You may not have seen Bea. You might not notice her even now. She’s rather small, you see. And in a cruel twist of paint, she can’t move. But between the mass of brilliantly red hair, gold pleated skirt cinched tightly to the waist, and tiny pair of emerald green pumps, she’s actually quite remarkable. Handsome, even. Yet still, most people look right through her.
But as is often the case for those whose fate is to be unnoticed, she is always watching.
Today, the first person she sees is Mrs. Clark. In fact, Mrs. Clark was the first person Bea ever saw. A tall, ginger girl with vibrant, caramel eyes who, for a long time, was her secret confidant. Each morning, Mrs. Clark would greet Bea with a wink or a smile. But gradually, her smile weakened. One morning, it disappeared altogether. Where Bea’s hair remained a rich, untamable red, Mrs. Clark’s faded into a sensible top-knot of dark blonde. And where once there had been friendship, now there was just silence.
This morning, Mrs. Clark is running late. Bea watches her as she vaults across the road, narrowly missing a taxi. It beeps and the driver flips her off. Mrs. Clark ignores him, fumbling for her keys. There’s a familiar red glow under her irises. She’s wearing yesterday’s mascara over this morning’s tears. Unlocking the door, she steps inside.
Bea watches the street’s happenings. It’s quiet, but there are a few families doing the school-run. She recognises one of them. They are a trio: mother, daughter and a younger boy. Sometimes the girl waves to her. But as she approaches, Mrs. Clark reappears. She’s carrying two gold vases: one of peonies and one of white roses. She drops the roses at Bea’s feet. The girl tries to pluck one, but her mother scolds her. Her green eyes start to flood, and she tucks herself into her mother’s ribs. But Mrs. Clark smiles gently at her.
Oh, go on.
The little girl grins, taking a rose. Her brother’s face condenses into a jealous bud.
Mrs. Clark presses a rose into his hand. His face flowers again. The mother squeezes her hand in thanks, and pulls the children along the street. Bea can’t make out the expression in Mrs. Clark’s eyes. It’s a new one.
She turns, stopping abruptly.
What are you doing here?
Bea knows the man. But it’s been almost three years since they last saw each other. He’s wearing the years well on his face, like badges of honour. And he’s carrying a small posy of orange roses.
You weren’t there when I got up.
His pupils are fixed on her the way a child’s eyes explore a garden for the first time.
It’s barely a whisper, but each of her words is weighted in the air.
I brought you some flowers.
He holds them out to her. Mrs. Clark raises an eyebrow, barely containing a smirk.
Aye, I know. But yours are expensive.
He grins, showing a lot of his gum line. The lifelines around his eyes deepen. Bea remembers that she has always liked Luke’s smile. Mrs. Clark does too.
Last night’s mascara has been wiped away. There’s a fresh red stain on Mrs. Clark’s lips and her hair is down. She’s not quite a stranger anymore, Bea thinks.
Luke’s face hardens suddenly, looking behind Mrs. Clark.
It’s been a while.
Bea knows this voice too. The man it belongs to is tall, and the years on his face are cold and boastful. He takes Luke’s free arm, bumping their shoulders together. Three of Luke’s roses are pressed into leafs. He frowns, bitterly. The man smirks.
Oh, sorry mate. Hold on – they’re not from here!
He snatches the flowers from Luke, the same way Bea has seen bigger children taking bicycles from the quieter ones. The man plucks one of the petals roughly, surveying it with a curled lip.
Aye, see you should have bought some of my ones.
As he drinks in Luke’s dark green anorak and jeans, his smirk elongates.
Don’t worry. I would have given you a discount.
He laughs, tossing back the roses to Luke. Mrs. Clark’s skin matches the fallen rose petal.
New bird, is it?
Luke adjusts the roses. Mrs. Clark answers.
They’re for a friend, Mark.
Luke’s frown deepens. Mark laughs.
A friend, eh? Who, me?
It’s a sneer disguised in a silk tie. It’s always fascinated Bea how easily this man can do that.
You’re not really my type, Mark.
Both men have opened like lilies, pressing closer to each other like they’re in a vase. Mrs. Clark slips between them, blocking them off. She stoops, adjusting the peonies.
How’s work, Luke? Are you busy today?
Yup. Should be heading soon. Our new exhibit opens this week.
Mrs. Clark stems upright again.
What sort of exhibition is it?
Luke softens slightly, angling himself to answer her.
Brooklyn-based lass. We’ve just signed her. She’s a sculptor. A bit of a boon for us, really.
Bea likes what Luke’s face has become. The stories on his cheekbones are animated; his eyes wide and bright. Mrs. Clark smiles at him loyally. He returns it.
I could get you tickets?
Mark gives a loud, sardonic yawn.
Never been one for art, myself. Can’t tell a Tate from a tuna.
He claps Luke’s shoulder audibly.
Guess that’s what I pay you for, eh?
Luke shrugs him off.
One man’s gold, I suppose.
Luke’s words hang in the air. Mark frowns like he’s just touched a thorn. Mrs. Clark inhales.
Mark’s new office is near the gallery.
The atmosphere softens, leaving room for Mark to inflate. Senior account. Bigger office. Personal assistant. Soon Bea forgets to listen. Mrs. Clark’s eyes fix onto Luke’s.
Bea understands better than any that conversation rarely needs words. This is the kind of
‘conversation’ she ought not to listen to. She knows this, but still she watches.
