'...So what was he to do now? They were certainly two good looking girls, he couldn't recall seeing either of them around Nailstone before, he was sure that he'd remember if he had. Both were blonde, the one shorter than the other but with longer hair, both were wearing short skirts that flattered, what Chris had to admit, were two well above average pairs of legs and the general presentation that greeted his eyes as he stared over the road was, to say the least, very pleasant. So he asked himself again 'what do I do now?' D'you want a toffee? Said the smiling face of the shorter one of the two girls as she crossed the road towards them...' Just About is a romantic comedy that charters the lives of two teenagers from the West Midlands. Follow them as they stumble through their lives over a 10 year period. An unknown force seems determined to keep them apart but maybe something a little stronger will ensure they can be together? Brian Darby's first novel will have you laughing and crying in equal measure. Sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster of emotions as he brilliantly injects humour, love and romance into his debut book.
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‘Hello darling, all right?’
‘Pack it in Paul; do you want them to think we’re morons or something?’
‘Why what’s up now? I was only being friendly’.
This, Chris knew, was fairly typical of Paul. Totally unaware of the effect his ever active mouth had on other people.
He and Paul had been friends for several years, since they had been in the scouts together for what seemed an eternity but had in fact, Chris knew for a fact, been less than a year; before they both got bored and left.
Paul was only a few months older than Chris but, given the way the academic year divides, had been in the year above him at school. They had seen each other in school but that few months difference in their age had meant that their two paths would never cross in that particular academy of excellence known locally as ‘Old Tumble Down’. Its given name was The Nailstone Church of England Primary School, but for as long as Chris could remember it had been called ‘Old Tumble Down’ by everyone in the small Black Country town because of the state of disrepair in which it had existed ‘since Adam was a lad’ as his dad was occasionally heard to say in one of his rare moments that passed for eloquence.
The local council were always going to do something about it; but for as long as anybody could remember ‘Old Tumble Down’ had stood there; shabby, uninteresting, a monument to early Victorian architecture with only the very basic of repairs carried out to ensure that the pupils who went there didn’t get wet, dirty or maimed by falling masonry. It was rumoured that it was to be knocked down and a spanking new replacement built but this too had been whispered on the streets of Nailstone for as long as Chris could remember.
The subject would raise its head every six months or so when the local newspapers had, what was described in Fleet Street as, a slow news day. The problem was that so little happened in the Nailstone area that every day was a slow news day. Even though ‘the Herald’ only published on Fridays and covered the whole of Baseley Borough, it still had to fill its pages with advertisements, local weddings and school football to make it a decent size to actually charge people for.
Scouts had been a great leveller; where the Juvenile values of primary school hierarchy had no place; and boys of all ages joined in with others and simply got on with it. In this male bastion of toggles, knots and plans of camp, that in Chris’s case never happened, a firm bond had been forged between these two very different sons of Nailstone. Although both very quickly became bored with scouts, despite their many differences, they had never become bored with each other and had always stayed good, even best, friends.
Paul, the elder of three brothers, abounded in self-confidence always believing that there was nothing that he couldn’t master, no task too difficult and that everyone he came into contact with instantly liked him. Even when so many of his endeavours failed and other people openly told him that he was a wally, his belief in his own abilities and popularity never seemed to waiver. He was tall, athletic and many girls, as he grew into his skin, would have even described him as good-looking in a gangly ego-centric kind of a way.
Chris on the other hand had an older sister who was so far removed in age to her younger sibling to have been married when he was still a pupil at ‘Old Tumble Down’. He had been brought up by older parents who never really ‘got’ why children and young people had to behave so differently from them, why the clothes they wore had to be so (in their eyes at least) unusual and his mother in particular held to the view that children should be seen and not heard.
His dad was a kindly man who just wanted to be left to his allotment when he came home from work in the foundry at night. He rarely passed comment on anything and it seemed to Chris that his parents didn’t really know each other; in fact he had often wondered how, or indeed why, they had ever got together. He had occasionally thought about the physical coupling that produced him and Glenys but found that a concept too repulsive to ponder for more than a few seconds at a time. Still he had from a very young age held to the view that his dad must be a very brave man.
Chris had often remarked that he had grown up with all the disadvantages of being an only child without any of the advantages. He would realise later in life that in his mother he had the stereotypical ‘critical parent’ and it felt nothing he did or said was ever quite good enough.
