Life was so busy. Sophie really was producing her best work...by the box load. She’d filled her room with stacked canvases, all lined up. She lived in Bill’s hoodie, dropping her nose into the fabric every time she needed reminding of him. It was warm and smelled divine! Margo was enthusiastic and critical in equal amounts. Exactly what Sophie needed. And with that guidance she only got better, harnessing her emotion into creativity.
Her meeting with Michael the ex tutor and gallery manager was imminent and she was desperately trying to finish off her selections. Vincenza was AWOL more than she was home, but that worked well for Sophie, she occupied weird hours, up at night sleeping randomly through the day, not because she tuned into an internet radio broadcast live every night to follow the race. There were occasional photos, but a lot of commentary...she felt closer to Bill that way.
Every few days he emailed her, and whilst she found it so hard trying to function without him, she was SO proud of every day that he raced. On the rare occasions that Vincenza was home, Sophie told her how close she was to getting a flight to Melbourne to be there when he finished the race. But that would mean sacrificing her own dream of her possible exhibition just to see Bill live his. He’d be angry, annoyed if she threw away this chance, so she battled on alone.
Another email. Stretching out Sophie couldn’t get the smile of her face. Of course it was Bill!
“Hi Penpal! I don’t know when I last typed so many letters; I hope you appreciate the sacrifice! I’ve got to day seven...tomorrow is another rest day, and boy do my legs (and my arse) need it! I took for granted how often I stopped my bike when I was out on a cycling day, a little relief of pressure to the ischial tuberosities, a jiggle of the Crown Jewels, swift drink, then back onto the razor edge saddle. Here, I sit for six hours and my body is NOT acclimatising!
“Enough about me. Tell me about the meeting with this gallery guy. Is it tomorrow? I am SO pleased for you...pleased actually isn’t great word selection, but you know what I mean! I didn’t think I’d miss home, the hormones, white wine and the dozens of shoes in the hallway...but I do. And I miss you most. Though don’t tell Vincenza as I’m sure she’d be furious! As I’m cycling thorough beautiful places, seeing wonderful things, meeting great people, I keep wanting to turn to you and tell you all about them. Who’d have thought that Sir William Swift would become so...in touch with his feminine side?! Another thing not to share with Vin, add that to my baby smooth legs and she’d be broadcasting my homosexuality to the World!
“Miss you, looking forward to your news, Billxxx”
Sophie smiled for the whole time it took to read the email; he was so funny, yet so thoughtful. Sighing she collapsed on the bed, she was so very lucky.
The next morning, Saturday, Sophie was eating breakfast - bananas and cheese on toast. It had been a weird thing her brother and introduced her to years ago, and she’d never found anyone else who shared her love for it. The door burst open and a dishevelled but smiling Vincenza burst it.
“Hey friend...what you eating?”
Sophie swallowed before replying, “cheese and bananas...you seem particularly happy!”
Vin made a ‘throw up’ gesture at the food selection, “if I didn’t know that was your favourite thing in the world I’d think you were having pregnant cravings!” Suddenly her head snapped up, “you’re not!?”
Sophie laughed, “of course not! Just because I had sex does not mean I will automatically get pregnant.”
Vin gave her a wide eyed stare then chuckled, “ok, I’ll stop teasing. What’s the plan for Monday, what time you meeting this gallery guy?”
“So you’ll meet me in the Red Lion afterwards?”
Sophie nodded, the meeting was going to be at ARTistic, and Margo had promised her she could store all the canvases there. Vincenza was only working a few miles away so it made sense to join her at her local pub for a celebration/commiseration.
“So what are you doing the rest of the weekend?”
Vin shrugged, “keeping out of your way if you’re still busy. How did Bill do last night?”
“I’ve not got much left,” Sophie was starting to feel lonely, so she really liked the thought of her friend hanging around. “We could do pizza and X-factor?” When Vin nodded enthusiastically, Sophie added, “He’s still in fifteenth over all. But Johnny Peters is in the lead,” both girls were having a crash course in the intricacies of team cycling. Johnny Peters was number one for Britain and all the other cyclists helped him win stages, Bill was not expecting to finish in any decent position, but he’d managed to avoid a big crash two days earlier and had seen himself rocket up the field.
