It had always helped to have a pretty name.
“You were so beautiful, I named you after two flowers, not one,” her mother had said. The irony of her name was not lost on Lily-Rose. It suggested delicate, fragile and feminine and she was more than happy to let people make a judgement about her based solely on her name.
Of course, secondary to her name was her appearance. Carefully curled blonde hair, cheeks so rosy that she rarely needed blusher, the brightest blue eyes and eyelashes that went on forever; it was no wonder that Lily-Rose’s mother had practically dressed her like a doll when she was growing up. She had always worn dresses; her mother declaring she would rather cut off her own arm than let Lily-Rose wear trousers or worse “those horrible boy jeans”. Her childhood had been filled with pretty dresses with full skirts, patent shoes and ribbons in her hair.
Now she was twenty-eight and she still sometimes put ribbons in her hair, or one of those skinny satin alice bands, however these days the natural curls of her childhood were more like waves and Lily-Rose spent painstaking hours curling her hair to perfection. When most women were whipping out the irons and opting for the fashionable poker straight look, Lily-Rose knew most men secretly liked the curls. And they seemed to like the ribbons and bows even more and she knew why that was.
Rest assured, men loved the way Lily-Rose looked. She oozed femininity from head to toe and she knew it. In summer, she loved to wear ditsy floral shift dresses or fifties-style frocks in a variety of pastel colours. In winter, she wore cute twin sets, A-line skirts and heels. Always heels. Sometimes she accessorized with pearls or a little diamante here and there but nothing showy or flash; just enough to add a little sparkle and all this was finished off with a slick of candy pink lip-gloss.
There was no doubt about it, her pretty-in-pink appearance worked like a dream and she just loved to keep up the pretence. It was so easy. It had always been easy. No one ever thought she could be anything but the doll her mother had brought her up to be. Her boss, Windsor Evans definitely thought she was doll; a pretty addition to his office and damn sight more interesting to squeeze than one of them stupid stress balls. And try to squeeze her he did, more or less every day by the photocopier or whenever she brought him his coffee. Of course, he tried to hide the fact he was giving her a squeeze, but as his hand gripped her waist and lingered a little too long on the fleshy part just above her buttocks, Lily-Rose knew it wouldn’t be long before he was trying to show her a little more than the weekly figures whenever he asked her to stay after hours. That was going to be awkward as it would prompt her to take action and she liked her job, despite Mr Evans’ wandering paws. In fact, this was the longest time she had ever stayed in a job and indeed the longest time she had ever lived in one place since she was a child.
Robert had a lot to do with that. She hated to admit it, but she knew he was the reason she had stuck around longer than usual. With his perfectly combed hair, startling green eyes and neat, white teeth, Lily-Rose had been automatically drawn to his picture on Casablanca.com, the latest online dating site that she had began to frequent. In fact, everything about him had seemed so damned perfect that she had been immediately suspicious. Men like Robert were rarely what they appeared to be. There was usually a wife, children and a boring semi-detached family home out in the suburbs. Or the face behind the picture was often that of an over-weight, sweaty, balding troll who couldn’t believe his luck that the face behind her picture was actually the same face as in the picture. But strangely, Robert seemed to be everything his profile had told her. He wasn’t married or even had a girlfriend – she had done the necessary checks, of course – and he really was an international business executive for a high street bank. And his reason for joining an online dating site? Well, he’d spent years building his career so had only previously found time for casual dating and now, when he’d finally been stationed at head office and had more of a stable base, he’d discovered he was terrible at the dating game and so a friend had suggested joining an online site.
“To be honest,” he’d told her on their second date “I’d always thought online dating sites were for weirdo’s and perverts. You have no idea how glad I was when I met you for the first time and realised you were normal. Well, better than normal.”
Lily-Rose had blushed on cue and looked away feigning embarrassment but inside she was smiling and thinking how easy it always was.
One date had quickly turned to two and now ten dates down the line, she was still seeing him and actually looking forward to seeing that perfect smile with the perfectly neat teeth. The Lily-Rose behind the flushing cheeks and twin-set was starting to get nervous. The Lily-Rose behind the lip gloss was looking for reasons to put an end to it all, but frustratingly, Robert seemed to offer her no ammunition. He was an absolute gentleman on every date, turning up on time, always looking immaculate and giving Lily-Rose his one hundred percent attention. He was the opening-doors-and-pulling-out-chairs-type but not in a sickeningly annoying way. This was definitely not the way it was meant to be.