Chris had realised at about thirteen after meeting Paul’s parents and a long chat with his older sister Glenys that his own parents, particularly his mom, were not typical. Paul’s dad laughed a lot (something his own father rarely did), always wanted to know what the lads were up to, told occasional ‘near the knuckle jokes’ and was treated by Paul as he grew older more as a friend than an offspring.
Paul’s mother for her part was kind, pretty in an older type of way, though Chris would have never told Paul that, dressed in a much more modern way than his own mother would ever have entertained and had a way of talking to her own children and any other young people she met that suggested she was genuinely interested in what they had to say. Chris had decided on his very first meeting with her that she was the type of woman he wanted to marry.
The only way at seventeen years old he managed to get as much freedom as he did was an endless stream of lies to his mother as to where he was going and who he was with. It didn’t help that on her first meeting with the outgoing, self-assured, Paul Chris’s mother had taken an instant dislike to him. Given that it was clear that he could be seen and had every intention of being heard, it came as no surprise really. It simply became easier as the years went on to rarely mention to her that they were out together, Chris knew that this saved a lot of hassle. He had never told Paul this; as he fully believed Paul capable of marching into his house and telling his mother exactly what he thought of her. He’d often pontificated on the subject when he and Chris had chatted about some edict or restriction she had placed on her son.
The result of this combination of facts and circumstances meant that Chris was much more reserved than Paul, less content with his lot and generally more self-effacing. Whilst he lacked a lot of self-confidence, which the casual observer may suggest was more than made up for by his mate, the result was a much more amiable character if a little apologetic at times with others. What he didn’t realise was that people generally, and girls of his own age in particular, felt him to be a ‘nice young man’ not pushy or arrogant and the kind of boy a girl could take home to meet her mom without fear of him breaking wind or kicking the cat.
The other characteristic in Chris that had been observed by the adults in his life was a sensitivity to the needs of others not usually evident in 17 years old males. He was also more aware than others, certainly than Paul, of the way people interact and the effect people can have on those with whom they come into contact. It was this awareness and sensitivity that had come to the fore after Paul’s opening gambit when the two girls had emerged out of the shop.
‘Anyway what do you mean by moron? I was only breaking the ice’. Chris had seen this in Paul before; the negative reaction to any suggestion that he may be in some way out of line.
‘Come on mate you can do better than that. You said yourself these two look like they’ve got a bit more class than some of the others. I mean shouting over the road ‘hello darling, all right’, how corny is that? What’s the next line ‘what’s a nice kid like you doing in a place like this’ or ‘get your coat love you’ve pulled’? It’s like listening to something out of a seventies police programme’.
‘Go on then smart-arse, you say something if you’re so perfect’, Paul retorted. ‘I’ll just shut my gob’, and to underline his intent made a zipping motion across his lips.
This was a fairly common default position for Paul on the rare occasions he and Chris had cross words and came as no surprise to the shyer yet more easy-going one of the two friends. What it did do, and had done before, was put Chris in the position of being the one that then had to do the talking. He had always been easy with girls in conversation. Having an older sister who had always brought friends home had been a major contribution to this, but he’d never been easy with the opening gambits in a ‘picking up girls scenario’. He was aware that his friend’s outgoing nature had stood them both in good stead in past encounters of a similar ilk.
So what was he to do now? They were certainly two good looking girls, he couldn’t recall seeing either of them around Nailstone before, he was sure that he’d remember if he had. Both were blonde, the one shorter than the other but with longer hair, both were wearing short skirts that flattered, what Chris had to admit, were two well above average pairs of legs and the general presentation that greeted his eyes as he stared over the road was, to say the least, very pleasant. So he asked himself again ‘what do I do now?’
D’you want a toffee? Said the smiling face of the shorter one of the two girls as she crossed the road towards them, followed a little uncertainly by her friend.
It had been another ordinary Monday for Karen; early finish from college, back home to get a bit of work done, quick bath, get the evening meal ready for the family and eat.
However this Monday Sue, her friend from college, was coming over from the other side of town for the evening. She wasn’t sure what they would do, they couldn’t go to any of the local pubs for fear someone would tell her dad. At 17 she, and Sue, could easily pass for 18 or more, especially with some carefully applied make up (or war paint as her dad insisted on calling it), but Nailstone was a small area and there would be sure to be someone in any pub they went in who knew her and it would get back to her dad. Besides she had spent all the money from her Saturday job and a bit more besides this week on a new dress for the end of year summer ball at college and was broke.
