Authors: Amanda Prowse
‘Does it really matter?’ Romilly whispered, looking up with a pained expression, holding a side plate in each hand. Both were white but had different patterns around the edge. On one, a delicate double silver line; on the other, a tiny bird and leaf pattern in relief.
‘How do you mean?’ David shook his head, confused.
‘Well…’ She put the plates on the table and pushed her glasses up her nose, then patted the scarlet creep of embarrassment that bloomed on her chest. ‘I mean, you only eat off them and when you’re not putting food on them, toast and whatnot, they’ll be shut away in a cupboard.’ She sighed. ‘I’m tempted just to go for the plainest, the cheapest, and not worry about it too much. I don’t think it really matters.’
She felt her cheeks colour in case this was the wrong answer, knowing David’s mother, Sylvia, would not understand her indifference to things she felt were vital. Sylvia did this, stressed the things Romilly must do in order for her wedding, and by implication her marriage, to be successful.
‘A good wife should want to cook for her man. You have to overlook his occasional grumpiness – that’s men for you, troubled and tired with all that responsibility!’
This had made Romilly smile, as if being male carried with it a certain weight that, being a mere female, she could never fully comprehend. And on hearing about a male friend of theirs who intended to accompany his girlfriend into the birthing pool:
‘Good God! I expect the poor chap will need counselling after that! It’s just not natural!’
There was so much that Romilly wanted to say to her future mother-in-law, not least that it was in fact the most natural thing in the world and did she realise it wasn’t 1953. And also, with all her pearls of wisdom and sage advice, how come her own husband had done a runner before they’d hit their tenth anniversary? But of course she never would, because for all her faults, Romilly was not mean. And she had to concede that the wiry, opinionated American had managed to grow the gorgeous man she was going to marry.
‘You really don’t care, do you?’ David smiled, walked over to the table behind which she hovered, and picked up a dinner plate.
Romilly shook her head, sending her thick red hair shivering down her back. ‘Plates is plates.’
‘I don’t think I have ever loved you more.’ He carefully touched a finger to the delicate china on the table before reaching for her hand. ‘Just so you know, we have about twenty minutes to get you home or I swear I am going to shag you here and now on this very table.’ He nodded, darting a look at the carefully displayed chinaware.
‘But we’re in the middle of John Lewis!’ she whispered, staring at the shoppers in close proximity. Even the thought that they might have overheard was enough to send her pulse racing.
‘Nineteen,’ he countered coolly, folding his arms across his chest.
‘David!’ Someone might be listening. She gathered her cardigan around her slender form and tucked the long strap of her bag over her hunched shoulders as she stood.
‘How are we getting on here?’ The lady smiled as she approached. She had been wonderfully helpful and seemed excited about their impending nuptials, even though Romilly was sure working in the wedding list department must have left her a little jaded about the whole palaver; there were only so many times you could show genuine enthusiasm for the description of pale ivory taffeta and a horseshoe seating plan.
‘Oh! Goodness!’ Romilly had hoped they might be able to slip out of the store unnoticed. ‘I… I am so sorry, but we are not going to make a final choice today. But thank you for all your help. We’ll be back, very soon,’ she added nervously.
‘We’re going to sleep on it,’ David said authoritatively.
‘Righto. Well, you are absolutely right. You mustn’t rush your decision. They do need to be exactly what you want; after all, you have to live with them for quite a while. Tell you what, I’ll make a note of the samples you like and pop them in your file with your wedding list. The name is…?’
‘David Wells. And my wife-to-be is Romilly. Miss Romilly Shepherd.’
Romilly felt her stomach bunch and her face break into a smile at his words ‘wife-to-be’.
‘And the date of the wedding?’ the woman asked as she jotted down notes in a maroon leather hardback book, held up to her chest.
‘In six weeks.’ Romilly blushed. ‘Six weeks from today. Saturday the eighteenth.’
‘Sorry to interrupt, but that’s seventeen minutes, Rom.’ David tapped his watch and gripped her by the arm. The woman stared at him quizzically.
‘I’m so sorry to rush off. We have to erm…’ Romilly whispered over her shoulder as David pulled her from the store with some urgency. They ran across the road towards the car, laughing.
