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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Personal Touch
Personal Touch
by Charlie Fish 2002

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"Pick a card, any card," said Norris, fanning out the deck and offering it to Mr. Pigshearer.

"Oh," laughed Mr. Pigshearer jovially, "alright then, Norris. Got something up your sleeve have you?" He picked the queen of hearts.

"Right, show it around but don't let me see it." Norris took back the card and shuffled it into the deck. He had even managed to gain the attention of Sally Corminder, the village gossip and a notorious chatterbox.

Norris moved the pint glasses out of the way and started dealing out the cards face up on the table, launching into a patter along the lines of being able to read Mr. Pigshearer's mind. Mr. and Mrs. Pigshearer and Sally all leant in over the table suspiciously, keeping rapt eyes on Norris' hands to make sure he wasn't pulling any tricks.

"Now, don't any of you say a word, I have to concentrate," said Norris mysteriously. He laid down three more cards. Mr. Pigshearer looked vexed. "The next card I turn over," continued Norris with his hand on the remainder of the deck, "will be your card."

"No it won't, Norris," said Mr. Pigshearer with gruff conviction.

"I'm sure it will!" smiled Norris. "I'd put money on it. Tell you what, I'll bet you a fiver."

Mr. Pigshearer's ruddy face stretched into a wide grin, exposing his yellowed teeth. He rubbed his strawberry nose. "Five English pounds, eh? Hmm." Mrs. Pigshearer looked like she wanted to tell him something, but didn't.

"Sounds like a good deal to me," confided Sally. She could clearly see, as could the Pigshearers, that Norris had already laid down the queen of hearts, so the next card couldn't possibly be the right one.

"Like taking candy from a baby," grinned Mr. Pigshearer confidently as he shook Norris' hand. He was mortified when Norris ignored the remainder of the deck, picked up the queen of hearts from the table, and turned it over.

"That wasn't the next card!" said Mr. Pigshearer.

"It was the next card he turned over," Sally pointed out, "the young lad's got you there." The two ladies at the table burst out laughing, and Mr. Pigshearer just gaped at the cards in disbelief as his wife removed a five pound note from his wallet and handed it to Norris.

Satisfied, Norris walked off and wandered over to another table in the bustling pub. The Farmworthys were sitting around it.

"Would you like to see a card trick?" asked Norris.

The Bantling-in-Bourne pub was packed, with almost the whole of the small village of Colling Brook sitting and chatting over a couple of drinks, as was the custom on a Friday evening. In one corner, the old farm hands were hidden in a mist of smoke; next to them Jill and the parishioners were singing tipsily and trying to get one of the old widows to dance. On the other side, Jim and Mark were playing darts.

Norris moved from table to table, picking up another fiver each time until he was twenty pounds up. Eventually he sat down next to Roma at the bar. He ordered two drinks, and gave her one.

"That's terribly generous of you, Norris," giggled Roma. "What brought this on?"

"I've been betting with the elders," Norris answered, sweeping his hand in a gesture that encompassed everyone in the pub that was older than him and Roma, which was everybody.

"You and your money making schemes," smiled Roma, rolling her eyes endearingly. "Well, thank you very much all the same."

"My pleasure."

"What were you betting on?" asked Roma.

Norris pulled out his pack of cards and fanned it out. Roma's eyes lit up. "Oh, how exciting!" she said as she picked a card.

"Now put it back in and I'll give it a shuffle," explained Norris, sliding into his practised patter. He started dealing out cards face up onto the bar, looking deeply into Roma's eyes on the pretence that he was reading her mind. He watched her curiosity peak as he laid down the card he knew was hers, then laid a few more on top of it.

"Now I'll bet you a fiver the next card I turn over will be your card," said Norris, with an air of mock seriousness.

"The next card you turn over, eh?" Roma repeated, her eyes flicking to the table, then back to Norris' face. She took his hand gently and shook it. "It's a deal." With that she swept all of the face-up cards from the table, including her card, and challenged Norris to turn over the next card in the deck.

She had foiled the trick of course. Norris sighed and handed over a fiver as Roma burst out into a musical cascade of laughter. He should have known she was too clever for such a ruse.

They slowly finished their drinks, chatting merrily until Ben Bathbridge, the pub landlord, flashed the lights behind the bar, which meant he wanted to go to bed. Norris said his goodbyes and left ahead of the rush so he could get a good night's sleep. He had to get up early the next morning to go to work.

Norris awoke as soon as the sun rose over the village hall and glared through his window. He dragged himself out of bed and splashed some water on his face. He started humming himself a tune, All You Need Is Love, while he dressed and wandered into the kitchen to make breakfast. Funny that was in his head, he thought, he hadn't heard it since the last village fair.

When breakfast was prepared, he put it all neatly on a tray and carried it through into the next room. He knocked, out of habit, and burst into his father's room beaming.

"Good morning, dad!" he roared enthusiastically. "How're you doing today?"

Mr. Hardy rubbed his eyes. "Same old, same old."

"I've got one Colling Brook breakfast deluxe for you this morning, with bread made from a sheaf of our finest wheat, and eggs from the bums of our best hens."

"That's lovely, thanks," grunted Mr. Hardy as he hefted himself into a sitting position. "Are you seeing the old widows today?"

"Yep," Norris replied. He did occasional work at the local rest home, looking after all of the ‘old widows' of the village, whenever they needed extra help or whenever he needed the money.

Mr. Hardy started eating his breakfast in bed, pausing every now and then to emit a series of hearty coughs. Norris prepared to get up and leave. "It won't be long before you have to move in with them, then the nurses can help me look after you," he joked.

Mr. Hardy did not seem to take this comment so lightly. Norris was stopped in his tracks by his father's sudden grave expression. "Norris… son," growled Mr. Hardy in his gravely voice. "You don't see yourself staying here, forever, on my account, do you? This dismal little hamlet is no place for a young lad like yourself. There's more to life than looking after your sick old dad."

Norris' smile melted. He left without turning around. It didn't upset him, or frustrate him; he really didn't know any other way of life. He just wanted his dad to be happy, and he couldn't afford to leave the village and start up his own life as much as he'd like to, so what more could he do?

He went to work with mixed, uncertain feelings.

