Tilly rushed out of her shop and grabbed two planters from the pavement, her dark hair whipping her face. Already several sunflowers had lifted from their buckets and been swept into the sky, like tiny suns on strings.
There was a rumble overhead, and Tilly turned her gaze to the end of the road, where a young couple were battling the wind, and an old man dashed into a shop doorway, seeking refuge from the weather.
There was no sign of Isaac.
Tilly had been excited all day that he was coming. That she would finally see him again. She’d spoken to him every day since leaving Australia, and couldn’t get him out of her head.
Earlier, as she’d driven around in her van, she hadn’t stopped smiling. Delivering flowers was her favourite part of the job. The sheer delight on people’s faces as they opened the door to a woman with a bouquet was magical, but today felt even more special, as she imagined how she would feel if the flowers were for her – from Isaac.
Now the storm was worrying her. Maybe she should have called Isaac and advised him not to come.
No sooner had she thought it than a figure rounded the corner, head bent against the wind.
‘Isaac!’ she called as he approached. When he reached her, soaked through, she pulled him into the shop and locked the door, not caring that it was an hour before closing time.
They held each other, Tilly barely aware of the rattling of the windows above her heartbeat.
At the back of the shop, Jess was wrapping cellophane around a huge bouquet. She looked up and smiled as Tilly walked through holding Isaac’s hand.
‘You must be Jess,’ Isaac said
She nodded, and blew him a playful kiss. ‘And I’m guessing you’re Isaac O’Donnell,’ she said, pulling pink ribbon from a reel, and tying it around the cellophane. ‘Tilly hasn’t stopped talking about you.’
‘Behave yourself, Jess,’ Tilly said, feeling herself flush. She noticed red patches of embarrassment on Isaac’s cheeks too.
‘You’re very cute,’ Jess went on. ‘I completely approve.’ She put on a cut-glass British accent. ‘Tilly, you have my blessing.’ She giggled.
‘Stop it, Jess, or I’ll tell him all your secrets,’ said Tilly, with a small laugh.
Jess stopped wrapping. ‘I have a hamster called Gerald.’ She paused, her eyes looking upwards, as though searching her thoughts. ‘I’m a lesbian, and I like being tickled with feathers.’ She drew a pair of scissors across the ribbon, creating a coil. ‘There. He now knows all my secrets.’
Tilly couldn’t help smiling.
‘You need a bit of a haircut to be perfect though, Isaac,’ Jess concluded, picking up the bouquet she’d created. ‘But that’s just my opinion, of course. Tilly rather likes curls.’
‘Waves,’ Isaac corrected.
‘OK,’ said Jess and waved her hand.
‘No they’re…’ he touched his hair, ‘probably curls at the moment. The rain does that.’
‘Don’t you have to be somewhere else?’ Tilly said to Jess, out of the corner of her mouth.
Her friend shrugged and disappeared, but her grin said she already liked Isaac.
Tilly handed him a towel, and as he dried his hair, she smiled, feeling suddenly shy. She couldn’t believe he was here. He’d been inside her head for so long, and now he was within touching distance. She wanted to kiss him; hold him - stay in his arms forever.
He put down the towel, bent to pull a daisy from a bucket, and held it out towards her, blushing again, water dripping on the flagstones. ‘No expense spared,’ he said.
She laughed, taking it from him. ‘I’ve missed you.’
‘I’ve missed you too,’ he said, and took her hand. ‘In fact, I can’t stop thinking about you.’ He pulled her close so their bodies touched. His felt solid against hers, and she tingled with pleasure. She breathed in his aftershave, as he lifted her chin with one finger and kissed her - gently at first, and then so long and hard she felt her heart dance – no, more than that – it spun cartwheels and somersaults. This was the man she wanted to spend the rest of her life with. The man she wanted to have babies with. He was the missing part, the plaster that would heal everything. And she prayed with all her heart that he felt the same. That he would consider moving to New York.
‘I’ve got loads to tell you, Tilly,’ he said, as they sat at the table where Jess had been working, fingers entwined, oblivious to the noise of the storm. ‘Things I’m scared you won’t believe.’
‘What sort of things?’ She narrowed her eyes, not quite understanding the urgency in his voice.
‘Remember I told you about Phototime?’