Karen sort of assumed in her mind that they would stay in, play some music and generally enjoy ‘girly chat’. If she spoke nicely to her father he may run Sue home, meaning they wouldn’t have to be tied to bus timetables and Sue wouldn’t need to run around Brinton Bus Depot to catch her connection home. Sue had a bit of a phobia about that particular place and had often told the story why. How one night last summer whilst dashing between busses she had dropped her bag and spilled its contents over the depot floor, causing her to have to chase coins and other things around the floor and under busses. She claimed that, just when she thought that she had retrieved everything, she had spotted her spare knickers, a pair of which she always carried in her bag, being transported between the row of busses by a young male bus driver who had picked them up for her as they had blown around the depot for the world and his wife to see. Karen was never sure how much of this story was true and how much was comic embellishment. What was certain was that the story got longer and more elaborate every time she heard it.
Sue didn’t often venture over to Nailstone, which was basically an industrial village sitting at the south end of the town of Brinton, except when she visited Karen. Except to go to college she rarely strayed from her own village of Sadbury Hill, which sat to the North of Brinton. Sadbury Hill had its history in mining, now long since abandoned after Mrs Thatcher and her lot had ran a sword through the heart of the mining community of Britain. Something her dad, a staunch labour supporter, never failed to remind anyone who would listen.
She and Karen had met last September at the start of the academic year when they had both enrolled at Brinton Technical College on the same day. There had been very few females there that morning and somehow she and Karen had been drawn to each other and had hit it off straight away and were now firm friends.
They started the evening as Karen had expected, listening to music and exchanging bland chat about college courses and deadlines. As the evening progressed however Karen started talking about home and her family’s recent past. Sue was very conscious that Karen did not often talk about home at college and very few of their friends were aware that she had lost her mom 4 years ago, when she was barely 13. Sue knew that Mrs Wainwright had battled for several years against lung cancer, which eventually claimed her life. What she hadn’t understood until that evening in Karen’s bedroom was that she had never stopped smoking, despite medical pressure, and the effect that this had had on her friend.
As the warm July sun created patterns through the trees outside the window, which in turn danced over the walls of Karen’s bedroom, there seemed to be a new found intimacy between the two girls. It was as if Karen, lulled by music and the hum of bees outside the open window had found a freedom to express feelings to which she rarely gave verbal utterances.
‘The problem is’, there was a gap as Karen paused appearing to wonder how much of this stuff she could trust to her friend. ‘The problem is’, she started again with a little more determination as if the decision had been made, ‘it feels so personal’.
‘What do you mean by personal?’ Sue realised that she needed to be careful. There was something about Karen’s attitude and body-language that suggested she was about to say things she may never have said before and in that brief moment Sue wisely made the decision to let her talk and just encourage her with gentle words.
‘It feels like she did it on purpose, you know carried on smoking even when everyone told her to stop. It feels like she’s robbed me’.
‘Yes robbed me.’
‘Of what?’ ‘Gently Sue don’t push.’
‘Of a mom, of a life, of independence, of…………..normality. If she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have ended up having to look after dad and Ian. If she hadn’t died I wouldn’t look at other people with both parents and envy them. If she hadn’t died I’d have had someone to share those special moments with, you know exam results, boyfriends, highs and lows.’
‘But your dad tries.’
‘Oh I know that and he’s been through so much too, but you know what they say; ‘a girl needs her mum’, and I lost mine before I had a chance to really find out. Dads are good when your bike needs repairing or your bedroom needs decorating but you can’t talk to them about period pains or bra sizes as you grow or how to handle over-enthusiastic boys who won’t take no for an answer.’
‘I also resent the responsibility. How many 13 years old girls do you know who are left with sorting out shopping, washing and cooking for their dad and 11 years old brother? At first all the aunts came around to help but it wasn’t long before the novelty wore off and it was just left to ‘good old Karen.’ ‘She’s so grown up.’ She’s a born housewife you know.’ Until one by one they all just left us to it and it was never open for debate that the girl of the house would sort it.’
‘Your dad does help sometimes doesn’t he?’
‘O yes he does the shopping but I have to tell him what to buy and he and Ian do a lot of the cleaning but most of the washing and ironing’s down to me, as well as the cooking, as well as college work, as well as working Saturdays, just when am I meant to have a life?
