An Alien Concept
The sun was too bright, and I could see it through my eyelids. I didn’t feel like waking up, but something seemed off. I could hear a buzz of conversation and the smell was all wrong. Was I still dreaming?
I opened my eyes and saw the white ceiling and the fluorescent lights above me. This obviously wasn’t home, and I immediately sat up. The nearby nurses noticed me, and one came over with a smile.
‘Hello, dear. You’re in a hospital.’
‘I gathered,’ I replied sarcastically and regretted it immediately. ‘I’m sorry. It’s not your fault,’ I said and she waved her hand as if it was nothing to worry about. I love nurses. They have one of the worst and hardest jobs in the world and yet they can still be gracious about being snapped at ‘What happened?’
‘We were hoping you could tell us, actually. We found you last night, unconscious by the A&E’s front door.’
‘Do you know what brought you here?’
‘I have no idea. I’m healthy. Never had any problems… I can’t remember,’ I finally said and realised that I was scared.
‘What’s the last thing you remember then?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I said. I thought I could remember someone’s green eyes, but I didn’t know anyone with green eyes. I considered it for a moment ‘Sitting at home, looking at the snow. We were snowed in… How did I get here if the road was blocked?’
‘All right. Let me ask you this: what was the date?’
‘I’m not sure,’ I laughed ‘I’m self-employed and my days are all jumbled up. End of the week. So nineteenth? Twentieth?’
‘You’ve lost over a week, dear.’
‘A week?!’ I panicked. But stupidly, I panicked about a job I was supposed to finish. Did I finish it? I didn’t want to appear unreliable.
‘Calm down. It happens sometimes and it certainly could be worse. I’ll get a doctor, but I can tell you right now that we’ll have to keep you in for some tests. In the meantime, do you want me to call anyone?’
‘I can call…’ I started and looked around. I had a hospital gown on me and nothing else.
‘Your clothes are by the bed but there was no phone.’
‘I had no backpack? No handbag?’
‘Um. Ok. Would you mind calling my brother?’
‘Of course, love. Do you know his number?’ she said handing me a clipboard.
‘I don’t,’ I realised ‘It was in my phone and I never bothered learning it!’
‘That’s ok. Take a moment. We’ll figure it out. Does he have a job?’
‘Yes. He works in the City.’
‘Well, there you are. Just write down his name and where he works and I can track him down.’
‘Thank you so much,’ I said.
I was overwhelmed. It’s so weird how much we carry in our phones and handbags and when those are gone, it can feel like we’ve been pushed out of our own lives. Whatever had happened, I’d lost only a week, and for that I was grateful. My life wasn’t exciting at the best of times and I liked it that way, but not remembering anything was still making me panic. Thankfully, I was distracted by the doctors shining lights into my eyes and taking me away to tests, checking for brain damage. Maybe I’d banged my head and couldn’t remember it.
All the tests came out negative. Apparently I was very healthy and there were no signs of any injury. It was a mystery to us all, but at least I knew who I was and where I lived. I sat there, completely lost and unsure as to what I should do next. I knew I was wasting valuable space. There was nothing wrong with me, at least nothing obvious, and I felt guilty about wasting the doctors’ and nurses’ time. I was just considering asking them to call me a cab, when I saw a tall, skinny figure in an expensive coat walking towards me.
‘Simon!’ I almost jumped out of the bed, but the hospital gown made me feel very self-conscious. As pale and unhealthy-looking as he was, it was still wonderful to see his face. My workaholic brother, who barely ever left his office had cut his workday short just for me. I was (almost) touched.
‘What have you done now?’ he smiled and gave me a big hug.
’What have I done? What about you?’ I said ‘You left work early just to come see me?’
‘Don’t be an idiot. You’re my family. And you’re in the hospital.’
‘But they must have told you it’s not life-threatening.’
‘Yes it is. If you keep making me look like someone who doesn’t give a shit, I’ll kill you myself.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so glad you’re here.’
‘Have they found out anything?’ he asked and sat down, still holding my hand.
‘No. They have no idea what happened. I’m healthy and there is no sign of any injuries. But I have no idea how I got here, and I seem to have lost over a week.’
‘They told me,’ he replied with a frown and looked around ‘So what’s next?’
‘I want to go. I’m wasting everyone’s time here, and there is nothing else they can do for me. Can you drive me home?’
‘Of course I can. But I have an idea: you get dressed and ready to go, and I’ll check the parking lot. There is a chance that you drove here yourself and that your car is still here.’
‘I have no keys. They would be in my bag, but I didn’t have it on me when I arrived.’
‘You could have left it in the car.’
‘Maybe. But knowing myself and women in general: how unwell would I have to feel to leave my car without taking the keys?’
‘Worth a try,’ he shrugged ‘They did find you unconscious so you obviously weren’t well.’
‘Fair point. Thank you.’
‘Is James on his way? Have they called him?’
‘Oh, you’re hilarious,’ he rolled his eyes ‘But I’m flattered if you asked them to call me first instead of your boyfriend.’
‘I don’t have a boyfriend.’
‘Yes, you do. You introduced us only yesterday... Ooooh,’ he finally realised ‘You can’t remember.’
‘No shit, genius. I have a boyfriend?’
