“Meg? Meg! You’re not even listening to me!”
“What? Oh, I am. Sorry.”
“What was I just saying, then?”
With a mischievous look on her face, Meg hazarded a guess. “Blah blah Virginia and Vita, blah blah Djuna Barnes, blah Lillian Hellman blah blah blah Stephen Gordon blah blah.”
Caroline looked shocked.
“What a travesty of my conversation!”
Meg raised an eyebrow. “Parody, my dear.”
“Well, at least I take an academic interest in the subject. Instead of just gawping at it, like some people sitting at this table.” Caroline, none-too-subtly, inclined her head in the direction of the blond girl that Meg had been gazing at ever since they’d entered the teashop.
“Academic?” Meg retorted. “Is that what you call it? As far as I can tell, you’ve spent the best part of the last week in the library looking up fifteenth-century girl smut. Not much academic about that!”
“Now you’re in libel territory,” Caroline suddenly looked stern. “It was eighteenth-century girl smut, and well you know it.”
“Anyway, don’t change the subject. Back to the matter in – or rather not in – hand. You’ve clearly made me come in here – again – third time this week, Meg! – so you can gawp at that girl.”
Meg tried to look innocent.
“Don’t even try that look with me, Meg. I lost your attention as soon as we came in here.”
“Didn’t stop you monologuing, though, did it?”
“So, when are you going to stop gawping and go and do something about it?”
“Seriously, Meg, if you don’t go and do something, I will.”
Meg looked faintly terrified.
“Do something?” she said again.
“You know, talk to her...buy her a drink...try to get her into bed...that kind of thing,” Caroline grinned. Then realizing from the look on Meg’s face, that that might be a little advanced, she said more gently, “Or, you could start small...acorns into oak trees and all that - finding out her name might be a beginning.”
The fates were smiling on Meg that day, for, just a few moments later, an opportunity presented itself.
The blond girl had finished her tea, packed up her bag, put on her coat, and was on her way out of the tea shop when Meg spotted that her umbrella had fallen on the floor. Without explaining herself to Caroline, she quickly grabbed her own coat from the back of her chair, picked up the brolly, and hurried – attempting to look cool and collected, but really feeling completely terrified – after the other girl.
“Where are you going?” Caroline called.
Meg replied with a shrug. “I’ll be back shortly. Or, um, not.”
Just as Meg was out of the door of the tea rooms, and had spotted the blond girl further down the street, the heavens opened. Meg saw the girl stop, rummage in her bag, and not finding her umbrella, set off back to the tea rooms in hope of finding it.
Meg hurried up to her.
“I say – excuse me – I think you left this behind,” she said, brandishing the brolly.
“Oh, thank you!” The girl took the umbrella, put it up, and with a grateful smile, said, “You’re at my college, aren’t you?”
“Yes – I’m a grand old second year. Yourself?”
“Hmm. I’m a grand old forgetful second year. You wouldn’t be heading back to college right now, would you?” The girl nodded. “Only I seem to have forgotten my umbrella,” (It was only a small lie, reasoned Meg, and it was in a very good cause) “and given it’s suddenly turned rather torrential, there’s no chance I could sneak under yours with you, is there?”
“Well, seeing as without you there’d be no umbrella at all, I don’t see why not.” The girl smiled at Meg.
“By the way, I’m Meg,” Meg stuck out a hand.
“Nancy,” said the blond girl, shaking the proffered hand. “Nancy Wilmot.”
Caroline didn’t see much of Meg for the rest of that week.
Sitting on a bench at the top of the hill Nancy looked down over London without really seeing anything. She’d left Caroline’s flat early that morning, and walked walked walked, until, sometime near noon, she’d reached the top of a hill in Greenwich park, and for want of anything better to do, found a bench and sat on it. Walking was all she seemed to do nowadays. She would walk walk walk until she was so tired she could barely stand, so tired she could barely think, so tired that she might just be able to sleep.
The sun came out from behind a cloud. It made Nancy shiver. She reached out a hand for comfort, but the hand she reached out to hold wasn’t there – would never be there.
Half of her soul was gone.
Nancy had imagined the whole of their lives together, not in detail, of course, but she had known the shape that things would take, and she had known that Meg would be by her side every step of the way. She’d known that they’d still be loving each other long into their old age.
And now she would be the only one who grew old, and Meg, Meg would never grow old.
She had been so, so happy, but she could never be happy again. Being happy was dangerous. Being happy only meant that some unutterable grief was waiting around the corner.
She’d lost Meg. Meg was gone. She could never be happy again.
Two women walked past. One of them seemed vaguely familiar, but Nancy couldn’t place her, so she didn’t think too hard about it. But though Nancy didn’t recognize the woman, the woman recognized her, and after walking a few yards further on, she stopped, gestured to her companion to wait a moment, and returned to the bench where Nancy was sitting.
“Nancy? Nancy Wilmot?” the woman said.
Nancy stared at her blankly. She half-recognised the face, but not the white hair that went with it. “It’s Nell, Nell Wilson,” the woman said with a smile.
From somewhere in the fog of her brain, Nancy remembered. “Miss Wilson?”
“How are you, Nancy? What are you doing with yourself these days?”
Now, there was a good question, Nancy thought. What did she do with herself? She tried to remember what she had done before her life had suddenly ground to a halt.
“I teach – I’m a teacher.” The words sounded odd coming out of her mouth. It was such a long time since she’d been in a school, Nancy wondered if it was a lie.
“Good, good! And what do you teach?”
Nancy blinked once or twice, and then, remembering, she said, “Maths.”
Nell Wilson chuckled. “Is that right?” she said, and she beckoned to the woman she was with to come and join them.
“Nancy, I don’t think you ever knew Miss Slater, did you? Pam, this is Nancy Wilmot, one of our old girls and now a Maths teacher. Nancy, Pam Slater.”
Seeing it appeared to be expected of her, Nancy held out her hand for Pam Slater to shake.
“Pam is – or rather, was,“ Nell bowed her head at Pam in apology, “our Head of Maths.” All three stood there for a moment, and then Nell turned to Nancy, a thoughtful look upon her face. “I say, Nancy,” she said. “I don’t suppose you’re looking for a job at the moment, are you?”