Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Networking Event

I marked the email as unread so that I wouldn't forget about it as I did with most of the others. It's an invitation to a networking event for people working in public affairs. I studied politics at university although have never really used my degree and so it's an area I've been relatively keen on exploring. If I'm going to make any headway with potential opportunities, then this could be a very useful event to attend. I went to one previously which was held above a pub in Horseferry Road in West London. Looking back, I seem to remember that I met a few fun and interesting people that time. Right, I'm going - it could be fun I'll regret it if I don't.

I leg it out of the office an hour or so later than planned. I'm having trouble locating the email exchange on my phone that I had with Phil Murphy, the guy who's organised this evening's networking event. We managed to speak on the phone though and he mentioned that someone called Alan would put my name down on the list of attendees. In the absence of the email I hurry in the direction of Horseferry Road and the Barley Mow pub where the last event was held.

The last time I was here I got into a conversation with the organiser about the various different people in attendance and what sort of networking opportunities existed. This time he said to find him at the event where he'd be able to expand on the topic. I remember that he looks like he's in his early forties with thinning dark straight hair, dark eyes and a little overweight. 'I'll know him when I see him' I tell myself as I walk through the ground floor bar, keeping an eye out in case he happens to be downstairs where we spoke last time. I can't see him though and so I pop upstairs, passing a sign on my way indicating the event upstairs organised by "Alan Wiggins". 'That must be the guy he mentioned'

It's a busy event with wall to wall chattering, laughter and some intense looking conversations. I give the room a quick scan but can't see Phil Murphy. I check my watch 'It's not late - get a drink and talk to people'. I walk to the bar and manage to squeeze my way to the front through a couple of small crowds who have congregated with their drinks by the side of the bar. "Sorry.. thanks.. excuse me.. thanks, no worries..yes, cheers ever so much" I take out a tenner as the barman hands me a pint. "Don't worry mate, it's a free bar - there's food over there too" he says, indicating over to the long table on the other side of the room." "Thanks" I say. I do a quick circuit of the room, nodding at people here and there and saying the occasional "Hi" 'Where's Phil Murphy?'

I nibble on the finger food - a spring roll here, a vol-au-vent there. "You should just fill a plate up - good spread isn't it" says a guy next to me. "Yes it is a bit - I can't remember if there was a spread like this at the last one of these things that I went to." "Oh well, just enjoy it is what I say. Cheers" he says as he raises his glass before walking back to the crowd he was talking to. 'Fair enough'. I take a couple spring rolls, another Vol-au-vent and a chicken drumstick and walk around the room, keeping an eye out for Phil or anyone else I can remember from last time.

I walk back over to the finger buffet and put a fork full of coleslaw onto my plate next to some salad. 'Well I might as well network since I'm here' I muse. I start talking to a chap who looks like he's on the outside of a small group. He talks about the food and how nice it is to have a free bar. "Yes, I didn't expect that either" I tell him. "So who do you know here?" he asks. "Well I don't know anyone really" I confess. "Phil Murphy said I should come down although I haven't him yet". "Phil Murphy? Oh I don't think I know him. Where abouts are you based?" "I work just down the road in Victoria" I tell him. "Oh I see" he says with an air of curiosity. "And yourself?" I ask. "Well I'm based over in Paddington Green right now, although for several years I was based over at New Scotland Yard, which is where I met Wiggins" he says nodding over to a tall thin grey haired man keeping court to half a dozen or so people at the bar. "Some of us wondered if he was ever going to retire at all. Still, he's put on a good spread."

He walks back over to the small group and says something that makes them look over at me as I munch on a sausage roll, sip on my pint and I slowly play his words over again in my mind. I notice the presents underneath the table and the collection of retirement cards to the side. I dig my hand into my pocket to find my iPhone 'Where's that email again?' as I open my inbox. 'It's the Barley Mow on Horseferry Road I know it is' I keep telling myself as I scroll through until I find the email. 'Yup, just as I thought - Walkers of Whitehall".

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Beach - Part 2

I remove my sunglasses as I sit astride the quad bike and take in the view. The engine spits and spurts beneath me - the smell of oil and exhaust pervade my senses, almost as if the bike is doing it’s best to remind me that it’s still there.

