Her head’s buried in numbers and accounts when she hears the voice and thinks, “It can’t be.”
It’s been years since she’s heard that voice. It feels like lifetimes. She second guesses herself. It’s been so long, would she even know the voice if she heard it? Would she really recognise it? She hears a laugh a moment later - a sound she almost never heard from the person she thinks it is - and it’s enough to convince her that her mind’s merely playing tricks on her.
It’s another ten minutes and a liquor order placed before the voice penetrates her consciousness again, and she thinks, “I’ll just peek out and see if it’s her.”
She opens the door to her office and slips down the hall, and peers around the corner over the bar top. Her eyes search the familiar surroundings, and then they land on just who she’d been convincing herself she wouldn’t see. She shakes her head with a reluctant smile tugging at the corners of her lips when piercing blue eyes look up, as if sensing her presence, and meet hers.
She thinks one word as recognition sparks on familiar features: trouble.
She watches the familiar figure work her way between patrons with an ease and grace that brings her back to almost a decade ago. The woman who comes to a stop on the other side of the bar from her is in many ways unchanged, and yet there’s a maturity to her now, a slight transformation in style and posture, a few more wrinkles around the eyes, a shorter cut to her hair.
The words are etched with surprise and - Katie thinks how funny it is that she can still recognise this after all these years - alcohol.
“Effy Stonem,” Katie returns in kind, watching the way that bright blue eyes take in her every detail, just as she knows she was doing a moment before. They’re older eyes, though she can’t tell if they’re wiser. They speak of many stories both good and bad to be told.
“Fancy meeting you here.”
“At the pub I manage. Yes, how strange.”
“Well, I didn’t know you managed it. Did I?”
“You might if you’d kept in touch with anyone.” There’s accusation in her tone, but she knows why Effy didn’t stay in touch, and part of her really can’t blame her.
There’s a flicker of something that could perhaps be construed as guilt in the right light on Effy’s face, but then a smile that speaks to shots taken between pints of beer returns to her face.
“You look good. You look…like you’re not trying as hard.”
From anyone else it would be an insult. From Effy it’s an observation.
Katie shrugs. “Had to grow up sometime.”
“Confidence suits you.”
Katie doesn’t bother mentioning that there are days when confidence still fails her completely.
“You look…” Katie struggles to find the right word, and before she can, “older” slips out.
Effy’s nose crinkles as she laughs. “Aging does have a tendency to do that to a person.”
Katie smirks. “Really? Do you think? I think I’ve managed to avoid aging too much.”
Effy smirks back. “There’s the Katie, I know. Although you do look good.”
For a split second Katie lets the familiar smirk and the piercing eyes unsettle her the way they used to, but the truth is that she’s a very different woman now. “Damn straight,” she replies. Katie checks her watch. Only an hour until last call. She’s done a lot of work tonight. If she comes in early tomorrow, she could maybe relax for a bit now. “Buy you a drink?”
“If you insist.”
Katie grabs a glass and eyes the taps, waiting for Effy to make a selection.
The please throws Katie, just for a second. It feels all too formal and all too polite for the woman saying it. It’s the first real marker of just how much Effy may have changed.
Katie shakes off her hesitation and pulls a perfect pint from the tap with just the right amount of foam. It’s an art she perfected working her way through a BSc in Business and Management Studies. She grabs herself a Bulmers and takes both drinks to a small, unoccupied table in a far corner after a brief word with her most senior barman about catching up with an old friend. She takes the seat she knows is wobbly – she’s been meaning to have it fixed for a month now, but she never gets round to phoning Jesse for the cheap labour – leaving Effy the stool that’s not.
“I’m keeping you from your friends, aren’t I?” Katie realises as Effy takes her first sip of her beer.
Effy waves a dismissive hand in the air. “They’ll have forgotten me by morning.” When Katie looks confused, she adds, “I just met them earlier tonight at another pub.”
“Out bar hopping by yourself?”
“Got to pass the time somehow.”
There’s a flash of the sixteen-year-old girl Katie once knew in the woman sitting across from her, and it makes her feel simultaneously young and old.
“So what brings you to Swindon?”
That’s how it starts, but it’s far from how it ends.
