Heather Weston stepped in front of her bathroom mirror, feeling quite sorry for herself. There were a number of reasons for this. Reason number one: she’d been made redundant from the first job she’d landed as an interior decorator. Reason number two: she’d been fired from her part-time job at a beauty counter in one of the big department stores she’d hoped would tide her over until she found another job as an interior decorator. The reason she’d been fired from the beauty counter job was because she’d mistakenly sprayed one woman in the eye with the latest perfume (and even though she tried to tell her boss that it only proved she was enthusiastic about her job, he didn’t believe her). Reason number three: she’d broken up with her boyfriend, Roger, a lanky guy who had a pimple perennially germinating on his chin. Technically speaking, breaking up with him wasn’t such a bad thing - the guy was an arsehole - but she figured the more things on her list, the more of an excuse she had to feel sorry for herself. Reason number four: a measly 50 quid was all she had stashed under her mattress, and the balance in her bank account was even gloomier, coming in at a dwindling £22.58. Reason number five: she’d just received warning from her landlord to pay up or get out. To top it all off, Christmas was just around the corner. Tis the season to be jolly and all that, and jolly she was not. All in all, she felt quite justified in feeling sorry for herself.
Since any attempts to find a job had completely bombed, how did the saying go? Desperate times require desperate measures. That’s how she felt as she looked up towards the ceiling in her bathroom.
“Please, God, Buddha, Supreme Being or whatever you’re called, I’m not very good at this … you know, praying business, but if you can hear me, please, please, help me. I really need a job.” She sniffed and went to brush her tears away. The tissue came away dry. She could obviously cry without tears. Could anyone else do that, she wondered?
“Screw this economic crisis,” she muttered under her breath. “Oops, sorry,” She looked up towards the ceiling again. “I didn’t mean for You to hear that”.
She looked in the mirror again. Her mouth gaped into a thick horizontal line on her face, her brows burrowed in towards her nose and her eyes fluttered shut. A couple of whimpers tripped up from her throat and she stopped for a moment to listen to the sound she’d produced. If she was actually “sound” crying, she must be really sad. There was no reason why she shouldn’t warrant Supreme-Being-help. Everyone was entitled to help once or twice in their life, weren’t they? Especially at Christmas.
The fluorescent light bulb above the bathroom sink blinked off and on. Bloody electrical wiring in this dump.
Shuffling through the kitchen, with the afternoon sun trespassing onto her linoleum floor, she walked over to the window and pulled the blinds shut. She made up a hot water bottle, picked up the thick, chocolate fudge bar that had been beckoning to her since the morning and crawled into bed. Still sniffling, she zapped the remote control, searching for something suitably heart-wrenching to watch and settled on a Bollywood movie, packet of tissues comfortingly close. Soon, she was chewing away on her chocolate bar, wallowing in her warm quilt and self-pity. Just as the heroine in the movie was about to be shunned from her village and the love of her life presumed dead, the TV went dead. Bloody hell. Right at the best bit, and all.
Ding dong. Who could that be? All her friends knew to leave her alone when she wanted to feel sorry for herself. It made it so much more realistic if she actually had a reason to feel lonely. How was she supposed to feel properly sorry for herself if people keep texting her, or calling her or popping by to see how she was? Dragging her feet, she made her way to the front door.
“Who is it?” she called out.
“Hi. It’s your new next door neighbour … from 4B.”
New neighbour? Bother, bother, bother.
She opened the door a little, door chain still on.
A pair of bright, piercing blue eyes smiled through the gap in the door.
Drop. Dead. Gorgeous.
“Hello. I’m really sorry to bother you. I was wondering whether I could borrow a cup of sugar.”
Really? He was using that line? She opened the door as far as the door-chain would allow. Blonde, wavy, shoulder-length hair framed the next-door-neighbour’s face, making his blue eyes even more prominent. Apart from his obvious gorgeousness though, there was something about him.
He had a kind face. Yes, that was it.
Maybe God/Buddha/Supreme Being hadn’t understood exactly what she’d been asking for in her prayer, but she was quite willing to settle for the new neighbour.
“…unless this is a bad time,” he said.
She blinked hard, realizing she had been gaping at him, her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish.
“What? Oh... No! It’s fine. Come on in,” she said, pushing the door forward so she could unfasten the chain.
It was only then she remembered she was wearing her fluffy, navy-blue bathrobe, complete with bits of lint in it, and a pair of yellow and black stripy socks, one of which had a hole in it. “Sorry. I’m a bit of a mess in here, I mean … it’s a bit of a mess in here. Come on in while I get you that sugar.”
Blue Eyes smiled. “I could always come back later…”
As if I’d let you get away that easily. “No, no, no. It’s fine,” she said, trying to smooth down her hair. “So… you’ve moved in next door?”
“Yep,” Blue Eyes said, looking around, “Yesterday.”
“Really? I didn’t hear a thing,” she said and looked up at him. Heather felt like a kite soaring in Blue-Eyed heaven until she became aware of his hand hovering near hers.