‘I have a boyfriend?’ I asked again ‘So, in just a few days, I met someone, developed a relationship and brought him to meet my brother?’
‘What can I say: you’re easy,’ he laughed and jumped away knowing what was coming.
‘Piss off!’ I tried to hit him with a pillow and missed. He may have been overworked and tired, but he was a nimble bastard ‘What about Graham?’ I asked.
’What about Graham?’ he shrugged ‘That ended a while ago and you must remember that.’
‘I do. It’s just…’
‘I don’t’ know,’ I shrugged. I’d only recently been dumped. Well, officially it was a mutual split, but we both knew it was because Graham didn’t want to be with me anymore. Supposedly because he changed his mind and decided that one day he did want to have kids and I couldn’t have them. But I suspected that he’d met somebody else. There’d been signs many women notice but choose to ignore, and I ignored them too. What did I know, after all? He still cared, told me he loved me and made little loving gestures often, like bringing me fresh croissants in the morning or taking me out for lunch when he thought I was working too much. It could’ve been just my imagination, but after the split I realised that all that was a pretence, an act. He was probably just trying not to get caught… But I had no proof and still I tried to believe that it was a mutual break-up. And I didn’t want to admit that it had been hard getting over Graham. Could I really have got into a new relationship so quickly?
‘Good riddance,’ Simon said ‘He was a weasly weasel.’
‘Weasly weasel?’ I laughed.
Simon never found my car. Apparently, I had arrived at the hospital some other way. The mystery deepened, but all I wanted to know was who this James person was. And how I could possibly take him to meet my brother mere days after meeting him.
‘You didn’t bring him to meet me. He had a job interview in London and you stayed over at my place.’
‘A job interview? For what?’
‘I’m not sure,’ he said.
‘You’re not sure?’
‘Nope. He is a top bloke, though.’
‘Why are you surprised? Is it your track-record? Do you think that after one weasel you’d only settle for another?’
‘Oh, stop it,’ I laughed but couldn’t help feeling sad.
’You told me he was a ‘friend’ but…’ he lifted a finger to silence my “Aha” and continued ‘you did share a bed. And it was obvious, anyway. You were so into him it was pathetic.’
‘Pathetic?’ I asked and folded my arms.
‘Maybe not pathetic. But clear as day.’
‘That doesn’t prove…’ I started.
‘He was into you as well. I’m telling you: it’s a late Christmas miracle but you found a really nice man.’
‘Where is he then? Why isn’t he by my side?’
‘How is he supposed to know what happened?’
It was the most bizarre feeling in the world. ‘Top bloke’ in my brother’s vocabulary was very high praise indeed, and I was looking forward to meeting this person. But I was also worried that I had jumped into something too soon, that I was somehow overcompensating for what had happened with my ex. I didn’t want to be that girl.
‘What else?’ I asked.
‘What do you mean, what else?’
‘I remember nothing, Simon! Apparently I’m in some sort of a relationship and I can’t remember it. What else can you tell me?’
‘All right, all right. No reason to be snappy.’
‘Really? No reason?’
‘Fair enough. Um… I only spoke to him in the morning, yesterday. You were asleep, and we had a chat over breakfast. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy… Scottish, smart, very honest but without any malice.’
‘Yeah, as if he doesn’t have a great bullshit filter. If you ask him a question, he will answer it honestly, regardless of what it might be. Some people don’t like it, but I think it was refreshing. If you don’t want to hear an honest answer, don’t ask the question!’ he laughed.
‘What does he look like?’
’Oh. Tall, light hair. I know you thought he was handsome.’
‘That’s it?’ I asked with exasperation.
‘I’m a bloke. I don’t exactly care much about other men’s appearance. Ask Nana.’
‘Nana? I introduced him to Nana?’ I was shocked. Apparently, I had introduced this man to the two most important people in my life within days of meeting him. My brother looked as though he was really trying hard to come up with something more.
‘Green eyes!’ he exclaimed triumphantly ‘He has green eyes. I remember asking if he had contacts because they were so green.’
‘Well, he certainly seems like my dream man’ I said a little ironically but, in truth, he really did sound like what I had imagined my ideal man to be when I was a young girl ‘I can’t wait to meet him.’
‘You already have. And it went pretty well.’
We left the hospital and drove through the quiet English countryside, and I immediately felt better. I wasn’t good with cities and crowds, and merely getting back to my home village was doing wonders for my reeling mind. It was already evening when we drove down the country road leading to the old, single-floor house in which I’d grown up. I couldn’t help noticing that my car wasn’t standing in the driveway.
‘Great,’ I said ‘What am I going to do now? Do I report it stolen or what?’
‘You don’t know what happened. Maybe James borrowed it? Maybe you left it somewhere? Give it time. You might still remember. The doctors did say…’ he started and fell silent. There was someone standing in front of my house.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked, peering through the dark at the woman waiting for us.
We got out of the car, and I immediately felt tired and old in my rumpled clothes and smudged makeup from the day before. The woman was stunning: perfectly symmetrical, smooth face with big eyes and full lips, not a hair out of place and not a wrinkle on her beautiful, fitted coat. But not a hint of friendliness in her expression either.
‘I’m here to take you to your friend,’ she said to me.
