She’d had a crappy day at work, made worse by her boss being particularly obnoxious over the four bouquets of flowers – yes, four, the greedy cow – that had arrived in quick succession that morning, big, bright and flashy and a constant reminder that
a) it was Valentine’s Day and
b) Paige would be spending the evening with a Domino’s pizza rather than with one of four blokes who were thoughtful enough to not only send flowers, but to send them to her place of work for bonus gloating.
Still, a steaming hot pizza was a pretty decent consolation prize, especially compared to some of her lousier ex boyfriends. In a couple of cases, she’d have preferred the pizza, hands down. Her stomach rumbled at the thought as her bus trundled her towards home and her hot date.
The bus spat her out onto the pavement at the end of her road, the driver grunting as she offered a thank you, the doors closing as soon as her toes made contact with the path, but instead of sinking Paige into a fouler mood, the driver’s misery actually cheered her slightly. Perhaps the driver was having an even crappier day than she was, so her life couldn’t be all that bad. So she was alone on Valentine’s Day – so what? So her mum hadn’t even bothered to send a thinly veiled ‘anonymous’ card to bolster her confidence – good! It only made her feel worse about being single and clearly so unattractive that this was the only way she was going to receive a card. So what if Gabriella had gasped with surprise as each bouquet arrived, flinging a wrinkled hand to her bosom (she could Botox her face all she liked – the hands were a giveaway to her true age) and wondered aloud who they could possibly be from this time? Paige wouldn’t swap places with her boss for all the flowers in the world. The woman was the Devil – and not just because she was admired so explicitly.
No, Paige was a good person – even if she was a little narky at being left on the shelf at times – and the lack of cards, chocolates and floral gifts couldn’t change that. She volunteered at the local food bank at the weekend, she did her elderly neighbour’s shopping when it was snowing or icy, and, despite having strong motive and access to a heavy-duty paperweight, she had yet to murder Gabriella (though she daydreamed about the act daily). And it wasn’t as though she was permanently single; it’s just her single status usually coincided with Valentine’s Day and Christmas, so she was unable to participate in Smug Couple things.
With a hiss, the bus pulled away from the kerb and Paige made her way to the gorgeous Georgian property at the end of the road. It was grand and imposing, but unfortunately the inside didn’t match the exterior. When the landlord had chopped the building up into three flats, he’d ruthlessly stripped out any character he could find. Paige’s flat was on the first floor, sandwiched between Mrs Richards on the ground floor (whose shopping Paige was more than happy to help out with when needed) and Lee on the second floor (who was a bit of a dick). She unlocked the door (uPVC, no brass knocker, not even a whiff of history about it) and headed into the communal hall. The post was sitting in two neat little piles on the table: one pile for her, one for Lee. Mrs Richards must have been feeling sprightly today as the carpet had been hoovered (and there was no way Lee would have taken it upon himself to be helpful or tidy) and the dying pot plant in the corner had been put out of its (and the residents’) misery and had been taken away.
Paige was about to head up the stairs to her flat, but she paused, foot in mid-air. Surely not. Turning, she knocked on Mrs Richards’ door, listening for the reassuring shuffle of her elderly neighbour’s slippers on the other side.
‘Hello, dear. I knew you’d come.’ Mrs Richards beamed up at Paige, showing off her set of startlingly white dentures.
‘Did you?’ Paige peered at the old woman, looking for signs of strain or injury after taking on too much. ‘Are you okay?’ Paige peered more closely. ‘Was it you who hoovered the stairs?’
Paige couldn’t remember the last time the stairs had been cleaned. She always meant to, but never got round to actually doing it as it was such a faff. Guilt gnawed at her now, though as she pictured the old lady hauling the hoover up and down the staircase.
Mrs Richards’ lips closed over her dentures as her grin dimmed. ‘No, dear. That wasn’t me.’
‘Not …?’ Paige glanced up the stairs and Mrs Richards gave a hoot.
‘That lazy bugger? You’ve got to be kidding me. I don’t think he even bothers to vacuum the carpet in his own flat. Do you know, there is post in that pile that’s dated before Christmas?’ She leaned out into the hallway to point at the table, which now only contained one pile of letters. Paige had picked hers up as she’d passed (there wasn’t a card in there, FYI. Not even from her mum).