Romilly lay on her tummy, kicking her legs up behind her. The tangled white sheet covered her modesty as she stared at the beautiful man sitting against the headboard who was to become her husband.
‘You are very handsome, you know. I still get shocked by it. I look up and it hits me in the chest, the realisation that I am marrying a very good-looking man. I like it.’
David smiled at her. ‘We are going to have fine-looking babies.’
‘Sooner rather than later, if we carry on like this.’ She laughed and lay back on the mattress, reaching over to the bedside table for her glasses.
‘Ooh, yes, please! I can turn you into a proper housewife. You can stay at home and grow babies and cook supper, forget all this getting your PhD nonsense!’
‘I thought you loved me for my brain?’ she simpered.
David shook his head. ‘That’s just what I told you to get you into bed. But now I have and you are trapped, I can come clean and say that it was purely your sexy little bod and that red hair that did it for me.’
Romilly smiled. ‘I really don’t want to be flattered by that. I want to be offended, outraged…’
‘But you are, admit it.’ He nudged her arm with his toes.
She laughed out loud and leant forward to kiss his ankle. She was beyond flattered,
, in fact, to be viewed in this way! She heard her mum’s voice, a constant refrain through her childhood, correcting anyone who referred to her as ginger, insisting she was strawberry blonde and then, as the shade darkened over the years, either Titian or auburn. It made her feel like her very red hair was something of a negative.
Romilly had been five when her sisters were born. As far as she was aware, this was when her dad had begun retreating to his shed, where he still liked to lurk all these years later, ‘sorting out his bits and bobs’ or ‘fixing and pottering’, as if living with four women was more than any man could cope with. Maybe it was.
Carrie and Holly arrived like marshmallow meteors: soft and sweet and wreaking devastation on her little world. It was as if her parents had ordered them straight from the Disney Store.
‘We’ll take two identical, blonde, pretty, cute, well-behaved, characterful babies, please! Oh, and make them gigglers and good sleepers, that would be great!’
From the moment the twins were born, every journey her mum made took double the time it should. Everyone in their Wiltshire postcode, from milkmen to old ladies, would stop her, hand on arm, to stare and beam. ‘Will you look at them little poppets! They are beautiful! So pretty!’ And her mum would beam back, because they were and she had made them. After a second or two, her mum would place her hand on Romilly’s back and push her forward an inch, saying, ‘This is Romilly, their big sister.
very clever!’ Trying to include her, consoling her with the sticking-plaster of being bright. ‘She really is very clever.’ This her mum said more times than Romilly could count, sometimes followed by ‘Aren’t you?’ And Romilly would nod and smile, because she knew this was what was expected, despite the sinking feeling in her stomach that meant smiling was the last thing she felt like.
Even though she noticed that the twins were much admired – it was hard not to – it didn’t occur to her to feel jealous. Not a bit. She loved her little sisters, loved their cuteness, the constant burble of conversation, their excitability that made even the most mundane day feel like a party. She didn’t need the constant reassurance from her mum that she had her own gifts, no matter how hidden. In fact, the relentless bolstering led Romilly to conclude that she must be not quite good enough; otherwise, why would her mum feel the need?
She had, over time, developed a shell into which she could retreat, just like the much maligned common garden snail. She liked all invertebrates, but insects were her special thing. She hid her face inside books and chose bigger and heavier glasses, prompting her classmates to make jokes about
’s Deirdre Barlow. She took to offering her views in a whisper so as not to offend or dominate, happy to hide in the shadow of her sunnier, prettier sisters.
Romilly grew up, left school, won a place at Bristol University and was happy. Content. Not that life was always perfect, far from it, but she had never seen the point of craving what she didn’t or couldn’t have – longer legs, better skin or a flashier car. She was one of life’s satisfied. Unlike her sisters, she had never sat with her nose inches from the table while holding out a finger to measure the precise amount of orange juice their mum had poured into each of the three glasses. She had never whined, ‘She’s got more than me!’ She was just happy to get the drink.