‘My friend?’ I asked.
‘Your new best friend,’ she insisted, staring at me, as if trying to read my thoughts.
‘Oh, I’m very sorry,’ I said when it finally clicked ‘I’m not religious.’
‘You’re not religious?’ she repeated.
‘No. I don’t believe in the “best friend” in the sky,’ I replied and wanted to keep walking, but she stood in my way, staring, as if what I’d just said was too hard to understand and reading my mind was easier. She looked at my brother and then back at me and she finally seemed to get it.
‘Oh. But this is even better,’ she said with a joyous little clap of her gloved hands. There may have been a little happy jump as well, but I was too preoccupied with her reaction to pay close attention ‘What great news!’ she exclaimed and walked gracefully past us. A large, black Mercedes drove up the road towards her and she got in. I could still hear her saying: ‘This is going to be great!’ We stared after her for a moment, completely lost.
‘What a nut,’ I finally said.
‘Amazing,’ he agreed ‘how deceiving looks can be. All I could think was how stunning she was, and I found it hard to concentrate on what she was saying.’
‘But it registered at some point?’
‘When she was driving away.’
‘Well done,’ I patted him on the back ‘Can you open the door?’
‘Oh, right,’ he remembered and pulled out his keys.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I went in looking for clues to my lost week. A single long brown hair on the kitchen counter… Mine. A crumpled sketch under the table… Also mine. But then I moved on to the more obvious clues: a large amount of dishes in the dishwasher and in the sink suggested that I hadn’t eaten alone for at least a few days. The fridge was also stocked for two. Was this mysterious boyfriend eating every meal with me?
‘Lottie,’ asked Simon ‘Do you want me to stay with you tonight?’
I opened my mouth to say: ‘Don’t be silly’ but it wouldn’t come out.
‘Would you mind?’
‘Of course not,’ he scoffed ‘And I don’t fancy driving back late anyway.’
‘Well, the guest-room is all yours,’ I smiled and gave him a hug. I missed my brother, and it was wonderful to have him with me; especially now, when I felt so lost in my own home.
I went to the living room to look for something to spark my memory but nothing out of ordinary stood out.
‘Spare bed sheets?’ Simon called from the guest bedroom.
‘The linen closet, duh,’ I replied and, realising that the bed should already have been made, I joined him in the guest bedroom. It was obvious I’d had someone staying with me. The bed was slept in, and there were some clothes in the closet. And there was an inflatable mattress stuffed underneath the bed, the spare blankets still on it. Without a word I went to my own bedroom and noticed no changes. No extra books, no slippers on the other side of the bed, no sleeping clothes other than mine. If someone had slept with me in my bed, there was no sign of that here.
‘If he’s my boyfriend, why was he sleeping in the guest bedroom?’ I asked.
‘What makes you think that the person in the guest room was him?’ he replied and I thought about it for a moment.
‘This is so frustrating!’ I said finally ‘My life is not a mystery. I like it quiet and organised. I don’t need this,’ I said and went back to the guest room. There was nothing on the desk or on the side tables, but the clothes in the closet looked familiar. I picked up a shirt.
‘This is Graham’s,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes. I bought this for him. He left a whole bunch of clothes behind and never wanted them back. This is his shirt.’
‘If he never wanted them back, why would he be wearing them now?’
‘This is so confusing,’ I said, looking around ‘I’m definitely not back together with him because he was staying in the guest bedroom.’
‘Not to mention: you have a new boyfriend. Non-weasling one.’
‘The fridge is stocked for two as well. What’s going on?’
‘What makes you think that it was Graham sleeping here, though?’
‘It’s his clothes.’
‘You said he never liked them and left them behind. Maybe you gave them to someone else?’
‘Well,’ I said and tentatively sniffed the shirt. Simon made a face but I liked the scent. It was clean and pleasant and it definitely wasn’t Graham’s. Not that Graham used to smell bad, but I knew his scent and this wasn’t it ‘You’re right. Graham hasn’t worn this.’
‘Maybe it was James,’ he shrugged.
‘But why would he be sleeping here?’
‘Maybe he was giving you some space,’ he said mockingly ‘Maybe you thought it was too soon to share a bedroom?’
‘But not too soon to share a house? Or share a bed in your flat? This doesn’t make any sense!’ I stamped my foot in frustration ‘And how about that spare mattress? It’s obviously been used.’
‘Maybe you had a party?’ he ventured with a smile.
‘I don’t do parties, you know that.’
‘I see you’re still building snowmen,’ he said, and I could tell he was trying to change the subject to alleviate my exasperation.
‘If there is snow, there is meant to be snowmen,’ I replied automatically.
‘This one looks great,’ he commented and I looked outside. It was hard to see the two snowmen in the dark but I could tell that one was an old-fashioned job of three balls stacked on top of each other. But the other one looked like a snow sculpture. I walked closer to the widow and saw that it was a female figure, her arms crossed, facing the other snowman.
‘Is that you?’ asked Simon in awe.
