Dad’s local pub did a marvellous job at decorating the function room for mum. Pictures of her smiling face were blu-tacked to each wall and every sandwich type known to man lined the huge table in the conservatory area. Of course, being an essential part of any family gathering, the bar was well stocked with Uncle Matt taking up residency on one of the stools. He had insisted on getting the first round in and for my own sanity, I declined the offer of alcohol. Instead, I settled for a lemonade and thanked him for it upon the glass landing in my hands.
“You sure that’s all you want?” he asked, sipping from his John Smith’s.
It smelled nice and was certainly tempting but I nodded. “This is perfect, thank you.”
Dad was over in the corner talking to Mum’s old work pals with Karen keeping a respectable distance. She didn’t want to draw unwanted attention to herself on a day like today and for that, I was extremely grateful.
“Jessica, long time no see!”
My cousin’s voice came at me from behind, prompting me to spin around in an instant.
“Hey Jack, how are you?” I smiled, genuinely happy to see him.
We both hugged it out.
“All good, you? Your dad tells me you’re working in head office for a hotel company? Bit posh, innit?”
“Oh, it’s not all glamorous,” I replied on a smirk. “What about you? Still in the police force?”
His small smile widened. “I am. Started training in firearms now.”
God, help us all!
“You with a gun is a scary thought,” I informed, hitting him with complete honesty.
Out of Sam, me and Claudia, Jack was definitely the most clumsy. As a kid, he was the type to jump off the top of a slide just to prove he could and break his bloody leg in the process.
“Don’t worry. I’ve matured,” he ensured, smiling at someone approaching from behind.
“Here you are, mate. They didn’t have Carlsberg so I got you a Fosters.”
“Cheers,” he grinned, reaching for his pint. “Jessie, you remember Roger right?”
“I do, it’s been a while,” I smiled, addressing the man who’s crush on me was once my biggest burden.
It manifested once puberty blessed my skinny figure with curves. I had been uninterested in boys at the time and recalled being completely mortified when I was informed of his infatuation.
“It has. Nice to see you again. I’m sorry we’re not reuniting under better circumstances,” he stressed, going in for a hug.
The action was unexpected and absolutely unnecessary. Overbearingly powerful aftershave hit the back of my throat all at once and smelled a little on the feminine side. Roger never did grow out of his ‘awkward fashion’ stage and still wore clothes beyond his years. “A sweater-vest a day keeps the doctor away” was perhaps his motto because he likely possessed one in every variation going. Blue, green. Pattern, plain. Cotton, silk.
You name it.
That being said, they were true to him and I loved that he was confident enough to openly express that. He was a kind soul, was Roger and I had to admit, talking to him felt nice.
“What you up to these days?” I asked, recovering from our physical exchange.
I liked the man but that wasn’t an open invitation to hug.
“I work in I.T for a company specialising in PI work.”
I drew a complete blank. “PI?”
“Private investigator,” he clarified, thankfully impartial to my slowness.
“Oh right. That sounds really interesting,” I responded, trying my hardest not to react to the sudden adrenaline pumping through my body.
Jack quickly excused himself when the mention of Jäger bombs were brought into the equation, seemingly eager to get his hands on one. He may have been a police officer but Christ almighty, could that boy drink.
“So what does it entail exactly? Are you involved in the investigating part at all?” I enquired, sipping slowly from my drink.
“Sort of. I usually stick to coding. It’s not as interesting as it sounds. We mostly work with people who are looking for long lost relatives.”
“But you must get the odd exciting request. Have you ever caught someone having an affair?” I asked, perhaps enjoying this discussion too much.
“Oh, plenty,” he smirked, teasing my intrigue.
From somewhere in the room, I heard Sam laugh and momentarily brought my focus to his. He was chatting with someone I didn’t recognise and had his arm flung carelessly around Bethany’s shoulders. He seemed less tense with a pint in his hand, though not quite his usual self. This last week had taken its toll on him the most and I could only hope that from here on out, it would get better for him.
“Say I wanted to dig into someone’s past, how would I go about doing that?” I found myself asking.
Roger looked a little surprised but hid it well.
“Well you’d come in for a consultation and we’d take it from there.”
“And I’m assuming that’s pricey?”
“A little,” he cringed, slurping his beer.
He was left with a white foam moustache and I took it upon myself to tell him. “You’ve left some behind.”
“Oops. Not exactly smooth of me,” he blushed, wiping at his mouth. “Thanks for the heads up.”
I smiled at his mild embarrassment and carried on with my previous line of thought.
“How pricey are we talking?”
“If I’m being honest, it’s a little extreme. It depends on how desperate a person is I suppose.”
“I’m pretty desperate, Roger.”
Again, he looked shocked.
“What are you trying to find out?”
It felt a little wrong to be discussing important matters in such a public place and at my own mother’s funeral no less. Then again, this was too good an opportunity to let pass me by.
“I have a name and that’s it. The thing is, he’s squeaky clean as far as Google is concerned.”
“Google is only a scratch on the surface,” he insisted, taking out a leather notebook from his pocket. “What’s his name and I’ll run a search.”
“Free of charge.”
“You won’t get into trouble for this, will you?” I stressed, in need of protecting him for some reason.
“It’s just a name, Jessica.”
His light tone offered me some reassurance. I didn’t want him performing any violations in the work place and risk getting sacked. Alister had already done enough damage. Adding Roger’s job to the list was not my intention.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” He laughed, awaiting the all-important name.
In the end, I gave in. “Alister Branning.”
Out came his glasses and suddenly I was faced with business Roger.
