The small changing room had a smell that Iris Miller was long familiar with. Dried mud and cleaning fluids—a rich bouquet of not-very-nice aromas that Iris was happy to breathe in for once. Hazel—her teammate and oldest friend—was adding the pungent smell of muscle rub into the mix.
“You’re cutting it a bit fine,” Hazel said without looking up from the task of massaging the cream into the muscles in her thighs. “I thought you weren’t gonna turn up.”
Iris ruffled Hazel’s hair affectionately. “Aren’t you supposed to start by telling me how much you missed me?”
Hazel wrapped her arms around Iris in a tight hug. Hazel was a few inches shorter than Iris and stood on her tiptoes as they embraced.
“Course I missed you, stupid. It’s been no fun without you, here or at work. Felt like months rather than weeks.” Hazel pulled Iris down to the bench. “Now get changed quick before you get into trouble with Megan. She’s got that glint in her eye that means she’s gonna make training hell tonight. But I wanna hear all about your trip down the pub later.”
“Yeah…if I can stay awake.” Iris stripped off her jeans and started to unpack her bag. She scanned the room, checking who was there, who wasn’t, feeling happy to be back amongst her teammates again. She’d only been away four weeks but didn’t mind admitting that she’d missed them.
Jess reached out to put a hand awkwardly on her arm. “I missed you as well.”
Iris looked back at her cautiously while subtly changing position to break the contact. “Hey, Jess. How’re you doing? What’ve I missed?” She listened halfheartedly as Jess told her tales of office politics and new clients and, of course, of her love life. A giddying whirl of women that Iris could barely keep track of at the best of times, let alone when she felt this tired. She nodded and murmured in all the right places until Jess’s phone beeped and she stopped talking to concentrate on replying to the text.
Iris felt relief at being saved by the beep. She stretched and yawned, the jet lag not yet out of her system. A good physical workout was just what she needed.
Iris noticed someone opposite her she didn’t recognize. A graceful, fair-haired woman, pushing her head through the neck of a long sleeved navy sports shirt. Iris couldn’t help but notice that she was in great shape, toned in all the right places, and with an athletic look that was also somehow perfectly feminine.
As the woman pulled down and straightened her top and her face came into view, Iris could see that she was also heart-stoppingly beautiful. Her pale skin was flawless, and her lips were pink and full. Iris tried not to stare, tried to move her gaze away and concentrate instead on tightening the laces on her football boots, but, involuntarily, her eyes sought out the stranger again. Iris forced herself to face up to the grim fact that, while there weren’t many things that were off limits when you played team sports, staring at teammates in the changing room was definitely one of them.
Though the woman was oblivious, Iris’s attentiveness hadn’t gone unnoticed by Hazel. With as much subtlety as the world’s most unsubtle person could muster, Hazel whispered loudly into Iris’s ear. “Bloody hell, mate, I thought that you were halfway to the convent, but maybe there’s life in you yet.” Hazel nodded in the direction of the woman Iris had been gazing at, and Iris felt her cheeks heat.
Hazel had a loud personality—Iris loved that about her—but unfortunately it came with an even louder voice, and Iris didn’t want Hazel’s whispered comments to be overheard, especially not by Jess, who was sitting quietly tying her boots. “Keep your voice down, Haze. Don’t embarrass me.”
“Embarrass you? What with the drooling and the staring, I don’t think you need any help from me.”
“I was just curious that’s all.” Iris didn’t sound at all convincing, even to herself. “I didn’t know we had any new players. Is this her first time?”
Hazel seemed to relent and take pity at Iris’s discomfort. “Nah. You’ve been away. She joined a month ago and she’s played a couple of times already. Took your place in midfield while you were away. She’s a pretty good player as well—nice control, a tidy finish, and definitely fitter than most of us…as you’ve already noticed,” Hazel said with a raised eyebrow and a wink.
Iris ignored the comment, already feeling bad about her blatant checking out of the new player. “Where’s she working?” She took the muscle rub from Hazel and began to massage it into her calves.
“She’s in finance, works for Graham…poor sod. She was taken on to cover for Daisy’s maternity leave last month. Seems nice. Came to the pub after training last week. Had a few drinks, bit quiet, but I guess she doesn’t really know anyone yet.”
Iris nodded and Hazel nudged her. “I tell you what though, Iris, the world ain’t ready for you getting back in the game. We need notice, some time to lock up our sisters.” Hazel’s tone was playful.
“It’d be nice to see you interested in someone though. You know damn well that I think you insisting on staying single is ridiculous.” Hazel began to stretch, first her calves and then her hamstrings.
“Don’t start, Haze.”
“Start what? It’s true. You’ve become a workaholic. All work and no play. How long you gonna keep avoiding life?”
Hazel meant well, Iris knew that, but she didn’t understand what it felt like to be Iris, to have to live with the mess and the pain that had happened the last time she had let herself love. She tried to keep her tone light. “C’mon, I don’t want to get into this now. I’ve heard it all before. I just want to have a good session. Ideally, I’ll score a few goals, avoid any crunching tackles from Vicki, and hope that Megan’s not premenstrual enough to make us do push-ups if we miss during the penalty practice.”
Iris turned her back on Hazel to signify that the topic was closed and began to stretch, pushing down on the wooden bench as she did so.
Hazel threw an arm across Iris’s shoulders. “Okay, okay. I’ll leave it alone, but I will say one thing, when you do decide to come back out to play, please get your gaydar fixed first. Cameron Hansen, our new temp, and the object of your attentions, is engaged, and presumably as straight as they come. Jess reckons there’ll be wedding bells soon. ”
Hazel raised an eyebrow. “You’re a little rusty, mate.” She stepped out of Iris’s reach, guessing rightly that Iris would swing out with her foot and attempt to connect with Hazel’s well-protected shin. Hazel’s speedy reaction left Iris kicking at air. They laughed, and Jess—ever alert—demanded to know what they were talking about and whined about being left out of the fun. She scowled, looking even younger than her twenty-four years.
Iris had surprised herself by even noticing the new woman. Hazel was right. It had been a long time since she’d noticed anyone. Cameron. Iris tried out the name in her head. It sounded Scottish. She rarely ever crushed on straight women. It was generally a pointless endeavor, and she just wasn’t one of those women who enjoyed chasing people who weren’t available. Iris wondered idly if there had been something else, something other than how damn attractive she was, that had drawn her attention to Cameron. Hazel was right. Her gaydar was rusty. It shouldn’t be a surprise. She hadn’t used it in months.
A booming voice from across the changing room brought Iris out of her reverie.
“Iris! Where’ve you been? We missed you.” Vicki emptied the contents of her bag onto the floor and started to get ready in a hurry.
She was loud and would be late for her own funeral, but Iris had a soft spot for Vicki a mile wide. She no longer worked at Cottoms. She left months ago to take up a more senior position at a rival solicitors’, but she continued to play and train for the football team that the company supported, and Iris was glad that it gave them the opportunity to stay in touch.
Vicki was as no-nonsense as you would expect from a central defender. Tall, solidly built, with dramatic white-blond hair and pale skin. She looked Scandinavian, but when she spoke there was absolutely no doubt that she was actually Australian. Her bellowed question had caused most of her teammates to stop and listen.
