Chapter 4

Gap Year
Chapter 4

Robyn vaulted from the Berlingo outside Church View Court, and tugged out a bouquet the size of a rainforest.  She adored creating the wild designs favoured by her present lavish crop of customers.  They were welcome blasts of colour in this endless holly-and-ivy season. 

Robyn was not enamoured with wreaths, which tended to put her in mind of funerals, preferring the jazzier spring stock to these spiky monsters festooning doors this time of year.  Still, the general public’s diverse floral tastes had earned her a fair living for four years.

At least this was her last delivery, and in ten minutes she’d be defrosting her fingers around a voluminous mug of tea.  Also, her best mate Emily was finally home – three months of postcards and e-mails having proved no compensation for their all-night chat-and-chickflick marathons.

Robyn pinged the bell to Apartment 5.  ‘Gloria – it’s Robyn.  More flowers for you, love.’

‘Ooh, smashing.  Come on up, bab.’

The old lady buzzed her in, and Robyn lugged her rainforest to the second floor of this new luxury block next to St Matthew’s.  Even the lobby, carpeted and light, reminded her of a hotel.  Each call this last fortnight had fired her aspirations to move here.  In fact she was saving, in the hope of renting her own place out and upgrading herself here. 

Gloria Corns, all twinkly in bunny slippers, was already in her doorway.  Apartment 5 was a reluctantly-accepted gift from her only son.  Home prior to that was the old family terrace in Dudley, and for years pride thwarted Melvyn’s efforts to re-house her.  He wanted to set Mom up in an Upper B palace, near his, but she scoffed that she’d ‘rattle in anything that vast.  One of them could billet a family of thirty.  Don’t you gooo a-spending on me, our Mel, it gives me more pleasure to see you doing so well.’

‘Someone’s popular,’ Robyn said now.  This was her fourth order this week from a well-known sender for Mrs Corns, who was convalescing from a gall bladder op.  ‘You’re causing quite a stir in the shop, you know.’ 

‘That lovely Richard and Judy,’ the old lady murmured, reading the card.  ‘Our Mel’s mates are so generous.  He only has to tell ’em I’ve been poorly, and they’re all for turning me flat into Kew Gardens.  What’s these ones?’  She inhaled the flamboyant scarlet scent.

‘Amaryllis.  These take quite some looking after, y’know.  You’re s’posed to keep the stems full of water – pour some in when you change your vase water and pop a little cotton wall ball in the end to stop it trickling back out.’

‘Ever so technical, int they?  I thought flowers was just flowers.  None of those adorable kiddies with you today?  That little girl yesterday was a poppet and a half, eh?’

‘Our Nigella?  Mom’s got her back today.’

‘I don’t know how you do it – running a business and caring for such a big family.  Does your hubby help out much?’

‘Oh, the littl’uns aren’t mine,’ Robyn chuckled at the very idea she looked old enough to have a ‘hubby’ let alone have spawned the brood her parents, Eileen and Neville, had, ‘they’re my brothers and sisters.  Me and our Jennie, who helps me out in the shop, look after them quite a bit, to help Mom and Dad out.’

‘I’m that sorry, bab,’ Gloria tittered at her error, ‘bet you think I’m awful.  They’re a credit, though, to whosever they are.  Bet it’s cosy in your house!’

‘I moved out when I was eighteen – got the flat above the shop, see.  And our Rowan’s in his own place down Bowen Road.  That still leaves five at home, though.  Christmases are a laugh!’

‘And I hope you all have a smashin’ one.’

‘You too.  Not off on a cruise this time, I take it?’

‘Nah, got no truck with all that snooty nosh.  I’ve insisted on cooking for me boy this year.  Besides, he’s got the panto, so we’re having to stick close to home anyway.’

‘I’m taking the kids to see it.  S’pose you’ll be there on the front row?’

‘Every night.  I saved you that article I was on about, by the way.’  She handed Robyn a What’s On guide, whose cover star was her son in Widow Twankey drag.  ‘Keep it – I’ve got ten.  Now watch how you go, young Robyn.’

Robyn resisted the banister as a means of transport, though childishly jumped the bottom two stairs, impatient for that tea.  Zapping her key to unlock the van, she became aware of an odd sound, midway between sobbing and a seal bark, outside Church View Court’s fence.  Since the region boasted few seals outside Dudley Zoo, she surmised either a grizzly child or a wounded dog must be its source.

A village girl through and through, there was no way Robyn could stroll indifferently away.  Prudently relocking her van, she headed off for a recce up Church Road.  Scouring instinctively downwards, for canines or tiny folk, she encountered Ugg boots and a pair of svelte orange legs.  Their owner, the seal impersonator, was perched (she had to perch – sitting fully would have hitched her skirt to a height providing fatal distraction to passing drivers) on the little church wall.  Robyn thought she had never seen anyone so stunning or so mournful.

‘Hey what’s up, lovey, don’t cry.’  Robyn, so long the big sister, was in awe of no-one.  Not even this stranger, who was of unmistakable Upper B stock.  Aside from the mere fact she was a stranger to Robyn, the girl had that general gloss about her – and then there was the way she stared.  Not snobbishly exactly, but with faintly sniffy curiosity, as though she’d never seen an anorak before.  Or certainly never been comforted and offered a tissue by a girl wearing one.

‘Thanks.’  She accepted the Kleenex graciously enough and blew her nose with inelegant force, buffing away patches in her rind of make-up. 

Robyn drew no glee from this wealthy babe mewling like a six-year-old – despite last summer witnessing how vile her ilk could be.  The two braying bitches at that gymkhana had smirked on the other side of their haughty, inbred faces when Robyn’s sister Siobhan and her ‘mangy old nag,’ Merit, vaulted their way to first prize.  Robyn couldn’t quite picture this girl on horseback, though.  She seemed more the party type; she’d be the one howling in the toilets at two in the morning – legless without dignity.

She was squeaking some baloney now that appeared to contain the words ‘ozzy’ ‘dumped’ and ‘weddingoff.’

‘What’s that you’re saying, my love?  Take a deep a breath, it can’t be all that bad.’

It was pretty dismal, Robyn had to concede once she’d heard the whole, intelligible version.  ‘What a shit, doing that to you at Christmas.’

‘My heart’s trashed to bits.’

‘Still, perhaps it’s for the best.  Better to split now than after the honeymoon.  You’ll move on from this and meet someone worthier of your wedding ring.’

