Life Two – 2016
‘Good morning, Vipers VIP Concierge Service, Ashleigh Vaughan speaking ….’
There’s a familiar snort of laughter at the end of the phone.
‘Do you seriously not have me on your caller ID?’ India laughs. ‘I only ring you five times a day!’
‘It’s a work phone!’ I grin into the receiver, glad to hear my best friend’s voice.
‘So I gathered … seeing as you actually answered it! Do you ever leave the office?’
I roll my eyes, even though I know she can’t see me.
‘There’s heaps to do if I’m taking a fortnight off to come home ….’
India laughs again. ‘Fine, fine, play the wedding card, just this once! Though we both know you’d be working just as hard, even if you weren’t coming home! So anyway, how’s the new business going.’
I smile, a rush of warm pride flooding to my cheeks. ‘Business is good … better than good! You know Ind, I really think I might have hit the jackpot with this one!’
‘That’s what we like to hear! Though I still don’t get why you couldn’t have set up the company on this side of the pond.’ She adds, a little sullenly.
‘There isn’t the same market for concierge services in England. You know that just as well as I do. Just let me make things happen over here first … you never know, Vipers could be going global in no time!’
‘I bloomin’ well hope so! It’s one thing having my maid of honour on the other side of the world! But it’ll be quite another when you’re also a godmother!’
‘What? India … you’re not pregnant are you?!’
‘Of course not!’ India tuts, and I smile, remembering how proper her parents are. Sir Harry would have kittens at the thought of his only daughter getting pregnant outside of wedlock! ‘I’m just saying … that you oughtn’t stay out there too long … you have duties over here!’
I laugh. ‘Duties?’
‘Yes … duties. Speaking of which, have you found yourself a date for the wedding?’
‘Since when has finding a date for the wedding been an official duty for the maid of honour?’
‘Since now … come on, it’s hardly inspirational to all those single bridesmaids, if the maid of honour herself can’t even find a man!’
‘Aren’t two of your bridesmaids married?’
‘Well yes … and one’s pregnant … but that’s beside the point!!’
‘India, where am I going to find a man to fly back to England with me? And at two week’s notice? It’s hardly your average first date scenario!’
‘Exactly … so that was why I … we … were thinking, perhaps we could find you a date who’s already over here?’
‘You know how much Matty loves you Ash … he thinks of you like a sister … we just want the best for you!’
‘Who exactly, do you consider to be the best for me?’
I hear India breathe a sigh of relief, she’d clearly expected this to be harder.
‘His name’s Hugo March. I’m not sure if you’d remember him from uni? But he rowed in Blue Boat with Matty in first year?’
I shrugged. ‘Name rings a bell …’
‘Well anyway … he’s divine!! And he’s just started work at Matty’s firm, and so Matt decided to take him under his wing …’
‘And arrange a date for him with me to your wedding??!!’
‘Hmm … well, yeah … in a nutshell!’
‘When are you guys going to realise I don’t need looking after? I manage perfectly well all by myself …’
‘Sorry, who was it you said you were planning on bringing to the wedding?’ India replies breezily.
‘Ok! Ok! You’ve got me! Hugo the Rower it is!!!’
‘Hmm, well I don’t know how much he rows these days …’
‘Ha ha … ok, Hugo the Lawyer then… but only on one condition!’
‘You let me borrow your gold Louboutins!’
‘Oh come on Ind … it’s not like you were planning on wearing them!’
India giggles. ‘That’s true! Actually, do you reckon I could get away with flip-flops under the wedding dress?’
‘Not a chance!’
‘Love you too!’ She rings off, her intercontinental mission clearly accomplished.
In case you haven’t realised, my name is Ashleigh Vaughan, I’m twenty-nine years old, and I’m the CEO of a rather new VIP concierge service! At the moment I’m based in New York, though I’m originally from glamorous old Essex!
And India … well India is my best friend by association.
We met at university, when she began dating my then best friend, Matty McAllister. The very same Matty who she will, in just a few weeks, be marrying!
If I’m honest I’m not really sure how particularly similar we are, deep down, but I guess our friendship blossomed out of necessity. She was in love with Matty, and I was his best friend, so she had to get on with me. And as with all awkward threesomes, eventually something has to give … and with us, it was my connection with Matty. Not that he’s no longer my friend. It’s just that the battle of the sexes won out, and I ended up growing closer to India, for simplicity’s sake. I wasn’t about to become the third wheel in someone else’s relationship, and so I assumed the sociably acceptable role in things … her best friend instead.
