13 April 2017

Then…

The wind is the first thing.

It greets her like a warm breath as she steps tentatively out from the fuggy interior of the bus, and she pauses for a moment to savour the sensation. It has taken her so long to reach this place, and she feels dusty, sticky and worn down. The bus doors close behind her, the hinges squeaking weakly in protest as metal brushes against rust.

It is safe here, a voice from inside her soothes. He cannot find you here, and neither can she.

She turns her head and sees the dark ribbon of the sea far below, its rich blue canvas punctuated by the pale tops of broken waves. If she strains her ears, she imagines that she can hear the sound they make as they buffet against the shore – a gentle swoosh, a soft crackle.

The sun is almost in bed now, it’s lounging sleepily in the sky, and she squints as she gazes at it, a single hand raised to shield her eyes. The tears have dried across her cheeks, the skin beneath them now tight and sore. She wonders if they will they ever cease. Will she ever be able to forget?

The bus has moved away from her now, a cacophony of rumbling engine, crunching gears and then a lingering swarm of dust. In its wake looms a vast hill. When she sees them for the first time, the scatter of white dwellings turned a soft lilac colour in the fading light, she feels a twinge deep inside her chest. Plenty of  places to hide up there. A labyrinth in which to lose her former self.

As she stares upwards from her place on the stony path, a scent assails her – an aroma of  pine, lemon and salt. A rustling sound rises out from the undergrowth by the road, the murmur of  insects, tiny and busy. Life goes on, the earth turns over. Birds fly and waves crash, the sun sets and the wind blows. And she is here. She is alive. She has yet to set eyes on another soul, but the fear is dripping away. The darkness that had enveloped her is pierced now with brightness: the future contains hope. There will be a way to continue.

She does not need to be afraid.

The hillside beckons her with invisible fingers, the distant lights twinkle like stars.

‘Goodbye,’ she whispers, and begins to walk.

Then. Now. Always by Isabelle Broom

I’m going to go to Spain with him and he is going to fall in love with me. It is finally going to happen. It must happen.

Now…

I know it’s a total cliché to fancy your boss, but I can’t help it. I’ve fancied Theo since the first moment I set my young, eager-to-please eyes on him during my internship five years ago, and my devotion hasn’t wavered since. I would argue that it’s his own fault, though, for being so utterly delicious, awe-inspiringly brilliant and, well, just perfect in every way.

"Are you feeling alright?" Tom asks, peering at my flushed face in concern as the object of my unbridled desire strides past us into the meeting room. He’s wearing a pale blue shirt today, and he looks sexy as hell.

"I’m fine," I assure him, fanning my face with my hand for effect. "It’s just really hot in here. There are too many computers on at the same time."

"If you say so." Tom shrugs and turns back to his screen. "I don’t look that bad, do I?" I mutter, and he swivels around to face me.

"A bit like a radish," he informs me. "Only hairier."

Tom does this occasionally, winds me up with his silly banter just to pass the time between our three pm cuppa and our six pm after-work pint. I shouldn’t really be surprised, because when it comes to Tom, I give just as good as I get, but I dread to think how much he’d rib me if he knew about my pathetic crush on Theo. And it really is a bit pathetic, not that I’d ever admit that to anyone other than my own self in the mirror. Yes, I talk to myself in the mirror, too. Hannah Hodges: walking, talking tragedy.

"Did we get any bite-backs on Twitter about Mojacar?" I ask him now, firmly changing the subject back to work.

Tom clicks his mouse and sniffs with disgust. "Only from people who think I’ve spelt 'Majorca' wrong."

"Those people are philistines," I grumble, rolling my eyes as I take in the snarky tweets on his screen. Secretly, however, I’m quite thrilled. I’d pitched my documentary idea to Theo partly on the basis that little is really known about the small Spanish town of Mojacar, and these tweets are proving my point.

Theo had lit up like a department store Christmas tree when I talked about the time I spent there as a teenager, his beautiful brown eyes widening as I turned my laptop around to face him and flashed up images of little white buildings cut out of the hillside, trailing bougainvillea and the wide sandy beach. When I explained why it fitted so well with the brief we’d been working on, he’d actually clapped his hands with pleasure. It was definitely one of the best days of my professional (okay, and personal) life so far, and I’ve been happily reliving the moment over in my head at least twelve times a day ever since. Turns out I’m not that bad at presentations after all, even if I was so nervous in the run-up that I almost swallowed myself whole.

