‘Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.’
Thursday January 15th
The phone rang. It was Jeanne’s but she was away on annual leave so I picked it up.
‘Good afternoon, personnel, Jude speaking,’ I said brightly. I always tried to sound bright, as though I was really interested in what I was doing, even though I was usually anything but. Six months earlier I had changed jobs and gone from being a ward clerk on a busy hospital ward, full of life and colour and crisis, to being an admin’ assistant in personnel in the Ministry of Defence. The biggest crisis in my life now was finding the correct form for the job, and there seemed to be thousands of the bloody things, all with different numbers. I’d got burned out at the hospital and needed the job change. I mean there’s frenetic and then there’s completely mental. My predecessor and great friend Dacia, whose job I took over, did warn me.
The pace of the job combined with a sixty-five mile round trip every day, getting up at five-thirty every morning, beat me in the end, even though I had loved it. So, here I was at RAF Wyton. Now I could set the alarm for six-thirty and have a blissful extra hour under the duvet, and when I finished at four o’clock I only had an eight mile drive home – great! And the job offered flexi-time which was fantastic. But God I missed the hustle and bustle and hassle of life on the ward.
The softly spoken male voice at the other end of the phone was sounding surprised.
‘Oh, so where’s Jeanne today?’
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘She’s lucky, she’s on annual leave, she’ll be back on Monday.’
‘Oh, OK. This is Bob Thompson in Tornado, I … ‘
‘Ah!’ I found myself blurting out before he could finish, ‘You’re the chap who wants to sell his motorbike aren’t you? I’ll give you fifty pence for it!’
I had recently overheard various conversations between Jeanne, who sat opposite me, and this Bob chap concerning a job that he was applying for in Marseilles. Apparently he was threatening to sell his house, his car, and his bike before he had even got the job; a wind up of course.
‘It’s worth a bit more than that. I don’t think you could afford it.’ There was a challenging edge to his voice.
‘What sort of bike is it?’ I asked.
‘A BMW R1150RT.’
‘A BMW,’ I snorted, and then giggled. ‘I’ve got a much better bike than that.’
There was a pause as he considered. ‘So what sort of bike do you have?’ It was asked with casual interest.
‘I’ve got a Blackbird.’ I couldn’t help the hint of self-satisfaction in my voice, and waited for this impressive piece of information to sink in. I mean, I only owned the fastest road bike currently on the market, a fantastic black 1100 cc machine with a supposed top speed of 186 mph.
‘Mm.’ He was considering again. ‘That’s one of those old-fashioned things with a chain isn’t it? You have to adjust it and oil it?’
‘Cheeky bugger!’ I squeaked, unable to come up with a smart technical retort. ‘It’s a fantastic bike.’
‘Hmm.’ He was contemplating again. ‘Does it have heated grips and a heated seat?’
I had a good reply for that: “Nah, I don’t need those, they’re for wimps.”
He ignored the quip. ‘So how long have you had a bike?’
‘Only about five years,’ I said. ‘Have you been riding long?’
‘Since I was fifteen. I gave up for a couple of years when I took up micro-lighting. Sold the bike to buy a microlight.’
‘Oh I’d love to try that,’ I said. I liked the idea of whizzing around up in the sky on what appeared to be a kitchen chair with wings.
‘I flew one half-way across Canada in ’96 when I was still in the RAF,’ he said. ‘We were doing a sponsored charity flight. My mate and I flew the leg from Vancouver Island to Winnipeg, through the Rockies, right past Mount Robson.’
‘Canada? I was there in ’96 … in British Columbia! I was probably sitting on a beach by Kootenay Lake when you flew over!’
‘I waved but you didn’t wave back,’ he sighed, feigning disappointment.
‘I love Canada,’ I said enthusiastically, my mind throwing up film-strip of my old life. ‘I lived there for fourteen years, it was a brilliant lifestyle. I skied and windsurfed, played ice-hockey, rode horses, did all sorts out there.”
‘Skiing’s great,’ he said. “I love it. We used to go in Germany. I like climbing as well, and canoeing.”
This chap was definitely someone after my own heart.
‘I had to give it all up when I came back to the UK,’ I said, ‘So I took up scuba-diving instead, it was more accessible than winter sports.’
He sounded a bit amazed: “I did a British Sub-Aqua Course at Portsmouth, Fort Bovisand.’
