Julie Maria Peace
Men cry out under a load of oppression;
they plead for relief from the arm of the powerful.
But no one says, ‘Where is God my Maker,
who gives songs in the night,
who teaches more to us
than to the beasts of the earth
and makes us wiser than the birds of the air?’
Job Chapter 35 vs 9–11 (NIV)
The acrid scent of gunfire was drifting in on the night breeze, and the thud of distant shelling rattled the air at intervals. Still, for the moment at least, things along the trench were quiet. Eerily quiet, thought Sam. He shivered. The calm before the storm no doubt. He couldn’t remember ever having felt so miserable in all his life as he did tonight. And hungry too. There had been no rations through yet. Blown sky-high before they got up to the line, by all accounts. He reached into his haversack and pulled out a small pocket knife and a stubby pencil. He had to do something to take his mind off his discomfort. With swift, deliberate strokes, he began to whittle at the wood until the lead stood out, proud and sharp.
“Doing a spot more writing, Sammy boy?” Boxer’s cheerful voice seemed incongruous with the dismal setting.
Sam blew the pencil hard in an attempt to dislodge any stubborn shavings clinging to it. “Nope. I’m just making sure it’s ready for when I need it next. Assuming I’ll get to use it again.” He opened his bag and quickly inserted the pencil between the pages of a leather-bound notebook. He felt strangely uneasy tonight. They’d got a big battle coming up in a few hours and they’d been told to try and grab an hour’s sleep. How could a man sleep? His stomach was cramping with hunger and his joints were stiff from standing in the wet. Sweet dreams, he thought sardonically.
Boxer leaned over. “You alright, Sam?” There was concern in his tone now. “You’re not yourself tonight, pal.”
Inwardly, Sam had to concede that Boxer was right; somehow he wasn’t himself tonight. All this time, he reasoned to himself, he’d coped quite stoically with his lot; the filth, the lice, the rotten food, no food at all, the utter bone-weariness of the whole thing. The unending, nerve-jangling thump-thump-thump of shells, the morning hate, the dead faces with their unseeing eyes, the unclaimed, uncherished scraps of humanity rotting in undignified heaps like surplus potatoes. Oh yes, thought Sam, a twinge of bitterness playing in his mind, up to now he’d taken it all in his stride. Yet, as a veteran Tommy with almost two years front line service under his belt, he felt embarrassed to admit that, suddenly, it was the weather that was getting to him. The last few weeks had seen more rain than he could ever remember. Torrential, unending downpours. As if having to fight out here hadn’t been bad enough, now they were forced to continue the conflict knee deep, thigh deep, even waist deep at times – in mud. He hated it. It was adding insult to injury, and something inside him was at breaking point. Yet he knew deep down it wasn’t the rain itself that bothered him. It was the ominous sense that the very earth was turning against them. The continuous artillery bombardments of the past months, combined with the torrential rainfall, had rendered the whole front a swamp. A joke in fact. Whoever was dishing out the tactical orders obviously hadn’t been within miles of the place. The land was, in turn, devouring them and spewing them out of its mouth, and still these dreamers were coming up with their strategies.
In his mind’s eye, Sam could see a boy. Small, slightly built – probably about seventeen, but with a baby face that made him look much younger. He’d slipped off a duckboard the day before. Most likely out of sheer fatigue; he’d just lost his footing and suddenly he was in the mud. Sam had seen it happen. He and a few of the lads had tried to form a chain to get him out. ‘Keep still!’ they’d hollered. ‘Try not to struggle – we’ll soon have you out of there.’
The boy had been good. He’d done as he was told. Sam could still see the bright eyes, imploring, trusting. But they just hadn’t been able to get a grip. Sam had wrestled like a desperate man, slithering on the slimy boards, almost falling in himself. The boy had stayed calm almost to the end. He’d done everything right – everything they’d told him to, like a good soldier should. Then, as the mud had begun to curl over his shoulders, he’d panicked. The realisation that his situation was hopeless had hit him long after it had hit his would-be rescuers. Sam could still hear the boy’s screams as he’d thrown his head back to face the sky, frantically trying to gain a few more seconds. Just as the mud had seeped into his mouth, he’d uttered his final, wretched cry.