"Do you really think we’re going to get everything ready in time for the shoot?" Tom asks me now. He’s a worrier, my best friend, but sometimes I wish he’d be more of the other sort of warrior – fierce and fearless rather than fretting about things all the time.

I turn to him, a mock expression of outrage on my face. "Of course it will. Theo has put me in charge of researching everything about the location and Mojacar’s history. Trust me, I’m not going to let hi– . . . I mean, the company down. This film will have everything: beauty, an exotic location, magic."

"Magic?" Tom frowns. "That cave painting again?"

"Oh, it’s a lot more than that," I reply, looking down instinctively at the little symbol tattooed on the inside of my left wrist. The ink has faded over the years; more a muddy blue now than black, but it still makes me smile with nostalgia. My Indalo Man, with his simply drawn, stick-man body and outstretched arms. As soon as Theo had gathered us into the meeting room and explained that a series of documentaries had been commissioned on the subject of modern folklore and myths, I knew exactly which place would work – and it had, too. We had been awarded funding not long after- wards, and were now on a seriously tight race to meet our deadline.

I run a protective thumb over my Indalo Man. "I believe in him," I admit.

Tom looks down at the tattoo and back up at me. For a brief second, I see something in his eyes that looks like affection, but he blinks it quickly away.

"You’re mad." He smiles.

"But you love me all the same, right?"

Tom rolls his eyes, and turns back to his screen.

I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that people have assumed the two of us are a couple, though I suppose it’s an understandable assumption to make. Ever since Tom and I met at the Student Union bar during our university’s Fresher’s Week, we’ve been pretty much attached at the hip. I know all his faults and he knows all mine, but we still love each other like family. In fact, I often like to think of Tom as a brother, probably because I like him a hell of a lot more than my actual sibling. Well, half-sibling.

He looks more like me than my actual relative, too. While my beloved Theo is olive-skinned, broad-shouldered and dark-haired, Tom is lanky like me with long pale limbs and a messy, straw-like thatch on the top of his head. We’d look at home in the middle of a field, scaring crows away from the crops – a fact that I remind him of on the rare occasion that he does something to annoy me.

"Hannah – can I have a word?"

Oh God, Theo is calling me. I get hastily to my feet, feeling my heart leap up into my throat.

"Of course – coming!" I somehow squeaked out that sentence like some sort of mouse-human, a fact that I know Tom will definitely have noticed. Great.

Theo is sitting on one of the six leather chairs in the glass-walled meeting room, one casual foot resting on the opposite knee. There’s an iPad propped up against his thigh. Lucky iPad.

I take a deep breath and exhale my ridiculous anxiety. "What can I help you with?"

Theo smiles at me, pointing to the chair next to him. "Come and sit down, Hannah."

I sit down, trying my best not to blush as my bare knee brushes against his trouser leg.

"How’s the research coming along?" he asks.

"Good," I chirp, filling him in on the sarcastic Twitter replies. "I think we can safely assume that Mojacar is an area of Spain that not many people know much about."

"Music to my ears." Theo grins. His Greek upbringing has left him with a slight accent, and I can’t help it – every time I hear it my insides turn into something resembling mushy peas.

"I think you’ll love it over there," I tell him, crossing and uncrossing my ankles. "When are you planning to go?"

"Well, that’s just it." Theo smiles at me again and I instinctively grip the arms of the chair. "That’s why I called you in here. I wondered if you’d like to come along, too?"

"Me?" The mouse-human has taken over my body again.

"Yes. You and me, and Claudette and Tom, of course."

"All of us?" I’m beginning to sound like an imbecile. Theo is bemused now, but he laughs good-naturedly.

"You are the one who pitched the idea, and you are the one who has spent time in Mojacar before, so you must come," he explains, clapping his hands together as if  to prove the point.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to reassure myself I’m not dreaming. In all my five-and-a-bit years as a researcher here at Vivid Productions of London, England, I have never once been invited along on a shoot abroad. I’m not a fancy cameraman like Tom or a hot, French-accented presenter like Claudette, I’m a mostly office-based researcher, good for chasing leads, organising interviews and dredging up forgotten footage from the deepest darkest TV archives of the world – but this? This is new territory for me, but it’s something I’ve been hoping will happen for as long as I can remember.

"We’ll be leaving in two weeks," Theo continues, swiping the screen of his iPad with a long, tanned finger. "Is that okay with you?"

"Yes, of course." It takes all my effort not to hug him.

