Lucy Lambert and Tommy Johnson had been friends since they were both in Mrs Mulgrew's class in Infants School. Both were an only child, so school had been a scary place for both five year olds, and they had kind of naturally recognised each other as kindred spirits and gravitated towards each other for comfort and reassurance.
As their school years progressed, they weren't always in the same classes, but at break times they were never far apart: even during the crazy years when most little boys want nothing to do with little girls! And as they got older and biological changes kicked in, Lucy often found herself responding to the comments of other girls, such as: 'I think your brother is really cute!'; to which her comeback was usually: 'I guess ... but he's not my brother!' Although, to all intents and purposes, that's exactly how she thought of him!
They usually walked home together after school; sometimes with his or her friends; and on most days they would sit together in her family's dining room, doing homework for a couple of hours. Lucy's parents were somewhat protective of their daughter, but they seemed to have no doubts or misgivings about leaving the two growing adolescents alone together.
On one such occasion, when they were both fourteen, Lucy leaned in and said to him, in a quiet, conspiratorial tone: "Martin Matthews has asked me to go out with him, Tommy!" Tommy smiled at her, in that way he had which always seemed to make her happy.
"I know! He asked me in Games what you'd say ... I just said he'd never know unless he asked you!"
"But it's the first time someone's asked me out, what do you think I should say?"
"Well, I won't embarrass you by asking if you fancy him or not, but he's always seemed to me to be a nice bloke, I don't think he'll mess you around!"
"But what about physical stuff ... you're the only boy who's ever held my hand, but that was years ago, and I've never even kissed a boy!"
"Look, Lucy, they're both natural things ... just remember that you don't have to do anything that you're not comfortable with. And Martin knows better than to do anything dodgy while I'm around!"
As ever, Lucy was reassured. She'd been waiting ages for this particular rite of passage, and she knew that Tommy had been going out with her friend, Sally Jenkins, for several weeks now, and Sally had said that Tommy was a good kisser. Lucy had also suspected that maybe other boys would have liked to ask her out, too; but although she knew that Tommy was the kindest, gentlest boy in the world, he was also rather tall and athletically built for his age.
Then at 18 they applied to a lot of the same universities, but Lucy got into Sussex to read Biology and Chemistry, while Tommy did Creative Writing and English Literature at Middlesex. And while they were both happy to be going, they were also of course sad, at not being together at university.
They saw each other at vacation times, though, and during their three years of undergraduate study, they often visited each other's campuses for weekends during term time: although Tommy always gave up his bed for Lucy in London and slept on her bedroom floor in Sussex. They had also made a pact: that wherever they were, or whoever else they might be seeing, they would always try to spend New Years Eve together. So each year, on the evening of the 31st, Tommy would call for Lucy: they'd have a small celebratory drink with her parents, and then go out to one of the local pubs to see in the new year.
Two years after graduating, Lucy was still in Sussex. Having finished up with First Class Honours, she was now doing post-graduate research, while working towards her doctorate in Biochemistry. Tommy was making a small, but reasonable living as a freelance writer, and also as a part-time staff writer for a listings magazine. With her research grant allowing her to live off-campus, Lucy had just moved into a small flat between the university and Brighton; which is where Tommy had travelled down on December 30th to see her, for their annual New Year reunion.
" ... Well, this is very cosy ... not like my place!" he said when he arrived there for the first time.
"Aw, I love your flat, Tom! This is nice, but the neighbourhood has no atmosphere, unlike London!"
"I suppose so!" He looked around her living room, which was still very festive with all the Christmas decorations: he had a few greetings cards displayed, but that was all. "But at least you have a nice sofa I can sleep on: I'll leave my sleeping bag in the car until I need it, though."
Lucy stood before him, feet apart and hands on slender hips. She wasn't exactly frowning, but she had a serious look on her face. Tommy knew that stance well, and even though physically he was inches taller and broader, he listened carefully to what she had to say.
" ... And I really think that you ought to leave it in there while you're here this time, Tommy! There's enough room in my bed for two, and I know that after all these years I can trust you." The trouble was, Tommy didn't know if he trusted himself.