“We’ve missed you, mate. Well, not too much actually, as she”—Vicki pointed at Cameron—“has been scoring for fun while you’ve been away.”
Iris was aware that Cameron was watching her interaction with Vicki with an amused expression even though others had stopped paying attention and resumed getting ready.
Iris played along. “I’d heard I’d been replaced by a new improved model. To be honest, I was a bit worried I wouldn’t even be allowed in tonight, but it seems that Megan still needs someone to clean the boots so you haven’t seen the last of me yet.”
Vicki laughed. “I missed you. I thought you must have been injured. I asked Hazel if one of those women you’d left feeling rejected had finally picked up the courage to put in a heavy tackle on you behind the ref’s back, but she said you were away. Boring.”
Cameron turned away and began fiddling with the bag hanging on the coat hook near where she was sitting. Iris wasn’t sure, but Cameron seemed embarrassed as she was outed by Vicki so clearly. Iris was bothered for a second, but then she made herself remember that not only did she not know Cameron, and therefore shouldn’t give a toss about what she thought of her, but that this was a women’s football team so being freaked out by lesbians probably wouldn’t get Cameron very far.
“Nothing so dramatic, sorry to disappoint. Work trip. I was in Dubai. We’re setting up a new office out there. Lucky me. Four weeks away from home, working twelve-hour days and without even access to alcohol to numb the pain of being away from you lot.”
“I bet British Airways had to restock that bar a couple of times on her flight home,” Hazel said. “She says she’s got jet lag, but I don’t actually think she’s been sober since she came back.”
Iris was so glad to be back in London. She had missed this, missed her colleagues, her friends, her teammates—knowing that some of them fell into all three categories. And she had definitely missed the camaraderie and banter of the changing room.
Megan, the team captain, called them to order. “C’mon then, ladies. Enough chatting, it’s time for training. Last one into the center circle does ten push-ups.”
They clamored to leave the changing room. Those that weren’t quite ready groaned and hurried themselves while those that were looked relieved to be able to head straight to the door. Iris found herself shoulder to shoulder with Cameron as they left the changing room to clatter in their boots across the pavement that led them down to the pitch.
Cameron put out her hand. “Hey, we haven’t met. I’m Cameron, but my friends call me Cam.”
Iris hadn’t been expecting an American accent. She looked at Cam as they shook hands. She hadn’t been expecting those eyes either. They were a warm and alluring sage green, and Cam was staring at Iris as if waiting for something.
Iris remembered herself. “Yeah, I’m Iris, sorry. Pleased to meet you. I’ve been away. Working, not on holiday.” Iris was using unusually short sentences. “I missed your debut. It went well I hear.”
Cam blushed slightly at the compliment. Iris thought it was cute. Very cute. She sucked in a breath and made herself calm down.
“It was awesome, yeah, but I feel under a bit more pressure to perform now. Megan’s kind of made it clear she expects more goals.” Cam shrugged.
“That’s Megan for you. One of the reasons we all try so hard is that we’re scared witless by her.”
As if on cue, Megan strode past with a large bag of footballs slung over her shoulder and shouted at Cameron and Iris and a couple of other players who were chatting and walking too slowly to “get a bloody move on.” Iris and Cam looked at each other and laughed, then quickened their pace.
Cam emerged from the steamy heat of the changing rooms and headed toward her car. It was cold outside now, colder than she had expected. London kept catching her out like that. She regretted not bothering to dry her hair properly after her shower. She pulled the hood up on her jacket in a vain attempt to keep the cold wind off her still wet head. Training had been hard tonight. Though Cam had scored again in the match last week, the team had conceded a late goal to draw the game, a game that everyone had expected them to win. Megan certainly seemed to want them to make up for it during training tonight. On top of the usual warm-up routines, and a very competitive six a side game, Megan had them running hard laps for fifteen minutes at the end of the session. She had coped with the pace better than most, though Vicki and Iris, with the unfair advantage of their long legs, had outpaced them all.
Cam was tired now. She knew it was as much to do with the sleep she’d missed last night as the intensity of the training session. Ryan had been late home from work again and they had argued—the same argument they always had—about Ryan overworking, about Cam being left alone at home, about how little point there was to being in London if they never saw any of it.
The argument hadn’t lasted long and it hadn’t been particularly heated, but Cam had been left chewing over things and unable to sleep. She’d been even more worked up when, after the argument, Ryan had fallen straight to sleep, seemingly untroubled by any of it. That she’d never smothered him with a pillow in those situations was a testament to her good upbringing.
Ryan was a good guy. Cam knew he was. She just wanted to see more of him, have him less stressed, and maybe have a little more fun. They would make it work; they always did.
Cam got in her car and cranked up the heater to max, willing the temperature to rise. She turned on the radio, already tuned to Heart FM, and decided to listen to some pop music and stop moping. Maybe this weekend she’d take the initiative and find somewhere in town for them to have some cocktails and a fancy dinner. She’d been wanting an excuse to wear that black dress she’d bought. The thought of it lifted her mood.
Cam noticed Iris getting into a Mini Cooper. She felt a small pang of jealousy. She’d wanted a Mini when they moved to London—the car just seemed so wonderfully British—but Ryan had insisted she get something more practical. It was hard to tell the color of the car in the dark, but she couldn’t miss the Union Jack brightly painted on the roof. It was a standout feature, and a voice inside Cam’s head told her that it stood out almost as much as Iris did. The thought surprised her. She had noticed Iris in the changing room straight away. It was hard not to. She was tall, athletic, and bronzed to perfection, no doubt from her recent trip. Her short black hair was wavy and unruly which, coupled with her dark brown eyes, made her look moody and handsome. Tall, dark, and handsome. Cam rolled her eyes at the cliché. But it wasn’t just that she was striking to look at, the other women seemed genuinely pleased that Iris was back, and her liveliness placed her at the center of the changing room banter, her handsome features softened often by a big wide smile.
Cam had found herself watching quietly and trying to understand who Iris was most friendly with, where her alliances lay, and once Vicki had made it clear that Iris was a lesbian, if she was in a relationship with someone in the team. She didn’t think so but it was hard to tell. Cam couldn’t help being curious. Ryan always teased her that she was pretty nosy in that way, and she had spent the previous weeks wondering the same way about the other players, not yet discovering any pairings within the team. She didn’t really care, but as much as she loved soccer, she had joined the team hoping also to make a friend or two, and she didn’t want to play on a team full of established couples who had no time for new friendships.
Iris reversed the Mini out of its parking space and headed for the main road. She gave Cam a friendly wave as she passed. It was enough to make Cam want to overcome her tiredness and join everyone in the pub for the usual after training drinks. If she was going to make friends, she had to be sociable and not let her tiredness get in the way of that.
The pub was barely a five-minute walk from the sports center, but the freezing temperatures tonight made Iris thankful she had chosen to drive rather than walk.
As the players arrived in twos and threes, they settled themselves in small groups at the square tables that populated the pub’s lounge area. A fire was blazing away at one end of the room and, being midweek, the lounge was empty except for a group of middle-aged men sipping pints at a corner table close to the bar. The TV near them was showing a football match, and they were watching it halfheartedly with the sound down.
The team always got a warm welcome from Jackie, the landlady of the Dog and Gun, who was glad both of the midweek business and of the company.