It's a small beach, dotted with a dozen or so sun loungers which sink into the deliciously inviting soft yellow sand. Powerful looking waves, egged on by gusts of wind seem to pound into submission anyone who dares to paddle in the water. After a morning of riding around in the sun and the dust it looks like the perfect scene for a change of pace.

Sitting on one of the sinking loungers I slowly glide a plentiful amount of sunscreen into my reddening limbs whilst I people watch the activity of those around me. Sunbathers leisurely coat themselves in oil, two groups of people play with bats and balls and couples stroll hand in hand along the shoreline. People frolic in the water and get hit time and again by the crashing waves. The sunshine feels almost too hot and the water looks so seductive that no sooner are my arms basted like a turkey on a christmas morning, than I'm walking towards the water's edge.

The water is refreshingly cool as I wade just past my knees. Wading further I notice a wave heading towards me. It's deep blue growing in size as it moves closer to me and I closer to it. I turn sideways on as I watch it break and in the next second it connects heavily. And then I'm underwater and I think i'm upside down and my left knee hits the seabed as the wave moves on to claim others who paddle closer to the beach. I start to stand and spit out a mouthful of water when I take the force of another wave to my right side. It washes me up on the shoreline, leaving me to wipe my eyes and pull sand and stones out of my shorts as the water recedes. It's invigorating though and my heart quickens, making me grin as I wade out again to fight against the next one. A few seconds later and I'm spitting out more water and recovering my shorts from half way down my buttocks. With each rush comes an extra bit of confidence as I wade out further, sometimes jumping through waves and sometimes treading water and bobbing through them. 'Fucking awesome' I tell myself as I watch the last one move into shore having passed through me. I put my feet down to touch the seabed. I must have been carried out by the tide though as I'm out of my depth. 'Time to swim back to shore.'

The sea seems to have calmed. Whilst still choppy, the waves no longer crash over me as I swim half a dozen or so strokes towards the beach. I stop to put my feet down and my head goes beneath the water. 'I'm still out of my depth' I realise as I tread water. I kick with my legs and put my face back in the water, bringing my right arm overhead and into the water followed by my left, and then my right again, taking a breath every third stroke until I have completed a dozen or so. I gasp and take a breath, putting my feet down. My head bobs below the waterline again before allowing me to come up and spit out a mouthful of seawater. I tread water and ponder my situation. looking around I realise that I'm no closer to the beach than I was before. I feel a chill it dawns on me that if anything I have been carried further out.

I want to be calm and rational. I want to think logically as to the best way out of this. But I can't because I'm unable to swim back and I am being carried further out to sea and everyone on the beach and at the waters edge seems so very far away. And then I feel alone. So alone - so sickeningly and painfully alone and helpless as I feel my heart pounding in my chest and a realisation begins to bear down upon me. 'Fuck - ttis is it.'

I think of my family, of my mother and what she's going to think. 'This isn't supposed to be me. I'm only half way though my life. I'm supposed to be one who usually lands on his feet.' And then I have a clear vision of myself rehearsing my school nativity play as a 10 year old. I look down at my lines and read them out nervously, only for Miss Lovell, my teacher, to bellow from the back of the school hall "Speak up - open your mouth, we can't hear you!!".

“HEEEELLLLLPPPPP!!!!!” I hear myself shout, as I wave my arms. “HEEEELLLPPPPPP MMEEEE!!!!” I look at the beach but no one moves. “HEELLPPPPP MEEEE” I shout it again and again. 'Please hear me'. In my desperate attempt to be heard I want to cry. How did I get here? '10 minutes ago I was lying on the beach just enjoying the view.'

"HEY!" I look around and see a hand waving at me. It's a guy wearing a wetsuit and holding onto what looks like a body board. "HELP ME PLEASE" I cry out as I wave back at him. 'Stroke by stroke I watch him make his way over to me, cutting his way through the choppy waves - the body board floating in his wake as I see that he's wearing flippers. "Are you ok?" he says upon reaching me. I tell him the situation and he straps the body board onto my wrist and together we both start to kick out way back to shore. It's hard work to begin with but in minutes we are breaking through the bigger waves closer to the beach and then on into shallower water. A few minutes later a big wave knocks the body board out of my grip and I put a foot down and feel the seabed. "Oh Thank God' This time the waves carry me into shore as I am only waist deep. I catch my breath before walking out of the sea - dragging the bodyboard in my behind me.