She nodded and smiled. ‘Ah, the pretend world of Phototime, where witches make potions, and everyone lives happily ever after.’
‘Well,’ Isaac said. He rubbed his finger along his lips - beautiful lips. ‘It’s real.’
‘Isaac, please.’ She felt a pinch of disappointment that he was talking such nonsense. ‘It can’t be real. It sounds like something out of a fairy story.’
‘But it is for real, and I need you to believe me, Tilly.’
Something about the look on his face made her heart leap.
‘It’s really important that you do,’ he said. ‘I can prove it.’ He pulled out a folded photograph, and a small bottle of amber liquid.
‘What’s that?’ she said, her eyes widening as she pointed at the bottle.
‘It’s the potion,’ he said, still so serious. ‘The potion that can take you into Phototime.’
‘No,’ she said. She got up and began pacing the room. ‘Is it a drug? I don’t take drugs,’ she said. ‘Do you take drugs, Isaac?’ She stopped and stared at him. ‘Oh God, are you a druggie? Is that why you were out of it in the pub that day?’ She was talking too fast. ‘Tell me the truth, Isaac, please. Is that what this is all about?’
‘No. No,’ he cut in, before she could say anything else. ‘I don’t take drugs, Tilly. This isn’t a drug.’ He looked at the bottle with its weird herbs, just as his cell phone rang.
‘Sorry,’ he said, taking his phone from his pocket and looking at the
‘I’d better get this,’ he said to Tilly. ‘Take the flack sooner, rather than later.’
I rose, turning my back on a flustered looking Tilly, and answered the call.
‘Esme,’ I said, slipping the bottle back into my pocket, wondering how I would ever explain Phototime to Tilly without panicking her – and I hadn’t even ventured onto the subject of her father. ‘How’s New York treating you?’ I went on into the silence at the other end of my mobile. I sounded nervous. How Esme had instilled such dread in me, I wasn’t sure.
‘Where’s Ricky?’ she said, well snapped – a scary, teacher-like snap that rendered me silent. ‘Isaac, are you still there?’
‘Sorry, yes. I’m here, and I don’t know where Ricky is. Isn’t he with you?’
‘No, for goodness sake. Why would I be ringing you if he was with me?’ She sounded even snappier, if that was possible. ‘I’ve tried calling him, but his phone goes to voicemail. I’ve called the cake shop too, and they said he left there hours ago, and they know nothing about offering him free lager.’ She paused for breath. ‘I need my cake samples, Isaac.’
‘But aren’t you worried about Ricky?’ Suddenly, I was less afraid of Esme’s tyrannical voice, and more concerned about my friend’s whereabouts. ‘He was pretty drunk when I left him. It was really windy.’
‘Well, he’d had his five units, let’s put it that way.’ It wasn’t a lie. She didn’t need to know he’d had another five on top.
‘He’s a grown man,’ she said, ‘quite capable of looking after himself. But the thing is, he phoned forty minutes ago to say he’d left you, but he hasn’t turned up. I want my cake samples.’ She sounded like a spoilt child. ‘I want to taste the champagne and raspberry sponge, and the stacking crepes with sherbet ganache.’
Never going to happen
‘He knows how much I’m looking forward to it,’ she concluded.
I’d known Esme was po-faced and prim, and admittedly I hadn’t taken to her in the slightest, but this was worse. She was angry and selfish, two sides of her I hadn’t seen before. Putting a sherbet ganache before her fiancé’s safety was unforgiveable. There was a difference between helping someone quit dope and controlling his life.
‘Esme,’ I said, with a rather strong tone for me. ‘Ricky has gone missing in the storm, and he was pretty pissed. Surely finding him is more important than your bloody cake samples.’
‘Charming,’ she said, after a stunned silence. ‘Actually, Isaac, if I see you at our wedding I’ll get my father to throw you out. He’s a black belt in karate.’ And with that she hung up.
‘Well, Edith,’ I said into the silence. ‘If I never see you again, it will be too soon.’
I hung up, and put my phone into my pocket, before turning to look at Tilly, who had concern written on her face.
‘Is everything OK?’ she said, as though her earlier panic about me being a junkie had evaporated.
I shook my head, and put the photograph of her and her father back in my pocket. ‘It’s my friend, Ricky,’ I said. ‘He was out in the storm, pretty drunk. I’m worried, if I’m honest.’