“Hello, darling.” Jackie wrapped her arms around Iris in a hug, stopping her passage toward Hazel and the tables nearest the fire. She pulled away and looked Iris up and down, whistling softly. “Well, look at you. You look like you’ve been somewhere sunny.”
“Dubai. For work. They worked me like a dog, but I managed a fair bit of reading by the pool on the weekends. Don’t tell that lot though. I’ve got them all feeling sorry for me about how hard I had to work.”
“Well, we missed you, and it’s been freezing here so you’re getting no sympathy from me.”
“My hotel didn’t serve any alcohol. Not even shandy.” Iris pouted.
“Okay, okay, you got me. I’m finally feeling sorry for ya.” Jackie pushed Iris toward the fire. “Make sure you make up for it tonight, and the first one’s on me.”
Iris turned back and gave Jackie a quick peck on the cheek. “Thanks.” She made her way to the table.
Vicki and Hazel were sitting as close to the fire as they thought they could bear while Jess was getting the drinks. Iris had quickly pushed two of the tables together wanting to make room for Megan and Cam to join their group when they arrived. Jess’s progress with the drinks was being slowed by the fact that the barmaid was showing more interest than usual in Jess’s attempts to chat her up. She leaned across the bar and played with her hair flirtatiously—doing all the things she could to respond positively to Jess’s presence except pour the drinks that had been ordered.
“We might have to wait a while,” Vicki said. “Jess is in full seduction mode. I can’t remember if she’s an old flame or a new conquest. Keeping track of Jess’s women is a full-time job.”
Iris shook her head. “I just don’t have the energy for it.”
“I would have said the same, but then I met Princess Harry and I feel like a teenager again.” Vicki clutched her heart playfully.
Vicki had snagged herself a posh girl called Henrietta—Harry to her friends—one of the associates at her new firm, and they were still in that madly loved up phase. Henrietta had reddish hair and a cut glass accent that made her sound like royalty so Hazel had come up with the Princess Harry nickname. Vicki had loved it so much that she now called her by it routinely and, to be fair, Harry thought it was hilarious.
“Still going well?” Iris asked, already guessing the answer.
“Yeah, totally. I’ve never had so much fun. And by fun, I mean sex obviously.”
“As long as you’re not going to go into the gory details, I’m happy to hear you say that,” Iris replied.
Hazel was on the phone to Casey, her wife. She was complaining loudly about Megan, who had yet to arrive. “Honestly, babe, she was like a bad-tempered army fitness instructor tonight.”
Hazel being on the phone saved Iris from being teased about the fact that she was very obviously watching for Cam through the window and had even saved Cam the seat next to her with her coat. She was just being friendly, but she knew that wouldn’t matter to Hazel.
At that moment, Cam entered the pub with Megan and a couple of the other players. As she looked around to see where people were sitting, Iris smiled and waved indicating the spare chair next to her. Iris wondered where the hell all this friendliness had come from. It wasn’t her normal way of behaving with strangers, but something about Cam made her feel that she was worth not being her normal self for. Cam gave a little wave back and made her way toward the table, and Iris couldn’t help but smile. This time Hazel noticed.
Cam’s approach was delayed by Megan inquiring what she wanted to drink, and this gave Hazel the chance to nudge Iris. “Three words, Iris—she’s not interested. Don’t let yourself go there.”
“Thanks for the advice, Haze. Three words for you—I’m. Not. Stupid. I know she’s not interested like that. I just want to get to know her a bit, that’s all.”
Cam reached the table and Iris took the coat off the chair beside her so that Cam could sit down. The fire in the lounge was roaring now, and it made the pub feel very warm, especially when compared to the icy temperatures outside. Cam stripped off her jacket and hung it across the back of her chair. Iris wanted to initiate conversation with her, but something about Hazel’s comment had made her self-conscious. At least she assumed that was what was making her tongue-tied and it was nothing to do with how attractive Cam looked in the soft light of the room.
This is silly. I’m behaving like a schoolgirl with a new crush.
Megan joined them at the table with a drink for Cam and raised her glass to make a toast to the team.
“I’d join you in that, but I can’t lift my arms off the table thanks to all those extra push-ups you made me do,” Iris said.
“Is it my fault you can’t put the ball in the net from twelve yards? You know the forfeit,” Megan replied. “And anyway, Vicki did twice as many push-ups as you and she’s still got both arms working. You’re just a weakling.”
Iris loved the banter of the post-training drinks—so much more relaxed than after a match when people were still worrying about chances they’d missed or how well they’d played. “But we all know that Australians have a genetic advantage with their overdeveloped biceps linked to the pints of lager they drink from childhood.”
Cam offered Iris her palm for a high five. Iris obliged, pretending she had hurt her arm while doing so. Vicki joined in by flexing her muscles playfully and Cam grinned. Iris liked seeing her smile.
Megan, Hazel, and Vicki began to chat earnestly about the state of the team’s finances, and whether Cottoms could be approached for more money. And this left Iris and Cam able to talk to each other properly for the first time.
“I gotta say that Megan takes the training way more seriously than any other coach I’ve played for.”
“Have you played a lot previously then?” Iris’s question was pretty stupid as Cam was obviously an experienced player. She was hopeless at small talk.
“I have. I played at school, all through college, for the varsity women’s team. Soccer’s much more popular with women in the US than it is here. Lots of opportunities to play.” Cam sipped her wine. “I was so happy when I found out that Cottoms had a team. I missed playing so much when I moved to London that I was almost ready to just try to find a random team to join online, but I knew I’d have been a bit shy about turning up and not knowing anyone, y’know.”
“When did you move to London?”
“About eight months ago now I suppose. Ryan…my boyfriend…well, I suppose I should call him my fiancé now that we’re engaged…he got the chance to transfer to the London office of his company and decided he wanted to give it a go. I wasn’t really doing much to keep me in Seattle, and London was a place I’d always wanted to experience, so…”
“And do you miss home?”
“I miss friends sometimes. I do the ‘catching up with them on Skype’ thing, but it’s obviously not the same. I miss the mountains, the forests, the lakes. Washington is really beautiful. I miss my family, well, I miss my sister at least.” She paused. “Mom, Dad, Alison, they’re all back in Seattle. My sister and I are close. We used to cook for each other every week and make sure we were caught up on each other’s news, and I really miss that.” Cam looked wistful. “What about you? What do you do at Cottoms?”
Iris didn’t really want to talk about herself—she never did—and she certainly didn’t want to talk about work. She wanted to hear more from Cam. “I’m the operations director. As dull as dull can be. It’s okay though. There are worse jobs. I like the people I work with. Most of them anyway. And I like making things work better. Plus it keeps me busy.”
“And what do you do for leisure?” Cam anglicized her pronunciation of the word “leisure” a little self-consciously. Iris liked hearing it. She also liked Cam’s interest and her openness. It was not natural for Iris, and she surprised herself by answering honestly.
“I do what most people do, I guess. I run, I read, I see films, I see friends, I try not to watch too much TV, and I spend too many long evenings in the pub like this. Footie takes up a lot of my time. I really miss it when the season’s over.” Iris felt a little nervous, worrying about how she was coming across and feeling like she sounded dull.
“And love? No time for that?”
