Her smile was the first thing you noticed. The warmth of it, the way it started with her eyes crinkling and spread to the corners of her mouth … when she smiled she was transformed.
Her smile was the first thing you noticed. The warmth of it, the way it started with her eyes crinkling and spread to the corners of her mouth. Her lips would twitch, and part to show her teeth. She had lovely teeth, very white and even. I suppose she wasn’t much to look at, not really. Some people might even have called her plain, but when she smiled she was transformed. She lit up that dingy pub like sunshine after snow.
I carried my pint to a quiet corner, where I could watch her without it being obvious. It was a treat to see her work, every movement precise and yet graceful. I could have sat there all night.
I started going to the White Hart regularly. She always smiled when she saw me. Of course, she smiled at all the customers, but the way she smiled at me was somehow special. It made me feel that we were friends, even though we never really spoke. She was much too busy for that, but there was a connection, a sympathy. I could tell.
I knew her name: LaMorna. It was on the badge she wore pinned to her blouse. Pretty name, isn’t it? I worked out when her shifts were. No point in going there on the nights she wasn’t working. I’m not one for spending all my time in the pub. She never got off till late, which worried me. A young girl shouldn’t be walking alone at that time of night. So one night I decided to follow her, to make sure she was all right. She lived quite near, she had a flat in one of the big houses on Dunbridge Lane. I didn’t want her to see me in case it made her nervous, so I kept my distance. It was that dark stretch after you turn off from the main street that worried me. It’s lonely there, with those high hedges and the street lights so far apart. Anyone could be lurking in the shadows.
I took to following her every night. I would drink up just before she was due to finish, then I’d slip out and wait for her by the corner. Once I’d seen she was back inside her own door and I knew she was safe, I could go home to get some sleep.
We were quite friendly by now. She knew what I liked to drink without me having to ask. Sometimes I even got her to myself for a few minutes, when the pub was quiet. The manager was a nuisance, though, he was always hovering nearby. He kept sending her off to attend to other people, when we were having a nice chat. I’m afraid I did not like him at all. I thought he was far too familiar with LaMorna. He stood too close, for a start, and he used to touch her on her arm or shoulder, when his wife wasn’t looking. I even saw him pat her bottom once. She kept smiling, of course. She had to, she would have lost her job if she’d complained, but it made me angry.
I loved her, you see. I wanted to tell her, but the right moment never seemed to come. And she was so young – what if she had laughed at me? I tried to let her know in other ways, like bringing her little presents. Nothing fancy, just stuff from the garden; a few sticks of rhubarb, say, or a bunch of dahlias. She was always grateful but – I dunno – maybe I embarrassed her a bit because after a while she seemed to be avoiding me. I’d spot her as soon as I walked in the door, and by the time I got to the bar she’d have vanished, and one of the other girls or the manager would be serving instead. This hurt at first until I realised why she was doing it. Obviously she cared about me, really, but did not want other people to know what was going on. It was to be our secret.
Then I made a bad mistake. It was entirely my fault, I accept that. I was still keeping an eye on her as she walked home after work. I must have grown careless and forgotten she didn’t know I was there – or maybe, subconsciously, I wanted to be found out. At any rate, I followed too closely, and she turned and saw me. It must have given her a shock. She looked almost frightened, and before I could shout out not to worry, it was only me, she started to run. I chased after but I could not catch her before she reached home and slammed the door. I knocked, I even shouted through the letter box. I only wanted to reassure her, but she never answered.
I hardly slept that night, I was so upset. Surely she didn’t think I meant her any harm? The next evening I went to the pub to explain, but there was no sign of her. Only the manager, glaring at me. He told me I was barred! For upsetting his staff, he said. He wouldn’t listen to a word from me, just told me to get out, and if he caught me hanging around he’d call the police.
I could not believe it. My LaMorna would never have turned against me. I knew it was all a misunderstanding. It would be cleared up if I could speak to her, but how to reach her? I could not enter the pub, and the manager had started running her home in his car after work. I blamed him of course. He’d been trying to separate us for months and now he thought he had succeeded. However, I was not prepared to give in. Not yet.
I missed her so much. I missed the odd words we exchanged. I missed watching her as she worked, the expert way she pulled a pint, her laugh as she chatted over the bar. Most of all, I missed her smile.
I was determined to make a last attempt to win her back. One night I waited in the shadows by her porch. I thought, if he dropped her by the gate I might manage to speak to her before she reaches the house. A few words were all I needed. But the car drove right in, the headlights blinding me for a moment before they both got out and went inside.
I was devastated. The thought of her with him made me feel sick. She knew he was married. Did she not care? I suppose he told her he would leave his wife for her, and she believed him, poor girl. I know his sort – only out for what they can get. He’d break her heart, she might never smile again.
I decided to write to her. In the letter I warned her of the misery which might be in store if she carried on with what she was doing. I told her that I would always be there for her, and if she needed me, to leave a note under the mat in her porch. I pushed the letter through her letterbox and waited. She did not reply, so I wrote again. And again. I checked the house every day, and at eventually I saw a note sticking out from under the mat. It said ‘Tonight. Eleven o’clock.’
I have never felt as happy as I was that night, waiting for her. I didn’t hide in the darkness this time, I stood under the porch light. At last I heard a car stop and footsteps approaching. I called her name.
Then shadowy figures rushed me, I don't know how many. Something struck the side of my head, knocking me to the ground and heavy boots landed blows on my chest, my stomach. I curled up, trying to protect my head. It seemed to go on forever. When it ended, as I lay on the ground whimpering, I saw her. She looked down at me, the light from the porch shining on her face.
She was smiling.