By LR Fletcher
Sophie hesitates just inside the bar’s entrance, unsure how she’ll recognise her date. She hasn’t seen Ashton since they were eight, and his Facebook profile photo was less than helpful – she couldn’t even tell which of the three awkwardly-posing graduates was him. But, going on what her mum said, he should stand out like a nerd in a biker bar.
Lou’s is busy despite it being Tuesday night, but she’s wanted to come here for ages and the other young mums always dismiss it as “too rowdy” for their monthly girls’ nights. Ashton insisted she choose where they meet; this place should be a good test of whether he can fit in with her kind of crowd.
The omens aren’t good as she spots a mop of floppy hair bob toward her, apologising through the crowd in the brownest suit of all time (a suit! half the people in here look like they’ve never even seen a suit before, never mind worn one), a shirt the colour of weak tea, and one of those thin ties that only people who think “geek chic” is a real thing would ever wear.
It’s the sort of first impression that would normally have her jumping on the back of the first bike to get its engine running, but she’s determined to give him a chance. She’s here because she can’t keep on making the same mistakes.
“Hi Ashton!” she nods, hoping her forced smile doesn’t betray her apprehension.
“You’ve hardly changed! I’ve got us a table over there.”
He leads the way back through to the rear of the bar, to a booth with dirty crimson-leather benches and a wonky table. He’s not as tall as she’d like – it’s a good job she wore her combat boots instead of heels, she thinks, even though she’d had to put up with hassle from her mum. She’s worn a dress under her leather biker jacket, one that shows a bit of leg, and hasn’t put as much make-up on as usual; what more does she want? It’s not like he’ll mind; apparently he doesn’t think she’s changed since she was eight!
“You remember what I look like from back then?” she asks as they slide into opposite sides of the booth.
He tugs awkwardly at his tie and takes a long suck on the straw in his Coke. “Yeah. I mean, I always thought you were pretty, so…”
He’s sweet. It makes her uncomfortable, like there’s a little scratching sensation on the back of her neck.
“So, can I get you a drink?” he asks, and waves a waitress over.
“Yeah, a Ferryman’s Gold please. Thanks.”
The waitress takes the order, leaving them alone to scramble for an ice-breaker. To Sophie’s relief, Ashton finds one quickly: “So, you have a daughter?”
Sophie’s face lights up. “Abby, yeah, my little darling. She’s seven and has already decided she’s going to be Prime Minister!” Fishing her phone from her pocket, she shows him a photo.
“Oh wow, what an angel!” Ashton says. “Takes after her mum.”
Sophie gets that scratching on the back of her neck again, but puts it out of her mind. It was flattery, she reminds herself, it shouldn’t be a bad thing – she’s on a date, for crying out loud!
“She’s not bad, but she’s no angel! Looking after her is a full-time job!”
“So you don’t work?”
Why does he start every question with “so”? It’s so annoying. “Well…”
The waitress returning with Sophie’s beer saves her from having to explain how she isn’t a scrounger or a benefit cheat or a gold-digger. Her home is an extension of her parents’ house (but definitely separate, with its own address and everything) so she doesn’t pay rent or a mortgage, and she gets support payments from Abby’s father (the only thing he’s good for). Yeah, mum and dad help out occasionally, but…
“How about you?” she asks, shifting the subject. “Mum said you’re working on cars that drive themselves or something…?”
Now it’s Ashton’s turn to light up.
“Autonomous vehicles, yeah. It’s really interesting, actually. You know the critical reason for 93% of crashes is human error? Well, that’s in the US, but it’s not much different anywhere else. So, if we can replace the driver, we can make the roads safer and save the lives of millions of people. I mean, it’s a challenge. There’s some legal things to sort out, like who’s to blame if there’s an accident, because no passenger would want to be blamed if they weren’t driving; and there’s the issue of trusting the technology…”
She fades out, still nodding along occasionally, but her attention has drifted to the other drinkers at the bar. There’s a lot of denim and black leather and hair and tattoos – some amazing tattoos! – and a lot of male pheromones. There are never as many girls as men in these places, which Sophie likes. It puts the odds in her favour.
Her breath catches as she spots a guy alone at the bar who looks strikingly similar to someone else she knows, Tommy – the love of her life and the reason she’s on a date with Ashton. Tommy is engaged to Tammy (yes, really), and Sophie is so firmly in the friend-zone that she’s been asked to be bridesmaid. Ludicrously, mortifyingly, she said yes.
