Oxford, England, June 1995
I figured that in view of the occupants of the cellar-like bar, the name ‘The Clean Whistle’ was a singularly overoptimistic title for the pub. The air was thick with beer, fags, patchouli, pot and joss sticks, and the clientele was kitted out in an infinite array of black clothing, studs, piercings and spiked hair. This was not Dave’s normal scene. I turned abruptly to him.
“Okay, Dave. Now tell me why we’re really here.”
His face offered a reflex grin at being so immediately seen through, but his dark eyes were narrowed in the direction of a group across the room.
“See the big square-headed guy over there?”
I stared obediently at the huge bloke with the rough-hewn face leaning his shoulders against the opposite wall.
“The one sitting beside him.”
I rearranged my gaze towards the smaller ferret-featured figure seated to one side. “What about him?” I demanded.
He glanced at me and frowned. “Trouble with you, is you’re rather too memorable.”
“Is that a compliment or a complaint?” I asked acerbically.
His lips twisted wryly. “Tonight, it’s a complaint.” He looked thoughtfully at me. “Take the leather off.”
I slipped it off. “I do it better to music,” I suggested, “if there’s a fiver in it.”
He ignored me. “Now listen.” His hand gripped my bare upper arm. “I want you to go into the ladies loo there, just behind them and I’ll leave. Then after a short interval I want you to come out again and walk through their group and leave this note on the table just in front of that guy, without looking at him, and then keep on walking right out the exit. Can you do that?”
I looked dubiously at him. Dave placed the small, folded piece of paper into the palm of my hand and closed my hand over it. “Hurry.” He turned and left.
With a sense of misgiving, I headed for the loos. I waited in there for a couple of minutes pretending to study my somewhat negligible makeup for flaws, then emerged, casually wending my way between several free-standing tables and passing close to the one in question. As I laid the folded paper down on the table I couldn’t forbear from glancing at the recipient. His black greasy hair was a mass of tiny plaits tied back into a tangled pony tail, a large gold ring protruded from one flared nostril, and a conveniently placed designer tear in his black T-shirt revealed a square-ended silver bar piercing his left nipple. The designer stubble on his aggressively sharp-featured face was conveniently black. And so were the vicious eyes that met mine for that fraction of a second that I looked. With a casual swing of the hips I was away. Outside, I found Dave parked right in front of the entrance with the engine running. I took the jacket and lid that he thrust at me, donned them with practised speed, and then with the gravel skidding beneath us we were spectacularly away. As we pulled out into the road, I glanced back behind us. But no one had followed.
As we removed our lids at the next stop, I could hear the reassuring sound of Guns N’ Roses blasting across a car park full of glossy bikes with enough horsepower to keep the Grand National up and running for the next ten years.
“You either owe me an explanation or a drink,” I informed him.
He headed straight for the bar so I figured I wasn’t going to be getting the explanation. As I followed him, I glanced around. Enough leather to frighten a herd of cows into a sudden increase in milk production and enough tight jeans to lower the sperm count of an entire generation. I relaxed. Now we were on home territory. And then my interest in the evening sharpened. The blond guy in a tight white T-shirt behind the bar was well worth coming in for. His vivid blue eyes strayed several times in my direction as he and Dave exchanged salutations. I listened in idly as Dave shoved a vodka and orange at me.
“You done then?” The guy asked, pushing his sun-highlighted hair back from his forehead.
“You can tell the Council that I’m up to speed,” Dave answered.
The guy turned away to reach for a glass as someone further along the bar imperiously shouted their order, then he glanced back at Dave. “They’re not meeting till next week, but I’ll make sure the message gets to them.” He began the slow process of pulling a pint, setting it to one side to allow it to settle before continuing to fill it.
“What real ales do you have on at the moment?” Dave leant back and assessed the line of taps with a professional eye. He raised an eyebrow. “Impressive range.”
“That’s the advantage of being independent of the breweries,” the guy answered.