‘Ring!’  The girl’s voice was of the type Robyn’s mother would say ‘went right through her.’  She produced a tiny bag from her pocket and flipped open the box within.  ‘I bought him his Christmas pressie this morning.’ 

Robyn goggled.  The onyx knuckleduster – which she estimated would have cost her a month’s takings – was set in a diamond bed whose dazzle was hazardous to the naked eye.

‘Had he seen it yet?’ Robyn asked politely.  It would take a devout fiancé to sport that thing in public.

Heidi shook her head; earrings swished.  ‘It was his surprise.  I was hoping for one too.  Not much chance of that now.’  She clapped the box to with saddening finality.

Hope you kept the receipt, Robyn nearly said.

‘He fancies his sister-in-law, you know.’

‘Come again?’ 

‘She’s his brother’s wife, but him and his folks are always banging on about her, especially the dad.  “Erin’s our angel, our princess, our number one; she wears such stunning clothes, she’s got a fantastic degree, she and Ben had the most spectacular wedding, no other daughter-in-law could ever match up.”  I’ve never met the girl, and I already felt like chicken-shit alongside her.’

A dart of wind nipped at Robyn’s face, and suddenly this weather and tea-deprivation was too much for her. 

‘Look – sorry, what’s your name?’

‘Heidi.’

‘And I’m Robyn.  Look, Heidi, I’ve got to get back to work – the florists – why don’t you come with me, I’ll make you a cuppa and we can have a little chat.  Unless you need to get off, er, anywhere?’  It didn’t seem likely this yellow vision would have a job.  Not with those nails. 

‘Yes, that’s very kind of you, Robyn.  Hey, I know him,’ Heidi pointed at Melba Most on the What’s On cover, ‘or her!  He’s my next door neighbour.’

‘Wow!  You live in Abbiss Cross then?  Very nice!’  Abbiss Cross was a gated cul-de-sac of only four homes, which sloped off Bratchley Road towards the canal.  ‘His place has got a massive wall round, hasn’t it?  Saw a photo in the Sun once.  I’ve just delivered some flowers to his mom, would you believe.  Lovely old duck, she is.’

‘Really?  I did hear she’d got a flat here actually.  I don’t see much of Mel – Daddy doesn’t exactly hang out with drag queens – though he did speak to me once.  He said: “Heidi was my first stage name – I used to call myself Heidi Sausage!”  I don’t get what he meant, though.’

No, Robyn thought wryly, you wouldn’t.  ‘Still, even that’s a tad more glam than his real name – Melvyn Corns!  He’s mates with the vicar, isn’t he?  They were at school – oops, sorry, guess you don’t want to talk about the vicar right now?’

Then Heidi mewled afresh, prompted of another link to her now ex.  ‘Gloria Corns used to be Ronnie’s boss.  At Teddy Gray’s – y’know, the sweet factory in Dudley.  That was his first job.’

‘Ronnie?’

‘Wozzy’s dad.  Before he made his money.’

‘Really?  Anyhow, come on,’ she shooed Heidi off the wall, ‘I’m dying for that of thirst here.’

‘You’re a bossy one, aren’t you?’  Heidi’s tone wasn’t sharp, though – she rather enjoyed the ‘mothered’ feeling.

‘I’ve got six brothers and sisters, run my own business – guess I’m just used to being in control.  Wanna lift down in the van?’

‘No thanks, I’ll be OK driving.’  Heidi nodded to her car.  Even that – a Mazda MX5 – was a virulent shade of custard.  It had scorched Robyn’s eyes when she turned up Church Road earlier.

‘You sure?’  In heels like that, never mind with tears in your eyes.

‘Yeah.  Only about half a mile, isn’t it?’

‘If that.  See you there then.’

Heidi was nonplussed by her own ready assent to tea in a flower shop backroom, which was hardly her typical lunch engagement.  She had intended calling one of her pack this afternoon.  She’d parted from many a man before – a bawl with the girls and a gallon of sweet wine had always put her right.  Yet something told her that this girl with a chap’s name and fingerless gloves would be a more consoling presence at present.

Warwick used to grouse about her friends, with references she couldn’t follow, about how her ‘lost’ quality vanished in their company.  ‘Those cackling cows are the ultimate fair-weather mates, and their boyfriends are every bit as insufferable.  Posey wankers who descend on the squash club every Friday night without ever picking up a racquet.’
For the first time, it occurred that he might have a point.  She couldn’t somehow see Cassie and Zara and the rest offering her a shoulder pad to cry on.

They’d certainly seemed disappointed she hadn’t turned up modelling a rock the size of Ayres when she first squealed her engagement news to them.  Not like Zara, whose own showstopping nuptials were next June.  With no ring to corroborate Wozzy’s love, their initial faff of congratulations had fizzled out.

They wouldn’t understand.  I don’t think they’re convinced we were truly engaged.  In fact, now I’m not sure I am either. 

Heidi scraped away fresh tears and zapped her car open to follow Robyn.

Advertisements

Chapter 3

Gap Year
Chapter 3


St Matthew’s Church straddled the border between Upper and Lower Bratchley.  These twin communities – five miles north-west of Dudley, as many miles south of Wolverhampton – comprised its parish.

Veering left out of the lychgate, Church Road sloped downhill into Lower Bratchley – colloquially ‘Lower B’ to villagers.

Fields, poster-paint green and un-desecrated – as yet – by bulldozers, surrounded the village.  The Staffordshire-Worcestershire Canal, whose bridges had provided a handy canopy to many a teenage deflowering, ribboned through it.

Other Lower B features were snaky, pavementless lanes; farm shops; the Women’s Institute (whose cake and jam stall was the inevitable hit at every fete); a tiny primary school; two buses a day; a community centre whose noticeboard displayed a roster typed by an apostrophe-abuser: Wednesday’s: line dancing with Robyn, Thursday’s: WI, Friday’s: bum’s n tum’s.

A corner shop, Pyke News, stocking the full gamut from newspapers to su-doku books, fluffy hair slides, voluminous jars of sweets, out of date cup-a-soups, birthday cards that bore pastel glitter and pictures of puppies – and always a healthy top shelf of farmer-titillating porn.

Three pubs (in which, yes, horse brasses formed the prominent décor) frequented by ale-dribbling pensioners, who dealt the kind of glares that could administer curses upon newcomers who dared encroach a buttock on to ‘their seats.’

A thousand villagers, who all knew each other – be it by heart, sight or reputation.  Amongst whom it was difficult – to paraphrase a certain Emily – to keep so much as a fart secret.

