Chances Are - Five

Morvan followed him over the bridge, then stopped, frowning in confusion as he suddenly knelt down at the foot of the stairs.


‘Are you… pledging fealty to me?’


Something between humour and bemusement flashed in those green eyes as he looked up at her. ‘I’m giving you a coal carry, you numpty. You can’t walk all that way without shoes, your feet will be cut to shreds.’


‘You’re not carrying me.’


Morvan had long ago come to terms with the fact that maintaining the body of a goddess she vaguely imagined she wanted would entail turning down cake entirely too often. She was the opposite of that Kate Moss quotation: she wouldn’t mind being svelte if only food didn’t taste so good. She liked how her soft curves filled the floaty, Stevie Nicks-style dresses she favoured, and her job kept her on her feet enough she was fit enough. But all the same, she wasn’t sure her commitment to body positivity went as far as breaking this poor man’s back.


‘I’ll manage,’ she said firmly. ‘What did humans do before shoes were invented?’


‘They didn’t walk on tarmac roads strewn with broken glass. Come on,’ he added a note of impatience in his voice that was like a red rag to a Morvan. ‘Don’t be daft.’


‘I’m not daft, and I’m quite capable of walking if I chose to,’ she said tartly. She stepped around him and across the carpark. Jeez-o was tarmac always so bloody jaggy? ‘Tell you what,’ she conceded to the man who was now walking obediently behind her. ‘If I actually cut my feet, I will let you carry me. I have already saved your life, after all.’


His chuckle floated after her as she gritted her teeth against the pain and they set off towards the village.

‘Oh — hey,’ Ali said, horribly aware she was blushing furiously. ‘Uhh, everyone went to bed. I guess — I guess you can see that.’


‘I dunno.’ What was it about his voice that sent tingles rushing straight to her — get a grip, Ali. ‘Yous might have been playing hide and seek.’


‘I’m just, sitting here,’ Ali blurted, because that was how cool she was.


‘So you are.’


‘Are you okay?’ she asked. Not that it was any of her business, but he looked — distracted? Maybe even a little worried. ‘Sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I just —‘


‘Ach, I’m sure it’s fine,’ he shrugged, his eyes troubled. He slid into the booth next to Ali, clasped his hands on the table. ‘That was my wee sister. There’s something going on with her and she won’t tell me what.’


‘Does she usually tell you stuff?’


‘Most of the time.’


‘Do you have any idea of, like — the approximate topic? Work? Health?’


Gus shrugged helplessly. ‘She’s just got something on her mind. Her work is pretty full-on, but — I don’t think it’s that. She’s a demon for her work, she loves it. I just wish she’d tell me so I could help.’


‘Maybe it’s something she needs to take care of herself.’


‘Now you sound like her,’ he gave a rueful grin.


‘How much older are you?’


‘Seven minutes.’


‘Oh you’re — twins? But wait, you must be — mid thirties?’


‘Thirty-seven.’


‘So she’s, also thirty-seven, minus seven minutes. I was picturing, a little sister.’


Gus chuckled. ‘Now you really sound like her. I know she can take care of herself, I just — ach, we’ve always looked out for each other. It feels funny that she’s keeping something from me. Have you got siblings?’


‘Two half-sisters. They are seven and four.’


‘So you actually get to look out for them?’


Ali shook her head. ‘Not even close. Riley is seven going on seventeen, and Scout is already fiercer than I’ll ever be.’


‘Fern is a lot cooler than me too.’


‘Annoying, isn’t it?’


Gus nodded with mock sadness. He held eye contact for just a fraction of a second too long and Ali felt her stomach flip. The train gave a jolt as it went over a join in the tracks and suddenly their knees were millimetres apart. She had read an article once, about how mirroring body-language was meant to be a sign of interest. She re-crossed her legs and rested her chin in her hand. Seconds later, he did the same.


Thrill sizzled through Ali. The hot Scots guy was interested. In her.


This never happened — not to Ali. She had listened to friends hundreds of times, casually chatting about how they’d hooked up with this guy or were now dating that one they’d mentioned the other week, and she would think how? What magic do you know to just make it happen like that?


It wasn’t like Ali never dated. She’d had all the usual teenage fumbles and as many soul-destroying forays into dating apps as the next girl. She’d dated her college best buddy for a couple of years after he confessed feelings to her, and had a handful other short-lived, mildly okay flings under her belt. But most of the time, she just felt off-kilter with the male gender.