On Sunday afternoon, Norris planned to meet Roma at the Bantling-in-Bourne for a pub lunch. She hadn't yet got there when he arrived; he presumed the church service had overrun. Sure enough, when Roma eventually turned up, she was complaining that Mary Vickers, the preachy old hag, never stopped talking. Norris laughed, though he knew that Roma secretly held a deep respect for her religion.

Over lunch, Norris found himself admitting to Roma that his father's comment had been preying on his mind. He explained what his dad had said.

"How could I possibly earn enough money to make sure dad can stay with the old widows, and still be able to afford to leave Colling Brook?" he finished.

"Your little money making schemes won't be enough," said Roma lightly.

"I can't go off and join the army or something, what would I do with dad in the meantime?"

"You need to think bigger," suggested Roma.

"Bigger money making schemes?" asked Norris, eyebrows raised.

Roma giggled. "Why not?"

Norris paused to chew on some steak. "Like what?"

"Well," said Roma thoughtfully, "you have to work out what the people of Colling Brook want, what they need, then give it to them. It's a question of supply and demand." Roma's eyes betrayed a playful glint.

Norris took the question seriously. "Something everyone wants, but can't easily get."

"Money," joked Roma.

"Not books, or music," thought Norris. "Not television."

"Eternal youth?"

"A game of some sort, perhaps? An event?"

"No," countered Roma, "you want something that will make people want to keep coming back for more."

"Sex!" declared Norris. Roma looked at him for a brief moment with an expression of mock horror, then burst into a fit of laughter. Norris' face stretched into a wide beam, but he did not laugh. He looked inspired.

"That's it!" Norris announced. "Everybody in the village has sex!"

"Except Mary Vickers," sniggered Roma.

"And the old widows, but even most of them must have done it before."

"Eeurgh! What a thought," Roma squirmed, still chuckling. "What are you going to do? Open a sex shop in Colling Brook?"

"Yes," asserted Norris, "only not a seedy one. I think between us we probably know just enough about each person in the village to offer a tailored service. It'd have to be very discreet, we'd sell them only what they want without showing them a load of other stuff that might embarrass them."

"We?" Roma chortled.

"Yes, help me; together we might be able to make enough money to get away from here. Come on, I'm sure we can work out what people would want. The Bathbridges have been trying for kids for ages now, and everyone knows why they haven't succeeded. Poor Ben could use some Viagra or something!"

"Ha ha! Yes, and Mark could use some fluffy handcuffs to keep Jill from straying," said Roma, "she'd sleep with anything with two legs. Poor Mark."

"Didn't Sally Corminder say Jason had a bit of a thing for leather?"

"Sally could do with a gag…"

The conversation went on like this, with the two of them deducing the entire village's sexual habits. Before long, Roma realised that Norris really was serious about following through with this crazy idea. It seemed like a great game to her, so she played along.

Norris had a reputation in the village for being slightly naïve, but it was a naivety with such momentum it was persuasive. He believed his innocent convictions so strongly that they tended eventually to come true. And right now he believed that this idea was the one way he would be able to raise enough money to keep his father well looked after, and to get Roma to come away with him.

Norris knew that Roma longed to leave the village, but her parents kept holding her back for fear of losing her. They didn't want her to end up like her sister. Roma was Norris' best friend, he confided her deepest fears and desires to her, and she to him. He yearned to have enough money to whisk her away from Colling Brook and start a happy life elsewhere. And so he was determined that this idea would work.

On Monday morning, bright and early, Norris knocked on the door of Mr. Lugano's office in the village hall.

"Come in," called Mr. Lugano. "Oh, young Norris Hardy, what business can I help you with?"

Norris strolled in and sat down opposite Mr. Lugano's desk. "I'd like a favour, please, if possible."

Mr. Lugano smiled. "One of your money making schemes by any chance?"

"How'd you guess?" Norris grinned sheepishly. "Yes. If it's not too much trouble, I'd like to rent a shop. I can't afford much, mind you. Something out of the way, like the old school shed."

"Certainly. May I ask what for?"

"A sex shop."

Mr. Lugano paused. "A sex shop?"

"A sex shop."

Mr. Lugano's face changed from bemused to amused. "And what, pray, do you think the people of Colling Brook will buy from a sex shop?"

"Sex aids," replied Norris matter-of-factly. "What else can you buy from a sex shop?"

"Quite, quite," Mr. Lugano's expression made him look like he was humouring a foolish child. "Well in that case, you'd better have it. The old school shed at, say, half price. £20 a week for the first two months, if you last that long."

"Oh, thank you very much," beamed Norris. "I'll get to work right away."

"It's settled then," said Mr. Lugano, getting up to open the door for Norris.

Norris got up. "Roma will be so pleased!"

Mr. Lugano's mood suddenly changed. With an imperceptible movement, he blocked Norris from leaving the office. He spoke levelly. "What does my daughter have to do with this?"

Norris retreated slightly from Mr. Lugano. "She's helping." He didn't feel as if he should say anything more.

Mr. Lugano eyed him suspiciously, started to say something, and then decided against it. He sighed audibly, and his brow furrowed deeply. Finally, he stood back and let Norris scurry out.

Just as Norris was painting the finishing touches onto the sign above his shop, Sally Corminder strolled up the lane. Roma, who was holding Norris' ladder steady, greeted her cheerily.

"Hello Roma, Hiya Norris. So what's this all about, then? All the villagers have been asking me what you're up to. ‘Personal Touch', eh? What's that, a shop?"

"Sort of," said Roma.

"You'll have to come in and see for yourself when it opens tomorrow," called Norris as he started climbing down the ladder.

"Yes, and spread the word, will you Sally?" asked Roma.

"Ha ha, you can count on that, duck, it's what I do best. Talking about spreading the word…" Sally took on a conspiratorial tone and leant in closer to Roma and Norris as if she were huddling to discuss tactics in a soccer game. "I've heard there's a new face in town. A young bank manager has come to modernise our bank. He's staying with Daniel Farmworthy for a couple of months before he moves on. They say he's quite a charmer, you know!" She winked and stood up straighter. "Well, I'll see you later then. Good luck with your shop!"