Sam had seen men die. He’d seen friends die – good friends, shot to pieces in front of him. But something about this young lad felt like the last straw. He thought of the boy’s mother. With all his heart, he hoped she’d never find out how her son had really died. ‘Killed in Action’ was the usual line, and Sam was glad of it. He certainly wasn’t going to be the one to inform the poor woman that her beloved boy had perished in a curdling cesspool simply because his legs were too tired to hold him upright. Sam found himself thinking of his own mother. On the few rare occasions he’d managed to get home on leave, he’d noticed how she’d aged. Her once fine features were etched with lines now, her corn-coloured hair streaked with silver. The past two years had taken their toll. Oh, she never said anything of course; she always tried to be bright and cheery when her boy was home. But Sam could remember the morning towards the end of his last leave, when his younger sister had taken him aside. ‘Be careful, Sam,’ she’d begged. ‘Mamma’s almost sick every day till the telegram boy’s been past the house. You make sure you come back to us … ’
And then there was Emily. The girl he loved more than life itself. Not that she knew it yet. Strangely, she’d been a part of his existence for as long as he could remember. Old school pals, Emily’s father and his own had kept in touch even when Sam’s dad had moved villages to find work. Sam recalled the monthly get-togethers between the two families and smiled ruefully now as their memory washed over him. Those visits had been part of the fabric of his life. During his boyhood years, most of the occasions had been spent planning adventures with Emily’s older brother, Jack. Emily, and Sam’s little sister, Kitty, had amused themselves doing girl things. Funny. He’d never really noticed her back then. Then suddenly, almost imperceptibly, it had happened. He must have been about fifteen or so. One day, a gloriously hot summer’s afternoon, as the two families had sat in the sprawling garden at Emily’s home, he’d suddenly caught her looking at him. She had blushed and turned away with an awkward smile. Why had he never seen it before? When had her eyes become the colour of the sky and her chestnut hair grown so long that it fell to her waist? From that moment, he’d been smitten. How bittersweet those visits had become for him. He looked forward to each one with an intensity that almost made him ill. And when it was over, it was as if the sun had fallen out of the sky. Not that he’d ever dared breathe a word to her. It was an unspoken adoration he’d carried for years now. How could he know if she felt the same? He’d been trying to pluck up courage to say something when this wretched war had broken out. All of a sudden, it seemed that everyone’s plans were on hold.
Dear, beautiful Emily. She’d seen more than her fair share of this conflict. Her coming out here as a nurse had only made him love her more. He was glad she was stationed in one of the Base Hospitals; some of the CCS girls had copped it pretty badly. Nowhere was completely safe, but there were places more safe than others. He didn’t like to think of her exposed to all that misery; no woman should have to see the things that were going on. But she was a darling. He couldn’t imagine being nursed by anyone better. Being shot to ribbons would be almost bearable if it meant having Emily around to tend his wounds …
He brought himself up with a start. What on earth was he thinking of? He was angry at himself for allowing his imagination to run away with him. The thought of Emily looking down at his poor, mutilated body suddenly sickened him. He wanted to marry the girl, for pity’s sake. He had to get a grip – shake off this gloom. It was sticking like the confounded mud.
Boxer’s voice cut into his thoughts. “It wasn’t your fault, Sam – the boy yesterday.”
Sam shook his head miserably. Trust Boxer to get straight to the nub of the thing. “Such a waste.” It was all he could think of to say. He picked a louse off his sleeve and cracked it against his thumbnail.
Sensing his friend’s anger, Boxer sat quietly for a few moments. “We’ve been mates for a good while, Sam. We’ve seen a lot of things.”
Sam looked down without replying. Suddenly, he’d seen too much.
Boxer waited a moment before continuing. “You know, Sam, everyone in this world’s marching towards the front, soldier or not.”
Sam straightened up. “What d’you mean by that?”
Boxer measured his words carefully. He’d seen men lose hope before. They did stupid things. He had to get through to Sam; he loved him like a brother. “We’re all heading for the front, pal – from the minute we take our first breath. Some of us get taken out early on. Some of us are out on the field for the duration. But in the end, it gets us all. Even if we survive this, Sam, our day will come. Even if it’s by some cosy fireside, with all of this just some dim and distant memory.”
Sam stared at him. “For one mad minute, mate, I thought you were trying to cheer me up.”
Boxer grinned. “Sam, over the months I’ve told you all I know. I wish we could have met in happier times. But if we had, I would have told you exactly the same things.”
From far away, the monotonous boom of heavy gunfire echoed across the plains. It was difficult to gauge the distance, but it hardly mattered. Some poor souls somewhere were getting it. Everyone got their turn in this game. Suddenly, from out of the gloom, a nightingale began to sing. Sam looked around in surprise. He knew enough about birds to know that nightingales didn’t usually sing at this time of year. Strange, misplaced creature. And yet, he found the sound oddly reassuring; a token that perhaps Nature still had some compassion for these poor, crippled sons of earth.
