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Love Burns. Act 1.

When it comes to women, Don is hapless as he is hopeless. But he never gives up.

Chapter 1

Don woke to the electronic buzz from his alarm. He rolled onto his side and reached for the snooze button. On pressing it, he heard the familiar pitter-patter of feet on the stairs. “Go away!” The steps continued to his door. “Bruce, basket... Now. I’ll walk you tonight.” Don then bolted upright in bed. “Shit! I mentioned the W word.”

The door burst open and four stone of hairy affection sprang onto the bed. Battling his dog for supremacy of the mattress, Don was soon covered in loose dog hair and slobber. “Get off me, you smelly bastard.” He pushed the Labrador on its black silky flank with both hands, sending it tumbling off the bed. However, the dog hadn’t given up on its walk. Clamping its teeth on to the duvet, the dog sunk low onto his haunches and back pedalled, pulling the duvet from its master’s grasp. Don let out a sigh as he lay naked in the cold. “Every bloody morning!”

The house was silent while the rest of his family slept. Washed and dressed, Don sat in front of the television about to enjoy a bowl of cereal. Raising the spoon to his mouth, he noticed the time on the screen. “Damn! I’m going to miss my train.” Racing to the kitchen, he emptied his cereal into Bruce’s bowl. After giving his dog a brief pat on its head, Don sprinted towards the door to catch his train.

~

Running through the station gate, Don saw the train slowing on its approach. Climbing the steps of the bridge, he vaulted several at a time. The beeps of the closing doors of the train caused him to shout, “Hold the train, guard.” His legs felt like jelly as he bounded the final sweep of steps. “Please wait, it’s my first day back.”

The portly guard wore a wide grin as he stood in the doorway. “Come on, Don. The beeps get you running every time.”

“Thanks, Ronnie... Starting to think you do it on purpose.”

“We run a tight schedule.”

“Only when it suits you.”

“I don’t know why you just don’t leave the house a few minutes earlier.” Ronnie noticed Don’s rucksack. “Are you ever going to finish your education? I’m starting to think you’re just messing me about.”

“I’m just trying to make something of my life.”

“I haven’t had a university education... but I’m happy.”

“I never said....” Don rested on a bench as the train pulled out from the station. “Never mind.”

“What I can’t get my head around is, you told me that the main reason you were going to uni was to find a girlfriend, rather than get a degree… But you chose earth sciences? I mean, when I said you need a dirty woman, I didn’t think for one minute you’d go looking for one covered in soil and manure.”

“I tried choosing a course where I was guaranteed to find a woman. I thought about nursing, but I’m scared of blood... not to mention dirty backsides.” Don held his ticket in the air for Ronnie to inspect. “Wasn’t going to do floristry or hairdressing, was I?”

“But earth sciences, though?”

“I suppose it was the only course that was as desperate as I was. They didn’t even ask to see my college results.”

“Come on, Don. No one is as desperate as you.” Ronnie chuckled as he carefully walked down the gently rocking carriage. He called out at the top of voice, “Tickets and passes from Garswood, please.”

~

Don ran out of Lime Street station and crossed the dual carriage way in front of the majestic St. Georges Hall. He usually strolled down the cobble boulevard to soak up the Victorian grandeur of central Liverpool, but today he felt in a hurry and sprinted all the way to the campus.

Inside the empty lecture theatre, Don sat on the back row. He’d deliberately arrived early so he could take note of any potential girlfriends. His eyes watched the door, while his fingers were firmly crossed.

Sitting on the back row of the lecture theatre Don’s attention was diverted from his mobile. Sitting up in his chair, he gazed lovingly as her long legs confidently strode across the carpet of the lecture theatre. Her dark hair hung in waves and bounced on her shoulders. His eyes tracked her slim figure across the room until she sat on the front row. Resting his chin on his open hand, Don sighed to himself. “What am I getting excited for? It’s not as if I’ve got the balls to chat to a girl like her.”

The theatre was filled with tales of summer, while boisterous students chattered to one another. Don choked on jealously as a baseball cap wearing male sat on the same row as the girl he’d noticed earlier. “I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t make the effort to talk to her.” He rubbed his cheek, then felt the back of his neck. “Come on, Don, you can’t be a coward all your life.” Standing up from his seat, he stepped over his rucksack. “Even if the worst happens… It’s not like it would be the first time I’ve crashed and burned.”

Don’s heart thumped inside his chest. His strides became less confident with every step he took down the central aisle of the lecture theatre. Sweating as he sat behind her, he unzipped his jacket and threw it on the chair beside him. He momentarily closed his eyes, while he swallowed his doubt. Noticing she had her head buried in a tabloid newspaper, he coughed in to his open hand. “Terrible story in the paper today.”

She put the paper down and turned to face him. “Sorry, are you talking to me?”

“Yes, I just noticed the headline. Terrible story.”

“Yeah, makes you think twice about walking the streets on your own.”

“If you are worried…” Don noticed a set of car keys sitting inside the girl’s open handbag. “I’ll walk you to your car after the lecture.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You could at least try and humor me for a few minutes.”

“Actually, I was only going to tell you that I leave the car at home. I get the train.”

Don blushed as he scratched the top of his ear. “Oh, sorry. I just thought you were blowing me off.”

“I’m not blowing you off.”

“Sadly, you’re not the first girl to say that to me.”

“Sorry...? Oh my God!”

Don chewed on his fist. “Please let me explain, I always feel the need to say something funny.” He felt as though he was sitting in confession with a priest. “But more often than not I’m just mildly offensive or awkward…. Like now, I mean, I’m not exactly selling myself very well, am I?”

“I’m just worried that you’re trying to sell yourself.”

“I’m not… well, I am… but not like a prostitute.” Don slapped his forehead. “You see? There I go again. I just can’t help myself.”

