Red, chapter two

Something lighthearted, romantic and most of all, teen. Also sci-fi/fantasy-free… for now (muahaha…ha)A birthday present for my friend A, who won’t be here to receive it yet. It’s worth posting anyway, to mark the occasion. Contains daft dialogue, Shakespeare and… Percy Sledge. I am so, so sorry, A…

II

barista, butler

As expected, there’s no sign of her over the next few days. Tourist, probably – especially with the Englishness and the fact that he hadn’t seen her around before she came in. Being Cal – and having his luck – he’s resigned himself to not seeing her again, the girl in red having long floated to the back of his mind, when he spots a flash of scarlet in the queue.

It’s a blazer, thrown over a white shirt, figure-hugging jeans and little red pumps, that red scarf once more at her throat. Very nice.

He looks away, back at Mrs. Grenfell – she’s one of their few regulars. She’s watching him, eyes that normally peer out glassily from a wrinkled face sharp, interested. (He remembers hearing that they used to dissect frogs in biology classes, to see how the guts worked. He thinks he knows how the poor little bastards felt.) “Something more interesting to do, boy?” she asks.

“I, ah…” He cringes and fumbles, nearly dropping the (hot! Very hot! Don’t forget hot) Styrofoam-packaged cuppa, before recovering. “Sorry. About that, I mean.” He looks down at the till. “£2.65, please.” He gives her a bright smile and holds out his hand. She nods and, after a wait while she digs around in her purse, pulls out three quid. He takes it, passes her her change with an airy, “Thank you kindly.” God, he sounds like his mother – it’s one of her phrases.

He tells himself, his thoughts loud and adamant, that he’s not counting down the customers until he meets the girl in red. In fact, he manages to convince himself so thoroughly that he’s actually surprised when he looks up from the till and sees warm hazel eyes.

“Hello.” The word is quiet, accompanied by a shy smile.

“Uh… hello,” he mirrors her, and then asks, “Still in the area, then?” Nonchalant. He is nonchalant. Not radiating waves of far too interested. (He hopes.)

The smile widens a little. “For now.”

“Another latte, or are you a lady who likes variety?”

She frowns, her eyes settling on the bookshelf in the corner as she thinks it over, and in that moment he knows she’s staying. “I… I think I’ll have a cappuccino.”

“Be careful,” he tells her mock-solemnly, wagging his finger. “The cappuccino is a whole new adventure. You sure you can handle it?”

She huffs a sigh. “Yes.”

He looks over her shoulder and sees that some of the customers are getting restless. Right: serve now, bad jokes later. “Drinking here?” he asks, and she nods. “Just be a sec,” he assures her, turning to the machine to sort out her coffee.

When it’s eventually prepared and meets his standards, he hands it to her. Their fingers brush briefly on the mug, and he pretends not to notice; he pretends that his pulse doesn’t jump, and that his throat doesn’t dry out. He’s acting like some flustered idiot, or, worse, a creep – neither of which he wants to be.

“Thanks, Cal,” she says, and he tries not to be too surprised that she’s remembered.

She goes to the bookshelf in the corner – not that he notices, or anything – and takes out Hamlet again, starts reading with a furrowed brow. Cal looks back to the customers, because, y’know, they’re actually paying him for his attention, and keeps serving.

Half an hour goes by, and he forgets she’s there, if he’s honest. It’s the breakfast-time commuter rush, so round about now they get all the pained looking men and women in suits, fidgeting and giving the bus stop edgy looks. He maybe gets five minutes between customers, and at half-past nine he backs up a few steps and calls Tom. “You have a problem with helping me out here?”

Tom shuffles into the shop, coming to stand next to him behind the counter. “Wha’?”

Cal taps his cheek. “There’s a – ” Really big red crease on your face, he means to finish.

Tom waves an irritable hand. “I know, I know…”

” – crease,” he tries, and then knows from the way his brother’s face falls (and from experience) that he’ll have to go through another five minutes of foot-tapping and sighing in the corridor while Tom finds a mirror, performs some kind of elaborate hair-fiddling ritual and tries in every way he can to hide the offending mark.

Cal sighs and wanders back out to the shop, not wanting to leave the till unattended; when he does so, the girl in the corner – not even saying a word – catches his eye and gives him a sympathetic smile that says to him loudly and clearly, Bad day?

He wonders if his expression is telling the customers that much (great, his glower’s probably putting them off their coffee). He grimaces by way of reply – More than you know – then makes a show of comically widening his eyes, yanking a harried hand through his hair. Argh. (The shop is so loud and jammed with people by this point that it’s amazing he can see her at all; she’s just there, somehow, a flash of red in the grey and black and white of business suits, brightening the room and his day. He couldn’t speak to her in this if he tried – maybe he could shout across to her, or come to her table, but, well, he has got a café to run. Besides, it’s more fun this way. It’s vastly different from when the two of them had the shop to themselves, however. He misses the casual connection, one formed by a mutual need to break the silence. )

She puts a hand to her face and smiles behind it, cheeks apple-bright, her shoulders shaking.