We put on our shoes, turned on the back garden lights and went outside. The sculpture was me. We walked around it, staring at it from every angle, almost afraid to touch it. It had obviously been standing there for a few days, and some of the detail had worn off or melted slightly, but the similarity was undeniable. Someone – definitely not me – had carved my effigy in snow, and it looked exactly like me. She was my height, with her hair falling in waves onto her shoulders and back, her arms folded and her head slightly tilted. She had attitude, and I was flattered. She even had a snow-sculpted sweater that looked exactly like my favourite one. My brother took out his phone and took some pictures. Not happy with that, he also filmed it, walking around and zooming in on the details.
‘Amazing,’ he said ‘You definitely didn’t do this.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ I laughed ’I am an artist, you know.’
‘Yeah,’ he agreed ‘But you don’t sculpt. And you wouldn’t sculpt yourself. You’re not that big-headed.’
‘What? That was a compliment.’
We couldn’t stay out there forever, no matter how stunning the sculpture was, so we got back inside. Especially since Simon made me realise that I had probably also taken some photos when I saw this sculpture for the first time. I went to get my camera and popped the card into my laptop. Sure enough, there they were. I had taken dozens of photos, and I was thankful for a good quality camera: it showed details that were no longer there. This was an amazing piece of work, and as much as I enjoyed going through the pictures, I was hoping that somewhere among them would be a photo of the artist. No such luck. Apparently, I concentrated on someone else’s work and ignored the creator. I closed the laptop and remembered that I was supposed to check the progress of my own work. The illustrations I had been working on for a children’s book were supposed to be finished by the end of the month, and I wanted to see what I had come up with in the previous week. It would be interesting to see work that I couldn’t remember, and I was quite happy with what I found. I obviously couldn’t recall drawing any of it, but it was definitely my style and the results were rather pleasing. Another day’s work and I could send them off.
I went through the drafts and smiled. My memory might not work properly, but it would seem that I did follow the plan I’d had for the drawings. I noticed a few pages of sketches I didn’t recognise, and I realised they weren’t mine. There were some child-like doodles there and then some more fleshed-out sketches. I looked through them and found one of two people sitting at a table. It took me a moment to realise that the pair was sitting at my kitchen table and that I was one of them.
‘Simon,’ I said, walking into the spare bedroom where he was changing the sheets ‘Look at this.’
‘What’s up?’ he asked taking the drawing from me ‘Oh, hey. That’s James.’
‘Yeah. That’s you and him. That’s really good. Did you draw this?’
‘No. I know my style and this is not mine. Also, I would have signed it.’
‘Well, someone here is very talented,’ he said and pointed outside, where the snow me was standing in the cold.
‘Cheers,’ I laughed ‘So this is James?’
‘Yup. And if I remember correctly you call him Jamie,’ he shrugged ‘A little thing, but I would assume you’d find it important.’
‘I do. Thank you,’ I said taking the drawing back.
‘I’m going to jump in the shower now. Unless you want to go first?’
‘No. That’s ok. You go.’
I went back to my studio and stared at the drawing. Apparently Jamie had thick hair and beautiful features. And there was a slight asymmetry in his angular face, delicate enough to not be obvious, but noticeable enough to make him manly. There were more sketches of my furniture and of me, but this one was the best. It was as if the others were a warm-up and this was the real thing. He was handsome and I couldn’t help but think that my brother was playing a trick on me and I had never met this Jamie. He sounded lovely, looked great and was nowhere to be seen.
My brother brought me out of my self-pity marathon.
‘Bathroom’s free!’ he called just like he used to when we were teenagers. I laughed and went to my bedroom to get my pyjamas. Something made me stop and open the cupboard in the corridor. I used it as storage for random bits and pieces and for the box of a few of my parents’ clothes that I had kept because I couldn’t bring myself to donate them all. The box was open and some of the things were missing. My father’s coat and shoes. Even his hat! I sat down, ready to cry, but as I went through the contents of the box, neatly folded and wrapped in plastic, I realised that whoever took out my father’s coat was very careful, almost reverential, in the way they removed it. Everything was still in perfect order, arranged neatly and carefully as it always was. Nobody breaks into a person’s home just to steal an old coat. It was me! It must have been me. I would never think of removing any of those things. Not without a good reason.
I started putting things together. It still didn’t make sense but I saw something emerge from the messy clues around my house. Whoever was staying in my house wore Graham’s old clothes. For whatever reason, instead of finally donating them to charity, I gave them to my mystery guest. For some reason or other, that person didn’t seem to have any clothes, as everything in the guest bedroom used to belong to Graham. However, my ex had never left any coats or shoes behind, so it would make sense to give – no, lend – those to that person as well. That surely didn’t make sense, did it? Had I welcomed into my house someone who needed a whole new wardrobe? I was about to scream in frustration, but I remembered that I wasn’t alone and that my brother didn’t know I still had a box of our parents’ clothes. He would think that I couldn’t let them go – which was true – and I didn’t want that conversation added to all the mess that was my life right now. I tried to contain my tears, carefully closed the box and pushed it deeper into the cupboard.
‘Someone called,’ said Simon when I emerged from the shower (two tooth-brushes and a spare towel were another clue, together with more towels and bed sheets in the hamper) ‘They left a message. A job offer.’
‘A job offer?’
‘They want you to do some illustrations for a book about bees, I think. From what I overheard.’
‘Bees,’ he repeated.
