Making your mind up, p.10
Making Your Mind Up, page 10
Aaarrgh. “Who with?”
“The man who brought you flowers.”
“Duh, like they’re lining up.” Grinning, Jojo said, “You know who I mean. And you’re having dinner with him this evening at the Red Lion in Gresham.”
“This evening?” Aware that she was starting to sound like a parrot—and that her blood appeared to think her body was a Grand Prix circuit—Cressida slumped onto a kitchen chair. “But…what about you? I can’t just leave you here.”
“No need. I’m coming along too.” Jojo began unpacking the bags, chucking sweet corn and potato rösti packages into the freezer.
Faintly, Cressida said, “You are?”
“Me and Donny. The sulky brat, remember? We’re coming along to keep an eye on you, make sure you two behave yourselves. Because even old people can get up to mischief, you know.” Jojo said this so airily she clearly didn’t imagine for a moment that it could be true. “Anyway, so that’s what we’re doing tonight. Isn’t it great? I told you he fancied you. Can I have some of this ice cream?”
Cressida nodded, her mind a whirl. It was only a dinner date, for heaven’s sake, and a foursome at that. But her foolish old heart was nevertheless skipping around like Bambi in her chest. Tom Turner had been in her thoughts far more than he should have been these past few days.
“Oh God, what shall I wear?” Cressida blurted out, realizing that the more ancient and out of practice you were, the longer you needed in order to get ready for a date. “My eyebrows need plucking and my hair’s all horrible. If I put fake tan on my legs now, will they be brown in time?”
“In the olden days women used to put gravy browning on their legs because they couldn’t afford stockings. We learned that at school.” Interestedly Jojo said, “Did you used to do that?”
“That was during the war, you evil child. And I’m sure if I tried it I’d have dogs licking the stuff off my ankles. If I’m going out somewhere with a man,” Cressida protested, “I’d prefer not to be chased by a slavering pack of hounds. Damn, and my white shirt’s got a spaghetti stain on the front.”
Jojo had by this time abandoned the unpacking and was leaning against the fridge eating lemon meringue ice cream straight from the tub with a teaspoon. “Aunt Cress, he’s not exactly Johnny Depp. You’ll be fine.”
“I know.” Cressida ran her fingers through her hair, which was badly in need of a cut. “But I still don’t want him to run away screaming.”
“He’s not expecting a supermodel,” Jojo reasoned. “Just do your best.”
So young, so cruel. So right.
“OK,” said Cressida.
“Anyway, don’t panic. I’ve got just the thing.” Jojo looked pleased with herself. “I’m going to lend you my copy of Phew!”
Jojo’s magazine contained a double-page spread titled “Top Twenty Megatastic Tips for That Hottest-Ever Date!!!” Having assiduously read it—with Jojo breathing over her shoulder—Cressida learned that when out with Tom she should wear a perky little cropped T-shirt to show off her flat stomach (if you’ve got it, flaunt it!!!), that she should pop her sneakers in the washing machine the day before (because no one likes ugly sneakers!!!), and that she shouldn’t give him a love bite (yeurgh, sooo uncool!!!). She was also sternly instructed not to diss his friends, not to wear too much gloopy lip gloss (because no one wants to kiss a girl and end up getting stuck to her!!!), and not to text other men during the course of the date.
Then, of course, there was: laugh at his jokes, but not too loudly (don’t want him to think you’re a hyena!!!); make sure you keep any spare tampons safely tucked away in the bottom of your bag (so they don’t accidentally fall out and roll across the floor—aaarrgh!!!); and finally, ration those cans of fizzy Coke—whatever you do, don’t burp in his face!!!
Well, thought Cressida, thank heavens for teenage magazines. Imagine the hideous faux pas she might have made if it wasn’t for Phew!
* * *
“Now, drinks.” In the bar of the Red Lion, Tom rubbed his hands together and turned to Cressida. “What’ll you have?”