This latest diatribe gradually became more and more garbled and watery as Karen collapsed into her friend’s arms in great sobs that seemed to well from so deep inside that Sue found herself musing, in a moment of shocking flippancy, whether she was dredging tears from the very tip of her toes.
As the sobs slowly subsided Karen became more like her old self and, looking a little sheepish, said ‘I’m sorry about that, I don’t know what came over me, I don’t usually go round telling people all my personal woes.’
‘Don’t worry about it me old mate’ Sue said, feeling that perhaps she was being a little too jolly in the circumstances, but she really didn’t know how to handle this ‘mother confessor role’ she had been thrust into. ‘I know let’s go for a little walk and clear the cobwebs. I don’t really know Nailstone, you can show me all the sites.’
‘You got five minutes to spare then?’ said Karen with more levity than she felt.
Some ten minutes later, wandering through one of the few main roads in Nailstone Karen said to Sue ‘Don’t look now but we’re being followed.’
‘Who d’you think you are’ said Sue, ‘some star of a second rate thriller?’
Things had settle back to normal as they had walked and Karen appeared to return to her old self, the one Sue recognised from college; chatty, relaxed and generally good company. However she had seen enough of her friend this evening to know there was more that made Karen tick than she had realised until now, and it made her slightly uneasy. Something had happened in the half an hour or so in Karen’s bedroom that had given a whole new dimension to their friendship and while neither of them said so, they both acknowledged it. Sue resolved there and then that she would be there for her friend in future.
‘No, there are two lads following us. Pretend you’ve done something to your shoe and we can have a better look.’
‘Karen Wainwright; are you suggesting we allow two boys we don’t know to pick us up?’
‘Not exactly but it wouldn’t hurt to have a peep, would it?’
There was a glint in Karen’s eye that Sue rightly interpreted as barely-controlled recklessness. She had been at a low place earlier on that evening and appeared to have decided to take advantage of an unexpected situation and have a bit of fun tonight. Though how far that fun would go she didn’t know and, if she had been honest enough with herself, she would have admitted to being a little worried about.
Nevertheless, despite her reservations, Sue did as she was told and pretended to stumble a little and stopped to look down at her shoe as if some major disaster akin to an earthquake had taken place in the locality of her left foot.
The two girls then, under the guise of examining this life shattering event, manoeuvred themselves to have a look at the two boys that Karen had spotted following them.
From that peculiar vantage point Sue and Karen saw two boys on the other side of the road some twenty meters or so behind them, similar ages to themselves, one tall and gangly the other not so tall as his partner in crime and, if truth be told, a little podgier; though only someone cruel would use the word fat to describe him. The boys had stopped to look in a shop window.
‘How do you know they’re interested in us?’ Sue said taking in the vista from what was virtually an upside down stance.
‘I don’t but is seems a bit of coincidence that every time we’ve stopped or slowed down in the last five minutes they have too.’
‘Well I can’t stay in this position for much longer my backs beginning to ache and if I bend much further I’m in danger of flashing my knickers. Quite apart from the fact you have to ask what can be so wrong with a shoe that two people spend half an hour examining it?’
‘Hardly half an hour, it’s probably less than half a minute.’
‘Well it feels like that.’
‘I know’ said Karen ‘we could nip into the offy and get some sweets; then if they’re still hanging about we’ll know.’
‘And then what?’
‘Oh I don’t know, we’ll see.’
‘O very well thought out, we might be thinking of entertaining a couple of rapist and your plan is ‘to see’!’
‘Don’t be so daft, we’re in the middle of a public place, besides the smaller one looks quite cute.’
‘O so we’ve made our choices already have we? What happened to open debate, a democratic society and all that?’
‘Lay off Sue I was only saying, he looks cute, anyway the tall one would tower over me, he’s much more your size.’
Sue didn’t really mind, she didn’t consider herself the kind of girl to get picked up by strangers in the street anyway so the debate felt academic, they’d probably come out of the off-license and the boys would be further up the road. Besides after the uncomfortable half-hour they had spent in Karen’s bedroom, she was glad to see her friend smiling and speaking in a positive way again. ‘Well lets get on with it then I’m beginning to get headache crouched down here.’ With that she straightened and led the way into the offy.
‘What you want? I’ll buy.’
‘That’s very good of you’ said Karen, ‘I’ll have a bag of stick jaw.’ She said this whilst never completely taking her eyes away from the window in the door. ‘Not walked past yet’.