I can hardly believe the feeling of the sand beneath my feet - something that 10 minutes ago I thought I would never experience again. I lean against a parasol with one hand, catching my breath and reflecting on how close I have just come to drowning. The guy - who turns out to be a lifeguard - pats me on the back to make sure I'm ok before pointing out the red flag, which naturally I handn't seen. I hug him like a long lost brother. "Thankyou"

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Beach

The wind in my face is pleasantly warm and satisfying, masking as it does the intense heat of the midday sun. My arms don’t feel the breeze in the same way though as I steer the quadbike along a main road approaching the bustling town of Hersonissos on the Greek island of Crete. I glance down to see if they’re aglow with sunburn. ‘They’ll be ok for another few minutes’

I’m looking for a place called St Georges Bay, which according to my rather battered and obscure looking map, shouldn’t be too far from here. I saw it yesterday on the last stage of a boat cruise I took to a number of the island's beaches. I was drawn by the photo of a large cave that you were supposedly able to swim into. The guy selling the cruise (typically) said the snorkelling was amazing and amongst the best on the island. Sadly, the reality was that the captain decided to anchor the boat a couple of hundred meters or so from the cave and announced just 10 minutes swim time before having to climb back on-board for the short trip back to Hersonissos – it wasn't going to happen. I’ve always enjoyed exploring caves and rugged shorelines. My childhood memories are full of trips to Devon and Cornwall where we used to scramble across the rocks. The idea of snorkelling into that cave however was something else. I had to find my way back to it.

The street signs are all written in Greek as I pass through Hersonissos and I haven’t seen anything even remotely indicating the place I’m trying to find. I spot an excursion centre coming up on the right - if anyone can give me directions to where I'm going then it should be someone in there. I park up and pop inside, taking off my crash helmet and frisking my hair as I walk. I ask a lady behind the desk for directions to St Georges Bay. She smiles “The nudist beach?” “Huh? No, I’m trying to get to this cave in St Georges Bay” I say, pulling the crumpled leaflet from my rucksack to show her. “Yes, that’s the place but there’s also a nudist beach there” she says. Either she's giving me a knowing look or I'm just feeling paranoid – possibly both. She gives me the directions I need and I head back to the bike, pondering the information as I climb astride and put the key in the ignition. ’A nudist beach.’

I follow her directions, steering the quad bike down a dusty road, although my thoughts are somewhat preoccupied. ‘I haven’t been to a nudist beach before'. I muse. ‘I’m on my own here too’. The quad bumps and unsettles itself on a couple of potholes as I lift off the seat slightly to balance it. ‘No one here knows me.’ The road runs parallel with a cliff edge and I look out at the immense blueness of the ocean. ‘No one at home would ever find out.’ And then it dawns on me that this wouldn't be the first time that I've been naked on a beach.

I recall a night in Thailand a few years ago. An American girl was eating alone at the table across from mine. She was petite with olive skin and thick dark brown hair that fell into a bob just above her shoulders. With her brown eyes she looked a little like G which might be one of the reasons I started talking to her. ‘What was her name?’ She was fun and vivacious. She joined me at my table and for the next couple of hours we chatted, exchanging travel stories and flirted as we shared a small a bottle of Jack Daniels. We took a walk along the beach road taking in the balmy evening and the warm breeze. I linked my little finger with hers. She closed her hand around mine. We wandered down to the deserted beach and kissed on the sand. "Let's skinny dip she said with the excitement of a brilliant new idea. She kicked off her Birkenstocks and walked to the waters edge, "It's so still" she mused before lifting her top over her head. She turned to look back at me. “Come on” she said, unbuttoning and stepping out of her shorts and knickers. I undressed with my eyes fixed on her as she walked in to the water. She splashed water on herself. "Come on, it's beautiful" she said before disappearing beneath the water. I waded in up to my waist wondering where she’d got to as she splashed up in front of me and spat water in my face, giggling hysterically. Her body glistened as she ran her fingers through her wet hair and we kissed. We waded along the shoreline, pointing out the luminous effect of the fish before diving into the cool water. I hadn't been naked in the sea before. It felt free and liberating and a million miles from home. We lay down on the flat sand near some trees and let the warm night air dry us.