‘You’re kidding – I dived at Bovi’ as well!’ This was uncanny. I had never talked to anyone that I had so much in common with. We chattered on for ages at a great rate of knots feeding on common interests and enthusiasm.
‘We should meet for coffee,’ he said suddenly. ‘We’ve got so much in common. It’s like talking to a soul-mate.’
I was completely thrown by the sudden suggestion and instantly uncomfortable about it. It was one thing to chat on the phone – but meeting? I wasn’t used to meeting men, even for coffee. Me and men were past history. My future was sealed as far as I was concerned.
‘Next week sometime?’ he was saying.
My stomach did small back-flips.
“Fine,” I said lightly, with more enthusiasm than I felt, and unable to think of any quick and reasonable excuse. I could hardly say I had to wash my hair in my lunch hour. “Next week would be good.” I attempted a casual tone. With any luck he’d forget about it. ‘I’ll tell Jeanne you called,’ I said, hurrying to change the subject, “And I’ll get her to give you a ring back on Monday.’
‘OK, talk to you soon.’
‘Bye,’ I said, and put the phone down in relief.
I had a quick glance round the office to see if any of the girls had noticed. Noticed what? My flustered, probably guilty expression? Guilty? But I hadn’t done anything! (except be on the phone a very long time talking about non-work stuff). I had made a temporary arrangement to possibly meet a chap with a few common interests for a casual, friendly cup of coffee in the staff restaurant. Hardly sex behind the bike sheds. God your imagination really does overtime. But if word got out they’d be bound to make something of it, they always did. The joys of working with eighteen other women. They’d assume something was going on. Oh for Christ’s sake don’t be so bloody stupid! Why was I so uptight? I knew why, I was scared. The idea of meeting this chap was pushing me out of my comfort zone; pushing me into areas I was no longer used to. I lived in a nice safe little world, in a small castle surrounded by a deep moat and I was in total control of the draw bridge. I had a steady routine and a nice new secure job – boring but secure. I had a permanent relationship; a partner – sort of, of fifteen years (Brian) who had been working in Saudi for the last four years and who I now only saw for nine weeks of fifty-two, when he came home on leave. I was a month away from my fifty-sixth birthday and had completely resigned myself to my lot. Relationships were inevitably disappointing, painful and emotionally draining and I had nothing left to give and no intention of ever considering a new one, even if mine was far from ideal.
My life was good I told myself. I had forty-three weeks a year of space and freedom. I lived in a lovely house with wonderful views across the fens. I had some great, long-standing friends, albeit none local, and good family – all eighty miles away, plus bags of time to myself. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. My free time was definitely encroached upon by a full-time job, a huge garden to look after and a big four-bed detached house to keep clean for Brian. On top of that was his paperwork and motorbike to sort out; my car and bike to look after, and the letting of my own little one-bed cottage. In fact I was about as affluent with time as I was with money; especially since my new job at the MOD was only paying me a paltry ten thousand, eight hundred pounds a year! Barely survival stakes.
And so what if Brian didn’t really want a future with me – a fact that I had determinedly ignored for fourteen years and two months. He was still with me wasn’t he? So what if we had lived like brother and sister for the past seven years? Affection is far more important than sex I told myself. I was lucky to have so much freedom and at least our relationship was honest. He never lied to me, I respected him for that, and he said he thought the world of me. In fact he’d once even given me a mug that said: Best Friend in the World on it. Yes, we both knew where we stood. We had an ‘open’ relationship and carte-Blanche to do whatever we wanted, with whoever we wanted, when-ever we wanted. The trouble was I didn’t want to.
Above all, at nearly fifty-six, gravity was creeping up on me insidiously but surely, and nothing was going to convince me that I was still attractive to the opposite sex. No, I had come to a big full-stop in my life and I didn’t see it as the end of a sentence, more like the end of the book.
So why the panic at the idea of meeting this Bob chap merely for a cup of coffee? For some stupid reason it felt a bit like a date, that was why, and dates were a thing of the past for me. The trouble was, on some deep dark level, that had been denied for far too long, he had generated a spark … a spark where I had assumed there wasn’t even an ember.
I told myself to stop being pathetic and to see it for what it was: an enjoyable hour of light-hearted conversation about shared interests, nothing more than that. And anyway he was sure to be married.