"I suppose it wouldn't hurt for a couple of nights, Luce! Is there no boyfriend on the scene at the moment: I wouldn't want to rock any boats, and if you were my girlfriend, I wouldn't be very happy at the idea of you sharing."
Lucy looked at him quizzically: in all the time she'd known him, she'd never heard him say anything like that before.
"No, there's no boyfriend, Tom: I haven't really been in a relationship since I started my research work; there's too much else to think about."
"All right, then. Are we staying in or going out tonight?" he asked her, trying desperately to get all thoughts of their sleeping arrangements out of his head.
"I thought we could stay in and just catch up tonight and then go into Brighton tomorrow night, if you like."
"Sounds good to me ... are you cooking, or shall we get a takeaway?"
"I don't mind, but we haven't shared a Chinese for a while, have we ... I don't usually bother when I'm on my own."
Lucy had the phone numbers of several fast-food places that delivered, so they settled in for the evening. Later, after they had eaten and cleared away, she made coffee and they sat together on the sofa.
"I think that this is what I miss most about living here," Lucy said, "we can't just pop round to see each other when we feel like it. Most of the people who were here when I did my first degree have moved on; and anyway, I don't really want that student lifestyle any more."
"I know what you mean. I really don't mind being on my own, and I can get a lot of work done at home in the evening ... but it's nice to see a friendly face, or have someone to talk to when you take a break."
"And how is your novel coming along, Tommy?"
" ... Slowly! I have days when I get a lot written; but then other days when nothing seems to come to me, so I just get on with the bread-and-butter stuff that brings in the money."
But at last the time came when they, and Lucy in particular, were too tired to talk anymore.
"Did you bring a toothbrush, Tom; I've got a spare if you didn't bring one?"
"No, it's okay ... I'm sorted! Do you want to use the bathroom first?"
"If we're only brushing, there's room for two."
They had seen each other in their underwear on lots of occasions in the past, but Tommy always looked away, or went to the bathroom, while she was changing. She didn't seem to mind what he did or didn't see, but it was about the only thing between them that he still felt self-conscious about. He wasn't even sure what she usually wore in bed when alone, but whenever they shared a room when visiting each other, she wore a T-shirt and a pair of knickers at bedtime, and he wore his close-fitting boxers.
Lucy felt surprisingly comfortable as they got into bed together for the first time, and it was Tommy who felt 'odd'. They kissed each other lightly on the lips, then lay with their backs to each other to go to sleep. Lucy was quickly asleep, as she usually was, but Tommy lay awake, listening to her breathe and feeling the heat from her body as they lay only inches apart in the bed. It was usually the same thing even when they slept apart. He had often wondered what it would be like to hold her in his arms and feel her naked skin against his, but now she was so close; he only had to turn and reach out to her, but he knew that he must not!
Eventually fatigue overtook him, however, and he drifted off into a restless sleep as the night slowly passed by. In the morning when he finally awoke, still tired, the bed beside him was empty. His bladder was giving him very insistent instructions, so he got out of bed and still not fully functioning mentally, he walked to the bathroom, turned the handle and went in. He wasn't alone!
" ... I ... I'm sorry!" he said, seeing Lucy in the bath, "I'll come back..."
"Don't be silly, Tom! If you need to pee, just go!"
He wanted to make his apologies and leave, but there was a sharp pain in his bladder telling him to stay. He heard her gentle laugh.
"Do you want me to close my eyes and cover my ears!" He had been standing there for several seconds with nothing happening.
"It's not funny, Luce! I think I'm about to explode!"
"Okay! Give me a couple of seconds!" He heard her get out of the water, then a few seconds more during which he assumed she was wrapping herself in a towel, then the bathroom door being pulled shut.
"Aaahhh!" he exclaimed loudly, as his sphincter finally opened and his bladder emptied. Leaving the bathroom, he saw her in the kitchen, covered from armpit to thigh in white, fluffy towelling. "Thanks!"
"Your welcome! Now I think I deserve at least another thirty minutes in the bath for that act of generosity! Make the tea, Tommy, and bring mine in ... and don't be embarrassed this time!"