“Awesome! So are things still good?”
Sophie nodded as she sipped her coffee, “he says he misses home, for lots of reasons, but me the most...though I’m not supposed to tell you that!”
Vin pulled out a seat and lounged opposite her friend, “he’s such a girl on times!”
The radio was on and they both sat in silence listening to a presenter retell funny stories, and a few songs they knew as being quite recent.
“I’ve got to take some of my pictures down to Margo later, is there any chance you’d help me?”
“Are you intending to carry them?” When Sophie nodded Vincenza shook her head, “you are so crazy, Bill’s car is out there...”
“I know he wouldn’t mind me using it, but it’s a ridiculous car,” he was very proud of his vintage sports car, and whilst it was beautiful, it was largely unpractical, “I mean I’ll fit one picture in it at a time...then there’s trying to park in Camden on a Saturday morning!”
“Good point. How about a taxi? We can load a Hackney to full, then he can worry about the parking.”
It was a deal.
Vincenza had never met Margo, thought they both knew a lot about the other, and Sophie should have known that they’d get on like the proverbial house on fire. As Sophie wrestled the huge canvases into the back room, the other two got acquainted. When she emerged from her final trip, satisfied that nothing would damage them between then and Monday lunchtime, she gasped. There was Vincenza BEHIND the counter, she’d never been there in seven years of visiting, and she was rifling through Margo’s extensive collection of loose leaf teas. Again for all these years Sophie had been given the tea or coffee that Margo felt was right, within twenty minutes, her friend was part of the furniture.
“What’s going on?” she asked, secretly pleased the two got on so well. “I thought the counter was booby trapped!”
Margo waggled her eyebrows, “Ah Sophie, Vincenza here is interested only in tea...she is no risk to my secret supplies!”
All three laughed, Sophie knew that even if she was invited she’d not pass into the sacred zone of ‘behind the counter’, it was an unwritten rule.
Hoisting herself up to sit on the counter, she took some Darjeeling tea from Margo, “I thought it was always coffee after lunch.” Margo had such firm and rigid rituals!
Margo winked, “I like to keep you on your toes. Now are you all set for Monday?”
They discussed her work for another twenty minutes, Sophie would have more by the time the exhibition came around, if she got the gig, but this was clearly her best selection.
When Sophie and Vincenza finally left they wandered through Camden, calling for a glass of wine in several of the wine bars, before ordering two fully loaded pizzas from their favourite takeaway place.
X-factor was the usual crap, people who wanted to be famous with average voices trying to take on the world. The girls had set up a scoring system several years ago, and they sat with their score cards and laughed as they judged each singer.
Once it had finished Vin headed for the kitchen to find a second bottle of wine, as she reappeared with it, the phone in the corner of the room rang, and dumping the wine she made to answer it.
Sophie was filling the glasses as Vin answered.
“Hello...” it was followed by a screech, “I thought you couldn’t phone!...Of course it’s great to speak to you!
Sophie suddenly had the driest mouth in the land, her hand holding the wine physically shook, and her heart was in her mouth. As she looked up Vin was dancing, pointing at the phone as she responded calmly, then mouthed, “it’s Bill!”
“Of course she’d here!...Yes I know about Manchester...No no no no! No details! Here, speak to the girl herself!”
Sophie took the phone nervously as Vin rushed giggling from the room.
“Hello?” Even her voice sounded nervous.
“Hey Soph, it’s me!”
Everything stopped for a moment, including her heart, slumping into a chair, she savoured the moment. His voice was gravelly, he sounded tired, but happy.
“Bill!” She hated that it sounded so breathy, but she was stunned, “I thought you couldn’t...sorry I’m repeating Vin.”
He laughed, “It’s a rest day, and I really wanted to talk to you. Wish you luck for Monday. And to hear your voice.”
“What time is it with you? Should you be sleeping?” It was nine pm according to the wall clock.