That night in the pub, Norris sat down to chat with Roma, but he couldn't get a word in edgeways because she wouldn't stop talking about the dashing young bank manager whom she'd met earlier that day. Norris just sighed heavily and heard her out, then eventually slinked off for an early night.

The next morning, bright and early, Norris leapt out of bed and rushed to the kitchen to make his dad's breakfast. He didn't rest for a second until he was out of the house and half-walking half-skipping towards his new shop. He was very pleased to see Roma waiting for him, just as excited, when he arrived, and together they announced to each other that the shop was officially open.

Their excitement slowly waned as they sat behind the counter, and their conversation soon lapsed. They watched the clock, and were beginning to get impatient, when Jill, the postwoman, poked her head around the door.

"Hello! Welcome! Come on in!" Norris rushed over to open the door for her.

"Welcome to Personal Touch," grinned Roma.

"Good morning, Norris; morning, Roma," Jill said as she inspected the shop. There was nothing on display, nothing at all. The room was a plain wooden box with a counter built along the back wall and a sofa shoved in the corner.

"Have a seat, Jill, I'll just go and put the kettle on," with that, Roma disappeared into a back room. Norris made conversation.

"How's Mark?" he asked.

"Mark's fine," she answered, disinterestedly, "Norris, have you met the new bank manager?"

"No… I haven't."

"He's real suave. It's so refreshing to have someone from out of town around. Someone worldly-wise, like. He's young too; he's probably only got a couple of years on yourself. Between you and me, I fancy the pants off him! And our Roma has the hots for him, too. I don't blame her!"

Norris looked disappointed. Roma came in with cups of tea. Jill changed the subject.

"This is all very well and civilised," commented Jill as she sipped her tea, "but it doesn't look like much of a shop to me. I hope you know what you're doing, because I certainly don't."

Roma laughed. "You'll see."

"Did you have any mail for us?" asked Norris, indicating Jill's postbag.

"No, I've finished my rounds. I told old Sally I had a letter for you, but it was only an excuse to come and see what you were up to."

Jill finished her tea and got up to leave. Roma told her to wait a minute and disappeared into the back room again. Almost immediately, she returned and handed Jill a plain brown package.

"Now if you don't mind, you can leave a deposit on that," explained Roma, "and when you open it at home you can decide if you want to keep it or not. If you do, you can pay the balance; but if not, come back and we'll square up and forget about it. Have fun!"

Jill was clearly intrigued. She laid a ten pound note on the counter and bid Norris and Roma farewell.

Later that day, while Mark was at the grocer's, Jill opened her package in their bedroom. Her eyes lit up with unbridled delight when she pulled out an impressively knobbly eight-inch neon vibrator.


Personal Touch was the talk of the village in the Bantling-in-Bourne the following Friday evening. Norris overheard a dozen different conversations about how the sex shop was apparently doing a roaring trade, and was probably well worth a visit, although no-one would actually admit to having visited it themselves.

Norris and Roma had a secret package for almost every person in Colling Brook. Ben Bathbridge got a remarkable range of erection aids, for which he and Jenny were very grateful; Jason got some leatherwear; Mark, being bookish, enjoyed his pile of pornographic literature; Mr. Pigshearer got an inflatable ‘Love Ewe', and ordered another one before a week was up. Even Mary Vickers had a package. Norris put it together as a bit of a cruel joke, with bondage gear, whips, handcuffs and suchlike in it, but to his immense surprise, she kept and paid for it.

It wasn't long before they were getting a handful of repeat customers ordering more as well. It was as if the village had undergone a sexual revolution, as if it had rained pheromones, but really nothing had changed. Personal Touch had just made sex the fashionable topic of conversation.

Roma wasn't interested though. She had been doing fewer and fewer shifts in the shop and spending more and more time with the bank manager. The two of them were hiding away in the smoky corner of the pub, chatting and flirting. Norris found himself disgusted, although he was surprised at his feelings. Why shouldn't Roma flirt with the bank manager, whether he deserved her or not?

Norris sat down with the Farmworthys and asked them how the bank modernisation was going.

"Fine," replied Daniel Farmworthy, the village banker. "We've got the computers in at last. There was so much stuff to put in; the young bank manager has had to go to Jill's almost every day to pick up more packages. He seems happy with the way things are running now, anyway. He's a nice chap, you know, very… urbane. Although, to be honest, we haven't seen much of him. He only comes to work for a couple of hours a day, and we made up the guest room for him specially, but he's only used it three times since he's been here. I don't know where he's been sleeping. Maybe he's been staying at the Portmans' in their B&B; they've got a much nicer room, and they'd have more time to wait on him. They'll be glad to be doing business again."

Norris felt uncomfortable. He changed the subject and got more than a little drunk that night.

Norris opened the shop early the following Monday. Again, Roma didn't show up. He sat on the sofa reading a newspaper when an unexpected visitor showed up.

"Hello," said a tall, smart-looking man from the doorway. Norris looked up at his piercing blue eyes, framed by waxed black hair. It was the bank manager.

"Hi," replied Norris after some hesitation. There was a momentary impasse.

"Is this Personal Touch?" the bank manager asked.

Norris caught himself and got up, welcoming the man and offering him a cup of tea.

"No, that's fine, I can't stay long," said the bank manager, still in the doorway.

"OK. Was there anything I could help you with?" asked Norris, trying to sound professional, his eyes involuntarily scrutinizing the bank manager's lithe form as if they were conducting a remote cavity search. "We haven't prepared a package for you, I'm sorry."

"I'm after condoms. Strawberry flavoured if possible."

The bottom of Norris' stomach fell out. His skin flushed, his diaphragm fluttered, his heart felt like it was swelling to breaking point. Some words left his mouth without any thought, for his thoughts were elsewhere. "We don't have any strawberry flavoured condoms in stock, sir. We'll have to order them for you."

Norris watched the bank manager say something and then leave. Terrible images flashed through Norris' mind. Images of Roma, naked and vulnerable, being touched and used by this insidious, egregious, alien man. Of Roma being sullied and spoiled. An anger welled up inside him. Roma must not make the same mistakes as her sister.

Immediately he knew he was overreacting. The bank manager was doing nothing wrong, and Roma was doing nothing wrong. Roma's sister had gone off the rails, but Roma was wiser than that. Roma knew what was best.

