"Aye, small world right enough!"
Mick had said it a few times so far. He repeated it now when Richie excused himself to go to the toilet, giving Lillian an apologetic shrug of his shoulders as he did so.
Unlike the waiter, Mick failed to pick up the new lovers' vibe. He sat down beside them, introduced himself to Lillian and began to tell her how long he and Richie had been friends (since secondary school) and all the mad cap stuff they'd got up to as youngsters. One tale demonstrated this so well, he had to tell it twice seeing as Lillian didn't manage to laugh enough first-time round.
If only he'd known they were here, he said, slapping the table. They could have met up earlier. He was in Girona with his in-laws seeing as it was his wife's mother's sixtieth birthday. His flight back to Glasgow left tomorrow. Richie flashed Lillian a look at that. Relief, probably.
"How did youse meet?" Mick asked. He changed position, pulling his chair closer to Lillian's and staring at her, a frank assessment. "He's no' been with anyone in a while."
"Er...in a pub," Lillian said. She felt comfortable enough telling her friends she'd met Richie online, but he might not be.
"Aye? You're lucky to get him out. Doesnae bother much these days. I'm always asking him if he wants to go for a beer or play some pool, and he says he's too busy."
Mick helped himself to the pate and Richie's glass of Cava. "You been seein' him long?"
"A few weeks."
He nodded. "Is this your first weekend away? Cannae mind the last time me and the missus has a dirty weekend. Weans."
Lillian muttered conciliatory words and willed Richie to hurry back.
"Richie always got his fair share of the women when we were younger."
Why had Mick waited till Richie left to drop in all this personal information? Lillian sensed she was being used. An old friendship that drifted apart, the way school ones usually do she supposed. Richie probably didn't see him or talk to him much anymore.
"Has he told you about Aileen?" He'd managed to polish off all the pate and was now homing in on the chorizo and peppers. He kept up his assessment of her, seeking some kind of reaction.
"Ah... Richie's ex. Yes."
"Rotten bitch, that woman," Mick matched Lillian for disgusting eating habits. He didn't bother closing his mouth as he chewed.
"No wonder he wasnae faithful to her."
Oh-oh. Alarm bells sounded. Unfaithful. Once a cheater, always a cheat and that kind of thing.
"I used to cover for him," Mick leaned in, garlicky-breath tickling her ear. "Tell Aileen he was with me when he was seeing some other bird. Some guy, Richie! What a player! Almost got caught once. She turned up at the house. I pretended he'd gone out to buy us beers. Dunno if she believed me, right enough."
His speech had quickened. Mick was a man on a mission to drop Richie in it, she could tell. Nevertheless, the information pricked the bubble of happiness she'd been enjoying. She sensed it deflate around her, the magic of the previous few hours seeping away.
Richie had returned, his expression wary.
"Better get on, aye?" Mick stood up, pointing in the direction of his table. "The missus will be wondering where I am. Gie us a call when you get back, Richie mate? We could go out. The four of us."
"I haven't seen him in ages," Richie said as he sat down. She sensed his eyes weighing her up. Lillian couldn't do poker faces. She supposed the dismay there made itself obvious.
"He said you were close friends you when you were married."
"Ah. I'm guessing he told you he used to lie for me? And now you're wondering, who is this guy? A lying, cheating bastard."
The frankness surprised her. She'd assumed she'd have to tease it out of him. "Maybe. He said there were a lot of them."
Richie blinked. He hadn't been expecting his friend to have delivered that level of detail then. Lillian took a mouthful of Cava, hating the way it had turned warm and sour in her mouth. She felt tears starting as her heart did the plunge thing it had gone through so many times before.
She'd told John Richie was The One. Stupid, stupid. Now, she'd need to go retract that, play down the weekend. Did John and Kippy laugh at her? She suspected they did. It wasn't maliciously meant, but she provided them with amusement, the steady couple's smug confirmation of their own status. Single, unhappy desperate Lillian unable to do the same.
"Lillian," Richie's voice softened. "I'll order us more drinks and a bit of food. And then I'll tell you about my marriage. Everything. You can ask me anything."
He stretched his hand across the table, pushing aside the empty plates, and took her hand. His thumb moved over her palm, rubbing it softly. Behind her, she heard movement—people leaving, their exit noisier than it needed to be. Mick and his party, by the sounds of it. With any luck, his flight would be delayed for hours tomorrow. Or the pate he'd scoffed would give him food poisoning so dreadful he'd be unable to move from the loo from now till next week.
"It's not an excuse, but that was then, and this is now."
His use of her own words startled her. "Yes, I know." And she did know. The Lillian of Art School was no more, for example. And the Lillian of London, the little miss who'd existed once upon a time and who expected—Snap that thought off before it even goes anywhere.
The waiter appeared seconds later. He managed to extract the empty dishes even as Richie kept hold of Lillian's hand and promised them he'd bring them the place's renowned fish stew. And their best Albariño.
"Your fellow countrymen?" he gestured at the table where Mick and his group had sat.
"Not friends," Richie said, making Lillian smile. The waiter nodded, his opinion of them apparently restored.
Alone, Richie took her other hand. "I've no' cheated on anyone since Aileen. I learned some hard lessons. I never want to be that guy again. And I meant what I said earlier. This weekend has been amazing so far. I haven't enjoyed myself this much in...forever, Lillian."
Her bullshit-o-meter was fine-tuned. If you dated as many times as Lillian had, you developed the skills to recognise a liar. What Richie said was genuine, but would it last? Actions, she heard the voice in her head, shrill and strident. They speak louder than words. Flowery language works up to a point, but fine declarations can mean nothing.
"That was then," she withdrew her hand, smiling to soften what she did. "And this is now! You're right. And I'm hungry. Starving, in fact. If the waiter doesn't appear soon, I'll die on the spot!"
Back to Lillian, cool and confident.
Richie laughed, and the waiter did materialise beside them, bearing large bowls of fish stew, its aroma enticing and comforting. He'd also brought a bread basket and dumped it beside Lillian.
"Bon apetit!" Those words again. Round two of the meal, this time with no interruptions, hopefully. Lillian picked up her spoon and proffered it to Richie. "Tell me if it's any good." He kept his eyes on her as he took the mouthful and she blew him a kiss.
She was fine. It was fine. Everything was going to be .
YOU ARE READING
The Artist's History (18+) #WATTYS2018 LONGLISTRomance
Love. It's never as easy as the books and films make out, right? Lillian and Richie are about to embark on their first weekend together. She's always found relationships difficult, and he has a troubled past. Sex, getting to know each other and shar...