Iris was surprised by Cam’s forthrightness. She tried to determine whether the question was meant humorously or needed a proper answer, but found it hard to read Cam’s expression. She decided to be herself—guarded, flippant, avoidant.
“I schedule it in every Wednesday at six just after my spin class. It’s getting harder to do though—a local shortage or something. At least that’s what I’m telling myself.” She carried on, leaving no room for Cam to come back with a follow-up question. “And how about you? How do you spend your time?”
“Same as you really. I also like to run, I watch TV, and I read a lot. I like to cook. I try to get out to the movies, the theater, galleries. Ryan works long hours though so it’s not always possible.”
Cam stopped and Iris thought she looked pensive, worried even, but she still seemed very relaxed talking about herself. “I need to make some new friends. It’s always difficult, but London makes it harder somehow. I hadn’t expected that. Everyone’s always so busy and so far away. My last place of work was a snake pit, and I didn’t dare make friends there in case I ended up on the wrong side in some way. I have more hopes of this place, especially since we have a soccer team and people seem so normal and friendly.”
Iris really hoped she would be one of Cam’s new friends.
“Cottoms isn’t all sweetness and light, but it’s definitely better than most. I like the fact that we’re a really diverse company. And it’s not one of those macho environments where people compete to be seen working the longest hours, and it’s really good that the partners support and encourage extracurricular activities like the football teams. We even have a book club, though at last count we only have four members, including me. If you like to read though, you should definitely come along.”
“That sounds awesome, I will.”
“We take it in turns to choose the books. I’ll send you the title for next time. In fact, I can just lend you the book. I’ve just finished it. It’s not one that I chose and, spoiler alert, I think it’s absolutely terrible. Not that I’m trying to sway your opinion in advance.” She leaned over to Cam and stage-whispered. “I am actually, but don’t tell anyone.” They both laughed.
Jess returned to their table to top up her glass from the bottle of white wine on the table. She sat down, sighed, and looked at her watch.
“What’s the matter, Jess? Is she behind schedule in succumbing to your moves? Is there anything I can do to help? What I lack in charm I make up for in experience,” Hazel teased her.
“Would your wife approve of you chatting up a barmaid for me? I don’t think so. She’d stop baking you cakes if she found out, and you wouldn’t want that would you?” Jess’s response was a little snarky.
“What about telling her you’ve only got a week to live? Might make her hurry up a bit.” Iris chanced her own joke.
Jess looked at Iris intently before responding. “I know I should take dating advice from you, Iris, considering the barmaid is probably the only woman in this pub you haven’t slept with, but I’m not sure about that line, not one of your best. Of course, my favorite is ‘What winks and fucks like a tiger?’ It worked on me anyway, not that I like to remind myself of that very often.”
Hazel put up a hand to try to stop Jess’s flow, but she ignored it. “Not heard that one, Cam?” Jess winked at her.
Cam took a second to understand and then looked down at the table. Iris’s own embarrassment was acute and obvious to everyone at the table.
“That’s enough, Jess,” Megan spoke up quietly.
“What?” Jess stood up. “Are we not allowed to remind ourselves of Iris’s glory days anymore? Where’s the fun in that? Surely it’s important that we remember she’s the only person to get awarded Player of the Year for her efforts both on and off the pitch in the same season.” Jess toasted the group and returned to the bar.
An awkward silence fell upon the table. Vicki spoke first. “Hey, Iris. Sorry, mate. Don’t worry. She’s just having a bad night.”
Iris hung her head in shame, hating being reminded of those days and dreading to imagine what Cam would think of her now. Hazel put her arm around Iris’s shoulder.
“She’s just used to being able to take her shit out on you because you’re so tolerant of her. Don’t let her get to you.” Iris nodded.
“And I, for one, would like to come out and say that, to my great relief, I have never slept with Iris.” Hazel nudged Iris playfully.
“Me neither.” Megan lifted her own glass to join Hazel in the toast.
“So I guess we’re saying it should be me that changes the subject then,” Vicki said sheepishly, pulling her hood over her face.
Cam was silent and fiddling in her bag looking for something. She extracted her phone and sent someone a text message. She looked up and caught Iris watching her, then looked away quickly. Iris felt sure she was sending a message to her fiancé to say that she was coming home early. Jess’s stupid comments had ruined what had been a pleasant evening up to then.
“I’m kind of tired.” Cam stood as she drained her glass. “I’m gonna head off.” As the group offered Cam their good-byes, Iris wondered sadly if Cam would give her a wider berth in the future.
Cam sat at her desk answering emails and trying to ignore the fact that Graham was sighing and tutting as he pored over the expense reports that she had just put in front of him.
After a month of working there, Cam already knew that the noises were her cue to ask him what was wrong and then receive a long lecture about the many different ways the company was “profligate” with its finances. So far this week, he had ranted about the lack of wisdom the company showed by providing free tea and coffee in the lunchroom (“encourages time-wasting”) and about the needless extra cost involved in buying recycled copier paper. From her position at the desk opposite his, Cam considered the top of his bald head as he leaned over the document. It might be great for Cottoms to have such a frugal finance director, but his joyless penny-pinching made working with him less enjoyable than it should be.
Last week, Graham had asked Cam about her engagement ring and nodded thoughtfully as she awkwardly told him about Ryan, and them getting engaged before coming to London. He’d then spent twenty minutes telling her just how much money people waste on weddings and how she would do much better not bothering.
Cam had quite enjoyed that particular rant and imagined having the same conversation with her mother as a means of putting a stop to the over-the-top fairy tale wedding she’d been planning for her for years. The conversation had actually made her call her mother that night.
“Cameron, dear, how nice to hear from you.”
They both paused. Cam wasn’t really sure why she’d called. Just a feeling that it had been a while and she owed her mother some contact.
“Are you calling with news?” The way she said the last word made it clear that her mother was asking whether they had set a wedding date. She always sounded so excited at the prospect.
Face it, it’s actually all she cares about. Cam couldn’t stop the thought from popping into her head. She decided to deliberately misunderstand the question and started telling her mother her actual news, about her new job at Cottoms and the football team and Ryan’s work. Her mother was too well mannered to interrupt, but her interest was limited. She managed some sympathy for Ryan when Cam told her how hard he had been working lately but didn’t muster a single question or comment on the rest of it. It didn’t matter that Cam expected it; her mother’s indifference to her interests, her achievements, and her life was always hurtful. Eventually, Cam ran out of things to say and her mother pounced.
“And the wedding? Have you decided on a date? I went to the church last week and they said they need at least three months’ notice. It’s very popular as a venue, so close to the lake, a lovely backdrop, and the banqueting hall is divine.” Her mother barely took a breath, she was so excited.
Cam sighed. She’d heard all this before. She and Ryan had been engaged for less than a year, and she was in no hurry to marry. Cam had been so surprised when Ryan had proposed the week before they left for London. It was unexpected because they had never once talked about it despite three years together.
Cam had enjoyed the deliberate cheesiness of Ryan’s proposal. He’d insisted on a “farewell to Seattle” meal at the restaurant at the top of the Space Needle and ended the meal by dropping the ring into a glass of overpriced champagne, followed by a cake lit with sparklers delivered by a team of smiling waiters. She had hesitated for a second and then, swept up in the moment, said yes to cheers and applause. They had gone somewhere else for cocktails and gone home happy and wasted. Later, when reality hit, she told Ryan that the wedding would have to wait till they were back in Seattle so that family and friends could attend. She was relieved that he didn’t seem to mind at all.