He spent the rest of the day embroiled so deeply in thought that he acted like an automaton.

The bank manager returned often to buy a small pack strawberry flavoured condoms. Sometimes once a week, sometimes twice. Norris' anger was quickly replaced by feelings of loss and resignation. But his disappointment stabbed cruelly whenever he overheard someone say they were very happy for Roma, then whisper their secret suspicion that Roma might be seeing the bank manager for the wrong reasons. Had she let her overwhelming urge to break away from her parents and the village cloud her vision, and convince her that a mere crush was love? Norris tried to deny it. She was surely wiser than that.

Yet as the weeks went on, and even Personal Touch became routine, it became clear that Roma was determined to be in love with the diffident bank manager. Norris' feelings became a weight in the back of his mind, throbbing less and less, but always persisting.

Eight weeks passed, and there was only one week left before the bank manager was due to move on. The modernisation had gone smoothly, so there was no reason for him to extend his stay. Norris didn't seem to be able to accept that Roma would be going with him, but he knew, deep down inside, that he was running out of time to talk to her about it. So he arranged to meet her, alone, for a Sunday lunch at the Bantling-in-Bourne.

For the first ten minutes they spoke of nothing of substance. Then Norris, although it pained him to talk about it, tried to steer the conversation towards the bank manager.

"Are you going with him?" he asked.

"Yes! Oh yes. Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to be free at last. Saved by my knight in shining armour! We're –"

"Roma," Norris interrupted, "do you really love him?"

"Why, of –"

"Roma," Norris cut in again. "Does he love you back? I'm not trying to split you up, or put doubt in your mind; but isn't there already some doubt in there? Are you really, truly doing this for all the right reasons?"

A flash of surprise, perhaps with the slightest intimation of fright, passed over Roma's face. Her expression turned serious. "Norris, don't be silly," she said, uncertainly.

"It just doesn't seem like you," asserted Norris. "Letting yourself be pulled in like this. Two months ago you didn't even know he existed, yet you were so ready to let him punch his way into your life, and stay with you day and night, and take you over…"

"He hasn't taken me over. I still have my own life, just as much as I did before. He hasn't even been staying with me."

"But you've been having sex!" Norris spluttered, his face reddening. Roma looked shocked. "Two months ago you didn't even believe in sex before marriage!"

Roma's expression changed. "So that's what this is all about. You can't let me make my own decisions. All that talk, all those accusations, just to hold me back. You're even worse than my parents. How did you know we were planning to get married, anyway?"

Norris dropped his fork. "Married?"

Roma looked suddenly worried. She nodded. She put her cutlery down and dabbed her mouth with a napkin. "I think I should leave."

Norris couldn't think of anything to say to stop her.

Norris was late opening the shop the next day. He almost didn't bother at all. The popularity of the shop itself seemed to be losing momentum, and Norris was feeling less motivated than ever. He sat on the sofa despondently, staring into middle space, thinking in circles for hours. There were only two customers that day.

At a quarter past two, Sally Corminder burst into the shop, brimming with the latest gossip. Roma and the bank manager were getting married on Saturday morning, and then he was whisking her off for an exotic honeymoon weekend abroad. Norris nodded his head intermittently to keep her happy, and nodded goodbye when she burst out of the shop on her way to tell her joyous news to someone else.

Soon afterwards, Jill showed up. Norris was surprised, as she hadn't visited the shop for a while. She also looked slightly dejected, and Norris politely asked her if she was OK.

"I'll survive," she said, looking at the floor.

"Did you hear the news about –"


Norris faltered. He felt like he should check that she had understood. "Are you happy, about them getting married I mean?"

Jill didn't say anything.

"Sit down," frowned Norris, "let me get you a drink."

Jill didn't move, she opened her mouth to say something, changed her mind several times, looked at the floor, then said:

"I just wanted to get some condoms."

She looked embarrassed. Norris instinctively tried to be tactful. "Funny you should ask; I happen to have some in stock. The guy who usually buys them hasn't shown up. I'll just get them for you."

Norris disappeared off to the back room, and returned with a pack of strawberry flavoured condoms. "Will these do? They're all I've got. Not much demand for condoms in this village."

Jill silently handed him some money for them and left.

Norris found this exchange very odd, and a niggling prickle at the back of his mind grew and fought against his depressed, introspective thoughts. Something he couldn't quite put his finger on.

The itch in his mind remained for the rest of the week, as he waited for customers in Personal Touch, as he visited the old widows to help look after them, as he cared for his father. He didn't go to the Bantling-in-Bourne that Friday night; it was the first time he'd missed a Friday night there for years.

He didn't sleep that night. He counted down the hours in his head until it was time for Roma's wedding. And still this itch, something drastically important, plagued him. But he couldn't figure out what it was.

Soon after dawn, Norris got up and prepared a hearty breakfast for his father. Mr. Hardy would need the energy if he was going to leave the house to attend Roma's wedding.

Mr. Hardy was awake when Norris entered his room.

"Breakfast time," Norris said, flatly.

"How are you?" asked Mr. Hardy, sincerely.

"I didn't sleep last night."

Mr. Hardy coughed painfully, then paused to gather his composure. "Me neither," he admitted.

Norris watched his father start to eat. "The wedding starts in an hour and a half," he said, looking down, "so eat up quick".

"Oh, I'm not going."

Norris looked up at his father again. "Why not?"

"I don't want to watch her marry that scamp. From what I've heard, I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him." Mr. Hardy stopped eating and looked meaningfully at his son. "She deserves someone with more integrity."

"I know, dad," sighed Norris, "I know."

"All the same, you've got to move on, son. With no more Roma to keep you company, you're going to have to look for love elsewhere."

Norris met his father's eyes and felt full of love and respect for him.

"You must leave this place, Norris." Mr. Hardy enunciated his words very deliberately. "I will not hold you back any more."

Norris looked down again. "I'll try, Dad. First I've got to say goodbye to Roma."

Mr. Hardy's body shuddered as it was racked with coughs once more.

"Go and make your peace with her, son," Mr. Hardy croaked. "Go and tell her everything one more time while you still can."