I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t reached the hotel. It was just round the corner from where I’d left him. But maybe I was being ridiculous. Knowing Ricky, he’d probably wandered into another bar.
I tried his mobile, but there was no reply. ‘Sorry, Tilly, but I need to go and find him,’ I said, as my worry mounted. ‘I’ll be back as soon as I can.’
She followed me through the shop and unlocked the door. I wasn’t sure whether to kiss her, or whether I’d blown everything by telling her about the potion.
But she leant in, as though she’d forgiven me already, and I kissed her before she could change her mind. And then I held her close. Her hair smelt of flowers and rain and sunshine.
‘Take care,’ she said, as I headed out into the remnants of the storm - a mizzling rain, and a slight breeze - and I resisted the urge to turn back, and never leave.
The debris left from the storm was already being cleared away by shop owners when I arrived at the spot where I'd last seen Ricky.
As I turned the corner, his hotel was within spitting distance; a grand place with a doorman and marble steps to the entrance. It didn’t make any sense that he’d never made it back to Esme. Perhaps, I contemplated, he’d jumped into a taxi and got as far away from her as possible - maybe he was already on a plane back to England. I certainly wouldn’t have blamed him.
Or perhaps he was in a bar, and his phone had run out of battery, or had no signal. Yes, he was fine. I was being stupid; Ricky was a man of twenty-four, not a child. He was fine.
But I still had a niggling doubt. New York was as safe as any other big city these days, but what if he’d been attacked and was lying somewhere, bleeding?
I looked up at the CCTV cameras everywhere, before trying his mobile again. It went to voicemail.
I tried calling out to him. ‘Ricky, mate,’ I yelled, turning on the spot. ‘Where are you?’
I glanced down side alleyways, where rubbish and boxes had been scattered in the wind, and dumpsters lined the walls. I looked in shops, pressed my nose against bar windows. But in truth, I had no idea where to begin searching for him.
After another ten minutes of wandering up and down the same stretch of road, I sat on a bench. I pulled out my phone, and looked at the selfie of Ricky and me grinning, that I’d taken just before I’d left him. I stared at the picture for some moments, before taking the potion from my pocket.
I had three options: I could go back to Tilly and hope Ricky would eventually turn up fit and well, I could dial 911, and have some American cops look at me as though I was an overreacting Englishman, or I could use the potion.
It was a no-brainer.
I raced round the corner to the bar we’d been in earlier and headed for the toilets. It was the only place I could think of. Being comatose on the streets of New York wasn’t an option.
I went into a cubicle, locked the door and sat down, relieved it was pretty clean. I wiggled the bottle to agitate the herbs, wondering if I was doing the right thing.
But I had to find my friend.
I drank the potion. The sensation of my body numbing was immediate.
‘Put it on Facebook, bruv, or Instagram.’ Ricky laughs, and I feel how drunk he is: barely able to see in front of him as he staggers onwards. I should never have left him in such a state. I should have made sure he got back to the hotel OK. ‘But make sure you hide it from Esme.’
The wind is strong: gusts sweeping the pavements, rain falling in sheets, soaking Ricky through.
‘Feels like a hurricane’s brewing,’ he calls. ‘Better go before I turn into Dorothy. I hated that green wizard.’
‘That was a tornado, Ricky,’ I hear myself saying in the distance – it’s a strange sensation, like an out of body experience, ‘and as it turned out it never was a wizard. It was a little man dressed in green.’
‘Shut the fuck up,’ he says, raising his hand. He can see two of me now. ‘‘To think I was too afraid to watch that film all the way through, because of a little man dressed in green.’
A horn honks. ‘Wait!’ I’m calling, as Ricky ambles down the road. ‘You’ve left the cake samples in the bar.’
He sticks his other arm in the air. ‘I actually don’t care anymore, Isaac. This is my life.’
I see what he sees as he turns corner. I feel how he feels. He’s already made a decision. He doesn’t want Esme. However hard he tries to work out his own mind, she never fits in. Tears burn his eyes. I can’t believe I didn’t twig how desperate he feels. How alone in this crowded city he is.
Ricky eyes the hotel, the wind pushing him back as though telling him not to go any further; to run and never come back. There’s a whimper from a shop doorway, and he turns to see a collarless dog, wet fur clinging to its thin body. He stares at it. The dog stares back, sad brown eyes that seem to say, ‘Life is shit.’
