This was ridiculous. She absolutely was not going to do this. Who did she think she was?
Fiona put her phone face-down on the little wrought iron table outside the Paris café and took a sip of Prosecco. Late afternoon sunshine flooded the cobblestoned alleyway not far from Notre Dame. Who did she think she was?
It was 4:37pm. She should be trying to escape her last afternoon meeting in time to prepare for the afternoon rounds on her cardiology ward. She should be exhausted and overheated. She should be wearing scrubs and trainers, her hair having started the day in a neat ponytail and now sticking in almost as many directions as she had been pulled since she began work at 8:30.
Instead, her feet ached a little from strolling the Left Bank in sandals. Her shoulders under the spaghetti straps of the fifties-style sundress she'd bought at a charity shop and never worn (not entirely because of Tom's expression when she tried it on) prickled with light sunburn. The Prosecco on an empty stomach gave her a slight, pleasant haze, and Fiona couldn't remember when she'd last felt so content.
She had been in Paris for three hours, getting the first flight back in the morning, and yet it was already the best thing she had ever done.
Was that terrible, she wondered. She signalled to the waiter to bring a menu — letting her hair down was one thing, staggering around Paris alone, pissed as a fart was another. She was supposed to be broken-hearted. And yet here she was — what was it Julie called it?
Living her best life.
'You need to get on they apps.' Julie, the senior charge nurse who had been around since Fiona was a terrified trainee, leaned on the door of the consultants' office a few days earlier. She bit into an apple as Fiona stared at her in utter bemusement.
'Get on the whats?'
'The apps.' Julie crunched her apple and nodded. 'Now that you're a single lady. It's the only way folk get action these days.'
One of the student nurses appeared, and Julie wandered off to help her, so Fiona had been left mystified. She'd later confessed to her sister that she'd half wondered if Julie meant an app that… vibrated somehow. Her sister nearly fell off the kitchen counter laughing.
Fiona picked up her phone again and stared at the offending profile. Fond of hill walking and classic films. Was that really all she could think of to say about herself? The truth was even worse. She couldn't remember the last time she had done either. Fond of patient-centred care and soup from the all-night cafe in the hospital atrium. Well, that was going to set the young men of Paris alight.
This was Julie's idea too. When Fiona's sister explained what getting on the apps meant, Fiona was horrified at the thought of advertising herself to the internet. What if a colleague saw her? What if a patient saw her?
'So do it when you're away next week,' Julie shrugged. 'That's what loads of my pals do. Alison fae my bookclub was going on about how the men in Italy are more romantic than the ones in Glasgow as if that was headline news!'
Fiona's phone beeped, and she nearly dropped her Prosecco. It was the app. Two messages. Two! She'd thought she was mucking about with her profile in draft, but apparently not. One, it turned out, was from the app suggesting she would get more matches if she paid, which was a bleak thought, but the other appeared to be from an actual human man.
She should have picked hotter photos. Or maybe less hot — how awful to disappoint in person. She'd uploaded a selfie she took this morning outside Sacre Cour — a bit of a cliché, but she thought it was allowed — and a full body shot of her doing a silly yoga pose at the top of Ben Lomond a couple of years ago.
Salut Scottish lady! You are very beautiful!
Oh, for goodness sake, she was not. Fiona was so busy blushing she nearly jumped a mile when the waiter brought her grilled salmon and skinny matchstick fries. She was perfectly alright, but nobody had called her beautiful in her life.
Certainly Tom never had.
She started to eat — only just resisting the urge to groan aloud in pleasure as the perfect combination of delicate flavours hit her tongue — when another message arrived.
Good evening, for how long are you in Paris :)
Is that Loch Ness in your photo? Better be careful of the monster ;-)
Fiona stared in shock as her phone dinged with message after message. Fourteen. In a few minutes.
She had been in a relationship for almost seventeen years. She'd only snogged Tom at the freshers' mixer the first week of uni because her best friend Emma fancied his best friend Liam. They'd beat Emma and Liam to it by only a few minutes and remained a tight foursome throughout university, medical school, foundation training, and specialist training. Fiona and Tom married the year they turned thirty, and it was around then that Fiona noticed a slight tension between Emma and Liam.
Nothing obvious. They didn't bicker more than any stressed, overworked couple. But they didn't really laugh, either. Or look at one another very much.
She still wasn't sure why she had failed to notice the same was true of her and Tom.
Hello! May I buy you some wine while you are in Paris?