Norris wanted to stay with his father. He wanted to explain how many emotions he had gone through in the last few weeks; he wanted to tell him that he loved Roma; he wanted to ask him about the nagging doubt that was mysteriously itching the back of his mind. But he felt he had to be strong. He had to face the wedding, and saying goodbye to Roma, alone.

Weddings were very rare occasions in Colling Brook, so they were always swamped with enthusiasm, celebration and goodwill. The people of the village all turned up wearing bright colours and bearing lavish presents and carefully prepared food, all gossiping and laughing loudly.

A long row of tables had been laid out on the street in front of the church, laden with a spectacular array of snacks, appetisers, nibbles and refreshments, all meticulously wrapped in plastic or stacked under the table, ready to be opened and consumed as soon as the service was over. Confetti was already being thrown about with abandon and the church bells were pealing as if they were striving to be felt as well as heard.

Norris kept his distance from the crowd, trying not to get involved in any conversations. At one point he overheard Mr. Lugano boasting about his daughter being a wholesome Christian girl who held her faith close to her heart, and then he made a joke about her marrying the bank manager just to get away from Mary Vickers. His listeners laughed, but to Norris the comment had a threatening resonance. Could it be that Roma was only marrying to get away from Colling Brook?

The mysterious itch at the back of his mind flared up strongly as he entered the church. He looked around the congregation. Almost everyone was there. Mrs. Lugano, the bank manager, the Pigshearers and Farmworthys, Sally Corminder, Ben and Jenny Bathbridge, Jim and Mark, the Portmans, parishioners, old farm hands and most of the old widows.

As Mary Vickers silenced the crowd to announce the order of service, Norris noticed Jill enter the church and sit at the back, out of the way. She seemed to be crying. The itch in Norris' mind expanded. He slowly assimilated various pieces of the puzzle that had been pricking at his mind. The melodic notes of the organ filled the room dramatically as the bank manager got up and stood in front of the congregation, and Roma and her father appeared and walked slowly up the aisle. Roma looked striking in her simple white wedding dress.

"Dear friends," started Mary Vickers when Roma and the bank manager were stood together on the pulpit. "We have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and this woman in holy matrimony."

Norris' mind was racing. He could tell that Roma was hanging on to every one of Mary Vickers' words. Norris knew that her religion was so important to her, yet she had given herself away to the bank manager so easily. Surely if she intended to marry him, she would have waited until then to sleep with him? It seemed so out of character that she hadn't. Norris thought Roma would never have slept with anyone outside of marriage, let alone someone she'd only known for a few days.

"There are many elements necessary in a good relationship, such as communication skills, mutual consideration, and providing a space for each party to grow and fulfil him or herself. Love alone will not sustain a marriage, but it must never be neglected. Love is absolutely essential."

Maybe she hadn't yet slept with him, Norris thought. After all, she'd said in the Bantling-in-Bourne last Sunday that he hadn't even been staying with her. Where had he been staying for the last two months, then? Not with Daniel Farmworthy, apparently. More importantly, whom had he been using the condoms with?

"Sometimes the chemistry of love works explosively, like dynamite; other times it works gradually, like oxidation. It depends on the temperament of the individuals and the circumstances of their romance. But it doesn't matter how or when it happens, so long as that miraculous sensation, that authentic ardour, is really present."

Only one other person had so far bought condoms from Personal Touch. Jill, the postwoman, last Monday. And Norris had had some condoms in stock because the bank manager hadn't collected them as usual. Norris remembered Daniel Farmworthy mentioning that the bank manager had been visiting Jill almost every day. And Jill had even admitted to Norris directly that she fancied the man. Of course! That's why Jill's so upset today, thought Norris. Roma and the bank manager hadn't had sex before marriage, but…

Mary Vickers' voice drifted back into Norris' consciousness. "If any of you can show just cause why they may not lawfully be married, speak now, or forever hold your peace."

"No!" yelled Norris almost instinctively. He stood up and spoke before he had a chance to think about it. "He's been having an affair!"

The congregation fell deathly silent, and all eyes turned to Norris. He hesitated, his face flushed, then he sat down. The first sound was that of Jill leaving the church, sobbing audibly.

Norris looked up and his eyes met with Roma's. For a moment Roma's expression betrayed no emotion at all, then her chin puckered and she ran down the aisle and out of the church, hiding her face.

The talking started. Everybody was whispering to their neighbour and casting sly glances at Norris. Norris looked up and saw Mary Vickers standing dumbstruck at the pulpit, then he noticed that the bank manager was stomping angrily towards him.

Norris flinched, preparing to shield his face if the bank manager intended to hit him. Instead the bank manager leant over and said, quietly so only Norris could hear him, "I was going to stop for Roma. I loved her. I would have treated her like a princess."

With that, the bank manager turned and ran after Roma. Norris didn't know what to think. He hated the bank manager more than ever, yet at the same time he wished that he had let the marriage go ahead so it would all be over.

The congregation started filing out of the church, curious to see what would happen to Roma, and eager to gossip and find out if the bank manager really had been unfaithful. Everyone shot disapproving glances towards Norris, who felt utterly mortified.

"You shouldn't have said anything," said Jenny Bathbridge as she passed. "All Roma ever wanted was to get away from here. She would've had a better life with him."

Jason Farmworthy was especially venomous. "Why don't you make everyone's sexual habits public knowledge you evil pervert? That's what your sleazy little sex shop's for, isn't it? So you can intrude on everyone's most intimate secrets. I hope you and your stupid money-making schemes all fail."

Mark looked livid as he walked past Norris. He briefly stopped and put his face right up close to Norris', threateningly. "I hope for your sake it's true, that my Jill is having an affair with him. Because if you made it up to get to Roma, I'll make your life a misery. I'll kill you."

That was the last straw. Norris fled.

Norris ran straight home. He burst in and ran to his room, past his father who was sitting slumped on his bed, obviously sleeping because he did not seem to notice Norris' noisy entrance. Norris drew the curtains in his room, shut his door and sat on his bed, not crying but feeling like he might.

He sat in bed the rest of the day, curled up in the dark as if he was scared of attracting undue attention. His mind felt heavy but vacant, as if all his thoughts had blown up like a balloon, leaving a tense space, pushing against his skull.

By the time the sun was setting, his thoughts slowly began to disassemble. He felt guilty. He felt like he needed to go and apologise, as soon as possible; yet he didn't feel like being seen by anyone.