Luke closes the pub around them, but Katie and Effy remain in their corner, untouched by last calls or drunken goodbyes. Instead, they’re playing a superficial game of catch up. One of those where somehow only the stupid stories, the funny ones, the meaningless ones, get spilled while the real information gets forgotten and ignored.
Luke’s hand on her shoulder breaks Katie out of the spell that’s been cast by three ciders, the marvel of a familiar yet unfamiliar visitor, and Effy’s blue eyes.
“See you tomorrow, Katie.”
She stands and locks the door once he leaves, and turns back to Effy.
“Got anywhere you need to be early tomorrow?”
Effy shakes her head as an enigmatic smile spreads across it. Cryptic words and head games spring to Katie’s mind from a different time altogether.
“Another round, then?”
Effy stands and makes her way toward the bar as Katie scoots around behind it. “As long as you’re still buying.”
They settle at a table near the bar now, spreading out in the now empty space.
“I’ve missed this,” Effy says, looking thoughtfully at Katie.
“What? Staying up talking and drinking? Because I don’t think we ever did that. Not quite like this.”
“Having friends,” comes Effy’s far too honest reply.
Something sticks in Katie’s throat, and she wants to ask all the questions that she hasn’t yet about what Effy’s life has really been like in the years between, but she swallows the want down and ignores the sadness in what Effy’s just said. Instead, she says, “It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten to sit down and relax with anyone here. It’s strange being a customer rather than a manager.”
“You don’t drink here?”
“Not often. Maybe a shot with Luke at the end of a long night. It’s better if I don’t. The books get managed better, and it’s partially my profit that I’m drinking away.”
“You’re an owner?”
“Greg and Nancy let me buy in a few years back. They never had kids and wanted someone they could pass the place on to someday. They’re quite sweet, really. I think they think of me as a granddaughter of sorts.”
Effy cocks her head to the side, and there’s a look that flashes across her face that Katie can’t quite identify, but if she had to put a word to it, she might choose “longing”. “Sweet,” Effy mumbles a moment later, and Katie’s left wondering if she’s being mocked or not.
Effy’s demeanour changes a moment later, and she frowns. “Grown up.”
“Thought we established that it had to happen sometime.”
“I’ve avoided it so far.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
Effy shrugs. “I’ve got no real roots anywhere. I’ve got a job I could leave in a heartbeat, a trail of exes throughout England, Wales, parts of Europe, and Eastern Australia, and a dingy flat that I rent on a monthly basis. Doesn’t sound very grown up when compared to co-owning a business that you’ve worked in for years.”
“Still, it must be nice to have that freedom. To know that you can get up and leave and travel and no one’s there relying on you.”
Effy takes a long, slow sip of her stout, slurping in a way that makes Katie wrinkle her nose in disapproval. “Every lifestyle has its pros and cons.”
Their conversation turns back to lighter things.
Katie relays the story of how Emily and Naomi got caught sneaking off for a shag in the middle of their own wedding reception by Katie and Emily’s grandmother, who hadn’t fully grasped the idea that she was at a gay wedding in the first place.
Effy regales her with tales of the month she spent in Dakar, helping to build a school and learning French better than they ever taught in school.
Katie tells of the holiday to Lucca she took with Emily, when they both got so drunk on a quality bottle of wine that it took them three hours to make it the quarter of a mile back to their hotel.
Effy explains why she’d love to get back to New York City sometime, preferably for longer than a week. “It’s a flurry of movement, always, and it’s so easy to get lost in a crowd. It’s a melting pot of flavours and cultures and languages, and you can wear whatever you want and nobody will look twice. Actually nobody will look once. New Yorkers seem to avoid eye contact like it’s the plague.”
Katie laughs and gets them another round. She knows her head will be fuzzy in the morning, and the accounts really won’t calculate themselves, but she can’t bring herself to say goodnight. Not yet.
She’s still rather stunningly beautiful, Katie thinks. She always thought so, even on the days back in college when she’d convinced herself she’d hated Effy. (The truth was, she’s only ever hated the humiliation that deep down she knew she’d only brought on herself.)
Effy still exudes a sort of effortless coolness, as she runs her fingers through wavy hair that stops just below her shoulders. There’s an ease and a confidence to every movement like she’s used to being looked at and long ago learned to put on a show.