Cam delighted in telling her mother all about the engagement, knowing she was horrified at the tackiness of the proposal but also relieved Cam finally had a ring on her finger. Her mother adored Ryan. The fact he was an investment banker from a well off family was a big part of it, but he also had an easy charm that her mother couldn’t resist. She’d never said it in quite so many words, but Cam was pretty sure that her mother thought she’d done well for herself to snag someone like Ryan. One day she would have to learn to not care what her mother thought of her quite so much. That she still did made her feel a little sad.
Cam picked up the coffee she had made ten minutes earlier and urged herself to enjoy it more knowing that it was a gift from her employers that Graham did not approve of. Her mind drifted back to the previous evening and how nice it had been to meet Iris. Cam could tell that Iris was someone who used humor to keep people at a distance, but she’d been willing to share something of herself with Cam, and it certainly seemed like they had things in common that might lead to friendship. Jess’s comments about Iris’s womanizing were an eye-opener though. She was obviously bitter about something in their past, but no one had really challenged what she’d said—not even Iris—so Cam figured it must have been largely true. That the drama didn’t give her more pause for thought just told Cam how much she had liked Iris.
Cam put down her coffee and reverted to working through her ever-expanding inbox. The satellite office of the law firm, opened several years before to take pressure off Cottoms’ main London office, was much busier than Cam had expected. The work was boring—mainly financial admin—and her boss was a total pain in the ass, but the fact that she was busy and people were generally friendly helped the days go by.
Arriving in London, Ryan had made it clear that he would support her financially and that she didn’t need to work, but Cam quickly realized that being the little wife-in-waiting didn’t suit her. She wanted—needed—the independence that came from having money of her own, and she wanted to meet new people. Back home, Cam had often felt bored and restless—like life was just passing her by—and she’d hoped that London would help her feel different, help her find herself somehow, but she was facing up to the fact that she had a lot of the same feelings here. She couldn’t understand why it was so difficult to figure out why she was bored, and what it was that she actually wanted from her life. The role at Cottoms definitely wasn’t anything she’d want forever, but for now, it was fine, and if she could make the right friends, she might even be able to start to enjoy life outside work a bit more.
Cam heard a knock on the open office door and was surprised to see first Megan, and then Iris, appear in the doorway. The office was not large—just space enough for the four desks and various filing cabinets it contained. Graham’s PA, the long-suffering Sylvia, something of a Cottoms institution, usually occupied the desk nearest the door, but she was on leave.
Megan entered the room and sat in Sylvia’s empty office chair while Iris remained in the doorway. “Can we have a word please, Graham? It won’t take five minutes.” Megan was being unusually polite.
Graham looked from Megan to Iris and back again. “That’s good because I’ve barely got five minutes.”
Like a good bean counter, Graham measured out his words carefully, speaking with a surprisingly deep voice for such a slight man.
“We’ve been speaking to Mr. Cottom about the football team and about the running costs going up—the pitches, the equipment, the registration and so on—and he said that he would support an increase in funding if you could identify a budget for it to come from. I wanted to ask you to see if you could.”
Graham pointed at the stack of papers he had on the desk in front of him. “Times are tight, ladies. Budgets are being overspent all over the place. I’m not sure Mr. Cottom always appreciates that from his…” he searched for the right words, “rather lofty position at the top of the company.”
Iris sighed loudly, and Megan shot her a look that was intended to make Iris stay quiet.
“I appreciate that, Graham, but we’re only talking about a small increase. Even five hundred pounds would help us get through the season.”
Cam could see that Iris was agitated. She was shifting from foot to foot.
“And what would you have me cut to find this five hundred pounds you need? Let’s see…” Graham pretended to think. “I suppose I could have the sanitary bin contract in the women’s lavatories canceled. An eye for an eye—that sort of thing.”
It was, Cam supposed, a joke, but it was hard to tell with Graham and it certainly wasn’t funny.
Before Megan could respond, Iris stepped into the room. She addressed her comment to Megan, but her eyes were focused on Graham. “I knew this was a waste of time and that he’d use us asking as some sort of power trip. Let’s leave it and find the money some other way. I don’t think we should have to beg.” Megan held up a hand as if to say “Let me deal with it” and spoke again to Graham.
“We’ve heard that the men’s team has a lot more funding than we do, and we thought maybe one option might be to equalize the spending a bit between the teams—only seems fair.”
Graham regarded Megan coldly. “Not sure where you heard that, Megan, but let me assure you that we’re cutting back in all corners of the business. Times are tight, as I’ve already said. I can only promise that I’ll do my best to identify something that will help. Is that all?”
Megan was showing what Cam felt was masterful composure in the face of Graham’s dismissive behavior.
“That’s all. Thank you, Graham.” Megan moved toward the door.
Iris stood back from the entrance to allow Megan to pass her into the corridor, but before moving off after her, she popped her head back into the office.
“I really hope it isn’t the case that the men’s team gets more funding, Graham, because that sort of blatant gender discrimination would not reflect very well on the company, especially given that it’s a company full to the brim of female lawyers who enjoy nothing more than litigating that kind of injustice.”
Iris left before Graham could respond. Cam couldn’t help but think they’d tag-teamed Graham pretty well, leaving him with little room to maneuver around the funding. He stood up, causing Cam to start slightly.
“The cheek of it. Who the hell does she think she is? They think that I don’t know that they use that team as a women’s social group. Half the players don’t even work for Cottoms. They don’t take it as seriously as the men’s team do. I don’t see the comparison as a helpful one. Not at all.” He jabbed his fingers at his desk to emphasize the words. “I know you’re engaged to be married, Cameron, but I would think very carefully about continuing your membership on the team under the circumstances.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m just saying that I have my sources of information too, and I know that Iris—and certainly one or two of the other players—use that team as a way of meeting like-minded women, and I’m sure your fiancé wouldn’t want you exposed to that.”
“I don’t know anything about that except to say that people meet people in all areas of life—work, sport, the supermarket, pottery classes—so I don’t see why it’s so wrong that women would connect through the team. And as for taking it seriously, we’ve won three of the last four matches we’ve played, are third in the league, and my legs feel like they won’t get me up the stairs given how hard the training was last night. Before you judge, I suggest you come along and watch one week. We totally take that team seriously.”
Cam had kept her composure, but the effort meant that her hands were shaking when she picked up her cup. “I’m going to get a coffee.” She had to get out of there before saying something more that she might regret.
On her way out of the door, a little voice in her head reminded Cam that Graham was the second person in as many days to suggest that Iris was a real player. She had been very friendly, but Cam hadn’t got any kind of vibe that made her worry about Iris’s intentions. Maybe it’d be better if Iris was with someone, but as soon as the thought landed, another collided with it. That might mean she doesn’t have time to become my friend. And Cam really wanted Iris to be her friend. As she reached the kitchen, Cam decided to swap her coffee for a chamomile tea and the hope of a peaceful afternoon.
