Short Story|We Meet at Last

We Meet at Last is a romantic short story by Autumn James Haworth, a bi and trans author from the north of England. He writes short stories and poetry all about mental health, growing up and falling in love.

This story continues our Short Story Month celebrations. As a platform, we’re passionate about short fiction and the importance of this beautiful art form.

We Meet at Last

Anne-Marie and Callie:

Anne-Marie heard Callie’s agitated groaning coming from the bottom of the stairs. She knew it wouldn’t be long until she started getting yelled at for taking too long to get ready. It was the same every Monday; Callie would be up at 6:00am, dressed, made up and will have eaten by 7:30am, leaving her waiting. Anne-Marie, however, would simply dredge herself out of bed and try to get herself ready in thirty minutes.

‘Anne-Marie Jenson if you don’t get your backside down these stairs within the next ten minutes—’

‘I know, I know, then I won’t have a backside left. You know it takes time to completely make myself up!’

‘Funnily enough, I do know that. That’s why I get up early. Come on, ten minutes, hurry it up. I want to get there early today. That place that does all the antiques is there.’ As she finished up what she was saying, Callie saw Anne-Marie at the top of the stairs. She somehow looked pristine and terrible at the same time. She was immaculately dressed in head to toe thrifted clothes, her daffodil-coloured jumper shining bright amongst the rest of her outfit of deep browns. She was, as was so often the case, in stark contrast to Callie’s sweet pastels (today a mix of mint and pink).

Mondays were their only day off from running their second-hand bookstore, ‘Sweetheart Books’, and they used it to head to markets and stock up their shop. Though they often came away with more than just books. The walls of the flat above the shop lined with a variety of shelves, frames and little pieces of artwork. The shelves filled with trinkets from days out in zoos, museums and art galleries. Every frame filled with photos of friends and family. The trinkets and photos alike spanned from their childhoods to their adulthoods. The furniture around the flat was mismatched but they did what they could to find objects that fit together when they all come from different market stalls and charity shops. The smell of old books always made its way upstairs and mingled with Anne-Marie’s collection of floral candles.

‘Come on,’ said Callie, wrapping a thick mint scarf around her neck. Her voice became muffled after she did so. ‘Let’s get you a coffee before we head to the market. I’m not dealing with you in any kind of un-caffeinated mood.’

Charlie and James:

‘You look like death,’ Charlie said, fully in the knowledge that they looked no better.

‘Thanks, I honed this look by staying up until 3:00am watching grown men throw themselves off ladders.’

‘We could’ve just waited until today, you know. It’ll all still be there.’

‘I know, but what’s a wrestling pay per view without a bit of sleep deprivation?’ James smiled after he said this, but the tiredness in his eyes betrayed his hope for a sunny disposition. Charlie watched as James just sort of stared off into the distance for a while and could see that there was no way that they were going to be able to focus on doing their last-minute Christmas shopping in this sort of state. So, they suggested that some coffee and breakfast was in order before they both headed into the city centre.

Though the plan was to head out as soon as the suggestion for food and coffee was made, that wasn’t exactly how things went. They both, of course, had to get changed and clean to start off with. As they did every day, Charlie insisted on making sure every single plant was watered before the two of them left. Given that their flat was somewhat of a jungle, this took an ungodly amount of time. While they were doing this, James snuck off into his room to find one of the hidden prints he had in there. When he found what he wanted, plus a little bit of sticky tape, he made his way back into the living room, and searched for one of the few spots on the wall where there wasn’t already some kind of print or painting (or shelf with Charlie’s plants). Neither of them could really remember what colour the wallpaper was underneath it all.

As Charlie finished up with their plant watering, they walked over to James to remind him that the two of them needed to stop off at work before they did anything else, because Charlie had left their wallet there after their last shift. When Charlie got to James, they saw what he was about to put up on the wall.

‘James, what have I told you about this?’

‘If you’re going to keep taking the commissions off these people then I’m going to have fun with it.’ Through little giggles he continued, ‘Honestly, I don’t know how you live with yourself.’

‘The furries pay your rent too, you know?’

‘Point taken.’ He conceded, taking the print back into his room. Little did Charlie know that wasn’t the only one of their furry commissions that James had snuck up onto the wall, and though it hadn’t been put up at that moment, it would likely go up at some point later on.

They both made sure they had everything they would need for the day ahead. James locked the door and the two of them went down the stairs and out onto the street outside. James pointed out that there was a coffee shop across the road from the art shop where they worked and they could go straight there once Charlie got their wallet. A little after he said this, James looked as though he was about to stop and talk to somebody that was coming towards them.

‘You know her?’

‘Thought I did. She looked familiar but mustn’t have been who I thought it was.’

‘I’ve been getting that a lot recently. Have I told you about that?’