He waited until it was quite dark, but not too late, and slipped out of the house. He slinked through the shadows around to the village hall. Roma and her parents lived on the first floor. There were still lights on. Norris grabbed a handful of pebbles from the roadside, interspersed with confetti, and started throwing them one by one at Roma's bedroom window.

After a few throws, Norris was ready to give up. He released a despondent sigh and turned away, just as the front door of the village hall cracked quietly open. Norris whirled around expectantly.

"Hi, Norris," said Mr. Lugano. He stood in the doorway in a blue and white pinstripe dressing gown, holding a candle against the night. He rubbed his eyes. "Come in."

Norris didn't think of being sorry that he woke Mr. Lugano up, and followed him in and up the stairs to the living room. They sat down on opposite sides of the table.

"You OK?" asked Mr. Lugano, sleepily.

Norris was quiet for a minute, looking at the table.

"I – I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be," said Mr. Lugano in an avuncular tone. "He's gone, you know. I don't think we'll be seeing him again," assured Mr. Lugano, in reference to the bank manager. He paused for a moment. "It must be difficult for you. I can only thank you, myself."

Norris looked up, confused.

"Well, if he really was having an affair then you've done Roma a great service by saving her from a lot of hurt in the future. We all thank you for that. I'd hate my daughter to marry into a relationship wracked by doubt." Mr. Lugano leant closer to Norris and dropped his voice. "But above all I'd like to thank you, on a personal level, for protecting her from what she thought she wanted. She wasn't ready to marry. He wasn't the one. She must be more careful with her decisions than Michelle was."

Norris shuddered at the name of Roma's sister. Then Mr. Lugano's expression suddenly changed. He sat bolt upright.

"How long have you been standing there?" he asked, his eyes focused some distance past Norris' head.

Norris looked over his shoulder to see Roma standing in the corridor by the living room, shaking with anger.

"You really don't think I can make my own decisions, do you?" she growled in a trembling voice. "I've just watched the man I love accused of infidelity, at our wedding, for Christ's sake, and you don't care at all! You think that if you let me fall in love I'll end up like Michelle!" Roma started crying. "Well I didn't run away, and I'm not going to marry some wasted stoner who promises me the world! I tried so hard to be everything you wanted and –"

Her voice broke up and she ran back along the corridor. Mr. Lugano hurried after her. Norris looked down at the table again, eavesdropping on their heated exchanges in the next room, although he couldn't make out exactly what they were saying.

Five minutes later, Roma stormed back through the living room in floods of tears, with a packed sports bag over her shoulder. She ran downstairs with her father in hot pursuit, trying in vain to reason with her.

Norris listened to the arguing voices, and noticed through the window that some bedroom lights were being turned on in the village as people were woken up by the angry words. A car engine spluttered and failed. Mr. Lugano was shouting now, and Roma was trying to yell over the top of him. The noise of the engine resumed, then died again.

Norris chose this moment to slip downstairs and out of the house as invisibly as possible, scurrying back to his own front door. The car engine started. He looked over his shoulder briefly to watch Roma drive jerkily onto the road, with Mr. Lugano pleading at her through the car window, then he went inside. He couldn't face his father right now, so he ran straight into his room and locked the door. He looked out through his bedroom window just in time to see Roma drive away.

The next morning, Norris stayed in bed much later than he normally would. He wasn't eager to face the outside world. Eventually, his sense of duty took hold and he sneaked to the kitchen to make his father breakfast. While the sausages were cooking, he formulated in his head what he would say to his father, and imagined what his father would say back.

He need not have worried. When Norris skulked into his father's room with the breakfast tray, he found Fletcher Hardy sitting in a slouched position on the bed, stone dead.


It was clear to Norris, at the funeral, that the village's attitude towards him since the thwarted wedding had softened. They were eager to forgive him, but he still felt like he wanted to talk to as few people as possible.

The ceremony was thoughtful but brief. Afterwards Norris stood there, expressionless but cloudy-eyed, while the village filed past him, each taking their turn to say, "I'm sorry, Norris," "I really am sorry." After the fourth or fifth, it started to lose meaning.

Soon the one or two hangers-on got the message that he wanted to be alone, and left him. Norris watched his father's grave, allowing himself to entertain thoughts of guilt, anger and desolation for just a moment before reasserting his resolve. His thoughts settled towards a mildly aching grievance, which he tried to focus and transform into determination. He turned and marched away. He was going to find Roma.

He clambered into the old jalopy Mr. Lugano had lent him. All his worldly possessions were packed into the trunk. He started the car, allowed himself a parting glance at his father's grave, which lingered for a moment more than he intended, then he set off for the city.

It was a two-hour drive. Norris had only been this far from Colling Brook two or three times in his life, and they were too long ago to remember properly. Driving the car was very different to driving a tractor, and he stalled and swerved several times before he got the hang of it.

Roma and Norris had spent their childhood as friends and confidantes, so he knew as much as she did about her sister, Michelle. Michelle had run away to the city in a fit of teenage rebellion nearly a decade ago, at the tender age of sixteen. Living in Colling Brook had proved too claustrophobic for her. Of course, there was nowhere for her to run to, and she had only taken enough money for a couple of nights at a youth hostel.

On the third day of her absence, with less than £5 left in her purse, she called home in floods of tears and apologies, and promised to return. That would have been the end of it, but on her way back she was picked up by a man who took a liking to her. In the space of an hour's drive, he persuaded her not to go back to her limited life in the village, and promised to put her up and even loan her a small allowance until she could fend for herself in the city.

She was captivated by this romantic proposal of adventure and spontaneity; she was taken with the idea of struggling and making it in the big city rather than going back to Colling Brook and being able to predict the rest of her life. She was fleeced by his rhetoric.

He made good his promise, and more so. He gave her a spare room in his city flat, although he never seemed to be in himself so she had free reign of the place, and he gave her a generous regular allowance. She spent her time flitting from one part-time low-pay job to another, and soon became disillusioned and dissatisfied, but felt she had to carry on to try and pay back her generous, charismatic and arrogant host.

