I swig my Jack and coke and a fleeting darkness is chased away. The leaves that decorate the hotel hiss behind me and I remember that familiar game of hide and seek the sun plays during summer here. Today the sun basks in a rare victory, baking any clouds that dare to impose. I look out at the sea which lethargically licks the beach, even the breeze carries a warmth that itches.
“There you are, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”
“Listen man, I had to bring up Lisbon-” he’s already got me by the neck.
“That was a hell of a speech Lee!” He says letting me go, no need for the nudge though.
“I thought you hated it, Stuart.”
“Nah, you nailed it. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”
“When have I ever?”
“Seriously man, you kept me on the straight and narrow. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you,” Stuart points to his ring.
“You made it yourselves.”
“Have you spoken to Alice yet?”
“No,” I say, gulping my drink and loosening my tie.
“You can’t hide from her forever.”
“Yeah, this place isn’t big enough.”
“Take that up with the missus!” Stuart says.
“Oh look, I’m empty. Better get another drink.”
“Talk to her man, I know she’s eager to see you after what happened.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get round to it.”
I skip up the steps to the door.
“And thanks for not mentioning Luxembourg!” Stuart shouted.
There are two bars in the hotel, one chaperoning the dance floor, or hell as I like to call it, and the other for the professional drinkers. I prefer the latter, she won’t be there. I consider taking my suit jacket off but I can feel my shirt sticking to my back, which affords me a shiver that I savour. I squeeze past faces in the clotting corridors recycling a smile. They want to talk about how good they’re doing but I just want to know who the hell decided curdled custard was the right choice of wallpaper and why the ceilings sagged by what I hope is design.
I stop at the doorway. Her back’s turned but I know it’s her. Sweat trickles from my armpits. She’s sitting with someone. It isn’t her short blonde hair that gives it away. Nor is it the single freckle on her dainty shoulders. When you’ve seen a person stripped bare, when you’ve lain with them, you could spot them blind. The sun beams through the window, that prick she’s sitting with catches my eye. I can feel my cheeks sizzling, I’m already looking forward to drinking in hell as I turn for the other bar.
“Jack and coke please,” I say.
The sunlight floods into battle with the disco lights through the chandelier which conducts from above the dancefloor. I lean on the counter, my arms outstretched further than my suit allows, watching the reflection of the dancefloor as those faces and their spouses jolt, bounce and sway teasing me in harmony. I drink, swinging the contents around the glass and drink again, until only the ice is left. I rest it on my tongue, willing it to caress my throat as it drains.
Then she enters. Parading him around.
“Another please,” I say.
They slip into the pack, swinging and sliding. My Adam’s apple retreats as I swallow but my chest fights back against the music, resisting their rotations, denying their demonstration. Beads flee my forehead, racing down my temples as I escape the room.
I slam the door off the wall. I run the tap and grip the sink. I look up at the mirror and cup my hands together, cleansing my face. I look into the mirror again, beads slipping down my face as I exhale.
“Pull yourself together,” I say.
The door swings open and in bounces Mark. Great.
“Eeeyyyy! Lee mate! How are you?” He says, marching over to the urinals.
“I’m good mate.”
“You don’t look it!”
“It’s the heat…” I say.
“Heat? Maybe you’ve had a few too many, eh?” He said, trying to control his aim and maintain eye contact with me.
“I’m only joking mate. Listen, that was a hell of a speech! Can’t believe you didn’t mention Luxembourg though. You’re a good guy.”
Mark zipped up and approached slower this time.
“Listen mate, I was sorry to hear about you and Alice.”
So I keep hearing.
“I thought you two were great! Sucks she’s here with someone else, seems like a decent sort though,” Mark said.
He put his arm around me, avoiding the sinks.
“Seriously! We need to go out for a few drinks soon, been too long.” Mark pulled the door against his foot at first, before leaving.
I look up, gritting my teeth I punch the mirror, recoiling, my teeth cling together, I stretch and clench my fist. Small red cracks creep across my hand. I watch as the blood seeps from my hand, smearing the white tiles below. Why am I even angry? He was being perfectly pleasant. I shake my head at the mirror and leave.
They stutter and stop on the dancefloor as I march towards them.
“Alice. Can we talk outside please?”
The heat lashes only my knuckles now. I leave my drink the steps, returning to the front of the hotel. The sea tickles the shore and a solitary cloud flirts with the sun. Threatening to smother it, but releasing it soon after.
“What happened to your hand Lee?!”
I’ve been moulding a face for months but I don’t use it.
“I… hit the mirror in the gents,” I say, looking at my hands.
“Jesus Lee! Maybe it was a bad idea me coming here…”
The temporary darkness cushions the sun, the air licks my hair.
“No. This is on me. I’ve been so angry and I thought I was angry at you, for a while I was…”
“I understand that,” She says, she’s been looking at me this whole time.
“I’m just… I’m angry that you’ve moved on before me. You’ve moved on faster, you’re doing well and there’s a part of me that’s happy about that, honestly! It’s just, I haven’t and I’m sorry, seeing you now reminds me of that. I wish I was a better person. Everyone thinks I’m a better person Alice…”
“Grow the fuck up, Lee. You are a better person than that. Why don’t you go soak up the attention you deserve after that speech?”
Her words drag my eyes to hers.
“Be the person who delivered that speech. Enjoy what’s good in your life, enjoy being you! You’ve so much to give, Lee. Don’t waste it. I’m heading inside. I want to see the real Lee Clarke in there.”
I picked up my drink from the steps, swirling the contents. The blood from my knuckles trickles onto the glass but the only burning is in my eyes now. The sun soothes my skin and I place the glass down, determined, not to follow Alice’s lead, but to walk my own path.