“Funny,” he said into the air. “Wonder why Rosie’s out tonight.” Earlier in the year, ‘Rosie’ had been their pet name for the little
which had serenaded them through the short, warm nights of May and June. The
melody continued for some time, and Sam felt a more gentle sadness beginning to
envelop him. A sense that, perhaps, this night would be his last.
He turned to Boxer. “Do you think she’s singing our requiem?”
Boxer stared out across the blackness as Very lights lit up the distant sky. “Maybe. For some of us.” His tone was thoughtful. “Or perhaps she’s trying to show us that it’s possible to sing in the darkness.”
The two men watched as flares rose into the night like fireworks. It was almost beautiful. Boxer turned to face his friend. “That is, Sam, it’s possible if we know the One who gives songs in the night.”
Without warning, Sam found himself trying to stifle a sob. A silent sob, one that held all the fear and grief he suddenly realised he was carrying. His voice came out in a broken stammer. “With all that I am, I wish I had your faith, Boxer.”
Boxer put a hand on his shoulder. “Then, my friend,” he smiled through tear-filled eyes, “I will pray that, before the end, you shall have it.”
And … hold.
Beth stood motionless, her breath clutched in her throat as the last plaintive note drifted high into the atmosphere.
Fly, little lark, fly …
She willed her trembling hands to be still, just a few seconds more. Her stomach lurched. That lousy nausea again.
Ignore it, Beth. Try not to think about it. Inwardly she gripped herself. Not much longer now, girl –
As the music faded into silence, a tingle of nervousness ran down her spine. Had she done it? The weakness in her limbs and the heady exhaustion told her that she’d certainly given it her best shot. She couldn’t have done any more. She must wait. In just a few moments she would know. Her guts churned again, but she did not move. There’d be plenty of time for throwing up later.
In the balcony, Rosie Maconochie felt a strange sense of amusement. Like the rest of the audience in those closing moments, she found herself transfixed by the figure on the stage. The violinist was standing, eyes closed, fingers fused to her instrument, her cheek resting against it as though she and it were one. Her face seemed to shine with the serenity of a sleeping angel and, with her long fair hair, specially crimped for the evening, and flowing velvet gown, she looked for all the world like some melancholy pre-Raphaelite princess. Rosie had never seen her friend like this before. She looked almost ethereal.
Rosie smiled wryly to herself. Some makeover this was. In the last few weeks, Beth had looked anything but ethereal. Baggy shirts, faded jeans, her hair a wild mess scooped on top of her head. Practise, practise, practise. Rosie was sure the violin even went with her to the loo these days. Music had always been number one with Beth, but she’d taken it to a new level this time. Rosie had hardly been able to get a coherent word out of her this past fortnight. ‘You’re gonna need to get that thing surgically removed,’ she’d joked a couple of days before. Beth had just grinned. ‘You don’t know what this concert means to me, Ros,’ was all the defence she’d managed. Well, the effort had paid off for sure. Ciaran had said they were in for something special and he’d been right. Tonight’s had been a top class performance and now, centre stage, Beth looked perfect. Slight as she was, her presence seemed to fill the platform.
For a few seconds, an expectant stillness hung in the air almost defying anyone to break its tension. And then it broke. It was like a reaction to some invisible spark; a roar of rapturous applause exploding from the audience as people began to stand to their feet. The violinist opened her eyes and swept the auditorium with her gaze. She gave a slow, dignified bow and, as she straightened up, her face seemed to relax into an expression of relief. That was one of the endearing things about her, thought Rosie; she really did not know just how good she was.
Beth opened her eyes in semi-bewilderment. The response was more than she could have hoped for. Three years in first violins had never felt like this. Trying to quell the excitement mounting inside her, she turned to the orchestra. As they stood to take their bows, she glimpsed across at the strings section and scanned the faces, searching for Ciaran. For the briefest moment their eyes met, and the intensity of his look said everything. Beth smiled at him knowingly and turned to face the audience again. As the clapping continued, she gave several more bows towards the different areas of the hall. Another swirl of nausea made her catch her breath.
Oh no, not now. Not tonight of all nights. Take your time, Beth. Careful. Take the bend gently – no sudden movements.
She inhaled deeply and breathed out slowly, deliberately. This thing was beginning to tick her off. She’d been taking Stugeron all week. And ginger biscuits. They were supposed to help. She tried to keep smiling as her stomach seemed to turn over. How embarrassing would it be if she suddenly had to belt off stage? At least it had had the decency to wait till the end; any earlier could have been disastrous. It was a relief to her when, a few moments later, the nausea began to subside. Sweeping her hair back from her face, Beth looked out over the applauding crowd. They had loved it, and their reaction was intoxicating. Suddenly she knew she wanted to do this for the rest of her life.