And so, in two short weeks I will be maid of honour, at a wedding I could have very plausibly have been ‘best-man’ at … or perhaps even played a more pivotal role in … not that I ever choose to think about those could-have-maybes ….
* * *
Those two weeks running up to the wedding were indeed short. In what feels like no time, I’m back on English soil. And rather famous English soil at that! St. John’s College – one of the oldest, and most famous, Cambridge colleges, and Matty’s, India’s, and my alma mater.
The happy couple have decided to wed in the rather grand college chapel, and for novelty value … according to India’s wedding planner at least … all the guests are sleeping in student accommodation.
I’m not quite sure how long I stand outside the 16th century set before I finally go in. It had been India’s and my home in third year, a gorgeously simple flat – two bedrooms and a spacious living room. I bite my lip nervously, unable to pinpoint why I feel so apprehensive. Perhaps it’s just that in my head this room is frozen in time, and seeing it covered in someone else’s posters and clutter might tarnish my memories? Or maybe it’s just that I will be staying here alone for the first time.
In third year there had always been three of us. Matty had lived on the outskirts of town and so always stayed here rather than India sleeping over at his. And yet today marks a difference. Today India and Matty are sleeping in the honeymoon suite at the Hyatt … leaving me to enjoy the current occupant’s scented candles and predictably rebellious decor, alone.
‘The worker bee returns! I never thought I’d see you dawdling outside the Hive!’ comes a warm voice from behind me.
‘Matty!’ I squeal, wrapping my arms around his neck. ‘You know, I’d forgotten you called it that!’
Matty raises an eyebrow. ‘You girls loved it! Why this set was the centre of college … home of the two Queen Bees!’
I laugh. ‘Hardly!! As you pointed out, I was always way too busy to be any form of royalty! No, I definitely left all that to Ind! How is she, by the way? I haven’t been able to get hold of her since I landed.’
Matty smiles. ‘She’s all good, just stressing, as expected! The morning sickness isn’t helping either … poor girl, she was throwing up for hours today.’
Matty’s face goes pale. ‘Oh god, she hasn’t told you? But I thought … you of all people would know …’
I shake my head slowly. ‘No, though come to think of it, she did make a funny comment the other day …’ I frown, unwittingly. ‘Lord, how on earth is Sir Harry coping with the news?’
‘He isn’t! No one knows … no one, it seems, apart from you and me!’
‘Ah well, not to worry … Mum’s the word … apparently!’ I laugh, a little awkwardly. ‘Though surely he’ll work it out in a few months time?’
Matty shrugs. ‘She’s gonna kill me for being the one who tells you this, but I guess I’m in big enough trouble as it is … it’s twins! So they’d be a bit early anyway … Ind’s just hoping they’re not too early, so that she can pass them off as ‘legitimate!’’
‘Congratulations hun!’ I smile, and squeeze Matty’s calloused hand.
‘Still getting enough time to row?’ I remark, nodding down at his leathery palm.
He shrugs sadly. ‘Not really, just the erg in the company gym.’
He gestures around himself at the expansive college. ‘All this seems a lifetime ago!’
‘Doesn’t it just!’
‘Now come on, Miss Vaughan … why are we still standing outside? I do believe it was customary that you made me at least three cups of tea whenever I came to visit!’
Matty bends down and scoops me onto his back, in a very unladylike piggyback, before carrying me unconventionally over the threshold of my old room.
I’d forgotten quite how much I missed him.
* * *
‘Now are you sure you’re not going to be lonely in here?’ Matty asks, exactly three cups of tea later. ‘I mean, you only have … Kermit the Frog, and, whoever they are …’ he asks gesturing at the inevitable poster-covered wall of the living room.
‘Don’t tell me you don’t recognise the Choir Boys? They’re practically vintage!’ I interject, a little defensively.
‘Um yes, Kermit and The Choir Boys, to keep you company … ? It does seem rather empty in here!’
‘Matthew McAllister … it’s your wedding! There’s no way you could convince India to spend your wedding night in the same cramped single bed you spent most of university in!’
‘Well technically it wasn’t a single bed, once we’d used Tesco delivery crates and pillows to add an extra metre or so …’
I roll my eyes at my old friend.
‘Anyway … I wasn’t suggesting us!’ Matty grinned. ‘Fun as it would be to re-enact the old days! I was thinking more of your wedding date!’
‘Oh Jesus Christ, Matty! Could you try any harder to set me up? Is it not enough that I’m going to the wedding with him? We’re sitting next to each other at dinner! We don’t need to be roomies too!’
