If you are under the age of eighteen, please do not read this story. All characters are above the age of eighteen.
I dedicate this story to the English rose in my life, who inspired me to write this.
It was a cold, crisp night in the middle of the city, cigarette smoke drifting above the heads of the people gathered outside in the streets waiting to enter the clubs. Light rain dusted the cars as they cruised by and soaked the pavement beneath the bustling feet of the laughing and boisterous revellers. A single figure wove through the crowds, dressed in black, with short hair, just as pale as their features. From a distance they looked like a man, but the fine features and slim neck were a dead giveaway that this person was in fact a young woman. She wore black jeans, old beat up sneakers and a warm, but somewhat oversized hoodie for her slim frame.
The figure walked quickly, feet never stopping, as she puffed at a cigarette, almost nervously. It was the crowds-they made her uneasy on the outside world, and she felt like an outsider with these people. The strangers around her, men and women, held hands and laughed, with seemingly not a care in the world. When I hold a woman's hand like that in public, she thought, I'm always worried she'll pull her hand away out of fear or shyness. Her reverie was cut short as someone called out her name.
"Ella! There you are." Her old friend from high school called out in excitement, thrilled to see her. Ella smiled, not at all surprised to see that Oscar was his usual exuberant self. The life of the party, he was nearly always at the club before her, the only club that Ella frequently attended, the local gay bar. Her sanctuary away from the world outside, this was the place that she visited whenever she could, which was Friday and Saturday nights. Oscar and a couple of his friends were outside finishing a quick cigarette before they entered through the front door of The Flame, the local hangout for fellow gays and even straight people who wanted somewhere outside of the box to enjoy a few drinks well into the evening.
"Hi Oscar, good to see you." Ella smiled, laughing as Oscar quickly put out his cigarette before bouncing over to her, throwing his arms around her for a joyful hug. "Let's go in then," Oscar said as everyone finished their smokes and made small talk about the past week. Ella smiled and together, the four of them showed their ID cards to the familiar bouncer out the front, and descended the neon lit stairwell into their very own wonderland. Several hours went by, a blur of two drag shows and drink after drink, all within the haze of blurry neon lights and loud music. Drag queens lip-synched and put on the show and dance that lit up the night, a kaleidoscope of colour dancing before Ella's intoxicated eyes...
The shrill beep of Ella's alarm ripped Ella from the land of sleep, sitting up abruptly, eyes glued shut with the previous night's sleep still embodied in her lashes. Fumbling in her bed sheets, as the light of dawn peeked through her tightly drawn curtains, Ella's numb fingers found her smartphone, and tapped off the alarm. For a moment she sat there, legs crossed on the bed, long blonde hair hanging down in a mess, then she lurched into action. At quarter to six in the morning Ella started her day for the nine to five work week. From Monday to Friday, Ella dedicated herself to work, and work alone.
But of course, her well-structured day consisted of other things aside from work. Ella would drive an hour into work from the countryside flat she lived in, to the city workplace where she was employed by the local government. She worked within the local courts of justice as a clerk, and had previously worked for a government run public security agency. Each morning she would walk the city block for approximately forty-five minutes, accruing a decent distance to get her heart rate up and her body ready for the day ahead. Often one of the first ones into work, Ella would spend much of her day at her desk or running files to and from different places in the office.
That particular morning Ella's recalled the dream this morning, and her memories from years earlier. Keeping busy was her way of keeping herself away from feelings of the past, and it was the only thing that worked. She was twenty-five now, and she knew that she had grown so much since she had been nineteen, as she had been in the dream. Her short, blonde hair that had featured in the dream had now grown long, below her shoulders. So much had changed. Ella found that in order to remain sober and out of hospital, she had to make sure that she was never really idle. And that dream that she had woken out of this morning, consisted of memories of another version of herself-one that was unemployed and solely focused on drinking, the next night out, the next party...