Although his bladder was empty, he was still getting uncomfortable feelings in his underpants, so while the kettle was still heating the water, he quickly went into the bedroom and pulled on his jeans and a T-shirt. Then with her mug of tea in his hand, he knocked quietly before going back into the bathroom. He tried not to stare, but in the time it took to hand Lucy her tea without spilling it, although she was fully submerged in the water, he saw more of his best friend than he had ever seen before, and ... God! ... he liked what he saw!
"Fancy a walk?" he said after breakfast.
"All right! There's a park a few minutes from here. Bring that stale bread ... there might be some wild life we can throw it at!"
Wrapped up against the cold December air, they strolled arm-in-arm to the park. There was a pond, and although cold, the water was being used by several water fowl who received some of the bread. The rest was broken up into small pieces and thrown onto the ground for the other avian visitors.
"Is there anywhere we can get a hot drink?" Tommy asked her.
"There is, but it's not that near. We can walk there but it might be quicker to go back to the flat."
"No, let's walk! I'm sure that will warm us up!"
"Are you all right, Tommy? You seem to be in a very odd mood this morning; not your usual self at all!"
He knew that he couldn't say what was really on his mind, but Lucy was the person who probably knew him best in all the world, so he had to think of something plausible, and quickly.
"Sorry! I meant to leave my problems at home, but I've come to bit of a dead end with my novel. I've put too much into it to stop altogether, but nothing productive is happening, so maybe I need to take a break from it for a while."
Lucy was satisfied with this answer: Tommy had been talking about this novel for years. She wasn't at all literary or artistic herself, but she had always tried to encourage him with his writing, and she felt a sense of frustration that she couldn't help him in a more practical way. She held on to his arm even tighter than she had been: "Stick with it, Love! I'm sure you'll get there in the end!"
There weren't many people in the little café and the owner seemed genuinely pleased to see all those people that had made it through the door that day.
"Hello! And what can I get for you both?"
"Can we have two large teas, and two egg and bacon rolls, please!"
"Coming up, Sir! Take your teas and I'll bring the rolls over in a couple of minutes."
"I love English cafés! Have you been here before, Luce?"
"No, I've been past it, but never inside before."
The rolls were very tasty, and they both laughed when Lucy bit into hers and the egg yolk burst out, dribbling onto her chin and fingers. She licked her own fingers but Tommy used his to wipe the sticky yellow stuff from her chin.
"Hey! That's mine!" Lucy exclaimed. And as she took his hand and licked the egg yolk off of his fingers there was something in her eyes, the way that she looked at him, that he had seen in other women's eyes, but never hers before.
Jeez... she was flirting with him! There was surely no mistake ... did Lucy want him as much as he wanted her? But he knew that he had to go slow: there was much too much at stake to get it wrong now! Nearly twenty years of friendship ... and a possible lifetime of something else ... something better!
They had decided to eat before they went out for the evening, so Lucy made them a meal which they ate about seven that evening. If previous years were anything to go by, it didn't matter how early you went out: the pubs would still be packed and you'd have to stand for hours, so you might just as well go out late.
Lucy had now been at Sussex University for five years by that time, so she knew the pubs and clubs in Brighton pretty well. She said she thought that maybe either a smaller pub in Hove, or maybe a public bar in one of the many small hotels would be better than an evening of fighting to get to a bar, and then a long wait to get served when you did get there. For both of them, though, being together on that evening was all that mattered; and they didn't really care where they went to achieve it.
They took a taxi from Lucy's flat at about nine o'clock, then spent forty minutes walking the quiet streets of the more residential part of the seaside town until they found what they were looking for: a small pub that was full, but not so full, where they could spend the couple of hours until midnight in relative comfort. As the midnight hour slowly approached they stood close together as they usually did, and as the final seconds of the old year slipped away, they waited, expectantly, for the signal.
" ... Four ... three ... two ... one ... Happy New Year!" Their heads came together, but instead of the usual two-second, closed-mouth kiss that they usually shared, two pairs of arms encircled the other's body and mouth met mouth in a kiss that seemed to last forever! As they parted their eyes met and they smiled, and although no words were spoken, both knew that something important in their life had changed forever.