They left the off licence a few minutes later, Karen with her toffee and Sue with a bag of mint humbugs. If she was to be honest with herself Sue thought that these may come in handy from a fresh breath point of view, should a snog be called for, which she wasn’t quite sure if she fancied or not.
Sure enough as they emerged from the shop the boys were directly over the road leaning on the wall of the launderette in what Karen assumed they considered a cool posture. The girls stopped and pretended to be inspecting their purchases.
‘Hello darling, all right?’ From the other side of the road.
‘Oh please’ said Sue into her bag of humbugs. ‘Hello darling, all right? Welcome to women’s lib.’
‘Oh he’s probably nervous’ said Karen, turning to walk across the road. D’you want a toffee? She said holding out her bag to the shorter of the two boys.
Sue found herself following slowly, realising too late that her mouth was open, not able to fully take in this positive ‘in your face’ attitude of her usually reserved friend.
‘Er yea, thanks’ Chris helped himself to a small piece of toffee, with an assortment of thoughts invading his mind at that moment of time. ‘Don’t have a big piece; it’s greedy and I don‘t want to stand here with a full gob trying to talk, I’ll look a right prat.’ This coupled with amazement that they had virtually made the first move. ‘What do I say now?’
‘Can I have a big piece?’ Paul didn’t do subtle.
‘Yea if you like, it’s bad for my figure anyway; you’re probably doing me a favour.’
Chris knew what was coming! He winced as he heard his friend’s next words.
‘Your figure looks fine to me. All the curves in the right places.’
Chris summed up the situation quickly. He needed to say something First of all to shut his mate up before this girl had them both labelled as Neanderthals, second he couldn’t just stand there; he had to say something or look gormless and last, but by no means least, he’d already earmarked the smaller one, standing in front of them offering sweets, for himself and he didn’t want Paul to be making all the running with her.
‘Excuse my pig, he’s a friend’ was the first unconvincing thing that came out of his mouth; seemingly bypassing his brain.
‘Oh it’s OK, he’s probably shy. What’s your name?’
‘I’m Chris, he’s Paul and one thing he isn’t is shy.’
‘I’m Karen and this’, said as Sue finally joined them after walking in what appeared to be a daze from the other side of the road, ‘is Sue. Sue this is Chris and this is er….’
‘Paul’ said Paul.
Paul, as previously recorded, wasn’t always the quickest individual at picking up vibes but it was clear, even to him, that whatever happened during the rest of that evening if he was going to get off with one of these lovelies, it wasn’t going to be Karen. She and Chris were already walking up the road chatting together and the fact that she couldn’t remember his name, after only ten seconds of being told, suggested that she had her eyes, and mind, on something other than him. Never mind the other wasn’t bad even if there was an element of ‘frosty knickers’ about her. Still he was in no doubt that she would succumb to his charm by the time what was left of the night was over.
‘D’you live round here?’
‘Somewhere near’? As he said this he slipped an arm around her waist.
‘Sadbury Hill’ she said, pushing his arm away again.
‘Like foreign travel do you? You got your passport with you?’
Despite herself Sue laughed at this rather strange pushy lad and decided that he was harmless enough if a little full of himself. After all Karen seemed to be involved in deep conversation with the other lad, Chris was it? She may as well relax a little and she and Karen could touch base later on about where to go next. She was aware that his arm was again straying around her waist, she took his hand, removed it but kept hold of it. ‘You can hold my hand if you behave yourself’.
‘Now tell me a bit about yourself’.
So he did!
‘Not a bad night then?’
‘No not a bad night at all.’
‘Can’t believe we met two stunners like them.’
‘How come we’ve never seen Karen before? I’m sure I would have remembered those legs if we’d seen them, I mean her!’
‘We’ve probably seen her about without realising it. She went to Kingsbrook Primary and passed her eleven plus so went to King Edward’s Grammar.’ Chris responded
‘Posh tart eh?’
‘Come on Paul there’s no need for that, just ‘cos the girl’s got brains, there’s no need to drag her name through the mud.’
‘OK, OK no need to get your knickers in a twist, it was only a joke.’
‘Well you don’t know her do you?’
‘Well I’ve seen enough of her to know that she can’t have too many brains.’
‘I said she can’t be too brainy……she wouldn’t have chosen you otherwise.’
‘Yea she did sort of make a bee line for me didn’t she (He couldn’t quite keep that note of pride out of his voice)? Sorry mate it sort have happened, I don’t really know how. One second I was helping myself to a piece of toffee out of her bag the next we were walking up the road chatting as if we’d known each other for years. You hadn’t got your eye on her had you?’
