Contemporary Friendship Romance

It was thirty-five years since he’d qualified as a teacher, and the Reunion Dinner was being held to mark forty years since the college opened. Paul stood behind two or three others waiting to register their arrival at the Reception desk. The others all had small cases with them, suggesting they were from out of town and would be staying in the halls left vacant during the summer vacation. Paul lived nearby, and had decided against the residential option. Mentally, he shrugged. The phrase “que sera, sera” floated through his mind – and apparently through his lips, though unintentionally. The guest in front of him turned, with a puzzled half-smile on his face.

“Linguist, or musician? Mick Robbins, Class of ’72, PE and English!”

“Paul Freeman, same year as you: Music and English” There would guaranteed be countless condensed introductions of a similar nature throughout the weekend.

“I remember you, Mick: I played wing (badly) for the 3rd XV. Didn’t you switch codes and play Rugby League for St. Helens ?”

“Good grief, ancient history – but yes, you’re right! Listen, come over to the coffee bar when you’ve registered. I’ll get you one .. !”

“ ... so I went back to teaching when my playing and coaching days were over, and finished up as a Deputy Head.” Mick had summed up his thirty-plus years in about as many words and clearly expected something similar from Paul. Feeling a little self-conscious, he made the effort.

“I was never tempted to go for promotions, or Head of Dept, anything like that. In fact, I never stayed one school (or even town) too long. Pretty much permanent Supply Teacher, I suppose ...!” he grinned.

Mick’s eyes suddenly flicked slightly upwards and beyond Paul’s shoulder. Sensing that someone (or something) had happened Paul half-rose and twisted in his chair. A tall, athletic Latino figure strolled casually through the entrance – but in stark contrast to the silver- or grey-haired Alumni gathering in the foyer, this apparition could easily have passed for someone in his mid-twenties.

“Can you believe it?” Mick gasped, “It’s only Tony ‘The Prez’ Greco, and I swear he hasn’t aged a day since he was Student Union President!”

The newcomer was immediately the centre of attention, as he had been during the whole of his three-year tenure as SU President. Mick rose and joined the throng of (possibly envious) well-wishers. Paul drained his coffee cup and decided to wander off on a more personal stroll down memory lane

Along a deserted corridor and through an unobtrusive side door he found himself in a peaceful enclosed garden he’d often used for quiet reflections during a busy lecture schedule.. Two busy major roads were less than fifty metres away south and east from the garden, but the only sounds were a muted bird chirrup, and the scent of flowers and shrubs prevailed over any hint of traffic fumes. Angela Hall – one of the female residential blocks – formed one flank. What stories the girls could they tell if he met any of them. He’d never had much of a social life in his college years: practicing and rehearsing music had occupied far too much of his time for that.

Paul had never worn a watch. His instincts warned him, however, that time was passing, and he stood up from the bench a few seconds before a gong sounded to advise the assembled guests that the Lounge would be open for drinks before Dinner. Brushing some non-existent pollen from his tux Paul headed back indoors, anticipating pleasant conversation and reminiscences before the meal.

Youthful staff – most likely current students – circulated the Forum with trays of sparkling white wine. With a nod of thanks Paul accepted one and turned to speak to his closest neighbour: a slim vision in white with an impressive mane of jet black hair which had no trace of silver or grey and appeared completely natural, untouched by dye or colouring. Yet surely, to be present at this Reunion, she had to have passed fifty ...

She caught his glance and smiled as if she’d read his deepest inner thoughts.

“Your hair may have turned silver, old fox, but your face is barely different ...Paul! Paul Freeman: I am right I know it!”

”I’ll take that as a compliment: I don’t get many of them” he grinned, “And I’d recognise those dulcet tones anywhere, Sally Eagle!” There wasn’t the slightest suggestion of doubt or uncertainty in Paul’s response. “And why would you, of all people, ever have to worry about the colour of your hair, or any other beauty products?”

“Oh, you always had a way with words!” Her giggle was without question that of a much younger woman as she turned back to the group she’d been talking to before Paul joined the group. “Stephanie, Gemma, what a shame you’ve got partners with you! You must remember Paul – are you also here on your own? I need a partner for the Dinner ... there’s the gong, we can go in now: I hope our placecards are fairly close together ...”

With a minimum of horsetrading and barter, Sally managed to make some minor adjustments Paul noticed that everyone she spoke to was left with the impression they’d somehow got the best end of the deal. Sally took her place on Paul’s right, with Stephanie, Gemma and their husbands opposite. As they sat Paul took a fleeting moment to check, and was relieved: there were no rings on Sally’s hands.

At the top table The Prez stood as a small silver bell tinkled. In stark contrast to just about everyone else, Tony had opted for what looked like genuine ‘retro’ 1970s clothing rather than a tuxedo, but it seemed such a natural part of his persona that nobody thought to question his choice

“Ladies, Gentlemen. Please remain seated while Monsignor Kelly leads us in Grace.”

Now well into his 90s and retired as Archbishop, msg. Kelly bobbed swiftly to his feet and pronounced a short Benedictus, to which all responded with a heartfelt Amen. Drinks and conversation flowed with ease throughout the varied courses of the meal. It was amazing how many incidents, alarums and excursions from almost forty years (for the oldest participants) could be triggered by a chance remark

At last, Paul plucked up the courage.

“Sally, I ...”

“No need to repeat yourself, Paul. I caught you looking. And it’s alright: it was many years ago now: an RTA. And I don’t need to ask you ... unless you want to tell me ...?”

“How did you ...?”

“Seventh of a seventh, Paul – and I think you’re probably the first person I’ve ever told that!

“So that’s why you’re a step in front of me the whole time ...!”

”You’re an open book, Paul – with a few dark chapters, I’m sure, but easy enough to read ...” She paused. It seemed so natural to rest his hand on hers, soft and warm on the table.

“Tell me about your first teaching post" she said, " ... that’s one we all remember!”

“Summer of ’72. Yeah, well, there were no jobs to be had in Liverpool that year: not in teaching, nor anything else! I decided to take a Gap Year. I spent the summer working at a boys’ camp in the States, and stayed on to teach a year at a small country school in New York state – I couldn’t bear the thought of teaching in a big city, though! I was ready to come home the following year, but someone offered me a job teaching USAF kids at a base in Germany. From there I just ... carried on, permanent Supply Teacher in schools all over Europe: a term here, a year there, that sort of thing.”

“So you never ...?”

“Put down roots? Met ... someone, anyone? I won’t lie. Sally: there were times ... but no, it never really happened for me ...”

Sally’s other hand nestled on his, matching the one below on the pristine damask tablecloth.

“And are you happy now, Paul? Remember, this ’seven-of-seven’ soothsayer will know if you even try to stray too far from an honest reply!”

To gain a moment, marshal his thoughts (and calm the sudden acceleration of his heartbeat) Paul eased his hand from the love-nest on the tabletop and picked up his glass. As if from a distance, he noticed that Sally’s hand mirrored his action.

“Sally, without so much as a shred of evidence I hear the truth in what you say: I’d never, ever try to lie to you.”

“So in a sense I’m finally admitting to myself that my reasons for never “settling to a job” and opting for the sometimes nomadic life of a Supply Teacher haven’t always been what I told myself they were: almost as if I chose to “Live a Lie”, my whole life! If I’m being brutally honest with myself – thanks mostly to you! – I have to say that I got my first “proper job” about a year ago, when I decided to take early retirement and I started ...”                    He mumbled the final syllables? words? of his sentence. Sally pounced without mercy.

“Open book, Paul: remember? I can hear your thoughts, let everyone else hear you!” She looked up. Gemma and Stephanie were leaning forwards. A ripple of attention was growing as Sally’s challenge caused casual chatter to falter.

“I started writing stories – for children – and they’ve done quite well so far” he managed. “In one way it made me think I’d spent thirty-odd years living a lie when I could have been, you know ...” His voice trailed off.

“Making children happy?” This from Gemma across the table, provoking a shower of positive comments and congratulations.

The moment passed, and post-prandial drinks were served. For the moment, Paul and Sally were left in relative seclusion at the table as their immediate neighbours chose to chase down long-forgotten friends.

“Do you recall the last time we were at a formal Dinner in this room?” Sally asked.

Paul’s memory was instant: also poignant, tinged with sadness, regret even.

“That would have been the Valentine Ball in our Senior Year.”

“Yes. You and your girlfriend raised a storm on the dance floor.”

Paul almost spilled his drink.

“Mary? Sally, she wasn’t my girlfriend! She was my dance partner in a Formation team, a pretty good one too: We even thought about taking it up professionally, but there weren’t many chances in those days and no security, so nothing ever came of it ...”

He paused, momentarily overwhelmed by impromptu memories of might-have-been.

“What I’ll always remember” he admitted slowly, reluctantly, “Is seeing you sitting out just about every dance, and hating myself because I’d bottled out of asking you to ...”

Sally had finished her drink. Paul yelped in pain and surprise as her free left hand crushed down again on his.

“You’ve been honest with me, Paul, so now it’s my turn! What made ’72, our Senior Year special?”

Paul took a blind stab. “It was an Olympic year ...?”

Sally nodded. “It was also a Leap Year. And you weren’t the only one who ‘bottled out’”

She paused

“That was when I started ‘living the lie’, Paul: because on February 29th I fully intended to ask you to marry me ..."                                                    

August 16, 2021 11:20

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Sharon Williams
15:07 Aug 26, 2021

Hello Paul. Critique Circle here. I enjoyed this piece. It was clever of you to tie Sally's comments about Paul being an open book, and him having a way with words to him being an author. You have caught the atmosphere of these reunions well. You are right, everyone always gives each other a whirlwind tour of their achievements etc, and the popular personalities retain their magnetic charisma even years later. I assume from Sally's statement about an RTA, she had some form of facial disfigurement? I became a little confused when Sally said '...


Paul McDermott
20:34 Aug 26, 2021

Damn, I should have been more careful Sally was saying (without using the hurting words) that her HUSBAND had died in a Road Traffic Accident a number of years ago .... thanks for that, I'll do some editing!


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F.O. Morier
06:01 Aug 26, 2021

looking foreward to reading more of your stories!


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F.O. Morier
05:54 Aug 26, 2021

I enjoyed reading your story!


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