‘Hello, matey,’ Ricky says, stepping towards it and crouching down. ‘You look like I feel.’
He sits beside it, puddles of rain seeping through his smart chinos. He ruffles the dogs head, and puts his arm round it, dragging it close. It smells pretty awful.
The shop door opens, and a woman shoos them away. So Ricky rises, scoops up the dog and continues on his way, the wind and rain battering them. He turns into a side alley, and drops between two dumpsters.
The dog curls up on his knee, and closes his eyes.
‘How the hell am I going to tell Esme I want out, Fluffy?’ he says to the dog, as though it has the answers. ‘I hope you don’t mind if I call you Fluffy,’ he adds, as the dog licks the rain from his chin.
Once out of Phototime, I headed out of the toilets, raced through the crowded bar and back onto the street where the rain had now stopped.
I reached the alley I’d seen Ricky sit down in, and dashed towards the row of dumpsters.
‘Ricky! Thank God.’
He was asleep, propped against a bin, the dog still on his lap, his mobile face-down in a puddle beside him. I didn’t know whether to hug him or punch him.
‘Ricky,’ I said again, choosing to shake him.
‘Hey, Isaac, my man,’ he said, opening his eyes. The dog woke too, and gave a half-hearted wag of its tail. ‘How did you know I was here?’
‘Are you OK?’ I said, avoiding the question.
He shuffled and moaned. ‘Cold, wet, thirsty, got the munchies, need a pee.’ He rubbed his head. ‘Have you ever had a hangover when you’re still pissed, Isaac?’
I shook my head. ‘Not that I remember.’
‘How did you know where I was?’ he repeated.
I shrugged. He’d never believe me. ‘I smelt you,’ I said with a small laugh.
He smiled, but his bloodshot eyes shimmered with tears as he stroked the dog. ‘I’m pretty damn miserable,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if you noticed.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I noticed.’ I paused, before adding, ‘You need to end things with Esme. Or at least have a break and think things through.’
‘How can I?’ he said. ‘She’s got so, so, so many plans. I don’t want to marry her – I don’t even want to be with her right now – but I don’t want to hurt her.’ He shook his head. ‘She deserves better than that.’
‘So you’re going to give up your life, so you don’t have to hurt her?’
He shrugged again, and held out his hand. I grabbed it and pulled him to his feet. We walked towards the end of the alley, the little dog close on Ricky’s heels. When we reached the pavement, Ricky looked towards the hotel and then back at me. ‘I need to tell her, don’t I?’ he said.
I nodded, patting his arm.
He picked up the dog. ‘Right,’ he said, sucking in a sigh. ‘I’m going to tell her I’m going back to England with Fluffy,’ he said. ‘Can you wait here with him while I break the news?’
He handed over the pup, which still smelt like it needed a good bath, and the fact I could feel his bones suggested he needed a good meal too.
Ricky headed for the hotel, a shambling mess. I wondered if he would really go through with it.
He was back in ten minutes with his case and a rucksack, still wearing his wet clothes. ‘That could have gone better,’ he said. The dog wagged his tail, clearly deciding Ricky was his new owner.
‘Did you tell her?’
He nodded. ‘I suggested a short break to think things through, and she went ape-shit.’ His voice broke, and his eyes glazed over. ‘I kept saying sorry, but it was like she’d been possessed. She threw her Bride Magazine at my head, and yelled that I was useless at everything. Crap in bed, apparently.’ He shrugged. ‘Who’d have thought it? And I didn’t know women can fake orgasms – even multiple ones, did you? Do these women go to fake orgasm classes, and pretend it’s yoga?’
I smiled, knowing he was trying his best to lighten the mood.
‘And then she slapped me.’ He pointed at the glow of red fingerprints on his cheek. ‘She never wants to see me again, and I don’t blame her, quite frankly. I don’t want to see me again. I’m an absolute bastard.’
‘You’re not a bastard, Ricky.’
He shrugged. ‘Esme would beg to differ.’
‘Well, what does she know?’ I patted his shoulder. ‘Will you be OK, mate?’
‘I will be,’ he said, taking the dog from me. He squinted up at the sky, where the sun was trying to come out. ‘Fluffy will help me through it, I know he will.’