People were starting to move now, and the whole auditorium buzzed with the hum of a thousand conversations. It felt like the well-fed aftermath of a good concert; the bustle of a multitude of coats being pulled on, bags being picked up, and feet shuffling distractedly towards exits as though their owners were reluctant to leave. But up in the balcony, certain occupants of two particular rows were sitting tight. Chattering excitedly among themselves, they seemed oblivious to the movement all around them. Beth’s family had turned out in force. They had made the two hundred and fifty mile journey down from
Yorkshire; her parents, Ed and Cassie Simmons, and her two
brothers, Ben and Josh, along with their wives and children.
Though Rosie was sitting amongst them, she felt decidedly separate from them. Their closeness, their humour, the combination of their eccentricities and empathies intrigued her. The banter between them all seemed to flow with the ease and rhythm of the ocean on a summer’s day. She’d been around Beth’s lot before, but tonight, for the first time, it hit her. That brother of hers had gone and got himself a real family. How on earth had he managed that? The irony almost made her smile; yet, for a moment, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it.
A small voice cut into her thoughts. “What was that last song called, Rosie?” Nine-year old Meg crinkled her face. Meg was the eldest daughter of Beth’s brother, Josh.
Rosie leafed through the programme. “I’m pretty sure it was – hang on a sec while I check ... .” She flicked the pages until she came to Beth’s photo. The face was young and relaxed, and the large eyes shone mischievously. She skimmed the writing.
‘Beth Maconochie has been with the Avanti Sinfonia since 2002, and tonight she will be giving her first performance as violin soloist with the orchestra.’
Rosie jumped another page. “Here it is. Yes, that’s what I thought. That piece was called ‘The Lark Ascending’ – written by a man called Ralph Vaughan Williams. I seem to think it’s your Auntie Beth’s favourite. Did you like it?”
Meg nodded, a dreamy expression on her face. Her younger sister, seven-year old Tammy, sighed in admiration. It seemed she was equally smitten.
“Are we off then?” Ed Simmons’ voice boomed cheerily in the atmosphere of the almost empty gallery. They wended their way out of the auditorium and onto the first floor landing of the concert hall. The broad corridor was still brimming with people making their way towards the staircase which led down to the foyer, and the warm air hung heavy with the intriguing mix of scents and perfumes that emanated from the well-dressed crowd. Large, ornate chandeliers illuminated the whole scene, sparkles of light glinting from a million drops of shimmering pink glass. Tammy slipped her small hand into her sister’s. Rosie was amused to see Meg’s arm jerk as the younger child made slight, springing steps on the plush, rose-coloured carpet. It was obvious the evening had been a real treat for the young girls. Rosie found herself wondering what it must be like for them being in the capital at night, going to a classical concert in an opulent hall. A lot different from
Yorkshire, she was sure. She
remembered the strangeness she herself had felt when she’d first moved to . She’d thought back
then she would never get used to it. Yet here she was, almost a native. You
could get used to anything given time. London
Outside in the cool October night air, the group met up with Beth and Ciaran. Hugs, kisses, and congratulations overflowed as they waited for taxis to take them to the train station. The area was full of Friday night revellers; theatres and concert halls spilled out their colourful crowds who quickly mingled with ambling restaurant diners and nocturnal tourists until the streets were a sway of good-natured merrymaking. Meg and Tammy observed it all with eyes large and bright. Once inside their taxi, they pressed their small faces against the windows and watched the lights of
flash by. Tom, Ben’s teenage son, chattered amiably to the driver who nodded
and mumbled as he negotiated his way towards their destination. When they
arrived at London ,
they all piled onto a train and spent the short journey making plans for their
next few days together. Beth’s family were treating themselves to a break in a
hotel. ‘Not every day you come down to Victoria ,’
Ed had said. ‘We’ll splash out a bit. See ’ow the other ’alf live.’ London
As they all prepared to separate for the night, Cassie took Beth in her arms and hugged her. “I’m so proud of you, sweetheart. You were absolutely wonderful.”
Beth’s face glowed. But before she had chance to reply, Josh came up behind them and, linking his arm through his sister’s, began to spin her round on the spot. Ben struck up a tune and, together with Ed and Tom, began to clap as though at some impromptu roadside ceilidh. The children jumped up and down on the pavement with delight, and Beth punched the air jubilantly as the spinning gathered pace. Rosie exchanged glances with Ciaran. He was watching the scene, his eyes filled with quiet pride. “They’re all as mad as each other,” he whispered to her. But Rosie knew he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Whoa! You’ll have to stop …” Beth panted breathlessly after a couple of minutes. She was still laughing, but her voice came out in small gasps.
