Mum’s face was a picture. I’d hoped to escape for our girls’ night out without either parent seeing me, but she appeared as I was pulling on the boots I borrowed from Jess. They didn’t fit very well. I don’t think the designer expected them to be comfortable on anyone. Mum went to distract Dad in case he investigated what his daughter was up to. Carol waited outside in her thin jacket, wearing even heavier makeup than I was.
Once I’d strapped myself in, we went to collect Jess and Lucy. Jess raided the drinks cupboard on her way out. She had a bottle in her coat pocket and another in her handbag, having correctly surmised no-one would miss a couple of bottles. She opened the Blue Nun before leaving in case they noticed the absence of the opener. The Mateus Rosé had a cork with a plastic top glued on for ease of use, a handy trade-off for the taste of the stuff. The singing began as we passed the cemetery, undertaken with sufficient gusto to rouse any long-term residents on the other side of the wall who felt restless this evening.
“I got chills…”
We took a line each, and all joined in the ooh, ooh, oohs.
The lad from the corner-shop dashed past us. He blushed easily; we usually mocked him to his face, though at least two of us secretly thought he might one day have potential. Most of his spots had cleared up in the last couple of years. Recently, I started feeling guilty about some of the names I’d called him.
“Oi, Richard! Are you going to the party?”
He had dressed for it, in his own way., but walked with his head down, pretending not to see us.
“It’s fun to stay at the…”
That record had been out for several weeks, but none of us knew any of the other words apart from the line about hanging out with all the boys. We couldn’t agree on where that bit went, so one of us interjected with it occasionally, entirely at random. The refrain powered us to the pub where, as always, we exaggerated our ages and the staff pretended to believe us.
I sat with Lucy for most of the evening, hoping somebody might ask me to dance. No-one did. I drank too much and needed to go outside for air. Carol came too. We sat on the wall by the ever-present line of motorbikes. It was pretty dark, and I was far too whooshy to focus properly, but she was obviously bursting to tell me something. “What’s up?”
“It’s Richard. He wants to know if you’ll go out with him”.
Oh God, yes, I so would.
“No, I’m not. He really fancies you. He’s quite nice, actually”.
Once the fuzziness subsided a bit, we went back inside and Carol sought my potential suitor to convey the glad news. About an hour later, he still hadn’t come over. The party was winding down. Those with partners, new or existing, had left already, along with those who didn’t care or had given up the night as a poor job. The rest of us shuffled around hopefully. I saw Richard again, at last. He was staring at me while trying to pretend not to. For God’s sake, will you just come over and talk to me? He started walking my way, then stopped. I’d have to meet him halfway.
How are you? Fine thanks, Richard. Have you had a good time? Yes, thanks, Richard. No, I don’t need to be back yet, I lied. Can you walk me home? Yes, if you like. I just need to wish the others a merry Christmas for tomorrow.
Somewhere between the pub and home, I took his hand, which was freezing. I’d never held a boy’s hand before, but it felt natural and, oh my word, he didn’t want to let go. We talked all the way back, and I felt safe and happy. When we reached my doorstep, I offered him my cheek. He didn’t seem to know what to do with it, so I grabbed him and kissed him before he could run away.
Yes, you may see me again. When? Boxing Day? Oh, you’re going away for the next week? Ring and wish me a happy new year, then. Here, I’ll write the number down. You’re still quite drunk, aren’t you? Do you remember where you live? Steady tiger, I’m going in now. Marry you? I don’t think so, maybe one day. Ask me when you’re sober. Hush, you’ll wake my parents. I’ve got to go, my feet are killing me and I’ve got to get out of these boots. Just call me, okay?
Three years later.
Richard met me at the station, hiding behind a bunch of flowers even bigger than the smile on his face. Were it not for his expression, he might have been on his way to a funeral, except it had been dark for ages and the crematorium closed hours ago. There were so many blooms, he could have used them in self-defence, or to trigger an unseasonal bout of hay fever throughout the station.
I was having such a good time at university I’d considered staying behind, but couldn’t face the guilt-trip over trashing Mum’s Christmas. I arrived on the last train from anywhere until the day after tomorrow. Even when setting out, I considered missing it, reluctant to let the reins pull me back again.
He wanted to visit during my first term, but I said I had too much work. It was sort of true. Since he waved me off in September, I felt I’d grown several years wiser. I wondered what might encourage him to do likewise.