“I think it would be good for the both of us, if you take a breath, and start again.”

“I’m Don.”

“Jessie.” She chuckled as she shook Don’s clammy hand. “I do my best to ignore first impressions. It helps in times like this.”

“I’m thankful.”

“I thought you said your name was Don?”

Don laughed, he felt buoyed by the fact Jessie had given him a second chance. “So what career do you want after you finish earth sciences?”

“I want to be an ecologist... You?”

“Teacher.”

Jessie sat sideways on her seat, so she could face Don without straining her neck. “I never really wanted to be an ecologist. I always dreamt of being an artist.” She ran her fingers through her silky hair, combing her black locks behind her delicate ear. “I love painting, crafts and calligraphy, too.”

“A creative mind, huh?”

“I like to think so.”

Don folded his arms, and leaned forward. ”Why not follow your dream, then?”

“My dad. He always tells me that I should only paint as a hobby, as I’ll be resting in my pauper’s grave by the time my first royalty cheque arrives.”

“Bit harsh.”

“He’s like that.”

Don stroked his chin. “Anyway, don’t think for one second that all my life I wanted to be a teacher. When I was growing up, I dreamt about being an astronaut.”

“Bit ambitious.”

“Especially as I’m scared of heights.... Not too keen on the dark either.”

Laughing, Jessie covered her mouth. “Seriously, you’re scared of the dark?”

“I was eleven before I could sleep without a nightlight. Luckily I’ve grown out of my fear of heights, too. I can lift one foot off the ground now.”

“Funny, I was around that age before I slept without a nightlight.”

“So I’m not alone in that, then?”

Jessie peered towards her flat shoes, then raised her eyes to meet his. “Seems not.”

Time may as well have stayed still for Don. He felt that they were the only two in the lecture theatre. The stress and panic of his trip to the front row seemed an eternity ago. For once in his life, he hadn’t faced instant rejection by a beautiful girl. He revelled in the excitement of being in uncharted territory, and could sense a warm glow of confidence with Jessie’s every smile.

Jessie took out a box of assorted chocolates from her straw bag. “My nan relentlessly bombards me with these.” She peeled back the lid. “You’ll have to help me out.”

“Oh great…. Thanks.” Don delved a hand in the box and pulled out a chocolate covered in pink foil. “I love the strawberry ones.”

“Mint is my fave. So, how many times have you used the newspaper trick to hit on a girl?”

“It wasn’t a trick, I was just desperate to talk to you.”

“You do seem quite a confident person… even though you’re a bit unorthodox in your approach.”

“No. I’m far from confident. Actually, I was terrified on my way down to see you. If you think I’m some sort of social hand grenade, you’re wrong.” Don placed his hands on his chest. “Honestly, the first minute of this conversation is a complete and utter blur to me.”

“Oh, go away. If you’re not the confident type, why are you here chatting to me even before the first lecture has started?”

“I spotted you as soon as you walked through the door. You seemed so... interesting.”

“Interesting?” Jessie laughed as she unwrapped a chocolate from its orange foil. “In what way am I slightly... as you put it, interesting?”

“Want the honest answer?”

“Always.”

“Okay, I think you are beautiful. Really, really beautiful. What’s more, you have proved me right... that it was worth the gamble to come and talk to you.”

“Sorry, Don. You’ll have to return to wherever it was you came from… wherever the hell that was.”

“Oh... Well, it was good while it lasted.”

Chuckling, Jessie shuffled over a seat. “Hold on, Don. I only want you to go and get your stuff, so you can come down here and sit with me.”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, it’s lonely down here by myself. Plus, I’ll only end up fat if you don’t help me eat the chocolates.”

Sitting next to Jessie, Don struggled to concentrate on anything Professor Borewood had to say. All he could think about was his glamorous new friend. While Borewood changed a slide, Don snuck a glimpse at Jessie, was felt caught her a smile. He felt alive.

~

After Borewood had called time on his lecture, Don wasted no time in talking to Jessie again. His words jumped from his mouth. “Do you want to go for a drink? Coffee or something stronger?”

“Sorry, I have to go straight home tonight.”

“Ah. That’s… That's a shame.”

Jessie slid her books into the straw bag. “You’ll have to give me some notice next time.”

“Popular girl, hey?”

“No. Not really. Just a girl with a lot on her plate.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to sound rude or anything.”

“It’s okay. Add me on Facebook, so we can arrange some proper plans.”

“I’m not on it.” Don pulled out his mobile from the pocket of his jeans. “We can swap numbers, though.”

“Believe it or not, I don’t have my own mobile. This brick I carry with me is my Dad’s phone, just in case I get in to trouble. And trust me, you don’t want to be phoning him.”

“You don’t have a mobile of your own?”

“Lost it a few weeks back. But there is little point replacing it right away. There is no signal in the house, or the entire valley for that matter.”

As the pair walked towards the double doors, Don slung his rucksack over his shoulder. “Oh right. I’ll have to set up a Facebook account, then.”

“Good. I don’t trust men who claim not to be on Facebook. Just search for Jessie Jones, my profile pic is a black and white portrait of me.”

“Okay, I will. By the way, the only reason I haven’t got an account is because I’m an utter technophobe. Not a womanizer.”

Jessie wore a wry smile as she stopped walking, and turned to face Don. “Does this mean I have to drag you into the library quick and set you up on it?”

“That would be best. I mean, I only sent my first proper e-mail a few months back.”

“Christ. That’s worse than sleeping with the light on until you were eleven.”

~

The late afternoon sun shone through the glass roof and gave the station lobby an orange glow. Streams of people flowed through the huge arched entrances. Commuters carried briefcases or satchels, while mothers held tightly to their young children’s hands. Don stopped amongst the crowd and faced Jessie. “Time to say goodbye, then.”