I was beginning to faint with boredom. I’d only fetched up in Oxford this morning and this wasn’t the sort of first evening out that I’d been anticipating. “Shall we hit a nightclub?” I suggested to Dave. I glanced at my watch. Or even a film. We still had time if we motored.
“And this is?” The guy enquired of Dave, his eyes on me. I returned his gaze. He had a clean-cut jawline and nice arched brows under the floppy hair.
“Steve,” he reciprocated with an attractive smile. “And you two are…?” He raised his eyebrows, looking significantly from me to Dave and back.
“Just friends,” I said firmly.
The barman laughed. “Traditionally you’d put the word ‘good’ into that sentence.”
“Believe me, I chose my words with exquisite care,” I retorted drily.
“I only hang out with her because I have a thing about black stockings and short skirts,” Dave explained.
Steve peered over the bar and looked puzzled when he saw my blue jeans and trainers.
Dave picked up his pint and grinned over it at him. “She’s in the St. John’s Ambulance and she’s going to be a nurse,” he explained. “Used to be my favourite game when I was a child – doctors and nurses. I was looking forward to taking up the hobby again.”
“Dream on,” I jibed.
“It’s never been the same since she took that assertiveness training course,” he complained to Steve with a sigh.
“I’ll introduce you to Trace then,” Steve offered. “She’s been in black stockings and short skirts since primary school and doesn’t appear to recognise the existence of the word ‘no’.”
“Sexist male talk bores me,” I informed Dave crossly as he feigned interest in the guy’s offer.
“Yeah, she’s a great feminist until she spots a guy she fancies in a pair of tight jeans,” Dave informed him.
In one swift but admittedly unresisted manoeuvre, I had Dave’s arm twisted up his back and shoved him down over the bar. Leaning forward and pretending agonising pain, Dave grimaced. “And the self-defence lessons were definitely one of Roscoe’s less inspired ideas.”
“You’ve minded your Ps and Qs since though, haven’t you?” I pointed out.
In less than a second, he’d twisted out of my hold again and had my own wrists pinned down on the bar.
“I let her delude herself if she wishes,” he confided in Steve, “but in fact, it’s the existence of the six-foot-three boyfriend that keeps me toeing the line!”
As we all laughed Steve shot me a brief speculative glance, and as our eyes met I was glad to see that the mention of the boyfriend hadn’t put him off, even though Dave had clearly meant it to.
Heath had got in before us, but only just. Sitting on the settee with his feet up he had thrown off his jacket and hat, but apart from that he was still in his uniform. He flicked the mute button on the remote as we came in and I leant over the back of the settee, ruffled his tow-coloured hair, then put my arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. He leant his head back and we kissed properly.
“Can I get you anything?” I offered.
He shook his head and I saw he’d already got himself a can from the fridge. I curled up beside him on the settee and tried to rest my head cosily on his shoulder, but those stab vests are really uncomfortable to cuddle up to.
Dave threw himself disgustedly into one of the armchairs. “You could at least have taken the gear off, Roscoe! It gives me the heebie-jeebies sitting down to a beer with a policeman in the room.”
Heath glanced idly at him. “It wouldn’t if you had a clear conscience.”
I grinned at the thought of a law-abiding Dave. I couldn’t quite see it myself.
“He claims to have a thing about black stockings,” I told Heath, “how about introducing him to a few nice WPCs?”
This time it was Heath who grinned. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it to them.”
I kissed him in the region of his neck, which was about all I could reach at this angle. “How’s your day been?”
He groaned and sank lower into the settee. “Not the best.” He made a brushing away movement with his hand to indicate that he wasn’t going to get into it. But this was why I was here for the summer – to spend time with him. To support him.
“Go on,” I urged. I looked expectantly at him. “Tell us one incident so we can get a flavour…”
His hazel eyes scanned my face for a thoughtful moment. “Okay then. This is how my day started. First callout of the day. Eight am. Psyche case.” He pulled a face. “As we knocked on the front door, we could hear her on the other side of it, screaming her head off. I was standing right at the door trying to talk to her through the glass panel, but I couldn’t see in because the light was wrong. Then Phil, who’s standing in a different place to me, suddenly yells ‘Watch out!’ and shoves me sideways, and a split second later this huge concrete Madonna comes hurtling through the glass!”