“I’m Gabe.” His voice seemed to vibrate throughout her body.
Somehow she managed to reach out her hand to his.
“Heather. Have a seat. Can I get you a cup of coffee or tea?”
“Nothing thanks,” he said. “Just the sugar.” He squeezed himself on the couch between her DVDs of PS I Love You and The Notebook, a tower of books and a half-empty packet of Cheese and Onion crisps. He didn’t seem in the least bit fazed.
She got the sugar, walked over to the sofa, and in horror, spotted her lace fuchsia bra peeking out from between the cushions. “Sorry about the mess,” she repeated, making a hasty strategic move to sit on the runaway piece of underwear.
“No worries,” he said, “So what is it you do?”
“I’m an interior decorator, but I’m sort of between jobs right now.”
“Wow,” Gabe said. “I could really use your help.”
“Maybe you could help me set up my place? You know… new place… never know where anything should go. Would you mind helping me out?” He blinked those blue eyes and she knew she couldn’t refuse him anything. Okay, well, maybe there were a few things she could refuse him. She glanced up at him again. Nope. Not even that. “Give me a minute and I’ll come over.”
“Will do,” Gabe said. “And, er …” He moved towards her and made to touch her on the cheek.
“What?” she said, backing off a little.
“You’ve got a bit of chocolate … right there.”
“Oh,” Heather said, feeling the colour spread over her face. “Thanks.”
Sloppy and grubby, Heather. Nice. Really nice. There she was thinking he’d actually been trying to make a pass at her.
“See you next door, then?” Gabe said.
“Yes,” she said “give me a minute.”
She dashed back into her bedroom and slipped into a pair of jeans and t-shirt. The TV was back on again. Thank God! No power cut. The heroine in the movie was hunched over the body of a man, sobbing, as she beat his chest with her clenched fists. Heather stopped in front of the TV and sniffed back a tear. She loved this bit, but, first things first - gorgeous neighbour calling. Typical that he should move in next door just when she was about to be evicted. Just bloody typical.
She knocked on the door of 4B.
“It’s open, come on in.” She could hear Gabe moving around inside. Strange that he’d moved all his stuff into the flat in one day and she hadn’t heard a thing.
Gabe had taken his shoes off and she noticed how his toes sunk into the thick pile carpet. Hmmm. Nice toes. Focus, woman, focus.
“I brought the sugar,” she said, handing him the cup. We forgot about it…” She felt her face go warm. Quick! Change subject. She cleared her throat. “So, what is it you do for a living, Gabe?”
“I help people make the most of their lives.”
“So, what, you’re like a therapist?”
“More like a project manager,” he said, with a small smile. “Right!” he said. “Are you ready?”
“Sure. How about I tell you where I think everything should go and you do the moving,” she said.
Gabe laughed. “Okay.”
She started firing out commands. “This sofa – over there, opposite that arm chair… these cushions look good here… get rid of this. . .”
The place looked stunning when they’d finished. Soft, olive greens with warm, shimmering golds warmly wrapped themselves around the flat. It looked so peaceful.
“The place looks great!” Gabe looked pleased.
“Glad to be of help.”
“You said you’re looking for a job?”
“Desperately.” Heather blew her fringe off her forehead.
Gabe rubbed his chin. “Have you heard of Mason & Wallace?”
“What the Mason & Wallace? The big interior design company?”
Gabe nodded. “I know they’re looking for someone now. Would you be interested?”
Heather breathed in sharply. “Would I be interested? Does the sun rise each morning? Yes, of course I’d be interested! I mean – Mason and Wallace!”
“Hang on a minute.” Gabe went into the next room.
Something on the floor caught her eye - a flash of white - and she crouched down to take a look. She picked up a pure, white feather. It seemed to gleam, almost fluorescent. Wonder where that came from? Must be from one of the cushions, she thought.
Gabe came back in holding a yellow Post-It. “Be there tomorrow morning at 9am sharp, tell them Gabe sent you.”
She had to stop herself from hugging him and settled with jumping up and down on the spot. “Thank you.”
Handsome. Well-connected. Good taste. Obviously quite well-off from the looks of his décor. There must be a catch. He’s probably gay. Again, typical of her luck.
In bed that night, her eyes refused to close. Granted, she wouldn’t be able to feel sorry for herself anymore if she got the job, but, who cared? “Thank you, thank you, God, Buddha, Supreme Being or whatever you’re called,” she whispered, scrunching the quilt up to her chin. “I’ll make it up to you, if you help me get this job. I’ll be as good as gold. I’ll even try to stop feeling sorry for myself,” she murmured reluctantly, as she fell into the deepest, most restful sleep she’d had in a long time.
The foyer of Mason & Wallace was decorated with reed area rugs, plush sofas that looked perfect for lounging in and the scent in the air was like walking through a meadow teeming with honeysuckle, jasmine and roses.