“Yeah, can’t wait to have a sleep on the train.”

“I do that, too. Although I’ve missed my stop a few times.”

“Tell me about it.”

Don smiled and folded his arms. “Hey, thanks for setting up my Facebook. I’ll get my head around it eventually, and send you a message.”

“No problem.”

”Well, the next time I’ll see you will be on the field trip next week. You up for a day in the Delamere Forest?”

“Of course, if you save me a seat on the coach?”

“I will. You don’t have to worry about that.” Don stuck out his hand. “It was great meeting you today. Thanks for being patient with me. I know sometimes I can be quite trying.”

“Oh, handshakes. Very formal.”

“You’re lucky. In Wigan, the girls say good bye with an arm-wrestle.”

“You’re quite a character, Don. I just wonder what you will have in store for me next week.”

“I’ll surprise you.”

“I’m sure you will. Bye, Don.”

“Bye, Jess.” Don watched Jessie until he lost her in the crowd. “Quite a character, hey..? I’m happy with that.”

 

Chapter 2

Inside the student shop, Wolfy stopped and stared at the magazine rack. He moved the heavy basket from his left to his right hand. Scratching his thick beard, his eyes switched from one title to another. His solid neck arched as he began to scan the top row. “Now, where is it?” He suddenly felt the presence of another person and turned to face a petite black girl dressed in a navy blue uniform. “Howdy.”

“I was wondering if you needed any help. You’ve been wondering around for quite a while.”

“I... I was just looking for…”

“Don’t worry.” She stooped down and pushed a footstool over to the magazine rack. Standing on top, she leafed her way through the adult magazines. “What kind of things are you into to?”

“Communism.”

“Communism? Is that something to do with Russian girls?”

“No. I’m not here to buy pornography.”

“Oh. Sorry.” The girl blushed while stepping down off the foot stool. “I just presumed… Never mind.”

“I was just looking for the Morning Star. I can’t find it anywhere?”

“Oh, is it you who ordered that? I think you’ll find the Morning Star over there, in hobbies and pastimes.”

Wolfy’s mono-brow dipped as he glared at the girl. “How dare you put it there?” He paced over to the stand then fingered through the magazines until he came across his beloved communist monthly. “Capitalism never ceases to shock me.”

“Wasn’t there another order with that?”

“Yes. I also ordered a Welsh language magazine.”

“Welsh language magazine? What’s it called?”

“Golwg.”

“Oh, yes… Golwg.” The girl suddenly cringed as she pointed across the aisle. “We thought it was some sort of cryptic word challenge. It’s over there with the puzzles and games.”

“And you wonder why, as a nation, we’re so bitter.”

~

The heat smacked Wolfy in the face as he opened the door to the computer lab. The air-conditioning caused the closed blinds to flutter but did little to quell the stuffy temperature. He unzipped his camouflage jacket then walked inside. Scanning the room, he eventually found Don. “Howdy.”

“Not like you to be late.”

Wolfy took off his jacket before folding it over the back of his chair. “I had to get the food for the weekend.”

“Make sure you have your five a day.”

“How dare you use such language?” Wolfy smirked as he opened his white plastic bag. “Got all the essentials. A multi pack of Monster Munch, five tubes of Pringles, three margarita pizzas, one garlic bread without cheese, and one with. A two litre coke. Oh, and not forgetting my bag of apples.”

“Apples?”

“Halloween.”

“Ah, Duck apple.”

“Sod off. Ammunition for my slingshot.” Wolfy glared at Don. “Trick or treaters are not welcome at my house.”

~

A low sun illuminated the closed blinds giving the IT suite a hazy feel. The row upon row of computers created a beehive whirl while the titter tatter from the keyboards was interspersed by Wolfy’s groans or curses.

Wolfy couldn’t take any more. He minimized his spread sheet then logged on to his Facebook account. Scrolling through his newsfeed, he spotted some interesting updates. “I see you joined the social media revolution... over a decade after it finished.” His bushy dark beard clung to his smile. “I’ve just sent you a friend request. Accept or pay the consequences.”

“What’s the hurry? You’re sitting next to me. We see each other every day.”

“But that’s what you do on Facebook. Accept it, or we won’t be talking much longer.”

“Your request isn’t there. Just some nutter called Blaidd Coch. He has a dog as a profile pic.” Don turned to face Wolfy. “Who the fuck is Blaidd Coch?”

“It’s me. And It’s not a dog by the way. It’s a Eurasian Wolf. Blaidd Coch is my communist call sign. It’s Welsh for Red Wolf.”

“Coch sounds too much like Cock. Sure you’re not going around calling yourself Red Cock?”

“Only an Englishman would come up with a joke like that.”

Don clicked his left mouse button. “There you go. We’re now officially friends.”

“Tidy.”

~

Wolfy studied his monitor while his hairy hand remained planted in a packet of Monster Munch. “Hang on, Don…” He then paused midsentence, while he loaded his mouth with crisps.

“What’s up?”

“One moment… please.”

“Wolf?”

Wolfy finally snapped out of his savoury induced trance. “Sorry about that. Right, where was I?” He focused on the pretty brunette on the computer screen. “You sly dog of an Englishman, Don.”

“What?”

“Who is this Jessie Jones?”

“Oh… A girl I’ve recently been chatting to in one of my lectures. It was her who set up my Facebook page.”

“Why would she do that?”

“So we can keep in touch.”

Wolfy scratched his beard as he scrolled through Facebook. “Just looking at all your photo comments. You’re like shit on a tramp’s arse… You’re everywhere.”

“You can see what I’m doing?”

“Yup. Facebook is not so good for keeping secrets, but great for snooping.”