Dave and I creased up.
Heath gave me a shove. “Yeah, right, thanks for the sympathy. If Phil hadn’t shouted, I might have been killed!”
I wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes and managed in quivering tones to instruct him to carry on with the tale.
Heath grimaced. “So, then we went in for her. And she just stood there screaming at us and tearing all her clothes off.”
“My kinda woman,” Dave interjected with a grin.
Heath shook his head. “In the end we had to handcuff her to stop her stripping off and fighting.” His face showed his distaste. “It doesn’t look good to be dragging a naked handcuffed woman into a car. I got a blanket off the settee in her living room and tried to cover her up, but even so...”
“What happened to her?” I asked with a frown.
“Some WPCs managed to get some clothes on her at the station. Apparently, she fought them all the way – and Phil and I weren’t popular because we forgot to check her mouth and it turned out she’d secreted a razor blade and damn near got one of them with it. Eventually they called a doctor in to sedate her and set about the proceedings for sectioning her. I expect she’ll be on a psyche ward by now – but if she carries on like that she’ll end up in a psychiatric secure unit.”
I was silent for a moment. “Do you get any training in how to deal with people who are mentally ill?”
Heath pulled a face. “Let’s put it this way – not enough.”
“But living with you he finds he doesn’t need it,” Dave grinned across at me, “as he now knows all there is to know about nutcases!”
I threw the nearest empty can back at his head.
Mandy suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me into Burger King.
“I thought you said that anyone who was anybody went to McDonalds?” I protested.
“Shut up,” Mandy hissed. “We’re going here, right?”
According to my aunt, fifteen-year-old Mandy was having a really difficult time at the moment because her parents were getting divorced, and Aunt Helen, for no apparent reason that I could fathom, felt she should personally do something about it. Or rather, that I should befriend her, on my aunt’s behalf. “You’re nearer her age,” she told me, “you can be a shoulder to cry on, and I know I can trust you to give her sensible advice.”
I thought that my first piece of sensible advice should be that if she wanted to get this guy whom she had been talking about all the way here, she shouldn’t be wearing purple nail varnish, purple eye-shadow and purple lipstick. Unless this much vaunted ‘older man’ that she was infatuated with was so much older that his favourite band was Deep Purple. Ha, ha. I shrugged in resignation. One fast food place was very much like another, and the quicker we got this lunch over with, the sooner I could get home. This so-called ‘vulnerable’ waif of Aunt Helen’s had already proceeded to drag me round the HMV record shop, drooling over every long-haired rock band on the record sleeves, offered me a cigarette and tried to wheedle me into buying her a bottle of cider at an off-licence.
As we queued up to order, Mandy kept screwing her neck around to peer up the stairs. “Hurry up!” she snapped at me. So, off the top of my head I ordered a cheeseburger and a cappuccino. As soon as our order arrived, she indicated for me to pick up our tray, and proceeded to shove me ahead of her up the stairs.
“There’s plenty of seats down here,” I pointed out.
Mandy treated me to a glance full of withering scorn. “Didn’t you see them? They’ve gone upstairs.”
As soon as we hit the top deck, Mandy overtook me and began to saunter with ostentatiously swinging hips down the centre aisle, leaving me to scurry after her carrying the tray. With a sensation of being somewhere in the middle reaches of purgatory, I tried to direct my eyes anywhere but at the group of long-haired, leather-jacketed young men that had occasioned this sudden, acutely embarrassing metamorphosis in Mandy. She slid herself into a seat at the table directly behind them and waved urgently for me to join her. Wishing I didn’t have to own her in any way at all, I hurried quickly past the objects of her interest.