Josh steadied her. “You okay, sis? Getting too old for this kinda thing?”
Beth bent forward with her hands on her knees as she tried to catch her breath. She tilted her face up at him and grinned. “Some of us have been working very hard tonight – just in case you didn’t notice.”
Josh rubbed her shoulder affectionately. “We’ll let you off then. Looks like you need to get your feet up.”
It was late by the time Ciaran and Beth finally flopped onto the sofa of their Streatham home.
“Don’t you wish we could do concerts in jeans?” Ciaran loosened his collar and sighed. There was always a slight hint of Irish in his voice when he was tired.
“Or combats?” Beth ventured. “Only I guess they wouldn’t look quite so glam.”
Ciaran took her small hands in his and tenderly kissed the tips of her fingers. “You were so beautiful tonight, Bethy. You played like an angel. At one bit I wanted to stand on my seat and shout – ‘Listen up, you lot! That girl’s mine. My bride! Isn’t she just gorgeous …?’”
Beth shook her head and grinned. “I’m very glad you resisted the temptation. Your Rosie would’ve thrown something at you.” She looked down at her hands for a few moments, her expression becoming serious. “D’you think I did it justice? I mean, was it as good as you thought it would be?” Suddenly, away from all the applause and adulation, she knew she needed to hear it from him. What he thought meant more than all the compliments in the world.
Ciaran took her gently by the shoulders. Pulling her round to face him, he looked deep into her eyes. “Bethy, you were awesome. Absolutely out of this world. I have never been so proud in all my life as I was tonight. Really.” He kissed her then for a long time until she knew. She was his treasure.
Some time after midnight, he got up to make a hot drink.
“Bring me a couple of paracetamol with mine,” Beth called out.
“You got a headache?” Ciaran’s voice could just be heard through the clinking of cups and the buzz of the kettle.
“Nah, not really.” Beth flexed her arms and hands. “Just need to loosen up a bit. They might help me sleep.” She tried not to think about the sickness, but it was there again, lingering somewhere in the pit of her stomach. She placed a hand against her belly. Was it her imagination or was it not quite so flat as it used to be? Her heart quickened as her stomach lurched again. What kind of timing would that be? Just when things are taking off for me …
A flash of guilt seized her. She shouldn’t be thinking this way. Her mind went back to the morning she’d sat with her mother in a doctor’s surgery, just a few weeks before her wedding to Ciaran. Her periods had always been few and far between; one year she’d only had three. Dr Meluish had warned her gently that she might struggle to conceive. She’d cried that day, all her girlhood maternal aspirations cluttering her throat in great sobs. Now, as she remembered, she felt bad. She instinctively hugged herself and leaned forward on the sofa. There was no doubt about it; she’d definitely thickened up in the old waistband department. She hadn’t said anything to Ciaran yet. No point in getting him in a lather – or getting his hopes up. Distractedly, she twirled a strand of hair around her finger. She couldn’t imagine quite how he’d take it. They’d always hoped it would happen in the future, but it certainly wasn’t something they’d reckoned on right now. Now of all times.
The thought of it scared her. She pulled herself up with a start. She was probably being premature. Perhaps it was all the junk food she’d been living on these last few weeks. Yes, that could account for it. Junk food and stress; a lethal combination for any girl. It was a desperate straw to cling to, but by the time Ciaran came in with the drinks, Beth had managed to push the subject neatly into a corner of her mind. This was her big night after all. She should be savouring the moment, not speculating as to whether her career might be about to take an unexpected nosedive. She forced a smile as Ciaran set the tray down.
I’ll keep an eye on things. He doesn’t need to know anything yet.
Rosie was feeling exhausted. She’d been into work extra early that morning and now it was catching up on her. After briefing her housemate, Mel, about the concert, she went off to her room. She had to be up early again tomorrow, sightseeing with Beth’s family. Beth’s family – what a bunch. She yawned. Without warning, a picture floated across her mind. A picture of a man and a woman, a young lad and a little girl, sitting on a seaside promenade, posing for a photo. The breeze was pulling at their hair and their faces were wide with smiles …
For a moment, the memory held her motionless. A sudden knot gripped her stomach. The old pain, the one she thought had gone away. She shook herself and ran some water into the sink. Splashing her face, she blanked the picture from her head. That’s the trouble with burning the candle at both ends, she chided herself. Time you were asleep, girl.
Going over to the window, she opened the curtains slightly so that she could see the moon from her bed. A shaft of pale light fell across the covers and, as she lay in the stillness, Rosie’s mind went back to the image of Beth on the concert stage. As her eyes grew heavy, the lark sung its haunting, silvery melody and serenaded her to sleep.