They didn't rush off back to the flat, but they each put a hand into that of the other, and they stayed in the little bar until the landlord eventually called time on the evening. As they had expected, it was impossible to get a taxi, so they started the long walk of at least six or seven miles back home.
It was gone three in the morning when Lucy put her key in the front door lock and they could climb slowly up the stairs. A quick visit to the bathroom, and then they were in bed: but this time Lucy lay close to Tommy, with her head against his shoulder and her arm draped over his chest, while his arm enfolded her and held her close to him.
And this was how they awoke the next morning. Tommy felt her fingers exploring his chest and the softness of her breasts pressing against him through the thin cotton of her T-shirt.
"Good morning!" she said, as she nuzzled his neck, "Shall I take this shirt off?"
"No, leave it on." She pulled her face away from his neck so that she could see him.
"But ... last night ... I don't understand..." He could hear the hurt and confusion in her voice.
"Last night was brilliant: I've wanted to kiss you like that for ages, years, maybe, but I have to go back to London today ... you know that..."
"But I've been..." she started to say, then stopped herself.
"You've been what, Lucy?"
"Nothing ... It doesn't matter!"
"This is probably going to sound really stupid," he continued, "but I love you too much at the moment to stay! You still have at least two more years of research left before you can present your doctoral thesis: and you said yourself that boyfriends are a distraction that you don't need at the moment."
Lucy's heart sank. Yes, of course that's what she'd said ... but when she'd said it, she'd had no idea that this was going to happen. She'd thought about this a lot in the past, and she knew that she'd always wanted Tommy ... and not just as a friend or a surrogate big brother. She'd only gone out with other boys because he'd never asked her, and she thought that he probably never would. He'd never known how excited and nervous she used to get when he was due to visit her, and when they would meet up during college vacations, or even when the phone rang and she saw that he was the caller. Or the secret dread she had that one day he was going to tell her that he'd met someone else that he loved and wanted to spend the rest of his life with!
Now what was the big, stupid, sexy man doing: putting her feelings first, of course! He wanted her as much as she wanted him, but he wasn't going to be the one who put himself before her studies and the thing that she had been working towards for the last five years.
No! She wasn't going to let him get away now ... she wasn't going to let another two years pass without him. She wasn't exactly sure how, but she was not letting him leave just now! She snuggled up against him, her heart still pounding in her chest.
"Okay, Tommy! I understand what you're saying; and 'Thank You'! Can you do me another big favour, though?"
"Of course! You know I'll do anything for you!"
"Then can you stay with me for one more night before you have to go back?" He smiled his big dopey smile at her.
"Of course I can!"
"That's good! But I'll need to go and do a bit of shopping later, if you don't mind taking me."
Tommy really didn't want to spend his last day there making the woman he cared about so much unhappy, so as they walked from the flat to his car he offered her his hand which she took willingly.
Some time later, with the shopping paid for and bagged, they were just about leave the supermarket, when she remembered something else that she wanted to buy.
"Take this stuff back to the car, Tommy, I'll only be a few minutes!" As they had been walking round she had made a mental note of what she wanted and where it was shelved, so in not more than ten minutes, she was sliding into the passenger seat of his car. "Women's stuff," she offered as an explanation.
Although he was still thinking about everything that had been said that morning, and the pain that he remembered seeing in her eyes, they both spent a fairly relaxed day together. He wanted to hold her in his arms again and kiss her the way that he had in the pub, but he couldn't ... not now. But it was still nice, sitting together on the sofa, holding hands, and even laughing together the way that they always seemed to do so easily when they were together.
"Come and help me with the dinner, Tom!" she had said; so they had stood in the little kitchen, peeling and chopping the vegetables for his favourite ... cottage pie. The meal was excellent, and washed down with a bottle of Merlot.
"Do you remember when you tried to teach me how to play poker, Tom, and how I tried to make you confess that you let me win some games!"
" ... I didn't ... it was all the way the cards fell!"
"Well, whatever ... but in the end we just played '21' for matchsticks. I've got some cards, do you fancy a few games; but let's play for money instead of matchsticks."
"Okay! What sort of stakes?"