Unfortunately, I neglected to notice the leg that had been laid negligently across the aisle and before I realised what had happened, I was hurtling towards the lap of the guy on the outside chair with the tray flying up into the air, my cappuccino launching like a liquid Exocet missile towards his chest, the extra-large coke toppling the other way, my cheeseburger heading like a frisbee at the guy beyond him and Mandy’s double whopper looking as though it was about to live up to its name and whop someone around the head. With an added sense of horror, I perceived that both my hands were plunging with the inevitability of fate towards a part of the guy’s anatomy that I’d rather not come into contact with. With a supreme muscular effort, I managed to force my hands a few more inches apart so that at the moment of impact I landed safely on his thighs.
There was a moment of frozen shocked silence. Then a blond bloke leant forward, grinning hugely, and said something to the group that caused them all to roar with laughter.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I babbled as I tried to scramble to my feet. “I didn’t see your foot. I’m sorry.” The guy I’d landed on said nothing to make it any easier for me. His grey eyes were unamused as I struggled to straighten up. As I began to back away, I saw his eyes running a swift up and down assessment of me. For a moment our eyes held, and I felt the colour rush like a burning tidal wave into my cheeks. Then I turned and got the hell out of there as fast as I could go, not stopping until I was safely on a bus heading for home.
As I arrived back to the house laden with Sainsbury’s bags, the previously bright sky clouded over, and rain spat in the wind. Dave had been working on his bike out the front, but just as I started up the path he glanced up at the sky, wiped his oily hands down the back of his dirty frayed jeans and picked up a huge piece of his bike engine to bring it inside.
“Open the door, will you?” he called.
Resignedly I pushed the door open, put my heavy carrier bags down in the hall, and stood holding the door as he sidled in sideways with the lump of metal, wiping his head awkwardly against his upper arm to get rid of an itch.
“And the living room door, will you?” he prompted, and stood waiting whilst I closed the front door and opened the other for him.
“Don’t you dare put it down anywhere until I’ve put newspaper down first!” I threatened.
He pulled a mock grimace. “I knew it would get like this as soon as we got a woman living here. It’s not our carpet you know, it’s only rented.”
“That’s not the point,” I retorted, efficiently laying down a large square of the local rag on the grimy carpet in front of him.
He deposited his burden on them. “You can skip the lecture about respecting other people’s property, I’ve heard it all before.” He settled himself with his back against the settee and took up his overhaul where he’d left off.
I sat down on the settee alongside him and with an effort resisted the temptation offered by his bent head to run my hand through his crisp, wavy, dark hair where it curled enticingly at the nape of his neck. Heath had, sadly, cut his hair short when he joined the Force last year, and I wasn’t left with much to play with.
“You remember that weird film that my brother told us we shouldn’t miss, when he came over with Leonora the last time you were here?” Dave enquired.
“Uh huh.” I did.
“It’s on at the Phoenix tonight. Do you and Heath want to come to it?”
“Heath won’t get off his shift until after eleven,” I reminded him.
“Oh, well,” Dave shrugged. He glanced round at me. “You could still come though.”
“I could–” I hesitated. “But couldn’t we go on Heath’s day off?”
“When’s that?” Dave asked, peering dubiously into a tube that looked sparkling clean to me.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. When I’d asked him, he’d shrugged, which wasn’t promising.
“Hmm.” Dave began to carefully re-wipe out the tube. “He always seems to be at work or in bed,” he observed. “It’s only on for two nights, so if it’s not his day off tomorrow then I vote we go together tonight.”
I sighed again. “Okay then.” I knew he wouldn’t be off tomorrow.
Silence fell, and I watched Dave continue his meticulous work.
“How long is it now since you moved in with Heath?” I asked at last. Originally, Heath had taken on the lease of this house with a couple of other probationary constables. But one of them had completed his training and transferred to the Maidenhead division leaving Heath to recruit Dave in a hurry, needing a third person in residence to pay the bills, and couple of weeks ago, Brad, the other tenant, had dropped out of his training, leaving a bedroom suddenly vacant for me to move into. I’d been toying with the idea of inter-railing for the summer with a couple of girls from the sixth form, but this stroke of luck was just too sweet to miss. Three exclusive months with Heath. Bliss!
