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Romance Drama Fiction

He had been her best friend since forever.


When he’d moved away from their hometown after being headhunted for a job abroad, they had kept in touch through the internet and the odd phone call. However, the last few times Roger had rung Sally-Ann, he’d sounded strained - as if the distance had become more than physical, reminding her of the differences in their characters. But then, she’d always been the ying to his yang. Or was it the other way round? While she was expressive, he was reticent. He was tidy and methodical, the kind that would carefully squeeze out the last drop of toothpaste from the tube and be irritated if it got twisted out of shape, whereas she might accidentally drop a half-used one down the toilet and have to search for a new one, usually in vain. When it wasn’t breaking down, the inside of Sally-Anne’s shocking pink Beetle car was a mass of clutter. Roger’s highly polished dark blue BMW was immaculate, with barely anything inside it.


On the other hand, Roger had always admired the fact that Sally-Ann was great round people and an excellent carer in the community. On one occasion, he’d watched goggle-eyed while she dressed up as a turkey and smashed targets for a children’s fundraising event. Personally, he found it much easier working with things.


While Sally-Ann had no qualms about making a splash in the world, Caution was Roger’s middle name. As far as she knew, the only time he’d truly stepped out of his comfort zone was when he’d finally made the decision to leave the company he’d spent half his life working for, even when they’d offered him more money. The pair had always laughed at their cheese and chalk-like natures, agreeing it made for a strong friendship. At least, for the most part. Yet during the last year, Roger’s calls had trickled off, making Sally-Ann wonder if he was only ringing her out of some misplaced loyalty.


Not that she could blame him. After the way she’d treated him the last time he’d come to see her, he’d left with his tail well and truly tucked between his legs. She hadn’t been able to tell him she’d only behaved that way because she was terrified of getting it wrong. On that occasion, she’d been the stilted one!


Then just when she was about to give him up as a lost cause, he’d contacted her out of the blue saying he was returning to his old job at the science park and would she like to meet up? Of course she wanted to meet up. She had big plans for the meet up, especially now she was single again. She was going to make up for everything by cooking him a meal he’d never forget.


Dismissing past culinary mishaps, she was going to do herself proud. He’d always been great in the kitchen so it wasn’t going to be easy, but she was going to cook up a storm.


Having rejected most recipes as too risky, she’d finally settled on cooking his favourite dish. The dessert part was going to be more tricky - he’d often eulogised about Baked Alaska as a child. Apparently, his mother had cooked this delicious miniature ice cream mountain with its insulated crisp-coated edges the only way a mother could - to perfection - but not to be beaten, Sally-Ann was willing to give it her best shot. For some reason, known only to himself, Roger preferred the dish to be eaten while still warm. Normally, it was served cold. Sally-Anne’s heart sank a little here. Was she crazy to attempt such a dish? A daunting task it might be, but she was better prepared than she’d ever been before. Shed even gone in for a few trial runs on her daughter with happy results, so what could possibly go wrong?


Earlier that afternoon, Sally-Ann had ambled along her regular stretch of riverbank. The river’s power lay dormant, ready to spark back to life only when winter’s fingers had released their grip. The river has been known to cast its spell on Roger too, and together they had explored its secret parts. There had been times when she’d wanted to reach across and touch him, break free of whatever constraints were holding them back, but it would be like breaking a taboo. It would mean permanently altering the ritual of friendship, discarding a familiar pattern and turning it into something infinitely more challenging. But also with the potential to be more rewarding.


During the warmer months, the river was filled with punters using long poles to weave from one section to another, sometimes with hilarious results. Sally-Ann sighed. All that seemed a long way off. Now, inhaling damp charcoal air, she passed through a city pinnacled by towers and spires. At this time of year, once verdant parks tapered off, until she entered streets filled with opulent shops and bustling pubs and restaurants. She only stopped when she reached the city’s ancient market.


Set in a square, surrounded by businesses and a famous church, the market’s canopies kept the chill at bay. There were the usual eclectic mix of stalls, some offering gifts for tourists at inflated prices, others hand-made goods for the discerning, including jewellery.


Her step became brisk as she headed for the stall selling coffee beans. The trader was a helpful fellow and it had been a tradition to visit the stall with Roger who fancied himself a bit of a connoisseur. Sally-Ann engaged in friendly chat, though it was never quite the same without Roger there.

