Music and laughter pulsed from within the building, the doors almost rattling with the noise inside as hundreds of people chatted at once, catching up on years or decades of time gone by. Abigail smoothed down her skirt, taking a deep, calming breath as she prepared to step inside.
What if he was in there?
What if he wasn’t? What if she’d come all this way for nothing? It had been twelve years since they’d waved goodbye to Highmoor, twelve years since they’d grown from spotty school kids to spotty students. And now they were actual grown ups. They had jobs and homes. Perhaps they had wives and children and this reunion was a pointless exercise.
This was all Suzy’s fault. Abigail had been sensible when she’d received the invitation to her high school reunion. She’d planned to shove the invitation to the back of a drawer until it was forgotten about, but her best friend had talked her into going. Which was why Abigail was now standing outside her old school like a trembling bag of nerves.
‘You want to meet up with Max, don’t you? You want to catch up?’
Abigail had, but now she wasn’t so sure. Max was probably married by now with a handful of little Maxes running around. Because that’s what people her age did now, wasn’t it? They got married and squeezed out babies (a fact Abigail’s mother reminded her of frequently). Even Suzy was brewing up child number two (which was a convenient excuse for staying away from the reunion. How Abigail wished for a dose of debilitating nausea to strike her too so she could go home without being branded a wuss), but it had never happened that way for Abigail. She’d had boyfriends. Quite a lot of them, according to her mother, but she’d never felt the need to settle down. She’d never lived with a boyfriend, had never really fallen in love. Something had always held her back.
And what if that something was in there right now?
Abigail reached out and grasped the cool handle, tugging it towards herself and propelling her body inside the building before she changed her mind. Her eyes instantly scanned her old school hall, instantly searching for him, her heart preparing to shatter into a million pieces if he was there with another woman.
Please let him be there.
Max had been Abigail’s first love (probably her only love, come to think of it), though she hadn’t realised it at the time. She’d left him behind to start her brand new life at university with barely a backward glance, and by the time it occurred to her how special he was, it was too late.
Where was he? Didn’t he want to see her? Wasn’t he even a little bit curious? They’d been best friends from the age of seven, had shared everything from the contents of their packed lunches to their first kiss. Max hadn’t been fussed about kissing a girl – especially not Abigail – but she’d begged him to. All the other girls had kissed a boy except her. Afterwards, she didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
And then she met Bradley and understood.
Abigail smiled as she remembered her first boyfriend. Bradley had tasted of cigarettes, cheap cider and danger. Abigail had been smitten. He’d called her ‘babe’ and made her heart flutter whenever he glanced her way. Unfortunately, Bradley had made lots of girls’ hearts flutter. ‘Babe’ had been his favourite and most overly-used word in his paltry vocabulary. But still, it had been an experience and something to weep into her diary over. Unlike finding Max with his arm slung around a stunning blonde. That had been proper heartbreak. The kind she’d read about, had seen played out on the big screen but had never experienced herself until that very moment. Of course, Max had no idea that Abigail’s feelings had changed. How would he? They hadn’t exchanged more than half a dozen letters while she’d been away at university, and their telephone conversations had dwindled to quick calls once a month. Not even that anymore. Even Abigail hadn’t realise her feelings had changed until she saw them together and the bile had risen to her throat.
Who was she? And why was she touching Max? It didn’t make any sense. Max was hers, wasn’t he?
Oh, God. What if he was still with the blonde? What if those little Maxes running around had emerged from her womb? What if they’d lived happily ever after while Abigail had ricocheted from one disastrous relationship to another? She never should have allowed Suzy to talk her into this.
‘It’s never been the right time for you and Max,’ she’d bleated. ‘But maybe the time is right now.’
It never had been the right time for Abigail and Max. Abigail had been oblivious to Max’s feelings for her and his hatred of the leather jacketed Bradley – which he’d confessed to after one too many pints on Abigail’s last night before she returned to her studies – and now it seemed the shoe was on the other foot. Abigail couldn’t confess her own feelings now. Not when she wasn’t sure if they were real or not (she’d never felt like this before. It was all so confusing and not at all like the movies). Not when Max’s girlfriend (who, by the way, was nauseatingly nice as well as beautiful) was at the bar getting a round in.
So Abigail had kept her gob – and her heart – shut, returning to life at university as though nothing had happened. She hadn’t seen Max since that drunken night, and she’d always regretted losing touch with him. Potential love match or not, Max was ultimately her best friend and she’d lost him.
On her tiptoes now, Abigail scoured the room, but it was impossible. The room was crammed with bodies and unless Max had taken to walking around with a neon ‘Max is here’ sign, she wasn’t going to find him. It was a waste of time. She should have stayed at home. This false hope – and the crash it created when the hope was lost – was pure torture.
Still on her tiptoes, Abigail slowly lowered herself to the ground before turning towards the voice. It had been twelve years since she’d allowed anybody to call her Abby. Abigail, she’d announced as she prepared to say goodbye to her family at the train station, was much more sophisticated.
