'I’m sorry, I think you've got the wrong number.'
'OK, sorry to bother you. Goodbye.'
Lizzie stared at the number on the screen, the crushed hope too much to bear. What had happened? Had she keyed it in wrong? It had been noisy at the party; an 'oh' could easily sound like an 'eight.' Could she have been so careless? She slammed her fist down on the worktop. David Farquarson, chief editor of Top Style! Magazine: it had seemed too good to be true when Michaela introduced them.
'You sound perfect for what we need,' he'd said, handing her a glass of sparkling white. 'I'll get you out of that call centre. Give me a bell sometime.'
She'd have to call Michaela. Perfect, gorgeous Michaela, who'd landed her dream job after about five minutes. Ask – beg – for the right number.
'Lizzie, sweetie. You're coming to the launch tonight? I've got loads of people you should meet. David will be there.'
Lizzie's planned words froze in her throat. She could almost hear Michaela's smug, red-lipped smile. She pictured her perfectly curled, mascaraed eyelashes dropping down over her laughing, mocking eyes.
'Have you called him yet?'
She'd seen her friend leaning towards him, a slight smile on her perfect lips. They'd both looked towards her as she hovered on the edge of the crowd. He'd nodded, laughed and walked towards her. Had Michaela really sold her so well? Or had he deliberately given her a wrong number? She felt her face grow red. Had it been a joke? A vicious, spiteful joke? The bitch! How could she have done that? She pictured them laughing together, the in-crowd, laughing at poor Lizzie, still scratching at the door like a forlorn, stray dog. Let's throw her a bone, see if she picks it up. Her chest grew tight and she began to shake.
'No. I’m not coming. Go on your own, I've had enough.' She spat out the words before hurling the phone to the floor, where it skittered under the table. Then she started to cry.
Neil hung up and shook his head. Poor girl, obviously some bloke pulled a fast one. He dropped the phone onto the windowsill and looked out. Below him the world rushed on. What would Karen have done if he'd tried that trick? He chuckled. He'd regret it, that was for sure.
An explosion of sizzling came from the kitchen followed a second later by the smoke alarm.
He ran and snatched the pan from the hob and threw it into the sink. Charring milk was bubbling over the hot plate and gelatinous sludge dripped onto the floor. The stink was awful.
When he'd managed to clean up the mess and deactivate the shrieking alarm he glanced at the clock.
He grabbed his coat and sprinted from the apartment. Karen was going to kill him.
The bus was due at twelve-seventeen. Two minutes.
He rounded the corner. Four people still waiting. He ran faster.
He waved madly as the right indicator flashed. He thumped on the door just as the bus began to move, got eye contact with the driver. The man was grinning.
Half an hour until the next one.
He ran for the taxi rank, but the queue was a mile long. She really would kill him. He groped in his pocket for his phone, then tried his coat. Where was it? Oh no, no, God, no! He checked again, uselessly. It was still on the windowsill at home.
He began to jog towards town. He'd be half an hour late at least. The performance would be almost over. He reached the theatre and paused for a second to brush the sweat from his face. Maybe, if the gods were smiling on him, he could sneak in and she'd never know.
But they weren't. That was obvious before he'd even stepped into the foyer.
Black ties were merging with the departing crowd, violins and other instruments in hand. People deferentially made way for them. He tried to merge with the throng but Karen noticed him at once.
'Karen, I can explain,' he started. The time-honoured words of the irrevocably guilty. 'This woman rang me...'
'And no doubt chatting to her was more important than listening to us play. Then you forgot to ring and tell me. Have you run out of believable excuses now?'
'Karen, please.' He put his hand on her arm. She shook it off.
'I'm sick of this. I've tried to believe you cared enough to actually turn up one day, stupid as I am. Every time, Neil. Every sodding time!' Her voice rose. People were looking at them. He saw tears in her eyes as she turned and walked away.
Lizzie stared out of the window. The world rushed past beneath her: all those people with jobs, careers, futures. She'd been fighting ever since graduating to make it, always getting nowhere. Where was she going wrong? She'd have to go and see Michaela. Grit her teeth and apologise for being a stroppy cow. Michaela had always been a bitchy friend, but she desperately needed her.
She headed towards her flat, stopping to buy an eye-wateringly expensive bottle of red on the way. Pre-party drinks, just like at university, only far more upmarket now.
Michaela opened the door, hair straighteners in hand, and looked at her, unsmiling.
'Sorry, Michaela. I'm a moody cow today. Wrong time of the month, you know.' She forced herself to laugh self-depreciatingly and held the bottle up. 'How's the arrangements coming on?'
Michaela made no move to let her in. 'Look, sweetie, this is a bit difficult. David's invited some top-notch designers from Milan, he just rang to tell me.'
Lizzie gave a half-hearted attempt at awe, but Michaela was more interested checking her freshly manicured nails
'I know you really want to come, but it's really important for me that this works. I pull it off, I'll make it big time. I can't really afford for hangers-on to be there: spoils the image, you know?'
Lizzie couldn't speak. She squeezed the bottle in her hand. That was it. That was really it.
'I may well be employing my own staff soon: you'll be first in line for a job then,' she soothed, her eyes flickering between the stairway and her nails.
Footsteps, and they both looked through the bannisters towards the main door.
David reached the landing, greeting Michaela before glancing at Lizzie. His eyes registered a flicker of confusion, as if he vaguely recalled seeing her somewhere before.
'David! Do come in! I was just deciding the final timings for tonight, come and lend an ear.'
