“You were meant to finish 20 minutes ago,” Analise spoke with a heavy French lilt and raised one perfectly plucked eyebrow at Scarlett who was wiping down the same table for what felt like the fiftieth time.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to stick around? Could get busy!” Scarlett tugged anxiously at the bottom of her apron.
“What are you avoiding, ma poule?”
Scarlett and Analise had developed a close friendship during the months they had worked together at Matilda’s. There was only a few years between them and Scarlett had loved hearing all about her travels around the world. Analise in turn had managed to squeeze every last detail about Jim and Scarlett’s various rendezvous’ out of her, cackling in voyeuristic glee as Scarlett would describe their latest tryst. After closing they would sometimes get a bottle of wine and Analise and Matilda would take it in turns trying to redden Scarlett’s cheeks with tales of love, lust and heartbreak. Matilda had been married three times and Analise had visited six out of seven continents so between them they had a lot of stories. Scarlett sometimes wondered if she would ever be so worldly wise.
“I’ve sort of fallen out with Tabitha,” Scarlett responded, scratching the back of her neck.
She felt awful about what had happened between them. She kept playing it over again and again in her head. She was sure as soon as she sees Tabitha that she would scream at her and kick her out for being so mean. As a result, she’d been staying out of the house as long as possible and avoiding all of her housemates, even Drew. She hadn’t even bothered charging her phone when it ran out of battery, scared that someone would try to summon her to the house for a confrontation.
“About what?” Ana’s huge, emerald eyes expertly made up with golds and browns narrowed in concern as she put away the cup she had been drying and walked towards Scarlett.
“I said something horrible. I bet she hates me.”
Scarlett felt like crying. Tabitha brought her in when she was at her lowest, when she barely knew her. She took a huge chance on Scarlett and basically saved her life and she had repaid her by losing her temper and being terribly hurtful. The worst thing was that what Tabitha had said was probably true. The more she thought about it, and the longer she was away from Jim's intoxicating presence the more she realised that he probably was just using her for sex. In fact he had been completely open about that from the start and she had done the one thing she’d promised she wouldn’t do and fallen for him. She’d lost her virginity to someone who will likely have forgotten her in six months. When she thought about having to leave him if Tabitha kicks her out, her heart sank even further.
Ana wrapped her arms around Scarlett, enveloping her in her soft scent of irises and vanilla. “Do not worry, sweet girl!” she cooed, stroking her hair, “This is the girls! We fall out! We make friends! This is part of it!”
Scarlett hugged her back, some of the tension that she’d been carrying released in the warmth of such a friendly embrace. She suddenly felt very blessed to have such wonderful people in her life. And Tabitha was one of those people. She'd have to find a way to make it okay.
“Go home to your friend,” Ana said, releasing Scarlett and smiling at her warmly, “She will feel this same way, I’m sure.”
* * * * *
Scarlett lingered outside the back patio door at Luke Street, taking longer than necessary to locate her keys. She’d stopped at a pub on the way back for some Dutch courage and was now woefully rummaging through her bag, her room already packed up in her head.
She pulled the patio door open and tentatively poked her head around, her heart stopping when she saw Tabitha sat at the kitchen island, her head in her hands as her shoulders shook. She walked carefully into the kitchen, closing the patio door behind her, unsure whether to announce her presence. Tabitha looked up, large, sad tears falling down her round face, her pink lipstick smudged, her spiky hair flat and limp.
“Kwame is gone,” she gulped.
Instinct took over as Scarlett rushed towards her friend. She threw her arms around her in a huge bear hug, stroking her back they way she would do to Jack if he'd fallen over and hurt himself.
"What if I never see him again?" Tabitha wailed, "I love him!"
Scarlett rocked her friend, Tabitha's broken heart shaking her whole body as she sobbed. After a few moments, Tabitha seemed to calm down and the girls released each other. Scarlett looked down nervously.
"I'm so sorry, Tab," she started, her voice breaking. And she was. Sorry for everything. Sorry she hadn't understood that Tabitha was looking out for her, sorry that she'd been mean in response, sorry that Kwame had left. Tabitha nodded as she wiped her tears away.