Matty looks a little hurt. ‘I was just thinking … I figured if you shared the set, then you might get to know one another a little better, and actually have something to talk about at dinner?’
I study his face for a moment. ‘Hang on a minute … you’re not just suggesting this, are you? You’ve already gone and arranged it!’
Matty frowns, and then looks over my shoulder distractedly. ‘Right on time!’ he exclaims. ‘Um Ash … meet Hugo March. Hugo, this is my best friend Ashleigh Vaughan.’
I glared pointedly at Matty, but shift my frown into a forced smile as I spin around to greet Hugo.
Hugo March is pushing six foot two, his hair falling in messy honey-blond curls around his eyes. His full lips look bee-stung, his eyes deep chocolatey pools. In a word … Hugo March is hot! Not that I’m about to admit that to either Matty or India!
I roll my eyes. ‘If I were really your best friend, I’d be the Best Man, not Maid of Honour!’ I banter back immediately, though I felt a definite twinge of something I couldn’t define on hearing him call me his best friend.
‘I wish my best friend was this attractive!’ Hugo smiles, and extends his hand. ‘It’s great to finally meet you Ashleigh.’
‘Ditto!’ I smile.
‘I hear we’re going to be roommates?’ I add, giving Matt a sideways glance to let him know he hasn’t gotten away with that particular decision.
‘Only if that’s alright? According to Matty this is one of the best rooms in college?’
I chuckle in spite of myself. ‘He would say that, he was desperate to live here!’ I wink.
Hugo had been in his third year at Cambridge when we were in first year. He’d studied History at St. Catharine’s, a college famous for its sport and drinking societies, and had rowed in the Boat Race alongside Matty. His accent is surprisingly Scottish – a point of great banter between him and Matty, who he refers to as the ‘fake Scot.’ For despite Matthew McAllister’s grand Scottish name, the farthest North Matty has ever been is York!
As I watch him joking easily with Matty, I wonder why I don’t remember him. Not only is he gorgeous, but it is really difficult not to like him. And trust me … I’m trying! He’s warm, and funny, and yet seems almost a little nervous around me, which in such a towering, attractive guy, is really rather cute!
Finally Matty excuses himself, and disappears off back to the Hyatt, with a cautionary glance in my direction. I roll my eyes at him, just as he closes the door to the set, and then yawn loudly.
‘How silly of me, you must be exhausted! How are you still awake?’ Hugo asks, checking his watch. ‘It normally takes me days to recover from jet lag!’
I laugh. ‘Dare I even ask what time it is?’ It isn’t even dark outside.
‘A monumental eight pm!’ Hugo grins.
I groan. ‘I think there were some days in third year where I’d barely even woken up by this time!’
‘Ah, the good old Cambridge all-nighters! Have to admit, that’s not a part of university life I miss all too much!’
‘Depends what you were doing to keep you up all night!’ I reply cheekily, before checking myself. Am I actually flirting with him?
Hurriedly, I excuse myself to my bedroom, still determined to prove Matty and India wrong. I know they mean well, but this all just feels too contrived … too set-up. I don’t want to meet my Mr. Right like this … I dunno, I just always imagined catching his eye in the gym, and knowing it was him, or bumping into a tall handsome stranger in a hostel in a far-flung hostel and feeling my heart leap appropriately. I need adventure, excitement, spontaneity … Argh, sometimes I just wish they would stop molly-coddling me … I find myself doubting their intentions.
Quickly I shrug on a baggy pair of granddad-style pyjama bottoms, and an old sweatshirt. No matter how gorgeous and perfect he is, I can still make myself totally unapproachable … thus scuppering their little plan! I pause for a second, wondering who I’m really fighting with, and as I do so, I take a glance around the bedroom. My old bedroom. God, the things I and India got up to in this set. I grin to myself. I’d been half tempted to switch rooms today. To insist that Hugo have my old room, and take India’s bedroom instead … just for a change. To mark a new era maybe? But old habits die hard … and I have so many lovely memories of this room…
‘Have you fallen asleep already?’ Hugo asks nervously from outside the door.
I stifle a giggle. ‘Nope, just coming!’
As I step back out into the living room, Hugo holds up two mugs. ‘Coffee or hot chocolate?’
I frown, wondering how much I want to stay awake right now.
‘I’ll do coffee!’ I grin.
‘I was hoping you’d say that!’ he smiles back, before adding hurriedly … ‘I’ve always had a sweet tooth!’
I settle myself back down on the decrepit sofa, wondering to myself how often they change the furniture in the college rooms, and Hugo gives me a peculiar look.
I check myself again, suddenly nervous. Have I gone too far with the pyjamas?