All the others had provided more than enough reason. Secret wives or girlfriends, children they forgot to mention, wandering hands, footsie under the table, forgetting their wallet. There was always a reason. Except for the first time, however. There hadn’t really been a reason back then; Lily-Rose knew that, although she had tried to tell herself there had been and often found herself chanting these reasons to her reflection in the mirror in the morning, as she curled her hair. He had a nasty habit of collecting ear wax and sticking his finger in his ear to retrieve it, before examining it and wiping it on his clothes. Sometimes one of his socks would fall down round his ankle and he never pulled it up; he would let the fabric gather there, revealing a rather pasty leg. Sometimes spittle collected at the corner of his mouth and even worse, sometimes he sprayed when he talked.
His name had been Peter and he had lived next door. Their parents had been friends and so Peter and Lily-Rose were friends even though he was ten and Lily-Rose was only eight. Strange that a ten-year old boy would choose to hang around with an eight year old girl but Peter had doe eyes for her and she knew it. She had always pretended it was the other way around, following him wherever he went and he never once told her to go away. She knew he never would. Lily-Rose had known that had she let matters take their natural course, the teenage Peter’s doe eyes would turn to invitations to the cinema, feeding her popcorn and fake yawning so he could stretch an arm across her dainty shoulders in an effort to cop a feel in the darkness of the theatre. She wasn’t massively opposed to that happening, in fact, if anything she felt quite indifferent towards him. She neither liked nor disliked him. He was just Peter. And Peter was just a means to an end.
The tree stood before them, stretching out tall and imposing at the far side of the field. Its tough-barked battle-ready trunk spawned many thick branches which twisted together, spreading outwards and upwards. Standing at the bottom of the tree, with his back resting against the trunk, one sock gathered around his ankle, Peter looked up into the knot of branches and then back to Lily-Rose who stood in front of him, in pink satin and white tulle.
“I can climb almost all the way to the top,” Peter said, grinning.
“It’s too high, Peter,” Lily-Rose answered, twirling a curl around her forefinger and swaying back and forth so her skirts spun out around her legs.
“You’re just scared of heights, silly,” the boy replied, reaching out and pulling her hair playfully, watching as the curl sprang up and bounced back into place. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s just an old tree and it’s real easy to climb.”
“I’m not scared,” pouted Lily-Rose, “not really, anyway.”
“Why don’t we climb up together, I can help you,” Peter asked “you’ll love the view near the top, you can see in old Mr Jameson’s garden. Sometimes he falls asleep on the patio in just his pants and he has his mouth open really wide.”
They giggled at the image of Mr Jameson stretched out, old skin sagging round his bare stomach and white Y-fronts on show, although secretly Lily-Rose felt nauseous at the thought of the old man sitting there with barely nothing on.
Feigning reluctance and fear, for Lily-Rose could very easily climb this tree after much secret practice; she followed Peter upwards, sometimes stopping because she didn’t want to move to the next branch and asking for Peter’s help. In return, Peter offered lots of encouraging words and soothing sympathy whenever she pretended she was too frightened to climb any further in the maze of branches. Finally, they reached as far as they could go, and sat side by side looking out across the field through small breaks in the foliage. Peter huffed and puffed after the climb, failing to notice that Lily-Rose was hardly out of breath at all.
It was definitely a beautiful view from the top of the tree. Blue summer skies stretched out above them, a light breeze flickered at the long grass below them and they could hear birds whistling and singing through the tree tops.
“Told you that you would love the view from up here, Lily-Rose,” Peter said, spittle spraying out as he said the ‘Rose’ part.
Lily-Rose could hear the bird song now and she could have sworn they were singing Whistle While You Work. She smiled and quickly pushed at the boy sitting next to her, watching as his face turned from one of contentment to one of alarm as he fell backwards, his legs tumbling after him as he plummeted through the branches. The sound of snapping wood intermingled with the sound of snapping bones and the thud of his body hitting obstacles on the way down. Finally Peter landed on the ground with a dull thwack.