The next few days were spent showing Beth’s northern relatives the sights. It had been Beth’s suggestion that Rosie try and get a few days off work to join them. They visited all the usual spots and, to Rosie’s amusement, acted like complete tourists much of the time. She noticed that Ed and Beth’s brother, Ben, kept making hasty pencil sketches of various scenes.
“Nobody’s told them about the invention of the camera,” Beth joked in a low voice. Rosie laughed, but secretly she admired the snatched drawings; there was something immediate and personal about them. Ed noticed her interest.
“Do you do any drawing yourself, Rosie?” They had stopped by the
and Ed was doing a quick outline of the Houses of Parliament. Jewel Tower
Rosie shrugged. “I like doodling. Never done anything impressive. Well, only once perhaps.”
“Oh, and what was that?” Ed squinted as he flicked his pencil across the page.
Rosie was dismissive. “Just something I did at secondary school.”
Something from another time, another place, she thought wistfully. Something so far removed from her present life, it was tempting to wonder if it had ever really happened at all. She tried to focus her attention on Ed’s sketchpad. But her eyes saw something altogether different.
An early summer morning in
Sitting on a hillside still damp with dew, gazing down into a steamy, golden
valley. Ciaran pointing out insects to her and quietening her to listen to the
sound of a blackbird. County Wicklow
The world had seemed brand new back then. To her childhood eyes, that valley had been the beginning and end of it. Many years later, after moving to
she’d made a sketch of the memory. She’d turned it into a painting and shown it
to the art teacher at school. To her embarrassment, it had been put on display
for the rest of the year. Mr Retford had said she showed real talent, even
talked about further education. At that time, her only ambition in life had
been the thought of escaping to England .
Now, as she watched Ed’s deft pencil movements, she couldn’t help wondering if
she’d missed something along the way. London
On the Thursday, Beth’s family had to go back to
There were tearful scenes at the station as everyone exchanged hugs and
promises to see each other soon. ‘Don’t leave it too long!’ and ‘Come up before
Christmas!’ they yelled as they piled onto the train.
Just before she boarded, Cassie took Rosie’s arm and spoke into her ear. “That means you too, Rosie. You’re very welcome to come and stay with us anytime you’d like to. You remember that.”
“Thanks –” Rosie faltered, “I will.” She felt oddly moved by the gesture. Though they didn’t see each other often, Cassie always treated her with a maternal care which Rosie found strangely unfamiliar.
As the train began to pull away, tears streamed down Beth’s face. As it snaked into the distance and the waving arms of her family grew smaller, she stood like a lost child, staring up the line. Ciaran slipped his arm around her. “Come on, princess,” he whispered, kissing her hair. They all walked slowly up the platform towards the exit.
Beth dabbed her face with a tissue. “I never get used to the goodbyes,” she said between sniffs, “no matter how many times we do it.”
The following Saturday morning, Rosie went round to catch up with Beth. Ciaran was just on his way out. “See you, sis. Gotta go – late for a lesson.” He ruffled her hair and dashed off.
“Gets no better for keeping, does he?” Rosie grinned as she took off her jacket.
Beth was looking through a magazine. “Honestly! Have you seen this?” She thrust the page in front of Rosie’s face. They read the article together. It was a glowing piece. The columnist had reviewed Beth’s violin performance in lush, poetic tones and ended with the enigmatic question, ‘What next from the angelic Beth Maconochie?’
“Who writes this rubbish?” snorted Beth, but Rosie could tell she was pleased. She went to make them both a coffee, leaving Beth still mulling over the review.
“So … what does somebody with your new iconic status do next?” Rosie placed the drinks on the table as she shot Beth a teasing half-smile.
“Very funny,” Beth tutted. “I carry on doing my job. What else?”
Rosie took a slow mouthful of coffee. “Must be great doing a job you really love.”
Beth shrugged. “Well, it’s hard work and it doesn’t pay that well; so yeah, I guess I must love it. But anyway, what about you? I thought you were happy working at the nursery.”
Rosie was quiet for a moment. “It’s okay. I mean, I’m not unhappy. But sometimes you wonder, don’t you?”
Rosie shook her head with a slight laugh. “Oh, I dunno. Sometimes you ask yourself, if I could do anything in the whole wide world, what would it be? Somehow I don’t think I’d be working at the nursery, that’s all.”
“So what would you do?”
Rosie paused as she pondered the question. “To be honest, I’ve absolutely no idea.”
Beth grinned. “I feel some real angst coming off you all of a sudden, Ros. Trying to find ourself are we …?”
Rosie felt a flush of embarrassment. She’d been too open. Straightening up, she forced another laugh. “Go on then, Mrs Maconochie. What would you do?”