'Happy times' I reflect as I'm suddenly snapped out of my recollection by the sound of a car horn and realise that I’m riding on the wrong side of the road. “Sorry” I say. He says something back in Greek. I haven’t a clue what, but it doesn’t sound particularly friendly. I pull over at what looks like an opening with a few cars parked. To the right is a narrow path that seems to lead down. I look over the edge. Below is a series of flat rocks from where it looks like people can dive into the sea. A young woman walks out from under the cliff overhang. She’s naked as she ties her hair in a ponytail and dips a foot into the water. She looks back to say something to someone. ‘Is she speaking Russian?’ I wonder. ‘At least I’ve found the beach’ assuming a collection of flat rocks qualifies as a beach that is. ‘Go on, yes man, do it’ I walk down the narrow track that leads to the nudist beach, lifting off my t shirt as I go and ponder on whether there’s any social etiquette with nudist beaches.

I’m half way down the path when I look across to see the beach properly in all its saggy overweight male dominated glory. The young woman it seems was the exception to the rule as groups of large naked middle aged Russian (from the sound of it) men seem to dominate the area eating, smoking and drinking beer and scratching their balls. People have seen me walking down the path though and so I can’t just turn around and head back. And so I do what any normal person would do. I pull a map out of my rucksack and act like a tourist who has lost their way before turning the map around and discovering the route back up the path.

I climb back onto the quadbike and place the key in the ignition. I fasten my crash helmet and ponder what to do next. Bugger the cave, I’m hot and tired of riding around in the midday sun. I want to find a nice beach with soft yellow sand and I want to swim and cool off. As luck might have it, I think I passed the perfect place just a few minutes down the road. I turn the bike around and bid the nudist beach goodbye.

I ride off, feeling contented for at least having made the effort. My contentment however is to be reasonably short lived. I don’t know it yet but in 30 minutes from now the nudist beach will be the farthest thing from my mind...

Thursday, 12 June 2014


The party was last night – a house warming for friends in North London where I crashed with a tooth brush and a spare pair of pants (forward planning). I walk over to the front lounge window and look at the house across the street – an address where my brother used to live. ‘When was it?’ I count back as I do the maths and am momentarily shocked to discover it was twenty five years ago. My hostess appears from the kitchen and hands me a cup of coffee. I point out the house and tell her the history of when I used to visit the area. “You should spend some time around here if you have time and see how much has changed”. I check the time. I’ve no need to be back in London until later. “Yeah might do” I muse. She and her boyfriend make breakfast for myself and the few waifs and strays who have stayed over and half an hour later I say my goodbyes. We agree to meet up for drinks later in the week.

I climb into the car and start off in the direction of Enfield Town. The sun is shining and it’s heat magnifies through the windscreen as I wind down the driver’s window before taking a turning into the main road. Memory escapes me of the last time I drove this way as I notice some of the shops I used to walk past or pop into on the way home from school. The hairdressers flies past the window on the left – the colour and wording of the shop sign unchanged from when I was a boy. Coming up on the right is the building that houses the pet shop that’s been there since as long as I can remember. We used to pop in there after school to look at the latest hamsters and guinea pigs and wonder about the parrot at the back – would we ever hear it talk? I gasp with a sudden sadness though as I pass it with the realisation that it’s now an Indian restaurant. There’s no one behind me and so I brake and take a look out of the driver’s window at the front of the building. The smell of pet food and the sound of squawking birds is still so clear in my mind. ‘Wow’ I muse. My thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a car horn behind me and an irate little old man in a red Honda. I push on and drive in the town centre with a mix of familiarity and curiosity. Some places are the same and others have changed, including the road layout. I decide to park up and take a wander.

I am a sucker for nostalgia and I pull up in a car park that I remember my mum using before dragging us around the shops. I walk the route from the car park into town – a route that seemed to take forever to walk when I was little but which in reality takes only several minutes. I smile inwardly at this realisation as I walk past the Barclays Bank where I opened my first bank account. It still has the same sign on the wall which proudly tells people using the ATM that this was where the world’s very first ATM was installed. I walk from one end of town to the other scanning the filing cabinet of my mind for childhood adventures and recollections. And then I see him.