Climbing down as fast as she could, being careful not to slip and fall herself, Lily-Rose found Peter lying in the clearing at the base of the tree, looking as twisted and knotted as the branches above. A wide graze streaked across his cheekbone and one of his legs was missing a patch of skin just below the knee. He was not moving, except for a small twitch of the fingers on his right hand and the blinking of his eyes, which now stared at Lily-Rose in horror and fear. Seating herself on a fallen log just at the side of the clearing, Lily-Rose sat with knees together, just as her mother had taught her a lady should, with her full skirts gathered around her legs. She arranged the fabric so that it fanned out around her neatly and thrust a thumb into her mouth which she sucked on thoughtfully whilst twirling a curl around her forefinger. Peter blinked even more, his eyelids fluttering as furiously as butterfly wings, and his stare turned to pleading, then back to fear and eventually to nothing at all. Lily-Rose thought his glazed eyes looked a little bit like her doll Amber’s, only Amber’s eyelashes were curled and far prettier than Peter’s.
Without a word, she got up and walked to the edge of the wooded area where it met the vast expanse of the open field and promptly burst into tears. As she ran across the field howling and wailing into the summer air, she vaguely wondered if she should have drunk more water before she came out that day so that the tears would keep flowing, just as they did when she made Amber drink enough water so that she could squeeze her head and watch the tears burst out of the doll’s tear duct holes and drip down her face.
It hadn’t been difficult to fool everyone. Upon seeing a very distressed little doll-like girl with her full skirts and ribbon-decorated curls, of course everyone knew that this was a climbing game that had gone very wrong. A tragic, terrible, awful accident and how incredibly traumatic for Lily-Rose to see her best friend Peter die in such a horrific way.
Now, years later, sometimes Lily-Rose would awake at night and see little Peter lying next to her in bed, his body twisted under the bed sheets and his pleading, terrified eyes staring at her and she would whisper to him “You sprayed when you talked. You had spittle at the corners of your mouth. You let your sock fall down.”
There was always a reason. The others never visited her at night. Lily-Rose was thankful for that. For a start, they’d never all fit in her bed. The house was crowded enough with just Peter in it and he had a nasty habit of popping up when she least expected it; sometimes in her wardrobe, sometimes curled up in the bath, and sometimes on the other end of the sofa as she settled down to watch television. He used to just sit there and stare at the screen, as if they were normal couple settling down to watch their evening soaps. These days, however, she knew he was looking at her instead. She knew that if she wrenched her eyes away from the television, she would turn and see him just laying there, his pleading eyes fixed on her and fingers twitching against the sofa cushions.
She couldn’t ignore him the night he appeared in her bath. Soft candlelight flickered off of the cream walls and rose scented bath oils sweetened the steam-filled room. Lily-Rose had settled into the warm water with her curls piled high on top of her head and was enjoying the ambience when suddenly the surface of the water rippled at the tap end and Peter’s head popped up. His now wet hair stuck to his forehead and droplets trickled down the graze that marked his cheekbone. Lily-Rose could see his limbs still twisted up under the water and his fingers tapped against the side of the bath, the dull tinny sound echoing around the small room.
“What?” hissed Lily-Rose “what do you want? Go away. I don’t want you here.”
Peter blinked at her, stopped; then he blinked again.
“I can’t take back what I did. You’re dead. Accept it,” she whispered.
Peter blinked once and Lily-Rose was sure he was agreeing with her.
His eyes turned pleading again, big blue pools of beseeching sorrow.
“Look, if you’re here to warn me off or tell me to stop, don’t bother. I haven’t done it for ages. I’ve….” she stopped, faltering and wondering why on earth she felt the need to explain to a dead boy about Robert.
Peter glared at her, his eyes unblinking and black. The water rippled again and she was sure he had moved slightly closer to her. She drew her knees up under her chin and pressed her back up as far as it would go. Was the water cold already? Her teeth began to chatter and she clenched her jaw in an effort to stop shivering.
“I’ve met someone. Things will be different now. I promise,” she said, hearing her voice shake and hating the sound.
The water bubbled now and Lily-Rose distinctly felt a foot touch her ankle. He was in the middle of the bath now and she could smell damp earth and leaves mixed with her rose scented oil. He was so close now, so horribly close and for the first time in her life she wanted to scream but couldn’t.
“I promise,” she whimpered, closing her eyes in the desperate hope that she would be alone when she opened them.
Opening her eyes, Lily-Rose found Peter’s eyes just inches away from her own and when she looked into them – really looked into them – she realised exactly what the dead boy wanted.
Suddenly she understood everything so perfectly.