“Oh, that’s simple.” Beth threw her head back with easy confidence. “I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to start working on my own compositions. It’s a thing I’ve fancied doing for a while. I reckon it’s a good way forward for me now that I’ve broken into solo. You watch, Ros. I’m gonna write something that’ll take the world by storm. Tour all over performing it. Make enough money to come back home and write some more – and so on. I’ve been planning it all out this morning.”
“That article’s gone to your head, hasn’t it?” Rosie smirked.
“Absolutely!” Beth beamed. “Well, at least I can dream, can’t I?”
It was Tuesday evening. Rosie and her housemate, Mel, were in the middle of
, making their way, as quickly as Mel’s
stilettos would allow, towards a wine bar. Rosie glanced at her watch. London
“You nervous?” Mel smiled tentatively.
“Nah –” Rosie lied. “Do I need to be?”
Mel shook her head. “No, Dan says he’s a really nice guy. He’s just been going through a bit of a hard time recently.”
Rosie turned on her. “You never told me that bit. What’s he looking for – a shrink? Oh boy, why did I ever let you talk me into this?”
Mel patted her arm consolingly. “Don’t be daft, it’ll be fine. It’s only for a few hours. If you don’t hit it off you don’t have to see each other again. I just thought it might be a nice idea. You’ve been single for a while after all.”
“Being single isn’t a disease, Mel.” Rosie’s voice was gloomy. “Anyway, have you ever met this – this – what’s his name again?”
Mel thought for a moment. “His name’s Gavin. And no, I haven’t met him.”
Rosie rolled her eyes with a look of mock menace. “I’m warning you, sunshine. If he’s got a face like a bear’s backside, or I get the remotest hint that he’s having therapy, I’m outta there.”
Mel pretended to look hurt. “Is that all the thanks I get for trying to do you a favour?”
Rosie grimaced. Favour? That’s the thing about you, Mel. You and your endless quest for love. Does it ever occur to you that some girls are quite okay to be on their own from time to time? “I’m just letting you know, that’s all. In case you suddenly see me legging it out the door.”
Mel nodded sympathetically. “Okay, I understand. But this could be your lucky night, Rosie. Didn’t you ever watch ‘Blind Date’ when you were younger? Some of them ended up getting married.”
Rosie screwed up her face in disgust. Yeah – and some of them nearly ended up in casualty with heart failure when the screen went back …
All of a sudden, she really did feel nervous. She hadn’t been on a date for a while. Okay, so what if this guy was alright? What if he simply didn’t like her? As the wine bar came into view, she tried to picture herself in the mirror back home. Slim, a good height; not too small, not too tall. Dark, wavy hair, very dark eyes. Ciaran always said it was the Celtic genes. All in all, passable. She thought about Mel. Blonde, blue-eyed, Barbie-doll figure Mel. A girl so stunningly naïve, Rosie was amazed she hadn’t had her heart broken in a million pieces already. Mel, who believed that Prince Charming was lurking in every bar and bistro in the city. Rosie sighed. She’d never had much success on the dating front herself. Oh, there’d been a few guys – some of them really quite okay. But somehow she never seemed to click with them. Mel assured her she was gorgeous; even fixed her hair and helped her rustle up killer outfits whenever a new date was on the scene. But it didn’t make much difference. ‘Perhaps you need to loosen up a bit, Rosie,’ Mel would say helpfully. ‘Let them know you’re enjoying their company.’ That was the problem. Most of the time she wasn’t. Most of the time she felt awkward, uneasy. It was okay for Mel. These days, she was so in love with the idea of getting hitched, her requirements were pretty basic. All she looked for in a guy was a cute face and a decent wallet. No brain required, all conversation kept to a minimum. Sooner or later Mr Right was bound to come along. But for Rosie, the idea of settling down didn’t have quite the same appeal. Her mind instinctively threw up an image of her mother. She tried to push the troubling thought out of her head. That was enough to put a girl off for life. Anyway, none of the men she’d dated so far had inspired her to want to spend a weekend with them, let alone a lifetime.
“Here we are!” Mel’s excitable voice broke into her thoughts. “De Souza’s Wine Bar. Haven’t been here before. Looks a nice place.” She shot Rosie an anxious smile as she opened the door. They stepped inside. As they scanned the room, Mel caught sight of her latest boyfriend, Dan, sitting at a table by a window. He was deep in conversation with another young man who had his back to them. At that moment, Dan looked up. He quickly said something to his friend and the two of them stood to their feet as the girls approached the table.