Fiona's phone hadn't seen this much action since her last night shift as a registrar. She decided to silence it before she got flashbacks. Was this what going on the apps were all about? No wonder it was all the rage with Julie's friends.
Then Fiona remembered about catfishing. Hadn't she fallen asleep once in front of a documentary about how scammers prey on vulnerable women? Ahh. That made a bit more sense. She vaguely recalled, with a flash of pride-comes-before-a-fall mortification, feeling relieved she'd been safely married before all that nonsense started.
'Good afternoon,' a deep voice said, and Fiona felt the tiniest shiver before she even turned around. 'I don't mean to disturb you —'
His eyes were the first thing she noticed. Deep brown with flecks of auburn, framed with thick dark lashes. For a mad moment, Fiona felt almost hypnotised as he smiled and his eyes crinkled with warmth. He was around her height, with dark curly hair set off by his immaculate, crisp white shirt. A matching glass of pale, sparkly liquid sat in front of him.
'But I think I have just sent you a message.'
'I — beg your pardon?'
'Is that Loch Ness in your photograph? I certainly recognise it as Scotland.'
'I — oh.' Her profile. Oh… heavens. This staggeringly beautiful man, and she'd told him she was fond of hillwalking and old movies. 'It's Loch Lomond, I'm afraid.'
'Is there a monster there?'
'There are some very thoughtless speedboat drivers.'
'Monsters indeed,' he nodded firmly.
His name was Baku. As they strolled along the Seine, he explained that it meant guest in Nigerian, which was appropriate as he had been sent to live with relatives in London at ten. He now worked as a news producer living between Paris and Berlin.
The sun lay low on the horizon, casting a pinky-glow over the grand, white buildings bordering the river. The air was still tinged with warmth, and the distant Eiffel Tower appeared in view every few minutes. Fiona could even hear someone playing the accordion in the distance, which she began to think was actually taking it a bit too far.
'I can't imagine living between two homes. I feel that whatever I was looking for would always be in the other place.'
Baku chuckled. 'When I was promoted to run my own show three years ago, the first thing I did with my new paycheck was go out and buy two of every item of clothing I own. Even then, sometimes both sweaters are in Berlin while I am cold in Paris.'
'That is the strangest saddest thing I've ever heard.'
'It is a terrible life,' he grinned.
'We moved around quite a bit when I was a child,' Fiona said. 'I always found settling into new bedrooms stressful. I could never sleep properly until they started to smell familiar.' She shook her head, sadness stealing over her. 'I swore I would never move as an adult.'
'But you did?'
'My husband left me for my best friend. I thought it might be socially awkward if I kept living there with them.'
Baku's mouth fell open, and his stunned expression made Fiona giggle. 'It suddenly sounds so ridiculous.'
'It is horrifying!' he proclaimed, and Fiona laughed harder.
'It is absurd! It gets worse —'
'What?' He roared, and Fiona's sides started to ache.
'My husband's best friend was her fiancé. She left him at the altar in front of over a hundred family and friends.'
'Yes, and —'
'There cannot be more.'
'We all work together.'
'I cannot take this!' Baku flung himself on a nearby bench and held his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking with laughter.
Fiona sat next to him, wiping tears from her eyes. A restaurant-boat chugged by, the jazz band playing jaunty twenties ragtime. Across the river, artists shut down their stalls for the evening while commuters and tourists cycled past. The sky turned a deep cerise and purple, and Fiona felt truly happy for the first time in a long time.
'It's a good thing,' she blurted. 'The breakup. I keep feeling guilty for not being more brokenhearted, but we haven't been really together in a long time. I thought about suggesting counselling a few years ago, but then the pandemic —'She waved vaguely, suddenly exhausted by the whole situation.
'But your best friend!'
'Oh yes, they are terrible people. There is no excuse. I was angry — I have been angry for weeks, but suddenly —' She shrugged. 'I can't be bothered. I don't care enough to waste energy on anger. He is terrible, and I never have to speak to him again if I don't want to. Unless I need an ICU consult,' she added. 'But I won't be paying attention to him then.'
'You are a better person than I am. I would have sewed fish into the curtain hems before I left.'
Fiona gasped. 'Well, now I wish I'd thought of that. I'm allergic to fish, though. There's a metaphor there somewhere about how revenge hurts you the most.'
'I'm not allergic. Do you still have keys? We could go to Scotland and sneak in while they are at work.'
Fiona started to snigger again. 'You'll need to get your sweater from Berlin. Glasgow hasn't got the memo that it's spring yet.'