Don rolled his chair over so he could see Wolfy’s monitor. He then stared longingly at Jessie’s black and white profile picture. “Anyway, what do you think? Done well for myself, haven’t I? She’s a right little belter.”

“You make me proud, Don”

“Thanks, Wolfy.”

“With a face like yours, yet you still manage to pull a girl like her... gives men like me some hope.”

Don shook his head before rolling back to his computer. “You’ll like her, too. She’s Welsh.”

“I can see. She speaks the mother tongue, too.”

“Do you think I should learn Welsh, then?”

“How could you learn Welsh? You’re like me, dyslexic. I’ve tried for years to learn my native tongue… but ultimately failed.” Wolfy choked on rising emotion. He then hung his head before finally resting it on the desk. “That’s an open wound that I’ll have to take to my grave.”

“Can you read Welsh?”

“No.”

“But you buy that gobbledygook magazine?”

Wolfy groaned. “I think you mean Golwg… No, I look at the pictures. They remind me of home.”

“Don’t worry, Wolfy. I know you’ll learn Welsh eventually.”

“Being comforted by an Englishman… I simply can’t fall any lower.”

“Wolfy!” Don slapped his hands against the desk. “Stop it with the tribal thing. We are one nation. Great Britain.”

“Show me a Welsh dragon on the Union Flag, and I’ll show you an honest Englishman.”

“Look. Every time I meet you, we have this England versus Wales thing. Get over it.”

“Fine.” Wolfy stared at his monitor. “You started it.”

“How?”

“Pinching our women.”

“For fuck sake, Wolfy.”

 

Chapter 3

The morning sun painted the city skyline a pale shade of yellow. Don grimaced as he stepped into a puddle on the cold and wet concrete car park. With his hands in his pockets he strolled around the gathered survey equipment, contemplating how he could best greet Jessie. His excitement rose as the students began to arrive one by one. Not even his wet boot could dampen his spirits.

Standing amongst the gathered students, Don searched for Jessie but found nothing other than sleepy faces. He chewed his fingernail while feeling his sense of doubt rise with the arrival of the coach.

Don felt a sense of dread as he watched the final student board the coach. Having run out of fingernail to chew, he now nibbled the skin on the ends of his fingers. Now alone outside the coach, he had no choice but to finally climb aboard.

~

The coach rocked while it traversed a rutted forest track. Lost in a dream, Don suddenly woke when his head thumped against the window. Embarrassed by the saliva print of his face on the glass, he quickly buffed it clean with his sleeve.

Eventually the coach pulled into a small shadowy car park. Professor Borewood stood at the foot of the gangway and rubbed his hands. “Right. Everyone off.”

Don stepped down from the coach on to a car park littered with pinecones. Despite the fresh air smelling sweetly, he felt lethargic and disinterested. But his subdued spirit was suddenly lifted by the sound of a soft Welsh accent.

“Don.”

The gravel crunched as Don turned on his boots. “Jess! Where did you come from?”

“Did you not read the email I sent you last night?”

“No… Maybe you sent it after I went to bed.”

“Probably, it was around midnight… I was packing my kit before bed, when I suddenly realised this place is on route to Liverpool. So I drove here instead.”

“Makes sense.” Don stepped back and admired Jessie.” You look great today.”

“Give over.”Jessie glanced down at her pink rain coat and black walking trousers. “I look like I’ve come straight from walking the dog.”

“You could model… albeit for farmer’s wives.”

Borewood shouted over the top of the chattering students. “It’s best if you get into small groups or pairs for the survey today.”

Jessie watched Don take a step towards her. “I take it you want to pair up?”

“Of course.”

“You’d better be smarter than me, then... or we’re sunk.”

~

The golden leaves rustled beneath their boots as Don and Jessie walked through the cool shade of tightly packed broadleaves. Rustling from a foraging squirrel could be heard amongst the chatter of the birds sitting high in the canopy. At Jessie’s side Don felt in such bliss, he may as well have been walking in heaven. “Lovely place, this. So peaceful.”

“Shame we have to work rather than picnic. Just feel like a few homemade sandwiches.”

“Talking of work.” Don glanced down at his notepad. “Can you make head or tail of these formulas?”

“I was kind of hoping you would know.”

“Don’t tell me you’re just a pretty face.”

“If that’s supposed to be a back handed compliment..? Then, well done.”

The pair approached a small forest brook. Don stopped then took a step back before launching himself over the shallow gorge. He snarled as his left boot landed short, soaking him up to his ankle. “Damn.”

“Are you sure we have to cross this?”

“Look at the map. Our quadrant contains those oak trees over there. We’ll fail if we don’t survey them.”

“Can you not just shout out the measurements? I’ll record them from this side.”

“Jess, there are like… fifty trees at least.” Don stretched out his arm across the brook. “Come on, I’ll help you across.”

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I was rubbish at sports in school, especially long jump. I used to be a heifer that preferred the school canteen to the sports hall.”

“Get lost, Jess. I’ve seen more meat on a vegie’s fork.” Don gestured with his hands for Jessie to cross. “The gap isn’t even six feet. Come on, take a running jump and I’ll catch you.”

“You sure?”

“More than sure.”

“Ok, but you’d better not let me fall.”

“I won’t.”

As Jessie walked away to create a run up, she nervously smiled at Don over her shoulder. “You sure you can catch me?”

“Yep.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.” As if keeping wicket in a game cricket, Don rubbed his hands and bent his knees. “I’m ready.”

“Right.” Jessie leant on a moss-covered trunk. “One... Two... Three.” Pushing off the trunk, she kicked leaves into the air as she raced through the golden browns like a gust of autumnal wind. Closing down on the brook she shut her eyes and screamed as loud as her lungs would allow before taking an almighty leap of faith.