‘Where did you get that sweater from?’ he asks eventually.
I look down at the faded blue rowing shirt, and tug pensively at the hem. I shrug ‘I guess it must have once belonged to Matty?’
Hugo frowns. ‘Sorry, would you mind if I just have a quick look at it?’
I bite my lip nervously, and then finally shrug off the sweatshirt. As I pass it over to him, he chuckles.
‘This is my jumper!’
‘This jumper – it’s mine! I knew I recognised you from somewhere! I gave this to you … years ago!’ He chuckles and smiles down at the sweater.
I stare at the Cambridge Rowing team jumper, still confused. Surely I’d just borrowed it from Matty?
‘But we’ve never met before! Are you sure it’s yours? Wouldn’t you and Matty have had similar kit?’
He points at the collar of the shirt, to a red paint stain I’ve never been able to remove. ‘I got this on the collar helping out the May Ball committee. It’s definitely mine … and now I think about it, I can actually remember giving it to you!’
‘It was the Cuppers rugby final – Johns vs Catz, and you were standing shivering next to me on the sideline …’
‘Oh my God! You had a broken arm!’
‘Collar bone …’ Hugo corrects.
I laugh nervously. ‘I stole your jumper!’
Hugo laughs. ‘How about we just say that you never gave it back?!’
I grab the sweater back teasingly. ‘Well I hope you realise you’re never getting it back! It’s my favourite jumper!’
Hugo shrugs. ‘I’ll try not to hold it against you!’ He retorts, grinning widely.
* * *
‘So you’re telling me, you not only met him ten years ago … but you also stole his jumper … and never even realised?!’ India’s face is a picture of comic surprise. She’s quite literally gawping, but what makes it more amusing, is that she’s currently trussed up in her customised designer wedding dress, on top of a pedestal, with the seamstress fussing around her feet, fixing the hem.
‘You know, I think the part of this story which bemuses me the most, is that fact you were wearing the sweatshirt in front of him in the first place! Have you no shame? Are you honestly not attracted to him?!’
I shrug, knowing whatever I say, India knows me too well. ‘I was jet-lagged. It was comfy.’
‘Well luckily, I didn’t choose you this, ‘because it was comfy!’’ She motions over to my bridesmaid dress, a gorgeous turquoise halter-neck.
Before I can say anything, she pipes up again. ‘I did all the initial fittings for you, seeing as we’re the same size. But obviously you’ll need to try it on, and have Miranda give it the once over …’
I bite my lip. I hate how India always refers to us as ‘the same size’. I mean, granted, we’re not too dissimilar in shape, but she’s always been at least a half size smaller than me in all the places that matter … and a full cup size larger up top. I shrug off the comment, I’m sure she just meant to be nice. Besides, by the sounds of things, her body will be changing rather dramatically in the near future … not that she’s felt the need to share that particularly bombshell with me yet!
‘Are you two sisters?’ Miranda, the tailor asks, rising up from her stooped position at the hem.
‘Practically!’ India beams, before I can deny it.
* * *
‘If anyone present should know of any reason why this man and woman shouldn’t be joined in holy matrimony, speak now, or forever hold your peace.’
I can feel the awkward shuffle in the chapel. I never know why they still include this part in wedding vows. It just makes people unnecessarily suspicious. Suddenly everyone in the chapel’s mind has been turned to infidelity and lies, just seconds before India and Matty are joined in supposedly beautiful marriage.
I look down at the two bouquets in my hand. India’s grand arrangement of roses and other spiky things, and my own diminutive clutch of posies, suddenly all too aware that either bunch of flowers could have at one time been mine. I chide myself for even thinking as much, and stare over at Hugo in order to distract my wandering mind.
Hugo is standing on the other side of Matty’s brother Toby, the Best Man. It’s only now that I realise he’s wearing a kilt made out of the McAllister tartan. The touching little gesture brings a smile to my face. And besides, I’m yet to see a man look bad in a kilt! I manage to catch his eye, and he smiles warmly back at me, his expression a little bashful.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.
The little wedding rhyme pops randomly into my head, and my thoughts turn to the stolen sweater. It is something old, borrowed, and blue … could Hugo March possibly turn out to be my something new?
I tune back into the ceremony. This is the only time my two closest friends will ever be tying the knot. The main event. I really ought to be paying attention!