Iris leafed through the pamphlet she’d been given with her ticket on the way in. This bookstore was one of her favorite places to waste time in Hampstead. She loved the atmosphere. It was one of those bookstores that made clear that browsing and sitting were still approved of, and she’d spent many happy hours occupying one or other of the comfy armchairs that were dotted around the store. It had an impressive selection of books spread over three floors and a poetry section that occupied half of one whole wall of the store rather than a few volumes tacked on to the end of the fiction section like you might get elsewhere. She’d discovered so many new writers there, and that just made her love it more.
As usual, she had snagged a seat on the back row, her back to a wall of large bookcases containing travel books of all shapes, sizes, countries, and continents. She picked up a book at random to browse while the room filled up and put it straight back when she saw it was the Eyewitness Guide to New York. Typical. Another unhelpful reminder of the past.
She looked around the room and saw that the chairs crammed in rows in this half of the second floor were nearly all taken. It was close to seven thirty, and there were just a few empty seats at the front. Iris tried, as she often did, to imagine herself standing in front of this audience, reading one of her own poems. She would be terrified of course, but also, she liked to hope, exhilarated at giving life to something she had created, to bring the words off the page and plant them in people’s hearts and minds where they might germinate and grow. It saddened Iris that she wasn’t writing as much as she used to. It had just gotten too hard after Amanda. Iris sometimes blamed Amanda for not encouraging her to perform when they were together and Iris was at her most prolific, but she usually pushed the thought away, reminding herself that Amanda had done nothing to stop her from performing either. She needed to have her own courage.
When Iris and Amanda had separated, after the initial period of losing herself in drinking and sleeping around had passed, Iris found herself writing to give an outlet to the pain she felt, but the poems were so personal, so raw, that she knew she could never perform them. Now she just found it hard to write at all, and coming to events like this was as much an attempt to find inspiration as a way of spending an enjoyable evening.
Iris tried to find a comfortable position in the fold-up chair and sipped the tea she had bought from the café on her way upstairs. She could tell from the way that the middle-aged woman next to her kept glancing at her that she wanted to start up a conversation, but Iris avoided her gaze. She felt a little mean, but she wasn’t in the mood to chat. Being on her own meant that she often attracted conversation from other solo attendees who wanted to discuss the poems. Iris hardly ever agreed with them but was always too polite to say so. To her, poetry was an emotional experience, as personal to each person as the kind of sex they liked to have, but in this bookstore in genteel, well-heeled Hampstead, she doubted that pointing out that comparison would go down well.
On the small makeshift stage at one end of the bookstore floor, the evening’s emcee was waiting for the room to come to order. She was looking at a sheaf of notes attached to a clipboard as if to remind herself of what should happen and what she should say. As Iris felt the room settle down around her, she saw the woman impatiently wave at a couple who had just entered the room and urge them to sit in the seats immediately in front of her. The man and the woman began to pick their way across the front row, muttering apologies as they tried to creep as unobtrusively as possible past those already seated, obviously flustered to be arriving so late.
Iris sat up in her chair at the realization that the woman, now seated and trying to take off her coat without attracting even more attention, was Cam. The dark haired man she had arrived with said something in her ear. You didn’t need to be an expert in body language to see from Cam’s response that she was annoyed. She shook her head, refusing to look at him and stared fixedly ahead at the low stage, just a couple of feet away from them. Iris was so surprised to find Cam here, so taken with watching the interaction between Cam and, she presumed, her fiancé that she missed the introduction of the first performer. Cam clapped enthusiastically, and Ryan—Iris finally remembered his name—did not. So Cam likes poetry. What a lovely surprise.
Throughout the first half of the evening, Iris caught herself looking across at Cam more than once. Cam seemed rapt, sitting upright in her seat, quite still and only seeming to relax when each performer left the stage. Her fiancé looked bored. He was slouched in his seat, still wearing his jacket as if he didn’t really mean to stay very long and constantly checking his phone.
The emcee announced a fifteen-minute break, and Iris stood up for a stretch. The rickety wooden chairs, packed closely together, were never especially comfortable. She nodded in recognition at an old couple she had chatted with at length last time she was here. She knew they were both heading down to the café for tea and a slice of cake. A tempting idea if only she wasn’t trying to stay in shape for the rest of the season. By the time Iris had thought to check whether Cam was going or staying, she noticed that the seats they had been occupying were empty. Iris hadn’t been sure if she should make the effort to go over and say hello, and Cam’s departure had spared her the need to decide. Iris wasn’t sorry not to have to make small talk—it really wasn’t her strong suit—but she was sorry not to have the chance to at least say hello and find out whether Cam came to these kind of events regularly. As she completed the thought, Iris became aware of a presence next to her.
“Hey, fancy meeting you here.” Iris turned to see Cam smiling sweetly at her. “It’s great isn’t it? I really enjoyed that last poem. So moving. I could see that she was really nervous, but she had no reason to be, as she was so good. I loved the way she described her feelings about her son’s illness. So dark, but so poignant.”
Cam took a breath and leaned against the back of the chair in the row in front of Iris, her feet crossed at the ankles. She looked relaxed. Her fair hair was worn loose, and she was wearing a brightly colored knee length open knit jumper over faded jeans. Iris couldn’t help but approve. She also appreciated Cam’s enthusiasm for the poetry and the refreshing lack of small talk.
“I know. I guessed it was her first time performing, but the poem was so good, I figured she must be quite an experienced writer. I know it was long, but I just didn’t want it to end.” Iris paused. “Do you come here…I mean…have you been here before?” Iris stopped herself from asking the obvious question.
“No, not here. I used to go a lot back home—my sister writes and performs—so, well, I used to go and see her. I love these kinds of things, but Ryan”—she turned to indicate the chairs where they had been sitting—“well, he doesn’t. He hates it actually so we don’t come very often.” She frowned. “He owes me tonight though because I did some awful dinner party with him at his boss’s house last week.”
“That’s a real shame…I mean if it’s something you enjoy you shouldn’t have to not do it.”
Cam nodded but looked uncomfortable. “Who are you here with?”
“No one,” Iris replied softly. “I usually come on my own. I try not to miss one unless there’s a really good reason, but I wouldn’t let not having anyone to go with keep me away.”
Iris sounded more pointed than she had meant to be. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest…it’s just that I don’t know anyone else who likes it, and I don’t seem to mind doing things on my own is all. Though I know plenty of people who would though.”
Cam made no effort to hide her surprise. “I’m sorry too. I assumed, I mean, I just expected you to be here with a date for some reason.”
Iris could have taken Cam’s words the wrong way and gotten offended and defensive. She decided not to.
“I’ve never been lucky enough to date a woman interested in poetry. Not sure why. My last girlfriend was worse than Ryan. I couldn’t even get her to come and sit and fidget. She hated it so much. So I just started to come on my own. No one really cares. Look around you. There are so many people here on their own. Sometimes I’m glad of it as I don’t have to try to externalize my feelings about what I’ve heard, but sometimes I really want to talk about how the poems have made me feel. It depends on my mood, you know?”
“Yeah, I get that. Do you write?” Cam asked.
“I do. I mean, I try to. I like to. I don’t always have the time or the inspiration, to be honest.”
Cam nodded. “Do you perform?”