"You were right," she sniffed, "I've known he was going to leave this whole time but I still let myself fall in love with him."
Scarlett bit her lip, wondering if she would end up as heartbroken as Tabitha was. She took a deep breath, shaking the thought from her head. Truth was, she barely knew Jim and she'd dealt with far worse in her short life to be scared of a little heartache, should it come.
"We need to get out of here," she said suddenly, grabbing Tabitha's shoulder, "You need a pint of cider and several shots of tequila and we are going to dance to Fleetwood Mac and get a greasy kebab and watch Peep Show drunk in your bed at 1am."
Tabitha gave Scarlett a watery smile and wiped her nose with the back of her hand, "I dunno, look at the state of me."
"Good point, you're a mess. Get your arse upstairs and get those glad rags on! Tonight, we drink!"
* * * * *
The White Hart was fairly empty which meant Scarlett and Drew could dominate the juke box with little to no competition - apart from each other of course.
“Come on, one more Interpol song!"
“No way, Dalton. They’re boring. See, this is one of the only areas where you and I massively differ.”
The Luke Street-ers commandeered the booth near the bay window in the back of their local, right next to the juke box and the cigarette machine. Even though it was barely 8pm they were well onto their third round and the dark, wooden table they sat round was littered with empty pints and shot glasses. Scarlett and Drew were bickering over the juke box under the watchful eye of Jim, while Tabitha was over analysing the goodbye text Kwame had sent her with Mairead.
"He says he wants to keep in touch but is he just being polite?" Tabitha wasn't crying anymore but her eyebrows were permanently contorted in concern as she stroked her chin worriedly.
The girls had definitely overdressed for a night at the local pub in a desperate attempt to cheer Tabitha up and make her feel good. She was currently sporting a huge white fur jacket over the top of a tight red velvet t shirt dress with matching earrings. Scarlett had opted for a Bardot style mustard coloured dress which showed lots of leg and shoulder and went great with her Doc Marten boots - Jim had certainly noticed - while Mairead donned silver leggings with a hot pink bodice and an oversized navy blazer. Scarlett still felt she looked plain compared to her flamboyant friends but she was starting to feel confident in her own body and style - an unfamiliar but very welcome sensation.
"Its not like he's going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras," Jim chimed in, "He's off to treat worms in the third world and when he's finished being painfully good I'm sure he'll still only have eyes for you."
Tabitha beamed at Jim, "Do you really think so?"
He leaned forward and ruffled her hair, "Of course. He'd be a bloody fool if not. If anything, your head will turn while he's gone. Especially living with studs like us."
Tabitha laughed ducking out of Jim's touch and Scarlett felt her heart swell. She loved seeing Jim like this, like a protective brother and a good friend. He hid this side of himself in between insults and barbed jokes but Scarlett had seen it shine through him in the last few months. He was immensely protective over his friends, he'd grown up with them after all. They were more like family. Scarlett sometimes felt jealous when they would reminisce together, sometimes she'd think about the friends she hadn't seen in months. She'd remember times drinking out of plastic bottles of cider in the park listening to music through Sasha's phone, prank calling the boys she knew from school.
A familiar voice from behind caused Scarlett to spin around.
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw him. It had been six months since she'd watched him walk away from her, his shoulders slumped in resignation. She couldn't deny that she'd missed him. They had spoken every day for four years prior to their nasty break up.
He looked different, she noticed he had a tattoo and his hair was a little longer. Had be been working out? She automatically walked towards him, her arms outstretched, and he met her in a hug. He still smelled the same.
"How are you?" she asked, pulling back to look at him, to study his face closer to see if the freckles in his eyes had changed, to observe any new lines on his brow. She'd almost forgotten about that scar.
"I'm okay. How are you? I thought I'd see you over summer..."
Scarlett suddenly became very aware that they were being watched by her housemates who had fallen into a curious hushed silence behind her.
"Fancy a cig?" Billy asked, reading her mind.
She nodded and turned to grab her oversized denim off the back of her chair. She noticed Jim staring.
