The waiter brings their order after ten minutes and Anna immediately begins picking the ham off the ham and lettuce sandwich. Meat finally moved to the side of the plate, she takes a nibble. ‘At least the dressing’s low-fat. I can’t even swallow full-fat,’ she says. ‘It’s so cloying.’ Joanne, who ordered for both of them, says nothing. Anna puts her glass of orange juice to her lips and takes the tiniest sip Joanne has ever seen.
‘Have I told you it isn’t going to be a big wedding?’ Only about three thousand times. Joanne and Simon on Anna’s side, a few RAF mates on Paul’s. Most of Paul’s mates are posted abroad; Anna’s family don’t approve; Paul’s family – what was it again? – something about a holiday. Joanne knows she ought to pay more attention.
She had guessed Anna wouldn’t want to eat much: she never does. For the last six months, while they’ve been sitting at opposite desks, Joanne has watched Anna’s daily ritual: unpacking a bag of crisps, small bottle of orange juice and the packet of breath mints, first thing; a sip of juice during the morning and two in the afternoon; followed by a single mint at 11 o’clock – always 11 o’clock – finally, holding up the bag of crisps so she can read the nutritional advice, before offering it to one of the blokes at the next bank of desks. ‘I’m not really that hungry today,’ she’ll say, followed by a little giggle. Every one of them fancies her, or so she thinks. ‘Just give them a little something, Jo,’ she says, walking back to her desk. Jo? No one calls her Jo.
How did she end up here? Giving Anna her phone number was a mistake. It was in Anna’s first week, when Joanne had been assigned to mentor her. She wriggled out of it after the first day, but that was too late. Somewhere in the middle of Paul this and Paul that, she had said ‘I should have your number.’ Joanne didn’t know what to say: this became a pattern.
The texts had begun at the weekend. Four days of peace – if she’d known they were going be her last, she’d have done something she’d always meant to do: bungee jumping or ripping her own throat out with a potato peeler, or perhaps buying a new phone.
‘I still can’t believe he proposed.’ Anna takes another tiny bite from her sandwich. ‘I thought I would have to make all the running.’
‘All you did was try on that ring in the shop,’ Joanne replies.
Anna puts the sandwich back on her plate. ‘He knows what he wants, but sometimes you have to point a man in the right direction.’ She holds up her ring finger. ‘Perfect, see. I knew it would be, even before I tried it on, and when Paul went out and bought it for me the next day: doesn’t that just prove we’re soulmates?’
Joanne nods. ‘Soulmates.’
‘I know Simon took three years to propose to you.’
‘We needed to be sure it was right.’
‘When you know, you know,’ Anna says.
It might not have taken Paul long to propose, but arranging the wedding seems to be a different story. Shortly after getting engaged, Paul got himself transferred to Caithness. Undeterred, Anna planned to become an RAF wife in Scotland. The news that he might be transferring again, this time to the Falkland Islands, only dented her confidence a little.
‘I know some women like to keep close tabs on their men.’ She took one of her infrequent sips of juice and looked at Joanne. ‘But our relationship is based on trust. I mean, he could be up to all sorts while he’s in Scotland.’
‘That must be very reassuring,’ Joanne said.
‘It’s the choice you make,’ Anna said. ‘If you want to be with a serviceman, rather than, I don’t know, a primary school teacher.’
They both knew Anna hadn’t plucked that example out of thin air.
‘Simon has to work quite late sometimes, if he’s got marking or something,’ Joanne says.
‘I suppose he can’t do that at home.’
‘And he goes away with his friends.’
‘He does his war-gaming, doesn’t he?’
‘I suppose it’s as much a break for you as it is for him.’
Anna eventually manages to finish half of the sandwich. She pushes the plate away and looks at the dessert menu. ‘I’ll find a job easily when I get there.’
Joanne looks at her own menu. ‘The cheesecake looks tempting.’
‘I’m not sure I should bother.’ Still unsure, perhaps, Anna continues looking at the menu. ‘Paul says there aren’t many jobs in that part of Scotland, but everyone is really friendly and they’re dead supportive of the blokes on the base. Not like round here where everyone is really rude about the airmen.’
‘What about the ice cream? Only two hundred calories.’
‘Gives me brain-freeze. The girls are the worst. They throw themselves at the blokes, then complain when they get dumped. No self-respect.’
‘You don’t say.’ Joanne puts down the menu and reaches for her purse. ‘I’m having a big, fat fudge cake, and sod the calories.’
‘They just want to cop off with a bloke from the base so they can say that they have.’
‘If you can’t stuff your face at your best friend’s hen do, when can you?’
‘It’s not like that in Scotland. Paul says the girls up there have got more class than the ones round here.’ Anna puts down her menu and touches Joanne on the arm. ‘Ah, you think I’m your best friend.’
‘Let me get you a dessert.’
Anna reaches a decision. ‘I’ll just have the tiramisu.’
Joanne pushes back her chair.
‘With whipped cream.’
Joanne returns with a glass of prosecco and a vodka-slimline with a dash of orange for Anna.
‘Now I think about it,’ Anna says, ‘even though I’m six years younger than you, I probably am your best friend.’
‘Someone’s got to be.’
‘Mind you, I have always been quite mature for my age.’
Anna nods. ‘My mum told me that’s why I had so few friends when I was at school.’
‘It’s a shame no one else in the office could make it tonight.’
‘They weren’t invited.’