At least that was the case until she met David. David Wells. David Arthur Wells, to give him his full but rarely used name. She couldn’t say the words without smiling. Because as she said them she pictured his face, his beautiful face, and then she let her mind’s eye travel down to his hard chest, and then she pictured his muscled arms closing around her, tightly, and she remembered the feeling of utter, utter bliss as she submitted, losing herself against him. And that made her smile all over again.
The first time he’d sat next to her in the library, Romilly had tried not to show her surprise, tried not to notice him. She hoped he hadn’t seen her neck bulge with a huge swallow of anticipation as she surreptitiously ran a finger around her nose and mouth, searching for any untoward secretions.
He flashed her a smile and she blushed and went back to her books, leaning forward so that a curtain of hair fell over her face. She squinted at the text and continued to read.
Onychophorans are soft-bodied, full-lipped, beautiful boy sitting next to me… For God’s sake, Rom, concentrate.
She gave a small cough and tried again.
Onychophorans are soft-bodied, muscly arms, gorgeous face, and smells wonderful…
It was pointless.
Engrossed in her prop, she didn’t see him lean forward to write on the side of her notepad, so close she could feel his warm breath against her skin. It sent a shiver down her spine, making her skin taut beneath her goosebumps. With his hand at an awkward angle, he scrawled,
Can I borrow a pen?
She pulled her hair across her face and hooked it behind her ear, raising her eyes to his. ‘You’ve got one,’ she whispered, pointing a finger towards the biro with which he had written the request.
Wide-eyed, he tapped his forehead lightly in mock admonishment. Leaning forward again, he wrote,
I’m a klutz!
She got it. He was taking the piss. She shifted in her seat and twisted her body away from him, trying to ignore him. She wondered what had prompted the strange interaction. Maybe he was just trying to amuse himself. Nerd-baiting had been popular when she was at school, but she’d hoped that university would be different. She heard the scrape of a chair on the next table and felt him turn towards the sound; an accomplice maybe? Ah, yes, that would be it, a dare.
Well done, Mr Good-Looking. Job done.
The next day, however, he sat next to her again. This time he took his biro and drew a smiley face on her folder. She felt confused, welcoming the interaction but so unsure of his intentions that she feared making a fool of herself. She reciprocated in the only way she knew how, by drawing a ladybird on his folder. He encased it in a bubble and added an arrow pointing in her direction, above which he wrote,
Her scrawled reply was swift.
A ladybird? Really?
To which he replied,
It’s the eyes…
She had the last word.
And the spots!
On the third day, he greeted her with a whispered, ‘Hey, Bug Girl!’
She smiled, very much liking the idea of being his Bug Girl, happy to have this connection. Even if it was only because he admired her bookishness, it was still a thrill.
They quickly established a ritual whereby whoever arrived first would place their rucksack on the seat next to them and ward off anyone else with a steely stare. Their contact was confined to the library. This was unsurprising as Romilly rarely ventured to the Student Union bar and was not a frequenter of the bars and clubs favoured by David and his cronies. And David had never even heard of the volunteer programme at Bristol Zoo, where she spent many hours in the butterfly forest explaining lifecycles and other fascinating facts to the general public.
Three weeks after their first encounter, they met in the stairwell. Heading in opposite directions and both with large folders held tightly against their chests, they hovered, she above and he below. It felt coincidental but also opportune; it was what she had been longing for, a chance meeting. Both were rooted to the spot, unmoved by the tuts and yells and the trundling feet forced to navigate around them. It was as if they were each in a force field of their own, singled out from the crowd and marked as being of special interest.
For the first time, he spoke to her in a voice louder than a whisper. ‘Hey, Bug Girl.’ And all of a sudden she felt a spike of envy. It was an unfamiliar sensation, a bit like hunger and fear and anger all swirled into one. She could taste the sour note of jealousy that blossomed on her tongue as she stuttered her response. For she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that boys like David Wells didn’t fall in love with bookish, ginger-haired, spectacle-wearing girls like her. They went for leggy, long-haired gigglers like Carrie and Holly, girls who knew sexy stuff and weren’t afraid to be manhandled, unfazed at the prospect of their T-shirt riding up or inadvertently flashing their pants.