And within seconds it is all over, and the crowds are rushing towards the newly-weds, clamouring to bestow their congratulations and embraces. A wry smile plays over my lips as it reminds me randomly of Matty’s first Boat Race. As the boys had passed over the finish line at Chiswick, a full eight-lengths ahead of the Dark Blue boat, I had run down meet the boats. I could almost feel the mud underneath my heels now. At the time I had lost all sense of propriety and waded across the slippery bank in my delicate formal wear, my only concern to wish my best friend ‘Congratulations’. It’s funny to think, that at that moment, India Masters wasn’t a part of either my life, or Matty’s. And bizarrely, it turns out that Hugo March was! Because he was sat in that boat, just behind Matty! And I hadn’t so much as noticed him …
* * *
I stumble back across the familiar courtyard in the dark, a little light-headed from all the Dom Perignon India’s father had had shipped in. I slip off India’s golden heels, and with a cheeky glance around, decide the make a run for it, and dance across the forbidden Cambridge lawn. When we were students, running across the grass was punishable with a Deaning. Who knows what the punishments are like these days?
As I creak open the set door, a skill I used to be so well practiced at, I find myself wondering if Hugo is back already. The evening just got away with me, and I feel like I spent half the reception talking to India and Matty’s families. I guess that’s the problem when you don’t know which side of the church you’re meant to be sitting on! It seems like forever since I last saw Hugo, let alone talked to him … and if I’m honest, I’m a little disappointed.
I tiptoe across the living room to my bedroom, and a bright Post-It note on my door catches my attention.
‘You looked beautiful tonight …’ The note reads. ‘EVEN more beautiful than you did in MY sweatshirt! Sweet dreams, H xx’
I grin, in spite of myself, wondering when the last time I received an actual hand-written note from a boy was! I peel the Post-It from the door, and hold it against my chest absent-mindedly as I consider my options.
He likes me! He really, genuinely likes me! And despite my best attempts otherwise, I really rather like him too. I drop India’s heels on the living room carpet, reminding myself that life is about taking risks … What is it she sometimes says? Something about at least trying a closed door? Just because something appears shut, doesn’t mean it’s locked closed. I sneak a glance at India’s old bedroom door. It definitely appears shut … but surely it’s worth a knock?
I take a deep breath, and knock quietly on Hugo’s bedroom door. ‘Come in!’ comes a dozy-sounding voice.
‘Sorry, did I wake you?’ I ask quietly, as I step gingerly into the dark room.
Hugo clicks on the bedside lamp and shakes his head, ‘Not at all, I only got back a few minutes ago myself.’ He sits up in bed, and pats the spot beside him with a smile. ‘Fancy a seat?’
I grin nervously, and perch beside him. ‘I wondered where you went.’
Hugo shrugs, ‘Every time I looked your way you were busy talking to someone else … and seeing as you were the only person I really wanted to be talking to, I figured I’d call it a night.’
‘Oh,’ I reply shyly.
He grins back, equally shy. ‘Oh yes? Or, oh no?’
‘Um …. Oh sorry? India’s aunts love to corner me and quiz me on why I haven’t found a man yet!’ I laugh a little awkwardly, before realising what I’ve said.
‘And why haven’t you found yourself a man yet, Miss Vaughan?’
‘What is this, Truth or Dare?’ I ask sarcastically.
‘I guess it could be,’ Hugo grins back cheekily.
‘Ok, well if I’m honest, I’ve just never met the right person …’
Hugo raises an eyebrow.
‘What’s the supposed to mean?’ I ask defensively.
‘Is that your question?’ Hugo asks cheekily.
I shrug, curious. ‘Sure.’
‘I dunno, I just always assumed there was something between you and Matty. Even that day I first met you … the rugby match. The reason you were there was to watch him play, right?’
This time I raise my eyebrow. ‘So is that your next question?’
Hugo shakes his head. ‘My next question is … how long have you been in love with Matty McAllister?’
I bite my lip, a weird feeling in the back of my throat, like I’ve been caught doing something naughty. I frown, and then decide to answer properly.
‘If I’m honest, from the day I first met him … until just a few hours ago!’
I can’t read Hugo’s expression.
‘And the reason for that … is it because he married your best-friend?’ Hugo asks. ‘Or because you met me?’ Hugo adds quietly, his nervous expression defying the presumption of his question.
I slip my hand into his large, callused palm.
‘I’m afraid that was two questions in one go!’ I reply cheekily. ‘It’s my turn to ask a question, and you know what, next time I think I’ll pick Dare, so maybe you’ll just have to work out the answer to that one by yourself.’
Hugo grins. ‘In that case, I’d like a Dare too.’
I smile back at him, amazed at how comfortable I felt around this virtual stranger.
‘Ok … I dare you to kiss me!’
© C-C Lester 2010