Mrs Richards brought her hand back into the flat, wringing it with her other hand. ‘So, you haven’t been up to your flat since this morning then?’
Paige shook her head. ‘I’ve only just got back in from work. I’m on my way up.’
‘I won’t keep you then,’ Mrs Richards said before closing the door abruptly. Paige took a step back, a frown creasing her forehead. How odd! Mrs Richards wasn’t usually so keen to say goodbye – she’d normally invite Paige in for a cup of tea whenever they met in the hallway (and Paige would accept as her neighbour made a cracking cuppa). Now she couldn’t wait to get rid of her! Just when Paige thought she couldn’t be rejected further on this marvellous day ...
She made her way up the freshly hoovered stairs to her flat, her brow creasing once again when she spotted something stuck to the front of her door. It was a white envelope, addressed to her. There wasn’t a stamp or even an address, simply her name. The blu-tack underneath stretched slightly as she plucked the envelope from the door before it pinged, releasing the envelope into her hands.
It was a card. It was a card! Somebody fancied her! She hadn’t been completely rejected! Either that or her mum had missed the last post for V Day and had decided to hand deliver it instead. But how would she have gained access to the building? If Mrs Richards had let her in, she’d have mentioned it just now, surely?
Oh, God, Paige thought as she slipped a finger under the envelope’s flap. What if it’s Lee?
She shuddered. Lee wasn’t just lazy; he also had a strong whiff of weed about him, wore the same fraying jogging bottoms day in day out, and belched so loudly, Paige could hear it in the flat below. She swore she could sometimes detect what he’d eaten for his tea afterwards.
Taking a moment to muster a little bit of courage (and to prolong this strange but thrilling moment), Paige reached into the envelope and removed the card, opening it quickly and reading the message. It was pretty extensive for a Valentine’s Day message rather than a hastily scrawled Will you be my Valentine, Love X.
It couldn’t be Lee then.
Dear Paige, she read. It was formal for a V Day message too.
I would like to thank you for all your help over the past couple of years: the shopping trips, the lightbulb-changing, chasing off that dodgy bloke pretending to be from the gas board. Most of all, thank you for the company and chats over cups of tea.
It was from Mrs Richards, which was sweet and made Paige smile, but wasn’t it just a little bit sadder than receiving a card from her mum? Equal, at least, Paige thought.
It’s been such a relief knowing you are there, in the flat above, on hand to help out if needed. I worry about Gran being on her own, but I feel better knowing you’re around, even if it’s just for a chat. I’d hate to think of Gran being lonely.
Just a minute! Gran? This was about Mrs Richards, but it wasn’t from her after all.
I’d heard all about you, of course, but it was nice to finally meet you a couple of weeks ago, although it was only for a few minutes.
Ah, it was all making sense now. Mrs Richards. Gran. The bloke she’d met recently in the hallway as she’d been on her way out. Mrs Richards had been keen to introduce them, but Paige couldn’t stick around to chat for long as she’d had to dash to the church hall for her shift at the food bank. The details were fuzzy, but she remembered he was a little bit older than her (five years, perhaps, no more than ten, nothing gross like several decades) and he’d seemed kind. Friendly. Grateful for her help with his grandmother as he’d been living miles away and couldn’t pop over as often as he’d like to, though he was in the process of moving close by.
I’d love it if we could meet up – perhaps tonight if you’re free (but you’re probably not) – so I can thank you properly for everything you’ve done. Dinner, coffee, whatever you’d like. I’ll be staying with Gran for a couple of days while the new house is sorted – please do pop by, even if it’s only for one of Gran’s cuppas and a chat!
Hopefully see you soon,
Paige read the message three times, still standing out in the hall outside her door. Daniel, the grandson, was downstairs, sitting in Mrs Richards’ flat, right now. She took a pretty good guess that it had been him who’d cleaned up the hallway and hoovered the stairs, so she should go down and thank him for that at least. Would she go for a coffee with him? Or even dinner? Paige wasn’t sure, but the mere prospect was enough to put a spring in her step as she skipped down the spotless stairs to knock on her neighbour’s door.
* * * * *