“I don’t.” Iris wondered if she looked as uncomfortable as she felt. It was partly the questions and partly the way Cam’s earnest attention made her feel.
“I want to but don’t think I have the nerve. It feels so…exposing, and I guess I’m not the kind of person who likes to expose their feelings. Kudos to your sister for doing it. She’s braver than me.” Iris tried to sound less bothered than she felt at having to acknowledge her lack of confidence to Cam before they really knew each other.
Ryan waved a coffee cup in Iris’s direction and pointed at Cam.
“Your fiancé is waving at you.”
Cam turned to look in Ryan’s direction and gave him the universal sign that meant “I’m coming.”
“I’d better go. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I don’t want your half-time cuppa to get cold.” Iris felt regret at not being able to chat to Cam for a little longer.
“Well, it was nice to see you again, anyway.” Cam sounded oddly formal, almost British.
Iris nodded and Cam headed back to her seat. As she got to the end of the row, several seats away, Iris called out.
“Really nice to see you again too. See you at training or work or somewhere soon.” Iris mentally face-palmed, wondering where all that friendliness had come from. It wasn’t like her at all.
Cam turned back and smiled. Iris caught it before looking away feeling a little embarrassed.
Iris turned back toward Cam’s voice, and their eyes met across the chairs.
“Next time, we could save Ryan the trauma and come to one of these things together.”
Iris took a beat before replying. “That sounds like a really cool plan.”
Cam picked her way through the rows of chairs back to her seat. And Iris watched her go, happy that Cam had been so friendly.
“Who was that you were talking to?” Ryan asked.
“Just someone from work. Iris. Plays on the soccer team.”
Ryan made a listening noise and Cam continued.
“Surprised she’s here really. Didn’t seem the poetry evening type, but it might let you off the hook if we can come to these things together in the future.”
Ryan looked in Iris’s direction. He raised an eyebrow as he looked at Iris properly.
“She’s cute. And I’ll gladly buy her a beer if she gets me out of poetry duty. My ears are already complaining and it’s only halfway.”
Cam could have gotten annoyed with him, but her mood had improved since arriving, and she chose to punch him playfully on the arm instead. He grabbed her and pretended to bite her neck in retaliation. Cam drank her coffee, looking forward to the second half and feeling more at peace than when she’d arrived.
As Ryan was parking the car in front of their rented semidetached house, a delivery driver on a moped pulled up next to them, dismounted at speed, and knocked on their door. Ryan jumped out of the car and intercepted the man, taking possession of a brown paper bag full of Chinese food. He waggled his phone at Cam.
“Ordered during the break. Got your favorite stir-fry with king prawns and a side of spring rolls.” He looked pleased with himself.
“I have prawns in the fridge. I could’ve made us a stir-fry if you’d gotten home on time,” Cam replied coolly.
She walked past Ryan and slipped her key in the front door, realizing she sounded churlish but not really caring. She hung up her coat and kicked off her shoes into the storage space under the stairs without waiting for Ryan and made her way along the long hallway into their kitchen. Her earlier annoyance with him had returned, and she felt tension in her body as she reached up to pull plates from the cabinet above the sink.
Ryan put the bag of food on the counter and then snaked his arms around Cam’s waist, nuzzling the back of her neck.
“I thought you’d forgiven me?”
So did I, thought Cam.
“I’m sorry about making us late, honey. It’s hard. It’s not like Seattle here. They’re real hard-asses. It’s just not the kind of place that’s gonna let me go in the middle of some important call just because I have plans. I told you that already. I got home as fast as I could.” He sounded genuinely sorry.
Ryan turned Cam around, making her face him. “We didn’t miss anything, huh? Not a single word. No harm done.” He brushed the hair from her forehead tenderly.
“We missed our dinner. That’s why we’re eating takeaway at nine o’clock.” Cam didn’t want to argue again, but she also wasn’t going to let him brush away her annoyance so easily.
She slipped out of his arms and busied herself spooning food out of the containers. It smelled heavenly and her stomach rumbled.
“Let’s just eat.”
Cam carried the plates across to the dining table.
Just every now and then, putting me before work would be great. She really didn’t want them to have another argument so, this time, Cam didn’t speak the complaint out loud.
“I’m sorry. Will it disturb you if I join you?” Iris looked up from her iPad, and Cam looked for signs of annoyance. She was relieved to see none.
Iris moved her things to make room. The colorful tables in the small lunchroom at Cottoms each had four chairs arranged around them, but they were tiny and would only really ever seat four if two of them happened to be toddlers.
“Of course not, please take a seat.” Iris pulled out the chair next to her.
Cam knew that things were still pretty formal between them. But it was something she hoped would change as they got to know each other better.
Cam sat and began the process of unpacking her lunch. Iris’s gaze made her feel a little self-conscious. Ryan had put the lunch together—as he often did—but he was up and out to work so early that she rarely saw him prepare it and never knew what to expect. Inside a large sandwich box, Cam found a couple of chunks of focaccia bread wrapped in foil, a generous portion of pâté in a smaller lidded container, and lots of crudités scattered across the bottom of the box, looking colorful and very healthy. Set to one side, Ryan had tucked in a small Kit Kat—her favorite chocolate bar. The thoughtfulness of the lunch made Cam feel fondly toward him.
“Yours kind of puts my shop bought tuna sandwich to shame.” Iris indicated the empty triangular cardboard box next to her.
Cam liked how Iris’s face softened when she smiled.
“I’m spoiled. Ryan always makes me a lunch when he’s home. He’s on a health kick, and I get the benefits.”
“Lucky you.” Iris sipped her coffee. “He sounds like a keeper.”
Cam nodded. She was feeling oddly lost for words.
“Hey, I really enjoyed the book club yesterday. Thanks for inviting me.” Cam blurted it out as Iris focused her attention on her.
“No problem. It was actually really good having someone there who agreed with me for once. I’m usually the odd one out.” Iris chewed her lip. “It was a pretty awful book, let’s be honest.”
“It was god-awful. Sometimes I think people pretend to like books because they know they’ve sold well and been hyped so much that they don’t want to be the person to say they’re actually not any good.”
Iris stole a piece of pepper from Cam’s lunchbox. Cam raised an eyebrow and got a wink in return. Not so formal now. She liked it.
“I know I’m not exactly the demographic for those Fifty Shades of Grey-type books, but you are and you hated it even more than me. That’s got to tell you something about how bad it is.”
Cam spread a too thick coating of pâté onto her bread, wondering how she was going to get it into her mouth without dropping half of it onto the table.
“Jeez, I hate to think I’m the demographic. Surely it’s just bored housewives who want to spice up their love lives.” A thought crossed her mind that Cam pushed away. “Not that there was much that was sexy in there. It mainly made me cringe.” Cam knew she sounded more bothered than she felt about the book, but she was just happy to prolong the conversation, to keep Iris talking.
At the book club, Cam enjoyed hearing Iris explain her views, picking out passages to illustrate her points, listening respectfully to the others even when, Cam could tell, she vehemently disagreed with them. “Jess isn’t exactly the intended readership either, but she seemed to like it, until…well, until you said you didn’t and then she decided she hated it. I’m sure you noticed.”
