It was just the one short little word, but it cut her off. She stared at him, her mouth wide open in shock and disgust, her eyes burning with anger, her chest heaving. "No?"
"Not our bed. Mine. Not our shower. Mine. This is my house. How did you even get in?"
"You left the door open. Probably too drunk to close it properly!" Amanda retorted, enunciating each and every word clearly, "You’re pathetic."
"Oh I’m going. Duffy can have you… and your self pity, and your righteousness. She’s welcome to it." She took a deep breath, her anger being pushed sideways by a resurgence of pain. "I wanted it to work for us. I wanted for us to build a life together. I never really understood why you gave Ben those drugs until all that business in the paper about your resignation and then I saw what I thought was a… a… wonderfully principled and strong man. But now, " she spat the words, "I see you’re just the same as the others. You do what you like and to hell with the rest of the world!"
She pushed past him defiantly, the second woman to do that in one day. Was he really that bad a person?
"I’m sorry" he called, his voice cracking under the weight of emotion. An apology not expressly for Amanda, but to the world in general for throwing away every chance granted with such flair.
She stopped at the door, turning and looking back up the stairs to where Max now stood. "You should be. And I hope that Duffy sees you for the louse you are!"
He was still reeling from those last words of hers as she left slamming the door shut with such force that he was sure he felt the floor tremble beneath him.
"I’m not a louse," he croaked. And in a flash of drunken inspiration he knew what he had to do. Lurching back to his bedroom, he picked up his car keys from where he’d abandoned them when he’d arrived back with Duffy earlier, and the small invitation card from where it was propped on his mantle piece.
"I’m not" he reiterated, and he was going to prove it to Duffy.
Charlie sipped at his whiskey as he sat at the bar. It was still busy but the bustle of everyone trying to order their first drink of the night was over and most people were enjoying the music being pumped throw a number of huge speakers that was completely at odds with the décor of the ball room.
He knew that he couldn’t avoid Duffy forever. Apart from anything else he really didn’t want to. But in an hour or two she would no doubt have relaxed a lot, and once she’d calmed down about the Max debacle she wouldn’t feel so inclined to make foolish advances on him and he wouldn’t have to concentrate so hard on pretending that he wasn’t interested.
Every second sip of his drink he contemplated whether it really would be so bad to be on the receiving end of Duffy’s affection, and he always came to the same conclusion. No it wouldn’t. The problem was that he still couldn’t believe that it was what she wanted to happen, and he couldn’t risk betraying his secret feelings for her if it was just some sort of knee jerk reaction to Max. Their friendship was too important for that.
"Not enjoying yourself Charlie?"
He shook himself out of his thoughts as Jan Goddard sat down on the stool next to him. That was just what he needed, an ex-girlfriend!
"It’s a nice do" Charlie replied noncommittally, hoping that would be enough of a hint to get her to go away.
"Yes. Yes, it is. I’m rather proud of how it’s turning out actually. It was one of my idea’s you see". She seemed to look very pleased with herself on that score.
Charlie wasn’t very impressed, "A charity ball in hardly innovative, Jan. I would have expected more from you". A charity back-stab perhaps, he thought.
Jan seemed un-phased by his lack of enthusiasm, "It’ll be you, and your staff of course, who will benefit the most from this, and that is the most important part isn’t it?"
Charlie grunted an affirmative.
"Look, Charlie I’m just trying to make polite conversation. I don’t see why we can’t be civil to each other…?"
"I am being civil." He finished his drink. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your night Jan". He slid off the stool and strolled out across the dance floor toward the little band of A&E employees without looking back at her.
Duffy saw Charlie approach and edged away from Comfort and Anna who she’d been dancing with in an attempt to make the best of a bad day. He must have seen her move toward him, because he swerved to speak to Harry and Beth rather than carry on on the path that would have led them to meet.
Frustrated by his behaviour Duffy made her way through the crowd and up beside Charlie. "Excuse me Harry, Beth, but can I borrow Charlie?"
They nodded amiably, as Duffy took hold of the crook of Charlie’s arm and led him off the dance floor and out of a French window on to one the small balconies along the far wall.
The air outside was cool and fresh and a welcome contrast to the warm, smoky atmosphere indoors. From their position on the first floor balcony there was a fantastic view out over the lawn, and it the distance, illuminated by hundreds of lights strung along it’s length, was the imposing structure of the Jubilee Suspension Bridge, sparkling against the inky sky.
Duffy closed the glass panelled doors to, cutting the sound of the music to a faint hum, and turned to face Charlie.
"Have I done something to upset you? Said something?" She thought for a second, "Are you, erm… Is this about me being with Max? ’Cause I know you never approved of us…"
"I don’t know what you mean, you haven’t done anything to upset me, Duffy".
"But you’re acting…" she searched for a way of explained herself accurately, "You’re acting as though you don’t want to be around me. And I don’t understand it because back in the office… it was nice. Just the two of us. I do miss it when we don’t spend time together, it doesn’t feel right, so if there’s something I’ve done I want to know so I can apologise and we can get back to normal".