“About two months I suppose,” Dave concluded after a pause to consider.
“Has it been working out?”
His cloth stopped polishing for a moment and he stared thoughtfully ahead of him.
“Yeah, I s’pose so.” He bent his head back to his work. “Though I’m not sure I’ll be able to stay here much longer – I foresee complications.”
I was curious. “What do you mean?”
But he didn’t answer, continuing with his overhaul as though I hadn’t spoken.
“Don’t leave too soon, will you?” I urged. “I was looking forward to being here all summer with the pair of you…”
“There, that’s a satisfactory job done!” Dave lifted the unidentifiable piece of machinery up for my inspection.
“Yes, very nice,” I agreed absently. “Do you think he’s happy?”
“Who? Heath?” Dave finally glanced up at my face and frowned. “To tell you the truth, Emma, I don’t see much of him these days. We used to do a few things together when I first arrived, but this last couple of months I’ve been kinda busy establishing myself around here, and you’ve generally been over on his days off.” He shrugged. “He seems fairly caught up in his work. When he’s not on an endless shift, asleep, or with you, he tends to be studying.” He rested his elbow back on the seat of the settee and pulled a face. “Quite the dedicated young copper in fact,” he complained, “I’ve had to keep my tax disc up to date since I’ve lived here and remember not to break into the money box by the phone to supply my whisky habit, and he even detects when I’ve been at his food supplies!”
“It’s probably the footprints you leave in the butter,” I retorted dryly.
His eyes gleamed at me. “Talking of the fridge...”
“Were we?” I queried, resisting his wiles.
“I was,” he informed me firmly. He lifted his black oily hands for my inspection. “He wouldn’t exactly have to call the forensic team in to dust for fingerprints if I went in there,” he pointed out reasonably.
I sighed, gave in to his wickedly dancing eyes and retreated to the kitchen.
There, I spread my newly bought grocery items along the somewhat grubby and battered kitchen Formica surfaces. Yeah, you could tell this place was merely rented. I pulled open wonky hinged doors on the cupboards to try to find plates, cutlery, properly sharp knives, and where all the other food was kept. And boy, could you tell there were only males in this house. What the hell were they living on for goodness sake? Just as well I’d taken the precaution of stocking up with lots of fruit and veg and fresh salad. As I swept something covered in green mould that I’d really rather not stop to identify from the back of the fridge into the pedal bin, I found the answer to my question – empty take-away polystyrene containers of all complexions piled high, with a sky-high stench to match. I recoiled momentarily then tied off the bin bag. Okay, so I was going to have to take them in hand. And it didn’t faze me one bit. Not even one millisecond of resignation or resentment. This was what I’d been champing at the bit for, for the last year. Finally, I’d left home! Finally, I could do what I liked, go where I liked, think what I liked without having to answer to my mother for one moment of it! Finally, I had achieved my dream – I’d set up house with Heath! I was living with Heath. Only for the summer, mind, till I started my nursing training in October. And not on our own…but Dave’s presence hardly counted. He’d been Heath’s best friend since they were at toddler group, and the whole of my and Heath’s three-year relationship had been conducted under the full glare of his ironic gaze, so it wasn’t like we weren’t used to it. And Dave was mega good fun to be around. He’d fill in the gaps when Heath was at work. As I started to prepare the cheese and tomato toasties for Dave, I hummed gently to myself. My real life was just beginning – and I couldn’t wait!
There was a ring on the doorbell. Rufus started his usual cacophony, so I quickly leapt to the kitchen door to shut him in.
“See who it is, dear,” Helen called from her study.
I opened the front door. “It’s Mandy,” I called back, my tone of voice betraying a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
“Well, ask her in, dear, and take care of her,” my aunt’s voice floated back from a safe distance before closing her study door with a snap.