‘Nah; you know me easy come, easy go.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing really, we didn’t know them this morning and in a couple of months, they’ll just be a memory. So it doesn’t really matter which one I’d got my eye on and let’s face it, for once in our life there wasn’t the good looking one and ‘the mate’ to argue over.’
Chris smiled to himself at this remark. Most boys (and he suspected the same applied to girls too but the opposite way around) would often see a pair of girls and describe the less attractive one as ‘the mate’ and he and Paul would often debate who got ‘the mate’ when that situation occurred. What usually happened however was that neither of the girls was interested in either of them. You couldn’t blame them really. He knew that they were harmless, even if Paul was very much ‘in your face’, but they didn’t know that and the world was a different place to when his parents were young. He had often remarked that he had been blown away more times than a deck chair on Blackpool beach in a hurricane.
He stopped, not for the first time in his life, to wonder why he ever bothered. Then remembered Karen and knew why.
Their time with the girls had been brief as they had explained that Karen’s dad was giving Sue a lift home and had been very firm that he wanted to be home in time to go to bed at 10.30pm, therefore if she wanted a lift she had to be back at their house for 9.45pm at the latest. This meant that they had to say their goodbyes after little more than an hour but had agreed to meet in Brinton the next evening, making it easier for Sue.
‘So what did you talk about?’ Paul asked.
‘This and that.’
‘This and that? What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It means that we just chatted about nothing important really. Schools, college that sort of thing. The time just seemed to fly by. What about you?’
‘You know me’ said Paul in a rare moment of self-awareness, ‘I just talked about me!’
By this time they had reached the lane where their roads parted, the place they usually met at night if they weren’t meeting up at Paul’s house (they never met at Chris’s home).
‘Well this is me.’ Chris used this same phrase most times when they reached here.
‘It sure is Chrisy boy’, Paul’s tried and tested response.
‘See you here tomorrow night about 7.’
As he turned down the narrow lane home Chris thought about the night. ‘She was lovely, I wonder if I’d have felt like this if I’d have ended up with her mate. Oh I don’t know; life, relationships, girls in general, the universe, God; it’s all too much for a simple brain like the one I’ve got in my head to work out. Maybe it was just meant to be.’
He guessed the girls would see each other at college tomorrow. In all the blissful haze of small talk with Karen he had managed to establish that they were at college together. He also guessed (rightly as it happened) that they would be analysing their night when they met.
He would not see Paul until tomorrow night. Paul had left school at the first opportunity and now worked in an office, shuffling papers all day (Paul’s words) somewhere in Halemead, which was about 3 miles south of Nailstone. Chris was studying at the art college in Denby but had a free day tomorrow anyway.
Chris arrived home and went straight to his room. His dad would have been in bed for well over an hour by now, but his mom always refused to go to bed until he arrived home and made it very clear with tuts of disapproval that he had inconvenienced her. He’d often told her to go to bed, after all he was seventeen and had a key, but she never would. Chris suspected that, deep down, she liked playing the martyr. The tension between the two seemed to get worse with every passing day and he seemed to spend more and more time in his bedroom, some days only coming down to eat or to go out.
Karen hadn’t slept much that night. Silly girl, she’d had boyfriends before and she hardly knew this one. There was no guarantee that they would even turn up tonight. She’d coasted through Mr Forsythe’s Sociology class without making any notes, drifting off into her own little world where the events of last night kept playing through her head.
Had she really been so open with Sue earlier in the evening? She couldn’t believe that she had allowed her guard to drop. She, who valued her privacy so highly, had let the mask slip and allowed someone, albeit one of her best friends, into her private world of doubt and yes, even fear.
Then her behaviour later on when she’d brazenly allowed herself to be picked up by strangers. In fact when she thought about it maybe it could be said that she did the picking up. What had she been thinking about? Then the rush of guilt and recrimination followed. She could feel herself blushing as she thought about it.
‘Does he think I’m some sort of tart? Well he’d better not think I’m easy, he’ll get his face slapped if he tries anything on. Can’t blame him though, ‘nice girls’don’t do that sort of thing. Worse than that ‘nice girls’ wouldn’t get picked up in the street in the first place. I didn’t really have chance to speak to Sue last night. I wonder what she thought about my behaviour, she certainly wasn’t over enthusiastic about my plan. I hope she’s still my mate, if she thinks bad of me she might not want to be mates anymore and after all I told her last night…… He is cute though.’
