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.