“The usual?” the stall holder asked pleasantly.

”Not this time. My friend Roger is coming over later. You know how particular he is about his coffee. I need something special. What do you recommend?”

It had got beyond the point of asking the man his name. Fortunately, when it came to his customers Frank was blessed with a good memory.

“I have a new delivery of Kenyan, Guatemalan and Brazilian beans. You could try mixing 20 percent of the Kenyan and 40 per cent each of the other two. That would make for a good balance. How is Roger, by the way?”

“He’s fine. At least, I think he is. I’ve not seen him for a while and I’m planning to cook for him. I’m a bit nervous about it. Thanks for the recommend with the beans. One less thing to worry about.” She instantly decided she would use the cafetière rather than get in a jam with the new coffee machine. Roger would be happy with either.

“Good luck with the meal. I’m sure it will be fine,” Frank called.

“Thanks. Fingers crossed and all that. I think I’m going to need it.”

Sally-Ann was pleased to find the stall selling fresh Asian ingredients was up and running. After selecting the best ginger, chile peppers, coriander, paste, coconut milk and lime leaves, she carried them off in a brown paper bag, feeling a sense of satisfaction.

**

It was early evening and rain was falling from a brooding sky. Trees were swaying and old telephone lines were shaking. Perhaps it was her imagination, but Sally-Ann could have sworn there was a tell-tale scratching coming from behind one of the kitchen’s skirting boards. The last thing she needed was an unwanted house guest and having to set traps or put down poison, neither of which seemed very appealing. Dismissing the idea, she concentrated on the task at hand.


Keeping an eye on her phone in case it buzzed with last minute messages (luckily it didn’t), she cast her mind back to that fateful evening when she’d been with Roger at a New Year’s Eve fancy dress party. It had seemed like kismet when she’d come dressed as Superwoman and discovered him kitted out waiting for her as Superman. He’d seemed attracted to her that night and not just as a friend. But instead of letting her know how he felt, he’d said all the wrong things and she’d ended up with Tim who’d said all the right ones.


Not that she could ever regret the relationship she’d had with Tim. Being with him had restored her confidence in men, something she’d struggled with in the past. Most importantly, they’d had a beautiful daughter together. Ellie, who would always be the best part of their union, was staying with her father now. In the end though, Sally-Ann had been forced to admit that vital spark had been missing between her and Tim. Luckily, when things eventually fizzled out, there had been no hard feelings.

**

Sally-Ann was as prepared as she was ever going to be. The ingredients lay ready on the chopping board and small dishes had been removed from the fridge. After frying everything in the correct order, the meal was bubbling away in a pan, almost ready to serve. Scented candles flickered on the dining room table, setting the mood and making the room smell of vanilla and chocolate, aromas she knew Roger loved.


There was just enough time for a final check in the bedroom mirror. Sally-Ann barely recognised the creature reflected back at her. She was wearing a sophisticated cream dress and her hair was scooped back in a yellow and white daisy clasp. Her makeup was subtle - just how Roger liked it.


Just then, the doorbell started ringing like a xylophone and a silly voice announced, “You have a visitor.”

She certainly had. Trying not to run downstairs in case she tripped, she saw Roger’s tall figure through the glass in the door and her heart did a little flip. He was carrying a bunch of pink roses and a bottle of wine. Either he’d forgotten what had happened the last time he’d brought her flowers (unlikely), or he didn’t care (even more unlikely). Maybe he was getting better at taking risks. He’d once told her he was getting counselling to help with that.


Apart from a few extra wrinkles, he was much the same. He was his usual serious self. Comfortingly so.

“Here you are.” She giggled nervously.

”So it would seem.”

”Thanks for the flowers. They are lovely.”

”You look…” His cheeks were flushed from the cold and a little more besides. “You look really nice.”

”Thanks.” As far as she could remember, it was the only time he’d complimented her that way. “I hope you’re hungry. The food is nearly ready to eat.” She took his jacket and hung it on a hook.

“Perfect timing. The food smells good!” He followed her into the dining room. “Ah, I see you’ve got out the candles. Aren’t they the ones I got you for Christmas?”