These thoughts seemed to be playing on a loop system in her brain, when she was suddenly aware of Mr Forsythe saying her name.
‘Karen; are you with us this morning or is there something more pressing on your agenda than the effects on women at work following the second world war?’
‘Sorry sir I’ve got a headache.’
‘Do you need to leave us?’
‘No thank you, I’ll be OK.’
With that he had begun to drone on again until the end of class.
Karen arrived in the refectory with only one thought; to find Sue and try to erase what she hoped were irrational fears from the previous evenings. No sign of her. She couldn’t remember what she had on a Tuesday morning but she knew that it was one of the days they usually had lunch together.
‘All right Kas, still love me?’
‘Hi Jason, course I do.’
Jason Hodges, whose idea of chatting up a girl was to smack her on the bottom whilst offering some suitably cringe-making phrase. When he’d tried it with her it was something like ‘How about you and me tonight, back row of the flicks?’
She felt that he was probably harmless enough but no-one touched her bottom without permission and she had made that very clear to him in no uncertain ways in front of his mates. She also made it clear that she didn’t succumb to stupid chat-up lines. He’d been OK with her after that but never tried it on again.
As she thought about that incident some 6 months ago now she was suddenly pulled up short by what she could only describe as the voice of her own conscience. ‘Don’t fall for chat up lines, what was it Paul had said last night? Hello darling? Or something like that and what was your response? You fell for it, just went over to them and ‘threw yourself at his mate’. It’s like a nightmare; I hope I wake up soon…… He is cute though.’
‘Whatcha slapper; sobered up from last night have we?’
Karen had again slipped back into her private world and hadn’t been aware of Sue approaching. ‘Sobered up? I wasn’t drunk, I hadn’t even had one drink, and you know it Susan Chivers.’
‘Well you could have fooled me’ Sue sat at the opposite side of the table and started to get her packed lunch out of her bag.
Students weren’t supposed to eat their own food in the refectory but no-one took much notice of this, mainly because Sue, the daughter of a union man, was well known for sticking her ground. Very soon after the start of the academic year she had involved herself in a heated debate with the refectory manager about that very subject. She had so bamboozled him with laws and rights, which she admitted later she had mostly made up, that he had made a complaint to the Principal and left her to deal with it. Ms Davies the Principal who was well known for her ‘non-intervention’ approach to student issues unsurprisingly had done nothing. As a result of this Sue, Karen and most of the student population who wanted to, ate their packed lunches in the refectory with those who paid for, what was described in somewhat optimistic terms as, hot nourishing food. All the time the refectory manager watched on; with barely disguised hatred in his eyes.
‘What you mean; could have fooled you?’
‘Well what ‘nice young lady’ goes chasing men up the road unless the ‘demon drink’ is involved? I couldn’t believe my eyes, I was so shocked you, you……hussy’.
‘Oh please don’t say that Sue I’ve been awake half the night worrying about it, and day-dreamed through most of old Forsythe’s droning; thinking about what I’d done. You haven’t helped’.
‘Joking apart I couldn’t believe what you did. You who’s always been so reserved suddenly making all the running with two boys we didn’t know.’
‘I don’t know what came over me, I’ve been thinking about it all night and I can offer no rational explanation. Perhaps I am a slapper and a hussy like you said.’
Sue noticed the tears beginning to well up in her friend’s eyes. ‘Come on I need some air, it’s hot in here.’ She ushered Karen out as quickly as she could, putting back her own sandwiches, without appearing to be acting with undue haste and raise the suspicions of the other students.
When they had found their way outside and were safely seated on one of the many benches around the sports field Sue decided that she needed to break the ice. ‘Look I’m sorry if I’ve offended you I don’t think you’re a slapper or anything like that it was just a joke. A joke in bad taste, I grant you, but still a joke, no offence meant. We live in liberated days, why shouldn’t women go for what they want?’
‘I know but the fact still remains I did as much of the running as the lads; more possibly and I feel like a slapper, women’s lib or not.’
‘Look I didn’t want to say this but you were a bit vulnerable last night. You’d shared some stuff that clearly hurt you and I think you just made a subconscious decision to have a bit of fun, and why not? You deserve it; life’s dealt you a pretty naff hand in some areas. Like I said this isn’t the nineteenth century, who says that women can’t make the running?’
‘I know but.’