That wasn't Ella's life anymore, she knew, but Ella and her therapist had discussed that that version of her was alive, just dormant. It was an aspect of herself bubbling under the surface, ever so eager to re-emerge if she let her guard down. And Ella was acutely aware that she was in a comfortable place with her life right now, and she had come very far, so much further than she ever imagined she would. She had gone from working in unstable and fiscally less rewarding retail jobs, to a contracted government worker, one who couldn't afford to revert back to her old ways.
And though she valued the security of her work, and knew it was the crutch on which she placed her focus, it wasn't always easy. Ella had left her previous workplace two years earlier, after her previous place of employment was privatised by the government. Up to that point she had a lightly formed career plan which unfortunately was not going to pan out for her after all. However, she had at least begun to fit into the workplace after about six months, and knew who was who in the office, and who many of the external contacts were beyond that. But that was just the problem, the only real problem for her now. Or was it really a problem? Ella wasn't really sure; she just knew that it was what it was.
A woman in the office, Valerie Strickland, had caught Ella's eye. Not initially, but over time, probably six months into her time at the new workplace, Ella had begun to notice her. At first Ella saw her merely as a manager, but other notions had seemed to seep into her mind. Ella had noticed the way the sunlight caught in Valerie's hair, how her crimson locks flowed in the wind and shone as if it were a rich, deep fire. An older woman in her mid-fifties, Valerie carried herself with sophistication and class. And she was beautiful. She was petite, at roughly five foot four, with a luxurious body, curved and yet firm. Valerie's physique was much more substantial than Ella's slim, nearly fragile form. Her voice had deepened, but was wonderfully smooth, from her fondness of cigarettes. When Valerie spoke, one could hear the soft, yet poignant tones of her British accent.
Ella pushed countless daydreams of Valerie away, a feeling of unease, or was it guilt, stirring momentarily in the pit of her stomach each time. The thoughts would be gone, and she would carry on with her work as if it were nothing. Another time, during the winter, Ella had caught herself mesmerised by the outline of Valerie's legs, but thought nothing of it. Within herself, Ella was adamant that this was merely Valerie's good taste in skinny denim jeans on casual Friday, nothing else.
Insisting that this was nothing more than a silly fixation, Ella had buried it for another year, ignoring all those thoughts of Valerie. Ella would spend a great deal of mental energy forgetting any ideas that pursuing anything with Valerie would be a good idea. It was as if every dreamy notion of Valerie were a multi-headed dragon, with each idea forming a head which would promptly be cut to pieces by Ella's sheer willpower. And this went on for some time, even beyond a year, and continued as the winter settled in. Even with the excitement for Christmas steadily on the rise, especially at work, Ella was beginning to find it harder to ignore her desire for Valerie.
The upcoming work Christmas party was on everyone's lips in the lead up to the event. Many of the higher ups, the 'brass', would be in attendance, and it would be held in the work premises in one of the conference rooms which would need to be rearranged for the festivities. Ella didn't care much for the executive's snobbery and entitled natures, so she was unsure if she would even go, or if she did, if she would stay for very long. Of course, with alcohol being a highlight of the event, that made Ella even less eager to attend than she would admit to anyone.
She hated seeing the swarms of bottles of alcohol at events, it reminded her of the drawn-out nights out drinking, then the even lengthier nights spent intoxicated at home... However, a little voice in the back of her head whispered for her to go so that she could see Valerie, and maybe have the balls to make a little conversation in such a crowded space. Ella found herself gritting her teeth, furious with herself for thinking such a thought. In the end it was foolish to let herself settle on Valerie-it could never be.
Sitting at her desk early one crisp morning in mid-December, Ella poured over the influx of daily emails, intently deciphering which one to respond to first, when a voice caught her attention.
"Good morning, how are you this morning, Ella?" It was Valerie. Looking up abruptly, Ella turned to focus her gaze on the woman before her. Valerie's fine features were as always, rather distracting to Ella. She tried not to notice the perfect slope of Valerie's porcelain jaw, the delicate lines and shadows of her neck, leading to the clavicle and beyond.
"Oh, good morning. I'm well thank you, how are you?" Ella prayed that not a trace of her state of mind was visible on her face, for fear of Valerie's recognition. She can never know, never.