He nodded slowly as he absorbed what she said. "Normal’s good". He smiled, relaxing visibly, "Normal’s very good".
Duffy moved closer, reaching up and caressing the side of his face, enjoying the feeling of such proximity - until she saw the alarm in his eyes. She pulled back.
"I get it". She laughed hollowly, "I understand".
Duffy turned away from him, back towards the ballroom, her reflection only a ghostly image superimposed on the bright dancing people inside.
"That you don’t mind us being friends, but you’re totally repulsed by the idea of anything more than that".
He laughed. Actually laughed at her. And she whirled back around, her long skirt giving the movement a grace it didn’t deserve.
"Duffy, you’ve got it so wrong…"
"Care to enlighten me then?"
His expression changed, turning serious, almost pained. His mouth made a few starts at a response before his vocal chords caught up, but when they did he spoke softly and honestly. "You’re not interested in me Duffy. You’re upset about the way Max treated you, I’m just the guy who’s still here".
"Don’t you think that’s something for me to decide?"
"But you have decided. We’ve known each other for over fifteen years and you’ve never been interested in me."
She was about to explain how things change, how her mistakes had shown her the way, opened her eyes to him, when she registered the words he’d chosen quite subconsciously.
"You were interested in me?"
He rubbed uncomfortably at the back of his head, "That’s… it’s not… I didn’t…" He sighed and gave up. "Yes".
For a second Duffy wasn't entirely sure how to react to this, it certainly hadn't been what she was expecting. Almost breathlesslessy she whispered, "You never said".
"There didn’t seem much point. I knew you didn’t feel the same".
"I feel the same now"
He looked deep into her eyes, trying to divine the truth, "Honestly?"
She clasped his forearms, pulling them forward and around her waist. This time he didn’t fight her, and instead pulled her closer. She reached up, placing one hand on the centre of his back and using the other to guide his head forward, until their lips met.
The large ballroom was heaving with revellers by the time Max arrived. He stood at the top of the short flight of steps that lead down to the dance floor and tried to spot Duffy amongst the tuxedoed gents and sequined ladies. So engrossed was he in his endeavour that he failed to noticed Jan Goddard sidle up to him until she gently touched his forearm and snapped him to attention.
"Sorry to startle you" she said in a tone that sounded more like a stock phrase than a genuine comment.
"Jan" he acknowledged distractedly.
"I certainly wasn’t expecting you to grace us with your presence tonight Max…"
"I bought a ticket" he said, waving a crumpled piece of card at her, although dressed in scruffy attire he looked distinctly out of place, "can’t be wasting money now I’m unemployed."
She smiled a little too much for Max’s liking as she replied, "Well, it was you who resigned…", and he felt his jaw locked as he bit back the urge to argue with her.
He averted his eyes from Jan’s attempt at an innocent expression and went back to mentally sifting through the crowded ball room in the hope of spying Duffy. He would have been quite pleased if Jan had suddenly been swallowed up by a hole in the floor but he had no such luck.
"Looking for someone in particular, Max?"
Irritated by the distraction, he whirled to face her, his dark eyes flashing with all the hurt and frustration he felt at his situation. "Not with Charlie tonight? Oh, no… I remember, he dumped you, didn‘t he?"
He knew it was childish, but he was pleased he elicited a similarly hurt look from her, even if it lasted only a split second but the serene façade was back in place.
"I don’t think my relationship with Charlie is any of your business".
"And I don’t think that my reasons for being here are any of your business either. So lets just leave it at that, yeah?"
"I was just trying to help Max".
He stifled a humourless laugh at the thought of Jan doing anything even remotely helpful, "Is that so?"
"Oh yes. Look, Max, I know everyone here in some capacity. You tell me who you’re after and I’ll point you in the right direction…"
At first he decided to ignore her offer, but it was getting increasingly clear that the sheer volume of the hall was such that it’d take forever to find her, and that was if she was there at all. Perhaps she’d cried off and stayed at home after all?
"I’m looking for Duffy, alright. Is she here?"
He thought he saw a malicious glint in her eye but as soon as it was there it was gone again, and she was the model of composure.
"On the balcony I think" she replied with a brief smile. "Just out through there". She pointed a spidery finger to the right of the room and the French windows that were only barely ajar.
From his position Max couldn’t see anything beyond them, but with nothing to lose from Jan’s advice and an escape from her to gain, he stalked down the steps and made his way through the crowd, only glancing briefly back at Jan to see that she had already sycophantically embroiled herself in a conversation with Anton Meyer.
Max pushed past the last few people and reached out to the door knob. The darkness outside compared to the illumination of the ballroom gave the glass door a mirror-like quality, and he winced at the state he was in, wishing he‘d taken those extra few minutes to make himself presentable. But knowing that it was too late for that he pushed at the door and it swung silently open revealing Duffy locked in a passionate kiss with Charlie Fairhead.
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