Charlie and I stare at her with Tweedledee/Tweedledum looks of confusion.
“It’s science,” she adds, wringing her hands together. Then, looking at her feet, “Sorry.”
Charlie slowly shakes his head. “I should have never let you shag that geologist.” He turns to me. “Maggie was attempting to ask you to join us for tea this afternoon.”
“Charlie,” Maggie groans, “I was getting there.”
“Had we waited for you to get there we would have missed tea altogether.”
I can’t help but ask Charlie, “Is this invite from just her?”
He stiffens slightly, cocks his head back, and assesses me. “I would not wish to be mistaken for having any carnal intentions.”
Seriously? I try not to laugh. “I wouldn’t have.”
“And why is that?”
“Because you’re gay?”
He side-eyes me. “You don’t think I’m just eccentric and terribly British?”
“Definitely. And gay.”
Maggie gives me a grateful look and then, vindicated, pushes Charlie. “See?” She turns to a cool, vintage bike (that is, yup, pink) and unlocks it from the rack. “We call him the closet door.”
Confused, I glance between the two of them. Charlie sighs. “They go through me to come out.” A laugh erupts from me, but Charlie is unfazed. “So. Tea?”
Smiling, I nod. “I’d love to. Thanks.”
“Huzzah. The Old Parsonage in a half hour. Maggie has to . . . collect something.”
She gives me the same repentant smile as before. “Sorry.”
She climbs on her bike, demurely smoothing her dress over her legs, and is about to push off when I say, “A bike. Now, that’s something I could use. I hate being late to everything.”
She smiles. “It’s essential. Everyone has one.”
“Some travel under the power of our own dignity instead,” Charlie mutters.
Maggie ignores him. “Actually, a friend happens to be selling one for a pittance at the mo. I’m off there now. Fancy joining me?” She pats her handlebars.
“Great!” Having said that, I approach Maggie’s handlebars cautiously. I’ve never done this. How do I do this? I straddle the front tire and inelegantly struggle into position while Maggie—showing a surprising amount of upper body strength—holds the bike still.
I hear Charlie murmur, “You are not to speak of anything without me,” and Maggie mutters back, “Oh, shut it.” Then, cheerily, to me, “Settled?”
“I think so!” I reply, all feigned confidence. Charlie gives us a reluctant push and we’re off.
WE RIDE THROUGH the city for about five minutes, over lots and lots of cobblestones, until we reach a large park. Across the street from it, Maggie pulls up to a curb and I hop off, letting the blood flow back to my cobblestoned ass. Maggie locks her bike to a lamppost and bounds up yet another ridiculously steep staircase. They should really just call staircases ladders in this country and be done with it. I join her as she presses a key on a call box, eliciting the sound of static, which then crescendos into a loud screech before cutting out entirely. She glances at me. “Sorry.”
A voice calls out from behind the door, “Coming, coming!” When it finally opens, a gangly boy stands on one leg like a stork, holding his other shin and grimacing. “Bugger and blast, banged my shin on the brolly stand,” he informs us by way of introduction. His golden-brown face is framed by black caterpillar eyebrows at the top and a wispy, scraggly, little-beard-that-could at the bottom. Shaggy midnight-hued hair spouts from his head in every direction.
“Hello, Tom!” Maggie chirps.
“Hello, Mags,” he exhales, dropping his shin. Then he sees me. “Oh! New person!”
“This is Ella,” Maggie informs him. “She’s American.”
“Ah! Well, then!” Beaming, Tom raises a fist to me, inviting a bump. As if it’s the way one greets Americans? Gamely, I raise my fist and meet his. He pulls his back and jazz-hands it, making an exploding noise. Then he giggles. “Always wanted to do that.”
Maggie smiles brilliantly at him. “You’re looking good,” she effuses. “I like your new haircut—”
Tom turns back into the vestibule and exclaims, “Come in! Come in! Just mind the—” I’m sure he would have said “rug” had he not, at that moment, tripped over it.
Maggie and I enter a small hall filled with boxes and an overflowing umbrella stand. He forges ahead, leading us through an open door.
Into a closet. We’re standing in a big closet with a small bed. The “room” is completely occupied, floor to ceiling, with books. “Make yourselves comfy,” Tom says. Options limited, Maggie and I perch on opposing arms of a chair. I glance at the end table next to me. Peeking out from under a book, a framed picture shows a young, beaming Tom in Mickey Mouse ears standing between a tall man with Tom’s jovial, wide-eyed face, wearing a Sikh dastar, and a squat blond woman wearing a cat sweatshirt. I look up to find Tom staring at me. Grinning.
“So,” I say, because there’s nothing else to say.
“So!” he exclaims. “Which are we destined to be? Friends or lovers?” Still grinning.
“Friends.” It’s a knee-jerk response.
“Take your time. If you need to have a think—”
“No, I’m . . . good,” I say with a smile, trying not to offend him.
He just shrugs, unfazed by my rejection. “Alas, the good ones are always taken, eh, Mags?” As if the only grounds for my rejection would be the existence of a boyfriend.
Maggie stares at the book-covered floor. She mutters, “Not always.” Then she glances up at him, looking annoyed, frustrated, and something else that I can’t—
Oh. I get it. Oh dear.
Oblivious, Tom continues to stare at me. Maggie stares at him.
“So,” I push forward, “word on the street is you’re selling a bike.”
“Indeed I am! Who told you?”
Maggie huffs in affectionate exasperation. I playfully twirl a finger at her. Tom follows my finger.
“Oh, Mags! Right! Jolly good!”
There’s a silence.
“So?” I prod, trying to get this ball—or bicycle—rolling.
“Where is it?”
“Where’s what now?”
Fortunately, Maggie takes charge. “The bike, Tom, can she see the bike?”
“Why, s’right there!” He flails his hand at a space behind us. Next to the door, camouflaged by an array of papers, more books, and coats, is an adorable beach-cruiser bike, banana seat and all. I walk over to it. It’s in good shape. Surprising for this guy.
“Duchess.” Tom sighs. “A fitting name for the gal who got me through the thick and thin of my first six years.”
My head snaps up. “You’ve been here six years?”
“Sorry,” Maggie chimes in. “Tom came here to read philosophy, then started over in maths, then . . . well, I believe it was classics, wasn’t it?” Her brow furrows. She looks to Tom.
“Linguistics, philology, and phonetics.”
“Bang on, Mags.”
Maggie beams. Definitely into him.
“Which college are you at?” I ask.