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Guilt by Sarah Michelle Lynch (1)

Chapter One

 

 

“LISTEN, HET YOU’RE GOING TO have to wait until I’m indoors before I tell you what needs to be done, okay?” I’m hurrying along the pavement, talking on the phone as I go. It’s freezing and I’m having to barge past other people on the busy paths – it being a Saturday, when everyone else seems to have all the time in the world, just not me. She couldn’t call me this morning when I was twiddling my thumbs at the shop, could she? No. She has to call me when I’m rushing from work to make my coffee date with Sam. Sure, I’m a multitasker, but the details she requires would no doubt be overheard by members of the public as I rush along Newland Avenue – and certainly wouldn’t be appreciated. Fearful he’ll leave before I get there, I’m more focused on Sam right now anyway. I hate being late – especially when it’s Sam I’m late for. Despite the aforementioned twiddling of thumbs, there’s always one client who turns up towards the end of my shift with too many questions for me to answer – thus making me late.

“How much further? This brat is going to be the death of me!”

I love Hetty. I admire her, even. Sometimes, though… I do wonder about her.

I finally make it to the coffee shop ten minutes late, puffing and panting. I spot Sam waiting for me and I scoot across the slick wooden floor of the shop, rushing towards him. I make an apology face as I plonk myself down on a chair, pointing at my phone and mouthing, “Don’t ask.”

“Okay, I’m indoors. I can relay instructions now,” I giggle, trying to calm myself down.

“So, tell me. Help me!”

“Okay. You need to run the tap until it’s red hot and wring a flannel out in the water. If you don’t have a flannel, use a towel, or anything. A piece of cloth. Just make sure it’s really, really hot.”

“Okay, I’m putting you on speaker while I do it.”

“Okay.”

I release myself from my coat and let it dangle over the back of my chair. I lift off my seat a moment and reach across to kiss his cheek, “Sorry.”

He shakes his head. “No problem.”

God, he looks gorgeous today. Clean and radiant and smiling, amused at my predicament.

“Oh god, it’s still so painful,” she complains.

“You need to have the water boiling hot, Hetty. Like as hot as you can manage. And you need to be squeezing constantly, until you get a flow, all right?”

“Okay, I’m trying. I’m trying.”

When she first got on the phone with me earlier, there was mention of feverish symptoms and a possible blockage in one of her milk ducts. I had mastitis once, but it can be easily soothed if you catch it early.

“Have you tried feeding Elizabeth?”

“She was grumpy but fell asleep. I now have one massive boob and one she’s sucked dry. This one’s her favourite, as well.”

“Well, I think you’ve diagnosed your problem already. She’s going to have to stop overusing her favourite tit, isn’t she?”

Sam covers his ears, suddenly cottoning on. I bite my lip to stop myself laughing.

“Bloody hell, Liz.”

“It’s all right, come on. Calm down.”

“Okay, it’s really hot… ah… ah…” I wait patiently for her to do her thing, then I hear groans of relief. “There’s a flow. It’s getting better. I can feel it.”

“Literally, you have to keep squeezing, Het. Okay? Don’t stop until there’s nothing left. You need to clear out that sucker.”

“Okay.”

“If I were you, I’d get in the bath and keep doing it for about an hour. Keep the heat on it and keep squeezing. Don’t drink anything.”

“Yeah, okay.” I hear her start to run the taps in the bathroom. “Elizabeth is asleep in her carry cot just across the room. At least one of us is fine, huh?”

“You’re doing so well, but listen. If it doesn’t get better, go straight to the emergency clinic. Promise me. No dicking about. Just go.”

“It feels better already, but I will, Liz. Thank you.”

“No problem, chick. Tell that bloke of yours I said to look after you.”

“Oh, he’s playing away today, but I’ll call if I get worse.”

“Please will you call someone to come and sit with you, just in case? I would but I’m busy.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll call Jules.”

“Good. Keep me informed. Promise?”

“Promise.” I hear the relief in her voice as she soaks in the tub, her six-week-old baby comatose from all the milk no doubt.

“Love you, Het. Would be nice to catch up, you know? Without breasts being the focus.”

“Sorry, kid. Maybe when she’s graduated eh?”

We share a laugh and she hangs up. I miss her so much and the surprising thing is that I didn’t expect to. Hetty is the one who’s always been immature and relentlessly energetic – and I never expected her to grow up. She’s now busy with Joe and the baby and everything else. I get it, though. I was the same, once upon a time.