It was her turn to get flustered. “ I was waiting for the chance to use them and here it is.”

For a few seconds, they stood in silence, trying to understand one another. She could feel him watching her as she hurriedly placed the flowers in a vase at the sink. She turned to face him. “It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, Rog.”

”Three years. Almost to the day.”

“Feels like forever.”

“It does.”

It seemed as if they were meeting for the first time.

“Well, make yourself at home,” she said, relieved there weren’t any banana skins to slide on. If there were, she’d certainly have come a cropper. “I’ll go and serve up. Can you pour the wine?”

**

Concentrating hard, she carried the food through in white serving dishes; not forgetting to heat the plates, she carefully laid them on the freshly laundered table cloth.

“You’ve cooked my favourite.” He was smiling, starting to relax.

“Tuck in. There’s plenty more,” she said, returning the smile. She could hardly believe the evening was going so well.

She arched her eyebrows. “Well? What’s the verdict?”

“It tastes really good, Sal. I love the fresh ingredients. I’m impressed! You’ve excelled yourself.”

He was the only one who called her that. “So pleased you like it. I got them from the market. There’s a great Asian stall there.”

“I know the one you mean. Very authentic.”

Sally-Ann held up her wine glass. “To us,” she said boldly.


Just as they were about to clink glasses, the lights went out pitching the house in darkness.

“Oh no!” She sprang up, knocking over the wine. “We must be having a power cut. I was going to surprise you with Baked Alaska too. It’s in the oven. Now it will be ruined!” Already the date - if that’s what it was, was turning into a disaster.

“Would you like me to check the tripper switch?” Roger asked.

“You’ll never find it.” Sally-Ann was horrified by the idea of him scrabbling around in the cupboard under the stairs. Currently it was piled high with coats and jackets, old Christmas tree lights and decorations, not to mention unused tins of paint, strips of wallpaper, cleaning fluids, and goodness knows what else. He’d be put off for life if he went in there!


When she peeked out of the blinds, there was nothing but pelting rain and lightning flashes. She was relieved to find the whole neighbourhood was in darkness too.

“There’s no need to go searching in the under stairs cupboard. It can’t be the tripper switch. It must be a local supply problem.”

“At least we have the candles,” Roger said soothingly. “And there’s still some wine in my glass. We can share it.”


By the time the power came back on and they moved to the kitchen, the Baked Alaska was ruined.

“Never mind. You can cook me one another time,” Roger consoled, his eyes adjusting to the light.

Suddenly a mouse ran out from under the sink and disappeared behind the fridge. Sally-Ann squealed and hid in Roger’s arms.

“Never mind. It’s not the end of the world.” He tried to close his mind to the various diseases vermin could carry. He fervently hoped the creature had not touched any of the food earlier.

Sally-Ann reluctantly untangled herself from his grasp.

“Oh Roger. This is hopeless. Just this once I wanted to impress you. Show you I’m capable of getting it together. But it’s all gone wrong. Story of my life. Now there’s this mouse, and I know you hate anything like that.”

“Well, it’s not ideal but…”

“It’s like last time when I wanted to tell you how I felt. That all went wrong too.”

“Do you mean the time I came to see you before taking the job abroad?”

”Yep.” She shielded her face, horrified to find she was crying. Now, to add to her troubles, she had a runny nose, probably another of Roger’s pet hates judging by the number of hankies he always seemed to carry about him. There was another blaze of lightning followed by an enormous gust of wind. The power went out again. Sally-Ann was in despair. No matter how hard she tried, nothing seemed to work out and tonight was no exception.

“Hey.” Roger held out his arms and produced one of the hankies. “This isn’t like you. What I’ve always loved about you is that no matter how hard things get, you never give up.”

”I’ve never given up on you.”

“Exactly.”

“And where has it ever got me?” She was amazed he could find something lovable about her right now.

“At least you’ve tried to make a go of life. Which is more than can be said of me.”

The tension eased. “You’re a successful person in your own right,” Sally-Ann said.

“In the work sense, yes.”

At last, she began to relax. “We’re a proper pair, aren’t we?”

“That’s it,” Roger exclaimed. “That’s exactly what we should be. A pair. I’ve wanted that for a long time. I just didn’t think you did. That’s partly why I left. There didn’t seem much point in hanging around if you couldn’t see it.”

