Page 52 of Together

‘Nothing,’ said Emily quickly. ‘Can we – do you mind if we pop in here for a minute?’

‘Books?’ said Polly doubtfully. ‘Can’t we go in a record shop instead?’

‘I just need to look for something.’ Her heart was in her throat as she pushed open the door. Emily loved this shop but she hardly noticed the warm scent of books, the colourful spines. She hurried to the end of the first bookshelf and peered around it. There was no one there.

What am I going to say? Am I going to say anything? What could I possibly say?

I’ll say – I’ll say ‘Hello’. That’s a start.

She swallowed and went deeper into the shop. It was nearly deserted on this sunny day, and she passed shelves and aisles, from Fiction (General, Alphabetical) to Poetry to Art History to Chemistry until she heard a male cough in the row next to her.

Emily closed her eyes for a moment. She bit her lip.

Just say ‘Hello’.

She walked deliberately to the end of Divinity and rounded the corner.

‘Hell—’ she began and the man standing there, in a light blue jacket with an open book in his hand, turned around and he was in his forties with hardly any hair at all.

‘Sorry,’ she said, and retreated quickly to where Polly was standing by the door, gazing sulkily at a small selection of science fiction paperbacks.

‘I didn’t find what I was looking for. Sorry. Let’s go to lunch.’

Christopher was already in Fitzbillies, shoved into a corner table in the busy café. He stood when they entered. ‘Hullo Poll,’ he said, ruffling her hair. Polly pulled a face at him at the little-girl treatment.

‘Paulina,’ she announced. ‘I want to be called Paulina while I’m here.’

‘But that’s not your name, is it? I thought you were a proper Polly.’ Christopher smiled at Emily and took the suitcase from her, placing it carefully near the side of their table. ‘What would you like, Poll? An orange squash?’

‘A coffee.’

‘I promised her one,’ Emily told him. ‘Do you want to go up and get it, Polly? You can get one for each of us.’

‘Paulina,’ corrected her sister.

‘Paulina. And do you want to order our food as well? I’ll have a cheese toastie, and Christopher will have Welsh rarebit. And order what you like for yourself?’

‘Welsh rarebit, ugh.’

She wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at Christopher, who looked sternly at her. Emily fished the money out of her purse and gave it to Polly quickly before Christopher could argue about whose turn it was to pay. Polly went to the counter. There was quite a long queue, which she joined with an air of happy importance.

‘She got here all right then,’ Christopher said, pulling out a chair for Emily and sitting back down. ‘Sorry I couldn’t go to the station with you.’

‘She’s convinced all the boys on the train were flirting with her.’

‘She’s a child!’

‘In her own mind, she’s twenty at least.’ Emily smiled fondly at her sister, who was studying the menu on the wall as if she were making a grave decision. ‘Mum didn’t want her to come, but Dad convinced her.’

She didn’t have to explain any more than that to Christopher, who had met her family, and been home with her on several occasions. She’d met his parents too. He had an overprotective mother who made even her hypercritical mother look like an amateur when it came to nagging.

‘Here.’ Christopher pushed a pound note across the table at her, and she shook her head and pushed it back to him.

‘I can afford it,’ she said.

‘I can better afford it.’

‘I’ve saved up, and I like to give my sister a treat.’

He didn’t put the note back in his pocket, but began folding it into a tight rectangle.

‘Did you get your essay done?’ she asked.

He shook his head, a movement that made his glasses slide down his nose, but his hands were too busy folding and refolding the pound to push them back up. ‘It’s in on Monday morning. I’ve got to do more work on it today and tomorrow, so I can’t spend the weekend with the two of you. I’m sorry, Emily.’

‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ said Emily, though she had to admit to a small speck of relief that she wouldn’t spend the weekend mediating between her sister, who wanted to act grown-up, and her best friend, who wanted to act like Polly’s indulgent uncle. ‘Can you join us in Hall for dinner? You have to eat, even if you’ve got a lot of work to do. I can have another guest.’

‘I’ll do that. Emily—’ He glanced at Polly, who still had several people ahead of her in the queue. He unfolded the note, and rolled it into a narrow cylinder with his long fingers. ‘I need to ask you something.’

‘Oh yes, sorry, you were about to say something when I had to run for the station?’ She’d completely forgotten about it in the rush to meet her sister in time, and then those split seconds as she’d entered the station, when she’d seen . . . whoever it was.

Her throat tightened a bit at the thought of whoever it was. His eyes had been so intense, so direct.

She didn’t think she had ever been looked at that way before, with so much naked desire. Out of nowhere, from a stranger.

Christopher had twisted the pound note tighter, into a thin roll.

‘Chris, what did that poor money ever do to you?’ She laid her hand on top of his for a second to stop him from tearing it and he looked up so sharply that she pulled her hand away.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘On Monday night – I mean, any night is fine, but I say Monday because I’ll have my essay done and Poll will have gone home. So, on Monday night, do you – will you have dinner with me?’

‘All right,’ replied Emily, wondering what all the money folding and babbling was about. Christopher and she ate together several times a week, alternating Formal Halls between their two colleges and other times grabbing a sandwich between lectures. ‘Why Monday?’ she asked, sweeping a bit of spilled sugar off the table and on to the floor. ‘Is there something on the menu you don’t like?’

‘I mean, have dinner. Properly. In a restaurant.’

It was her turn to look up sharply. ‘A restaurant? You mean not in college?’

‘I just . . . I’ve been wanting to ask you for ages, and my sister said it would be best if I – if I asked you on a date. Somewhere nice.’

She stared at Christopher’s familiar face: pale, with his shock of sandy hair falling over his forehead, his horn-rimmed glasses slipping down his nose. The same face she’d been looking at since they’d first become friends, in between Professor McAvoy’s anatomy lectures in the first month of their first year. He’d been one of the few medics who hadn’t tried to ask her out. She hadn’t had any illusions that the invitations to drinks and films and late-night revision sessions had been out of any intrinsic attractiveness on her part. It was pure curiosity, and a point of male honour, for the other medics to proposition the very few female students on their course. She’d turned them all down, and now, midway through their second year, they’d stopped asking.

But Christopher had never tried. Christopher had always been her safe, easy, no-expectations friend, her brilliant friend who inspired her, her thoughtful friend who helped her and noticed when she was struggling or sad. Some of the other medics in their year and people at their respective colleges thought they were a couple because they spent so much time together. She and Christopher had laughed about it.

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