She had expected it to be quite a posh workplace, the kind where you needed at least a couple of hours just to get ready for work in the morning. In fact, everyone looked quite casual. It felt more like a college campus than a high-flying interior design company, and she looked like a solicitor.
“Em, I’m here to see someone about the interior decorator position?” Her large leather portfolio case almost slipped from her sweaty palms.
The receptionist’s expression came up blank.
Uh oh. Not a good sign.
“The interior decorator position?”
A little golden plaque on the right side of her chest, read: “Lauren.”
Lauren frowned. “I’ll get someone from HR.” She stared at Heather as if she’d sprouted two heads.
“Thank you,” Heather said.
Lauren lifted the handset of the phone in front of her. “Hey, Dave, I’ve got someone here interested in the interior decorator position.” A pause. “Yes, you heard right. Yes I’ll tell her.”
She plastered a big smile on her face, no teeth showing. “Dave will be down in a minute. Would you care to take a seat?”
“Yeah sure, thanks,” Heather said, diving into one of the sofas next to the receptionist’s desk.
Heather balanced her elbows on her knees, pulled out her phone and started to go through her notifications when a pair of shoes came into her line of vision.
“If you’re constantly looking at your phone, you’ll always be looking down,” a voice said.
The voice sounded familiar and she looked up. Standing in front of her was her new next-door neighbour.
“Gabe!” she said, stopping herself just before she shot up to hug him.
The man turned to look over his shoulder and then back to Heather. “Sorry? I’m Dave.”
No way! This was Gabe. He was pulling her leg.
“You’re the double of my friend Gabe… Well, he’s not really my friend, except… he is.” She looked at Dave. “It’s complicated” she said.
Dave or Gabe or whatever his name was, stood with his hands in his pockets, a look of amusement on his face.
“Let’s start again, shall we?” she said, wiping her hands on the front of her skirt. She thrust her hand towards Dave. “Pleased to meet you – I’m Heather Weston. I’m the most enthusiastic interior decorator you’ll ever meet. I love the work and I’ve been told I do it well.”
Dave smiled. “The job’s yours.”
“And I don’t mind - Pardon?”
“It’s yours,” Dave said, again.
“But, don’t you want to see my portfolio?”
“Look, I don’t mean to burst your bubble. I’m sure you’re a great interior decorator - that was a great pitch of yourself by the way - but the thing is, one of our interior decorators has just walked out on us and when I say just, I mean just. If you look behind you, that’s her leaving now. Off to Nepal, she says.”
Dave rubbed his chin. In the same way Gabe had.
“The thing is, we have a major project to hand in a week from now and we need the extra help.”
Heather stood there with her mouth open.
“You’ll be on probation for a month, you understand. If you’re any good, you’ll stay. If you’re not, you’ll be out. Do you understand?”
“I do. I’ll take it,” Heather said, finding her voice. “Thank you, thank you, you won’t regret this.” It was all she could do to keep herself from jumping up to kiss him.
“Good. Though how you just turned up like this, is...” Dave said, shaking his head.
“I told you, Gabe sent me. He told me there was a vacant position. I could swear he’s your twin - you look identical.”
“Only I’m not a twin and I don’t know any Gabe.”
There was a pause and their eyes met for a moment.
Dave shrugged. “Why question it,” he said. “It is what it is. It works for you, it works for us, we’re all happy. When can you start?”
Dave smiled. “I’ll show you your office then.”
Heather skipped home and went straight to Flat 4B. Breathing fast, a smile on her face, she rang the bell.
She tried knocking this time. The door drifted open.
“Gabe?” she called out. “Are you there?”
No reply. She went in.
The flat was empty. No furniture. Nothing.
Heather blinked a few times and re-checked the number on the door. She must be on the wrong floor.
No. There it was, plain as day: 4B. She looked into the flat again, as if willing everything that was there yesterday to suddenly reappear.
Mrs Williams from 4C came walking down the corridor, together with Harriet, her Yorkshire terrier.
Heather ran up to her and grasped Mrs William’s hands.
Harriet growled at her.
“Mrs Williams, what happened to the new tenant in 4B? Where’s he gone?”
“4B? I don’t know what you’re talking about, dear. No one’s moved into 4B.”
“There was a guy there yesterday, said he’d moved in the day before. I saw him.” Heather insisted.
“What? In 4B?”
“No, dear, you must be mistaken. 4B’s been empty since the Boltons moved out last month.”
Heather rubbed her forehead.
Mrs Williams, judging by the look on her face, probably thought she was crazy, drunk, stoned, or all of the above. “Nobody’s moved in.”
Heather didn’t hear. Deep in thought, she walked back to 4B and opened the door again.
“Are you all right, dear?” Mrs Williams called after her. Heather didn’t answer.
She walked into the empty living room. She couldn’t have imagined it, could she?
From somewhere just above her head a white feather spiralled down through the warm air and settled, like a single flake of snow, on her shoulder.
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