I listened to the message and it was succinct and to the point. Simon was right: book about bees. The company sounded familiar and I was too tired to look them up, but I didn’t think they were a publisher. I called them back and was surprised when they answered. Who works so late at night?
‘Ah, yes. Wonderful,’ said the man on the other side ‘Thank you for calling back. We saw your work elsewhere, and we would love for you to illustrate our book.’
‘I usually do children’s books,’ I said.
’It is a children’s book. Teaching them about bees.’
‘Fair enough,’ I thought and replied: ‘If you’re sure I’m the right person…’
‘Oh, absolutely. We love your style and think you’d be great. How about a meeting tomorrow?’
‘The sooner the better,’ he said, and I disliked him immediately.
‘Tomorrow’s no good. I have some other illustrations to finish and I want to get them done on time. And I have something else going on at the moment.’
‘Of course, of course. We heard you’re very reliable.’
‘Well… of course. We did our research. How about in two days’ time?’
‘Um…’ I hesitated and he threw a number at me – the amount they were willing to pay. I was stunned ’Is this a joke? I asked.
‘It’s not a joke. We’re simply quite desperate to work with you.’
I hesitated. If it was some sort of a joke – I’d waste time but, otherwise, no harm done. On the other hand, being self-employed, I couldn’t really risk not meeting with them.
‘Two days then,’ I said finally and arranged to meet him at a café close to where my brother lived. At least I wouldn’t have to go far if this was some sort of a weird prank ‘Were you eavesdropping?’ I asked through the door.
‘Yup,’ said Simon.
‘They’re offering me a ridiculous amount of money. Nobody gets paid that much for illustrations. Not unless they’re a famous artist.’
‘Maybe you’re getting famous,’ he smiled.
‘I wish,’ I replied ‘Listen,’ I started but he interrupted.
‘You want to stay at my place? Closer to the interview, right?’
‘Well. I was hoping you’d stay the weekend, and then I could bum a ride to London from you. But I’m guessing you were planning on working this weekend…’
‘Actually, I wasn’t.’
‘Things are going to be a little different now. I’m even going to take a holiday soon,’ he said proudly.
‘You are?’ I asked, shocked.
‘I know!’ he giggled ‘You should have seen them in the office when I told them. But they’re happy. They were worried I’d burn out too quickly.’
‘As opposed to burning out later, like you’re supposed to?’ I quipped.
‘You’re hilarious, you know that?’
‘I do, actually,’ I said and shook my head ‘You’re taking a holiday.’
‘It was James’s idea, really.’
‘But we kept telling you for years!’
‘He told me differently,’ he laughed.
‘The man is magic,’ I said.
‘He is, you lucky, lucky girl. How did you bag him?’
‘I don’t know!’ I wailed and he laughed again. I hadn’t seen my brother so relaxed and cheerful in a very long time ‘A holiday!’ I shook my head ’And you’re taking the weekend off as well. All those things, all those changes and that’s the week I miss. That’s what I can’t remember. This isn’t fair!’
‘Cheer up. It could be worse. There are people who forget their whole lives.’
‘I know. It’s just frustrating.’
‘Just think: you could have forgotten Nana. Or our parents… Or me!’
‘I’d live,’ I said to which his answer was punching me in the arm.
On Saturday, after breakfast, Simon went for a long walk. He admitted afterwards that he was finding it hard not to think too much, not to look at his phone and to just try to enjoy the exercise and the views. He seemed a little lost as he’d forgotten how to do anything but work. My answer to that was to send him over to my bookshelves and tell him to find something to read. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d read a book for pleasure, and I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry. But he did find something that he thought he’d enjoy and spent the rest of the day reading. I was very glad to see him learning to relax and taking his time to do things rather than rush all the time. He was still reading over dinner, and I couldn’t believe that this man was my brother. The same man who worked from home on Sundays because his bosses refused to let him come to work seven days a week.
On Sunday he decided that he would go and see Nana. I was seriously worried that the shock of him going to visit without a reason would kill her, so I made him call her first. She squealed so loudly I could hear her from my studio. A late Christmas present, I thought.
He promised not to tell her that I’d been to the hospital as we agreed that there was no reason to worry her about one missing week. My memory might come back or it might not, but she shouldn’t have to worry about it if nothing serious actually happened. I was still alive and apparently healthy, so we decided to keep my hospital visit quiet.
I worked both days, wanting to finish the drawings and send them off to be approved before Monday. As I worked, I sometimes wouldn’t even remember that there was a weird mystery in my life. When I did, I’d glance at the phone, willing it to call, hoping that the magic Jamie would call and unlock my memory. But he never did. And I wondered where he was and how long it normally took him to call. I’d look at the drawing of the two of us and wonder, yet again, if my brother had made the whole thing up. Perhaps he was making me believe that I had a boyfriend in order to stop me from thinking of Graham. It’s not as if I’d been completely hung up on Graham - the split was for the best - but maybe Simon sensed that getting over the situation was taking me a lot longer than it should. But then I’d shake my head at my own stupidity. Simon wouldn’t do something like that. He’d be direct and tell me to get over it. And he’d call Graham a weasel, I laughed to myself, a weasely weasel. At least, we suspected weasely business, yet there was no proof of that, and I’d rather give him the benefit of the doubt.