Don watched as Jessie vaulted into midair. He could see that she had jumped too early. Covering his eyes, he heard the inevitable splash, the scream, and finally the cursing.

Jessie opened her eyes as the icy water swilled around her knees. “Don... what the hell?” Despite the freezing water she burned with rage. “You told me you would bloody catch me? Don, I hate practical jokers!”

“I’m not a joker. I promise. I would have caught you if I could.”

“So how come I’m in the middle of this God damn stream?”

“You jumped too soon. Way too soon.” Don chuckled to himself. “In fact, I’m surprised you’re not still on the other bank.”

“It’s not funny.”

“Sorry.”

“Why didn’t you stop me? What the fuck am I going to do now?”

Don murmured, “Looks like someone has a temper?”

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing.”

“I have a temper? Well, just in case you haven’t noticed, I’m knee deep in a freezing stream. Honestly… you just wait until I get on to that bank of yours, and show you just how bad my temper really is.”

“Argh!” Don turned to shield himself as Jessie kicked water at him. “Stop that, it’s cold.”

“COLD! You think the water is cold? Try fucking standing in it. Honestly, if it was any colder it would have frozen over.” Jessie’s screams of frustration echoed around the woods. “I hate you right now, Mr. Morphy.”

“Come on. Let’s get you out. Hold my hand.”

~

Deep in the heart of the forest they found a clearing where wild flowers grew in abundance. Don felt himself melt as he watched Jessie sit amongst the vibrant colours. She untied her laces then pulled off her boots one by one. Sprawling out in the tall grasses, she appeared to be warming herself in the sunlight. Don touched the back of his neck. “I’m really sorry, Jess.”

“It’s not your fault that I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not an idiot. Could have happened to anyone.”

Jessie stared down at her soaking trousers. “I’ve ruined my plans for this evening.”

“Why? What were you going to do?”

“I was planning on going for a drink with a guy.”

Don slumped against a mossy tree. “W... were you?”

“Well I was pinning my hopes on him asking me today. But then the idiot dunked me in the middle of a stream…. So, I guess he doesn’t like me as much as I thought.”

“You mean... me?”

“Of course. Have you seen me talking to anyone else?”

“No… Guess, I haven’t.” Don picked a small clutch of forget-me-nots. He then disturbed a sun basking butterfly as he walked through the tall grasses towards a desolate Jessie. Wearing a sympathetic smile, he handed over the flowers. “Please forgive me.”

Jessie couldn’t help but smile. “I forgive you.” She chuckled as she took the delicate flowers from Don. “Is there another reason you gave me forget-me-nots?”

“A man can hope.”

“Thank you.” Jessie placed the flowers behind her ear. “Fancy a lift back to Liverpool, later?”

“Don’t you live in the opposite direction?”

“Somehow… I don’t mind. Anyway, I’m babysitting my two nephews tomorrow. I always get them some goodies. If I get them today, it saves me going back out.”

“Great. Thanks.”

Jessie pulled on her damp socks. “I’d better get ready so we can finish. If I stay out too late I might die from exposure.”

~

The sun was slipping further down the sky, casting long shadows from the trees. Walking back together onto the car park, Don shoved his notepad into his rucksack “I’d better just go and let Borewood know that I’m getting a lift off you.”

“Do you mind if I wait in the car?”

“Of course not.”

Borewood ticked his list as the students boarded the coach. As Don approached, Borewood nodded. “Ah, Wigan’s answer to Shakespeare’s Romeo.”

“I’ve been called worse.”

“I’m sure you have, Don… I’m sure you have.”

“I’m going back with Jessie Jones, Sir.”

“Ah, Jessie Jones. The promising ecologist?”

Don chirped. “Yeah, that’s her.”

“Appears that one is trying to climb, rather than work his way to the top.”

“I’m trying both actually.”

“You’re no multi-tasker, Boy.” Borewood watched Don walk off towards Jessie’s car. He then whispered to himself as he climbed onto the coach. “I’d give anything to be young again.”

 

Chapter 4

The cold wind blew down from the mountains, sending the orange and brown leaves racing across the graveyard. Jessie waited on the steps of the chapel with her hands in her pockets then turned to face the heavy oak door as it opened. Chloe stepped outside onto te steps, holding her hymn book above her head as if was a trophy. “Found it, Jess. It was under the pew.” She smiled as she tucked the book under her arm. “Sorry for making you wait. Sometimes I shock myself with how forgetful I am.”

“You’ve got plenty on your mind after last weekend.”

“Last weekend was a surprise, that’s for sure.”

“Show me the ring again.” Jessie held Chloe’s hand. “It’s gorgeous, Chlo. So delicate. Have you already started planning your wedding?”

“You’re joking, right? We’re not all as organised as you.”

“Not planning a wedding anytime soon, then?”

“God no… no wedding bells for at least couple of years yet.” Chloe took a glimpse at her friend. “You’re sounding a little down today. What’s up?”

Jessie glanced down at the weather beaten flagstones. “Just wondering what I’ll do with myself once you do get married.”

“Things won’t change, Jess.” Chloe opened the white wooden gate. “Stop making us sound old.” She kept it open as Jessie walked through.

“God, just listen to me… I don’t know how you put up with me, Chlo.”

“You’re practically my sister. Here, as proof that we’re not old, I was thinking of a girl’s night out on Friday. Karen has a free house which means no long waits in the ice cold for expensive taxis.”

“Can’t.”

“You don’t sound too disappointed.” Chloe bumped shoulders with Jessie and giggled into her ear. “Something you want to tell me?”

“Just meeting a friend.”

“Is it that guy who’s been writing all over your Facebook wall?”

“Oh, stop. You make him sound weird.”

Chloe chuckled. “Is it him?”

“Yes, his name is Don.”