I put my phone down on the table and chuckle, shaking my head. “I’m so sorry, but she gets on the phone all stressed out, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on with me, I have to drop everything for her.”

“What has Joe let himself in for? She sounds high maintenance,” he chuckles, and when my cappuccino arrives with extra chocolate sprinkles, I thank the server and Sam for remembering I like extra chocolate sprinkles. Not like a few shakes extra… but EXTRA.

“I wouldn’t say she’s high maintenance.” I cross my legs beneath the table, getting more settled in. “She’s very emotionally wired. I mean, it’s probably more than that, actually. I think if I’m honest, I’m like the closest thing she has to a mum or sister.”

Sam and I have been friends for years, so I’ve told him little bits here and there about Hetty’s past. I know what he’s saying, though. Het can be demanding in more ways than one. In a way, I’d rather that than her cooped up, suffering alone. She was like that once before and it was bad.

“It’s probably hard for her, you know? Being a new mum and not having her own mum. I was always round at my mum’s in the first few months. She’d watch the baby while I slept. It was a great help. Anyway, I’m sure you’re bored already.”

Sam’s single and childless. In fact, I can’t imagine him ever settling down. He’s far too intelligent for all that…

“It’s fine,” he says, “it’s interesting, actually. Educational. Maybe I’ll come to you one day when my wife is going through a crisis!”

I almost spit out my cappuccino. “Firstly… you? With a baby? Secondly, a wife? Really?”

His shoulders jump up. “You know… maybe.”

“I don’t think you’ll stay around here forever, do you? One day you’ll forget all about this place and I shall be a very distant memory.”

He purses his lips, dragging a hand through his unruly brown hair. It looks like I’ve upset him a bit. “I don’t know, maybe I like it around here.”

Sam and I met at Hull University six years ago, when we were both studying English as undergraduates. We have kept in touch ever since, even though we took different paths – he went on to do an MA and now works in marketing, while I had to take time out when I got pregnant with my first and ended up finishing my degree much later than him.

“Are you still helping Hetty at the dress shop, then?”

“Yes, yes! I’m still on with that.” 

“It’s just that…” He appears reticent.

“Come out with it.”

“Well, my boss asked if I know anyone with good English language skills, and literally the only person I could think of was you.”

I laugh in his face. He’s funny. “What are you on about?”

“My boss is looking for new staff, so I suggested you. I mentioned I’d swing the idea by you. He wants to interview you, only if you’re interested.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, then open them. Why would Sam presume I need another job? I already have twelve.

“I don’t know…”

“Listen, think about it. Okay?”

I go quiet while I work on my cappuccino, licking around the inside of the cup to make sure I get all of the chocolate sprinkles.

“Hetty needs me,” I eventually reason. “She can’t survive without me.” Well, she could… but she can’t. It’s a co-dependent sisterly thing.

Sam leans forward, the leather straps of his jacket dangling as he hunches over to talk to me in whispers, as if he has something clandestine to impart. “It’s like this, Liz. I was asked if I know anyone good enough to work for the company, and yes, I do… you. The opportunity is there, if you want it—”

“But I didn’t do an MA like you. I haven’t got any experience. I’ve only done the odd bit of shop work, and besides, Gage likes that I only work part-time for Het. I don’t think he would appreciate me entering the world of full-time work.”

Sam chews his lip and sits back in his seat, his eyes scanning the room, fingers tapping on the table. It’s amazing we’ve remained friends all this time. I’m five-foot-four and he’s a whole foot taller, just in his stocking feet. Plus, he’s dashingly handsome and from a very well-to-do London family. I’m the daughter of chip-shop owners and I’ve never really travelled or done anything remotely rebellious in my entire life.

Hetty, my foster sister, always provided enough rebelliousness for the both of us. If it wasn’t blue hair or piercings or tattoos, it was getting roaring drunk and shagging anything that moved. Of course, that all changed once she met Joe. Now she’s engaged to be married to a football star… and she’s a mother. A mother! I feel something has gone from my life now she’s settled down. That blue-haired girl with pigtail-plaits, hopping and bounding at music festivals, is lost to me. Hetty was holding it up for the rebel cause, but now what am I meant to do? Maybe she was my entertainment, but am I now supposed to make my own? No thanks.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks, having noticed I’m deep in thought.

