Dear Ava: Chapter 1

Well, I asked if you guys wanted to see the first chapter of my current WIP and the answer was a resounding YES! So here it is. Enjoy!

 

Chapter 1

 

According to the experts, it takes between ninety seconds and four minutes to decide whether or not you fancy someone.

However, after just under two minutes in Gary from Stockport’s company, I’d already come to that conclusion.

It wasn’t his shiny, pock-marked skin, greasy brown hair slicked back with far too much hair gel or the creepy glint in his eye that had put me off.

It was the whistling noise he made every time he used a word with an s in it.

‘So Ava, tell me about yourself.’

I grabbed a drinks menu and hid behind it until I regained my composure. I didn’t mean to laugh; I knew he couldn’t help having a speech impediment but the high-pitched whistle reminded me of a kettle coming to the boil.

‘Y’alright duck? You’re not gonna be sick or anything?’

Gary craned his neck to look at me. I dug my fingernails into my palm to keep myself from bursting into a fit of giggles.

‘No, no, I’m fine,’ I insisted. I grabbed my glass of water and took a deep swig from it. ‘W-What was your question again?’

He frowned at me, probably slightly bemused that I seemed to have forgotten something he’d asked just a few seconds ago.

‘Just, er, tell me a bit about yourself; what you do for a job and that, you know.’

I styled out a rogue giggle with a cough.

‘Er well, I’m a magazine journalist at Sleek magazine; I’ve got a dating column. I live with my best friend Gwen who’s a fashion designer and in my spare time, I enjoy reading, going to gigs and cooking. What about you?’

Gary’s watery blue eyes searched the room while he formulated an answer. All too often though, I found them lingering on my chest. I sat up primly and pulled up my white gypsy top.

‘Well, I work in KFC, have done for the last three years but the ironic thing is I don’t even like chicken! My favourite food’s beef burgers and chips. When I’m not at work, I like to go swimming and I like to think I’m a pretty good singer too.’

I nodded, hoping that the latest wave of laughter would pass without incident. Silently, I cursed Gwen. It was thanks to her well-intentioned matchmaking that I’d found myself sitting opposite the Singing Kettle, as I’d nicknamed him.

‘Good, good, that sounds really…good. Would you excuse me for a second?’ I replied, scraping my chair back.

‘Will I order the food?’ he asked.

‘J-Just another glass of water for me!’

I sprinted to the ladies, where I allowed myself to collapse in a fit of hysterical laughter. I clutched one of the porcelain sinks for support and checked myself in the mirror. My mascara was slightly smudged from laughing so much; I wiped it away with my pinkie. Other than that, I looked pretty decent for a twenty-six-year-old woman embarking on her first- and probably last- blind date.

After fluffing up my hair and adding a slick of pink gloss to my lips, I pulled my phone out of my bag and scrolled to Gwen’s number.

‘Alright Miss Stevens, you got me into this so you can bloody well get me out of it,’ I muttered.

A woman gave me a funny look as she walked out of the toilets. I smiled sweetly and she quickened her pace.

I shrugged and put the phone to my ear, willing my best friend to pick up.

‘Hello?’ Her crackly voice burst through the phone a few seconds later.

‘Well, well, well, if it isn’t Manchester’s answer to Cilla Black!’ I said with a chuckle.

‘Oh hey chick, how’s the blind date going? Tell me everything!’

I raised an eyebrow sarcastically and wished she could see me.

‘How’s the blind date going? Alright really, apart from the fact he sounds like a bloody boiling kettle whenever he says something with an s in it!’

Predictably, a fit of giggles from my best friend followed my assessment of the evening.

‘Oh yeah… I forgot to mention that! Sorry chick.’

Forgot to mention it?!’ I repeated. ‘Gwen, you can’t just forget to mention something like that! A major speech impediment is definitely on the list of things you should tell your best mate about the bloke you’re setting her up with. That and any weird moles or styles of facial hair.’

‘I know, I know, I’m a shit best friend. Name your price.’

‘Text me in five minutes; I’ll need it as part of my exit strategy. Oh, and you owe me so many bottles of Blossom Hill!’

‘Sounds fair,’ she agreed. ‘I’ll text you in five.’

 

Gwen was true to her word and within a few minutes, I was on my way back to our flat on Whitworth Street. I’d told Gary she’d set fire to the kitchen in a misguided attempt to cook Super Noodles.