I was a little surprised he knew who he was by name but then realised part of his job was knowing who people were.
“Yeah, he’s engaged to my boyfriend’s ex-wife.” I informed, noticing his immediate smile.
“I was wondering when you were going to bring him up. Jack told me you met someone.”
“Where is he?” he asked, evaluating the room.
“Oh, he’s- he’s erm…we’re not.” FUCK! “He’s around.”
Thankfully, he let the matter drop.
“Mind sharing your secret?” he replied, scribbling down some notes. “I’m a little stumped in that department.”
I watched him for a moment, truly mesmerized by his ability to write so quickly.
“Well, I wasn’t particularly looking for it so maybe that’s the trick,” I shared, finishing off my lemonade.
Alex caught my attention from across the room and started making his way towards us.
“I’ll give that a try,” concluded Roger, putting away his notebook. “Anything in particular I should look out for?”
A history of violence maybe??” I suggested, not wanting to go into too much detail.
He nodded, seemingly understanding my request. “It might be a while before I can get any results to you.”
“That’s fine,” I insisted, smiling as Alex entered our conversation. “I appreciate the help.”
“No problem. Jack has your number, right?”
He smiled. “I’ll get it off him and contact you when I find something,” he ensured, taking Alex’ arrival as his cue to leave. “Take care.”
“You too, Roger. Thanks again.”
Before he left, I was forced to undergo yet another hug and felt slightly less awkward this time around. Alex simply watched on from the side-lines and waited until after he was gone to start up another conversation.
“How you doing?”
“I’m okay. It’s quite nice having everyone together. How are you holding up?” I asked, aware of his involvement with Mum before everything went tits up.
In these types of situations, people were prone to focus on those who were directly related to the deceased when in actual fact, Mum had impacted the lives of so many. Alex was practically a second son to her and he was no doubt grieving just as much as we were.
“Yeah, I’m doing alright. Another drink?”
“Lemonade, please,” I replied, handing him my glass.
I watched him order and took great satisfaction in seeing the barmaid subtly eye him up. She was a petit blonde, though perhaps a little too young for Alex.
“You stopping at your dad’s tonight?” he asked, handing me my drink.
“No, I need to be at work tomorrow. I might crash at yours if you don’t mind”
“Of course. Although I’d be much happier about it if you’d take my bed,” he scorned, shooting me a knowing glance. “It feels wrong letting you sleep on the sofa.”
“It’s honestly fine,” I insisted, trying my best to avoid having this argument again.
Getting through to Alex was quite hard without spilling the beans on what I may or may not have shared with Spencer.
“It would make me feel better knowing you were having a comfortable sleep.”
“Your sofa is comfortable!” I exclaimed, making a point out of exaggerating. “Besides, Spencer would have a fucking heart attack if he thought I was in your bed.”
“Well obviously I wouldn’t be in it,” he laughed. “And what does it matter? I thought you broke up,” he teased, knowing full well the ins and outs.
Sam had filled him in on all the need-to-knows.
“You wouldn’t need to be. He’d still not like it.”
I paused. “He knows about us,” I explained, averting my gaze elsewhere.
“You told him we slept together?”
Alex stupidly didn’t check his surroundings before asking such a thing, prompting Sam’s immediate question. “What did you just say?”
“Sam, calm down,” I soothed, quickly positioning my hand on his shoulder.
“You two slept together? When?”
Alex and I both went silent, unable to explain ourselves. We had an established understanding when it came to that night. We didn’t talk about it and we certainly didn’t share what happened with anyone else.
“Years ago. We were kids,” I informed, desperately looking to Alex for support.
“You’re not–” he paused, looking between us both. “Charlotte?”
“God, no!” I insisted, keen to diminish that thought.
Alex was not Charlotte’s biological Dad. Fact.
“Sam, look, it’s not what you think,” added Alex, finally expressing his thoughts. “I care about her and I always will but there’s nothing romantic going on between us. It happened once and we were young. It was after your mum got her diagnosis. Life was a bit weird back then.”
“Weird back then? It’s weird now!” insisted Sam, thankfully laughing. “I’m not going to make this a big deal. I know nothing romantic is happening between you. Jessie is in love with Spencer and you’re about as likely to settle down as I am at getting my hair cut to the appropriate length. You were both entitled to make your own choices back then and in all honesty, I get why you never told me.”
“Well shit! Are you sure you don’t want to beat me up?” asked Alex, straight up offering him the chance.
“Maybe I would if I thought for one second I’d win.” He smirked, wrapping his arm around my waist and pulling me in for a hug. “Let’s just promise to never bring it up again.”
Just then, Dad interrupted by asking for everyone’s attention and went on to deliver a speech, wherein which he thanked people for coming. He kept if brief for the most part and surprisingly cheerful, wrapping things up on a light joke. Today wasn’t easy for him. For any of us but more so for him. He was grieving for his dead wife all awhile his current girlfriend stood idly by, offering support from the side lines. I respected Karen for her understanding and appreciated her need to keep away. She wasn’t interfering and I had to admire that. Seeing my dad with another woman was strange, yet I had to admit how great they were together. I was pleased he had someone other than myself and Sam during such a difficult time. I loved my family more than life itself but it wasn’t always enough. I craved Spencer’s affection more and more to the point of desperation. I knew seeing him was impossible and just had to withstand this feeling of complete heartbreak for another five and a half months. After that, our love would reunite and we could put this fiasco behind us. Rather than feeling like his burden, I’d go back to being his girlfriend. His love. His forever.
Or so I hoped…