"Penny for 'em?"
Trainee Detective Constable Jack Meadows looked up at the woman smiling at him from across the bar. This was his first time in this pub, it wasn't his usual type of place if he was honest, but he had felt like going somewhere off the beaten track.
He looked down at his whisky, his third in the past hour. "I was just thinking I needed another drink."
"Putting them away tonight, aren't you?" Her tone was friendly, inquisitive.
Jack smiled and nearly said something about how drinking was considered compulsory in his job, but then found that he didn't want to talk about the police tonight. The barmaid obviously sensed his hesitation, as she tactfully turned away and began pouring his drink. Jack watched her as she did so, taking in her appearance for the first time tonight. She was blonde, slim, probably a few years younger than him. Early twenties at most. He tore his eyes away; he had to remember he had a girlfriend waiting for him back home. Not girlfriend - fiancee. He would call Laura on the phone as soon as he got back to his flat.
He'd been in London for six months now, seconded to the Met as part of his CID training. As soon as he passed his exams, he would be returning to Yorkshire. City life, city policing, just wasn't for him. He felt out of his depth and out of touch with his colleagues.
The barmaid put his drink in front of him and took his cash. He waved away her offer of change, feeling he had been rude to her moments earlier. "Have one yourself."
"Thanks, don't mind if I do." Smiling at him again, she poured herself a white wine then turned away to laugh at something another customer was saying. The pub had emptied gradually so there were only a few people left.
"You're not from round here, are you?" she asked when she rejoined him. Apparently his accent was still strong, although he'd spent months trying to tone it down.
"No," he said. "I'm here for work. It's just temporary." He didn't offer any further details and she didn't ask for them.
"What's your name?" she asked instead.
He looked at her and, encouraged by the alcohol he had so far consumed, found himself lying "John. What's yours?"
"Pleased to meet you." He looked down at his drink again, wondering what he was doing. Rita left the bar briefly as a fight broke out between the three other men in the pub; they were the only other punters left now.
"That's enough out of you, sunshine." One of the men was getting rowdy, leering at Rita; she stood her ground as Jack put his drink down, ready to step in. "It's chucking out time," Rita announced loudly as she steered the drunk man towards the door. Once he was outside, she shut the door and bolted it behind him. Returning to the bar, she took a large swig of wine.
"You get that a lot?" Jack asked, nodding towards the door.
"Part of the job." She shrugged, unconcerned. "Fancy another?"
"Thought you were closing?"
"Call it a lock-in." She smiled impishly again. God, that smile.
They ended up drinking together for another hour, talking without really giving much away about each other. They lapsed into companionable silence before she went to take care of the night's takings. After that he helped her lock up and offered to walk her home as she pulled her coat on. By that point he knew he wasn't going to call Laura tonight.
She lived in a flat half the size of his own, a one-bedroom that was ten minutes down the road from the pub. Once they got back she stood on the doorstep. "Thanks for keeping me company tonight."
"You're welcome." He hadn't realised how lonely he had been lately until spending the evening in her company.
"Come in for a coffee?"
He met her eyes and thought of the reasons why he shouldn't be doing this. He thought of Laura and the fact that he had to be back in work tomorrow. He nodded and let her lead him inside.
When Jack woke the next morning Rita was still sleeping, blonde hair spilled out across the pillow. He checked his watch which was lying on the table next to the bed: it was 5.30.
He'd always been an early riser. As the woman beside him continued to slumber, he got up and dressed quickly, planning to shower when he got home. He took one last look at Rita, feeling guilt and a kind of affection in equal measure. He shut the door quietly as he left and vowed never to go back to that pub again.
Rita awoke to the sound of her alarm clock two hours later. She looked briefly over her shoulder but wasn't surprised to see the bed beside her empty. It had been clear last night, as loud as it was unspoken, that this wasn't the start of something long-term. He hadn't even told her his last name or what he did for a living. She had sensed that he had a girlfriend - not a wife, she had checked his finger as he was sitting at the bar. She wasn't in the habit of sleeping with other women's fellas but she had felt a connection between them, a kind of mutual loneliness, even if it was just for one night.
Putting aside the memory of last night, she got up and got on with her day without thinking about the handsome red-haired man and his accent. He didn't come back to the pub again and she didn't look for him.
It's three months before she realises that she's pregnant. Two more months of kicking herself for being so careless before she decides that she wants to keep it. Another month before she breaks the news to her family. Her parents, who are the kind of religious type who only remember certain parts of the Bible, disown her, but her brother Mike is supportive. When she has to give up working he gives her a place to stay, and when she goes into labour he's the one at her side coaxing her on, so when the baby finally arrives screaming his head off, she names him Michael.
Jack goes back to Yorkshire after passing his exams and becoming a fully fledged DC. Six months later he marries Laura and promises to be faithful to her for as long as they live. Two children follow and they are happy as a family for a while. Jack's career goes from strength to strength as he rises up the ranks, with a permanent transfer to the Met when he becomes a DCI on the murder squad. He reaches the heights of Detective Superintendent before it all comes crashing down. Corruption, a colleague he thought he could trust, a whiff of suspicion and he is demoted. As his career comes to a halt, his marriage comes under strain as well. He hates seeing the disappointment in Laura's eyes and so his eye begins to wander elsewhere again. Eventually, he forgets that a woman called Rita ever existed.
A couple of years after Michael's birth, Rita gets married as well. Billy, her new fella, is big and protective and willing to take on another man's child. Together they move into a council house and Rita thinks how lucky she is to have found someone like him. The first time he slaps her, she slaps him back.
Over the years the violence takes its toll until Rita doesn't know who she is anymore. She doesn't mind so much when it's directed at her, the worst part is fearing for her son. Michael is growing up into an angry young man. The arguments between him and Billy usually end in "You ain't my dad" and Billy swinging a fist at Michael while Rita tries to put herself between them. She thinks about taking Michael and leaving, for good, but where would they go? Her brother has a family of his own to worry about now and her parents are only just talking to her again.
It's only after Michael has left himself, after he's grown up and got a job and a place of his own - her boy a copper, who'd have thought it - that she knows with a sudden clarity that she has to leave, too. Her husband isn't going to change. If anything he's worse with her now that he doesn't have her son as an additional punchbag. When she tells Michael that she's finally done it, she's left him, he just raises his eyebrows as if to say I've heard that one before, but this time it sticks. Billy begs her for one more chance, now more pathetic than terrifying, but she cuts off all contact until he gets the message. She knows that Michael still sees his "old man" occasionally; he seems more forgiving now that they are no longer together. Her confidence slowly returns and she almost becomes the woman she once was, until one day she steps in front of a car in Sun Hill and it all ends.
"You ain't really retiring, are you?"
Jack turns to see Mickey standing at the Superintendent's office door; most of his belongings are now packed up in boxes. "That's the rule, Mickey. Too old for the job now."
"You'll get bored." Mickey lounges against the door frame.
"Probably. You'll have to come and visit me, won't you?"
"I dunno Guv, I've got a busy social life."
"Funny." Jack smiles at the DC, who grins back. "How about a drink, for old times' sake?"
Mickey nods. "Yeah."