She turned, the hope rising again, reaching a crescendo and making her ears ring. ‘Hi.’ The wide grin on her face slipped. ‘Bradley. How lovely to see you. I didn’t think I’d see you here.’ Bradley had been expelled from Highmoor during their final year. He’d spat on the ground and swore never to return. ‘How are you?’
‘Oh, you know.’ Bradley gave a shrug of his shoulders. ‘Anyway, I thought you’d be with Max. He was always following you around at school like a little lost puppy. I used to think he was a right loser.’ Bradley laughed. It shook the beer belly he’d spent the past twelve years perfecting.
Abigail did not laugh. ‘I don’t think Max is here.’
Bradley scratched his head. His hair was thinning prematurely. ‘He was here a minute ago. He was over by stage, talking to Mrs Firth. Still a loser, eh?’
Abigail turned away from Bradley, elbowing her way through the crowd even before he had finished talking. She chanted ‘excuse me, excuse me’ all the way to the front of the hall, her eyes constantly on the lookout for her former best friend. She found Mrs Firth, now frustratingly bobbing her head while Mr Ewan talked at her. Max was nowhere in sight. She turned on the spot, scanning as she went. Max was here, somewhere. He was close.
‘Don’t you want to know whether it’s the right time for you and Max?’ Suzy had asked her. And yes, she was desperate to know, one way or another. But she’d never find out if she couldn’t locate him.
She scanned the room, her gut tightening with each face that she saw that didn’t belong to him.
And then there he was. There was Max. Her Max. And he was alone. Unfortunately, he was heading for the door, the very place she’d been two minutes ago.
‘Max!’ She called out as she thrust her body through the crowd, knowing he’d never be able to hear her over the cacophony. ‘Max! Wait!’
He’d reached the door. The handle was being pulled. He had one foot over the threshold and Abigail was still so far away.
‘Max!’ She surged forward, putting in a final effort to reach him, but it was never going to happen. Max was through the door. It was swinging to a close behind him, about to shield him from view. And then a hand reached out to stop the door, another hand reaching to tap Max on the shoulder. Both Max and the hand’s owner turned. It was Bradley and, God bless him, he was pointing towards Abigail.
Max’s gaze followed the path of Bradley’s finger, the frown on his face smoothing out until it was replaced by a beaming grin.
‘Abby!’ She could see Max mouth her name but his voice was lost in the din of the school hall.
‘Max!’ Abigail didn’t care that her voice wouldn’t carry across the room either. She was so happy to see her former best friend, the boy who had taught her to ride a bike hands free (and had half carried her home when she’d fallen off and twisted her knee). The boy who had taken the rap when she’d kicked a football through the neighbour’s greenhouse and the boy who had saved up for a month to contribute to a pair of shoes Abigail thought were ‘so cool’ (that she wore once before shoving under her bed. Her mother had been right; they were ridiculously high and unsuitable for a twelve-year-old). The boy she’d harboured feelings for since she was eighteen.
But the boy was a boy no longer. Just look at him! Abigail had thought Max had grown up the last time she’d seen him, but that was nothing. Max was even taller now, with broad shoulders and an easy confidence that oozed from him. He was like the Max she had known and loved, only better.
‘I didn’t think you were coming.’ Max had reached her now, his grin painfully wide. He hesitated only a split second before he pulled Abigail into a hug. He smelled good; clean yet manly, his familiar scent of strawberry Hubba Bubba long gone. ‘I looked all over for you. I was just about to give up and go home.’
Bradley gave Abigail the thumbs up before he sauntered away, disappearing into the crowd. ‘I was looking for you too. I was hoping we could catch up.’
Max released Abigail and she had to clamp her hands by her sides to prevent herself from clinging onto him. ‘Do you want to get out of here? This party’s a bit lame and I don’t want to get stuck chatting with Mrs Firth again. I didn’t think I was ever going to get away. Did you know she’s getting divorced for the fourth time?’ Max pulled a face. ‘I can give you the life story of every single husband. First up was Jack, who she met when she was seventeen…’
Abigail laughed as she grasped Max’s hand. It felt warm in hers. It felt natural. ‘Come on. Let’s see if that pub’s still on the corner. Do you remember when we snuck out of PE and tried getting served? In our uniforms?’
‘What about that time you had us bunking off to try and get Take That tickets when we were ten? I’d never even been on a bus without my mum before.’
‘And then you started crying because we got lost?’
Max spluttered as he reached for the door handle, stepping aside to allow Abigail through first. ‘I was not crying.’ He stepped out into the cool night, the closed door now muffling the sounds from within the building. ‘I was merely weeping.’
Abigail giggled at the memory. Max had not been merely weeping – there had been a full-on tears and snot fest going on – but she kept it to herself. ‘So you didn’t bring anyone then?’ She looked back at the hall, which was becoming quieter with each step.
‘Nope. Completely on my own. You?’
Abigail wanted to do a little jig, but she somehow managed to refrain. She’d only just found Max again – she didn’t want to scare him away too soon.
‘I’m on my own too.’
Max smiled shyly at Abigail and it was such a sweet gesture, almost boyish again. She knew then, as they walked hand in hand out of the school gates, that this wasn’t going to be a measly catching up session. It was finally time for Abigail and Max.