Jane arrived early at the restaurant, and selected a table where she would have a good view of the entrance: she wanted to make sure that she saw Lizzie first, and didn’t want there to be any mistakes or confusion.
As she had expected, Lizzie was late: about ten minutes after one, she rolled up at the greeter’s desk, shopping bags in hand. Older, and possibly a little more substantially built than when they’d last met, but she’d have recognised that hair anywhere. “Frizzy Lizzie”, she’d been, and still was.
“Over here,” Jane called, waving and half-standing in the way that you do when you’re trapped behind a cast iron table that refuses to move. Lizzie waved back and came over to join her.
Initial greetings over, they got down to the serious business of catching up on over twenty years apart. Yes, Lizzie was married, two teenagers at home. No, Jane wasn’t any more, it hadn’t worked out, fortunately there were no kids.
“All those years gone by,” Lizzie said with a sigh. “Whatever happened to them?”
“Do you remember,” Jane said, sitting forward, “those dreadful English lessons with, what was her name, Miss Cartwright?”
“Miss Carter, I think, but yes, those ridiculous essays she made us write, and the way she made us laugh with her silly stories,” Lizzie said.
Jane frowned: “I don’t remember laughing very much, her jokes were just stupid. But you’re right, it was Carter, didn’t we call her ‘Miss Farter’?”
“You know, I think we did, aren’t teenagers dreadful? And what about that gorgeous Physics teacher, Mr Johnson? Didn’t we all have such a crush on him? I remember, one day, gazing into the distance while he was trying to demonstrate something, daydreaming about lying on a golden beach with him in a thoroughly indecent way, when he woke me up by asking me to explain what he’d been on about! I got into such a mess, I’m sure it put me off science for life.”
“I remember him,” Jane said, “he was a real creep. Kept looking at us like he was trying to undress us in his head, didn’t he get into trouble for messing about with one of the other girls, Millie or someone?”
“I’m not sure about that, I think Millie had a big thing for him and made something out of nothing,” Lizzie said.
At this point they were diverted by the arrival of their food and the rituals that occur between waiter and waitee, and they both took a moment to lose themselves in their plates.
It was Jane that surfaced first. “While I was waiting for you, I was trying to remember exactly when it was that we last met. Can you think when that was?”
Lizzie chewed on a piece of chicken for a moment, took a drink, and looked at her friend. “Do you really not remember?”
“I’m not sure. Was it a party or something?”
“We were at the pub,” Lizzie said. “A whole bunch of us, back from Uni for the Easter holiday. The King’s Head, it was then, I think it’s a Starbucks now.”
Jane screwed up her face, trying to bring back the image. “So who would have been there, then? Jo, Millie, Steve, Mike and Annie, Phil?”
“Not Millie, no, she’d moved away by then. But yes to the others, plus Ed, of course.”
“Oh, God, yes, I remember now. Ed was really nice, I fancied him something rotten, but he never took the hint,” Jane said. “Hang on a minute, wasn’t that the night that you got into some sort of trouble?”
“You could say that,” Lizzie said. “There were some squaddies in the other bar who got a bit above themselves when I went to the ladies. Ed had to come and rescue me, it all got a bit out of hand.”
Jane was still struggling to recall the details. “Now wait a minute, it’s coming back to me. That was the evening when I made a big play for Ed, and he just went off and left me, never came back. Didn’t even have the grace to say no, he just chickened out and disappeared. I was pretty miffed, I think. Bloody men, all the same – one sniff of a relationship and they’re off.”
Lizzie smiled. “You really didn’t get it, did you? He hadn’t run out on you, he was busy rescuing me. By the time we’d got it all sorted out, you’d pushed off and he thought he’d misread the signs from you. What made you go like that?”
“I don’t really remember, to be honest,” Jane said. “But I think it might have been that I was pissed off because he abandoned me while he did his knight-in-shining-armour thing for you. That’s been pretty much my experience of men – before and since.”
“He did try to get in touch with you, though. Didn’t you want to talk to him?” Lizzie asked.
“Maybe, but if some bloke had come pestering me after running off like that, I would probably have told him to get lost. You can’t trust them, you really can’t. Anyway, how come you know all this?” Jane asked.
“He was pretty cut up about it, missing out on you like that, especially when you wouldn’t return his calls. He blamed me for a while, then he blamed himself, then he finally got round to blaming the squaddies.”
“You can ask him yourself, he’ll be here in a minute,” Lizzie said.
Jane looked blank. “You mean…”
“That’s right,” Lizzie said with a grin, displaying the rings on her left hand.