Sally-Ann felt light enough to fly.

“I do want it. I’m just so scared of making a mess of things. I have a history of doing that.” Her voice sounded muffled against his shoulder.

His eyes were large in the dim light.

“So, you’ve made a few mistakes. Who hasn’t? But you’ve got enough courage for both of us. It’s another thing I love about you.”

“I don’t think I want the lights to come on ever again,” she whispered.

“Why?”

“I don’t want you to see me the way I am. All messy.”

“I’m used to you being messy. Not that you looked like that when I arrived.”

As if to prove her point, one of her hair grips dropped to the floor. “But you knew it couldn’t last.” She recalled the time he’d come to collect her one morning when they were going on an outing to a museum. “Do you remember when you came round and spotted that awful slug trailing across the kitchen floor?”

“And you screamed because you hate anything slimy.” He hoped she wasn’t going to talk about revolting things all night.

“And you were there to protect me.”

“All I did was pick the thing up and sling it back in the garden.”

“You were my hero that day!”

“Well, never mind about that now,” he said kissing her. “If you want me to stay, there’ll be time enough to deal with slugs, mice, and any other unwanted pests that choose to turn up. Let’s worry about them in the morning.”




December 12, 2023 22:28

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13 comments

Marty B
19:46 Dec 17, 2023

I believe that people can only connect when they show their true selves. It took three years, a power outage and a mouse- but they both finally saw each other for who they were and it finally connected! Thanks!

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Helen A Smith
09:05 Dec 18, 2023

You are right about the connection Marty. I was trying to show how the transition from friendship to something more is not always easy. There is love there, but they will both have to put the work in! Thanks for reading.

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AnneMarie Miles
18:40 Dec 15, 2023

Aw, I love that everything seemed to be going wrong, and yet, there is a happy ending :) At first, I got the feeling that Roger was not interested in her in that way, and maybe that was why he had lost touch. But to hear he lost touch because he felt he needed to let go, that was wonderful, romantic surprise. It goes to show that people should be honest and speak up about their feelings before it's too late. Thankfully, it wasn't too late for them. You did a great job writing up Sally-Ann's nerves! I could feel them throughout the entire sto...

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Helen A Smith
20:34 Dec 15, 2023

Thanks AnneMarie. I had great fun writing this one. I loved the idea of these two slightly flawed and somewhat opposite characters who are essentially really nice people, having a chance of a relationship. I guess where there’s a will, there’s a way. Glad you enjoyed it.

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AnneMarie Miles
20:55 Dec 15, 2023

Flawed characters are often the most loved characters:)

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Michał Przywara
21:37 Dec 14, 2023

Things were going a little too well, so I'm glad for that power outage :) I think, considering it gave them an opportunity to be honest and move past whatever blocks they had, they're glad for it too. There's something to that, where careful plans and things we think we need, going awry and reveal what we actually need. But that's the theme of both of their lives, especially his. Taking some risks, playing things by ear, is ultimately what they needed. Also, I'd never heard of a Baked Alaska before, so thanks for introducing that :)

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Mary Bendickson
03:11 Dec 13, 2023

Did he just invite himself to spend the night? Lightening bolt!

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Helen A Smith
08:35 Dec 13, 2023

Hi Mary, Yes, he’s getting more daring! Look forward to reading your next story soon.

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Rebecca Detti
16:24 Dec 19, 2023

I loved this Helen and I really hope roger appreciates all that Sally- Ann has done for him! So sweet! I imagined this being set in Oxford and her popping to the covered market. Really enjoyed thank you!

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Helen A Smith
17:10 Dec 19, 2023

Hi Rebecca, So glad you enjoyed it. It’s actually loosely based round Cambridge, but it could have been in Oxford because they both have rivers. I’ve only been to Oxford once, but loved it.

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Rebecca Detti
17:13 Dec 19, 2023

Hi Helen, I really did! Just shows that the course of true love never runs smoothly but that is half the enjoyment! Lovely! I know Oxford well but not Cambridge. Beautiful cities!

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Helen A Smith
17:14 Dec 19, 2023

It’s so nice when someone appreciates the setting.

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Rebecca Detti
17:19 Dec 19, 2023

I really did thank you Helen!

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