"So, you back for second year then?" Scarlett asked as they made their way out the front of the pub, the sun had set and there was a chill in the air. She pulled her jacket on. It felt strange making small talk with Billy after all this time.
"Yeah, living just round the corner with a few guys off my course."
Scarlett nodded, all her attention focused on rolling her cigarette. An awkward silence clung around them.
"Sorry, you go."
"No, you go."
Billy nodded, lighting his cigarette, he took a deep puff before speaking.
"I just wanted to say I'm sorry for how it all went down. You needed me and I fucked up. Anyway, turns out Milly is basically a psychopath," he cringed at this point, looking into the mid distant, memories clearly dancing across his mind, "and definitely not worth losing you over."
Scarlett bristled with annoyance. Clearly what she had seen in Billy's room hadn't been innocent at all and the minute she was gone he didn't waste any time, "Milly and Billy," she scoffed, "Excuse me while I puke."
"It was nothing, it was just messing around-"
"While you were 'messing around' I was sleeping on the streets," Scarlett spat, rage and injustice stiffening her body, "Literally sleeping in dorms full of strangers or wedged under an extraction unit outside a fucking laundrette freezing my tits off. I stole and fought and got attacked. I took fucking heroin because I felt like I had nothing to live for. So I'm sorry that your pathetic little love story didn't work out."
Billy's eyed widened in surprise and he anxiously took a step forward, squeezing Scarlett's arm gently, "I'm so sorry," he said, inches away, his face scrunched up with worry, "I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you, please let me make it up to you."
Someone cleared their throat and Scarlett felt an arm over her shoulder. Billy's hands dropped just as Scarlett looked up to see Jim smiling casually.
"I just wanted to come out and check you didn't have any hard feelings from when I kicked you out of my garden."
His presence exhilarated Scarlett and she felt all of the doubts she'd had in the last few days around his intentions disappear at his touch. She could smell the leather from his jacket and the lager on his breath and feel the warm and comforting weight from his arm melt away any anger she'd been feeling.
"Look mate," Scarlett's attention suddenly refocused on Billy who gritted his teeth at Jim. She'd only ever seen him look like that while confronting bullies in the playground back at school, "You might think you know Scarlett but we've been inseparable since we were kids and I know her and care about her more than you ever will so you can back off with this territorial bullshit. You look pathetic."
Jim tensed at her side and made to step forward but Scarlett quickly came between them, placing her hands on his chest, "Its fine," she implored, her finger stroking him slightly to get his attention, "Go back inside, I'll be right behind you."
Scarlett could see him tensing his jaw, his steel blue eyes focused entirely on Billy who was behind her. She didn't know what Billy was thinking confronting Jim like that. His medium height and slim frame would be no match for Jim in a fight.
A corner of Jim's mouth creased into a wry smile, his eyes unblinking, "Sure, I'll leave him to his begging. And I'm the pathetic one."
Scarlett watched him walk back into the pub. The night felt considerably colder as she pulled her jacket tighter around her and turned to face Billy. He was breathing heavily, a sour look on his face.
"So you're seeing him? I must admit I thought you'd be with that Drew guy," he barked out a humourless laugh, "I bet he's gutted!"
"Why are you being like this? This isn't you."
Billy seemed to soften, his sharp features rounding, a sad fog descending over his face. "I miss you."
"I miss you too, you big idiot," Scarlett smiled sadly, "And for what its worth I'm sorry too. For landing on your doorstep with all my crap and taking over your life. You've always been there for me."
"Do you think we could start over?"
Billy grinned hopefully and Scarlett recognised him properly for the first time. The grin had been there the first time she'd smoked a joint, the first time she'd ever listened to the Libertines, her first kiss. Billy was all the good bits of home just as much as Sasha was and her heart suddenly ached for him.
"Of course we can. But starting over means starting over...as friends. Just friends. I don't think the whole relationship thing really worked out for us."
Disappointment flashed across Billy's face for a second but was quickly replaced with a relieved smile and the reunification was sealed with a hug.
Scarlett felt a huge sense of relief. She had her best friend back.