The restaurant was one of the finest Italians in town. So good in fact that it was a famous haunt for many celebrities and their pictures hung on the walls; grinning faces with arms draped around the owner and his talented head chef. The waiters schmoozed and charmed the customers, with particular emphasis on those of the female variety, encouraging flattered laughter, big smiles and even bigger tips. It hadn’t surprised Lily-Rose in the least when Robert had said he was taking her to this restaurant. He knew all the best places and wasn’t fazed by the size of the bill.
“You can’t put a price on good food, excellent service and outstanding company,” Robert had said, without even a hint of cheesiness. Everything Robert said was smooth, cool and completely in earnest. It was flattery at its best and Lily-Rose had to admit it always worked. Even in the early days of their courtship, when she was highly suspicious of him and still determined to find a reason, the way Robert spoke and what he said always seemed to strike a chord.
Tonight was no exception. From complimenting Lily-Rose on her new dress to asking about her day at work, drinking in every detail and commenting on her perfume, Robert was still proving to be the total gentleman he had been all along. When he smiled at her with his perfect even white teeth, Lily-Rose couldn’t help but smile back and her black heart flipped a little in response. Her stomach fluttered nervously and the flush on her cheeks was instant.
“What did you think of your Gamberoni Diavola?” Robert asked; his voice deep and warm, as the waiter removed their dinner plates.
“I thought it was just delicious,” breathed Lily-Rose “I love seafood; the prawns were just melt in the mouth.” She dabbed delicately at mouth with the napkin, feeling guilty at the small smudge of pink gloss left on the crisp white fabric.
“In that case, next time you should really try the Spaghetti alle Vongole. The clams are out of this world,” Robert said, eyes lighting up.
“Oh I don’t eat spaghetti and definitely not in public,” Lily-Rose said, brow wrinkling in distaste “far too messy.”
Robert laughed softly but nodded in agreement. “Nothing worse than getting spaghetti down your clothes. Best to avoid the dangerous foods. I went out with a girl once who sucked the spaghetti up into her mouth like she was five years old again. Horrible.”
“How awful,” frowned Lily-Rose.
“You have no idea!” grinned Robert and then they both laughed together, eyes meeting briefly before Lily-Rose felt her heart thudding a little louder in her chest again and she looked away quickly and almost gasped at what she saw over Robert’s shoulder.
Lying twisted up on the floor between two tables was Peter, blinking madly and fingers twitching-twitching-twitching.
“Are you okay?” Robert said, reaching over and touching fingertips lightly against hers.
“Yes, yes I’m fine,” urged Lily-Rose, smiling weakly and trying not to look back over his shoulder again. Waiters were stepping over Peter as if he wasn’t even there.
“Are you sure? You look a little pale all of a sudden. I hope it wasn’t the seafood.” He looked at her in a flood of concern and his eyes drifted to her forehead where Lily-Rose could feel the first beads of sweat breaking through her skin.
Standing up from her chair suddenly, Lily-Rose gathered her handbag into her arms and excused herself, knowing that she was also going to have to step over the dead boy and praying that his fingers wouldn’t tap-tap-tap against her legs.
“Excuse me for a moment please,” she whispered and left Robert staring after her, worry etched on his face.
In the ladies room, cold water blanched away the perspiration on her forehead and Lily-Rose tried frantically to re-apply her make-up, cursing her trembling hands. Finally after three attempts, it was done and she assessed herself in the mirror, making note of her peaches and cream skin, long curled eyelashes and perfect eyeliner. With a sweep of pink gloss, she pressed her lips together to allow full coverage and sprayed a quick spritz of perfume.
Fixing herself with a steely stare, she stood up straight and lifted her chin. “You sprayed when you talked. You had spittle at the corners of your mouth. You let your sock fall down.”
Seating herself back at the table, Lily-Rose apologised for her previous lapse and made an excuse about too much wine, although of course she had barely drank two glasses, which was always her limit anyway.
“Please, don’t apologise. I would never have forgiven myself if it had been the seafood. Imagine, bringing you to a restaurant and sending you home with food poisoning!” he smiled “would you like dessert or coffee?”
She declined politely, noting the small touches of spittle that had gathered at the corner of his mouth as he smiled. “Why don’t we go back to yours for coffee instead? Coffee should always be taken in a much more…..intimate setting, don’t you think?” She smiled and looked at him shyly through long, mascara-sleek lashes, noting the excitable flush that crept into his cheeks.
“I couldn’t agree more, Lily-Rose,” he said and quickly motioned for the waiter to bring the bill.
It had always helped to have such a pretty name.