“It’s six in the morning, I’ve been up earlier than this all week, this is supposed to be my lie in, but I’m thinking of you!”
She sighed, “I’m glad. You’ve kept me awake several nights the last few weeks.”
His laugh was hearty, relaxed, familiar, “I like that.”
They spoke for a few minutes, about everything but really nothing. It was the best feeling that Sophie had had all week, her meeting Monday, the euphoria of her creative streak, all paled into insignificance. She’d not expected to hear from him, and the sound of his voice was SO wonderful.
When she hung up Vincenza peeped around the door, “can I come in now?”
Sophie nodded, then looking at her friend she promptly burst into tears. Joy? Frustration? Who knew? Regardless she outpoured emotion onto the shoulder of her best friend.
Sunday had been panic preparation day; Sophie had rushed between her room and Margo’s shop trying desperately to display and present her best work. In the end Margo took over and banished her from the shop.
“Come back tomorrow and it will all be perfect!”
Not that she slept. She emailed Bill, paced the room, read a whole book, and was just falling asleep when her alarm signalled the start of the day.
Vincenza was already up and had started the essential coffee; she was also flipping pancakes, stacking them on a heated plate.
“You need to eat!” She snapped when she felt Sophie’s eyes on her. “And it’s not so rare a sight!”
Sophie grabbed two mugs and filled them silently, trying to hide her laughter. Vin was as far from a domestic goddess as a self respecting Italian woman could be, this was huge effort from her friend and she wasn’t going to spoil the gesture.
As she walked to the scene of the forthcoming crime, ARTistic, her phone bleeped, and looking down she saw a text on her phone. Opening it she saw eight words that stopped her heart.
“You don’t need luck, I love you, Bill.”
How am I supposed to function? She asked herself, freezing to a stop in the street. The biggest day of my life and he throws me that curveball! And how do I respond?
Just as she started to compose a reply, a message appeared in front of her eyes, “I don’t expect a response, just want you to know I’m thinking about you.”
He knew EXACTLY what to say, and when to say it. He had better timing than Peter Kaye. With a smile, she pocketed her phone and skipped down to Camden.
Michael Parker was just as she remembered him, rather flamboyant in his appearance, but with an extremely nervous disposition that was a paradox to that. In his Hawaiian shirt he stood beside Margo talking as she entered the shop, but he had a nervous jig that she could tell was making it difficult for the older woman to deal with.
“Ah! Here she is!” Margo announced gratefully then proceeded to reintroduce the two. Then she led them through to the large back room that was home to the surplus stock, but also had more than enough room to wall mount the dozen pieces she had chosen for her ‘audition’. Immediately Michael changed, engrossed in assessing her work, he raised a hand for silence.
Chuckling Margo led Sophie back into the shop. “Leave him to it!”
Margo disappeared into her cupboard for a moment, “I have a special blend here...” she pulled out an exotic looking package of silver paper tied with ribbon. “From China, black tea flavoured with special fruit blends, a proper celebration tea!”
Sophie groaned, “he hasn’t agreed to anything yet!”
Margo smiled, “didn’t you see him, rendered speechless! If he had any other viable options then I think you’d find they faded at that moment.”
Sophie accepted the comment in silence, her nerves dictating that she couldn’t even begin to process anything.
It was almost an hour later, a fraught horrendously nervous hour later that Michael reappeared. He was more relaxed than when he’d entered the room.
“Sophie,” his voice was a purr, “I am overwhelmed! Only Margo ever saw this in you...” he turned to the older woman, “and that belief wasn’t misplaced. I would be happy to exhibit your material even if I wasn’t in the predicament I’m in. In fact, I am changing all the plans for your launch already...if you want to display with me?”
Barely able to acknowledge the words Sophie knew if she had a business head on she’d gamble on those words, but all she’d ever wanted was for people to appreciate her work, now she’d have that opportunity. Her Bill inspired work. Suddenly she thought of parting with those pieces, if she sold them that is, and her heart pained. But she couldn’t be sentimental, not over her art.
With a smile she accepted Michael’s offered hand, and shook it firmly. This was going to be the making of her.