He’s tall, slim and dark haired and is walking towards me from about 50 meters away. ‘Is that Frank?’ The gap between us closes rapidly as I try and work out if it’s actually him. We used to go to the same school and we were even in the same class at one point. We didn’t really hang out though as we had different friends. We’d acknowledge one another with a nod and a raise of eyebrows if we passed in the school yard or corridor. ‘Is it him though?’, I wonder as we get closer. ‘It could be him’ (40 meters) , I look closer ‘I’m sure it’s him’ (30 meters)) ‘Bloody hell it’s him!’ (25 meters). ‘Right, now what? Do I say something?' (20 meters) 'Do I pretend I haven’t seen him?’ (15 meters). ‘I could just look at my shoes’ (5 metres). He is a couple of meters away as I lift my head and I look at him and he looks at me and we raise our eyebrows and we nod and we keep on walking.

I’m buoyed and reflective as I walk back to my car. It’s been a brief but fun and nostalgic visit. Sad though the loss of old haunts like the pet shop is however, time can’t stand still and change is something that ought to be embraced like a new friend. In twenty years’ time there’ll doubtless be someone for whom the Indian restaurant was a part of their childhood, who’ll mull over how sad it is that’s it’s turned into a bookies or estate agents. Happily though whilst buildings and places change, it seems that people don’t and hopefully they’ll have the silent acknowledgment of someone they used to know to remind them of that.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

An Early Start

I am awake at an untimely hour to catch a train to the Midlands for a finance meeting. The early start is compounded by the first starlings of the morning, seemingly determined to ensure that I am awake a good hour before the 5am alarm. I make a mental note to wear ear plugs the next time I go to sleep with the bedroom window open.

I get up, stretch, brush my teeth, shower and shave – such is the morning routine. I dress, scramble some eggs and put the kettle on to make coffee. I look out of the window as it starts to boil. The day is clear and I remind myself to try to wake at this hour more frequently during the summer months – “maybe go for a run.”

Leaving my flat in plenty of time – a rarity in itself, I walk the short journey to the tube station and in what seems like a brief skim through a Metro later, I arrive at Kings Cross and walk through to St Pancras International and collect my tickets from the pre booking machine.

After buying a coffee and a bacon roll, I note the platform on the departures board and make my way in that direction. Walking along the concourse with hands full and laptop bag hanging over my shoulder I check my watch and see that I have 10 minutes to spare. I start to think about the day ahead - of meetings and spreadsheets and finance managers demanding this and that.

I head towards the escalator that leads to the upper platforms. However, the closer I get, the more my thoughts are interrupted by the sound of someone playing a piece of classical music on a piano. It’s an upright, positioned behind one of the columns and is one of an assorted number of pianos that have found themselves dotted around mainline train stations throughout Central London. The aim, being to encourage members of the public to play them at will. I’ve seen a few being played in the past, although usually by a teenager or two, giving a rendition of Chop Sticks. This is something else though.

I’ve heard this piece of music before – it’s by Chopin I think, and I’m wondering who the pianist is. I walk past the column and see a man who looks to be in his mid to late thirties. He has a short beard and long dark hair, which is tied back. He looks like he might be Italian or Spanish. My attention is drawn to his hands, which are dirty, likewise his nails, which are full of grime. I look at his face, side on, and I see that this is also dirty. I wonder if he might be homeless, which only makes me more curious about his piano playing

It sounds like he’s note perfect and I notice that he seems to be looking straight ahead. On closer inspection though, I see that his eyes are in fact closed. The music is gentle and beguiling in a way that cuts through the colourless routine of the morning rush hour. Not that anyone else is watching of course. Commuters go about their business and filter around me as they walk hurriedly to their trains. I sip my coffee and watch and listen. Previous thoughts of the days finance meetings now seem insignificant and bland.

An announcement over the tannoy reminds me of my impending train departure. With a heavy heart, I look at my watch and realise that I have 5 minutes to catch it if I’m not going to be late. I move closer to the piano as the piece he is playing nears its end. He softly plays the last notes and draws the piece to a close.“That was beautiful” I say. He opens his eyes, nods and smiles, “Thank you”.

A little while later and I am sitting on the train. I look out at the countryside flying past the window and reflect wistfully as the sound of the piano playing over and over in my mind. I wonder about the guy who played so beautifully - whether he’s actually homeless, where he learned to play like he did and what’s going through his mind as he closes his eyes and effortlessly, glides his fingers across the eightly eight keys on front of him.