The lookalike’s beard isn’t quite as bushy, but his head is shaved just like Tommy’s. Hunched over his pint, he’s got the same damaged, loner vibe that makes her want to go look after him and make it all better. She can’t tell from here, but if his eyes are blue and half as piercing as Tommy’s then she’ll…
No. She returns her gaze to Ashton in front of her. He’s a good guy, a nice guy, who’s smart and responsible, and who would surely be a loving husband and father. And he’s actually interested in her.
Ashton wants to be here with her. Tommy doesn’t. Her attention should be on the man opposite who’s still talking passionately about his job.
“…But it’s not that simple either. Not all roads have white lines, and even if they do, sometimes they’re faded or unclear. So the cameras need to be really high definition to pick out any detail that will help the software work out where the road is…”
Ashton may be a lovely guy, and it’s nice he loves his job, but does he have to be soooo boring?! Maybe alcohol will help, she thinks, and gulps her beer.
“…Yes, theoretically, if it connects to the outside world then there’d be a potential vulnerability to hackers, but…”
No, she’s going to need something stronger.
Unconsciously, she keeps glancing at Tommy’s lookalike, but he doesn’t seem to notice her. Out of habit, she moves her finger to fiddle with her hair, but it isn’t there – her blonde pixie-cut is only a day old and she isn’t used to it yet. Another part of the New Sophie she’s having doubts about.
Suddenly, Ashton has stopped talking and is looking at her for an answer to a question that she had no idea he asked. “Sorry?” she says.
“Do you mind if I just pop to the toilet?” he asks. “Sorry, I’m a bit nervous!”
Sophie laughs to put him at ease. “No, of course not. I’m getting another drink, do you want one?”
“No, I’m fine for now, thanks.”
He hurries off. He’s nervous – that’s sweet. The scratching at the back of her neck is less noticeable; hopefully by the end of the evening she’ll actually enjoy how nice he is.
Rather than call the waitress over, Sophie strolls to the bar. This has nothing to do with Tommy’s lookalike, she tells herself, and it’s sheer coincidence that she chooses the spot right next to him to wait for service.
His glare stays fixed on his glass, like he’s trying to stare it down. His intensity is intoxicating.
The waitress is suddenly in front of her. “Yeah?”
“Another Ferryman’s Gold and four shots of JD please.”
The pint arrives first. As the shot glasses are lined up, then filled in one smooth sweep, Sophie waits for him to look, to stop ignoring her, her foot tapping on the hard wooden floor. She throws back a shot and slams the glass on the bar, shuddering as the burn slips down her throat, then slides another across so it clinks against Lookalike’s glass.
Finally, he notices her.
His big hand plucks the shot from the bar; he lifts it in her direction to signal “cheers”, then downs it. He barely glances in her direction before resuming the close inspection of his glass.
She isn’t giving up that easily. “Which bike is yours?” she asks him.
At last, he turns his head and looks at her. His eyes are a dark brown – really nice, soft, wounded – but Sophie can’t help feeling a little disappointed.
“Original ’92 Springer Softail…”
His voice falls away as a pair of silicone implants strut past and, to Sophie’s dismay, his head swivels and follows, not even subtle about it.
Typical, just like Tommy (and just about every other man she’s ever dated) – all they’re interested in is the size of a woman’s chest. Well, Sophie’s had enough. Tommy, this guy with his crap bike, and all the rest of them, they can get lost. At least shy Ashton looked her in the eye when she arrived. The eye, dammit.
Without a word, she gathers her three glasses and strides back to the booth, arriving at the same time as Ashton returns from the toilet. She clanks the drinks down and slides one across to her date. “Shot?” she asks.
“Thanks, but I’m driving,” he says, pushing it back to her. “I’m not working tomorrow though so it doesn’t need to be an early night.”
Sophie looks at him, an eyebrow raised, questioning what he’s suggesting.
Ashton’s face couldn’t flame up quicker if he’d tipped the shot over himself and applied a match. “Not that I think you’d… Oh God, sorry, I didn’t mean…”
She can’t keep a straight face and dissolves into a fit of giggles. His blushing and stammering is kind of cute, she decides. Maybe this can be a fun night after all.
