I really must tidy up the Bingergread Cottage. So many visitors recently and Badger’s birthday too… wait a minute, what’s this over in the corner? Some papers?
Oh dear, Catriona King left her bag here when she was chatting just before we started singing. This must have fallen out. I wonder…. no she won’t mind. It’s a story. Shall we read it? Oh go on, let’s. It is bound to be good.
It was hard to tell which was better; the way he gazed at her or the way he glanced shyly away. Both brought her a frisson of pleasure that she hadn’t experienced since she was very young. How young had she been when they’d first met? Caroline thought back to that evening all those years ago at college. Twenty years ago when she was twenty-two, yet the events were as clear as if she’d lived them a moment before.
The sound of a door being knocked reverberated through her ground-floor student flat, dragging her back to consciousness from a sleep so deep that she might have been drugged into it. She woke reluctantly, willing the sound to fade back into the dream that she was sure it was part of. But instead it persisted, rude and repetitive. Resisting all her ear-plug wearing, pillow-hugging attempts to drown it out, until finally she slid her feet out of their warm cocoon onto the damp beige carpet. She really needed to move out of this flat. Surely now that she was a qualified doctor she could afford something better than dull brown walls and a floor so damp that she squelched her way from room to room.
She forced one arm into her dressing gown and shuffled into the communal hallway, shivering and peering at the vague outline shifting behind the glass front door. Then she shrugged, recognising her best friend Annie, and bowed to the inevitable. Annie wouldn’t go away no matter how hard she ignored her, years of experience had taught her that. There was nothing for it but to answer the door.
Annie stood grinning cheerfully at her in the cool September air, her newly groomed clothes and hair saying she was ready to go out on the town. Caroline pulled her dressing gown tightly round her then sleep-walked back into her apartment, knowing that Annie would follow, treating her exhaustion with no respect at all. She waved her vaguely towards the kitchen then lay down face-first on the bed, dragging the covers over her as she fell. Annie stared down at her friend with a sceptical look.
“You can’t be that tired, Caro. I was on-call all night and look at me.”
Caroline breathed an obscenity into the pillow and snuggled down further. Her dream of a warm beach was interrupted again, by the duvet being stripped away and a pillow thudding down on her head.
“Get up! I said we’d meet them there at ten. It’s nine-thirty now.”
Caroline turned her head just enough for Annie to see the ‘sod off’ look on her face. It was followed by a hoarse question. “Who are you meeting?”
The ‘you’ didn’t pass Annie by.
“I said we’d meet them in the Forester’s Inn. Peter and his friend, Jonno. Remember, I told you about him yesterday. Peter says he’s perfect for you.”
“Then he’s guaranteed to be either a nerd or weird. Your track record of setting me up on dates bears testament to that.”
Annie was undeterred. Seven years of school and five years of medical school had taught her to ignore her friend’s response on anything to do with men. Caro’s track record of choosing them was even worse than hers. She’d either dated philanderers who couldn’t keep their equipment in their pants, or tortured artists who let her pay for everything. Perhaps they’d look back in years to come and say that it was just immaturity, or maybe they’d be facing the divorce courts when their husbands of twenty years turned out to be the same. Where was a crystal ball when you needed one?
It was all moot anyway. Tonight they were twenty-two years old and the men they were meeting were the same. Sadly, their brains were even younger than their bodies. Annie cast one last look at her friend then headed to her wardrobe to move things along. She pulled out a pair of jeans and a leather jacket then grabbed an un-ironed t-shirt from a pile by the door.
“I’ll iron this while you do your face. You have ten minutes.”
Fighting Annie was like resisting a tsunami; you either swam with it or you drowned. Caro gave up, slid her feet out of bed and planted them firmly on the floor, then she rubbed her face hard and thought about the hours of torture that lay ahead.
What was the point of dating? Either you dumped them or they dumped you, until either you got married or you died, whichever came first. It never went any other way. It wasn’t helped by her terminal shyness and her incurable tendency to fall in love so hard that she spent weeks adoring her latest man, only to find out that she held a poor third place behind some team sport or their ex. So what was the point?
When she asked her friends that question they always came back with superlatives like ‘fun’ and ‘excitement’, but dating had never felt like that to her. If she didn’t find the man attractive then she worried that she would hurt him, and if she did she worried that he would hurt her. Ever since she’d been a kid she’d had a recurring day-dream that she would wake up and find herself in bed beside a man she didn’t know. She’ would ask him two questions. “Are we married? And do we love each other?”