They started having a relationship in the second month, and he could no longer hide his dark secrets. He got through a surprising amount of cocaine each day; it didn't take Michelle long to work out that he was supporting his habit by being at the head of a small prostitution racket.

By that time she was pregnant, having never learned much about safe sex back in Colling Brook, and she finally phoned home again for the first time in nearly three months. Mr. and Mrs. Lugano had naturally been worried sick about her, and demanded to know where she was and what she was doing. Understandably, Michelle didn't want to divulge the situation she had got herself in, and instead she cried inconsolably down the phone. Her parents were distraught, and insisted that she tell them what had happened. She hung up.

The next time she called, a few days later, Roma happened to answer. Roma didn't ask any questions, she just listened to her sister cry for a long time. After that, Michelle called at a certain time each day so that Roma knew it was her and she could talk with her sister in secret.

And so Michelle pulled through an incredibly difficult time thanks to her baby sister. The first and only time Michelle's family saw her since she ran away was in hospital when she gave birth to her daughter Lily. By that time, the child's father had been arrested and was starting a long prison sentence, and Michelle seemed to be making a life for herself independently.

Mr. and Mrs. Lugano finally let go, and tried to put the matter behind them. They concentrated on lavishing attention on Roma, terrified that she might feel unloved and run away as well.

Norris shuddered at the recollection of Michelle's sad story. It reconfirmed in his mind that, as the person who knew her best in all the world, Roma would surely have run to Michelle.

After a lengthy search, Norris pulled up across the road from the building that he felt sure housed Michelle. Roma had told him Michelle's address once in the strictest confidence; her parents must never know, she said. It was fairly late, nearly eleven o'clock, too late to find accommodation for the night, so he decided to try Michelle's door.

As he walked towards the block of flats, he became very nervous. He hesitated for a few minutes outside the door, waiting for the knot in his stomach to disperse. Thoughts of giving up and leaving Roma to it flashed across his mind, but then he tightened his resolve. Eventually, he swallowed at the lump in his throat, and pushed the doorbell.

After a second the door buzzed, making him jump slightly, and he pushed it open. He wandered in through a dark corridor and around a corner. There was a lady sitting at a receptionist's desk, filing her nails. A modest sign above the desk depicted a silhouette of a woman lying underneath the word ‘Mermaids'.

"Can I help?" she said coldly, not looking up. She inspected her nails. Norris' heart was beating uncomfortably quickly.

"I'm looking for Michelle Lugano, please."

The receptionist looked up suddenly, as if Norris had said a password, and smiled ambiguously. "I'm sorry, sir, Miss Lugano is busy with another client at the moment. Would you like to see someone else?"

Norris stumbled. Was this Michelle's house? Was this where she worked? What was it? The receptionist picked up on his bemusement, and half-smiled at him again. She pulled out a little booklet with passport-style photos stuck in it.

"Paula's available," said the receptionist, pointing at the booklet, "or Rene. She's a bit more… adventurous if that's what you're into."

Norris was horrified. He clawed for something to say, but his voice caught. He glanced helplessly at the little booklet again. In the top left corner, the word ‘Michelle' had been written in a neat, italic hand, and below it was a picture of a smiling brunette. Norris hadn't seen her since she was sixteen, but it was unmistakeably her.

Norris left silently. The receptionist raised her eyebrows and went back to filing her nails.

He started crying as soon as he left the building. He climbed back into his car and sobbed himself to sleep. He slept very badly, waking up at least every half an hour to see a man surreptitiously going into Mermaids, although he was never sure if it was real or a dream.

The next morning he got up very early, feeling stiff, cramped and cold. He got out of the car and went for a brisk walk to warm himself up and get some breakfast. He bought a newspaper and some lemonade as well, anything to stall having to look for Roma again.

He called Mr. Lugano, and lied, saying that he hadn't started searching for Michelle's flat yet, that he'd stayed in a youth hostel last night.

The time seemed to be passing so slowly. At first he thought he had better wait until at least half past ten before going to see Michelle, but he soon got impatient and decided that nine o'clock would be appropriate, then even that seemed too long a wait and he started wandering back to Mermaids at eight twenty-five.

Having reached it, he reluctantly rang the doorbell again. He really didn't want to believe that Michelle worked in a brothel. That she was a prostitute. He knew such things existed, but he hadn't ever wanted to be faced with them and have to accept the fact. As if they didn't really exist as long as he never thought of them.

He rang the doorbell again, and again. Eventually the letter slot in the door flicked open and an irritated-looking woman peered through it.

"Whaddya want?" she drawled.

"I need to see Michelle Lugano."

"We're closed," snapped the lady, "she's asleep." The letter slot clicked closed.

Norris opened it from the outside and called through it, "I'm a personal friend. I need to speak to her."

There were a few moments of silence. The lady appeared through the letter slot again, looking tired. "How am I meant to believe that?" she yawned.

"Her sister is visiting. Her sister's name is Roma Lugano. Their parents live in Colling Brook. She has a daughter, Lily. How would I know those things unless I knew her?"

The lady behind the door sighed. "I'll get her for you." The letter slot shut.

Norris waited ten minutes. The door cracked open, and Michelle Lugano poked her head through. She had hardly changed, although her face was more sullen, and her eyes were greyer than they had been.

"Norris Hardy…" she paused contemplatively, then stiffened. "She doesn't want to see you."

"I've come to take her back to Colling Brook."

"She doesn't want to go back. She's happy here."

That made Norris angry. "How can she be happy here, living among you and your… your –" He stopped and flushed red. He gathered his thoughts. "Why don't you come with her instead of living this life?"

"There's nothing wrong with my life."

"You sell your body for money. You have an eight-year-old daughter whose father has been in jail all her life. You haven't seen your parents since she was born."

"Listen, my parents don't want to see me, or the kid, or her dad. They don't want me to remind them that they never gave me a chance in life. That they expected me to want to become a parishioner in a town so small you can stand at the limits and spit right over the top of it, just like my mother, and her mother, and hers. I had bigger dreams. Any dreams would be bigger than that. And I did it. I made a life for myself. Lily and me, we get on just fine."

Norris got on the defensive. "Are you telling me it's fine to lock your eight-year-old child in the lounge while you're selling sex from the bedroom?"