Anne-Marie and Callie:

While on their way to the coffee shop, Callie decided that she’d start playing a game she’d been enjoying every Monday for the past couple of weeks, ever since Anne-Marie had spoken up about an unusual occurrence in her life in the past year. The game was simple, how quickly could Callie get Anne-Marie to talk about her mysterious figure without overtly bringing it up?

‘She’s cute,’ said Callie, subtly gesturing towards a woman across the street.

‘I suppose. Not really my type though.’

‘No? What is your type then? You want someone with a bit more mystery?’

‘We’re not doing this again,’ said Anne-Marie, rolling her eyes but still smiling. She looked at Callie, who was feigning surprise with a series of ridiculous gestures and facial expressions. Her Irish accent really coming through with every vowel she over-exaggerated.

‘What? I simply don’t know what you could be talking about. I was simply—’

‘You were “simply” trying to get more information out of me about that guy I keep seeing.’

‘You got me! Look, I know it’s on your mind as much as it’s on mine.’ Callie’s smug smile should have been irritating to Anne-Marie but she couldn’t help admitting that her friend was right. If their positions were reversed, wouldn’t it be non-stop in Callie’s mind?

At her sister’s New Year’s party, she saw someone there who caught her eye. She wished she’d talked to them, but she got drunk pretty early on and was in no state to talk to anyone; and she was certainly not able to make a good first impression. She didn’t think she’d see them again and wasn’t too heartbroken about that, except she did see them again. Over and over throughout the rest of the year, in all sorts of places.

As they got further into Manchester city centre, the reminders of Christmas time became more and more apparent. Lights strung up everywhere and the Christmas markets could be smelled for miles around. Mulled wine and Frankfurters, cinnamon and chocolate. Those weren’t the markets the two women were headed to, but those scents were tempting. Perhaps they could grab a bite to eat once the day was done.

‘What I don’t get is why you haven’t said something. Just once, you know?’

‘Right, and I wonder how that’d go down. “Y’alright, mate? Are you the one I saw at the garden centre last week fawning over a succulent, at the art gallery and not so long before that crying at a Rossetti, oh and a few months ago, I think it was you who—”’

‘Thank you, I think I get it. You can’t deny, though, if you’ve seen them so often…’ There was a pause and a sigh from Anne-Marie before she replied.

‘Then they’ve probably seen me too. Yeah, I know.’

Once again, silence fell between the two friends, and this continued as they carried on with their journey to the coffee shop until they passed a small charity shop which Anne- Marie insisted they go back to. In the window was a chunky, cream-coloured sweater with dark green around the trim. With a sarcastic roll of her eyes, Callie smiled and led the way into the store.

Charlie and James:

James stared at his friend, incredulous. Nearly a full year and not once had Charlie told him about what had been happening. He wanted to say something but every time he tried he just stumbled over his words while laughing. This happened a few times until Charlie piped up, knowing fully that this would open up the flood gates.

‘It’s not that deep. It’s just a bit weird.’

‘Not that deep? Mate… mate… a whole year? Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days, or damn near close enough. What, and you just didn’t think I’d wanna know? This is the best thing I’ve heard all week. So, what’s she called? What’s she like? Tell me all about her,’ said James with a wry smile. ‘Oh no wait a minute. You haven’t even spoken to her yet…’ James continued on, but Charlie began blocking him out. They’d expected this and it was the very reason they hadn’t said anything before. They both continued on their way to the art shop, James barely pausing for breath. As far as Charlie could tell, James was more interested in berating his friend for not giving up any juicy gossip than actually finding out. Though they weren’t listening, Charlie would nod and give little hums of encouragement every now and then. James only stopped when he felt Charlie grab the back of his collar, dragging him back. He was about to yell at his friend, but before he could do so, Charlie said:

‘Maybe pay attention while you’re having a go at me and you won’t end up stepping into traffic.’

‘Cheers,’ came the response after a little pause. ‘Alright, well can you at least tell me what you do know?’

As the two of them crossed the road and headed into the little shop where the two of them worked, Charlie made a point of saying that they hadn’t even ever heard her before, only seen her, so that was as much as they could share. What she looked like and where the two of them had both been.

The little bell above the shop door made its quaint little chime as the pair entered and went straight through the softly lit store, to the storage space-cum-office room. They both thought it shouldn’t take them too long to find the wallet. Something so vivid, in bright pink and black, shouldn’t be hard to miss, but Charlie still managed to leave it behind at the end of their last shift.

As the two of them searched, Charlie recalled the past months, since they saw this mystery girl for the first time, which was the New Year’s party.

‘There’s been loads of times since then though. I remember once I was at the gallery. You know, the one up near China Town? I was in there and, as I am wont to do, I was having a good cry in there.’ At this, there was a little snigger from across the room, cut off with a quick glance. ‘Thing is, I thought I was alone. Wouldn’t have been crying quite so hideously had I known that someone else was in there, but as I turned to leave, I saw her there. I think she might have seen me because she, I don’t know how to explain it, but she looked like she was trying too hard not to look at me.’