“Nothing to be ashamed of. Don’s cute.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.”

“Listen to you.”Jessie laughed, and slapped Chloe’s arm. “I’m trying to be mature about this. I know he isn’t exactly a hunk, but like you said, he’s isn’t a mug either.” She smiled at the friend she had known all her life. “And seeing as my best mate ruined everything by getting engaged, I thought I’d better start looking for someone myself.”

“First thing you better do is make sure he isn’t gay like your bloody ex, Griff.”

“I don’t think Don is. Doesn’t dress as well as Griff for a start.”

“Well, if it goes tits up, send him my way.”

“You’re engaged now, missus.”

“Hey… Engaged… Not married. I haven’t signed anything yet.”

Jessie giggled, barging Chloe with her hip. “You never cease to shock me.”

“So go on, what’s he like?”

Jessie hugged Chloe’s arm. “Don makes me laugh, and I know he fancies me like crazy. He is so awkward at times, though.”

“Awkward? Oh, that doesn’t sound too good.”

“He has this thing where he talks when he’s nervous and reveals absolutely anything and everything. It’s as if he can’t filter the truth.”

“Honesty is a good trait to have, but having a loose mouth could be a bad thing too. Imagine him telling all your secrets to his mates.”

“I haven’t thought about that… But strangely enough though, I find his openness rather endearing. I like him being an open book, it’s like I know him already.”

“Sounds like you’re looking forward to Friday, then?”

“I am.” Jessie gazed at the lush green field that lay below the gathering rain clouds. “I can’t wait.”

The low clouds were descending the ridge that overlooked the small clutch of houses. A fine drizzle dampened the air and threatened to burst into a downpour as Chloe reached her car. “Sure you don’t want a lift, Jess?”

“Nah, I’d be back before you completed your three point turn.”

“Cheeky! But sadly it’s true. Hey, one last thing before I go... How are your mum and dad?”

“Alright” Jessie wore a dry smile as she stepped back. “No different than usual.”

“It’s just… I was expecting her at the rehearsals today, that’s all.”

“Mam said she wanted to go the supermarket before it closed.”

“Okay. Tell your Mum I was asking, anyway.”

“I will.”

~

Jessie walked the short distance to her house. The country lane was silent aside from the whistle of the wind in the trees. She frowned as she set eyes on her mother’s parked car. “There is no way she beat me home.”

Stepping in from the cold she heard her mother’s snores and followed them into the living room. “So much for the shopping. Looks like it’s another bloody cereal night for me then.”

 

Chapter 5

Outside the restaurant, Don paced back and forth like a bored zoo animal. He stopped momentarily to stare along the busy city street. Lines of red and white car lights resembled decorative lanterns as the evening traffic slowly filtered through the nocturnal city. He leaned against the limestone wall and took a glimpse at his wrist watch. “Where is she?”

A yellow flash of a car’s indicator light caught his attention as it slowed and came to stop in front. The rear door of the taxi opened, a pair of long legs gave Don his first clue as Jessie stepped out onto the pavement. His eyes feasted on her figure hugging black and silver cocktail dress. “You look fantastic.”

“I do like to try sometimes. Quite different from the last time you saw me?”

“Absolutely, you do scrub up well.”

“Scrub up well… I’ll take that as a compliment.” Linking his arm, Jessie walked Don towards the entrance. “Come on, can’t wait to get inside.”

They were greeted by the warmth and smells from the kitchen. A suited waiter guided them both through the maze of diners until they reached a small table that was set for two. The waiter pulled back Jessie’s chair to let her sit while Don sat himself down. Once his guests were settled the waiter lit a table candle, before handing Don and Jessie a large leather bound menu each. Don felt surprised as he weighed the menu in his hands. “Some weight in this thing.”

“Reminds me of my hymn book.”

“Church goer?”

Jessie blushed before hiding her face behind the menu. “For my sins, yes.” She peeped over the top. “But before you run off, I’m not going to try and convert you. I’m no Bible-bashing missionary. I just enjoy singing in the choir.”

“Cute.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah, It’s good to have a hobby.”

Jessie handed the menu back to the waiter after ordering her meal. “I’ll have the soup followed by the lamb, thanks.” She then smiled at Don. “Out of interest, what’s your hobby?”

“Erm… probably fighting over the TV chair with my brother.”

“I’m an only child. Would have been nice to have a sibling to share stuff with.”

“The only thing I share with Damien is bruises and bad language. You’re better off in church.”

As the pair waited for their starters, Don gazed at his surroundings. “Talking about churches, do you think this place was one once?”

Jessie stared up at the gently lit dome. The curved alcoves were painted with frescos that depicted the city’s maritime past. “Maybe. It’s certainly majestic enough. How did you find this restaurant?”

“I had a mate in the first year, called Steve. He told me about it. I’ve wanted to come ever since. I’ve just been waiting for the right person to bring.”

“Waiting for the right person? I’m sure you must have been on a few dates since last year.”

“I’d be lucky. Being a geographer doesn’t exactly get the birds flocking towards me. Come to think of it, being an idiot doesn’t help either.”

“Stop being so self-deprecating.” Jessie chuckled. “Although you’re right about geography. Not the sexiest of subjects.”

“To be honest, I was getting pretty desperate. Good job I met you when I did, or it might have been Wolfy sitting opposite me.” Don laughed, shooting wine through his nose. “Oh dear, excuse me.” He quickly dried his nose on his napkin. “Sorry you had to see that.”

“Don’t worry, happens to the best of us.” Jessie leant backwards as the waiter placed a bowl of soup in front of her. “Wolfy is your mate with the beard, right?”

“That’s right. He’s an odd character.” Don eyed up his Caesar salad. “But he’s great once you get past the initial insults and putdowns. I spent the first month thinking he hated me.”