I want to talk to someone about it – to describe what I’ve seen and the sense of wonderment I’ve felt at being briefly transported from a routine of commuter drudgery. But of course there’s no one. And so I do something that I haven’t done for far too long. I take out my laptop and I begin to type.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A New Friend

My phone vibrates in my jean pocket as I cross the road to the park, the other side of which houses my local cafe. It’s a beautiful morning in late summer and G is texting to say she’s overslept and won’t be able to catch a tube down to me in time for brunch. 'See you tonight?' I roll my eyes, but it’s fine and I tell her as much as I text her back. It’s fine because it’s a beautiful warm sunny morning and it means I can eat bacon and eggs in the sunshine, whilst going through the Saturday papers.

I sip my tea and scan through the supplements as I decide what to eat. And then for the third time in what seems like as many minutes, I am harassed. The problem with the outside area of the café is the constant attention that comes from Wapping’s pigeon population. Having twice tried to shoo them away, I roll up one of the magazines and draw my arm back to take a swipe at the fat grey bird that has landed on my table “fuck”(swipe) “off”. The pigeon has seen the movement coming from a mile off and retreats to a corner of the café terrace. “Poor pigeon” says a voice from the next table. I look over to see a girl with blonde hair, tied in a bun and wearing a black sleeveless summer dress. She’s hiding her eyes behind dark sunglasses as she sits back and lightly cradles a cup of tea between her fingers and thumbs. “Airborne rats, I think you mean” I say. “Poor poor pigeon” she tuts and smiles before taking another sip of her tea.

Just at that moment, the café owner walks out and approaches us on the terrace. “I’m sorry but I’ve just had four people arrive looking for a table. Would it be ok if I asked the both of you to share?” “Yeah, sure” we both say in unison as she gets up and sits in the chair opposite me. I hold out my hand and tell her my name. She takes it and tells me hers – we’ll call her V. She places her food order with the waitress, describing each item at a time, in a way that reminds me of Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. I shake my head, bemused as she looks at me and shrugs her shoulders “What!?” she says defensively. I grin curiously. “So, do you live in Wapping?” I ask. “Yes, I live just over, er.. that way” she says pointing in a general direction as she gets her bearings.

I’ve just met her, barely know her and yet as we delve into conversation, the two-way dialogue feels so easy and effortless. Contrary to the reality of meeting a stranger for the first time, this actually feels more like a catch up with an old friend from way back. We cover a lot of ground, including food, drink, writing, holidays, boyfriends, girlfriends, politics – you name it. We’ve been talking throughout brunch and now, an hour and a half and countless cups of tea later, I realise that I need to get going as I have things to do, and so does she. We pay at the counter for our orders before leaving the café to go our separate ways. It’s been a fun and unexpected brunch and as we are about to part, it feels like it would be somehow wrong to simply say goodbye and watch this girl walk out of my life.

“Well,” I say as we face each other on the pavement outside. “This has been a lovely conversation - it would be a shame not to have it again sometime.” “Yes it would be” she says, nodding in agreement. She gives me her number and I leave her a missed call. “So, see you soon then” she says. “Bye” I say, holding my hand to wave her goodbye.

I take out my phone out and dial a number. “Hello” says G. “So what happened to you this morning you lazy bitch?” I say with a sarcastic grin. “I know, sorry I had a late night and overslept. How was brunch?” “Fabulous and unexpected - I’ll tell you all about it later.” I say. “So are you going to G2’s party tonight?” she asks. “Yup, planning to. Are you?” “Yes, let’s talk then, it’s been too long, you git.” I can hear the warmth in her voice. “It has indeed – shame on you” I say, hearing her laugh at the other end of the phone. I want to talk to her about lots of things, but not right now. “Well, I’ll see you later then. “she says “Yep see you later” “Bye then” “Bye”.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

First Crush

It’s a Friday night in March and a cold one, although the steak dinner and two bottles of Rioja have more than compensated for the outside temperature. We are the last people in what is a cosy restaurant near London Bridge. The conversation takes on a personal note over after dinner drinks. G brings up the subject of first loves and I listen intently as she talks about her first major crush when she was a teenager.