“Good evening, ladies!” Dan grinned broadly and popped a kiss on Mel’s cheek. Mel huddled closer to him, a besotted smile spreading over her face. Dan turned to his friend. “Ladies, this is Gavin. Gavin, this is Mel. And this –” He gestured towards her as he spoke, “this is Rosie.”
For a moment, Rosie was speechless. Her eyes tried to take in the vision standing before her. Gavin was a tall, muscle-bound hunk of suntanned perfection, his mid-brown hair streaked with blond, his teeth impossibly white as he stood smiling at her. Rosie instinctively held out a hand as she tried to collect herself. Gavin shook it, his grip more gentle than his biceps would have suggested.
Dan seemed pleased with the introductions. “Right girls, we’ll go and get the drinks. What will you be having?”
Mel gave him her order, giggling as she did so.
“I’ll have a tomato juice, please.” Rosie felt mortified at the quiver she heard in her own voice. Dan and Gavin headed off towards the bar and the girls sat down.
Mel was almost beside herself. “Rosie! He’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” She looked deeply impressed, and if Rosie hadn’t been so taken aback herself, she would have found the whole thing highly amusing. As it was, she felt distinctly uncomfortable. This guy looked like he’d just stepped off a catwalk. Suddenly, everything in her told her she was way out of her depth.
“If I wasn’t so crazy about my Dan, I’d snap your hand off for him,” Mel drooled. “Did you smell that aftershave? He must get showered in it.” A look of satisfaction spread across her features. “Well, Rosie, all that worrying for nothing, eh? I reckon you owe me.”
Rosie smiled weakly. “Alright, so he’s good-looking. He still might be a lousy creep. I haven’t exactly had chance to get to know him yet.”
Mel shook her head and gazed across at the bar. “No. I can tell by his eyes. You could swim in those eyes, Rosie.”
Rosie didn’t bother to argue. She needed to save her strength for the evening ahead. But one word summed up the way she was feeling right now. Inadequate.
Mel seemed to sense her struggle. “You look fabulous tonight, Rosie. You two’ll make a beautiful couple. Move over Posh and Becks, that’s what I say.”
Rosie appreciated her effort and forced as warm a smile as she could manage. Just then, Dan and Gavin arrived back at the table.
“So, you don’t drink then, Rosie?” Gavin’s voice sounded smoothly curious as he handed her the tomato juice.
Rosie took a sip. “Not when I’m working next day.”
“Ah right, I see.” Gavin sat down and leaned back in his chair with controlled confidence. “And where’s work?”
Rosie took another sip. What was wrong with her? Get a grip, girl. This guy can’t possibly be perfect. She tried to convince herself but, looking at the Armani-clad Adonis, it was hard to believe he wasn’t. “I work at the same day nursery as Mel – in Streatham.”
“Ah … children.” Gavin nodded slowly.
He made no further comment. For a moment, Rosie felt slightly disconcerted. Ah children? What was that supposed to mean? Maybe she should have lied and told him she was into cabbage farming. She looked at him directly. “And where’s work for you?”
His face seemed to brighten. “I’m a fitness instructor, at the Apex Health Club. I do quite a bit of teaching around
too. Y’know, personal health and
fitness regimes – that kind of thing. And in my spare time, I’m training up in
computer programming. Fancy another string to my bow. But at the moment it’s
mostly the fitness scene.” He picked up his glass and chinked it against hers
with a grin. “I don’t drink either. Orange juice. Much better for the
Rosie wasn’t sure how to respond. Should she tell him a few anecdotes about physical activity sessions with the kids at the nursery? At this stage, she couldn’t think of anything else they might have in common. Thankfully, at that moment, Dan broke in with a question for Gavin, and soon Dan’s conversation had spread like an umbrella over the four of them. Rosie was relieved. Gavin wasn’t nearly so intimidating when shared with friends. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough. From time to time, Rosie would catch Gavin looking at her. Each time their eyes met, he would smile; a cool, confident smile which she found slightly unnerving. Whatever hard times this guy had been going through, they certainly didn’t show up on his face.
Later on, as they were saying their goodbyes, Gavin took her hand. “I’d like to see you again, Rosie.” He paused for a moment as his eyes searched hers. “I can’t make it till after the weekend. Away on a course, I’m afraid. But I should be home Sunday evening. I’d like to call you when I get back, if you’re okay with that.”
Rosie found herself struggling to meet his gaze. “Yeah, that’d be nice. I’ve enjoyed tonight.” She wasn’t entirely sure whether she meant it, but it seemed the right thing to say.
Gavin looked pleased. “Great! I’ll be in touch then.”
Feeling her cheeks beginning to warm, Rosie returned his smile. “I’ll look forward to it.”