Mandy stepped inside. “What did he say to you?” she asked eagerly.
“Sean, of course!” Her tone was impatient.
I stared blankly at her for a moment, until I realised that there was only one thing she could be talking about. “Oh, you mean the Wimpy guy?”
“Wimpy?” She echoed scandalised. “He’s really fit!”
“Wimpy, McDonald’s, whatever!” I dismissed.
“Oh,” she subsided. “You mean Burger King,” she corrected scornfully.
“Whatever,” I snapped.
“So, what did he say?” she demanded.
“I don’t remember, I was too embarrassed.” For goodness sake, why did she have to go on about it? It was one of the most humiliating moments in my life and it was the last thing I ever wanted to remember, ever.
“You must remember!”
Her eyes were fixed so hopefully on my face that I forced myself to mentally review the excruciating moment of landing on his thighs. I remembered his hard, grey gaze. I remembered his stony expression. I couldn’t remember him deigning to address me. “I don’t think he said anything at all actually.”
She looked down at her nails and smiled slowly. “I leant over and said to him, ‘bet she enjoyed her trip’.”
I looked at her with deep nausea threatening. “What did he say?”
She went bright red and tossed her hair. “He said ‘Piss off, Mandy’.” Then her eyes began to glow. “He knows my name!” she exulted.
I stood there speechless. But my aunt, it seemed, had succumbed to a moment of guilt about abandoning her hard luck case, and came out into the hallway. “Would you like a cup of tea, Mandy?”
Mandy looked nervous. “No, I’ve got to get back,” she excused herself hastily and headed towards the door again. With relief I held it open for her.
“See you again soon,” Mandy said with a wink at me and set off up the path.
“Not if I see you first,” I muttered to myself as I closed the door behind her.
“Someone ought to take that girl in hand,” Helen observed, “purple’s really not her colour.”
About to laugh and join in with some catty sartorial remark, I was pulled up short by my aunt asking, “And whilst we’re on the subject of clothing, are all yours of the same ilk as you’ve been wearing since you arrived?”
I froze. I wasn’t sure what she was getting at. “What do you mean?” I asked in a small voice.
“Since you are now moving into more adult circles, you could do with some outfits that don’t look so schoolgirlish.”
When I said nothing, she raised her eyebrows at me. “I surprised you haven’t picked up anything from your mother. She has always struck me as very stylish and sophisticated woman.”
What could I say to that? I hung my head miserably.
“I presume you have an allowance?” Her tone was crisp.
I nodded mutely.
“Well, I suggest you run along into town and fit yourself out with a more suitable wardrobe.”
Unsure as to what was wrong with what I’d been wearing hitherto, I stood rooted to the spot for a moment. She reached for the handbag that she tended to leave on the table in the hallway and drew out a wad of ten-pound notes. She handed them to me. “Here, take this and treat yourself to a really nice dress.” She turned away even as I was stuttering out my surprised thanks. Then she glanced at her watch and looked back. “But I’d like you to be back here before two, because I need to set you your first essay title before I go into college for a meeting about the Summer School.” And with that, I was dismissed.
I fingered the money in my hand, my feelings mixed. The overwhelming one was panic. It was kind of her to do this, but how could I judge what I was expected to come back with, when I had no idea what was wrong with what I was already wearing? And the words ‘your first essay title’ was a complete death knell to any prospect of enjoying the opportunity to go licensed shopping. Any vain hopes I’d had of Aunt Helen not taking seriously her assigned task of cramming me in preparation for my first term at Oxford rapidly receded.
With that time deadline in mind, I had to get on, but first I had to devise a means of getting out of the house without Mandy leaping out of her front door from the block of flats opposite and finding an excuse to tag along. I peeped out from behind the curtains in the front reception room and spotted her pale and watchful face at the window of their upstairs flat and settled down to start my waiting game. Once the ghostly oval stopped haunting the glass and the coast seemed clear, I shot down the road and safely round the corner to the bus stop, and fifteen minutes later saw me getting off the bus in Magdalen Street, triumphantly unaccompanied.
The shopping spree started out unremarkably enough, as I took the plunge into boutiques that I’d never normally give a second glance to, with some modest purchasing success, followed by a slightly guiltily diversion into the Designer Label Oxfam store to finger vintage Westwood, Dior, Gucci, Armani, Givenchy and Klein at a snip of the original price. Though none of them took my fancy. They all seemed such awfully dull colours.
Now, I was heading for one of the biggest department stores in Oxford, and all I can say is that one minute I was approaching the apparently open door of the department store at a punishingly brisk pace due to my increasing awareness of time pressure, and the next moment I had tripped over the metal rimmed mat outside and was catapulting straight through it. There was a mighty shattering of glass, somebody screamed, and I lay in a heap on the floor, opened my eyes, saw all the blood and fainted.
I came to as someone took hold of my right arm in a firm clasp and asked me if I was hurt anywhere else. My eyes fluttered open to see a girl with long blonde hair kneeling next to me and holding my arm raised while putting pressure on it. I registered the blood flooding down to my elbow and gulped. My head hurt, and I felt as though all the breath had been knocked out of me. The girl was demanding to know if the store had a first aid kit. Her voice was cool, with an edge of impatience in it. I opened my eyes again. Some flustered shop assistants were standing around in front of what seemed like a hundred onlookers.
“Well, get it then,” she ordered sharply. She examined my wrist closely, then wrapped something tightly around it. I began to struggle to a sitting position, but I still felt faint. The manageress returned with a titchy little first aid box. The blonde girl directed a scathing glance at it but said nothing. Other people were flapping around giving unwanted advice. She ignored them and bound up my wrist with a bandage culled from the box.
Then she glanced up at the manageress. “Have you called an ambulance?”
“She’ll have to go to the A and E. Is there anyone here who can take her?”
There was a hurried confab.
“What’s your name?” she asked me. I looked dazedly at her.
“Pippa,” I managed at last.
I told her.
“What day is it?”
What day is it? What a stupid question. How was that relevant?
“How the hell should I know?” I snapped.
“Who’s the current Prime Minister?” she pursued expressionlessly.
At this precise moment I really didn’t know and really didn’t care, and I told her so with some vigour. She didn’t respond. Instead she looked back up at the manageress. “Have you found someone to take her to the hospital?”
The answer obviously wasn’t satisfactory to her. “You can’t leave her to get there on the bus.” There was the briefest of pauses. “What are you doing without safety glass in your doors? And surely you know that you’re legally obliged to have something on glass doors to make sure your customers see them and prevent them from bumping into them? Even a simple poster would do.” Her tone was acid and uncompromising.
There was some muttered reply about the posters having been taken down that morning because they were out of date and that they were going to put up more as soon as the new ones arrived.
“So, at present,” the girl pointed out with an edge of sarcasm in her voice, “you have sheer glass doors and no glass at all in one of them as a consequence. So, what are you going to do about it?”
A lift to the hospital was suddenly forthcoming.
I didn’t expect her to come with me, but when she got into the back seat alongside me, I felt pathetically relieved. “How long do you think we’ll be there?” I didn’t want to annoy my aunt so soon into my stay by arriving home late for her first ever deadline.
“Goodness knows,” the girl observed dryly, “unless you’ve decapitated yourself you’re not considered an emergency. And then they’ll probably expect you to have brought your head along with you packed in ice.”
I glanced sideways at her. Back at the store she’d shaken back her long straight hair, looked contemptuously around at the gawping onlookers and observed caustically, “It’s not a circus!” And immediately the crowd had melted away. Then she’d barked at some of the wavering shop assistants, “Clear up the glass, thoroughly, or you’ll have another nasty accident on your hands.” She was obviously destined to at least take charge of a small battleship or something…
She sailed into the reception area slightly ahead of me and took stock of the virtually empty row of seats. “You’re in luck,” she congratulated me. And the woman on the desk said pretty much the same as I checked in. Midweek and mid-morning, she opined, barring an IRA bombing campaign, nothing much was likely to happen.
My stomach clamped up. “Are you expecting an IRA attack?”
She shrugged. “Can’t ever rule it out. We rehearse joint training procedures for it. But no, I’m not holding my breath. They seem to prefer trashing Manchester and London, don’t they? Guess they don’t think blowing up a bunch of gawping Japanese tourists would get their point over…” She indicated for us to sit near to the door which she claimed a triage nurse would appear out of.
I sat hunched over, feeling sick. My wrist throbbed and my head pounded. I needed to distract myself from the pain and my terror that they were going to have to do stitches on it. I was phobic about needles and I’d had stitches three times in my life before and every time I’d come over faint the second they’d picked the needle up.
“So, are you a nurse or something?” I directed at the girl beside me. She seemed to know what she was doing back in the store, and right now she was leaning casually back in her seat, her attention alert to all the comings and goings.
She shook her head and turned her gaze on my face. “No, just a first-aider, but I hope to start my nurse training at Oxford Brookes in October.” She pulled a face. “Dependent on A level results, of course. Fingers crossed.” She lifted her fingers in the classic gesture.
I was taken aback. I could hardly believe that she was only the same age as me! I made a few reciprocal remarks about how anxious I was too, waiting for my A level results, but in reality I couldn’t see why she needed to stress out about hers. Oxford Brookes was just the former tech college tarted up a bit, not a proper Russel Group establishment, so I couldn’t see that they’d be awfully fussy. They always needed more nurses, didn’t they? So, they couldn’t afford to set the bar too high.
Unlike me. I really did have to worry. I was expected to follow the trail that Aunt Helen had blazed through the University of Oxford. As a highly respected English Don she would no doubt be achieving one of the high-level departmental positions before the end of her career. My father would settle for nothing less than my getting into one of the top Norrington Scale colleges. I needed four As, preferably some of them A*s. Sometimes I felt on the edge of a panic attack.
We were called in almost immediately, and just as I feared, they reached for the needles. My companion chatted cheerfully to the nurse, asking lots of details about the procedure that I’d rather not have known and twenty minutes later we were standing outside the main hospital entrance with my wrist bound up tight and instructions to take a couple of paracetamol and keep it out of hot water for a couple of days and to be on the alert for secondary infection.
“Okay then, hope all goes well,” she said with a smile and turned away.
She half-turned back.
“I don’t know your name–”
She smiled again. “Emma.”
“I’m Pippa,” I offered back. I felt awkward. “Thanks!”
The sun came out from behind the clouds and suddenly backlit her, her head haloed by her golden hair. She had a sort of graceful classical look, like you’d see in a Greek statue – straight nose, sculptured angles, elegant slender figure, modest-sized chest – except that she was dressed in tight jeans and cheap trainers and a green and white long-sleeved cotton jersey-top, rather than draped in a tunic and holding a lyre.
“Do you want to–” I stopped short. No, Helen probably wouldn’t approve. But too late – she’d already picked up on the unwisely started sentence.
She raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Exchange phone numbers,” I finished lamely.
Unfortunately, it turned out that she did. And then she followed it up by suggesting that we have a girls’ night out later in the week. I bit my lip as I began to walk towards the bus stop. An Oxford Brookes scholar wouldn’t cut it with Aunt Helen. I could predict that right now.
I had intended to make my excuses, but by the time she rang I was sick of medieval poetry, forensic examinations of the emergence of the late seventeenth century novel, and of everything I wrote being mercilessly torn apart by Aunt Helen. If all the lecturers in the English faculty were as demanding as she was then I could see myself wanting to throw myself off Folly Bridge before the end of the Michaelmas term. The swirling waters of the Thames were already looking rather enticing. So I said yes to Emma’s suggestion of a girl’s night out. Though forever after, I’ve never been able to decide whether it was the worst mistake I’ve ever made, or whether it was merely that the fates had a different idea about how my life should turn out than I had.