He recognises the look of low-key laughter. It warms him; it feels like some kind of reward for putting so much effort into this whole mime thing. He grins at her, raises his eyebrows – Ha, made you laugh. Toldya I was good – and wiggles his fingers in a wave.

She returns it, the smile never leaving her face. He notices writing on her hand again, wonders if it’s as weird as last time. (Sprouts, maybe, is she doing sprouts now instead of cabbage? He can’t read it from here.)

He jumps at a hand on his shoulder, and then Tom is beside him and there’s another accountant – Mr. Sherbisher, nice guy, he’s actually a regular at the weekends too – waiting, and the unspoken half-conversation is lost in the wave of customers and coffee, customers and coffee. Occasionally a scone.

One woman asks for a pot of Earl Grey, and though he’s polite to all the customers – smiles at them all, likes them all in different ways – he gives her a big, honest-to-God grin just because she’s broken up the monotony. “Ordering tea in a coffee shop? I see you’re an unconventional type.”

She smiles at him – sunny, surprisingly young for the middle-aged skin she wears – and admits, “I like your furniture.”

“Oh,” he says casually, “the arse-breaking chairs. I think at least one’s an heirloom. Ornate. Lovely.” He grimaces. “Uncomfortable. The cushions are Mum’s, by the way, she made ’em.

“I’ll remember to thank her,” Earl Grey Woman says, the smile never leaving her face, and Cal cheerily hands her her change. He likes customers who humour him.

The next customer after Earl Grey Woman is Red, and she gives him a radiant, scarlet smile as she asks for a slice of lemon tart. “Busy?” she asks.

“Very,” he answers.

As he’s fiddling with the cake, sorting out plates and moving stands and stuff, she tells him, “You know, that was the best cappuccino I’ve had.”

He feels all warm and fuzzy at the compliment (but plays it cool; he doesn’t look up, even). “Oh, really? How many’ve you had?”

“About two, I think.”

He fights the urge to facepalm. “High praise there, thank you.” Looking up, he asks, “Two? Ever? What, wasn’t there a Starbucks where you were from?”

She gives him a you are being an idiot look. It’s one he knows well – he’s been on the receiving end far too many times. “Leicester. There were plenty.”

As he hands her the plate, he asks her, “What’s your favourite bit?”

For a split second she frowns at the tart, and he laughs. “No, Hamlet. If you’ve got one.” (Because Seb can go and stuff himself, Cal knows she’s reading it, he knows what a person looks like when they’re reading.)

A moment of thought, two fingers to her lips – when she moves her hand, her fingertips come away with little smudges of red on them; he politely pretends not to notice – and then she answers, “‘Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well.’ You know the one.”

“Ah,” he says, nodding understandingly, “the good bit.”

The you’re an idiot look returns for revenge. “There are lots.”

“Yeah. But that’s the good bit. I mean, it’s where realises he’s got nothing left. And the closet scene – y’know, before he kills Polonius, or after, I can never remember, when they have that row. It always makes me thankful me and Mum get on.”

“I suppose it is.” She gives him her cash, and also a considering look as he hands over her change. “Thank you.” She pauses, seems to hesitate. “Does Cal stand for Callum?”

He nods – it’s small, slightly reluctant. “Caught me.”

“Why don’t you like your name?” The question is quiet, her head cocked.

“I do,” he says, checking the gateau for signs of… interference. Seriously, doesn’t Tom know they have to sell this stuff? “But who wants to be a John in a land of Johns? There are slightly fewer Cals.”

“I suppose I can see that,” she says, her voice almost a murmur.

He opens his mouth to ask her name, but when he looks up she’s already well on her way back to her table, and he can hardly run up to her and ask (yeah, Cal, so much for playing it cool).

He’s always liked working the shop – likes it busy; likes it quiet; likes the people and their stories and their coffee – but it feels very different with the warm, sharp awareness of the girl sitting in the corner seat, tucking into a slice of lemon tart and thinking about his name.

“So there’s a girl?” Seb says, removing his hands from the straps of his backpack to self-consciously run them through his hair. (Yeah, really. Even a theoretical girl is enough to start him preening.) The bag jiggles with each step he takes. Seb is sixteen. He’s also oddly freckly for a brunet; skinny but at five-foot-nine too short to be lanky; Cal’s companion on the walk to the dump they’re both educated in; possibly Cal’s best friend.

Cal makes a show of turning, looking round the street with intense curiosity. “What? Where?”

Seb raises an eyebrow. “Yeah. No. Tell me.”

The journey to school suddenly seems much, much longer. “Where’d you hear?” Cal asks, giving his friend a look designed to shrivel his testes. (It better. If he’s going to push this, the butler doesn’t even deserve his nuts.)