Simon came back after dinner, happy and full of Nana’s baking.
‘I feel like I’ve gained a lot of weight,’ he said, patting his stomach ‘She practically force-fed me all day.’
‘Good. You’re too skinny.’
‘That’s what she kept saying. She always says that.’
‘Because it’s true. But then she says that to most people, doesn’t she?’
‘It’s just an excuse to get rid of all the cake. She bakes too much and doesn’t want it to go to waste.’
‘It wouldn’t. You know she’d eat it all herself.’
‘How is she not diabetic?’
‘It’s a mystery,’ I shrugged ‘But let’s hope we’ve got her genes and stay as healthy as she is for as long as she has.’
‘So you don’t want dinner?’ I laughed.
‘Don’t even mention food to me,’ he winced ‘I need to lie down.’
’What time do we need to leave tomorrow? I don’t want you to be late for work.
‘Early. Six? I’d prefer to get home first as I don’t want to drive to work. And I need to put on some fresh clothes first anyway.’
‘Six it is. Oh, do you want some peppermint tea before you go to sleep? To help you digest all those goodies that Nana fed you?’
‘Yes, please,’ he said with a pained expression ‘Say what you will about working too much, but at least when I did, she was only be able to do this to me when I visited over the holidays.’
‘She misses you.’
‘No reason to try and kill me.’
‘Oh, stop moaning. You poor thing: your Nana loves you and feeds you goodies. How horrible.’
Simon’s flat was beautiful and bright, overlooking a small, shared garden. It was also tastefully decorated; he’d paid to have it professionally done but wouldn’t really know any better if a random person from the street did it for him.
He lived in one of those nondescript buildings that you could find only thanks to very specific directions or a GPS. Although the wealthy people who lived there could easily afford to buy a house elsewhere, they chose to share their space with many others, stacked one on top of another. Their flats were beautiful and expensive but, personally, I never appreciated the crowds in the streets or the noise behind the windows. And, depending on the thickness of the walls, there was always the chance of hearing every personal detail of your neighbours’ lives.
Simon left me his keys, since I obviously couldn’t remember where I’d left mine. I knew they were probably in my bag, but the bag was gone. Thankfully I still had all my bank cards so there was no need to cancel those, but I kept worrying about my car. I hadn’t called anyone about it, hoping I’d remember what had happened, although there was not even the tiniest memory resurfacing. I kept wishing that maybe a random object would stir my memory and make it all come back to me. Maybe the drawings, or the snowman in my garden… but nothing did. I would have to do something about the car. Would the insurers pay me? Was I insured against things like amnesia? Gods knew!
I went to the meeting at the café completely relaxed. I didn’t even need to bring a portfolio as, apparently, they were “desperate” to work with me. We’ll see, I thought and didn’t even bother to dress up. Jeans and a top, with my hair loose. It felt good to be self-employed.
Walking into the café, I realised I didn’t know who I was looking for and, even more embarrassingly, I also remembered that I had completely forgotten to research the company. The name did sound familiar and it definitely wasn’t made up, but it’s just unprofessional not to look these things up. However, I was now out of time, and someone was waving me over. A man stood up from his table, and for a second I thought he looked a little like a brother - or a male version - of the crazy lady I’d met in front of my house after coming back from the hospital. He wasn’t handsome; he was beautiful. Everything about his face and hair was soft and perfect. Not a blemish or a spot on him and even his hair seemed to naturally fall in attractive, dark waves onto his smooth forehead. He was probably in his early forties, and I was willing to bet that his perfectly-cut suit was worth more than my car (wherever it was). He was so pretty; he was too pretty. But his handshake was firm, and I always liked proper handshakes. None of that dead-fishy nonsense.
‘Steve,’ he said ‘It’s wonderful to finally meet you.’
‘I’m not a rock star. It’s quite easy to track me down,’ I laughed.
‘We are genuinely quite excited about working with you, though,’ he insisted. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I looked down and noticed that all the tables had little vases with flowers in them. Ours was lily of the valley and I got momentarily excited until I realised that it was plastic. I must have scoffed or made a face without realising because he immediately pulled me up on it.
‘Not a fan of plastic flowers?’
‘I have no opinion on plastic plants, but lily of the valley is my favourite flower so it’s disappointing that it’s not real. I’ll live,’ I laughed, feeling silly ‘So, please, tell me more about this book.’
‘Right, yes. It’s meant as a sort of educational book for children.’
‘What’s the age group?’
‘Um. Five to twelve?’
‘That’s a wide range.’
‘Haven’t you discussed this internally?’
‘Well, yes but this sort of thing is not what we specialise in.’
‘Right,’ was all I said because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know what it was that they specialised in ‘Wouldn’t that be even more reason to discuss it or hire an advisor?’
‘Maybe,’ he said ‘But we’re not publishing this book to make money from it.’
‘No. It’s only meant as an educational tool, and that’s what we’re investing in.’
‘So what exactly would you need from me?’
‘Between eight and fifteen drawings – we’re not certain yet. General flower stuff and pollinators: so not only bees but also moths, beetles, butterflies and a couple others.’
‘That’s fairly general.’
‘We have faith in you,’ he shrugged ‘We can be more specific if you want, but we would like to make sure that you’re on board first.’