"Good thanks, have you got a moment?" Valerie asked, stepping back from Ella's desk, smiling faintly.
"Yes." Ella knew that this conversation would continue in Valerie's office, so she rose from her seat and followed Valerie to her office.
When they were both seated, Valerie resumed their conversation. "I'd like to let you know that you're doing so well, Ella, you really are. You've stepped up this month and organised so much, the invites to our Christmas drinks event, and the staff secret santa. You've really done so well."
"Well thank you, I really appreciate that Valerie. I guess I just really wanted to help spread the Christmas cheer." Ella smiled, noticing her heart racing a little in her chest. Feedback from Valerie was only given when it was rightfully earned, and it was never forced, but given only when intended. That was simply Valerie's way, it was her honesty that was valued so much by Ella and all of their other colleagues.
"You know, with the year we've had here, with such a huge increase in work, people leaving here to go elsewhere, you've really been so good." Valerie smiled kindly, leaning forward, her light blue eyes wandering calmly across Ella's features.
On this particular morning, Valerie wore a flowing black shirt which contrasted beautifully with her pale skin. The shirt inclined down and away from her neck, allowing her collarbones to be ever so slightly revealed, with the sleeves ending just halfway above her upper arms. Her thin gold necklace, with a pendant set with a single translucent diamond akin to a teardrop, adorned her chest.
"Thanks, I mean it's been a full-on year in so many ways, and you've done so much also. Really kept the team together," Ella smiled.
She knew that Valerie wasn't fishing for compliments, nor did she ever seek them anyway, but she gave them despite it all, since now was a good opportunity. Regardless, Valerie intrigued Ella. Valerie's composure was cool and at ease consistently through each day, but she could swear that she had seen the softer side of Valerie which rested calmly below the surface. And though Ella could only dare to skim the surface, she wished she could dive deeply into Valerie's complexities. That was half of the beauty, half of the allure of Valerie.
They talked a little more about the excitement of Christmas and the upcoming holidays, and Valerie divulged that she would be spending Christmas alone, aside from a visit at lunch time from her adult children. Valerie made no mention of sharing Christmas day with a partner, not that Ella knew if she had one anyway. Valerie had experienced, what she had previously described to Ella, to be a bitterly unpleasant divorce from her ex-husband, who had been abusive towards her in a number of ways. Ella was strangely glad to hear nothing about Valerie currently having a partner. Instantly regretful for even entertaining such a thought, Ella tossed it back into the depths of her mind, where it fell silent immediately. Eventually Ella realised she needed to get back to her work, and she didn't want to keep Valerie from her own workload.
Their chat in Valerie's office at that moment seemed to make Ella feel so much better. All the voices of doubt and shame were silent in Ella, as they spent that time together just talking about things. But once Ella returned to her desk, the warm glow, or whatever it was, weakened in a strangely tangible way. It was as if the trance, the spell that Valerie had unwittingly cast upon her, was not the same now that the moment was gone.
But Ella knew that Valerie's attractiveness, her grace, would be retained in her subconsciousness, beyond even her control. The uncanny thing about it all, was that while Ella longed desperately to break through the surface of Valerie, Valerie was well and truly already under Ella's own skin. Far deeper than Ella ventured to admit to herself.
Finally, the day of the Christmas drinks event had arrived. Early that morning before any of her colleagues arrived and the work day commenced, Ella spent an hour rearranging the conference room and decorating it with Christmas lights, tinsel and other ornaments. There was considerable excitement from all the staff as one by one they saw the effort which had been put in, and Valerie was no exception. Her face, cast in the full spectrum of bright Christmas lights, was a beautiful sight indeed, as was her smile. If Ella had to admit it to herself, perhaps one of her main motivations was to see the pleased expression on Valerie's face. And it was so worthwhile.
That evening, while Ella and her fellow staff shut down their computers for the night, finishing early to head into the event room, there was a sense of excitement in the air. Ella headed into the room and grabbed a glass, hastily pouring herself some diet soda before anyone could offer her a glass of wine. It always helped to have a glass in her hand, so no one would try to innocuously tempt her with any booze. It was important to dissuade anyone from handing her alcohol to drink. As she placed the soda bottle back on the table, she noticed Valerie watching her from the other side of the room. Ella smiled, then wandered across the room, finding herself a place among a small group of her colleagues.