Iris looked uncomfortable but said nothing. Cam wasn’t sure if she’d said too much or struck a nerve. The thought was interrupted by a lump of pâté falling as predicted from the overloaded bread and landing on the foil in front of her. Before Cam could react, Iris moved to scoop it up and pop it into her own mouth. She raised her eyebrows at Cam playfully.
“What? I’m still hungry. I had a long run this morning and it always leaves me ravenous, and all I had…” She pointed ruefully at the sandwich wrapper next to her. Cam passed her a cherry tomato.
“I’ll tell Ryan to pack me extra tomorrow. He obviously didn’t know that I was eating for two.”
“You’ve got him that well trained?”
“It’s about the only thing I can get him to do. He’s pretty strong minded. You’re right though, I’ll have to add ‘and forever make me a healthy lunch’ into his wedding vows to make sure he doesn’t slack off after the wedding.”
“Is it soon?”
Cam passed Iris another piece of pepper and watched as Iris finished it off in one bite.
“Not really. We don’t have a date. We’re going to wait till we get back to the States so our families can attend. It’d be silly to have it here when we don’t really know anyone and they’d all have to travel. My mom is super anxious that it’s soon though. She’s been planning it for years. I’m the elder of two daughters and she can’t wait. She keeps telling me I shouldn’t wait too long as my biological clock is ticking.”
“She’s worried about that at your age? What are you, twenty-five, twenty-six?” Iris shook her head.
“I’m twenty-eight in March.”
“You look younger than that. But twenty-eight’s not exactly ancient.”
“It’s desperately old according to my mom—especially since she had me at twenty-one.”
“Rubbish. You’re in the prime of life. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
“Are those kind of flattering comments how you get all those women to fall for your charms?” Cam chanced a joke, but regretted it when Iris’s jaw tightened.
For a moment, neither of them spoke.
“I don’t have women falling for my charms. Probably best not to listen to Jess on the subject of me. She tends to exaggerate.” Iris sounded weary and let out a breath.
Cam wanted to get Iris talking again…about safer things.
“Where do you run? And more to the point, how the hell do you get yourself out of bed to run on winter mornings like this one? I find it impossible and I love running.”
Iris ticked off her responses on her fingers. “One, I love my food—other people’s food too as you might have noticed.” She stole another piece of pepper. “I eat so much that if I don’t run, I’ll get out of shape. Two, I’m scared to get out of shape because Megan will notice and she will punish me with extra training and push-ups. Fear is a very powerful motivator. And three, I live close to Hampstead Heath, which is one of the most amazing places in London to run. Sometimes when I don’t want to get up, I think about the views and being out there as the Heath wakes up and it gets me out of bed.”
“Oh,” Cam exclaimed. “No way. I live near there too. We must be neighbors. That’s amazing. I’ve walked over the Heath so many times but just never thought to run there. It’s so dark in the mornings, I’d be a bit nervous of getting lost.”
“It’s dark all right, but it’s got a good network of paths and, anyway, the light from all the luminous running jerseys of the other early runners out at that time of day means you never really have to worry about the dark.”
Cam looked pensive.
“Ryan and I used to run together before work. Not on the Heath, but there’s this park closer to the house. We’d run laps together. He stopped a while back, too busy to fit in the early runs and preferring to play squash on the weekends. I guess running is something else I don’t much like doing on my own so I kind of stopped too. I miss early morning runs actually. They used to set me up for the day.” Cam blew out a breath, feeling frustrated that she had let herself go without something else that she really liked doing.
“That’s funny, I sort of prefer—” Iris stopped halfway through the sentence.
“I was going to say that I prefer running alone. That I love to put on a playlist and lose myself for an hour but, actually, I’m not even sure that’s really true. I guess it’s just what I’ve got used to.” Iris shrugged.
“Considering we live close by, and considering we’re both too scared of Megan not to maintain peak fitness, don’t you think it’d be neighborly of us to run together sometime? I have plenty of luminous stuff in my closet. I would love to run on the Heath with you. Or I could show you the little park where Ryan and I used to run.” Cam waited, worried she had been too forward, too quick to ask.
“That sounds cool.”
Cam sat back, satisfied that her boldness had paid off. She had a good feeling about Iris. She unwrapped the Kit Kat and offered half to Iris.
Iris raised an eyebrow. “You sure you’re not just being polite?” Cam shook her head and Iris took the offering happily.
Cam pointed at Iris’s iPad. “Working during your lunch hour? Not good.”
Iris sat back in her chair. Her expression was thoughtful, like she was deciding about something. Finally, Iris sat forward.
“I was working on a poem, been working on it for weeks actually. I just can’t seem to get it right. I thought I’d got hold of what the problem was an hour ago and snuck off for an early lunch to see if I could make it work. Turns out to have been a false dawn.” She pushed the iPad farther away from her.
Cam leaned forward conspiratorially. “I totally approve of you thinking about poetry during the team meeting. You looked like you were paying attention, but you were actually being all creative and not listening at all. Graham would be very offended.”
“Graham is a Grade A pillock.”
“A what?” Cam frowned.
“Pillock is British for jerk. Or asshat. It’s politer than wanker but stronger than moron,” Iris clarified. “I’m enlarging your British cursing vocabulary. You can thank me later.”
“Pillock.” Cam tried out the word, it sounded strange in her mouth. “I’ll give it a try and let you know how it goes.”
“Extra points if you try it out on Graham,” Iris said. She put her sandwich wrapper in the trash can to the left of their table.
Cam didn’t want her to leave so soon. She sat forward in her chair. “Do you…I mean, can I…” She pointed at the iPad. “Can I help? Can I look at it?”
The look of horror that passed across Iris’s face was all the answer Cam needed.
“Of course not. Sorry. You barely know me. Put it down to me being a socially forward American or something. My sister used to let me help by reading hers…never mind, sorry, Iris.” Cam focused on putting away her lunch and trying to hide her embarrassment.
“It’s not that, it’s not that it’s you I mean. It’s just…I’m sorry, but I don’t show them to anyone. They’re just for me really. I write about personal things.”
“It’s okay, don’t worry. Sorry for intruding. I’m kind of jealous actually. I used to write…not poetry…I always considered poems too hard, maybe a little too creative for me. But I wrote nonfiction. A lot of articles, reviews, that sort of thing. I was a journalism major in college, and I wrote for the college newspaper.” Cam hesitated.
“But I kinda lost my way with it all. I sometimes think that it’s a shame because I think that…” Cam stopped again, not sure she knew what she thought, knowing that she tried not to think about it at all. “I think being a journalist would have suited me. I’m very curious about things, and I really like words, reading them, writing them.”
“How’d you lose your way?” Iris asked quietly.
They were interrupted by the sound of the door swinging open and Hazel stepped in.
“James decided he wants you in this meeting after all.” Hazel spoke from the doorway. “Sorry.”
Cam looked on forlornly as Iris stood up—wishing she’d had the chance to apologize again for her tactlessness in asking to see the poem. Iris picked up her iPad.
“Got to get back to work I suppose.”
“See you at training later?”
Iris nodded. “Yeah, definitely.”
Cam smiled hesitantly, really hoping she hadn’t made a mess of things by trying too hard to be friendly. She really liked Iris and knew they had lots in common, and as Iris turned toward the door, Cam realized that she hadn’t wanted someone to be her friend this much in a really long time.