Meanwhile, at Church Road’s upmarket summit, cliques did thrive but neighbours in the main scarcely knew – still less conversed with – one another.  ‘Next door’ meant the house an acre away, and a fart could waft unnoticed through one’s own kitchen. 

Youngsters here were in the main privately educated, and thus seldom interacted with their Lower B contemporaries, who bussed it daily to Edgecliff, a comprehensive in neighbouring Kinver.

Judges, surgeons, entrepreneurs like Warwick and Heidi’s fathers, and even the odd celebrity (emphasis, in some cases, on the ‘odd’) populated ‘Upper B,’ which was not really so much a village as a glorified estate. 

But what an estate.  One of the most aspired-to addresses in Staffordshire.  ‘An exclusive leafy heartland,’ according to Country Life, whose property column carried regular blurbs about colossal pads for sale there.  Its copy gushed of swimming pools, stables, six-car garages, and gated junctions to some of the more select Crescents and Drives.

Lower Bratchley residents who liked walking took frequent strolls there – strolls which gave rise to ‘If I win the Lottery, I’m buying that one’-style fantasies.

******

Lionel Chance and Ronnie Poole’s abodes were not the fruits of Lotto booty but business reapings.  The men were Rotary Club acquaintances, whose offspring had become intimate since meeting at Ronnie’s birthday party almost two years ago.

Ronnie Poole’s bashes were legendary.  This wasn’t even a landmark age – he hired Upper Bratchley Golf Club (the estate boasted golf, tennis and squash clubs) the first Saturday in every February.

‘It’s recompense,’ he would justify, in a Black Country brogue which if anything he’d broadened in correlation with his snowballing wealth, as though to bolster his Dudley-lad-made-good credentials, ‘Mom never let me have no birthday parties as a nipper.  I’d do well to gerra card out of that old cow – her wun’t have gid me the ice out of her gin glass.’

Ron coarsened his dialect when it suited him – equally, he knew when to speak like a duke – and his sob-story childhood hadn’t hampered his evolution into the steely frozen food king of the Black Country.  He was no miser, though – there was always a free bar and a charity raffle at these dos, to prove just what a magnanimous chap he was.

To Warwick, these schmooze-a-thons were annual purgatory; their guests shared so little common ground with him, beneath a superficial plane, as to compound his loneliness.  So when he encountered a tall babe in a napkin-sized lemon dress, who asked for directions to the toilets, the word ‘Bingo!’ pinged across his brain like a luminous sign.  Warwick would joke – for his sense of humour was not the sharpest – that it was ‘literally a Chance meeting.’

His conversation with Heidi advanced beyond ‘Through the double doors and turn left,’ and for once he didn’t spend the old man’s party wishing he was home, cosied up with a Jack Daniel’s and Who Wants to be a Millionaire (he’d never have applied for the show himself – he could have donated prize money – but he liked to slake his thirst for general knowledge).  This time, he had someone with whom to get soused and scoff at the black-tied arse-licking.  Or rather, now Warwick came to think of it, he did all the scoffing while Heidi contributed little beyond compliant giggles.

He was smitten, though – and not only by her two conspicuous assets.  She knew no-one there, except her parents (her dad, Lionel – ‘Chancey’ – owned Chance Autos, a sports car showroom on the way to Bridgnorth) and kid brother Dale, a gawky youth in an outsized tuxedo – and this lent her a lost quality which appealed to Warwick’s knightly side.

Though it helped too that she was very shapely and personable – and appeared not allergic to his company. 

Plus – though he was not so ungallant as to learn this on that first night – she was a proper little hotty in bed. 

Warwick’s own horizontal experience was sketchy and tame, but Heidi soon schooled him and was so gymnastically supple that he sprained muscles he’d never so much as flexed before.  He soon learned too that not every position required him to remain horizontal.

Best of all, Heidi tottered into his life when his younger brother, The Great Ben, was newly married – to Erin, a New Zealander generally acknowledged to be the embodiment of perfect womanhood – and militant pressure was on Warwick to follow suit.

There was a gloating element to their early relationship; an element of ‘I’ll show ’em, I can get a stunner too.’  In restaurants, at functions, and when Warwick introduced her as ‘My girlfriend Heidi,’ he clocked the impressed leers and was bolstered.  You’ve done well there, my son, they said – and shy Warwick was for once The Man; target of laddish envy and approval.

But now he was marrying her – and would forever associate that appalling thought with the huge photo of Rev Crisp with Bruce Forsyth, on which his eyes were currently transfixed.  Like all Ellery’s pictures, it was draped with tinsel, giving his front room a snug, twee feel that somehow heightened Warwick’s claustrophobia.

‘Yes, I won a fortnight in St Lucia on The Price is Right,’ the little vicar regaled, as though Warwick had begged him to relate the quiz-show-anecdote-behind-the-picture.  He’d followed Warwick’s gaze as he bustled back in with his diary, for which he’d just exited in quest.  Ellery now opened this diary on his knee and thumbed efficiently through to late summer.

The book, and Ellery’s pen, poised above it like the Grim Reaper’s scythe, became Warwick’s new focus.

It’s official now then, son.  Your date.  Our date.  No escape.

‘Right, so it’s the twentieth of August you want – ’ an enquiring pause, an affirmative yap from Heidi, and Ellery started to biro their details on the appropriate date – ‘at half-two?  And it’s…let me see…Warwick Ronald Poole and Heidi Estelle Chance?’

Warwick could feel Heidi’s puppy gaze on him and unromantically avoided looking at her.  His eyes rested sardonically on Ellery.

Not married yourself, are you, vicar – smart bloke!

******

Two roads away, Emily was back.  Asian scenes were fanned across the Smeed breakfast bar.  She’d fetched her eight films – and a box of Greggs cakes – that morning, the day after landing.

Mom – Thelma – wisely had the day off work.  She’d been talked through the Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, up the Petronas Tower – the world’s tallest building – and was now in the unforeseen ‘Dominic’ phase.  Another hour of this, and she’d need a lie down.

‘Kris and Chantal sent their love, of course.’

‘They set a date yet?’

‘No, they’re saving like mad, planning to look at venues when they get back after the contract ends.  Chantal’s been eyeing up dresses over there on the sly, though – she’d quite like an Oriental style.  Here’s another one of Dom and me at the Botanical Gardens…oh, and this is the day we popped over to Sentosa – a gorgeous island off Singapore – they have these amazing sculptures of dragons – but to get there you have to go in a cable car – I felt ever so vulnerable, literally hanging by a thread like that and wobbling.’