“I saw you both in the library.”

“You did? When?”

“Friday. You were both more interested in Facebook than working.”

Don felt his temperature rising. “He was just showing me how to use it.”

“I noticed you seemed to be stuck on my profile for at least five minutes.”

“Oh… That’s right, yes. I remember. My computer froze.” Don’s cheeks glowed red as if he had a mouth full of hot cinders. “I emailed the student rep to complain.”

“Well it unfroze enough for you to flick through my photo albums without too much trouble.” Jessie watched as Don dabbed his forehead with his napkin. “Calm down, Don. I’m not going to report you for stalking me.”

“Ok, you got me. Is that why you didn’t come and say hello?”

“I wanted to, but I thought it would be more entertaining to watch you squirm with embarrassment tonight.” Leaning on her elbow, Jessie pointed with the butter knife. “The other benefit of waiting to interrogate you tonight, would be to see if you tried to deny it. If so, I would know never to trust you.”

“Clever. But I didn’t exactly deny it... did I?”

“Not for long. You just about passed.”

“I’m surprised you still agreed to come tonight after finding out my Facebook fetish.”

Jessie gazed into her bowl as she circled her spoon in her pea soup. “Actually…” She shyly glanced up at Don. “I’ve been excited about tonight ever since you asked me out.”

“You have?”

“Yes, of course. I don’t know why do you seem so surprised?”

“I’m totally flattered.” Don crossed his knife and fork over his empty plate. “You can’t even imagine how much I have been looking forward….”

“NO!”

“What? What’s wrong?”

Jessie pointed at the crossed cutlery. “That’s bad luck.”

“You nearly gave me a heart attack over some hocus-pocus.”

“It’s even worse if you dismiss it.”

Jessie pushed the candle to one side. She then leaned over the table to correct the cutlery. As she did so. Don stared at her cleavage. “You never know, it could be lucky for some?”

“It never is.”

A nervous waiter stood at Don’s side. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb you. Sir, I’m afraid we have run out of salmon. Have you a second choice?”

“I can’t remember what was on the menu. Can you, Jess?”

“No, sorry. But I’m having the lamb.”

The waiter handed him a menu. “Not a problem. Take your time, sir. Signal when you’re ready.”

“See what I said about the cutlery, Don?”

“How long does the bad luck last? I’m accident prone as it is.”

“I... I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to say.” Jessie picked up her handbag. “While you look for a new main, I’ll freshen up.”

“No problem.” Don tracked Jessie with his eyes as she walked away from the table, shaking his head in disbelief that she was his date for the night. His stare then dropped to the menu. “I can’t have anything else in case I get a kiss later on, because everything is covered in bloody garlic.” He suddenly smelt a pungent burning smell. “I hope she doesn’t think that’s me who’s farted.”

~

Jessie froze as she stepped out of the washroom. She dropped her bag on the tiles, then raised her hand to her face,. “Oh my God?” She could see licks of yellow flames travelling along the spine of Don’s menu as he unwittingly grilled it over the candle. “Don, can’t you feel yourself burning..? Or at least smell it?”

“I promise, it’s not me who trumped.”

“Don, stop fucking around, you’re putting us all in danger.”

“Wow. You have quite a mouth on you after a glass of wine.”

Jessie waved her hands in frustration. Grabbing a jug of water from a neighbouring table, she emptied it across the menu. Startled, Don jumped up and fell over his chair, kicking the table and sending the plates crashing to the floor.

Lying on his back, he stared up at the great dome that seemed to rotate for a few seconds. He blinked several times while rubbing the back of his head. Jessie held her hand over her mouth while viewing the carnage. “I’m sorry, you were on fire. I… panicked.”

“Fire?”

“I’m really sorry for soaking you. Forgive me.”

Back on his feet, Don noticed the singed spine of the menu. “How on earth?” He then saw Jessie’s teary face. “Hey, hey, no. It’s me who should be sorry. It’s me who needs to be forgiven.” Open armed, he smiled as she stepped into his embrace. “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t know what else to do? I didn’t want you to burn yourself.”

“You did the right thing.I’ll put that down to the knife and fork.”

“Stop mentioning it or it won’t go away.”

While waiters rushed about re-organising their table, Don could sense the whole room watching. He rubbed Jessie’s back and whispered into her ear. “I think we’re done here. Fancy going somewhere else?”

“Definitely.”

~

Strolling down the shadowy streets, there wasn’t a star in the sky. Don felt a proud man and couldn’t stop smiling as Jessie clung to his arm. Drunken cheers and badly sung karaoke escaped on to the street from each Irish pub they passed. Jessie felt Don shiver. “Are you cold?”

“No, I just despise karaoke.”

“What? I love karaoke.”

“Oh… Really? Look, I don’t mind going in if you want to sing. You must have a pretty good voice if you’re in a choir… Better than that lot, anyway.”

“No it’s ok. I’ll spare you the embarrassment.” Jessie peered across the street. “There is a restaurant over there that is still open. Let’s go and eat.”

“Yum’s? I think it’s a buffet restaurant.”

“I know… But I’m starving.”

~

Spices drifted across the restaurant, carried on the laughter and chatter of its diners. Don belched into his fist as he decided he had had enough to eat. He watched as Jessie brought her third plate filled to the brim with assorted curries and fried meats. The fact she appeared to be enjoying her food put a smile on his face. “I’m sure you’re throwing half of that under the table when I’m not looking.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, when I gave you a hug before, it felt like I was holding a bag of bones... but you cleaning those plates quicker than an industrial dishwasher.”

“I eat when I’m happy.”

Don lifted his glass of beer as if to propose a toast. “And long may that continue.”

“Easier said than done I’m afraid.”

“H... How do you mean?”