Set in a converted mill, our little flat was cute, cosy and stylish. I couldn’t wait to walk through the door into familiar territory after my disastrous evening. As I walked along the road, past McDonald’s and Tai Wu Buffet Restaurant, I drank in my surroundings. Manchester was my favourite city in the world and always would be. It was ingrained in my history; I’d grown up in Oldham before moving to the big, bad city centre to go to uni. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. A lot of my uni friends had gone off to London the first chance they got, but not me. Manchester was so rich and vibrant and alive; what more could I want? I looked up at the towering red stone buildings and smiled. So much history radiated from every inch of them. I was home.

 

Before I knew it, I was back at my flat. A beautiful smell of cooking greeted me as soon as I walked through the door, telling me my other best friend Max was round. It was impossible for Gwen to make something that smelled so good; her speciality was takeaway pizza.

I poked my head round the door and saw Max deftly moving round the kitchen. My frilly pink apron covered his blue and white striped shirt but he oddly managed to pull the look off. I saw spots of flour on the granite worktops and the smell of dough baking ensnared my senses. Sensing someone was watching him, he turned round. His trademark smile spread across his face when his eyes met mine.

‘Hey Munchkin.’

‘You can’t use that nickname anymore; I’m nearly as tall as you are!’ I argued.

Max had been making fun of my lack of height since I could remember. Even in my highest, sparkliest heels, I still only came up to his shoulder.

He cocked an eyebrow and grinned. ‘Yeah, but you have to be on your tiptoes first!’

Wiping his hands on a spare dishtowel, he came over and enveloped me in a bear hug, squeezing me tightly. We broke apart and he eyed me knowingly.

‘Don’t ask,’ I said, sighing wearily. I guessed Gwen had already filled him in on my awful blind date. ‘And yeah, it was as bad as you think.’

‘I’m saying nothing.’ Max put his hands in the air while returning to the oven. ‘Go on through, dinner won’t be long.’

I walked through the little archway to the living room and smiled as I saw the rest of my favourite people were there: my two best friends and their other halves. Gwen’s latest was Tom, an investment broker and Max’s girlfriend Amira was a swimwear model he’d met when she’d come to his restaurant on a date.

I watched the room for a minute. They made two perfect little pairs; Gwen and Tom were deep in conversation, while Amira was draped languidly across one of the two tweed sofas and casting loving glances at Max while he cooked just a few feet away. Love and affection filled the air like a slightly intoxicating perfume. And then there was me…

‘Here comes Carrie Bradshaw!’ Gwen’s voice burst through my thoughts as I stood in the doorway, bringing me back to the room.

‘Ha bloody ha!’ I set my bag down and joined her on the sofa nearest the window. ‘You’ve got a lot to answer for, Miss Stevens!’

‘Was he that bad, Ava?’

Amira sat up and flipped her long dark curtain of hair behind her left shoulder. As a relatively new addition to our close-knit group, she was a little more reserved than Gwen. We’d only met her a few times and hadn’t had a chance to formulate a true opinion of her. The one thing that was clear for all to see was how happy she made Max. She was still getting used to the way things worked with us as a group, but she was slowly settling in.

I poured myself a glass of wine and allowed myself to sink back onto the sofa, before telling them all about Gary the Singing Kettle.

A ripple of laughter filled the room, largely punctuated by Max’s deep rich chuckle. Amira stared at me wide-eyed and Gwen fixed her gaze on the floor.

‘I said I was sorry didn’t I? I just remembered how nice he was when we were at school together…’

‘So the whistling thing just slipped your mind, did it?’ I countered with a grin, topping up my glass.

She shrugged and shuffled closer to Tom, who put his arm round her shoulders. The gesture made me smile secretly. He was so kind to her and the look in his eyes suggested he was absolutely crazy about her.

‘You’ve got a memory like a sieve, haven’t you babe?’ he said, kissing the top of her head.

She nodded. ‘But I’ve got magic hands to make up for it!’

She wiggled her fingers to illustrate her point. Tom and I shook our heads. Gwen was one of life’s innocents and was forever making double entendres without realising; it was part of her charm.

Amira looked at me to get clarification. She was still getting used to the way we bantered back and forth.

‘She means she’s a fashion designer,’ I said. ‘She’s just got a funny way of saying it.’

She nodded slowly and began twisting a lock of hair round her finger. Just then, Max appeared with two massive plates of homemade pizza. He put them down in front of us and wiped a thin film of sweat from his brow with a dishtowel.

‘Mmm, this smells great!’ I said, eagerly ripping off a slice covered in ham and mushroom.

‘Well when Cilla Black over here told me about your blind date, I thought emergency comfort food might be needed.’ He gestured to Gwen with his towel and smiled. ‘I think we can safely agree that you’ll never play matchmaker again.’