“And then he went out with my best friend, who funnily enough, then lost her right to that title” “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that” I tell her, which G dismisses with a wave of her hand. “Ancient history now” she says before downing the remains of her Amaretto. “So, how about you” she says “who was your first crush?” I’m quite inhibited when it comes to opening up, and despite the drink, I briefly think twice before speaking. “Well....” I say as I gaze into my glass. G prods my hand with her finger. “Go on, I told you mine” she says before winking and taking a sip of my drink. I cast my mind back to the clear image of a girl from my teens.

I was 16 years old, still at school and I had a Saturday job at a cash and carry in North London. The crush in question was two years older than me and her name was Rachel Harwood. She was tall and slender with wavy brunette hair falling just past her shoulders. She had warm brown eyes which she hid behind glasses and a wide mouth smile that made you melt when it was aimed in your direction. More than that though, she was intelligent, sarcastic and witty in a way that made all the other girls I met seem bland by comparison. I was hooked – line and sinker!

Every week I’d look forward to catching the bus to work as I knew that she’d be on it, having got on only a few stops before me. That journey was one of the most fun parts of the day and I longed to pluck up the courage to ask her out.

And then one day she announced that she was leaving the cash and carry as she’d had enough, and that the following week would be her last. We spoke about her last day and how she’d feel about saying goodbye to everyone. “I might not come in you know – I’m worried that they’re going to embarrass me in some way.“ she said. “Na - people will just want to say goodbye to you.” I told her. I was thinking of me primarily. I wanted to ask her out, or at least to get her phone number. My thinking was that, shy as I was, that it would be better to ask for her number on her last day. That way, if she were to say no, then it would be less embarrassing as it was her last week anyway.

I went to work the following week, full of excitement. It was when I saw that she wasn’t on the bus that my heart began to sink. She wasn’t at work either and evidently had decided to make good on her threat of not turning up at all on her last day. I was gutted. Why hadn’t I asked for her number when I had the chance!? Why didn’t I ask her out?? There was nothing I could do but torture myself over the fact that now I would never see her again.

A few months later I asked out a girl who I’d been flirting with, and we ended up going on a couple of dates. I liked her, although by the end of the second date I kind of had the feeling that maybe it wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped. Still, I thought a third date wouldn’t do any harm and we decided to go out the following Saturday night.

We met up and caught the bus that would take us to the local tube station. I usually prefer to sit downstairs on busses, but as we got on board, she asked if it was ok if we sat upstairs. I didn’t see any harm and so begrudgingly I followed her up to the top deck. The bus ride was quiet during the journey before we finally pulled up outside the tube station entrance. I followed her downstairs to the lower deck and was about to get off when I suddenly heard my name being called. I looked over to see Rachel Harwood sitting on one of the downstairs seats. She waved her arms at me and smiled the wide mouth smile that helped me fall for her when we worked together. I didn’t think I’d ever see her again, and yet there she was – sitting downstairs on the bus. The same downstairs where I had wanted to sit twenty minutes earlier. I froze. I couldn’t believe it was her. I reached my arm up to wave and opened my mouth to say something, but no sound came out. “Come on” said the date, as she grabbed my hand and pulled me off the bus. The doors closed behind me and the bus began to pull away, leaving me and my date on the pavement. I watched it drive off and saw Rachel turn around in her seat. She smiled at me and gave me a wave of her hand. It felt like a wave of goodbye – the goodbye that had been denied me at the cash and carry, months earlier. I felt more gutted than I could ever remember and in that instant I hated the date for wanting us to sit upstairs. “Come on, we’ll miss the tube” she said. I was still watching the bus as it drove further away. “That was Rachel Harwood, she used to work with us.” “Who? Oh right, come on”. I followed her into the tube station and took a last look at the big red double decker as it moved further into the distance - hope and despair trailing in the plume of its exhaust.

In the restaurant, G looks at me. “Wow” she says. I look down at my drink, in contemplation as I swirl it around the glass. “I caught the same bus every Saturday night for three weeks running, but I never saw her again” I tell her, before downing the remnants of the bourbon in my hand. “Oh my god, that’s so sweet” she says. I feign a stoic smile as I am reminded of the acute sense of dejection and helplessness that I felt in that moment outside the tube station. I look down into the empty glass as G leans forward and clasps her fingers through mine, “You’re lovely” she says softly. I look up and meet her brown eyes. A silence ensues as I hold onto her fingers. I’m about to say something, when she smiles and parts her lips as if to speak, and is immediately interrupted by a waiter. “Would you like anything else?”