If the answer was yes to both she’d bounce out of bed and get on with her life, ecstatic. Not only because of her secure marriage, but because it meant that she hadn’t had to go through all the crap of dating to get there.
No nervous first dates and no endless waiting for the phone-call or text that signalled the second one; or didn’t. No awkward kisses spent wondering whether to turn to the left or the right, then banging noses, or worse, biting his lip as she’d done more than once. Where was the fun in that?
No pondering exactly when it was OK for nice girls to have sex ( if it was OK for nice girls at all!) and no ‘what will he think of me if I do or don’t’. Best of all, no long courtship spent wondering if he would propose, with all that that implied. The excruciating family dinners, the parties where her friends scrutinised him at length then gave their unsolicited opinion, that she could do better and he should be richer or more handsome. And no hideous bridesmaids dresses (or bridesmaids!) and money wasted on an overblown Northern Irish wedding day. No. Her dream was of a fast forward to domestic bliss with none of the ‘excitement’ in between, thank you very much.
In the time it took her to replay her daydream Annie had reappeared with her freshly ironed her t-shirt and found her still staring at the floor.
“You’re not ready!”
It wasn’t a question, just pure indignation with a sub-text of ‘I’ve decided what you’re doing for the evening and now you’re thwarting my plans’. Much as Caro loved her childhood friend there were times when she wished she would just bugger off.
Caro gave her friend a jaundiced stare. “Well spotted. And you shouting at me won’t make the process any quicker.” She folded her arms defiantly. “Besides, if he’s all that great, he’ll expect me to be as well. And that means I’m worth waiting for.”
She ignored Annie’s squinted urging for the next ten minutes and by ten o’clock she was finally ready to rock and roll.
“You won’t regret it, Caro. I’ve seen his photo.”
They walked along Bolton Avenue with Annie grinding her teeth at her friend’s snail-like pace, until eventually she sighed and slowed down. There was no point trying to make the horse gallop to water if it got so huffy that it turned on its heel and cantered home again.
Twenty minutes later they pushed open the Inn’s front door and Caro cast a sceptical look around. Annie’s boyfriend Peter was standing by the bar. He beckoned them across then grinned at Caro like a French revolutionary about to witness her being guillotined.
“Well? Where is he, then? Your wonderful friend.”
“He’s gone upstairs to find a table.”
Caro turned towards the stairs. “Well, I’m going up to the loo. If he’s not here when I get back I’m heading home.” She clicked up the stairs irritably, picking her way through crowd of girls sitting there and the young men trying to chat them up. Just as she reached the top a young man with dark, greying hair walked past her and their eyes locked. She smiled hesitantly and he grinned back at her with a definite glint in his eyes. Then the crowd forced them apart carrying her upwards and the moment was lost.
Damn! The one night she saw someone she actually fancied she’d agreed to meet some dorky blind date. Two minutes later she thumped down the stairs preparing to walk out. Annie greeted her at the bottom.
“That’s him.” It was said in a whisper and accompanied by a backwards nod towards the bar. Caro scanned the room cautiously and caught sight of Peter’s thick dark hair. As he turned she saw a tall man beside him. It was the one she’d seen on the stairs! She stared for so long that Annie finally nudged her out of her daze.
“Is it the tall one? With greying hair?”
“Yes. That’s him. Jonno Mitchell. How did you know?”
“I saw him on my way upstairs.”
Caro’s smile said it all. Annie smirked. “Still want to go home?”
“No… But we still need a rescue signal. He looks alright but he might be as boring as hell. If I say I’m tired, that’s our signal to go. OK?”
Annie shrugged. Peter already had the key to her place so it wouldn’t stop her having fun.
“Ready. Here goes another disastrous evening.”
They moved through the crowd and as they approached the men Jonno turned and met their eyes. Annie slipped her hand into Peter’s and it became clear that Caro was his blind date. He smiled. It was a confident smile that said ‘welcome’, but the look in his eyes said much, much more.
Caro’s heart throbbed with excitement and her mouth turned dry, then he kissed her cheek in greeting and she felt something else. She’d felt like she’d finally come home.