"You’ll be my right-hand woman out there, so there won’t be much time to sunbathe or drink sangria," he warns. "We’ve got a very tight deadline for the project, so I’ll be editing the footage myself as we go along. I’ll need you to help with continuity and any interviews we may line up."

I shake my head up and down in the manner of a nodding dog that’s been stuck to the top of a washing machine during its spin cycle.

"What we really need to do in the time being is track down some people who were part of that artists’ colony you mentioned,"he continues. "Have you had any luck so far?"

I shake my head, devastated to be sharing bad news.

"I read that the colony broke up in 2013," I remind him. "So unfortunately there’s a chance that they’ve all left the area, but I’ll keep trying."

Theo nods. "Good stuff, Hannah. I knew I could count on you."

He did? I turn beetroot with pride.

When I float back to my desk a few minutes later, Tom has abandoned Twitter and is checking Facebook while he has a tea break.

"Sissy Martin got married," he announces.

"What? Again?"

Sissy was a girl we’d both known at university who, putting it as delicately as possible, was the human equivalent of the slide in the local park. Everyone and their uncle had a go on her.

"To an Army officer this time, by the looks of things," Tom adds, pointing a huge hand at his screen. "And they’re honeymooning in Sri Lanka, of all places. That’s at the top of my list."

Tom has been talking about travelling around the world since I met him, but aside from a few trips overseas to film with Vivid, he hasn’t ventured very far. Selfishly I’m happy about that fact, because I’d miss him horribly if he went away for any extended periods of time. But then again, I want him to be happy.

I peer over his head to look at the photos and snort. "How can it be that Sissy bloody Martin has been married twice since we left uni, and I haven’t even had a sniff?"

"You’re too fussy," Tom says, which is only partly true. It’s not my high standards that are keeping me cold and lonely at night, it’s my inability to see past my delectable boss.

"Well, maybe I’ll meet the love of my life in Mojacar," I tell him, throwing a cartoon wink in for good measure. "Yours truly has just been invited along on the shoot."

‘No way?" Tom’s whole face has lit up and he’s flapping his pipe-cleaner arms around now like a tree on a windy day.

"Way. Apparently, I’m to be Theo’s right-hand woman." Unfortunately, I say the last part in a very obviously dreamy voice, and Tom scrunches up his face in suspicion. "He obviously needs someone there aside from you," I add quickly. "You know, someone with incredible talent and amazing people skills and . . . Ow!"

Tom has retaliated with a playful but actually quite hard punch on my thigh.

"Don’t make me take you down, Robertson," I warn. "I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again."

It was true. I had.

"I surrender!" He laughs, holding his hands up. There’s blue ink all over one of them where his pen has leaked.

"You can bring me a tea to make up for it," I reply, turning to my own screen and opening Facebook, even though I know it will annoy me in a matter of minutes. "Oh my God – vomit!" I snarl at the computer a few moments later.

"What?" Tom has used his beanpole legs to propel his chair over at an alarming speed.

"That." I point. "My half-sister looking annoyingly smug as always."

Tom examines the photo and shrugs. "She looks happy."

If I wasn’t so consumed by irritation towards my younger, prettier, darker-haired and far-more-confident-than-me sibling, then I might agree with him, but as it is, I find the picture of Nancy with her blond-haired, blue eyed boyfriend, both of them smiling like a pair of deluded in-love idiots, utterly revolting.

"Remind me again why you hate her so much?" Tom asks, wheeling backwards, a certain amount of bemusement in his expression.

"She’s spoilt, boring, self-involved, dull." I count the insults off on my fingers.

"Pretty sure boring and dull mean the same thing," Tom informs me.

I glare at him.

"In all seriousness," he says, giving me a half-smile. "She’s actually very sweet, your sister. I had a really nice chat with her when I met her at our graduation ceremony. And, you have to remember, it’s not actually her fault that she was born."

I open my mouth to retort, but at that moment Theo emerges from the meeting room, wafting his lime-scented aftershave all over the place and reducing my loins to molten lava.

"Everything okay?" he asks as he passes.

"Yes, boss," Tom and I chorus, immediately closing down our respective Facebook pages with a swift click.

I watch as he heads across the office, turning every female and male head of our fifteen-strong team as he goes, and let out a contented sigh. I’m going to go to Spain with him and he is going to fall in love with me. It is finally going to happen. It must happen.

And in that moment, as the May sunshine shrugs off its robe of clouds and beams in through the window, I actually believe that my wish might just come true.

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