Jessie glanced away as if she felt scared of giving away a secret. “Oh nothing. Just, I don’t know… I guess things aren’t exactly as straight forward as I would like them to be. But let’s leave at that.”

“You have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

Don sighed then rested his head on his hands. “Married?”

“Lord, no.”

“Children?”

“Hey, come on. Please.”

“Well, I never would have guessed that you’re a lezzer.”

“Piss off, Don.” A look of despair drifted across Jessie’s face. “Look, I’m sorry for swearing. I know you’re only concerned. But please, don’t worry about me. Let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

“If it affects you, then in a way it affects me.”

“How, Don? We only just met. You know nothing about me.”

“But I want to. I want to help you.”

Jessie dropped her knife and fork onto her plate. “I’m no charity case. I’m not in need of help.” She glared at Don from across the table. “I’m doing fine by myself.”

“Sorry, Jessie, I...”

“What happens back home, doesn’t concern you. Ok? A private life is exactly that… Private.”

“I won’t mention it again. Honest.”

Jessie picked up her knife and fork. “Good. Now let’s eat up so we can catch our trains.”

“I was hoping we could go into one of those karaoke bars you like.”

“I think I’d better get home.”

~

Inside a deserted Lime Street station, Don and Jessie sat on a row of chairs. The humongous lobby felt a desolate emptiness. A cleaner mopped the floor while a security guard continued his rounds. Don watched Jessie focus on the departures screen. He glanced at the large white tiles on the floor before sighing into his open hands. “I’m sorry for prying before. I didn’t mean to interfere.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s clearly not though, is it?”

“Of course it is.

Don pointed to the empty chair in-between them. “Look.”

Jessie reluctantly shuffled over. “Okay, now?”

“You’ve barely talked to me since. We got on fine earlier.”

“I promise. I enjoyed tonight. I haven’t been made a fuss of in months.”

“If you ever need anything. Phone me. I care about you.”

“Jesus bloody Christ.” Jessie stood from the chair. “Don. What don’t you get? I don’t want you to worry about me.”

“I thought it would be nice to know someone cared.”

“Of course it is. But...” Jessie glanced at the departure board. “Look. I have to go now. My train is about to arrive. But before I go, how much do I owe you for tonight?”

“Not a penny… I won’t take anything from you.”

“You will take it from me… Now, how much? That first place must have cost you a bomb.”

“All I want off you is a hug goodbye.”

“If that’s what it takes to please you, fine.”

Don wrapped his arms around Jessie but felt there wasn’t anything in her embrace. “Goodbye, Jessie. Safe journey home.”

“See you soon Don. Good night.”

~

Don sat by himself, peering out of the carriage window with a lonely stare. Feeling cold, he put his hands into his pockets but felt something unexpected. He groaned as he pulled out Jessie’s twenty pound note. “Oh… for fuck sake.”

“If you don’t want that, I’ll have it.”

Don noticed a disheveled tramp collecting used newspapers. “Sorry… I have a student loan to pay off.”

“Stop complaining then. You ungrateful git.”

 

Chapter 6

Estin stared at the technical plan that lay draped over his drawing board. He chewed the top of his pencil, filling his mouth with the bitter taste of graphite. Picking up an eraser, he rubbed out a line. “Fucking Krauts... You’d think the arrogant pricks won the war.”

Blowing away the shredded rubber, Estin picked up his steel set square and carefully aligned it with his straight edge. “Steady, Estin. You can prove them wrong.” The razor-sharp tip of his pencil kissed the paper. But at the exact moment a loud rattle shook his office door, causing him to spoil his line. “You fucker!” His pencil then ricocheted off the window causing his colleague to cower behind the glass panelled door. “Who is it..? It better be important.”

“David, the apprentice CAD engineer, Sir.”

“What does David, about to be signing on the dole, want?”

“Karen from reception. Sh... she wants to know why she can’t reach you.”

“What? Is that girl as stupid as she looks? She knows my phone is switched off. I made clear to everyone that I don’t want to be disturbed.”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“I knew Karen was a special case. I left bloody post-it notes on her monitor and phone. Then again, I should have left them on the fucking toilet seat, because that’s where she spends most of her time.” Slapping his hands against his desk, a picture of Jessie fell on its back. “Today of all days.

“Sh... Sh... She said it was urgent, Sir”

“It’s Karen. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Look, if it’s the snack machine, go and give it rattle for her.”

“It’s not that. I just got myself a Twix.”

“Right, I suppose I have no choice but to bloody call her then.” Estin opened his desk drawer and began searching through an unorganised mess. “Where is my bastard phone?” He opened the lower drawer, but still didn’t find it. Sitting up from his leather chair, his mobile fell from his lap and smashed on the floor. “Would you fucking believe it?” Putting it back together, he noticed Dave’s silhouette still stood behind the door. “Dave.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Fuck off.”

“Thank you Sir. Right away, Sir.”

Estin paced the small office while the phone booted. He then punched in the number and put it up to his ear. “Karen, what is it? You know it’s the deadline for the Smitz deal.”

“I know, I know. I’ve read your post-it notes… all six of them. But the police want you.”

“What?”

“Sergeant Davis is waiting on line three.”

“What’s he want?”

“He wouldn’t say.”

“Fuck... Me.” Estin wedged the mobile between his shoulder and ear while he slowly sat on his leather desk chair. He then reached down and plugged in his landline phone. “I’m going.”

“One other thing, Sir.”

“The snack machine? Dave said he’s just used it.”

“But...”

“Bye Kaz.” Estin cancelled the call, then picked up the receiver of the landline phone. “Idiots.” He glanced up at ceiling tiles. “I’m surrounded by bloody idiots, twenty-four fucking seven.” He answered line three, then rested back on his chair. “Estin Jones, project manager…"

 

To be continued....  

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