‘Could I see the content first?’ I asked.
‘Oh, of course,’ he said ‘I can email it to you tonight. Is that ok?’
‘Sure. Anything else? Do you need those illustrations in any specific style? You did say that you’d seen my work, so maybe you can tell me which ones you liked the most? Or give me examples of something I should aim for?’
‘Realistic,’ he said after a moment ‘apart from that, it’s all your choice.’
‘Ok,’ I said but I was quite annoyed. Nothing worse than someone telling you they’re not sure of what they want. Usually, after you put hours of work into it all, they tell you that’s not what they’re looking for. Just be bloody specific!
‘Tell you what,’ he said, as if reading my mind ‘Why don’t you do a quick sketch today - if you have time, that is - and email it to me? But I can honestly say that we’re not very picky. We just want some drawings of pollinators.’
‘Why don’t you just use photos? It would be cheaper for you.’
‘We want you,’ he insisted and I felt a little uncomfortable with that statement as he uttered it very seriously, while staring for a long while ‘So what was that job you said you had to finish over the weekend?’ he asked suddenly. I was surprised by the question but described the book to him and he nodded politely as I talked. But there was nothing in his eyes that showed he cared, so I cut it short expecting to continue this bizarre meeting. However, he kept asking questions about me; where I studied, what I studied exactly, if my family supported my desire to be an artist, if I was happy doing what I did, and loads of others. I tried giving him short, general answers as I think that asking personal questions at a meeting like this is not very professional. I had a weird feeling that maybe he wanted me to ask him some questions as well, so that he’d have an excuse to brag. He was already flashing his watch, making sure that his sleeve was up, and everyone could see the diamonds, or whatever they were. And then it hit me: was he trying to turn this into some weird date? All this pretence that he was listening, the personal questions, the assertion that his company didn’t care much about the money from the book (meaning: they have enough money, as it is)? I looked at him more carefully, and realised that I was right. He was trying, very flimsily in my opinion, to seduce me. For such a young, beautiful and successful man, it appeared that he had very little idea of how to actually go about it. Maybe he never had to before? Maybe women threw themselves at him, and he never had to seduce them? Was it so important that everyone fancied him that he would turn a business meeting into a weird speed-dating event? I was so gobsmacked that I completely blanked another one of his questions. The disbelief mixed with pity were too much for me, and I sniggered.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, trying to compose myself as he stared ‘It’s not your question. I just remembered something,’ I said and laughed again at my own lies. I so wanted to tell him that he was disturbing, and that he was definitely barking up the wrong tree (and that apparently, I was in a relationship with an ideal man already) but the possibility of a well-paid job made me keep it to myself.
‘That’s ok,’ he said with good humour and glanced at his watch ‘I am terribly sorry but I have to leave. I have another meeting. But I’ll be in touch. Is that ok?’
‘Sure,’ I giggled and wiped a tear off ‘Do you still want me to send you a sketch as an example today?’
‘What? Oh, yes, please,’ he replied, pulled out a fifty-pound note from his pocket and put it next to the tea-pot that neither of us had touched. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you,’ he said, shook my hand, gave me his card and left. I watched him get into a dark Porsche and drive away. As I looked at the money he’d left on the table, I snorted again. He hadn’t done anything wrong, really, and it was unfair of me to laugh at him. On the other hand, if he thought that a massive tip, an expensive watch and a few personal questions would make me swoon, then he had it all wrong about people in general. Poor rich man.
I left the café with a smile on my face. Almost immediately after I got back to Simon’s flat the intercom buzzed: delivery. For me, apparently. It was a basket of lily of the valley, and they smelled so beautifully that I completely forgot to ask how the delivery woman knew where to find me. By the time I pulled my nose out of the basket, she was gone.
I was torn: on the one hand, I was touched that he was still trying; on the other, I couldn’t possibly have made such an impression on him. I was not a model, and I was probably much older than the women he usually dated. For some reason, I didn’t see him ever going out with someone who was not in her twenties. But I decided to give him a break. He was trying to be sweet and thoughtful and it’s the actions that matter in the end. And maybe I did tell him where I’d be staying?
I got out some pencils, researched pollinators and drew a big, fat bumblebee on a tiny flower that was bending under the weight. I scanned and emailed it to Steve hoping that he wasn’t going to get back to me with: ‘That’s not really what we’re looking for. Can you change it?’ Just as I was putting away the pencils, the intercom buzzed again. It was another basket of flowers. I wasn’t sure what to think anymore and sat down, staring at them for quite some time before, again, pulling out the card I had been given by Steve. The logo brought up some unpleasant connotations, so I finally looked him up and I didn’t like what I saw. He was the CEO of the pesticide-producing company that was trying to reverse a ban on its product, despite the fact that it was lethal to bees. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t clicked before. I had recognised the company name but not what they did, and I should have known better. I kept researching and found a piece of information on a planned ‘children’s book’ about pollinators. It was meant to teach children that bees were not the only pollinator - that they were actually only a minor part of a wider world of pollinators. The way I saw it, they were trying to teach the younger generation that we didn’t actually need the bees because they’re not that important. The intercom buzzed again and it was yet another basket of my favourite flowers. How appropriate, I thought, beautiful-smelling but very poisonous plants sent by a beautiful man who is poisonous to the environment.