“How much I miss my friend. How much I miss… well… I don’t know.”

“You do know, you just don’t want to say.”

He smiles and it’s infectious, so I end up smiling too.

I spend way too long stirring the dregs of my coffee before I admit, “I feel like it’s all gone. Like it’s over. Now she’s a mum—”

“Hetty, you mean?”

“Yeah. I feel like if I was ever gonna do anything exciting, I would have done it with Het. But now she’s all loved up, she’s gone all soft and she’s boring like the rest of us now.”

He holds his hands up, looking around dramatically, as though seeking that version of him I just spouted about. “I’m excusing myself from this accusation! I am not boring!” He laughs in a perfunctory way. “I’ll have you know I spent half an hour drinking beer last night… before I passed out!”

It’s always great to see Sam. We always laugh. He always makes me feel adequate. Now he’s bloody gone and offered me a career opportunity too, for fuck’s sake. In comparison to him, I am a shit friend, I know. I’ve been a shit friend to Hetty on occasion, too. I expect I find it hard to give back to my friends because my home life can be so demanding.

“I’m going to think about the job,” I tell him, “but I’m not promising anything.”

“Okay, let me know tomorrow night.”

It being a Saturday, that doesn’t give me much time to think, does it?

“You said you’d tell him Monday. So, I’ll text you first thing on Monday.”

“Fine, fine,” he agrees.

“Anyway, what are you doing for the rest of today?”

“Oh… god… I don’t know. Stuff. What about you?”

I’ve noticed this about Sam: he always has stuff to do, but he never details what this stuff is. I sometimes imagine him going home to two or three girls, like a secret Daddy Dom or something. I don’t know… maybe my imagination’s running wild.

“My mother has the kids today as per usual, but I’m all up to date with orders at the dress shop so I don’t have any sewing to do at home. Hetty’s maternity cover is doing so well, it’s like I’m not needed anymore. This morning when I got there, she’d nearly done everything…”

I see a growing light in Sam’s eyes, as if he’s already confident of me leaving Het’s shop and coming to work with himself instead. However, I suppose I’ve gotten comfy there and it’s easy work. I don’t have to think. It’s a little escape for me.

“So… anyway… Gage is on some sort of stag do in Copenhagen this weekend. I was going to drive into town after meeting you and do loads of nerdy stuff like just walk around and see what’s going on in the city of culture.” I say the last bit sarcastically, because with Sam being a Londoner, he thinks last year’s City of Culture status was bullshit. I’m sure he enjoys being a silly prick for the sake of it sometimes.

“Just admit it, Liz. It’s an exciting opportunity.” He looks so hopeful, it worries me what’s behind that hope. Is he trying to free me from the shackles of motherhood? Or something else…

“Yes, it’s flattering, I’m not going to lie, but as I said I don’t have any experience. I’ve either been in education, or working in a chip shop, or dress shop.”

“See, you have industry knowledge! And an excellent command of the English language.”

“How would you know what command of the English language I have when you’ve never read anything of mine?”

“Yes, I have. Emails. We send one another emails. Mine are a paragraph long, yours are three or four pages, and sometimes all you’ve described is one event. You’re a bloody writer, Liz and you’ve forgotten that, haven’t you?”

He sits back, looking oh-so-Fonzie with his big hair and leather jacket. I don’t want to work with him if the dress code is perennial hipster. I can just about manage jeans and a t-shirt if I’m cleaning the house. Otherwise, I’ve always worn dresses or skirts and heeled shoes. SHOES! Because I’m tiny without them. I’ve found that working in Hetty’s shop has boosted my wardrobe and also encouraged me to explore the wackier side to my penchant for Fifties-style dressing. Anyway, I have nothing to say to his accusation.

“Instead of being a nerd about town, why don’t I take you to the office and show you around? Then buy you dinner.”

“Is it open on Saturdays?” I ask, incredulous.

“No, but I have a key. You can check the place out at your own pace and if you have any questions, I can answer them.”

The thought of change… new chapters… terrifies me. The thing is, a new job shouldn’t scare me, but it does, and I don’t exactly know why. I’ve advised Hetty enough times to take opportunities when they come along… maybe I should take my own advice?

“Okay, but I’m making no promises.”

“Great, my car’s around the corner. Let’s go.”

He’s trying to hide how pleased he is.

Maybe I am too.

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