It was never effortlessly mutual the way it seemed to be for everybody else on earth. Either she found out years later that a guy had a crush on her when she had no clue at the time, or she would be flushed with hope that something was just about to happen when he casually dropped his girlfriend into conversation. Ali had pasted on a smile while frantically blinking back tears that she had gotten it wrong again more times than she cared to remember.


But she wasn’t imagining this — right? This gorgeous guy with the dreamy accent and twinkly eyes was sitting her talking to her. In the middle of the night when he could be sleeping or texting other women. And he was definitely mirroring her.


Or maybe it was a coincidence. She needed to test the theory, but she couldn’t move again so soon. He’d think she was itchy or needed to pee.


‘I came clean before Mum called an ambulance,’ he grinned.


Ali blinked. She had been so busy analysing his body language that she had absolutely no idea what he’d been saying. An ambulance? That didn’t sound good. She gave a sympathetic frown, hoping that she didn’t look as nuts as she suspected she did.


‘You said earlier you work on an oil refinery?’


If Gus noticed she looked a bit deranged, he didn’t mention it.


Ali nodded. ‘Project management. I schedule maintenance work for the refinery, and yes, it is as fascinating as it sounds.’


‘What led you in to that?’


‘A want ad,’ she shrugged. ‘I didn’t really know what project management was, but I liked the sound of it. I find organising soothing. I like lists, and flows and deliverables. I get a sensual pleasure from marking tasks complete.’


What the actual hell? Gus raised an eyebrow and Ali wanted to chop her tongue off. A sensual pleasure? Where did that come from?


‘The best part is the people I work with,’ she continued hurriedly. ‘I wouldn’t survive it without them. I know it’s corny, but we’re kind of like family. There’s this one guy, Dave — he’s one of the site supervisors and he’s this huge dude, shaved head, tatts, he was in an actual biker gang in the seventies. He told me once that he noticed women get nervous if they see him walking behind, so he always crosses the road or switches directions if he spots one ahead of him.


'Anyway, him and his wife have this open potluck dinner every Sunday. They have six kids and a bunch of foster kids who all come home with their own kids, plus a bunch of us from work and — anyway, it’s just really nice.’ Ali was babbling, but hopefully she’d successfully distracted him from the sensual pleasure moment.


‘Do your own family live nearby?’ Gus asked.


‘Like an hour away, so kinda. My mom is pretty busy — I mean, the activities kids do these days, seriously, Riley and Scout’s schedules are crazy their weekends are like a military operation. It’s fine. I see her when I see her. And I’m pretty — I mean, a lot of my old friends are married with kids now, but I volunteer at my local library which I love, plus I have my pottery friends, my ice skating friends —‘


‘You make pottery and ice skate?’


‘Not at the same time, that would be a disaster.’


‘Even separately, it’s pretty impressive.’


‘Oh no, you don’t understand,’ Ali laughed. ‘I am terrible at my hobbies. Truly terrible. I think it’s sad that adults only keep up interests we’re good at, you know? A lot of things are just as much fun when you suck. Although I have to admit the last time I went skating, I genuinely considered duct-taping a comforter to my ass.’


‘A what?’


‘You know, like the thick cover you put on your bed. It’s stuffed with feathers or whatever.’

‘Oh a duvet,’ Gus started to chuckle. ‘I thought you meant — my wee cousin has this minging, ratty stuffed bear he carries everywhere with him, and my aunt says it’s his comforter. I thought —‘


Ali burst out laughing. ‘You thought I couldn’t face the ice rink without the comfort of a teddy?’


Gus laughed like a little kid, with his whole body, clutching his sides. ‘You said you were going to tape it to yourself,’ he wheezed. ‘I was picturing you whizzing around the rink with a teddy bear strapped to your back.’


He started doing impressions of the teddy getting dizzy yet valiantly attempting to provide comfort as he flew backwards around the rink and Ali was gone. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She bent double as Gus sprawled across the seat, red-faced with mirth.


They definitely weren’t mirroring any more, but when Gus sat up, wiping tears with the back of his hand, their knees were touching. Was it an accident — should she move back? A little bolt of lightening shot through Ali as she fought to keep her expression even. He hadn’t moved his leg. He must have felt it too, and yet his knee remained firmly against hers.


Then something fluttered across his expression. It was tiny, an infinitesimal shift in energy, but cold lead pooled in Ali’s stomach.


‘I — should —‘


The kindness in his eyes stabbed at her. There was nothing worse than a sympathetic rejection. She’d take a cruel jerk she could hate any day of the week.


‘It’s late,’ Ali blurted, hurriedly getting to her feet. ‘I — it was nice to meet you. See you around.’


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