She smiles more now, though, (at least while drunk), and Katie finds that it makes her even more attractive. There’s a row of pearly white teeth that seem to brighten her whole face when her lips pull back to reveal them.
Her voice is raspier than it used to be, and that’s not unattractive either. Katie listens with rapt attention as it tells story after story, laughing roughly from time to time.
It’s the eyes, though – those crystalline blue eyes that always saw so much and revealed so little – that keep Katie mesmerised until dawn brings tendrils of soft light through the pub’s windows.
She’s strangely disappointed when Effy finally stands to leave.
“This has been…a much nicer night than expected.”
Katie smiles. “Yeah. I know what you mean.” She doesn’t really want the night to end even as sleep tugs invitingly on her consciousness.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen in years. From college, I mean. I haven’t even talked to anyone from then in years.”
The moment feels far too honest for the way they’ve been unintentionally on purpose keeping their conversation on the lighter side. Maybe it’s that that propels Katie forward and makes her pull Effy into a hug that’s a touch too tight. Maybe it’s just that a friend she’d assumed she’d lost years ago now seems on the verge of walking out of her life once again after only the briefest of interludes.
She doesn’t ask if she’ll see her again. Instead, she pulls away with a smile, and a “Can you make it back to wherever you’re staying all right?”
“I always seem to find my feet in the end.” It’s not really the answer to what she was asking, but it’ll do.
It’s not until the door’s locked firmly behind Effy and Katie’s trudged her tired feet up the stairs to her flat that Katie realises that they should have at the very least exchanged numbers.
“Fuck!” she declares, splattering toothpaste across her tap, her hand dropping to the sink, toothbrush still in hand as her eyes glare at her reflection in the mirror. The accusation of stupidity that stares back at her sends her to bed with regrets that keep her up far longer than she’d like.
By half eleven that night, Katie’s lost all hope that Effy might come back tonight. It was a stupid hope anyway. Effy’s not the type of woman to go to the same place two nights in a row, or at least she didn’t used to be, and from what Katie picked up last night, she’d bet money that that was still the case. Katie stares at the figures in front of her, but tonight she can’t make heads or tails of them. Instead, she’s too busy berating herself for not even finding out where Effy was staying or how long she’d be in town.
She does her best to refocus on her work, but thoughts of Effy trickle through her consciousness, distracting her.
Effy’s trouble, Katie can’t help but think. She always was, and Katie knows it’s just as true today even if last night hadn’t revealed any stories to support it.
It’s midnight when she closes the books in front of her. She should go out front and check on things. Not that they’re apt to need help on a Wednesday night. Not that Luke’s not more than capable of handling any issues that arise anyway.
She’s just settled behind the bar, pouring a pint for Old Mr. Hagar and his almost toothless grin when she hears the door to the pub open and looks up.
Katie smiles as Effy pauses in the doorway, eyes bright and glued to her, with a smirk gracing her lips.
“Let me guess: you came back for the free alcohol,” Katie greets her when she’s made her way to the bar.
“Couldn’t be for the company,” Effy replies, a wry smile gracing her lips.
Katie smirks back. “Bitch,” she mutters affectionately. “Suppose I make you pay tonight?”
“Guess I should go,” Effy answers with a gleam in her eye, making no move to do any such thing.
Katie lets out a low laugh. “You going to make a habit of this?”
Effy shrugs. “I don’t really make a habit of anything.” Her expression turns serious when she adds, “Except running away.”
Katie frowns. It’s too early and Effy is far too sober for such an honest admission. She studies Effy’s face, surprised at the way that Effy’s holding her gaze. It feels like a world of conversations passes between them as seconds tick by, and she can tell that Effy is asking something of her. Something important. “Maybe it’s time to start new habits?” Katie suggests once Effy’s eyes finally flinch away.
“I’m trouble, Katie,” Effy warns, her face still serious, but Katie lets out a light laugh.
“Oh, babe. I have ALWAYS known that. Come on. Let me buy you a pint.”
That’s not how it ends. It’s just a new beginning.
Trouble is better overcome with someone by your side, Katie thinks as Effy’s fingers linger on hers as she hands her a drink. She flashes a smile. Besides, who says she can’t be trouble too?