“So,” he asks, “What car do you drive?”
Sophie catches the eye of the waitress and signals for her to bring over two more shots.
Sophie’s dragged from sleep by a herd of wildebeest rampaging up the stairs, or at least that’s what it sounds like in her hung-over head. Would they say “Mummy, mummy,” with every step? Something at the back of her fuzzy brain tells her that shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, but she’d rather ignore it and go back to sleep.
Instead, one of the animals nudges her bedroom door open and, in the loudest whisper ever, says, “Mummy’s sleeping.”
“Quietly then, go and get your book. Are you sure it’s in your room?”
Sophie swears she can hear Abby nod (Lord, why does she have to nod so loudly?) and then continue her stampede into her bedroom. It’s followed immediately by the disapproving stare of her mother burning into her back. This time, she thinks, on this one occasion, she doesn’t deserve that stare. Her indignation is enough to rouse her.
The sunlight pouring through the window hurts her eyes, making her wonder if she’s become a vampire. Her memory’s a little hazy, but she doesn’t remember Ashton biting her neck last night. Or kissing him. Wouldn’t that be terrible, if they got married and she could never remember their first kiss? In fact, she doesn’t remember the end of the night at all, but is glad she didn’t make the mistake of sleeping with him on their first date. The empty other side of the bed is testament to that. She’s sure he wouldn’t respect her anymore if that had happened.
Or maybe she tried but he was too nice to take advantage? Oh God.
Never mind, right now she can put her mum in her place without opening her eyes.
“Hi,” she croaks, and fumbles around on the bedside table for a glass of water.
“Did you meet Ashton last night?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Sophie says, taking a sip, then a few gulps, of stale water.
“We’re going out again.” She runs a hand through her newly-short hair, missing her longer locks, and hopes she hasn’t just lied. He’d want to see her, she assures herself; he seemed keen. “I don’t know when yet.”
Sophie takes offense at the surprise in her mum’s voice and cracks a cautious eyelid so she can aim a scowl in the right direction. “Yes. I told you I was serious about change…” She tails off as Abby returns, Charlotte’s Web in hand, and makes a big effort to sit up and smile at her little girl as though a hangover isn’t shrinking her skull tight around her brain. “Ready for school? If you’re late again, mummy’s going to get in trouble.”
Abby nods and hugs her book to her chest. “It’s ok, I can run really fast.”
“Yes, but nanny can’t,” her grandmother laughs. “Come on, mummy needs to get up and get ready so we can have a chat when I get back.”
That journey won’t take long, even allowing for a little gossip at the school gates, so Sophie pulls the duvet around her and stands, showing willing even though her eyelids are drooping… back… down. She trips over one of her boots, abandoned next to the bed along with her dress, but staggers forward. This seems to satisfy Abby, who spins and runs to the stairs.
Halfway down, Abby stops suddenly and turns back to Sophie. “Is he your new boyfriend?”
Is who where what?
“I’m sorry, darling, is who?” Abby can’t have heard them speaking about Ashton, can she?
“The man sleeping in the bathroom.”
Sophie stops dead, her smile frozen on her face, but her mind is running a marathon every millisecond. Each realisation, each returning memory, weakens her muscles as it hits her until she sags like she did last night drunkenly against his shoulder…
Abby continues. “I don’t think he’s very well. And he smells like mummy smells when she sleeps in the bathroom.”
Sophie’s mum pulls at Abby’s hand. “Come on Abigail, school. Now!”
Oh no, no, no, no, no, no…
As the front door slams on a plaintive shout of, “Bye mummy,” from Abby, Sophie shuffles to the bathroom and her inevitable fate.
The man lying on the tiled bathroom floor, hugging the toilet bowl, is the man she now remembers brought her home last night.
On the back of his original ’92 Springer Softail .
And now, in the harsh light of morning, he isn’t as much a lookalike of Tommy as she’d first thought. He’s a pale imitation, just a beard and a bike. Is that all it takes for her to cheat on a good guy like Ashton on their first date?!
She closes her eyes but she can’t block out the truth. Why can’t she break free of the hold Tommy has over her heart?
Leigh R Fletcher is soon to publish his debut novel, The Spike Volume 1. Like 0.1_cause&effect, a prior short story published on this site in October, this piece is a standalone prelude that fills in a little backstory on one of the characters.