Emily was close to her mother, and had envisaged more of a giggle today.  Thelma’s sole comment on the fabulous Dominic was: ‘He looks a bit older than you.  Nice eyebrows, though!’  She seemed nonplussed about the pictures, which were way off her usual ‘holiday snap’ scale, and all she could do was Ooh, Aah, or use them as tenuous cues to impart village chitchat.

‘Ooh, talking about heights – Mike the Wipe fell off his ladder the other week, while he was doing the hairdressers.  Luckily he landed on a bin bag, Geoff said, so didn’t hurt himself, just twisted his ankle a bit, but couldn’t come and do our windows for weeks.  We could hardly see out of them ’til – ’

‘Singapore’s only as big as the Isle of Wight,’ Emily bowled on, thinking the analogy with Thelma’s preferred holiday haunt might grab her, ‘but with about three million more people.  And it’s so clean, Mom, you’d love it.  No litter or graffiti, you can’t smoke or eat in public – you get an on-the-spot fine – and chewing gum is banned.’

‘Ooh, talking about the Isle of Wight – d’you remember that couple from St Matthew’s Close, the Carrolls, had a holiday cottage in Shanklin?’  Emily devoured some custard slice.  ‘Elaine – used to go to aerobics, had a tattoo on her ankle?  Well, by all accounts, she’s been – ’ Thelma mouthed, as though the house was bugged, the words ‘having an affair’ – ‘with her next door neighbour, Dennis somebody or other.  And he’s had a hip replacement!  Twice her age, he is, some bigwig businessman.  Sylv was telling me Joy Pincher saw him sneaking that Elaine into their conservatory.’

‘Really?  Now this is Dominic next to the Mer Lion, it’s the emblem of Singapore, and it’s – ’

‘What’s he do, this Dominic?’ 

‘Teacher.   Well trainee actually.  In his first year of a three-year B.Ed.’

‘So he’s a student.’  Thelma took a measured nibble of doughnut.  ‘Where at?’

‘Birmingham.’

‘University?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought you said he was twenty-nine.’

‘He’s a mature student, Mom.’

Noodles, the family cat, chose that moment to pad in from his late-morning nap.  ‘My furry boy,’ Emily baby-talked, gratefully scooping up the tabby pom-pom, ‘I’ve missed you.’

‘He’s missed you too.’  Thelma sagely surrendered to the subject change – for now.  ‘He’s slept on your bed a lot, and kept mooching about with nobody to play with.  And I’ll tell you someone else who’ll be glad you’re home – Rob.’

‘Yeah, I know.’  Emily pulled a guilty face.  ‘It’s not always been easy to keep in touch – I sent a couple of postcards, and some e-mails – but I’m really looking forward to seeing…in fact, I’ve got a present for Rob.  I shall go round there now.’  The idea perked her back up, and she determinedly licked the final gloop of custard, still cradling Noodles in her other arm.  ‘Yes,’ she addressed the cat, ‘I shall finish my coffee and go to Rob’s.’

‘Good idea.’  Thelma smiled at her daughter’s diversion from Dominic.  ‘Fetch me a carton of semi-skimmed while you’re out, would you, bab?’

******

Warwick had drifted back into the gallery of game show hosts while Heidi listened captivated to Ellery.

Yeah, like you’re so religious!  He glowered, despising her exposed belly stud (topaz, naturally) and the cleavage holding the reverend in surreptitious but decidedly Ten Commandment-bending fascination.

The idea of a church ceremony was all hers.  Agnostic Warwick had in mind a civil do, at Alveley Manor, a lavish country hotel six miles away.  But Heidi prevailed – though she wouldn’t have known the Scriptures from the Cosmopolitan problem page.

‘The church will look prettier on the photos,’ she insisted, ‘and I’ve always wanted a choir to sing at my wedding.  Just think of it, Wozzy – a choir of angels!’

Chancey and his wife Sue, funding the nuptials, concurred with their daughter – they seldom did otherwise – though Heidi met Warwick halfway by agreeing Alveley Manor for their reception. 

Has it really been only five weeks since I wanted this wedding enough to care about its venue?  Just five weeks since the proposal?

Warwick recalled it now – unbecomingly in these holy surroundings.  For some reason, her nipples were the looming image.  He mentally bloated them to cherry-tomato dimensions, so they expunged everything else out of the memory.  Yet when they tickled his face during that last stretch of bedroom Olympics, he’d whooped ‘Marry me Heidi!’

Even as she was wriggling on top, repeating ‘Yes!’ between elated kisses, he felt he was in one of those nightmares, where you try to scream but can’t force your mouth to produce sounds.  He lay static and passive as she yattered about bridesmaid dress shades until dawn.

It was an emotional proposal, Warwick decided, borne of final passion and the hunger for a companion ‘on his side,’ so to speak, in life.  He was departing next day, for the annual Poole winter pow-wow at the family villa.  Which, by unspoken – and resented – convention, included Warwick’s sister-in-law Erin but, pointedly, not Heidi.  Any lover would be an ally in that bear pit. 

Or perhaps it was a subliminal attempt to compete with Ben?

Benedict Walter Poole: cherubic baby; dimply toddler; impish kid; school stud; college stud; dynamic.  Whom their parents had never quite forgiven Warwick for not being.

And now husband to the exquisite Erin too.  A girl whose gorgeousness was not of the cheap and cheerful variety like Heidi’s: well-to-do, designer-clad, but with hooker dress sense; all flesh and hair extensions, getting pissed on two Martinis before going home to screw like Playmate of the Month.  Erin oozed grace, understatedness – and qualifications from every orifice.  When Ben met her, during one such villa vacation, she was teaching English as a foreign language.

To be pedantic, at the precise moment of meeting she was in the Hyatt bar, sipping white wine (Erin sipped – in contrast to Heidi’s drinking technique, which had more swig-ish overtones) with some teacher friends, the focus of men’s lust and every girlfriends’ loathing. 

In an ivory trouser suit incandescent against her tan, she was the most modestly clad woman in there, but easily the sexiest.  She looked supermodel untouchable – to all except Ben, the only guy with the chutzpah to approach her that night.  He netted her with his easy humour and general Ben-ness, and two years later they were spliced in a showy Christchurch ceremony.

They’d dwelt in her homeland ever since, where Erin was now wet-dreamed about by the English Lit scholars at a boys school, and Ben – inheritor of all the Poole enterprise wanting in his brother – had opened a restaurant. 