"You don't know anything about my life!" Michelle yelled heatedly. "And look who's talking; you sell sex yourself! You thought it would be funny to stir up Colling Brook by leeching money off old folk by slick-talking them into buying dildos and pornography. Now tell me the moral virtue in that, then you can slag off my life."

Norris recoiled. He felt badly hurt by that remark, it was unfair, but he couldn't articulate why. His mouth opened and closed like a goldfish for a moment, then he swallowed his indignation.

"I'm sorry," he started. He took a deep breath. "You're right, I don't know anything about your life, except that it must have been a difficult one. There are people out there who want to help you; I mean, it's not too late to make friends with your parents again. They miss you, Michelle, they only want to see you happy. However, that's your choice. Right now I'm only asking that you don't hold Roma back from them too. Please."

"I'm not holding her back. Roma needs to make her own choices, away from Mum and Dad."

"I love her, Michelle. I want to help her."

Michelle seemed taken aback by this comment, then she seemed to soften slightly. She paused, watching Norris' pleading eyes.

"What are you going to do?" asked Michelle.

Norris looked down for a moment. He didn't know. He didn't want to go back to Colling Brook either, but he couldn't think of anywhere else to go. It wasn't right for Roma to stay here with her sister; he knew that Roma wouldn't be happy here. Roma wasn't judgmental of her sister, but she couldn't stay here while Michelle worked; it would destroy her. How Michelle lived was Michelle's business, Roma always believed that even if their parents didn't; that's why Michelle trusted and confided in Roma so much. The last thing Roma would want is to intrude on Michelle's business.

"Are you and Lily truly happy here?" asked Norris.

"Yes," answered Michelle.

"Roma isn't. I know her. She won't be and she can't be."

Michelle sighed. She knew it too.

"Are you happy, Norris?" she asked, meaningfully.

Norris hesitated. "I need to see Roma."

Michelle nodded and pulled open the door. She beckoned for him to follow her up the corridor.

They walked past the empty reception desk and up two flights of stairs. Michelle stopped outside a door with a little wooden woodpecker doorknocker and a Barbie sticker stuck to it. She unlocked the door and Norris followed her in. Her flat was large and homely; the lounge had a beanbag and several oversized cushions strewn around a television, a bookcase stuffed with children's books and toys, and a yucca growing in the corner. Norris was surprised. He had pictured Michelle's home to be a cubicle with a tattered old bed in it and thin satin curtains to pull across when a customer was in.

"Roma," called Michelle.

"Yeah?" yelled Roma from an adjacent room. Norris' heart leapt.

Roma walked in, holding Lily's hand. On seeing Norris, she let go and ran up to him. She hurled half-hearted abuse at him, hitting him ineffectively on the chest, then hugged him tightly and started crying.

"I missed you so much," she whispered through her tears.

Norris started driving. He took the route back towards Colling Brook; he didn't know where else to go. Roma sat beside him, quiet and pensive. They didn't exchange a word for twenty minutes, with only the rumble of the engine filling the silence.

Norris' mind was churning, going over the events of the previous few days, and wondering what to do next. He was so deep in thought he nearly ran a red light. The jerk from the sudden braking brought him back to the present world for a moment, and he quickly felt uncomfortable with the protracted silence. He filled it.

"My father died."

"I know," said Roma. "I called my dad this morning while Michelle and Lily were asleep."

The silence fell again. Then Roma spoke: "I'm sorry."

"I guess it was inevitable, he was very ill."

"No, I mean I'm sorry for what I did, Norris. I'm sorry I neglected our friendship while I was infatuated with a guy I'd only just met. I'm sorry I was so angry with you after the wedding; you were only the messenger, trying to protect me. I'm sorry I ran away. I was angry with myself."

"You didn't do anything wrong."

"But I did. You saw it; you tried to warn me. I knew you were right. I knew everyone in the village had their doubts, and I ignored them. It seemed to make so much sense. He was so perfect, and he offered me the world. But it didn't feel right. You saw that. I just didn't want to accept that I was making a mistake; the momentum had built up too much."

Roma's chin puckered, but she held back her tears. "I hated the thought that I really had been prepared to follow through with it, even when I knew deep down inside that there was something wrong. I didn't want to have to admit it to anyone, that I wasn't in love with him."

She stopped for a moment, catching her voice and blinking to stop herself from crying. Her voice steadied. "I'm so glad you came to rescue me, my knight in shining armour. Thank you." She smiled emotionally through cloudy eyes.

"I saved some money from Personal Touch," said Norris. "It's our money. Maybe we can use it to make a start somewhere. Together." Norris stopped the car for a set of red lights. He turned his head to Roma.

"I love you, Roma."

Roma couldn't hold back her tears anymore. She cried freely, looking upset at first, then beaming widely through her sobs. She leaned over and put her head in Norris' chest.

"I love you, Norris."

She kissed him on the cheek, then wept happily on his shoulder. Norris found himself blinking back tears. He didn't cry; it came out as a kind of stifled joyous laughter instead.

"I don't understand sex, you know," he said as the lights turned green and he accelerated. "It seems so complicated. Your bank manager treated it like a gift to be shared around; Mary Vickers says it's a sacred and secret thing; your sister thinks as much of it as she would of cutting someone's hair. Mark lets Jill stray, yet he's still so protective of her. The Bathbridges just want children out of it. It's so confusing and contradictory. How can sex be something so unifying and so destructive at the same time? So loaded with joy and jealousy, comfort and doubt, satisfaction and guilt, happiness and contempt? How can you ever possibly have sex without risking so much of yourself?"

Norris drove in silence for a few minutes. Roma cuddled her head against him and closed her eyes.

"Depends who you're risking it for," she said quietly, with a mischievous smile, and she fell asleep on his shoulder.

A few people looked through their windows to see Norris and Roma drive into Colling Brook. People whispered and pointed. Mr. Lugano smiled as the car approached the village hall, and he prepared himself to go down and greet them, but they drove straight past.

He watched through the window as Norris pulled up to the old school shed up the road that had once housed Personal Touch. Norris got out of the car, disappeared into the building, and emerged a few moments later with a plain brown package. The last box. Roma's box. Norris hopped back into the car without looking up or waving, started the car up again, and just kept on driving up the road, out of the village, and over the horizon.

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