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Monique by Lisa Jewell

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Let It Snow on the PA. Spools of garish tinsel. LED Christmas trees. Poinsettias in gold pots. And there, behind the customer service desk, a woman, according to her name tag, called Monique. She looked faded and shopworn, in amongst all the glitter and gaud, as if Christmas had nothing to do with her.

“Yes, can I help you?”

There was a split second, small but noteworthy, during which Alex should have said something, but didn’t. Monique stared meaningfully at him. “Can I help you?” she repeated.

“Sorry, yes,” he said. “I wanted to check these, erm, light fittings, do you have any more in stock?”

She picked up the packet and looked at it, front and back. Then she sighed and said, “I’ll just check. How many do you need?”

“Six, ideally.”

“Give me a minute.”

She wandered to a computer at the other side of the counter.

Alex stared at her. She was a small woman, neatly arranged, fluffy blonde hair tied back from her face, no make-up. She looked about his age, late 30s. And she was pretty. But not pretty enough to explain the fact that Alex could not take his eyes off her.

“No,” she said, handing him the light fitting. “That’s all we’ve got in stock at the moment. But I could order you in some more. If you like.” Alex nodded. “Yes,” he said. “That would be great.” She smiled at him.

Something odd happened to Alex when she smiled. He wanted to say, “Do that again, can you do that again?” Because when she smiled, it was as if she became a part of him.

“Sorry,” he began, because he had to say it, he really, really did. “But do I know you?”

She gazed at him blankly. “I doubt it.”

“Did you..? What school..? Or college…?” he exhaled. “Sorry.”

“I went to school in Camden. Went to college in Camden. Still live in Camden.” She raised an eyebrow. “So unless I know you from Camden…”

“No,” he said. “No, you’re right. Sorry. I just… you look familiar, that’s all.”

It hit him halfway home, sitting on the Jubilee Line, his feet wedged between the bulging bags of Christmas shoppers. It was her. My god. It was her!

He ran up the stairs to his flat, threw off his sensible jacket, ran his hands down his unexceptional face, touched his thinning hair.

In the spare room, he started to rip open the boxes he hadn’t unpacked yet. The boxes that marked out the end of his grey marriage to the sort of girl he’d avoided when he was young; a posh girl, called Sarah, who’d started out fun and ended up shrill in Boden. Hard to believe he’d once ridden the streets of London on a scooter, riffled stacks of albums in Soho alleyways, bought drugs from people he knew by their first names, slept with girls with tattoos.

He found it, after half an hour, tucked between the pages of a book, where he’d hidden it away after Sarah had said, “Yuck, that’s not going on my wall.” He stared at it in amazement for a moment and then he ran down Walm Lane and back to the Tube station. Fifteen minutes later, he passed it to her, across the counter, breathless and brighteyed. “This is you,” he said, “isn’t it?”

A large black-and-white photograph, curling at the corners. A wild bride with peroxide hair sitting by the canal in Camden Town. Her dress was an antique thing, 1950s with a petticoat. She was wearing monkey boots and holding a bottle of beer. Her groom stood above her in drainpipe trousers, a waistcoat and luxuriant sideburns. She smiled up at him, the sun caught her profile, glittered off his gold tooth. They were teenagers. They were in love.

Alex, skinny, lean, in a second-hand overcoat, had spied them across the canal, fixed his Pentax on them, stolen the moment, breathlessly watched it develop in a tray of developing fluid. They were everything he wanted to be. Completely authentic. He’d felt it then, what he really was, not an artist, just a posh boy with a camera.

“Jesus Christ.”

“It is, isn’t it?” “Jesus.” She stared up at him. “Where did you get this?”

“It’s mine,” he said. “I took it. Twenty years ago. I was a student.”

“Oh my god. That’s me. On my wedding day. Nobody had a camera. I’ve never seen a photo before.”

Alex nodded.

“Look at me! I’m gorgeous!”

“I know,” said Alex. “Why do you think I kept it for 20 years?”

“And look at Jimmy! Christ. I wonder whatever happened to him?”

“You mean, you’re not still married?”

Monique laughed. “No! Marriage lasted nine months. If that. It was just…” She looked up at him with shining eyes, “one of those crazy, spontaneous things. We thought we were it. Wanted a fuss.”

She ran her finger across the photo and said, “So, are you still a photographer?”

“No,” he said. “Not any more.” He didn’t tell her that he was an estate agent now, just like his dad. “I was obsessed with this photo. I had it on my walls for years. I used to think… I used to think that you two were everything I wanted to be.”

She shook her head and Alex saw her eyes fill with tears. “This was another world. Wasn’t it?” She looked up at him then and he saw it there. Her own disappointments, her own lost youth. “Whatever happened to us? Where did we go?” She laughed, wryly.

He shrugged. He had no idea.

She glanced at him and smiled. She wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

“You haven’t changed, you know?” It wasn’t true, but he wanted it to be. And that was enough, wasn’t it?

She laughed, wryly. Her face glowed like Christmas. “I can get you a copy,” he began, “maybe drop it back later? Maybe when you finish work?”

She smiled at him again.

“Or I could meet you, somewhere.”

She nodded, blushed. And for a moment, she looked 18.

Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell (£9.99, Century) is out now

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