‘No buts, they seem two Ok lads, even if I didn’t get a choice in the matter. We’ll see them tonight….’
‘If they turn up.’
‘If they turn up, which they will. We’ll see them tonight, have a good time and you can put all this daftness behind you.’
Karen didn’t look convinced but time had gone, they still hadn’t eaten their sandwiches and they were both due in English in about six minutes.
‘Come on’ Sue said ‘I don’t know about you but I need the loo before sleeping through Anthony and Cleopatra.’
There wouldn’t be another chance to chat again until they met tonight. They had agreed to meet the boys at 8pm on the park but had arranged last night that they would meet up in the town centre about fifteen minutes before.
As they walked back towards the main building Karen said quite involuntarily, without really realising what she had done, ‘He is cute though.’
‘There they are, told you they’d come.’
‘Yea you might have done but I don’t have to believe it. Mrs Robinson over the road says that Aliens abducted her last week but I don’t have to believe it. My uncle says Wolves are the best team in the country but I don’t have to believe it… in fact I don’t!’
Chris realised he was rambling and furthermore realised why. He’d had the day at home, supposedly putting the finishing touches to one part of his end of year project. In reality he had spent most of the time staring at the almost-completed painting of his dad in his allotment (project title: ‘Contentment’) in another world. The problem was he couldn’t get his mind off Karen. They’d only spoke for an hour or so, and that was with interruptions from Paul and Sue, but she had filled his mind today and now he was nervous. He couldn’t identify why exactly, she was just a girl (plenty more fish in the sea) and it wasn’t as if he’d never had a girlfriend before, but, reluctant as he was to admit even to himself, there was something about her.
At least his first fear hadn’t been realised, she had come, but what if they had only come to say they weren’t interested. No surely not. He and Paul didn’t know where the girls lived, in fact he had realised today he didn’t even know Karen’s surname. It would have been simplicity itself, had the girls not wanted to see them again, to just not turn up and they wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.
Paul was blissfully unaware if his friend’s internal meanderings. He had never doubted that Sue and Karen would turn up and, for that matter, on time. ‘OK girls, how’s life?’ He was away; Paul the confident, Paul the easy-going, Paul the smoothy…….Paul the one who was likely to make himself and everyone around him look a right prat if he wasn’t watched carefully!
They paired off into the couples of last night. Chris hesitatingly gave Karen a kiss on the cheek, which was about as far as he had got the night before, while Paul planted a long lingering kiss firmly on Sue’s lips. She didn’t appear to struggle and Chris wondered if he had been a bit ‘backward in coming forward’ in his less enthusiastic greeting of his partner. Still Karen had grabbed his hand and they walked together through the park in the warm evening sun. It felt nice, that small hand in his. It made him feel protective and even strong. ‘Grow up Chris, it’s not like she’s the first girl whose hand you’ve held, you’re in danger of turning into some sort of gibbering wreck.’
Karen felt strangely content, holding this stranger’s hand, knowing very little about him, yet content. It was if something had changed when they had met this evening, even strangely, that she had become a different person. The fears of lunchtime gone, though she knew in the back of her mind that at some time or other in the next week, if it lasted that long, she would have to raise some of her doubts about her behaviour of last night, just to clear it up in her own mind. For now however she was content to walk with her ‘new man’ and enjoy this summer’s evening.
They walked almost in silence at first with just the occasional comment about things they spotted in the park, it didn’t seem to matter. Paul and Sue were chatting away loudly and stopping to snog every few seconds, consequently they were lagging further and further behind Chris and Karen.
Karen wondered what was coming. Despite the sense that it was OK just to walk hand in hand saying very little she had felt Chris’s hand tense a little in the last few seconds and she wondered what was coming.
‘I er……I got you a little present’ he finally almost spluttered out. As he did so he put his hand inside his jacket and produced a block of chocolate and gave it to Karen. It was clear that he had put his body in such a way as to shield it from the sight of Paul and Sue, but Karen pretended not to notice. She had already worked out Paul’s attitude to life. It was also clear, as he handed it to her, that a block of chocolate on a hot day like today, especially stored in his inside jacket pocket, was perhaps not the most suitable present.
‘I think it might have er melted a bit.’
That didn’t seem to worry Karen; she turned round and faced him, stretched up to put her arms around him and planted a long lingering kiss on his lips.
‘What was that for, it’s only a melted block of chocolate?’ ‘Be careful Chris she might think you didn’t like it’.
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