“What did you want again?” Ceri half-shouted down the phone.
She was queuing in a cramped café in the bustling heart of Paddington Train Station, winding her way around the tables and chairs like a conga line in slow motion until she reached the counter. Cherry, her wife of two-and-a-half years, had grown bored of all the foot-tapping and eye-rolling and was instead window shopping in the surrounding area.
London was a stark contrast to the edge of Old Cwmbran; there were no patchwork fields of yellows, greens and golds, no rolling hills in the distance that played home to hundreds of wild ponies, and no extensive flower gardens at the door step. This little holiday would certainly not be spent dipping their toes into lakes lost deep in the woods. Besides, Ceri and Cherry were returning for a fortnight to celebrate Jillian’s thirtieth birthday, and would be too busy spending time with her to even think about swimming. Following that, they were due to attend a school reunion to meet up with their classmates, sharing with them a huge barbeque and a humorous PowerPoint of all their fun and silly memories together.
Even now, so many years after she’d last seen any of them, Ceri was surprised that she hadn’t bumped into any old classmates or teachers. Yes, London was a large and busy place, but Glove-Truffle’s Girls School had been too. Some people may have moved on to new lives in new places, just how she, Cherry and Tasmin had all done, but surely she would meet someone she knew? Ceri’s only hope was that it would be a pleasant surprise rather than a negative experience.
Unfortunately, the latter seemed most probable. Ceri had a cardboard carry tray of two ice teas balanced in her hand and her bag strap hooked over her right elbow. She weaved, ducked and dodged her way through the swarms of people in the train station, gradually getting closer to the exit until she was finally met by the warm glow of sun on her bare forehead.
Long ago, when Ceri had officially stepped down as Yuni’s ‘biggest fan’ within her friendship group, she had also abandoned the identical hairstyle. Instead of a chin-length, A-line bob and blunt, full-front fringe, her hair was now half way down her back, held away from her face in two slightly uneven plaits, and her fringe had been grown out. Along with her new hairstyle and change in preferred fashion, her face had matured and her Welsh accent had re-developed over the years; it was as if she was a completely different person compared to how she was twelve years before.
Getting through the crowds had been less stressful than Ceri had anticipated, but the real trouble lurked just outside, hiding in plain sight in the disguise of cuteness. She rounded the corner out onto the street and let out a startled yelp as something small thudded against her knees. The ice teas started to wobble. Ceri tried her best to balance them in their tray, but she was too late. One cup toppled over, causing a pale-yellow liquid to trickle into the innumerable cracks in the pavement. Luckily, Cherry’s peach ice tea was safe, but the same couldn’t be said for Ceri’s lemon one.
“Hana! Come and hold my hand, now,” a clearly over-tired father said, holding out his hand expectantly to the young girl. “I’m so sorry. I’ll buy you another one,” he offered politely.
Ceri glanced over her shoulder at the cramped station and sighed. “That’s okay, just—”
And that’s when their eyes met. His were a dull blue, exhausted and hurt, the colour drained to match his mood, straining to stay open just to watch over his little twins. She cocked her eyebrow subtly; she knew this man, though he still treated her as a stranger. Must be the hair, she thought, pursing her lips as she rapidly pulled together a plan.
“Actually, I know it’s an odd thing to ask, but can I have a hug? Please?”
“What?” He murmured, stifling a yawn.
“I’ve just been a bit upset lately,” Ceri said, giving an awkward half-smile and flapping a floppy sleeve that hung off the end of her wrist. “Sorry to ask—”
“No, no, it’s okay. Everyone needs a hug once in a while. In fact, I wouldn’t mind one myself.”
He moved closer to embrace Ceri, but stopped just before his arm wound around her, paused like a video.
“Hana, would you hold this, please?”
The father plucked Cherry’s ice tea from Ceri’s hand and crouched down to pass it to his daughter, who took it gingerly with both hands.
“Keep it steady, alright? No spilling!”
“Okie!” She agreed gleefully, showing the most adorable childish grin.
Ceri felt a sudden jolt of jealousy strike her heart as she watched the little girl, the embodiment of her idol and someone she had once loved, obsess over her new-found responsibility. Hana’s twin brother, who was almost a clone of her, hid shyly behind his father the entire time, grasping at the hem of his coat and casting worried glances at anything that moved.
However, Ceri’s yearning was over as quickly as it had come. She thought about how amazing her own, entirely separate, life was. There was Cherry, their house on the hill that had been inherited from Ceri’s grandparents, and the flower shop they had been running together for four years now. There wasn’t anything left to wish for.
And so, when Aaron’s arms wrapped around her body and squeezed tightly, she smiled and hoped he could feel all the joy and cheer that was spreading from her heart to his. Ceri hugged back just as passionately, and it was only once she had thanked him and his children, taken Cherry’s drink and turned her back on them, that he realised that that same hug had happened before, and not just in a dream.
In most hugs, two hands are pressed against your body. Arms, back, hips or neck. It didn’t matter. The point was that only one hand had been pressed against Aaron’s back, and parallel to that had been her wrist.
He knew her. It was Ceri.
Walking away from him were two women—a blonde sipping her peach ice tea and telling a thrilling story, and Ceri laughing about how infatuated she had suddenly become with a balloon. Cherry was fixated on the helium balloon she had spotted in a party shop and couldn’t stop babbling on and on about it.
“It was brilliant! It was a ladybird, and it had these little, woggly legs… Ahh…such a great balloon…”
This is the final part of a short story by Heather. Follow Heather on Instagram and Wattpad @centaur_h.