“A Coke please,” Cressida said innocently, catching Jojo’s eye and making her shake her head in despair. “Actually I won’t. Do you know, I’d love a glass of white wine.”
She saw Jojo relax.
“Excellent idea. Donny?”
“Thanks.” Jojo beamed at him. “I’ll have a Coke too.”
* * *
“What did you have to do that for?” Donny frowned. “It’s boring out here.”
Jojo rolled her eyes and wondered how he could be so stupid. As soon as their drinks had arrived, she had insisted on dragging Donny out into the beer garden. “It’s boring in there as well. Anyway, I was being subtle. If we sit in there with them, your dad will ask me if I’m enjoying school and what my favorite lessons are, blah blah, and Aunt Cress will try to talk to you about your hobbies and what you want to do when you leave school, because they’ll feel obliged to make polite conversation. It’s what grown-ups do when kids are around. But all they really want is to talk to each other, so why get in their way? If we’re out here we can do what we want.”
“And we don’t have to answer a load of dumb questions.” Donny nodded, reluctantly acknowledging that this made sense, then looked at her from under the bill of his baseball cap. “But there isn’t anything to do out here.” With a tinge of sarcasm he added, “Unless you want to play on the kids’ jungle gym.”
“No thanks. You might fall off and start crying.” Jojo took a glug of Coke. “We could always talk to each other.”
He glowered. “What about?”
“Well I don’t know, do I? But surely it wouldn’t kill you to make an effort.” Losing patience, Jojo said, “I mean, you live in Newcastle. It’s not as if any of your friends are going to turn up here and catch you talking to a girl.”
“I’m not scared of talking to girls.”
“No? You’re not making a great job of it so far, are you?”
Donny’s lip curled. “Maybe it depends on the girl.”
Jojo was sorely tempted to guzzle down the rest of her Coke and burp in his face. God, was it any wonder she wasn’t interested in boys if this is what they were like?
“Look,” she said crossly, “I’m not trying to flirt with you. I don’t fancy you. I just thought we could give your dad and my aunt a bit of time alone together, that’s all.”
“Yeah yeah.” Donny exhaled noisily. “But really, what’s the point? We’re down here on vacation. Next week we’ll be back in Newcastle.”
“So? They like each other. What’s wrong with that?” Irritated by his attitude, Jojo said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a vacation romance?”
The R word caused Donny to flinch and avert his head in disgust as if she’d just spat at him. Which, right now, was quite a tempting idea.
“Look,” Jojo tried again, “I know nothing’s going to come of it because you live so far away, but there’s no reason why they can’t see each other a couple times and leave it at that. Think of it as a practice run. Aunt Cress has had really bad luck with men, so it’s a nice to see her with someone decent. And your dad’s probably out of practice too.” She paused, then said, “Or is that the problem? You don’t want him to see anyone at all?”
Donny looked down at his sneakers. Finally he said, “It’s not that. It just feels a bit funny, that’s all. My mum walked out on us two years ago.”
“I know. Aunt Cress told me.”
“And I know he’ll probably get married again one day, but what if he chooses someone I hate? I mean, it’s not like I’ll have any say in the matter, is it? My friend Greg’s parents got divorced and they both remarried, and Greg can’t stand his stepmother or his stepfather.”
“Your dad used to be married to her? What, before you were born?” Donny frowned, working it out. “That’s weird.”
“It isn’t weird. She’s brilliant. I’m lucky,” Jojo insisted.
Donny picked at the loose threads around a rip in his baggy jeans. “I bet I wouldn’t be lucky. I’m never—”
“What?” Looking up, he saw that Jojo was beaming at him like a lunatic. “Look happy,” Jojo instructed, her beam unwavering. “Aunt Cress is looking out of the window, checking up on us. Just act like we’re fine.”
“Honestly, you’re so stupid. Because then they can relax and enjoy themselves without having to worry about us.”
“Jesus, I wish I’d brought my Game Boy,” Donny grumbled, although he did attempt something that from a distance would pass as a grin. “You are seriously weird.”