She nodded sheepishly and grabbed a slice of pepperoni pizza. ‘It wasn’t my best idea, I have to admit.’

Max left for a moment and returned with another pizza, this time a four-cheese one, and put it with the others on the long dark coffee table. Satisfied that we all had enough to eat, he plonked himself down beside Amira and kissed her lightly on the lips. I watched her face light up when he pulled her close to him. They looked so good together, like something out of a lifestyle magazine. His dark eyes met mine and he smiled contentedly. In all the years I’d known him, I’d never seen him so happy.

His voice broke the silence.

‘So I take it any idea of a future with Gary is well and truly off the cards?’

‘You could say that.’ My voice was almost as dry as the wine. ‘What about you two? Are you still in the honeymoon period?’

Anything to get the subject away from my tits-up love life.

‘Yeah, I suppose we are,’ he answered. ‘I don’t know how I got so lucky.’

He smiled warmly at Amira and squeezed her shoulder. She returned his grin, showing off her two perfect rows of teeth. It was as though the world had stopped just for them.

‘Aww aren’t you sweet?’ she purred, pulling him in for a kiss.

I quickly averted my eyes. They were perfect to the point of nauseating sometimes.

A while later, after a lot of pizza and wine had been consumed, Gwen set down her glass and raised her hands to get the group’s attention.

‘Ava, I think your problem is you’ve never experienced for yourself how amazing love can be!’

I frowned. ‘What makes you say that?’

She looked at me with her arms folded. ‘I’ve met your last five boyfriends, remember? Can you honestly say you’ve ever been in love?’

I felt my stomach begin to churn as my brain began to rake up some long-buried memories. Ones I didn’t fancy sharing at this moment in time. I pulled my legs up onto the couch and tucked them under me whilst trying to think of a way to change the subject.

‘Well?’

My cheeks burned. ‘O-Of course I have… I think…’

It was Max’s turn to wade into the discussion. ‘OK then, who with?’

He stared hard at me, his glittering dark eyes full of curiosity. I’m not getting out of this one easily, I thought. Max had a way of making you want to tell him your entire life story. Maybe it was the way he looked at you or the genuine interest in his voice, but whatever it was meant he could find out everything about you within half an hour.

I searched the nooks and crannies of my brain, willing it to spit out a name that wasn’t the one currently burning on my mind…

‘Freddie Watson!’

Max leaned forward to top up Amira’s wine glass and frowned. ‘I don’t think I remember him.’

I looked at him. ‘I went out with Freddie when I was seventeen; God, he was gorgeous! He looked exactly like Ryan Gosling; ripped abs, big grey eyes…’

‘Oh yeah, The Tossbag,’ he replied.

Amira looked up, her interest piqued. ‘Why was he called The Tossbag?’

‘Well, everything was fine at first…’ he began.

‘Until it turned out he had four other girlfriends on the go!’ I finished with a giggle. ‘I only found out because he dialled my number instead of Lauren Bell’s!’

Max laughed heartily, creases forming at the corners of his dark brown eyes. He had one of the most infectious laughs in the world.

‘You weren’t in love with him, were you?’ he asked, looking at me.

I shrugged, hoping it would suffice as an answer. The wonderful thing about Max was he knew when and when not to pry.

He nodded and turned his attention back to Amira, who didn’t look happy at not being part of a shared story.

‘My point is,’ Gwen said, regaining control of the conversation and turning to face me. ‘You’ve never been swept off your feet or made to feel special. That means you might not know a good thing when you have it, which means you could end up alone with ten cats.’

‘Gee, thanks!’

‘You know what I mean! Look, when I set you up with Gary tonight, it was only so you could see what a nice guy actually looks like. If you think about it, I was really just trying to save you from a lifetime of perpetual singledom.’

I smiled wanly. ‘I know your intentions were good chick, but if your definition of a nice guy is one who sounds like Gordon the Gopher, I’ll pass!’

 

Max, Amira and Tom left at around midnight. Gwen gently snored on the couch, where she’d fallen asleep after one too many glasses of wine. Every so often, she let out a loud snore and said ‘no, I told you the elves took my money!’

I draped a multicoloured throw over her before heading off to my bedroom. My mind was alive with thoughts. Was she right? Had I never really experienced what love had to offer? I’d had some wonderful times with guys, but couldn’t remember ever feeling fireworks going off in my soul with any of them.

Well, except one.

But I didn’t want to think about him again. Ever.

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