And she’s got this place. Keeps her busy.
Mark nudges Mrs. Clark.
It’s far more than that!
Mrs. Clark glares at him.
Just a joke.
He elbows her again, rolling his eyes. Hers stay straight. Mark sighs.
Anyway, always a pleasure, Lucas.
Luke frowns, politely accepting Mark’s right arm.
Come by sometime. Get something for the new office.
Arms are dropped. Mrs. Clark turns, and for a moment, her eyes meet Bea’s. But she’s looking through her, like she’s a mere pane of glass.
I’ll see you soon?
Everyone pretends Luke was asking Mark. He nods, steering Mrs. Clark away and through the door. The pressure of his fingers leaves a pattern of five, white lily petals on her forearm. Luke is still holding the flowers. He turns to face Bea. If she were able, she would have blushed as his eyes bore through her. She might have told him to try again. She might have stopped him, as he drops the flowers into one of the gold vases and walks away. She might even have told him she loves him.
But as always, she just watches.
You might have seen Bea. Although she’s small, she’s rather famous. Often, there’s a queue of people standing beside her or taking her photo. Once, she was even on the news.
From the school-run to award-winning buns.
She looks a little different now. Her hair’s the same, as are her clothes. But she’s carrying a basket of painted cupcakes. Red ones. From a distance, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were roses.
The family who often walked past her, now see her every day. The young girl gave her the basket of cakes. The boy polished her shoes. And now, at the end of each day, they all wave goodbye to her. So, she’s quite-happy-really.
But today, one of the first people she sees is Mrs. Clark. Her hair is shorter, but it’s back to its famously fiery red. She’s wearing a gold skirt cinched at the waist and a pair of emerald green pumps. And she’s smiling, nervously. Then Bea sees Luke.
A waitress sits them at the table in front of Bea. Luke looks around, awkwardly acknowledging the street signs.
I didn’t think you’d want to meet... I mean, I was surprised when you suggested here.
Mrs. Clark shrugs. Luke knits his hands together on the table. The waitress returns with a pot of Earl Grey and a tray of cupcakes. On-the-house.
At least they’ll taste better than your roses.
Luke pauses, guiltily. But Mrs. Clark just laughs.
That’s why I never send you any flowers.
Luke smiles gently. His voice drops to a whisper.
Mrs. Clark takes a small sip of her tea, lifting a cupcake onto her plate. She dips her pinky into the icing.
Mark had a very good lawyer.
She shrugs, leading the icing to her mouth.
Try the banoffee. Most people like them best.
She places a yellow, gingham cupcake onto Luke’s plate. He ignores it, trapping her hand in his.
You should have called me.
Mrs. Clark looks him in the eye. For the first time that day. Perhaps for the first time in years.
Luke frowns, retracing his memories.
This morning. I called. And I said ‘Luke, meet me for breakfast.’
Her laugh sings out again. Luke purses his lower lip, muttering.
You know what I mean.
Excepting the gentle clatter of spoon on ceramic, they sit in silence. Bea sees a few words waiting on the corners of Mrs. Clark’s mouth. But Luke’s break away first.
I’m sorry that you had to give up your dream.
Mrs. Clark takes the sentence and considers it thoughtfully. Bea watches her, enjoying the new brightness in her old friend’s face.
The problem with dreams is that one day you ought to wake up.
She tips her head, absently stirring milk into her tea.
Otherwise, you’re just sleeping.
She continues, laughing slightly.
Plus, it wasn’t that great a dream. In the end, anyway.
Luke’s pupils widen, taking her in.
Perhaps. But, don’t you miss it?
Mrs. Clark debates this, relaxing into honesty.
She scans Luke’s face. Some of the stories on his cheekbones are new. She wants to ask about them. Others, she sees herself in. She shrugs again, smiling gently.
Luke nods. His eyes flicker away from Mrs. Clark and catch Bea’s. He grins.
They kept her.
Mrs. Clark’s gaze joins Luke’s and her eyes meet Bea’s. Picking up her teacup, she smiles.
I asked to. Silly, really. But I’ve always been rather fond of her.
Bea holds her gaze. A few memories pass between them. Some secret. Some sad. Almost all she’d assumed forgotten.
I wanted to take her with me, originally.
What, carry off the window?
Mrs. Clark laughs, sipping her tea. She winks at Bea.
Is that ridiculous?
She smirks at Luke, toothily.
They both laugh. Luke turns away from Bea, staring intently at Mrs. Clark. A story opens on his jaw in the soft space between his ear and chin. Bea sees Mrs. Clark in it. For a second, she feels a flair of jealousy.
So, what do you think of the cupcakes?
Mrs. Clark nods at the abandoned cake on Luke’s plate. Copying her, he dips a finger into the icing. He surveys it suspiciously on his nail. Although there are a few more threads between his eyes and cheekbones, he’s still a child. His review comes through a mouthful of cake.
Mrs. Clark laughs again.
Thank you. I’m glad you like them.
He stops chewing for a moment.
Luke narrows his eyes at her. She takes another cake and lays it onto her tea plate.
Mrs. Clark smiles mischievously at him, unfolding the cupcake case. Luke watches her.
Try the rose one. We’re rather famous for them.
She lays a daisy print cupcake on his plate, taking a final sip of her tea. She’s smiling.
You might not see it, but so is Bea.