Warwick still had to stomach him every winter, though.  So, going back to the proposal, maybe he’d just wanted an anecdote to take to the villa.  The family duty reunion, where they had to be entertained by the adventures of Ben and Erin, before squeezing five minutes for ‘So how are you getting on with that bird – Heidi, isn’t it?’

A fortnight into this latest holiday, Warwick called her.

‘Ooh, I’m so glad you’ve rung, Wozzy,’ Heidi squealed before the final syllable of ‘Hiya chick’ escaped him, ‘I couldn’t wait to tell you – I’ve booked an appointment with the vicar for the twenty-first.’

‘You’ve – what – but – ’

‘December twenty-first.  One o’clock.  At St Matt’s.  You can get an hour or so off to come over, can’t you?’

‘But – I thought you – don’t you want to wait ’til Christmas is out the way before we start making wedding plans?’

‘Not getting cold feet on me, are we,’ she tinkled obliviously, ‘we’ll have to get a wriggle on if we’re looking at next August.’

Next August?’  The date was news to Warwick.  ‘But – ’ 

‘We ought to get a photographer sorted soon as well, y’know.  This chap Daddy knows – one of his customers – says he could do it for us, with a bit of discount.’

I can’t do it to her.  Not yet.  Not over the phone.  Warwick shut his eyes and let her blather on, his mobile feeling as heavy as a cosh.

‘I hope you’re bringing me back something sparkly,’ she flirted.  This time she was not joking.

‘I don’t like to, without you here,’ Warwick hedged, ‘we really ought to shop for it together.  Don’t want to get the wrong sort, see.’

Heidi tittered, imagining him twiddling with a ring box and smirking even as he spoke.  His excuses were sappy.  He might have figured she’d want a topaz – and he even knew her ring size, L, as she told him it three times the night he proposed.

But Warwick wasn’t having her on, and Heidi was fated to be disappointed, her L-sized third finger bare.

******

After twenty-two English Decembers, Emily felt silly to be jarred by the chill as she stepped outside.  Two days ago, so acclimatised to winter Far-Eastern style, she was in denim shorts and a tie-dye crop top from a Hong Kong market.

There was one thing guaranteed to steam her.  Thumbing through her mobile as she walked, she reread his five-day-old text.

EM, MISSING YOU ALREADY.  DREAMING ABOUT OUR SINGAPORE SUNSET WALKS.  HAVE A WONDERFUL CHRISTMAS.  CAN’T WAIT TO MEET AGAIN IN NEW YEAR.  WILL CALL SOON, LOVE DOM XXX

Had Byron himself wooed via Vodafone, he could have scarcely had a soppier effect.  Emily stroked the tiny screen with her gloved thumb, cringing even as she did it.  Anyone else would have used abbreviations: ‘U’, ‘2’, ‘XMAS’, ‘LUV,’ maybe ‘GR8’ in lieu of ‘WONDERFUL.’  But even Dominic’s starchiness was sweet; the implication that textspeak was beneath him.  His way was so alien and gallant after years of pubescent testosterone. 

Corny grin restored, Emily snapped the little phone shut and stowed it in her pocket.  She swung a left out of her road, Danks Avenue, into High Street, at the point it bridged the canal. 

A disorientated duck skidded and flapped up the iced waterway.  Emily sighed, recalling the last waterway she’d crossed, Boat Quay in Singapore.  Boat Quay’s only ducks graced the menus at the string of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian and Italian restaurants that offered such romantic views across the harbour.  Emily enjoyed many an alfresco dinner there, with Kris and Chantal, and latterly Dom.

Emily muzzled her nose into her scarf – the air was acrid with oven-chip manufacture from McCain’s on Wombourne Industrial Estate, where her dad Brian worked.  Even comparing this greasy stench of home with the Singapore spice brought Dominic to mind: the proximity of their homes, yet the dreamworld in which they’d met.  Emily pondered how what they’d started might adapt and blossom in, so to speak, their real world.

For now, however, there were friendships to catch up on.  It was true she’d missed Rob, and was avid for a chinwag.  Robyn Moss was Emily’s inseparable cohort all through school.  They’d drifted slightly during Emily’s uni years, though would reunite joyously: gassing non-stop and over each other, their conversations shorthand and in-jokey the way only longstanding pals’ were.

Emily passed the row of retirement bungalows – little tableaux she took for granted, with their frosted elfin gardens – crossed the junction where High Street met Steptoe Road, and in two minutes was flitting up the flagstone steps to the shops.  No boutiques here, of course, just Hair by Geoffrey, Bostin’ Batter the chip shop, Pyke News, a Total petrol station, and Moss & Petals – the tie that precluded Robyn from being Emily’s backpack mate.  She’d been a florist since she was sixteen, a shop-owner since just eighteen – three-month holidays weren’t an option.

Emily waved to Geoff, who was perming a pensioner, and tinkled into the florists.  Jennie, one of Robyn’s numerous siblings, was on a stool and thrust her sandwiches under the counter when the door went.  Seeing it was Emily, she smiled animatedly and the girls nattered for a few minutes about her trip.  Jennie was just like her sister, quizzy and ravenous for every taste, colour and scent.

‘You just missed Rob, though, I’m afraid.  She’s gone out in the van, got quite a few deliveries so probably won’t be back for hours.’ 

‘Aw, that’s a shame.’  One day back, and Emily was impatient for a rapt confidant like Rob, who would re-animate her already melting memories.  Robyn was one of the few people with whom even Emily’s exhaustive travelogue wouldn’t pall – nor would she keep digressing to the window cleaner, or hip-replaced men having bits on the side in their conservatories.  ‘S’pose I can’t really be disappointed she’s going about her daily business.  Lower B can’t stop what it’s doing just cuz Emily’s back!’

‘She’ll be dead gutted she didn’t get to see you too, though.  We were only saying this morning how we thought as you were due home today.’

‘I got in last night.  Fourteen hours – via Frankfurt!  Oh well, I’ll catch up with Rob soon enough.  Can I just leave this for her in the meantime?’  Emily handed Jennie a carrier containing the silky skirt and beaded elephant necklace she’d bought her sister in Malaysia.

‘Course you can.  And I’ll get Rob to give yer a phone when she’s back.’

‘Cheers.  Have a good Crimbo, Jen, if I don’t see you before.’

‘You too, Em.  You’ll be over New Year though, yeah?’

‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’

Emily advanced to Pyke’s, in quest of milk.

Chapter 2

Gap Year
Chapter 2

‘What does a vicar want with a speedboat?’

Heidi’s question pierced the crisp peace of the December morning, in stabby rhythm with her stilettos on the vicarage pathway.