Seb doesn’t even blink, just waves a hand vaguely at Cal’s face. “Dude, I live with my sister. My. Sister. I’ve built a tolerance to that now. And Tom, by the way. Nice guy; very open.”

“Ask him about Emma sometime. Watch his face.”

Seb ignores him. “Are we talking about a hot girl here, or,” he pauses briefly, “one with a nice personality?”

“Oh I dunno, I’d say Emma’s pretty in that ‘I’m a blonde history student who’s just wandered off campus’ kinda way – ”

Girl. Red lipstick girl. Tip-y girl.”

“What girl? Dunno what you mean.” Cal studies the ground intently. (One paving stone. Two paving stones. Three paving stones. Who has to put these things down? Someone has a day job doing that, right?)

“The customer you’re hot for.”

“I’ll have you know that I am utterly professional. In every way. I’m not ‘hot for’ anyone.”

“Shut up. You’re serving coffee – shit, you’re not a doctor. And you’re hot for her.”

“She’s… interesting. Her idea of fun is reading Hamlet, she looks good in a pair of skinny jeans…” He shrugs. “I dunno, what’s not to like?”

“The Hamlet?” Seb replies without missing a beat.

That just makes Cal sigh. He kind of likes Hamlet, tragic and angsty and bloody impenetrable as it is. It’s so tied in with the idea of his mother, of home – of that smell, all wood polish and coffee and sandalwood incense – that he can’t say many bad words about it. He’s tried sitting down and having a go at reading it (and enjoyed it, to a fair degree, after reading every passage three times to parse its meaning) but always put it down “to pick up later” and forgotten it.

He shrugs. “Eh. She was treating the book well. No page creasing, or,” he makes a gesture to demonstrate, “shoving t back on the shelf. Anyone that respects the books gets Mum’s favour, and prob’ly mine.”

“It’s pretentious.”

“Depends. Or it’s smart. She’s smart. It’s pretty obvious.”

“You’ve talked to her, what, twice? And she’s smart because she comes in to moon over you and pretend to read Shakespeare? Wow, when are you proposing?”

“She doesn’t moon. And seriously, I don’t think she’s pretending. Have you considered that, I dunno, she actually enjoys classical literature?”

Seb frowns at him in genuine disbelief, mixed with a little fear. “Do people do that now?” He sighs. “Anyway, if she’s such a big deal, introduce me.”

“I’ll probably never see her again. And come on. ‘This is my mate Sebastian– ‘”

“No, no, not the full name. It makes me sound like a butler.”

“‘This is my butler, Sebastian,'” Cal blithely corrects himself. “‘Wit vacuum. Dickhead. He’s come here to tell me whether or not you’re hot.'”

“Shut up,” Seb mutters.

“Ask me one more question about the girl, and I’ll be calling you Sebastian for the rest of the week. In front of my brother, and you know what he’s like.”

It isn’t Cal who shuts up.

He comes downstairs a couple of days later to see Tom walk into their little domestic area behind the shop – the kitchen with the dining table, basically – and give him an astonishingly smug grin. “So…”

God, it’s too early for this. Cal tugs on a couple of strands of his wild, sleep tangled hair – honest to God, he looks like a cross between the Sandman and a disgruntled hedgehog – before glaring at his brother and replying flatly, “So.”

“Girl in red came in again.”

“What girl in red? I’ve never even seen a girl in red…” Cal cuts his words off with a yawn. They’d faded into a mumble anyway; trying to deny his brother’s half-constructed accusations, he reflects, is probably a bad idea when he isn’t even awake enough to remember his own name.

“The girl you were making goo-goo eyes at the whole time she was in.”

“Yeah, thanks for nothing with Seb.”

Tom ignores him. “And she was making them back.”

“No, seriously, I’m never gonna hear the bloody end of it now –” A pause. “What? Making what… What?”

“She was interested. Kept pretending not to look at you the entire time you were serving, it was hilarious.”

“She was… really? Uh, not that it matters, or anything, I chat up all the customers.”

“You try. Anyway, she came in today, and when she saw me behind the counter…” Tom hisses in a breath through his teeth. “I mean, obviously she tried to hide it, but you could feel the disappointment coming off her in waves. I swear, I’ve never felt so inadequate in my life. Said you weren’t up yet. Casually, like. Just” – he makes a slow, slicing movement with his hand – “inserted it into conversation, let that hang. She went as red as her lippy.”

Cal feels his ears heat, and prays he won’t do the same. He shows his palms in surrender – or defiance. “Just stop it, alright? She’s just a tourist. I don’t even know her name.”

“Then find out,” Tom tells him matter-of-factly.

Cal sticks his fingers in his ears, wincing as Tom walks down the hallway singing loudly and tunelessly, “When a ma-an loves a woooman…”

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