‘Ego, much? Don’t worry, I know just what you mean.’

‘It was the same look that I saw last week. It was the day I brought that giant cactus home. Well, you know what I get like when I see a new baby for my collection. Well, after I got all mushy over a pot plant, I picked it up to take it to the checkout, and I am almost certain that I saw her there. If it was her, then she had that same “totally not looking at you” thing going on. I mean, it’s not always quite so memorable. Like, sometimes I’ll just see her in the frozen aisle at Tesco or something like that. I always feel like I should talk to her. She must have noticed this whole thing by now as well, right? I just never feel like I can. I just… doesn’t matter.’

There was a slight sadness in Charlie’s eyes, but they shook their head clear and headed under the desk. It didn’t take long for them to make their way back out, just a little bit dusty, with pink and black wallet in hand. They walked behind James who was about to go under his own desk and gave him a light tap on the back of the head with the wallet.

‘Come on, you. Let’s get going.’

The winter air hit both of them as they stepped out of the shop, causing the two of them to give a sharp intake of breath. It was a clear sign that they couldn’t get to the coffee shop fast enough. As soon as the traffic died down enough for them to make their way across the road, they headed straight for the coffee shop door, bumping into a pair of women as they did so. The four of them were all trying to be as polite as possible with some little apologies and everyone trying to be the one to get the door for the others. In the end, it was Charlie who got to the entrance and held the door open. James gestured for the two women to go through before him. The first, in a long, baby pink coat, carrying a paper shopping bag, and the second in a series of warm browns, except for a yellow knitted jumper. When Charlie saw her face, really saw her face, and the realisation hit them, all colour drained from their own. James, upon seeing his friend’s sudden anguish, was left with nothing but confusion. He coaxed Charlie away from the door that they were still holding open.

‘Mate, you look like you’re about to be sick. What the hell is wrong with you?’

Anne-Marie, Callie, Charlie and James:

It would have appeared that all the colour that drained from Charlie’s face had made its way over to Anne-Marie’s, who was, at that point, a rich shade of red. The bright light coming in from the huge window only served to make Anne-Marie’s cherry-like complexion far more obvious. When Callie saw her friend’s expression, she looked back towards the entrance, and could see that the person who had been holding the door open, was leant against the window, bent over, hands on their thighs and they were clearly breathing heavily. Their friend was rubbing their back. After the conversation on the first part of their journey, Callie had a good feeling that her friend and the person outside were going through exactly the same thing. She was slightly startled by her friend tapping her on the shoulder.

‘What? Oh, erm, just a black coffee please, large.’ She started making her way towards the entrance but stopped briefly to hand a ten pound note and her shopping bag to Anne-Marie, telling her to pay for the drinks then get to a table.

She stepped outside, wrapping her coat tightly around herself.

‘She might not have talked to you like, but I’m not treading lightly around this.’ The two people Callie had seen turned to face her. ‘Look, I assume you’re whoever she’s been seeing since New Year’s. If not, apologies. If so, her name is Anne-Marie. Once you’ve ordered, I’ll leave you two at a table to talk. I hope your friend here will join me. I’m Callie by the way, totally not listening in to your first real meeting.’

Both Charlie and James watched as Callie made her way back into the shop, sat down at the table that Anne-Marie had got for them and pour what looked like half a cup of sugar into her mug. Neither of them had to say anything. Charlie straightened up, both of them looked at each other, gestured towards the entrance and made their way inside. Once they both ordered, they made their way through the crowds of mostly empty tables, towards the middle of the coffee shop, where the two women were sat. When they got there, Callie stood, pulling her seat out for Charlie. She looked at James and nodded towards a table at the back of the coffee shop. The two of them might not have been able to hear their friends perfectly, but they’d hear enough to satisfy their need for a little bit of gossip. Before heading to the back, James nudged his friend, giving him an encouraging wink as he did so.

Anne-Marie and Charlie:

Just like every other time they’d seen each other, they were completely unable to talk. Except, it felt different this time, for both of them. Each had previously been aware of the other, but neither had ever been so aware that their own presence was being felt. As much as they wanted to know more, Charlie felt the awkward silence in their bones. They shook their head, looked up at Anne-Marie and apologised. They tried to get up but a swift and sturdy cough from James had them right back down in their hard, plastic seat.

Anne-Marie, through all of her shyness, managed a small hello and to introduce herself, Charlie returned the favour. However, for nearly thirty seconds, that was about as far as they got because every time one started to talk, the other wasn’t far behind. The two of them, never meaning to, were constantly talking over each other. It somehow managed to break the ice between them, leaving them giggly and feeling more at ease with one another. Charlie was the first to be able to speak up.

‘It’s good to finally see you. Well, I guess we already… What I meant was—’

‘It’s good to actually meet you.’

‘Yeah, that’s the one. We meet at last.’

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