He threw my rucksack onto his back and grabbed the holdall with the presents. I carried the flowers. He walked on the outside, like the gentleman he was, and reached out to take my hand. I was out of practice and had other things on my mind.
Where are we going tonight? Please no, I just want to curl up on my old bed and get some rest. Quietly, and completely alone. You’re coming over tomorrow, anyway. You’ll see me then.
Under my breath. Oh Mum, did you have to invite him in? Okay, could you take the bags up? Thanks, Dad, I’d love a coffee. No, I might have something stronger later.
Why are you looking at me like that, Richard? I know it’s our anniversary. What are you doing? Praying? Oh God, please don’t tell me you’ve got a ring in that box? It’s beautiful. It must have cost a fortune. I really wish you hadn’t. Put it away. I can’t take it. Not today, or tomorrow, or ever. I meant to tell you after we got New Year’s Eve out of the way. No, I don’t need to think about it.
You’d better go. Of course I’ll tell Mum you won’t be coming tomorrow. I’m so sorry. You can call me if you like, just not in the next few days. Yes, see yourself out. That would be best, I think. See you. Okay, you can kiss me goodbye if you like. We’ll always be friends, yes.
And that was it for the next ten years.
I hope you don’t mind me writing. If you do then sorry. It’s been so long. I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to wish you a merry Christmas.
I don’t expect you heard, but I joined the army after we broke up. I thought about telling you I wanted to while we were together, but knew you wouldn’t approve.
They promoted me twice and I’m doing okay. The first years were quiet, but not where I am at the moment. It’s need-to-know, but you might see me on the news if you look under the metal hats.
I’ve no idea whether this will reach you on time, or if you’ll get it at all. I used to hear about you from the folks. Since they died, my ears on the ground have gone deaf, rather like my right one since somebody tried to take us out soon after we landed.
I’ve got six more months, then I’ll come home and decide what to do next.
They don’t sell cards out here, not to us, anyway. If you like, you can imagine there’s a picture of snow on the other side of this letter. It’s almost a century since it fell where I am. I think they get it up north.
I’d love to hear from you if we’re still friends. My unit moves about a lot, but if you send something it should reach me.
How are you? What are you up to? I heard you were doing well. I hope that’s right. If you could bear being seen with a squaddie, I’d love to see you. I promise to arrive dressed as a civilian, I should be one next time I’m home.
Jan said she found the ring I bought you when she was clearing out Mum’s place. I meant to take it back to the jeweller’s like you said, but never got around to it, and the receipt’s ten years out of date. You can have it if you like. No strings, just a present from a guy with nothing better to take his mind off what’s going on here than remembering a friend.
My best to your parents. Look after yourself. I intend to do the same.
Love from your old mate
“Was that Richard’s writing?”
“I thought so. Didn’t he join the army? His sister dropped something off a few weeks ago, I completely forgot. She said you’d know what it was. I need to get the turkey out for the morning, I’ll grab it on the way”.
Mostly, I’d chosen to be alone since throwing him out. Today was our unlucky anniversary. When she got back, Mum handed over the box, I opened it and looked inside.
“My word, that looks expensive! Is that the one he bought you? Are you going to put it on?”
I might as well, I thought. It’s not as if there was anything residually contractual about it after all this time. It fitted perfectly. I’d keep it there for the rest of the evening, at least.
I spent New Year’s Eve writing and rewriting my reply. Eventually, I had to take the ring off. It was too distracting. Each time I noticed it, I wrote something he might take the wrong way. I was glad he’d done something with his life, although it wasn’t what I’d have chosen for him. I’d thought of him only rarely, but the effort required to find the right words was telling, as hard as anything I wrote for the master's I finished in the summer. I walked it to the postbox before I could change my mind, then dashed back to get out of the rain.
I’d applied for dozens of jobs during the autumn and winter and carried on into the spring. I received an offer for the one I wanted most of all and, by spring, I was gone. Off to Europe, to work at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
Mum promised to let me know when the reply arrived, and I reminded her weekly during our long-distance catch-up phone calls. Then, the world was so much bigger than now. Sometimes, I daydreamed of inviting him to stay with me in my gorgeous little flat overlooking the river, with wooden shutters to keep out the dark and the summer heat. By autumn, I wondered if my letter had reached him, or if I inadvertently wrote something to upset him. This time last year, it would have shocked me to realise I even cared.