'I will get one at the airport. And we both need — what do you call them, that go over your face —?'
'We each require a balaclava.'
'We're not breaking in, though. I still own half the house.'
'I'm sorry,' Baku shook his head firmly. ‘We require balaclavas.’
'This is ridiculous,' Fiona said, but something in her sparked back to life.
Julie mobilised her contacts to confirm that Tom was working the following day and Emma was presenting at a conference in Edinburgh. Fiona watched traffic inch through the drizzle on Pollokshaws Road while Baku debated the appropriate fish for their purposes with the fishmonger. She felt — cathartic, was the word. Her whole body felt tingly and alive. She'd thought she had been being oh so grown up, rising above the double betrayal, but Baku was right — she had been choosing numbness.
It was time to choose adventure.
Shortly afterwards, she stood outside the gate of the neat sandstone house in Newlands that she had thought would be her forever home. Her beloved, carefully manicured garden was already overgrown. Fiona unwound on her days off by weeding and deadheading, while every few months, Tom suggested they get the whole thing replaced with astroturf. Her eyes widened in horror. He'd let her roses die.
'Let's do this.'
'Put your balaclava on.'
Fiona giggled, put her balaclava on, and opened her front door with the key. Baku tiptoed behind her like a burglar in the Pink Panther, holding the white plastic bag containing three sardines. 'Any more, and it will look suspicious,' he'd insisted as the fishmonger looked baffled.
'You think they might accept that only three sardines were accidentally sewn into the curtains?'
'Yes. Okay, I brought the sewing kit from your hotel. You'd better do the sewing. You are the professional.'
'I did one rotation in A&E about a hundred years ago, and I haven't done sutures since.'
'I am on fish duty.'
'Well then, I suppose I'm sewing.'
Fiona knelt down and carefully snipped the living room curtain hem open. She frowned, trying to catch the edge of the thread before the entire hem fell open, and then tingles shot through her as Baku placed a brief kiss on her shoulder. Oh, it had been a while since she had felt that.
'Do you mind, I am trying to concentrate,' she murmured. Then, before she could chicken out, she turned and pecked him on the lips.
'You must be very careful driving a man wild when he is in charge of sardines,' Baku said sternly. He kissed her again.
Softly, this time. Heat pooled in her stomach as she twisted around to deepen the kiss. His lips were so different from Tom's. So warm and inviting, and fascinating. Fiona opened her mouth a little, and the heat burst into flame as his tongue found hers.
She moved forward, pushing him back onto the shaggy rug Tom's parents gave them that she'd always hated. She crawled to straddle him, and he slipped his hands under her skirt to firmly cup her arse, sending a bolt of desire through her. His fingers were already so close, and suddenly Fiona's body was acutely aware of how long it had been since it was last gratified.
A wave of anxiety washed over her. Other than one teenage fumble that was over before it started, Tom was the only man she had ever been with. They'd long settled into a mildly-satisfying-but-who-had-the-energy-for-more-anyway routine — and even that had dwindled away.
This gorgeous, worldly man was kissing her neck and collarbone, his hands urgently pulling her hips towards his, and she had no idea what to do. There was all this new stuff these days, weren't young folk all about bum stuff? She didn't mind, necessarily, she just wasn't entirely sure what to —
Baku shimmied beneath her, so she was suddenly kneeling on the floor. He kissed her thighs, and pleasure washed the nerves away. He peeked over her skirt.
'You want this?' He raised a cheeky eyebrow.
'I — oh, well, I mean — if you don't, umm, mind —'
His laughter rumbled against her very core as he slid the damp fabric of her underwear aside and licked. Oh. Oh my — Slivers of lust danced through her as he traced an intricate pattern with his tongue, circling and crisscrossing, teasing and tasting. She whimpered, muttering incoherently as ribbons of bliss swirled and grew. Sweetly aching pressure built as Baku slipped two fingers inside and beckoned with a gentle come hither motion —
The pressure shattered, and Fiona threw back her head and screamed as she came with abandon, raptures cascading through her like a thundering waterfall as she jerked like a puppet off its strings. Baku laughed triumphantly.
'Excuse me, what is the meaning of this?'
The living room swam in Fiona's vision as aftershocks shuddered through her. A tiny part of her brain vaguely registered Tom and Emma staring aghast at them.
'Fiona, what on earth --? Is that — is there a man there?' Tom demanded.
Baku poked his head from under Fiona's skirt. 'Hello!' he called cheerily. 'We brought you some sardines.'