Warwick involuntarily flexed his pocketed hands into fists.  The speedboat rusting on this driveway may not have seen water in the twenty years Lower Bratchley’s man of the cloth had owned it – but Warwick detested the sentiment behind the girl’s enquiry.  Clearly rural reverends were not allowed fripperies – only Upper Bratchley millionaires, like Heidi and her family.

Like Warwick and his family.

‘He won it on Bullseye,’ he explained with patronising patience.  He looked like a huffy Gestapo officer, stomping in his long deerskin coat.

‘Bull what?’

He winced again at her naggy, yappy, Yorkshire terrier voice.  His most despised dog breed.  He despised all dogs in fact – being more a cat man – but Yorkshire terriers were particularly shitty, licky, furry, yappy little mops.

Bullseye,’ he enunciated.  ‘It was a game show in the 80s.  Sunday afternoons.  You know: darts, Jim Bowen, “Let’s have a look at what you could have won!”  The top prize was always a speedboat.  Ellery – the vicar – goes on TV quiz shows.  It’s his hobby.’

Heidi’s childlike, mobile face rucked up into an ‘Ooh, you live and learn’ expression.  ‘We always watched The Clothes Show on Sunday afternoons.’

Shame you didn’t glean any tips!  Warwick didn’t say this; he didn’t need to – the distaste was loud in the dark eyes which appraised her five-foot-nine form.

Heidi adored yellow, and routinely bedecked her surgically enhanced body in discordant shades of that colour.  She’d surpassed herself today – not much weatherproof demureness for this winter church appointment.  Egg-yolk PVC jacket, beneath which a banana cowl-neck top strained to contain her silicone bosom; mustard micro skirt; margarine stiletto Ugg boots; even her svelte legs were – according to the spray tan can – Hawaii Honey.

‘You’re grumpy today, Wozzy,’ she pouted, perceptively, tweaking his chin with canary-gloved fingers.

Warwick scowled.  He jabbed at the bell – instantly, the door to St Matthew’s vicarage was unfurled by a vision in cassock and glasses.  The vision possessed no evident neck, so his perfectly ball-shaped face – which was all but covered in a hearty smile – appeared to be dolloped on top of his dog collar.

‘Come on in,’ urged the Reverend Ellery Crisp, ‘I’ve got the kettle on – we’ll have a good old natter about your wedding arrangements.’

Chapter 1

Gap Year
Chapter 1

 

‘Yow ain’t in Dudley now, kiddo!’

Had Emily Smeed’s future lover heard this line in her fizzy monologue, he might never have approached her.

Had he caught her exaggerated Black Country (or ‘Yam Yam’) inflexion, and allusion to a home town in that region, there was a good chance he’d have passed forgettably by, blessing the girl’s handy quirk of thinking aloud.

As it happened, though, only the mute Raffles doorman stood within what qualified for ‘earshot’ (if the cabaret of a tourist talking to herself bemused him, by the way, he was far too professional to show it). The Englishman didn’t meet her – again – until she was much farther advanced down the ivory colonnade en route to the Billiard Room where, like him, she was taking high tea for the second day running.

Emily was a tactile traveller – skimming her hands across arches and balustrades (a habit: she liked to literally ‘get a feel’ for places) – and an imaginative one. This place would make a lush backdrop for a novel, and she saw characters behind every umbrella plant and beneath every ceiling fan: lecherous aristocrats; kiss-curled femmes fatales in fur stoles.

And she saw this young man in the khaki from yesterday, watching her. Emily awarded him a little smile; shy, through-the-lashes, it said: Oh, you again! Well follow me, I could be interested.

******

November was on its way out – not that Emily could tell, spending as she was her first autumn untroubled by drizzle, ice rinks of leaves, and aggressively early displays of Christmas cards. Her first autumn in jungly heat, with a snap in the air that excited the hell out of her.

She’d been in Singapore a fortnight; in the bustling Far East nearly eight exhilarating weeks. Hong Kong, Malaysia, but particularly Singapore, epitomised the East-meets-West vibe that characterised so much of contemporary Asia.

She’d seen pagodas, hawker stalls and bazaars that nuzzled between skyscrapers, sleek hotels, Starbucks and Burger King outlets and even a Manchester United shop; wizened pensioners toiling past on rickshaws; motorway-scale streets; pavements swarming with folks incapable of walking below Olympic pace. Nobody strolled here, nor mooched. The Singapore city scurry was purposeful and busy. Emily, bred in a plodding village, spent her first week nursing jostle-bruises from neglecting to dodge scurriers seeming intent on walking ‘through’ her.

The Raffles Hotel was her magnet, though. A monument to opulence, and more ‘British’ than anywhere she’d eaten near her home, at Britain’s heart. The Singaporean doorman, motionless in his Saturday Night Fever-white livery, befitted the whole sultry colonialism that Emily loved so much.

And now it was time for high tea: that genteel buffet of dainty sandwiches (crusts cut off, naturally), vol-au-vents, unidentified fried objects, noodles, rice cakes and scones. A Raffles tradition, and a typical East-West melange.

‘Beautiful,’ Emily declared, entering the Billiard Room, and finding its power to stun undiminished by a second visit.

To her observer, it was she who beautified the scene. She had a more compelling pull than the average sexy passer-by, though, in that it was not purely physical. She gave the impression she’d be sparky company too; make him feel life was fantastic. He certainly needed that.

Not that the physical played no role at all, of course. He wasn’t above enjoying the girly bounce of Emily’s corkscrew dark hair; the way her small bum undulated beneath that strappy sundress; the lime silk, luminescent against her gentle tan, rippling with every step.

Yes she was screwable, but there was an innocence about her too; a vitality. Talking to oneself seemed a wacko habit to some, but he found it oddly endearing, indicative of an open personality.

It seemed Fate was his mate, for once. Not only was she here again, but on her tod this time. He was not a routine chatter-up of women – but there were times routine had to be dispensed with?

Typically, his overture was clumsily timed. He and the waiter reached her simultaneously.

‘You probably think I’m some eagle-eyed stalker – ‘

‘Good afternoon, ma’am, sir – ‘

‘ – but I couldn’t help noticing you were here yesterday – ‘

‘ – table for two, yes?’

‘ – and I wondered if you’d like to join me?’

It was a surreal moment for Emily. Her eyes volleyed between the two men – the politely expressionless waiter, in Persil-ad whites; and this earnest Englishman, with his sensible, dark haircut – not sure who to address first.