I asked Dad to visit his sister’s flat, but the new tenant said she’d sold up and moved away. No, they had no forwarding address. I thanked him, but the news left me knotted inside. The moment I put down the phone, I was in tears. I walked along the river, telling myself not to be so foolish. Then I wished his letter had never reached me. I felt such a fool, and wretched with it.
Might he be in hospital somewhere? Was he still alive? How would you even go about finding out? I’d read a lot about soldiers returning with what the papers christened Gulf War Syndrome, but nobody seemed to know much about it.
On the other hand, my job was all I hoped and expected it to be. I worked closely alongside an elderly professor with a constant twinkle in one eye. Even though we spoke German, he had the broadest French accent I ever heard outside of comedies they don’t show on television anymore. He chastised me for the long hours I put in. I insisted it was because I found the work so rewarding, but he didn’t believe me. Eventually, I admitted I was trying to get somebody out of my head. The Prof had been married and divorced four times already and thought the best solution was to find another suitor, and quickly. There were lots of single men in the maths and science facilities, and, if I didn’t like the look of any of them, there were always the women. As a last resort, he’d consider letting me be number five, although he didn’t recommend it, given the state of him these days.
But what about the ring? Oh, that? I wore it to stop guys chatting me up all the time. It was an old trick, but made life easier. He said it was no wonder I spent so much time alone, and we carried on checking the data from last night.
Work gave me a mobile phone when I started, it made me feel very sophisticated. I called the professor during the wait for my connection to get me to the boat train from Gare du Nord to wish him a merry Christmas for tomorrow. He asked if I’d spoken to the very tall young man in astrophysics recently, and I said I hadn’t. I knew the one he meant. I walked past him in the canteen the other day. Even though he was sitting, we were about the same height. The professor said I should get on with it, or else he’d have to marry me instead, and I probably wouldn’t like that as much. The line started breaking up and I could hear him chuckling through the static.
The journey was uneventful, the crossing calm. I picked up the train into London and out again. The underground was rammed, but there was room to spread out on the last train home. There usually was. Most people weren’t so keen to put off their homecoming the way I always did. I called to ask Dad to collect me shortly before we arrived. He said the car was playing up, but he’d arranged for a friend to collect me. I lost the signal going through the tunnel but didn’t bother calling back. I knew all of Dad’s friends, he’d known them forever, and they all delighted in telling me how I’d grown since I was a baby whenever we met. Whichever one turned up, I wouldn’t have any trouble finding him.
I stepped onto the platform, pulling my case behind me. It was one of the new ones, with wheels, and such a great idea it was inconceivable nobody thought of it before. The night was still, and bitterly cold. My breath condensed before me and the steam covered my glasses. I took them off and stuffed them into my pocket. I could see well enough to show my ticket, if there was anyone checking them.
I noticed a flower-seller by the door leading to the ticket office. I could get some for Mum, she’d like that. She still talked about that ridiculous bunch from the night I threw Richard out, although she remembered them as being the most beautiful she’d ever seen.
“How much are they?” I asked, rummaging for my purse.
“Hello”, said the voice belonging to the body hidden behind them.
I froze for what felt like an age. “Richard?”
“I got your letter last week, I think it went through every war zone in the world. I’m surprised it didn’t arrive full of holes”.
I put my glasses back on to check my current version of reality.
“I went to see your parents today. They said you were on your way, so I came to collect you. I’ve got a car now, you’ll need it for this lot. I can’t manage the flowers and the bag, I could do it in two trips, though. Your Mum invited me for dinner tomorrow. I said I’d have to check with you first. I’d like to, if you don’t mind. Oh, you got the ring, then?”
“Yes, I did. Thank you. And that would be lovely”.
“It suits you. Don’t worry, I won’t propose to you again, not today, anyway. Unless you insist. Let’s see if we like each other again first. I might ask you next year, though. Come on, let’s go, you’re shivering and I don’t want your parents to think I’ve kidnapped you”.
As things turned out, we did like each other, and have carried on doing so ever since. He moved in the next spring, then followed me through a succession of jobs around the world until we ended up here, close to where we started. Our daughter is the same age as I was the first time her father walked me home, and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. If he even thinks of saying she can’t go out looking like that, I will slap him very hard indeed, affectionately, of course.