At one point, Ella went into the kitchen to get a glass of water from the filtered tap, only for Valerie to appear moments later, leaning on the wall beside the door frame. Valerie had brought a small dish of the previously made snacks which were placed in small cardboard containers, so each guest could eat a separate meal for ease and convenience.
"You look hungry." Valerie raised the snack box up at her as if to tempt her, then approached Ella, holding it out to her. "I've brought this for you. You can't just drink diet soda all night." The smile on Valerie's face made Ella's heart falter.
"Oh, thanks. I mean, I'm not really that hungry, but why not?" Ella said, her palms sweating slightly as she reached out and took the dish from Valerie. She smiled, although she hoped that to Valerie, she didn't look nervous.
"You should get back out there, let's go." Valerie confirmed that she sensed Ella's unease. Knowing that her discomfort would possibly be related to her sobriety and her awkwardness, Valerie knew that Ella would be better off just facing it.
The night drew on, and by seven o'clock all of the executives had left, leaving only management and fellow staff. Feeling exhausted from the tiring day, Valerie departed, bidding Ella and a few others goodnight. By eight o'clock there were only half a dozen people left, just the staff, five of whom were quite merry, with only Ella sober. Ella did much of the cleaning up, and tidying of the room. But still, she made time to dance around the room with the five remaining staff, laughing ecstatically.
By the time the Christmas lights were turned off and the radio unplugged, the others had decided to stop by the local bar before heading home. Ella bid then farewell out the front of work, then headed back to her car to drive home.
The next morning, Ella's alarm woke her, and she was so thankful to be able to wake up early and not have a hangover. Life was good. She got herself ready for the day, showering away the remnants of her sleep. She knew some of her colleagues at last night's event would most likely be feeling a little worse for wear by now. She felt sorry for them, but proud of herself for holding out a little more with her sobriety.
Ella enjoyed the next couple of days at work, and it seemed that morale was at an all-time high. Christmas was just over a week away, and the staff who were still at work attended a Christmas lunch at a restaurant to exchange secret Santa gifts. The thrill of opening their gifts lasted all lunch, and Ella was very pleased to see that she received a beautiful boxed silver Parker fountain pen. Funnily enough, the person who ended up having Ella as her secret Santa was Derek, the head manager of the office, one above Valerie in rank.
After entering the restaurant, everyone attempted to find a seat, and Ella felt indecisive. Or was it indecisiveness? She wasn't entirely sure. She felt an undeniable pull towards Valerie, and stood beside the table, hesitation overwhelming her for a moment. Then Valerie was by her side, telling her to sit, in a spot beside her. Foolishly, Ella hesitated saying she wasn't sure, and sat beside another colleague, a full seat between her and Valerie.
Feeling like a right idiot, taking a moment to piece together what Valerie was saying, Ella realised she had just blown a shot at sitting beside her. Swallowing her nerves and awkwardness, Ella bit the bullet and swapped to the seat closer to Valerie, who wore an unrecognised expression for a moment, something similar to surprise, before smiling slightly.
As they sat together, every now and then they would make conversation, but they balanced their conversations with the others around them also. Despite the distraction of conversing with the other colleagues, Ella felt a soaring feeling in her chest. She had never been so close to Valerie before, and at one moment, when they had each turned to face one another, Ella saw that Valerie's eyes were not just blue. They were emblazoned with specks of a vibrant green, as if God himself had painted this woman with so much voracity and dedication that it was reflected in the smallest details.
All at once Ella felt herself smiling, not at whatever words Valerie had been saying, but at the miraculous beauty of the woman before her. But it was also the first time she allowed herself to show in a smile to Valerie, the effect of the radiance she had on her. It may have passed unnoticed by all others talking and laughing among them, but Valerie's eyes regarded her with an expression of curiosity, a look that deepened for a moment before fading away.