Michaela glanced at Lizzie as she ushered David inside. 'I'll call you later, sweetie.'
Lizzie stared at the closed door, wishing she could smash the bottle against it. She turned and walked slowly down the stairs.
'Sorry, Neil, I'm in rehearsals until very late. I don't have time.'
'Please, Karen. Just give me a chance.'
Silence. She was thinking about it. He gripped the phone harder.
'Maybe I'll call you, when this concert's done.'
He felt like punching the air. 'I love you, Karen. Goodbye.'
He'd surprise her tonight, after the rehearsal. He didn't care how long he had to wait. Her favourite restaurant, Thai Palace, even though it cost an arm and a leg.
He sneaked into the back of the theatre, hoping she wouldn't see him yet. He caught his breath. She looked beautiful. Her dress was shimmering in time to the music as she played, the effect entrancing. He absorbed the intense concentration on her face, the sway of her body and her dancing fingers, until at last the music reached a crescendo.
She stood up, a smile of tired euphoria on her face and the orchestra walked off stage. He smiled and clapped, but the sound was lost amidst the scraping chairs and she didn't notice him.
He went out into the main hall and hovered. She appeared through a side door and smiled at someone, and he started towards her.
The other man went up to her, wrapped his arm round her waist and kissed her. Even from here Neil could see the gleam in his eyes.
Get your hands off my girlfriend, he wanted to shout.
She smiled up at Mr Charming and said something with a teasing smile, the smile that drove him wild. She's not your girlfriend any more, is she.
He turned away. As he walked into the street, a tear ran down his cheek.
Lizzie's phone buzzed. She grabbed it from her bag, so sure it was her. Then she saw the screen and sighed. After eight rings, she looked at it again and pressed answer.
'What am I going to do, Mum? I'm trying so hard. I can hardly afford the rent on the flat, I have to spend so much on clothes and hair and everything. Michaela was my one point of contact and now I've blown that. It's a nightmare.' She slumped onto a park bench and stared at the ground.
'I can't see the appeal of fashion anyway. When you were at school you always wanted to be a nurse.'
The phone was ringing on the table and Neil ran. 'Karen?'
'No, mate. It's Tom. What's up?'
Neil sighed. 'She's got a new bloke.' He was mortified to hear the tremble in his voice.
'Well, to be fair, mate, you only had to make the effort occasionally.'
'I did make the effort! Why can't anyone just see that?'
'You want a drink?' Tom asked after an awkward pause. 'Take your mind off things? There's a wine tasting evening down my local. Fancy it?'
Neil laughed shortly. 'Me, wine tasting? I don't think so.'
'Go on, it'll do you good.'
The woman by the bar was searching through her handbag when a gorilla-like hulk knocked into her, spilling her wine across the bar and leaving the contents of her bag strewn across the floor.
He didn't even seem to notice.
Neil left his table, knelt and helped the woman scoop up loose change, nail varnish, bus tickets, a teaspoon and the hundred other things that women deemed essential to carry round. He couldn't help but smile until it reminded him of Karen's collection of portable junk.
'Thanks so much, you're a star. Don't know why I even need the stuff, really.'
The woman smiled at him, open and friendly. She almost looked like Karen, Neil thought. He smiled back.
Mrs Jenkins pressed her buzzer for the third time in an hour. 'Nurse! Nurse!'
Lizzie hurried to her bed, glancing surreptitiously at her watch. She was supposed to have finished the ward rounds half an hour ago.
'Nurse, where are my glasses? Someone's moved them, I can't find them.'
Lizzie picked up the glasses off the table and handed them to her. 'They're right here, Mrs Jenkins.'
'When's the tea trolley coming? I need my cup of tea.'
She sat down next to the bed. Mrs Jenkins had been involved with bingo, flower arranging, bridge, all sorts before breaking her hip. It was hard for her to adjust to the lack of companionship. 'Sharon will be round in ten minutes, she's just in the next ward.'
'Oh good, I do like that girl. I'm not sure about the hair, though.' Her eyes twinkled craftily. 'And all those earrings- she reminds me of a pin cushion!'
Lizzie laughed and took her hand. 'I used to have a friend with twelve in each ear. And that was a man, as well.'
Mrs Jenkins looked both scandalized and intrigued. 'Young people! I never would have dared, not with my father.' She giggled almost girlishly.
'Well dear, you'd best get on. I've delayed you long enough. Are you enjoying nursing, dear?'
Lizzie smiled as she stood up. 'Best thing I ever did.'
Neil looked over the laughing crowd. He'd been to so many weddings over recent years, as one by one all his mates had renounced bachelorhood. How often had he wondered if he'd ever do the same? A lump came into his throat.
'Neil, mate. Stop looking wistful. You've made your bed, you know?' Tom's stern face abruptly cracked into a grin.
'She's put up with you for more than five minutes, so you're definitely onto a winner. Don't you dare balls it up.' Tom punched him on the shoulder. 'You know, Helen, he always said he hated wine tasting.'
Neil laughed and twitched his friend's bow tie straight. Then he reached out and pulled his bride to his side. 'Best thing I ever did.'
Hannah Spencer has short stories published by Cracked Eye, Scribble and Bewildering Stories e-zine, and won competitions in Writing Magazine and Writer's Forum magazine. Her novel, The Story of Light, was published in 2014 by Moon Books. Her websites are http://light-onecandle.blogspot.co.uk and http://hannahspencer.webs.com.