Joanne remembers them filing over to Anna’s desk, one at a time, with stories of long-lost relatives, injured babysitters and exes who wouldn’t take no for an answer. That was before she’d even decided on a date.
‘It’s amazing, when you think about it,’ Anna says. ‘I met Paul when I was twenty, and even though he’s so handsome, I just knew straight away we’d be together, like, for the rest of our lives. And then on my first day in my new job I met my best friend.’
‘Such a shame you’re not sticking around for longer.’
‘I know. But you’ll come and visit me, won’t you? Bring Simon. If you like.’
Joanne has already broached the idea of a trip to Scotland with Simon. He was adamant he would be busy whenever it was.
At first Anna was going to move to Scotland and get married before Paul was posted to the Falklands; then she was going to wait until he returned; finally, she’d announced that she was definitely moving to Scotland at the end of the month, although the date for the actual wedding hadn’t been agreed.
Joanne had found herself comforting Anna in the ladies’ after the first postponement.
‘Mum says I should take the extra time to think about whether this is what I really want,’ Anna said. ‘She says if I do marry him, we’ll end up spending lots of time apart.’
‘Sounds like good advice,’ Joanne said.
‘She doesn’t understand. What I need is to be with him now so that I can get used to it.’
‘You’ve got the rest of your lives,’ Joanne said. ‘A few months, a year or two even, it’s not going to matter in the long run.’
‘I just don’t know how he can be so heartless. Do I really mean so little to him? It’s not like I made him propose to me.’
Joanne handed her another tissue.
‘I wasn’t even looking for a pilot when we started seeing each other.’
‘I suppose you can’t help who you fall in love with,’ Joanne said.
Anna blew her nose. ‘But don’t you think I’ve sometimes wished I could?’
Anna being Anna, the silver lining had appeared within minutes of returning to her desk. ‘Of course, this gives me time to plan the perfect day.’
‘I think if you’re marrying the right person, it’s always going to be perfect.’
‘Yes, but there’s perfect with a small “p”, and then there’s the kind of perfection I’ve got in mind.’
‘I should look forward to something spectacular, then?’
Anna frowned. ‘Don’t be so gauche.’
The deserts arrive, and Anna manages to extract a sliver of cocoa powder with her spoon. ‘Of course, I’m not criticising girls who want the big occasion.’
‘Mine was quite a small wedding.’
‘I think it must be a self-esteem thing.’
‘A hundred guests isn’t a lot.’
‘One hundred? I’d die if I had that many strangers looking at me on the most intimate day of my life.’
‘They weren’t strangers.’
‘There’ll be me and you; you’re bringing Simon, obviously—’
Joanne almost coughs up her own dessert.
‘—I’m hoping my mum sees sense, but if she doesn’t…’ Anna looks at Joanne as she coughs. ‘You’re making a mess with that dessert.’
‘I want to eat it, not enter it in an art show.’
Anna’s dessert looks like it’s been dissected by an expert surgeon. Joanne had hoped that she might abandon the fussiness for her hen night.
Earlier that day, Anna took two sips of orange juice, before resealing the bottle and putting it back into the small, lilac Tupperware box. She took a memo from her in-tray, carefully holding the paper with the tips of her fingers. ‘Why anyone in this day and age doesn’t use email is beyond me.’
‘You didn’t think your computer was very hygienic this morning.’ Or any other morning. Anna spent the first fifteen minutes of each day cleaning the keyboard with a cotton bud.
‘We both know there are more germs on a computer keyboard than a toilet seat.’
Joanne only had Anna’s word for that, although she couldn’t think of any reason she might lie about it. Her own desk could be tidy when she needed it to be, but work got in the way most of the time. ‘Don’t you ever want to drop your guard for a few moments and let the dust build up?’
‘Slovenliness, Joanne, that’s the word.’
‘I’m sure Paul will appreciate your homemaking skills.’
‘Military personnel prefer their women to be ladylike.’ Anna paused. ‘Not like men with more effeminate jobs.’
Joanne was wrong, although she isn’t going to admit it. Anna finishes the tiramisu, mouthful by delicate mouthful. She pushes the empty plate to one side and puts a napkin over her mouth to cover the most ladylike burp. ‘I won’t be a pushover when I’m married.’
‘I’m not a pushover.’
‘No, I don’t mean you. I mean, some women just let their husbands do what they like. Stay out till all hours, and then call in the middle of the night because they need picking up. I’m sure Simon isn’t like that.’
‘I’d rather know that he’s safe,’ Joanne says.
Anna crumples the napkin and throws it onto the dessert plate. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are.’
‘Oh, I think I do.’
‘Your husband has an easy job; you don’t have to lie awake wondering if he’s been killed by a sniper or something.’
‘You’re right; I really don’t know.’
‘I mean, most people think it’s really glamorous being married to an airman.’
‘Does he get many snipers on his plane?’
‘You’d be surprised how jealous some of my so-called friends are.’
‘I don’t know any of your other friends.’
‘Another reason you’re so lucky.’ Anna picks up the fork and tries to stab it into the table. After three attempts, she gives up and puts it back on the plate.
‘I’ll call us a taxi.’
Joanne is lucky, of course. Luckier than Anna? Simon will be there when she gets home. If he isn’t, she can call her mum. Imagine if she didn’t know where he was. Imagine if she did know where he was, but it was another country. She tries the taxi firm, but no one is picking up. She is lucky, on balance. She imagines that she doesn’t know where Simon is; she imagines that he will be waiting for her when she gets home.
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