* * *
“They’re fine. Laughing and chatting away together like old friends,” Cressida cheerfully announced.
“Really?” Tom looked relieved.
“Getting on like a house on fire. There, you see? All that worry for nothing. They’re probably far happier being out in the beer garden than stuck in here with the old fogeys. Not that you’re an old fogey,” Cressida said hastily as Tom’s eyebrows rose.
He smiled. “Neither are you.”
“Although I’m sure Donny and Jojo think we are.”
“Oh well, goes without saying. As far as they’re concerned anyone over twenty-five is over the hill.”
Cressida didn’t think of herself as an old fogey, not quite, but it was still much nicer being inside the pub, sitting at a pretty table in the restaurant section where the lighting was shaded and flattering to the complexion. The candles flickering on the table between them cast a further romantic glow. As she settled herself back down she felt a matching warm glow in her stomach from the wine. Tom looked nicely unwrinkly too. In fact, he looked nice, period. And the cooking smells wafting through from the kitchen were mouthwatering.
“Well, I’m glad we came here. You made a good choice,” Cressida said happily.
“Don’t thank me, thank Jojo. It was all her idea.” Tom grinned. “Not backward in coming forward, that one. She told me what time to pick you up and where to bring you. I just did as I was told.”
“Then I’m glad about that too. Unless you’re hating every minute.”
“Now why would I be doing that? I’m enjoying this vacation more than I ever imagined.” Leaning closer, he confided, “Just think, if it hadn’t been my mother’s birthday this week, we’d never have met.”
Feeling deliciously reckless and the teeniest bit light-headed, Cressida raised her glass and almost landed the lacy sleeve of her shirt in the flickering red candle. “In that case, here’s to your mother.”
“My mother.” Clinking his glass against hers, Tom said warmly, “And to you.”
“To me.” Cressida clinked again. “And to you.” As she gazed into his eyes, she wished with all her heart he didn’t have to live so far away. Then she told herself that she really mustn’t drink any more wine on an empty stomach, because this was definitely one of those occasions when you didn’t want to make a fool of yourself. “Do you think we should order some food? Then you can tell me all about Newcastle.”
Tom looked amused. “It’s not that exotic.”
It’s got you, Cressida thought with the kind of squirrely excitement she hadn’t felt since she was a teenager. That’s exotic enough for me.
* * *
“Here she comes,” said Jojo as Aunt Cress appeared in the beer garden, shielding her eyes from the setting sun and waving a couple of menus in greeting.
“At last,” Donny muttered. “I’m starving. We’ve been out here an hour.”
“Stop your whining. And smile.” Jojo gave him a kick under the wooden table and promptly received a harder kick in return. “Hi, Aunt Cress. How’s it going?”
“Oh, we’re fine, darling, just fine.” Beaming back at them, Aunt Cress handed each of them a menu. “We’re just ordering the food. And are you two OK?”
“Great!” Having visited the Red Lion before, Jojo said promptly, “I’ll have the chicken fajitas please. And sticky toffee pudding. How about you, Donny?”
He scanned the menu at the speed of light. “Burger and fries, please.”
“Don’t have that,” Jojo complained. “It’s boring. Have the chicken fajitas.”
“I like burgers and fries. I can have what I want, can’t I?”
“Of course you can.” Aunt Cress bent down and confided, “Just ignore Jojo; she always thinks she knows best. And what dessert would you like? Sticky toffee pudding?”
“Um…” Donny glanced at Jojo who was ostentatiously zipping her mouth shut. Finally he sighed and said, “OK.”
“And could we eat out here?” said Jojo. “Look, other people are. But you two can stay inside if you’d rather.”
“That’s absolutely fine! I’ll tell the waiter to bring yours out when it’s ready. It’s so nice,” Aunt Cress went on brightly, “to see the two of you getting on so well. In fact”—she caught Donny’s eye—“your dad’s suggested we might all go to Longleat tomorrow! How does that sound?”
Jojo gave a whoop of joy. Donny, next to her, grimaced slightly then nodded and forced a smile.