To the former: ‘Yes, I guess it is, please.’

To the latter: ‘Hey, that accent sounds familiar.’

As, now, did hers.

The young Oriental guy glided them to a table and trickled tea into their dinky cups, like a silent swan butler. The pair discreetly appraised each other, sniggering like nervous blind-daters as each caught the other looking. Emily decided there was definitely something cute – or at least interesting – about this stranger who’d become her lunch date in this exotic palace. Another chap could have resembled an outsized scout in a khaki vest and knee-length shorts – especially with his school photograph-trimmed hair – but he had the quirky boyishness to get away with it (just).

‘Let’s go eat then,’ he prompted, with a stiff laugh.

Only on returning from the first of their limitless forays to the buffet did any verbal discourse resume.

‘So you’re a Midlands girl?’

‘Ar, a Black Country wench.’ She broadened her accent in caricature. ‘Whereabouts do you live?’ Her new friend nibbled casually on a doll-sized pizza.

‘Oh, a little village, over Dudley way.’ Emily threshed her hand around self-deprecatingly, powdering her plate with quiche crumbs. ‘You’ve probably never heard of it.’ She popped the little quiche into her mouth.

‘What’s it called?’

‘Lower Bratchley.’

‘You’re joking! I mean – I have heard of that, actually.’

‘Really?’

‘Mmm.’ He scratched the back of his neck intently. ‘It’s in South Staffordshire, isn’t it? Near to – oh, what’s that big village called – Wombourne?’

‘That’s the one. Hey, this is amazing!’ She elongated her latter, oft-used adjective with a delicious beam, parading a row of teeth that formed a twinkly zip across her face. Dominic noticed she was bare of make-up – unnecessary and grossly sticky anyway, in such a climate.

Across the table, a ruffled gulp was taken from a teacup. It was no sooner drained than attentively refuelled by the swan waiter.

‘I’m being careful with the old caffeine today,’ Emily grimaced, refusing the proffered beverage. ‘I made the mistake of knocking back six cups here yesterday. It just seemed so wasteful and rude not to drink it. But of course then I was up all night, wired and hyper. Hence I’m a little jangled today.’

‘Oh, I don’t know, you look very bright and pretty to me.’

Emily smiled again, touched by his clumsy chivalry. She’d seldom consorted with older men – or desired to, until now. Her few exes were raw-boned students with indie-guitarist hair, whose snogs tasted of cheap cider. This guy was in another sphere altogether; a mythical one almost. His kind had never existed outside Emily’s poems, or the mushy vignettes she was forever penning which she hoped to ultimately incorporate into her as yet unplotted novel.

‘So, anyway, where are you from?’ she queried.

‘Wolverhampton.’

‘No way?’

‘Way, I’m afraid!’

‘But that’s only five miles up the road from Bratchley!’

‘Indeed it is.’

‘Amazing! I can’t say as I know the city all that well yet – not had all that much cause to go there, to be honest – except to the Reflex – the 80s club – d’you ever go? – but I’m starting Wolverhampton Uni next year. D’you live anywhere near there?’

‘Quite near.’ Khaki levered back his chair. ‘I’m going up for seconds.’

Emily, still halfway through her firsts because she’d been nattering, coyly appraised his body as he reloaded his plate with baby snacks. And proved just as avid a bum-inspector as he was. She couldn’t really help it – those shorts, though 1940s PE kit-length, cupped his in a fashion that kindled daft blushes Emily hadn’t experienced since aged twelve in sex education class.

She sensed this wasn’t deliberate exhibitionism: he didn’t seem like the lairy poseurs from Upper Bratchley – Lower Bratchley’s sister village – ramming their leather-trousered manhood against your legs as you tried to enjoy an innocuous boogie in the Reflex. No, this one probably bought his shorts a size too small and couldn’t be bothered returning them to Scouts R Us, or wherever. Either that, or they’d fitted once and he’d lost weight. Whatever, the look was pleasing.

The word ‘hunky’ had probably never coexisted in a sentence with his still unknown name – but then Emily was atypical in favouring the weedier breed of male. Slim limbs and concave stomachs.

‘You’re going to university, you say?’ She flushed and jumped, guiltily renewing attention to her cucumber sandwich. ‘So that would make you, what, seventeen? Eighteen? You look older, mind.’

‘I am, that’s why.’ She was delighted, still at the age where to be taken for older was complimentary. ‘I turned twenty-two in September. The course I’ll be doing is actually post-grad. The LPC.’

‘Ah, Legal Practice Course.’

‘That’s the one! I’m on my gap year at the moment, already done one degree, Law at Staffordshire Uni.’

‘Staffordshire – that’s the one in Stoke on Trent, isn’t it?’

Yeah. Now I’m trying to make the most of every minute before I have to get back into study mode. I’ve saved like mad for years, doing all manner of part-time jobs. Been travelling a couple of months now – Hong Kong, Malaysia, and now Singapore. I’m going home for Crimbo, then I’ll scoot off again in the new year. A return trip to Asia in some shape or form – then hopefully Hawaii and Australia or New Zealand.’

‘And after that you plan on being a hot shot lawyer?’

‘Oh ar! Once I’ve done the LPC, which is for a year, I find myself a job as a trainee solicitor. If any local firm is kind enough to take me on, that is – I wouldn’t wish me on anybody! But that’s all for the future. I deferred my place at Wolvo ’til next year cuz I was desperate both for a break from ceaseless swotting and a chance to see a bit of the world. Well, quite a lot of the world actually.’

‘I bet you’ll find little Lower Bratchley a culture shock after all this globetrotting, eh?’ ‘Just a bit! I found it enough of one going home from three years in Stoke. I’m sure I’ll be dying to hop on the first plane out of Birmingham Airport after Christmas. I couldn’t wait to leave home for university and city life. Don’t get me wrong, I love the dear old village – it’s pretty, and got some fabulous characters – it’s just the kind of place where you can’t fart without everyone knowing. If you’d lived there all your life, you’d want to escape too. You can hide a bit in a city, can’t you?’

‘Mmm.’

‘But hey, look at us chuntering away like this when we don’t even know each other’s names. I’m Emily. Emily Smeed.’

‘Dominic. Dominic Osbourne. Anyway, as I said earlier, I saw you here yesterday. With a chap,’ he added, visibly pained.

‘That was my cousin Kristian.’

‘Ah, cousin!’

Emily repressed a smirk at the flattering relief in his voice. ‘Yeah, I’m staying with him and his fiancee Chantal. But Chantal couldn’t make it yesterday. She had to go to the dentist – poor girl.’

‘They live here then?’

‘Yeah, they both sing in a band. The resident band at the Hard Rock Cafe in fact. Colonel K, they’re called. Go down a storm every night. Come a long way from playing shabby pubs in Wolverhampton. They still can’t believe their luck.’

‘How handy, having relatives here. You don’t sing yourself?’

‘Ooh no, voice like a parrot with piles.’

‘They been out here long?’

‘Nearly a year. They rent an apartment in the Bukit Timah district. They’ve been fab tour guides. Kris brought me here yesterday, obviously, and I just fell in love. I had to come back a second time. I know I shouldn’t, on my student budget, but high tea at the Raffles Hotel is not exactly an experience I’ll be able to repeat back home.’

‘Too right! You have to make the most of the landmarks when you’re in these countries.’

‘You must like it too then, if it’s your second time as well. D’you come here often?’ She pulled a face to parody the hackneyed chat-up line.

‘Yes, I love it too,’ Dominic replied economically. He drained yet another cup. ‘Right, I need cake now.’

‘I’ll join you. The profiteroles are to die for.’ They availed themselves of the cloying scones, profiteroles – and token segments of fruit to ease diet consciences.

******

She had such an open face, Dominic thought as she dissolved a choux flake on her tongue, sighing. Such an open character – as he’d guessed. Not immature, yet still young enough to be appealingly astonished by life’s delights.

‘I rather like my food, as you may have gathered.’

‘Girls with appetites are good to see.’

‘Anyway, you’ve heard all about me, but what brings you to the Far East, Dom? Are you backpacking too?’

Backpacking – bless her! There was something so free about that word, so free, fresh and infectious about this girl.

‘Oh no, I’m well past gap year stage now I’m an old crock of twenty-nine.’ Dominic felt miraculously less crock-ish, though, with each successive gaze at her. Even her hair had vivacity. Not the sprucest barnet in the world – no exorbitant gels to trendy it into submission – but every mocha whorl bounced as though independent from her head.

‘Oh?’ Without Emily’s polite prompt, he could quite possibly have continued staring dopily at her until sunset.

‘No, I actually won this trip.’ He gulped from, then spoke behind, his replenished teacup.

Won it?’ Emily was typically agog. And oh, she was off again. ‘On a game show? I know someone who goes on game shows – actually he’s the vicar in Bratchley, believe it or not. Been on about twenty. Won all sorts. Told you our village was full of characters, didn’t I!’

‘Extraordinary! No, mine was actually a competition in the, er, Daily Mirror. One of those “answers on a postcard” jobbies.’

‘Well done you! Aren’t these trips normally for two, though?’

‘What?’ Dominic spluttered as a jet of tea went down the wrong way.

‘For two people. WIN A HOLIDAY FOR 2! they always say. Don’t tell me you couldn’t find a friend to accompany you to this stunning country for free! I’d have thought they’d be queuing up.’

‘Oh, they were. My mate – Tim – has come with me, but he’s in bed back at the hotel. Touch of the old Singapore belly.’ Dom patted his own belly, adding unnecessary emphasis with a ‘sick’ mime rather too vivid for a mealtime.

‘What a shame, missing out on all this.’ Emily’s eyes swelled with genuine concern. They were huge, Dom noticed, and the colour of Bournville chocolate. His favourite. A man could sink into those eyes;swim;drown in them.  ‘I hope he’s better soon. Give him my love, won’t you!’ This sounded less bizarre than it might: extending her goodwill to strangers was a total Emily-ism.

‘I will,’ vowed Dominic.

******

‘I’m sorry, Em,’ he plonked down the mini eclair that was halfway to his mouth, ‘I’m going to have to love and leave you right now.’

‘Aw, why so soon? You’re still halfway through your sweet course.’

‘Running late. Got to catch a boat. Tour up the Singapore River. It’s a trip the competition people have organised. So, much as I’d love to stay here and carry on chatting all day?’ Standing already, he spread his hands and gave a little ‘What can I do?’ smile.

‘I understand. You’d best go see if Tim’s all right too.’

‘Tim? Oh yeah, course. Told him not to have those prawns last night. In the meantime,’ he fished self-consciously for his wallet, ‘you can have this meal on me, Emily. It’s been a complete pleasure to eat with you.’ He fanned the appropriate notes on to her side plate, lifted her cake-free hand and, with extraordinary gallantry, kissed it.

Emily shivered in the mugginess. Some diners were politely agog and there was the odd snigger behind toy teacups – but she didn’t care. She wanted to be seen, feeling such a lady in this glorious tearoom.

She could not let him evaporate away, this older chap with suspect taste in shorts but the vocabulary and shy gallantry of a Disney prince. Who lived flukily local too! Emily was ripe for a holiday romance. Or, even better, a romance without the ‘holiday’ prefix, which could resume and flourish back home.

‘Are you free tomorrow night?’

Dominic scratched his neck noncommittally. ‘Think so.’

‘Why don’t you come and see Kris and Chantal’s band at the Hard Rock? With me?’ she added unnecessarily.

‘What sort of music do they play?’ Dominic procrastinated.

‘Party songs. You know, the kinda stuff you hear at wedding receptions.’

He swallowed. Hard. ‘Yes, I’d love to.’

‘You would?’ Emily’s face sparkled like Walsall Illuminations. ‘Shall we meet outside the Hard Rock then? About eight?’

”bout eight.’

‘Hope Tim’s well enough to come too.’ She hoped nothing of the sort – but could hardly say ‘Fingers crossed he’s still poorly, he’d be a gooseberry.’

‘See you tomorrow then, Emily Smeed.’ Dominic grinned lingeringly, pivoted on his sandaled heels and was off.

******

As Emily watched him pace away, he was battling an urge to kick himself with said sandals.

The irony wasn’t lost on Dominic that he’d approached her yet finished up pondering excuses: ‘I hate cheesy music. Sorry, love, you’re just not my type. You’re too young for me, and you yack too much. Can’t stand little wenches with verbal diarrhoea.’

Then he’d looked at her again – really looked at her, his sweet, garrulous Emily with the freckles and Bournville eyes – and knew he was doomed. He could quite tolerate being talked to death by those lips, and as for other consequences – well, bridges could be crossed when they were reached?

Oh, why couldn’t I have chosen a girl from Edinburgh, or Sydney, or Ouagadougou, to chat up? As she said herself, what are the chances of two sightseers meeting six thousand miles from their neighbouring homes? Trust my bloody luck.