I couldn’t possibly work with them, could I? Put my name on something produced as propaganda? I sat down and tried to write a polite email to Steve. Nothing rude. Just a simple ‘I won’t be able to collaborate with you on your project’ but had difficulties coming up with the right phrases. Simon came back from work, and I was still struggling with the email.
‘Am I doing the right thing?’ I asked.
‘Refusing to work with them?’
’They are very dodgy. But the decision is yours. Which will you regret more: working with them or saying no to all that money?’
‘I might need a new car…’ I moaned.
‘Would you be able to drive it without hating yourself?’
‘Well, then I think you’ve made your decision.’
‘I think you’re right. But I still can’t find the right words. I don’t want to be rude and tell him what I really think of him, but…’
‘You’re usually pretty straight forward, so you haven’t developed the ability to bullshit. Do you want me to write it for you?’
‘No. I’ll do it myself. Thanks, though.’
The phone rang and Simon answered.
‘It’s for you,’ he said with surprise.
‘Hello?’ I answered.
‘Hello. My name is Amy,’ I heard. It turned out that Steve was still working and the PR managers would like to meet me.
‘I don’t think…’ I started.
‘The car is on its way,’ she said ‘We’re obviously not assuming that you’ll say yes, but they’d like to speak with you a little more about the project. We’re looking forward to having you here,’ she said and with a sing-song ‘Byeee’ she hung up.
‘What’s just happened?’ I asked.
‘You’ve just been had by a corporation.’
‘I think I’ll call her back.’
‘And say what?’ he smiled ’Are you going to be able to tell her that you don’t want to work with them because they’re dodgy?
‘Shit,’ I realised. This was weird. Usually, I found it fairly easy to tell the truth, but that day I didn’t ‘What the hell?’
‘You’ve been intimidated. How does that feel?’
‘Wow, it’s like some sort of super power: intimidation. Isn’t it?’
‘Absolutely,’ he agreed ‘When they buzz, I can tell them you’re not in.’
‘Would you?’ I asked hopefully.
‘Sure. I have experience with people like that.’
‘Thank you so much,’ I said ’I’ll just write the email and be done with it.
Only a few minutes later, just as I was finishing the email, there was a knock on the door. Simon opened it and stood speechless as an absolutely stunning lady in a suit smiled at him. How many, unreal-looking people had I met in the previous few days? Everywhere I looked, only beautiful, perfect people. And my brother was completely taken by this one.
‘Hello,’ she said ‘I’m here to pick up Charlotte.’
‘Um,’ was all he managed to say.
‘So sorry. I know we’re supposed to buzz but someone was leaving the building and held the door for me. Is that ok?’
‘Sure, sure,’ he said ‘Just a moment. Lottie!’ he called.
‘The car is here for you! Are you ready yet?’ he asked, smiling at the girl. She smiled back, and I noticed how perfect and white her teeth were.
‘The car is here,’ he repeated, still smiling at her ‘Do you want to come in?’
‘Um, sure. Thanks,’ she replied and followed him inside.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ I hissed at him as he came over to ‘make sure I was ready’.
’Did you see her? I can’t possibly tell her that you won’t be going.’
‘Look at her!’
‘What about it?’
‘She’s too pretty. I can’t. I don’t want to disappoint her.’
’Why not? She won’t care anyway. No skin off her nose.’
‘I can’t,’ he said ‘It’s impossible to tell her you’re not coming and ask her for her number at the same time, is it?’
’Look who’s talking. You wanted me to tell them that you won’t go.’
‘So do you want to ask her for her number now? Before I tell her to piss off?’
‘You have got to be kidding!’ I hissed when I realised what he was about to say.
‘You want me to go meet their bloody PR department just because you fancy a girl?’
‘No,’ I said and crossed my arms.
‘You go and tell her then.’
‘I will. She’s out of your league anyway.’
The girl was sitting in the kitchen with a glass of water, which my brother had kindly offered her.
‘Can I get you anything else?’ he said, hopefully.
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she said ‘Are you ready then?’
‘Well…’ I started.
‘Aren’t those lovely?’ she said, apparently only now noticing the baskets of flowers. I felt I was being manipulated into feeling guilty: I got flowers, a very generous offer and a car had been sent to pick me up. The least I could do was to tell them to their faces that I wasn’t interested. Master manipulators, I thought and sighed. I couldn’t tell this lovely, smiling woman that she had gone all this way only to get stared at by my brother.
‘Yes, let’s go,’ I managed and she got up. The girl was truly stunning, and I immediately felt old and ugly, just as I did with the religious nut at my house. She went, or glided rather, towards the door and I followed with my head hanging low in shame but, as I noticed my brother awkwardly hanging by, I motioned for him to ask for her number.
‘It’s weird with you here,’ he mouthed ‘You ask her,’ he added and jumped out of the way as I tried to grab him. I really wanted to hurt him then, but he was too quick for me. What a little shit! He had never planned on asking her for her phone number and wanted me to do it for him! He wouldn’t have to deal with the awkwardness himself, and she was more likely to give me her number after spending some time with me in the car. Sneaky little bastard.