Clearly delighted, Aunt Cress said, “That’s all sorted then! Right, I’d better get back inside, put these orders in.”
“That’s all I need,” muttered Donny when they were alone again. “Playing happy families.”
“Better than playing unhappy families,” Jojo retorted. Then she gave him a nudge. “Come on, cheer up. It’ll be fun.”
“A stately home.” Donny let out a low groan. “All day. With you.”
“Longleat’s brilliant.” Enjoying teasing him—actually, enjoying annoying him—Jojo said, “And the lions love it when belligerent teenage boys accidentally get pushed out of cars right in front of them.” She raised her arms high and spread her fingers like claws. “Rrrraaaaagggh!”
Donny looked at her, his thin face expressionless. Then he lowered his forehead and slowly banged it three times against the surface of the wooden table. “Oh God.”
Freddie set off down the M5 after breakfast on Sunday morning. If the traffic ran smoothly he’d reach Exmouth in a couple hours. Buzzing down the car window, he lit a cigar and determinedly ignored the dull, persistent headache that these days settled over him each morning like a lead helmet. Outside the car, the surrounding countryside was wreathed in mist and the sun was struggling to break through. He was looking forward to seeing Jeff again, but apprehensive as well. Jeff had been taciturn on the phone, clearly taken aback at hearing a voice from the past—and a not particularly welcome voice at that.
Well, that was understandable. But Freddie hoped they could overcome the awkwardness, put the bad bits behind them, and recapture at least some semblance of their childhood friendship. Then, the bond between them had seemed unbreakable. That they wouldn’t be close for the rest of their lives was out of the question. But one fateful night was all it had taken to slash that bond, and after that their lives had changed forever. Jeff had suffered then, without a doubt. But had he continued to suffer for the last forty years? Freddie didn’t know the answer and deliberately hadn’t asked the question during their brief conversation on the phone.
Michaelwood service station was coming up, and Freddie briefly considered stopping for a coffee and a couple more ibuprofen. No, he wanted to get on with the journey, reach Exmouth, and see Jeff again. He hadn’
Of course, Jeff had always had a hot temper. He might be about to find out the hard way.
Then again, Freddie thought, maybe I deserve it.
* * *
“He’s drunk.” Giselle had gestured in disgust. “Drunk as a skunk. He can’t even walk, let alone ride that bike home tonight. But he needs it for work tomorrow, and if Derek gives Jeff a lift, that leaves the bike here and me with no way of getting home. It’s eight miles,” she concluded despairingly. “I can’t walk all that way on my own.”
Poor Giselle. She was at the end of her tether, and who could blame her? Freddie knew only too well that this wasn’t the first time Jeff had gotten blotto and caused problems. They had grown up living next door to each other in Oxford and were best friends, but Jeff didn’t do himself any favors when he embarked without warning on one of his periodic drinking sprees.
Tonight they had all come out to a party in Abingdon, held at a pub with a reputation for lock-ins. Freddie had gotten a lift with Derek, five of them having crammed into Derek’s black Morris Minor. Jeff and Giselle had arrived on Jeff’s motorbike, his prized Norton 350.
And now Jeff was incapable of riding it home.
Freddie gazed at Giselle in her cherry-red top and full red skirt with white dots. Her dark hair was tied back in a high ponytail and she was looking worried, hardly surprisingly as he knew she too had to be at work tomorrow morning. What’s more, it was past midnight already, and her parents were the anxious kind who waited up for their beloved eighteen-year-old daughter to come home. None of them had enough money to pay for a taxi.
Luckily a taxi wasn’t needed.
“Jeff can go back with Derek and the others. I’ll take his bike home and drop you off on the way. How about that?”
“Would you?” Giselle’s eyes lit up with relief. “Oh, Freddie, that’s great. My mum’d go mad if I was late. You’ve saved my life.”
Famous last words.
Jeff was duly carried out of the pub and poured into the passenger seat of Derek’s car.
by Jill Mansell have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes