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Cloudy with a Chance of Love: The unmissable laugh-out-loud read Fiona Collins ‘Hilariously engaging and kept me smiling throughout!’– Rachel’s Random Reads (top 1000 Amazon Reviewer)Every cloud has a silver lining when it comes to love…Weather forecaster Daryl Williams never minded the fact that she had a big bottom. It’s always been behind her. In fact, it was one of the things that her husband loved about her. Until he ran off with her best friend, Gabby.Daryl knows that she needs to get back in the dating game, she just doesn’t know how. So when her friend suggests taking a fortune forecast, she reluctantly agrees. And it looks like Daryl’s luck is in, by Friday she has a 99% chance of falling in love!Only, as Daryl embarks on date after disastrous date, it soon becomes clear that even when it’s written in the stars, finding the one after the one is never easy…The laugh-out-loud, uplifting story from Fiona Collins, bestselling author of A Year of Being Single. Perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Helen Fielding and Fiona Gibson.Praise for Cloudy with a Chance of Love:‘Hilariously engaging and kept me smiling throughout! A fresh new voice in romantic comedy writing.’ – Rachel’s Random Reads‘So good it'll make you feel like skipping!’ – Sweet is Always in Style‘A fantastic summer read that warms your heart.’ – The Nest of Books‘An entertaining, fun and light-hearted romantic read that will undoubtedly make you laugh, I loved it!’ – A Spoonful of Happy Endings‘This novel downloaded onto my Kindle at midnight and I thought I'd take a look at it before I went to sleep. At 1.30 am I was still reading, absolutely hooked.’ – Rachel W (Amazon Reviewer)‘Full of giggles and laugh out loud moments from start to finish!’ – Lilac Mills (Amazon Reviewer) (#u71a114c5-bc60-5a8e-991c-365336023d8c) Every cloud has a silver lining when it comes to love… Daryl Williams never minded the fact that she had a big bottom. It’s always been behind her. In fact, it was one of the things that her husband loved about her. Until he ran off with her best friend, Gabby. Daryl knows that she needs to get back in the dating game, she just doesn’t know how. So when her friend suggests taking a fortune forecast, she reluctantly agrees. And it looks like Daryl’s luck is in, by Friday she has a 99% chance of falling in love! Only, even when it’s written in the stars, finding the one after the one is never easy… The laugh-out-loud, uplifting story from Fiona Collins, bestselling author of A Year of Being Single. Perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Helen Fielding and Fiona Gibson. Also by Fiona Collins: (#ulink_29b190e6-d8d8-5ffe-904f-90b3e220ddb9) A Year of Being Single Cloudy With a Chance of Love Fiona Collins FIONA COLLINS lives in the Essex countryside with her husband and three children, but also finds time for a loving relationship with a Kindle. She likes to write feisty, funny novels about slightly (ahem) more mature heroines. Fiona studied Film & Literature at Warwick University and has had many former careers including TV presenting in Hong Kong; talking about roadworks on the M25 on the radio; and being a film and television extra. She has kissed Gerard Butler and once had her hand delightfully close to George Clooney’s bum. When not writing, Fiona enjoys watching old movies and embarrassing her children. You can follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaJaneBooks (https://twitter.com/fionajanebooks). To Matthew Thanks go to my amazing editor, Charlotte. To Elizabeth Davies and Mary Torjussen, always! To Matthew and my children for letting me shut the study door and get on with it! Contents Cover (#ub0e81d05-3b78-5c26-9655-eab055bcd676) Blurb (#u5ecbcbef-55ee-508c-b2b8-38d0285b6a15) Book List (#ulink_814cbb77-cae7-5a64-a473-b0a8858a02db) Title Page (#u705e5b5c-7a19-56c5-9e80-356d0963ea7b) Author Bio (#u4bde03fd-0010-5038-980a-4cac8bd96dd5) Dedication (#u54f5bdf2-fecf-519c-b68e-46e9c361f430) Acknowledgement (#u73c98006-2648-5e64-9b84-32fa6398e01e) Chapter One (#ulink_2e213d6a-57c3-56e8-9c06-e0526ce0f71a) Chapter Two (#ulink_5722967e-e2c2-57bb-bf52-f1b78727f815) Chapter Three (#ulink_b8a8a1f6-082c-5068-9139-b9c35cce207b) Chapter Four (#ulink_d03d3cd8-8b3a-548f-a604-01afdfc9a71b) Chapter Five (#ulink_6df6d1b5-7874-5d0d-9f09-b24351d0dede) Chapter Six (#ulink_75352f7b-84db-50ba-8a4e-4cc8b22c43a1) Chapter Seven (#ulink_3e3c9a6b-e7d4-5e45-a79a-9913cb17e775) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Excerpt (#litres_trial_promo) Prologue (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One: Imogen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two: Frankie (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three: Grace (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#ulink_c90d9403-29d1-5424-addf-26c02dc17977) Sunday I have a large bottom. If I had to quantify it, I would say it was somewhere between the size of a space hopper and a meteorite. It’s pretty big, and it needs quite a bit of upholstery to keep it in check. Big knickers. Spanx. Industrial scaffolding like you might see on buildings in major cities. But I like it. I’m used to it. It has always been behind me. It’s a relief to find that it’s very fashionable to have a big bum these days. It never used to be. Women used to spend hours in the gym trying to whittle the damn thing down to nothing; now they’re trying to build it up. Make it round and firm and sticky-outy. Women have operations where things are stuffed into it: fat from other parts of their body, cotton wool, sandwiches… A big behind has recently become an asset and I finally find it’s something to be quite proud of. I could definitely give Kim Kardashian a run for her money, in the backside stakes, although I’m not sure I could ‘break’ the internet (unless I sat on it, of course) – I’m in my mid-forties for god’s sake. I no longer resemble the mildly sexy goddess I once was. But I do have a fashionably big bum. My big bottom is currently coming in very handy. I’m sitting on it, on the cold ground, in Trafalgar Square, and laughing my head off. The denseness of my large behind means I probably won’t feel the cold for another – ooh – three minutes and I’m laughing because I’ve just chucked my wedding ring in one of the fountains. Yes, it’s gone, just like that. I stood up, on the edge of the fountain and, without fuss or war cry, just lobbed it in. I thought it might land with a satisfying clunk, but it didn’t. I couldn’t hear anything, which was a bit of a disappointment. It just sank to the bottom, without ceremony, and now it sits there, rather forlornly, with all the pennies and the euros and the ring pulls from cans of Coke. Still, it feels wonderful, getting rid of it like that. It’s gone. I feel light, I feel free. I also feel slightly drunk; I may have had three or more cocktails in a bar off The Strand. I’d struggled to get it off. Well, it has been on my left hand for fifteen years. Sam had to lend me her little blue tin of Vaseline, so I could lubricate my finger. ‘Rub it all around the knuckle, that’s it, then wriggle,’ she’d said. ‘It’s bloody stuck!’ ‘Wriggle it a bit more. Keep trying. You can do it, Daryl.’ I kept trying. I smeared on a bit more Vaseline and wriggled it a bit more and finally the damn ring was free of my knuckle and off my finger and at the bottom of the fountain. Thank goodness for that. Let a Portuguese language student have it, for all I care. Let it fund some eagled-eyed teenager’s first Nissan Micra. Let it languish there for ever. It was nothing to do with me any more. ‘Well done,’ said Sam. ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Oh god, Sam,’ I said. ‘I feel giddy and bloody wonderful!’ She hugged me and we did a little Fagin-ish jig, right there and then, in front of a group of Japanese tourists who were huddled together offering the peace sign to the world and taking selfies. I’ve been wonderfully giddy since this morning, to be honest, when I received my divorce papers. People don’t normally receive notice of the end of their marriages on a Sunday. Divorce papers come in the post, usually, along with everything else and if mine had arrived with Saturday’s post, they would have just plopped on my mat in the same yellow envelope as all the other boring solicitors’ missives I’ve received over the last year. I wouldn’t have noticed anything special about this particular envelope. Nothing would have alerted me to the fact that its contents were anything much different to all the others – no klaxon would have gone off; the envelope wouldn’t have flashed red, like the Batphone; there would have been no thunderbolt from the sky with accompanying, dramatic timpani music. But this particular envelope didn’t even land on my mat. My neighbour – my new neighbour, I’ve only lived in my new house for a week – smilingly handed me my decree absolute over the doorstep this morning. ‘Your hunky new neighbour’ said Sam, when I told her. He is quite hunky, which is not quite what I need when I’m embarking on a new start and don’t need any distractions – especially in the male form – but what can you do? Will, my hunky new neighbour, said there was a relief postman on at the moment obviously making all sorts of rookie errors and sorry he hadn’t noticed it yesterday, but he had some post for me. I thanked him in the embarrassingly gauche way I seem to have adopted with him (he is very good looking) and opened the envelope in my kitchen, expecting another drily-worded, highly expensive and baby-step advance in the slow-grinding cog of torture that was the dismantling of my marriage… It should have been simple – our daughter Freya is twenty-one and has left home, so there hasn’t been need for disputes over child maintenance or anything like that – but I don’t think it ever is simple, is it? The whole process was dreadfully and soul-crushingly slow. It had been so slow that I was really surprised to discover, via the ponderous words of my bumbling and rotund solicitor (too many cakes, not enough time), that the deed was done; Jeff and I were divorced. I did a little whoop, then had a little cry, then gave another whoop. It was done, it was over. I was divorced – Jeff and I were no longer married and he and my very-much-former best friend, Gabby, were free to do whatever the hell they liked. I immediately called Sam; we got the Tube up to central London from Wimbledon, where we both live, and we’ve been here since half eleven, in a bar since quarter to twelve and it’s not yet three o’clock and we’re really rather tiddly and my ring is at the bottom of a fountain in Trafalgar Square. ‘So let’s have it, Daryl,’ Sam says, stretching out her legs in front of her and admiring her new boots (dark tan, riding in style; something a Jilly Cooper character would be proud of), ‘What are your plans for the future? What do you want to do?’ I’m full of daiquiri so I can only think of four things. ‘Date but not fall in love.’ I start counting them off, on my fingers. ‘Enjoy my freedom. Make it up to Freya, who’s had to mother me for the past twelve months, when it should be the other way round. And decorate my new house.’ I stretch out my legs, too, which only reach to about Sam’s knees. I’ve got my favourite ankle boots on, the black suede ones with the glittery bits on the toes – I might make it into a Jilly Cooper novel too, as a dumpy, blinged-up stable hand. ‘Apart from that, who the hell knows?’ ‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ says Sam. ‘But it’ll all be written in the stars, anyway.’ I look at her and shake my head. I’m not into mumbo jumbo and pie-in-the-sky pseudo-psychic jiggery-pokery, but Sam is. She’s into it all: horoscopes – Virgo with Sagittarius rising in a lunar coulis or whatever – tarot cards, Feng Shui, reiki, cosmic ordering, crystals and tea-leaf reading. She adores all that stuff. She pulls those long legs up to her chest, slaps both knees with her manicured hands and says, ‘Let’s do your fortune!’ ‘What? How? Are you going to read my palm?’ ‘No. Online fortune teller. Let’s stand up, though. My bum’s gone numb.’ We haul ourselves to our feet. I really am about four foot shorter than Sam, and with a much larger bottom, so it takes me a bit longer. ‘We just go on my phone and use my new app.’ ‘Online fortune teller…’ I groan. ‘As it’s you, I’ll indulge you, but I bet it’s a right load of rubbish.’ It’s not!’ says Sam, flicking her glossy brown ponytail from side to side. ‘You know my friend from Pilates, Jan?’ ‘Jan with the thighs? The one who’s been on a hundred dates and is still single?’ ‘The very same. Except she’s not single any more. She went on the same app two weeks ago – Madame L’Oracle’s Love Fortunes, it’s called – and Madame L’Oracle told her she was going to meet a man that night and she did! She met a guy from DelightfulDates.com that very night and now they’re engaged!’ I dust down my backside. It has a leaflet explaining the Tower of London stuck to it. ‘After only two weeks? Come on! He’s a conman or a nutter, he has to be.’ From what I’ve heard, the only people who are ‘successful’ on DelightfulDates.com are men who manage to achieve sex with a stranger two hours after messaging them. It’s not for finding long-term love. Not that I’m looking for that, ever again. It’s going to be fun, flirting and frivolity for me, all the way now. I’ve done all my moping and my crying; it’s high time for me to be fabulous. ‘No, he’s a proper bloke! A nice bloke. One of the few. He’s turned out to be amazing. That’s what Jan said.’ ‘But I don’t want a bloke, do I? All I want now is to go on a few dates and have some fun.’ ‘It’s just a laugh,’ says Sam. ‘We’ll do mine first.’ I suspect Sam hopes it’s a little more than that. She always does. She’s definitely on the lookout for a man and love. She’s been divorced for five years now, from Graham who she met at school; they consciously uncoupled when they realised they didn’t really like each other any more and hadn’t noticed each other’s haircuts for over three years… ‘How much is this nonsense?’ I enquire. ‘It’s free, but Madame L’Oracle, the Psychic Queen, guarantees she’ll be uncannily specific.’ There’s a picture of Madame Oracle on the app. Sam shows me. She’s in pink fur and pearls, her hair bigger than RuPaul’s. ‘Just give me a second…’ says Sam. I wait as she taps away at her phone. ‘Right. Now we wait two minutes. Accurate predictions take time, it says.’ I poke her playfully in the ribs and try not to roll my eyes as I focus on the screen. It’s all pink and white. On a jacquard background a picture of a crystal ball is oscillating whilst white cloudy stuff swirls in it, and an old-fashioned clock counts down the minutes. What laughable hocus pocus. Still, Sam’s one of my best friends; I’m going with it because I always do. One of the Japanese tourist peers over Sam’s shoulder. ‘Oi, nosey! Bog off! Right. Here we are. Ooh, okay, this is mine: You have an eighty percent chanceof heat bringing you love.’ ‘That’s it?’ ‘Yes! Heat will bring me love! Simples!’ ‘But that could mean anything! I thought it was supposed to be specific! That’s totally vague and really random,’ I laugh. ‘It could be specific. I just have to focus. Heat, heat…what could it mean? Should I book another trip to Lanzarote?’ She pulls her wool coat more tightly round her. It’s really cold for the end of October and the skies are darkening already. Rain is due in about an hour, I know. ‘Right, your turn.’ ‘If I must.’ ‘You must.’ We both stare at the phone again. Finally the shifting white fog in the crystal ball shifts and a pink heart flashes up. Inside, in black scroll-y writing, are the words, ‘You have a99% chance of falling in love by Friday.’ Sam raises her eyebrows at me and grins. I burst out laughing. ‘How exciting!’ she exclaims. Now I do roll my eyes. ‘Ooh, Friday,’ I say. ‘I think I’m busy that day. Let me check my diary…’ Actually, I am busy that day. It’s Freya’s graduation. Jeff and I are both going. It’ll be okay… I hope. We’ll be a civilized divorced couple… I hope. Sam grabs my arm and looks all bog-eyed. Her dark hair is whipping all over her face in the wind. ‘Daryl, it might happen!’ ‘Nah,’ I say. ‘And I don’t want it to. Love is for mugs. From now on I’m all about friends and a bit of flirting. That’s it.’ ‘You say that,’ she says, ‘but if love came along…’ ‘It won’t come along!’ I insist. ‘Look, it’s a giggle, all this stuff, but it’s a load of old guff. Let’s go and get another drink.’ ‘Don’t mock,’ pouts Sam. ‘And you’d better be careful. What if this means you’re going to fall in love with the first man you see, or something…?’ ‘Yeah right,’ I say. We look ahead of us and both catch sight of a skinny man in a cycle helmet and bicycle clips, with no bicycle in sight, walking past us wearing an ‘I’m With Stupid’ sweatshirt. ‘There you go, there’s the first man I’ve seen. What’s the probability of me getting it on with him?’ We start giggling. ‘Whatever,’ insists Sam, ‘you can’t leave these things completely to chance. I would suggest a date a night until Friday, just to keep your options open.’ ‘A date a night? Who the hell with?’ ‘I dunno. People.’ ‘People. And where would I find these people?’ This was the part of my four-point plan I hadn’t really grappled with yet. Where the hell to find men to date. Everyone seemed to meet people via online dating these days, but it wasn’t for me. The whole thing terrified me. And as for Tinder, I couldn’t bear the thought of it. All those predatory men swiping left, over and over again… ‘Who knows! Just look around you, my friend.’ We look around us. Five hundred tourists and a man selling hot dogs, but not a hottie amongst them. We shrug at each other and grin, then I looked up at the clouds which are ominously black and in the mood for rain. ‘Come on,’ I say. ‘We’ve got more celebrating to do. Let’s hit another bar.’ Chapter Two (#ulink_bcaafa4a-7dcb-5223-9d80-215b75c87ed6) Monday Oh god. I was on the ground again, wasn’t I? A very cold ground, that was also very wet and quite stony. A ground that was far too close to my face. And I wasn’t sitting on my bottom this time. No, that would have been respectable and acceptable, especially if I’d still been in Trafalgar Square. People often sit around the tourist bits of London, eating stuff, chatting and taking photos; it’s expected, they do it all the time. What nobody does is lie on their fronts, with their coat twisted all round them like a straitjacket and one boot off, face down on the drive they share with their next door neighbour in a quiet residential street in Wimbledon. In the middle of the night. Yes, the hunky neighbour. Yes, the neighbour who’d given me my divorce papers yesterday morning. Yes, the neighbour who was currently standing over me and looking concerned. Oh god. My mind flashed through how I got here. London. Trafalgar Square. Drinking cocktails with Sam. Dancing on the table in that Vietnamese restaurant which inexplicably turned into a disco at ten o’clock. Squealing home on the District Line. Inviting Sam in for vodka and cranberry and one hopeless, spilt-all-over-the-kitchen-worktop coffee – a vain attempt to sober us up before I sent her home in a taxi. Trotting out to put a bulging black sack in the bin – mostly full of empty bottles I couldn’t be bothered to recycle – and tripping coming back up the drive… Oh bloody god. I grimaced, as far as I could grimace with my face planted on the drive… Giggling and thinking it was really funny and that I’d just lie here for a while and have a little sleep… ‘Are you all right down there?’ ‘Yes, thank you, I’m okay.’ I was a hundred percent sure I was not a pretty sight, but I wasn’t hurt – booze and my curves meant I had bounced, probably, like a baby, before landing in my prone and highly compromising position. ‘I’ve been up to London,’ I said, like a female, inebriated Dick Whittington. ‘I’ve had a few too many. Sorry. I’m on your half of the drive.’ ‘That’s okay. Do you need a hand up?’ ‘Yes, please. That would be really kind.’ Oh, the English politeness. It never fails, even at moments of extreme humiliation. Will held out his arms and heaved me up; no mean feat, considering I was carrying approximately four litres of booze and a Burger King Whopper meal about my person. When he was assured I could stand without collapsing to the ground again, he bent down and retrieved the lost half of my footwear. ‘Your boot,’ he said, holding it out. ‘Right. Thanks.’ He stood smiling at me; I stood, trying not to fall over. ‘Have you got work in the morning? Rather, this morning? ‘Yes. Yes, I have.’ ‘And have you got your keys?’ ‘I think so.’ My keys had been in the pocket of my thick, padded coat, out for duty early this year as it had been a very chilly October. I rummaged in both pockets. When my left hand (without wedding ring – it felt weird) located them, on their fluffy pink, feathery, glittery key-chain thingy, I pulled them out and shook them in the air to prove I’d really got them. ‘There you go,’ he smiled. ‘Fantastic.’ He saw me to the door, which must have banged shut in the night, and watched me open it and step inside. ‘Thanks, Will,’ I said. ‘Any time, although I don’t mean any time. I don’t know you very well, but I presume you won’t be doing this too often…’ ‘I don’t think so,’ I said meekly. ‘As it is rather embarrassing.’ He smiled again. ‘Good night, Daryl.’ ‘Good night, Will. Thank you so much.’ I staggered upstairs. The horror. Oh, the absolute horror. I couldn’t bear to think about it. I decided I couldn’t think about it. Not now. I could be mortified and apologetic in the morning. Now, I had to sleep. I woke up feeling like death warmed up in a petri dish. The radio alarm, set to Eighties FM, woke me at seven and I was furious at it. How dare Madonna and her ‘Material Girl’ aspirations interrupt my comatose slumber? I needed eight hours more sleep. I needed carbs and painkillers. I needed a new liver… I staggered to the bathroom and was horrified by what I saw. Blonde, short hair sticking up all over the place – all pretence of perky Marilyn Monroe coquettishness gone. A pasty face with make-up smears down it. And panda eyes that wouldn’t look out of place at London Zoo. Gone were the days when a hangover made me look dishevelled-ly pretty and enigmatic; I just looked a wreck. I flopped back into bed. Just fifteen more minutes. Just to get my brain in gear. Oh god. I remembered everything. But mostly waking up on the drive and Will discovering me lying there. What on earth must he think of me? He already thought I was a bit of a nut job. I’d moved in just over a week ago, last Saturday to be exact, and he’d already caught me admiring his bum, taking a giant stuffed whale out to someone’s skip and stuffing lemon drizzle cake in my face at two a.m. He’d made the lemon drizzle. Well, I presume he had; I’d have to ask him. The morning I’d moved in, laden with boxes and giant Ikea shopping bags packed with all my stuff, he’d knocked at my new front door offering a smile and a polka dot cake tin. ‘Hello,’ he’d said. ‘I’m Will Hamilton. I live next door. Did you know your doorbell doesn’t work?’ ‘Yes, I know,’ I said. ‘I need to get that sorted. I’m Daryl Williams.’ ‘It’s very nice to meet you, Daryl Williams. I’ve brought you a cake.’ ‘A cake? Wow!’ I’d replied. ‘That’s a lovely thing to do. I didn’t think neighbours did that stuff any more. I thought it was all lawnmowers at dawn and curt nods on the driveway.’ He laughed. He was nice; I could see that immediately. He had a dark-brown-with-grey-bits quiff that had collapsed and was flopping in his eyes, a wide smile and brown eyes. He looked about the same age as me – mid-forties, perhaps late forties? Very, very good looking. The sort of face you wouldn’t mind peeking over the top of a newspaper at, at the breakfast table, for years and years. Not that I was in the market for that ever again. I was over marriage. I was over my marriage. I didn’t need another hero; they just let you down and went off with your best friend. ‘Come in,’ I said and he’d stepped into my hall. He was wearing dark, almost black, blue jeans and a brushed cotton checked shirt. Plus grey desert boots – I hadn’t seen those since my days at Brighton Poly – in 1991. ‘Excuse the décor.’ I’d bought a mid-street house in a Victorian strip of smallish semis in Wimbledon, not far from the station. My new house looked lovely from the outside, matching all the others with their red bricks and white porches; it even had a nicely tended patch of garden at the front which I already feared for – I was not known for my gardening prowess. Inside, the other semis were probably the height of character period charm coupled with sleek modernity; mine was not. It was extremely dated. Think striped wallpaper below yellowing dado rail; sponge paint affect circa Changing Rooms 1998 above… Swagged yellow curtains with tie backs – the previous owner clearly couldn’t be bothered to take them down and I don’t blame her; I wouldn’t have dragged such mustard monstrosities to my new house either… Artexed ceilings… A bath with carpet up the side… Will had laughed when I’d showed him that and so had I. He didn’t look like a serial killer so I’d showed him round the whole house. ‘It’s not exactly Homes and Gardens, is it?’ he said after we’d done the tour and were back in the hall. ‘Needs a little bit of work.’ ‘A lot of work,’ I quantified, again thinking how good looking he was. ‘I know.’ It was in pretty bad shape, my new house. That’s how I’d managed to knock ten grand off the price, giving me a bit of money to play with. I’d already got a decent amount, from my ‘proceeds of marriage’ or whatever they called it (blood money? Tears money?), but the extra cash would come in handy for renovations. I was really lucky. I hadn’t wanted to leave Wimbledon – it had been my home since my twenties – and I hadn’t had to. ‘I’m quite handy, with a paint brush, you know,’ said Will, as I was seeing him out. ‘Just give me a shout if you need any help.’ ‘I might take you up on that,’ I said, then hoped I hadn’t said it in a flirty manner. The plan was to flirt and have fun with men from now on – now I was over the horror of my break-up and divorce – but that couldn’t include any neighbours. I wanted to be happy living here, in my new start, not getting tangled in potentially mortifying situations with anyone I shared bin men with. ‘Actually, can I help you bring any boxes in?’ We were both looking towards my car, on the drive. The boot was open. There was a large box sitting in it that I’d foolishly packed in situ and now I didn’t think I could pick it up. His words were music to my ears. ‘Well, there’s only the one box. The removal firm’s bringing up the big stuff tomorrow. It’s just me and a few bits and bobs today. My friend was supposed to be helping me, but she’s on an emergency date. She’s coming later, hopefully, as long as the date doesn’t go too well, for chips and dips. Low carb and low cal, of course. And I’ll have to hide the chocolate. She’s one of those who counts everything. Her body is a temple.’ Too much random information? Probably. He looked at me. Amused, I guessed. Or maybe horrified – that a mad, rambling lady had moved in next door. ‘No, I don’t mind at all. Happy to.’ We walked over to the car. There was the box, loosely masking-taped at the top, as well as loads of carrier bags and paper bags and a few plastic baskets. I was not the most organised, but I was going to try and be, from here on in. He heaved up the box and carried it in through the front door. I trooped behind him. ‘Where’s it going?’ he called over his shoulder. ‘Upstairs?’ I ventured. ‘Sorry, is that okay?’ ‘That’s fine. I could do with losing a few pounds.’ That was so not true. He had a lovely body. I had a good look at it as it was going up the stairs. ‘Be careful,’ I shouted. The staircase was quite narrow and I wasn’t sure how secure that box was. It had been a bit damp when I’d found it at the back of my old garage, under Jeff’s golf clubs. He hadn’t bothered taking them when he’d moved to Gabby’s – he probably wouldn’t have time to play, what with all the shagging. Will had to take very slow, measured steps. Goodness, he had a nice bum, I thought. He was wearing 501’s, I could tell, by the label, and his bottom was very round and very firm. Probably one of the nicest I’d seen. Jeff’s was always a bit scrawny. Will had two more steps to go. He huffed the box to the top step, then turned his head to look at me a little quicker than I was expecting, as I was still checking out his lovely bottom. I was caught red-handed, wasn’t I? I flicked my eyes back up to his face. He knew exactly what I’d been looking at. ‘Where do you want it?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, squirming. ‘Just leave it on the landing. I’ll unpack it from there.’ ‘Okay.’ He came back down, smiling. I made sure my eyes stayed on his face. I didn’t want them wandering downwards again. Especially as he was now facing me. Well, he would be, wouldn’t he? He was hardly going to come down the stairs backwards on his hands and knees – although it wasn’t a disagreeable image… Oh dear. I was becoming a bit of a nuisance in my own brain. I appeared to be a slightly pervy, out of control divorcee and I hadn’t even received my absolute yet… ‘Well, nice to meet you, Daryl,’ he’d said, on the doorstep, and shook my hand. ‘You too, Will.’ His handshake was warm and firm. He really was very good looking. Was I blushing slightly? God, I hoped not. I watched him as he disappeared into his front door, giving a cheery wave to the back of his head in case he turned round, like the nutter that I was. So. It was an auspicious start. Friendly neighbour helps new neighbour move in while new neighbour pervs at friendly neighbour’s bum. Fabulous. Then he’d seen me illegally disposing of Freya’s stuffed, cuddly whale. I’d moved it with me, just in case, but she’d told me by text ‘just to get rid of the enormous, embarrassing thing’ and I couldn’t face going to the tip with all those jolly people that go there for fun, at the weekends. So, last Sunday morning, I sought opportunity in the form of a skip that had appeared over the road for someone’s building work and went and chucked it in there, before running back home, feeling a mixture of pleased-with-myself and terrified. Unfortunately Will had spotted me darting back across the road looking left and right like a fugitive and had waved at me jauntily from his kitchen window. He’d seen everything, hadn’t he? I knew he had because last Wednesday a poster temporarily appeared in the window of his front porch saying ‘Save the Whale.’ ‘Very funny,’ I’d told him, on the Thursday, when I’d popped over to return the polka dot cake tin. ‘Couldn’t resist it,’ he said. ‘I had that old poster in my summerhouse.’ ‘Very good,’ I’d replied drily, ‘as was the lemon drizzle.’ (Which was so not dry.) I raised my eyebrows at him. He raised his back. He’d spotted me eating it. Last Tuesday night, really late. In fact it was about two a.m., as I’d been up till then attempting to unload boxes, in between dancing to songs on my new digital radio. I’d been happily stuffing my face with lemon drizzle in front of the telly in a very unladylike fashion, whilst watching old repeats of Sex and the City, when he’d clocked me. Both our houses have a ‘side return’ and my sitting room is in mine; I’d taken down the tragic curtains from the window in there and hadn’t yet made plans to replace them. God knows what he was doing up at that time, but he’d seen me at it. I’d caught a very brief glimpse of his face at his window before he quickly pulled the blind down. Oh dear. The secret middle-of-the-night cake eater foiled again. ‘I’m really sorry about that,’ confessed Will. ‘I’m really not a stalker or anything. I was awake and just having a potter around. It was only a split second.’ A split second, but he’d seen enough; me being an absolute pig. I needed to invest in a blind for that window, pronto. So he was a bit of a joker, an insomniac, a very nice, helpful guy and extremely good looking. This is what I knew about Will. And he knew that I was a glutton, a secret bottom-watcher and someone who dumps things in other people’s skips. And now he’d seen me face down, drunk on our drive. Oh dear bloody god. I felt absolutely terrible but I had to go into work. There’s never anyone to cover for me. Well, there’s Elaine, on reception, but her voice is a bit whiny and she always takes a huge breath at the end of every line, which I think puts listeners off. I work in local radio. I’m a weather presenter. Seven times a day I read the weather at Court FM, in the centre of Wimbledon, and I have done for eighteen years. I don’t mean to show off, but I am really good at it. I’ve got a nice voice (it’s cheery, not too soft, not at all abrasive), I know my stuff and I can ad lib a bit, too. This means if a presenter wants to chat to me a bit after my weather bulletin, I can hold my own. I can sometimes be quite funny. Last week, when I was in the studio with Rob Wright, morning presenter (specialist subjects: local town planning and tennis – he’s ever so good when Wimbledon is on… he can talk about retractable roofs and pitch quality for hours), there was a lovely guy in there with a guide dog, waiting to be interviewed about current funding and footpaths. I finished my report with ‘… So expect light rain, spells of sunshine and the odd thundery shower and there’s a dog currently licking my knee, which is lovely.’ The listeners love that sort of thing. They text in and say so. It’s a big, buzzy office buzzing with lots of dynamic (with a couple of exceptions), happy people. Who wouldn’t want to work in radio? It’s great! I met Sam there: she’s a broadcast assistant and researcher. She finds people for interviews, writes the questions for the presenters, explores all the subjects that need exploring and generally keeps the content of all our daytime programming ticking. The station broadcasts from Wimbledon (fairly near the All England Club, actually) to all surrounding areas: Richmond, Wandsworth, Southfields, Putney – apparently you can pick us up in Kensington, if the wind’s in the right direction. I love my job, and to be honest, apart from my friends (although they both work here anyway), it has saved me from falling apart since my marriage break-up. I have to sound perky so I’ve had to fake perky. What’s the expression: fake it, till you make it? That’s me. I faked it for a long time, but now I’ve made it and am pretty damn perky for real. I’m quite proud of myself, really. I made it through the dark days of my husband leaving me for my best friend and out the other side, into sunnier times. My other friend, who also works here, is Peony. She’s a broadcast technician – responsible for all unfathomable techie things at Court FM – and she was in reception when I walked in, chatting to Elaine. I always just feel better when I go into work and this morning was no exception. My hangover lifted just stepping foot in that office. Peony said ‘All right, my love?’ and gave me a wink (Sam had obviously filled her in on last night’s antics). Elaine, clad in lace and ruffles as always, behind the front desk, beamed at me and handed me today’s staff newsletter. Rob Wright, striding across the news area ruffling some papers looked friendly and full of the joys. And even Sam, who should have been as hungover as I was, was smiling and looking great. In fact, she was laughing. I went over to her desk and plomped my big, hungover bottom on a spare chair. ‘Oh my god, Daryl!’ giggled Sam, spinning on her spinny seat. ‘What a day! What a night! Did you go straight to bed after I left?’ ‘No,’ I replied, with a slow smile. ‘I thought I’d take some rubbish out to the bin and then lie down on my drive for a bit of a kip and be discovered by my next door neighbour.’ ‘What!’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Will, your hunky next door neighbour?’ When Sam had come over, on my moving day (after her emergency date turned into a false alarm), I’d told her all about Will, and how good looking he was. She’d spent twenty minutes at my kitchen window, snacking on chopped-up green pepper and trying to catch a glimpse of him, but he didn’t make an appearance. She was ever so disappointed. ‘Oh Daryl, you didn’t!’ ‘I certainly did. Oh, Sam, the shame of it!’ ‘What on earth did he say?’ ‘Not a lot. He just helped me into the house. I didn’t see him this morning but I must pop round and thank him. Good god, Sam, we were absolutely hammered!’ ‘We were,’ she nodded, then grinned. ‘Good day though.’ ‘Very good day.’ ‘I’ve told Peony all about it.’ I looked into Studio One and waved at Peony, who was now behind the big console with all the knobs on doing all that technical stuff I don’t understand. Peony is younger than us. She’s only thirty-two. She’s engaged to Max, who’s also a broadcast technician; she’s been in love with him ever since he first walked into Court FM with his goatee and his man bag, and they’re getting married next summer. They’re really in love and do a lot of face-stroking and talking about the wedding at the moment, but she’s a great girl; one of the best. ‘What are you eating?’ I asked Sam, who was dipping a spoon in a pot of something. ‘Surely you have to forego the diet when you’ve got a stonking hangover?’ ‘I’ve told you, it’s not a diet. It’s a healthy eating plan. For life. And it’s zero percent fat Greek yoghurt with a drizzle of Manuka honey and a sprinkle of sunflower seeds…’ ‘Sounds delicious,’ I said sarcastically. ‘It is!’ ‘I’m more in the line for a big old bacon butty with lots of ketchup.’ ‘Ha, good luck. I think they’re all gone.’ Max usually brought them in for everyone but I looked over to the table where they were usually piled up in paper bags, and yes, they’d all gone. ‘Can I tempt you with some of this?’ ‘No thanks, I’d rather eat my own foot.’ ‘Oh, yuck!’ Sam needs to know exactly what she’s eating. She’s a forty-something trim, toned-body freak who’s permanently on her phone entering data into the My Fitness Pal app. She adds up and enters in the calories of every single thing she’s eaten, even if it’s only a Polo mint or a banana (apparently bananas have a whole 110 calories. Who knew?) and makes sure she doesn’t exceed her daily allowance. It’s quite a science. Thankfully for Sam, who does actually love food, there is exercise, which can be offset against anything she eats. She goes to the gym before work every morning (one hour’s cardio burns 405 calories. That happily cancels out beans on toast, or two portions of porridge, apparently) and does loads of exercise DVDs at home. She’s completely bonkers and obsessed and ridiculously focused, but she does look amazing. ‘Surely you didn’t go to the gym this morning?’ I asked. ‘I did,’ she replied. ‘Just an hour’s gentle cardio. It sweated out all the booze nicely.’ Factoring wine into Sam’s daily calorie allowance was quite a feat, although she always managed it. ‘Oh, you’re so good.’ ‘Halo polished,’ she said, rubbing the top of her head. I admire my meticulous friend. I have the willpower of a slug. The only way I lose weight (if I wanted to, which I don’t) is by taking off a bit of (sometimes quite heavy) diamante. I’m quite partial to a bit of bling. I like a brooch, a necklace, a hair clip, earrings. There’s nothing in life a bit of sparkle can’t cure. I’ve discovered that. Today, I was livening up my hangover with a blingy, slightly glittery hair band which also covered up some of my horrible hair. ‘Uh oh,’ said Sam, polishing off her last mouthful. ‘Bob’s been stocking up.’ Bob Sullivan, the station’s editor, was walking into the office clutching a Boots bag. ‘All right, ladies?’ he enquired, like he always did, thumping the bag down on his desk. Bob never expects an answer to his ‘All right, ladies?’ It’s rhetorical. He’s an antiquated old fart, the only dark cloud in an office full of sunny dispositions. He is thirty-seven going on seventy and the proud possessor of old school, sexist charm. Smarmed back hair. A pseudo posh accent (he hails from Staines.) And a nightmare tendency to get frequent colds. He proceeded to unpack the contents of his Boots bag onto his desk. A chicken sandwich, a packet of cheese and onion crisps, a Diet Coke, a huge bottle of Night Nurse, a box of Strepsils and a box of blackcurrant Lemsip. He has a stinker of a cold at least every couple of months. He never tires of them, he’s an absolute martyr to them and – along with the copious sniffing, the noisy nose-blowing and the indulgent hand-to-forehead plaintive despairing – Bob likes to employ a highly theatrical cough. When enjoying a cold, he coughs all the time. He coughs if you ask, ‘How’s the cough?’ An enquiry to how he is, is answered with a cough. And if you even say the word ‘cough’ he coughs. He announces his presence in the morning with a cough and his departure in the evening with a cough. It’s his unique, germ-ridden calling card. ‘All right, Bob?’ called out Sam. She’s the cheeky one, in our office. Bob coughed. ‘Yes, thank you, Samantha. I’ve just got a light cold, darling. How’s the interview with the mayor coming along?’ ‘Swimmingly,’ said Sam. ‘She’s squeezing us in between appointments on Thursday. Coming into the studio to do it live. Are you still happy with the expenses angle?’ ‘Yes, just make sure we cover it subtly; we don’t want a diplomatic row – no duck houses or anything. Rob will do a great job with it, I’m sure.’ ‘Okay, Bob. No prob.’ She winked at me. Bob arranged his new purchases amongst his old: cough linctus, a bottle of eucalyptus, a jiffy bag of echinacea capsules and a man-sized box of tissues. His hands tend to flicker between all these miracle medicines like he’s the pinball wizard. But there is no twist. Bob with cold is just unbearable. I settled at my desk and attempted to tidy it. I was in a rush when I left on Friday night and had left it in a bit of a state. It was less cluttered than it used to be, though; I used to have photos of me and Jeff everywhere, even a photo of me and Jeff and that cow, which had obviously been ceremoniously burnt (not really, but I had chucked it in the big black bin round the back of the studio). Now there were just three gorgeous photos of Freya, from babyhood to today, the most recent of her on her first day at Smith College London. My girl. I was so bloody proud of her. I logged onto my computer and tried to get my head round checking the rolling information for today’s forecast. It was going to be a long day. My first bulletin was at twenty past nine. It’s always a bit of a rush to get that one written but it went well. It wasn’t a particularly complex weather story today. Grey skies all day – but no rain. A light north-westerly breeze and temperatures averaging ten degrees. Cold for the early autumn but not unheard of. My task for the day, really, after gathering all the information from the satellite and radar pictures, was to think of seven different ways to say the same thing. Easy: I just enjoyed talking about the weather. Rob Wright was very cheery this morning and we had a little bit of banter after my bulletin about pet reptiles, one of his featured topics this morning. I made him laugh by drily saying ‘I’m more of a cat person,’ and he cut to the beginning of a record, grinning. ‘Lovely job, Daryl. See you for the next.’ ‘Thanks, Rob.’ When I arrived back at my desk from the studio, Sam was waiting there, waggling two sachets of green tea. ‘Ugh, I don’t want that,’ I said. ‘I want cake and hot chocolate and cheesy mashed potato, preferably all at once.’ ‘Aw, please come and make a hot drink with me? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘As it’s you.’ I trotted after her to the radio station’s kitchen. It has hideous saloon type doors which ricochet off each other about twenty times after someone has pushed through them. They were still going after the kettle had boiled. ‘Only twenty-five calories per cup,’ she said to me, as she poured boiling water into mugs. ‘Yummy.’ ‘Hey, remember that forecast thing we did yesterday?’ ‘Oh, yeah! I’d forgotten all about that.’ I had actually. I hadn’t forgotten chucking my wedding ring in the fountain though. I kept going to twist it round my finger, like I always used to, and it was still odd it wasn’t there any more. It was good, though. It was all good. ‘What was my forecast again? A ninety percent chance of falling on my face, sorry, falling in love by Friday.’ ‘Ninety-nine percent.’ ‘Oh, yes, pardon me. What a load of hooey,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘And I certainly won’t fall in love this Friday. It’ll be the last thing on my mind. I’ve got Freya’s graduation and Jeff’s going to be there.’ I pulled a face. The nearer it got, the more I was starting to dread it. ‘You’ll be okay,’ said Sam. ‘You’re strong now. Anyway, it says by Friday. So it could be before. I think we should at least give it a chance.’ ‘But I told you yesterday,’ I said. ‘I think I did, anyway – it’s all a bit hazy. I don’t want to fall in love. Love hurts, cheats and fails. It leads to no good. I just wouldn’t mind a few dates, here and there, that’s all. Though I really don’t know where I’m going to find any. And please don’t say online dating again,’ I added, quickly. ‘No way am I doing that! Don’t even think about it!’ ‘Okay,’ said Sam, stirring the teas before lifting out the squashed tea bags and lobbing them in the bin. ‘No online dating. But I think you should try and date as many men as you can this week. Starting tonight.’ ‘Tonight. Right. A Monday night. What do you want me to do, just go and grab someone off the street? See if Bob Sullivan’s free?’ Bob had been single for years – who would have him, with that nose? ‘I really don’t fancy spending the evening listening to him coughing over a tin of Fisherman’s Friends.’ ‘No! Not Bob, and not someone off the street.’ She paused, sucked the end of her spoon, then paused again. ‘Speed dating.’ ‘Speed dating!’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Do they still do that? Wasn’t that a noughties thing?’ ‘Well, yeah, it was. But they still do it. It’s evolved.’ ‘Into what? You now go round the tables on a Segway?’ I sighed. ‘I can’t imagine anything worse, Sam. A bunch of unattractive singles moving from table to table like a sad carousel.’ I attempted a sip of the green tea then put it down on the side again. ‘Isn’t it for losers who’ve looked for love in all the right places and come up with nothing?’ ‘What a delightful picture you paint! And I’m not a loser, and neither are you!’ ‘I’m not going!’ ‘Listen, there’s one in Wimbledon tonight, at the Old Brewery, and I think we should go. Think how many men will be there – all under one roof!’ ‘That’s what’s putting me off!’ I countered. ‘I said I fancied a few dates, not to have to face a roomful of gagging-for-it men. I’m not sure, Sam, I’m all hungover and… I don’t feel I’m ready!’ ‘Of course you’re ready, you’ve said so! And if you’re not, I am! Some of them might be quite nice. Please come with me.’ ‘Ah, right, so this is all about you!’ I put a teasing arm round her waist. ‘Talk about emotional blackmail!’ She put a return arm round me and gave me a pleading look. We resembled a pair of same-sex figure skaters. ‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ ‘Great!’ ‘I’m going back to my desk now. Thanks for the tea. You know I’m not going to drink it, don’t you?’ ‘Yes, I know.’ My next bulletin was at three minutes past eleven, straight after the news. I had time to think about Sam’s proposition. Even actually in the noughties, when speed dating first came out, I would have said ‘no’. That I’d rather stick pins in my eyes. Lie down in a pit of snakes and take my chances. But I had said I wanted to date again. That I was up for fun, flirting and frivolity. It had been one part of my four-point plan. And Sam really wanted to go; she’d looked like an over-excited puppy with an open back door and a sunny garden in its sights. Plus, she’d come up to London at the drop of a hat yesterday, when I’d asked her. I know she’d had a semi-firm date lined up, with an accountant from East Sheen, which she’d cancelled. ‘Hey, Peony!’ Peony was walking past with a box full of tapes and stuff. She’s all blonde and petite and gorgeous. Super-efficient, too; Max is a lucky man. ‘Hey, Daryl. How you doing? Feeling any better?’ ‘Ah, Sam said she’d told you about our little adventure yesterday. Yes, a bit, thanks.’ ‘You’re incorrigible, you two.’ I shrugged and grinned. ‘I know. What can you do? So, when are you coming out with us again? It’s been ages.’ ‘I know. Sorry, I’ve been so busy with planning the wedding and all that stuff… and Max…’ It was her turn to shrug. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I know,’ I said. ‘We’ll be waiting for you. We’re always available for meeting up.’ ‘I know you are. And I’m glad you’re back on social track, these days.’ She gave me one of her lovely smiles. ‘We’ll definitely do it soon, I promise. So… I hear the absolute came through.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And you’re feeling okay about it?’ ‘Peony, I feel fabulous about it, I really do. A really painful chapter of my life has finally come to an end.’ ‘Well, that’s wonderful, Daryl. Really wonderful.’ And she plonked down her box and came and gave me a hug. She always smelled like flowers. Her marriage would work out, I knew it would. Well, mine had, for quite a while. Until Jeff had turned out to be an absolute bastard. But she was marrying Max, who was great. They would last the distance and he wouldn’t go off with any of Peony’s friends – most of us were far too old for him, anyway. ‘So what are you going to do now?’ ‘A housewarming, next month some time, after I’ve spruced my new house up a bit. And Sam wants me to go speed dating with her tonight.’ ‘Oh, wow! Oh, you should!’ ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I thought about it. I could meet a bunch of absolute idiots. I could meet someone who I thought wasn’t an absolute idiot but then he’d turn out to be one. I could fall in love. That was the worst. I didn’t want to risk my heart ever again; I couldn’t bear it to be trampled on as mercilessly as Jeff had done. Yes, I was okay now. Yes, I had survived and was ready to embrace my future. But there was no way I could put myself through it all again. My silence and the tragi-comic look on my face must have spoken volumes. Peony laughed. ‘Look, just don’t go expecting to meet the love of your life, you probably won’t.’ ‘No, I don’t want that. God, no. The love of my life was almost its ruin.’ She smiled at me sympathetically for a moment and then said, ‘So, go! Go for a laugh, a giggle, a good night out. Don’t take it seriously.’ She gathered up her box. ‘I’ll see you later, Daryl. I’ve got to go and drive the afternoon desk.’ ‘Happy driving! Thanks Peony.’ She walked away and I went to twiddle the empty spot on the third finger of my left hand, relieved once again to find my ring wasn’t there any more. Peony was wise. Peony was right. I was divorced now, my wedding ring was off. I was over it. I should be ready to put myself out there, for fun, for a laugh. I could go speed dating, though I would make it clear to Sam there’d be no falling in love with anyone. There wouldn’t even be any kissing of any frogs, and I imagine there’d be a lot of frogs there tonight. I couldn’t see any prince among men turning up to speed dating. I texted Sam, from across the office. Okay, I’m up for it. Let’s do it. Chapter Three (#ulink_aaddd5d1-8cd4-5e17-8ddc-6a94e93e66f4) I just had the four forty-seven weather bulletin to go. Things had been getting more exciting since my three o’clock. There was the chance of a heavy shower tonight; a new weather pattern was moving in from the north of France. I was looking at all the charts and writing my report. But my thoughts were elsewhere. I’d said ‘yes’ to Sam but as soon as I had, almost at the instant the text had sent, I started getting the wobblies, big time. She immediately sent me back a text saying ‘Fabulous!’ but I was already panicking I’d made the wrong decision, and felt steadily worse as the afternoon went on. I was going speed dating! I’d been doing so well, making a brand new start by moving into a new house, celebrating my divorce, thinking about plans for my future, but actually dipping my toe into the waters of dating – and meeting real, actual men – was suddenly really scaring me. I’d finally emerged from the storm clouds my ex-husband had thrown me into; did I really want to risk stepping into the swirling, often dangerous mists of romance again, whatever that entailed? I didn’t know. I felt all weak and pathetic, far from the spirited woman who had chucked her wedding ring in the fountain and declared herself ready for flirting and dating again. I started doubting myself again. Thinking it was me. As I checked and double-checked the satellite picture of the cloud patterns over South West London, my brain dumped me back in the past, a place I really didn’t want to visit any more… I’d been a good wife. An excellent one. I’d been loving and attentive; there was a dinner on the table for Jeff every night, and not just a warmed-up ready meal thrown onto the kitchen table with the cutlery following it, either. I made a real effort. I put a cloth on the table. I’d sometimes do a starter. I’d sometimes even light bloody candles. I was a pretty fabulous wife, which was actually quite a feat for someone as disorganised as me who wasn’t a natural cook. I worked really hard at the whole wife thing. In my teens I’d been quite scathing about marriage and had openly scoffed at the mention of it. My mum had said things to me like ‘Make sure you get yourself a good career. You don’t want to spend your life washing someone’s pants!’ and I had totally agreed and laughed along with her – I’d worn ra-ra skirts, electric blue eyeliner and attitude in those days. And I did get myself a good career, straight after university, starting as tea girl and runner at Court FM before working my way up to receptionist and, eventually, weather presenter, believing I’d never be swallowed up into the loathsome role of housewife and drudge. Even after Jeff and I had Freya, and were living together, I resisted that role. Yet, somehow in the late nineties and the early noughties I became seduced by the whole thing: a meringue wedding dress; a sleek kitchen diner with a skylight and sliding glass doors to the garden; Jamie Oliver recipes; a bread maker; and domestic bliss peddled by shows such as Location, Location, Location where well-to-do, loved-up couples rejected gorgeous house after gorgeous house in idyllic villages… Another text pinged onto my phone. It was Sam again. Can’t WAIT until tonight! Me too, I replied, but I wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t dare look up as I knew she’d be grinning over at me from her desk. I stayed with my head down, at my own desk, wallowing in my horrible history. Jeff and I got married. At work I was still pretty brilliant, but at home I became everything I’d scoffed at. It was strange how it happened, really. Once we were married we suddenly weren’t equal partners any more. He was husband; I was housewife. He gradually stopped helping me with chores; my job became less of a career and more of an inconvenience, to him. I began doing everything for Jeff. Far too much. I was also too adoring, too grateful – grateful little wifey. I’d thankfully take Jeff’s odd, token attempts at romance – flowers, a bottle of perfume on my birthday, a new bra from Debenhams, which he thought the height of class even though he always bought the wrong size – as a sign of a happy bigger picture which turned out to be totally false. He wasn’t happy at all. He wasn’t happy until he’d dealt me the cruellest blow by going off with my best friend. Cough. ‘Can you sign this card for Elaine and pass it on?’ Bob was standing in front of my desk. He handed me a pink floral card, tucked inside a red envelope. It was Elaine who did everything for everyone else’s birthdays; when it was her turn for happy returns, Bob always took charge and organised a card and a collection for a present, which was nice. ‘Of course. Just leave it with me.’ ‘Thanks, darling.’ As Bob wandered off, pulling a hanky from his pocket, I noticed his shoes were especially shiny today. They instantly made me think of my former best friend and husband-stealer, Gabby. Great. I was plonked back in the past again… Gabby. It kills me to even think of her name. I don’t think I’ve said her name out loud, since it happened. If I’m referring to her, I call her whatsherface or that cow or, simply, her. She knew all about Bob and his shiny shoes; we’d once spent a whole Saturday afternoon hooting our heads off with laughter in her conservatory, with him as our specialist subject. We’d sat there for hours. I remember she’d kept refilling my glass of rosé, in between shooing children away. It had been so funny. The more Bob stories I’d relayed, the more we’d laughed. We’d laughed until we’d cried, until we’d got into that hysterical state where no sounds come out of your mouth, where you are collapsed and helpless on the floor, with tears running down your cheeks. I missed that bitch. Oh lord, I was at work, I shouldn’t start thinking along Gabby. I’d just get depressed and angry. Or compose that same email I’d composed to her over and over again, but had never sent. The one where I tell her she’s ruined my life, she’s betrayed me in the worst possible way, that I hate her guts… and how I wish I could turn back the clock to when we sat on her bedroom windowsill, on summer evenings, and screeched along to George Michael’s ‘Faith’, then drove around Wimbledon Village in her dad’s convertible, trying to pick up randoms. How I wished I’d never met her, but at the same time I just wanted to go back and meet her all over again… Enough! Stop it! Focus on the weather. A thick band of clouds will move in across the region overnight and heavy rain will continue until the early hours… Gabby Louise Trench. She was a laugh. Such a good laugh. I’d known her since school. She was in the year above. Gabby was quite glamorous at school. When I was still in Clarks buckle-up shoes and A-line skirts, she was rocking a mini kilt and pointy, tasselled loafers. Grey ones. I admired them long before I became friends with her, and that only happened because she once attempted to bully me. It was a failed attempt. I’d been loitering by the lockers, minding my own business, when she bustled up with Fat Felicia, a known corridor terrorist and possessor of the only lost virginity in the Fourth Year – apparently – and asked me to ‘Move along’ as I was ‘making the place look untidy.’ I remember looking at them both in astonishment. It was so uncalled for, so out-of-nowhere. I was not someone who drew attention. I was so far under the radar I was like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, commando-ing along the floor in a museum full of diamonds. Before I’d had time to even think about it, I’d retorted with, ‘The only thing that’s making this place look untidy is Felicia’s hair. There must be at least a couple of blackbirds nesting in there, making babies.’ I waited for anger to flash across faces, a possible fist to come flying my way – Fat Felicia was a notorious puncher – but, to my surprise, Gabby had burst out laughing. ‘Funny,’ she’d said. And she’d pushed a surprised-looking Fat Felicia along the corridor and they’d both disappeared in the direction of the Crush Hall. A week later, they’d tried again. I was coming down the ramp of one of the Portakabins, after RE, when a grey tasselled foot shot out in a clear attempt to trip me up. I wasn’t having it. I stopped dead in my tracks. ‘You are joking?’ I said. Gabby and Fat Felicia were in shadow, the beige plastic side of the Portakabin casting weird stripes on their faces. ‘If you’re trying to make me fall over I suggest stretching skipping-elastic across the playground. I’ve seen more stealth on a nuclear weapon.’ It was the era of the Cold War, Reagan and Gorbachev, ‘Two Tribes’ and the threat of nuclear war hanging over everyone. Kids enjoyed frightening themselves silly over it. Fat Felicia looked confused. Gabby burst out laughing. Again. And again, Gabby trundled Felicia off – they headed towards the Fourth Form common room. I saw Gabby glance back in my direction a couple of times. She was still grinning. That night, as I was waiting in the hall for my bus, she strode up to me. ‘All right?’ she said. ‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘I like your style,’ she said. ‘Thanks,’ I replied. And she went off to her bus queue. The following Friday there was a school disco. Gabby was there. She spent the whole night sharing her contraband Hock with me and regaling me with tales of her five current boyfriends. We became inseparable. We were the best of best friends. She was always up for high jinks and I was her accomplice. Her jinks included: smoking where she shouldn’t have been smoking; bunking off to go to the chippie; pulling the wrong sort of boy. I was the more sensible one, the one who was able to pull her back from the brink of complete rebellion and law breaking. She was the boss but I could be a persuasive employee. ‘Perhaps we shouldn’t?’ I used to offer, on a regular basis. ‘Perhaps we should go back in now? It’s assembly in a minute.’ ‘Perhaps you should pay for those.’ Or I would make a joke and she would laugh and stop whatever near-criminal thing she was doing: ‘I really don’t want to have to visit you in Wormwood Scrubs, Gabby. I don’t think they let you wear make-up.’ ‘That’s a men’s prison – I’d be in Holloway – but, okay, Daryl. I won’t do it then.’ I had to talk her out of serious trouble so many times. She would listen to me. It seemed I was only one she would listen to. She was blisteringly funny. We shared the same sense of humour and saw the funny side in everything. We laughed like drains at everything. We even had catchphrases. Lines from films like Ferris Beuller and Back to the Future and Thelma and Louise. ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’ ‘You’ve always been crazy, this is just the first chance you’ve had to express yourself.’ ‘Party on, dudes.’ I bloody well missed her. Early morning the clouds will dissipate briefly, only to move back in mid-morning when we can expect more rain… She calmed down when she was older, she even became an accountant, mostly part-time, but she was still a brilliant laugh. And she was still pretty feisty when it came to men. She never got married; she just dated constantly, from seventeen. Only one, Martin, stuck around long enough to have a child with her. The rest were briefly brilliant love affairs and she always liked the same type: super rich but a bit flabby and a little bit dim, so she could feel superior (cherubs in chinos, she called them, Brideshead Revisited types with curly blonde hair). And, my, could she make me laugh when she told me all her stories about them. She was funny; it was why you could forgive her anything. ‘Oh my god, that total loser?’ she’d laugh when I reminded her of one of her hapless suitors. ‘Mr Bean in Burberry?’ ‘You liked him, at first! You said you liked the way he drove!’ ‘Did I? Did I actually say that? I must have been deluded – he drove like Mr Magoo. And I liked all of them, at first.’ ‘Even Martin.’ ‘Oh lord, Martin. That albatross. Still, at least he gave me Maisie… Come and sit next to me and I’ll do your eye make-up for you.’ It was such a massive surprise when she stole my husband. He’s thin and fiercely intelligent. He wears glasses and looks like Tim Robbins. He was not her usual bag. Her usual bag, which she swung casually from her shoulder, not caring if it got scratched or scraped in the dirt, was thrown in a skip and she came after mine. My bag. Which I had always clutched tightly to my chest. ‘I could never fancy Jeff,’ she’d once said to me, as she’d sat smoking on her back porch, doing my tax return for me – it was balanced on her lap, on top of a place mat. ‘He’s a bit too weedy for me.’ ‘Well, thank god for that,’ I’d replied. ‘You’d probably eat him alive.’ ‘That I would,’ she’d laughed, and I’d giggled. Jeff was safe from her. Serial dater and man-rejecter. Queen of the gilet and the put down. Glamorous heartbreaker. My funny and brilliant best friend. She would have been the first person I’d gone to, if Jeff had ever cheated on me. I’d even confided to her once, near the end, that he seemed distant and I wondered if anything was going on. ‘Jeff? No, don’t be silly!’ she’d protested. ‘He wouldn’t have it in him.’ He did, though. And so did she. She stole him. Right from under my nose, but she was round at ours a lot, at the time. She was single again. She’d pitch up with Maisie, on a Saturday night, a stack of duvets and pillows so high you couldn’t see the top of her glossy head, and a bottle of vodka hanging off her wrist in a Tesco carrier bag, declaring, ‘Staying in is the new going out!’ ‘For now,’ I’d retort. ‘Until the next Chinless Chino comes along.’ Gabby and Jeff were both smokers. They’d go out through our conservatory doors and puff away. Giggles from her, a low rumbling laugh from him, and the mingled smoke from their fags would spiral through the air and into our bay tree. They would then stamp on their fags in unison and come back in. I don’t smoke. While they smoked I’d be washing up. Or picking up satisfying, molten pieces of wax from the tablecloth and flicking them into the bin. I never thought they were out there plotting to leave me. She came over for dinner just a week before they went off together. I had no bloody clue. Not an inkling. I’d thought she only liked her men thick, but clearly she liked her friends that way too. Thick as mince. I had no idea they’d been shagging for a year – a year! That means that the Christmas before last they were at it, too. I’d been given the equivalent of the Joni Mitchell album in Love Actually, while Gabby got the heart-shaped necklace, and I hadn’t even known it. I sighed and foraged for half a Twix from my desk drawer. Temperatures tomorrow will be low for this time of year with them reaching the dizzy heights of only seven or eightdegrees… It’ll end in tears, I thought, when I first found out. It won’t last. But it had lasted – they were still together, living in Gabby’s neat house in South Wimbledon – and tears had been shed, but they were all mine. So bloody many of them. I’d popped over to see Gabby, after the school run that morning, a year ago. I knew she had a day off, and so did I, but I’d forgotten to tell her; I’d forgotten to tell Jeff, too. He wasn’t interested in what was happening at my work. He wouldn’t be interested in the fact that the studio had to be closed that day for an emergency fire and safety check (it was going to play piped-in pop classics, all day, from the sister station in Stevenage). I’d texted Gabby before I’d left but hadn’t waited for a reply – friends like us never had to. I expected her to be surprised to see me, but I thought I’d get a warm hug and a load of gossip, not the weird, shocked face that actually came to the door and peered wanly through the glass. She acted weird the whole time I was there, too, so I didn’t stay long. ‘I’m not feeling very well,’ she told me. ‘Oh? That’s not like you,’ I said. ‘You’re normally made of cast iron.’ ‘Not today,’ she’d grimaced. She’d disappeared off to the loo about three times while I was left sat staring at the telly. Eventually I left. When I got home, I saw it. The letter. It was propped up on the sitting room mantelpiece. I only went in there to pick up a book I needed to return to the library. If Jeff wanted to guarantee I’d see it, he should have put it in the kitchen. By the kettle or on top of the fridge. But he must have thought the marble mantelpiece was the appropriate place to put it – solemn, formal, cold. He thought I’d read it when I got home from work tonight, but I was reading it now. It was cool to the touch as I picked it up and turned it over in my hand. My name written in Jeff’s best black pen. And inside his words wrapped a cold, hideous claw around my heart and squeezed it so hard I could hardly breathe. He was leaving me. He’d fallen in love with Gabby. I phoned her. We always picked up to each other. A call from Gabby never went unanswered and vice versa. She didn’t answer me, though. Not today. Her phone rang and rang. I left voicemails, texts. Nothing. I drove back round to her house. She wasn’t there. I hammered on her door for half an hour – see, I have form for embarrassing myself in front of neighbours. I sobbed on her doorstep for a further hour and then I drove home. It had turned out later they’d gone to a hotel. And Jeff wouldn’t be coming home again. Ever. My last bulletin went really well. The afternoon presenter, Pippa Honeywell, was setting a competition and chatted to me about some of the prizes. They were eclectic, as always: a trip to the local owl sanctuary, a case of peach schnapps, a ticket to see this year’s panto at Wimbledon Theatre. It was a giggle and cheered me up; my job always did. As I drove home, I tried to think positively again. Jeff was gone; he was no longer my concern and neither was Gabby. And thank god I had my friends Sam and Peony; they had really stepped up since everything had happened. I owed them a lot. They’d met Gabby loads, over the years and had liked her, but their loyalty to me was fierce and they hadn’t seen her since her betrayal. None of us had. My focus now was Freya – who I must ring tomorrow, actually. I needed to know the exact times for her graduation – and my own future. I decided I would definitely go speed dating tonight – to not let Sam down, mainly – and I had to go with what Peony said: treat it as just a laugh, just a giggle, don’t take it too seriously. I could do that. There was no ninety-nine percent chance of anything. Except me having a good laugh. And my hangover had completely evaporated now, which was helping. As I got out of my car, Will was coming out of his house and locking the front door. He worked odd hours, I knew – he’d told me when he looked round my house. He was a consultant paediatrician at St Martin’s Hospital, in central London. ‘Hello. I’ve got a meeting,’ he said simply. He looked nice; he had a very smart suit on. He always looked smart for work. I’d seen him out of my kitchen window loads of times last week, getting into his car with his files and his briefcase. ‘Oh, right.’ I was embarrassed, so embarrassed. I’d planned to go round and apologise, but now I’d been caught unawares, seeing him again, I felt stupid and unprepared. Oh, the shame of it. The last time he’d clapped eyes on me, I’d looked far from smart. Staggering into one’s house, half cut and with only one shoe on is never a good look. ‘I’m so sorry about last night,’ I said. ‘I’m absolutely mortified.’ ‘Don’t worry about it,’ he said, smiling and looking far from cross. ‘It was funny.’ ‘Was it? I thought it was just excruciatingly embarrassing. I’m so sorry,’ I repeated. ‘It’s fine. Honestly. Forget about it. We’ve all been there.’ ‘I don’t think we’ve all quite been there, have we?’ I quipped, motioning at the ground. ‘Well, no,’ he said, ‘but most people have been daft and drunk, at one time or another.’ ‘I was definitely both of those.’ I smiled at him. He smiled back. He thought it was okay; he thought I was okay. I knew he had a good sense of humour, after the whole Save the Whale thing, but I hadn’t known if it would extend to drunk neighbours in distress. ‘So, how’s the decorating going?’ ‘I haven’t started yet,’ I said. I hadn’t. I’d spent the last week unpacking, faffing around and watching telly. Besides, I wasn’t sure I was competent enough to do it. I knew I’d end up with paint everywhere and make a right hash of it. Jeff and I had always hired someone in. In fact, I was probably going to do the same in this house – it would save an awful lot of swearing. ‘Do you want me to help you? Tomorrow maybe? After work? I get home early on a Tuesday.’ I was so surprised. ‘Really? Would you? That’s awfully kind of you.’ Blimey, that was nice of him. I could hardly say no, could I? … Despite the fact it would be a lot simpler just to get some professional painters and decorators in. Despite the fact I could just tell him I’d be doing that and he’d just happily retract his offer… And nothing to do with the fact a tiny, teensy part of me thought it would be nice to spend some time with him, which I immediately told myself sternly off for. One: I was starting a whole new chapter of my life, in my new house; the last thing I wanted was some sort of torrid fling with my next door neighbour. And two: it would be a horrible cliché to get even so much as a crush on him – I’d had enough of horrible clichés, what with my husband running off with my best friend… ‘Half five?’ he suggested, looking at his watch. ‘Is this the time you usually get home?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ I replied. ‘Half five would be fab. Thank you. That would be really great. Thank you very much indeed.’ Okay, now I was sounding like a bumbling idiot. You will not get an inappropriate crush on this man, I told myself. You will not get an appropriate crush on this man – however good looking he is. ‘Thank you. Thank you very much.’ Okay, time to shut up and go in. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘Well, see you then.’ ‘Yes, bye. Thanks, Will. Have a nice time.’ And I thumped my own head with my hand once I’d got inside my front door. Have a nice time? He was going to work. Chapter Four (#ulink_7b78212d-ed01-5cd7-8b12-e59f9f7bd4c4) ‘I won’t be a minute. I’m in a frazz, as usual.’ I was in Sam’s kitchen. The contents of her bag appeared to be scattered across her kitchen table: tissues, lipsticks, purse, nail file, powder compact, make-up brushes and something that looked like one of those Fitbit heart monitors. In the middle was an opened bottle of fizzy pink plonk with a huge half-full wine glass next to it. She took a large swig. ‘I know you’re driving, but do you want a sneaky half a glass?’ ‘Oh god, no thanks, Sam. There’s no way I’m drinking after last night.’ ‘Sure? Cup of tea?’ ‘I don’t think we have time, do we?’ Sam wasn’t ready and I’d been five minutes late as it was. ‘Probably not,’ she said, rifling through a drawer and pulling out random five pound notes to stuff in her purse. ‘Here,’ she said, picking up and thrusting the glass in my hand. ‘Go on, have a quick sip. It’ll calm your nerves.’ ‘I’m not nervous.’ Dread might be a better word. But I took a large sip anyway. ‘Hair of the dog. Never hurts.’ Sam grabbed a sheer black t-shirt from the side and threw it over her balcony bra and impossibly sculpted abs. ‘You look amazing,’ I said. ‘Thanks,’ said Sam, attempting to see her reflection in the door of the microwave. ‘You don’t think the sheerness is a bit much? I’m trying to distract from my face.’ ‘What’s wrong with your face?’ ‘Nothing a large syringe of Botox and a week in the Bahamas wouldn’t cure.’ ‘Honestly, Sam, you look fabulous.’ For all her zealous calorie-counting and burpees and Power Yoga DVDs, my dear friend had her insecurities, like the rest of us. ‘Thanks,’ she said, sounding unconvinced. ‘And look at you!’ she continued. ‘You’ll be beating them off with a stick!’ I looked down at my black pencil skirt and black suede courts. I’d tried to make an effort tonight despite my mixed feelings about the evening. I’d put on my slinkiest cream blouse (with diamante buttons) and my most flattering skirt, and had taken ages with my make-up. My usual three-minute pre-work slap on probably wouldn’t cut it tonight – I’d used all the players in my make-up arsenal, including a new brow pencil I was experimenting with. I was risking a slightly grumpy-looking Scouse Brow but I think it had worked okay. Sam hadn’t said anything, anyway. ‘You don’t think I look a bit mumsy?’ ‘Not at all, you look classic.’ ‘Thanks, Sam, you say all the right things.’ I have to be a careful dresser. I have a lot to contain. There’s that phrase, isn’t there, about pouring curves into clothes; in my case, it’s more like stuffing them in, but I can hold up okay, with the right scaffolding (i.e. Spanx) and the right style of clothes. I never wear trousers, for example, they make me look like a traffic warden. I tried to lose weight once, but it didn’t really work; my face went all gaunt and I looked weird so I decided to keep my curves. Jeff always said he liked them – he said he loved my sizeable bottom – but obviously he didn’t, not that much. He now prefers to get a handle on the skinny witch that is Gabby. My curves were too much for him, that’s all I can conclude. A better man would have appreciated them forever. So I’d donned the scaffolding and clothes I hoped suited me. Before I’d left the house at half eight, I’d checked myself from all angles and given myself a once-over with the de-fluffing roller, then I’d thrown on my beige faux-fur coat and tottered out of the house with an enforced wiggle. This pencil skirt was on the tight side, but was a trusted favourite. I hoped Sam was right and that I looked classic and not an old fright. ‘Are you nearly ready?’ I asked Sam. ‘Nearly,’ she said. ‘I’ve just got to do my nails. Are you excited about tonight, Daryl?’ ‘Excited? No. Looking forward to it in a weird, kind of warped-curiosity way? Yes.’ She sat down, grabbed a fuchsia nail polish from a drawer she pulled out behind her, and started painting her nails. ‘Are you scared to put yourself out there, because of what happened with Jeff?’ ‘Mmm, let me see,’ I said. I pulled out a chair and sat down opposite her. ‘I loved a man, thought he loved me, gave him a daughter, was married to him for umpteen years despite him being a bit of an arse, then he ran off with my best friend. Of course I’m scared. You know I am!’ ‘You’ll be okay, Daryl, honestly. I’ll be there. How does it feel without your wedding ring?’ I looked down at my left hand and twiddled the space where my ring used to be. ‘Honestly? Half fabulous, half really, really sad. But I’m glad it’s gone.’ ‘If you feel sad with it missing you can always get some big old costume jewellery for the other fingers.’ ‘Hmm… there’s not looking mumsy, then there’s crazy lady!’ ‘Ha, nothing wrong with a little bit of crazy!’ ‘You’d know!’ ‘Absolutely,’ she grinned. ‘You really will be fine, you know. And if you’re not, I’m here to catch you.’ ‘Well, thank you. Don’t do it yet, though – your nails aren’t dry.’ I finally got her out of her kitchen fifteen minutes later, but she was now faffing with her hair at the hall mirror. I tried to steer her towards the front door with both hands on her shoulders. ‘Come on,’ I pleaded with her as she reached for the Elnett the seventeenth time. ‘Put that down. We’ve done all we can. And it’s going to have to be very speed-y dating if we turn up half an hour late!’ Chapter Five (#ulink_2d9da838-d7fa-5ebb-a4f0-c9e5bd53ce16) There were an awful lot of people wearing an awful lot of outlandish clothes for an event that wasn’t supposed to be fancy dress. Sam had insisted it wasn’t. I’d had a sudden thought about it in the car – was tonight themed, were there to be any crazy costumes involved? – but she’d assured me, no, there was no dressing up tonight. It was just normal speed dating, she’d said, reading from a flyer all about it, followed by a disco. It was over-forties, she admitted, which was actually quite a relief. Sam and I both were, obviously, and to be honest I was glad the place wasn’t going to be full of terrible toy boys where we would feel pressure to look and act young. I didn’t want to try and be down with the kids and have to pretend I knew all about Tweeting and Snapchat or whatever. I couldn’t be doing with all that. Over forty was fine. As soon as we walked into the packed gastro pub with the massive windows and the shiny oak floor, I turned to Sam and shook my head at her. ‘Sam!’ ‘Oops.’ She put three fingers to her lips and giggled. So did I. There before us, some chatting away animatedly, some standing around looking nervous, were dozens of people clearly in full fancy dress. Unless of course Ringo Starr and Katy Perry (dressed in the leopard-print bikini from her Roar video) had fancied a spot of speed dating in South West London tonight. I spotted a Bublé, a Madonna (the pointy bra years), a Britney Spears (sexy flight attendant guise), two Michael Jacksons, a portly Buddy Holly and a Lady Gaga who, quite frankly, could have made a bit more of an effort – she was in a red leotard and a pair of flip-flops, and was wearing three packs of bacon round her neck, on a string. In one corner, a kaleidoscope of eighties band members and musicians had gravitated towards each other like the kindred spirits they were. Look, it’s Sting! Blimey, there’s Boy George with a beer belly! Hold onto your shuttlecocks; is that George Michael, in an ill-fitting wig and some tennis shorts? It looked like a microcosm of the Band Aid studio; somewhere amongst them, Bono would be lurking, looking earnest. ‘For god’s sake!’ I exclaimed. ‘Show me that flyer!’ Sam fished it back out of her bag. I scanned it quickly, and there, across the bottom, in hot pink letters it said, Fancy dress. Theme: Music Icons through the Decades. ‘I didn’t read down that far,’ Sam protested. I looked down at my plain pencil skirt and my silky blouse. I suppose, if pushed, I could say I’d come as someone from an eighties band… I tried to remember what those two girls off The Human League had looked like – Susanne and Thingy. I could say I’d come as one of them, the blonde one, and that yes, she’d obviously put on quite a bit of weight since the good old days of working as a waitress in a cocktail bar and gyrating behind Phil Oakey… Was she an icon though? Not especially. At least Sam had on leather leggings and that sheer black t-shirt; she could pretend she’d come as a dressed-down Cher. Or a really tall Cheryl Cole. Failing that, we could both look really, really dull and like we hadn’t got the memo. ‘Fabulous,’ I said. ‘Just brilliant.’ And we looked at each other and burst into giggles. Never mind,’ I added. ‘At least everyone looks over forty.’ They did. There were no spring chickens amongst this little lot. Lady Gaga’s bottom was a little too creased to really carry off that leotard – bless her – had she not heard of sarongs? One of the Michael Jacksons looked like he’d risk a broken hip if he attempted a moonwalk, and the motley crew in the Eighties Corner were sporting an awful lot of wrinkles above all those ruffles, plus a crop of bristly, Old Romantic grey beards. ‘Yep, all over forty, as promised,’ Sam said. ‘Take a good look round, Daryl. Any one of them could be your Mr Right.’ ‘I doubt it!’ I said, still giggling. ‘Look at them! I’ve seen more fit men down at the bingo hall.’ ‘Not that you’ve ever been…’ ‘Not that I’ve ever been. And check out that Justin Timberlake over there! He’s no Trouser Snake, is he? I don’t think he’s going to be rocking anyone’s body tonight.’ ‘No, he’ll be rocking his own, in a chair.’ That sounded a bit rude so we both laughed. One man looked amazing, I did concede – he was the full Adam Ant complete with white lines on his cheeks and a red swashbuckling belt, but due to his leering stance and roving, slightly protruding eyes, I doubted he was much of a dandy highwayman, more a randy postman. He wouldn’t be much cop, I was sure of it, and I didn’t hold much hope for any of them, to be honest; all the men here were bound to be deadbeats who were either desperate or secretly married. I was ninety-nine percent sure I wouldn’t be leaving this room with a date. We queued to register. I was standing behind a girl dressed as Amy Winehouse, her hair back-combed to hair heaven and brushing against the lower reaches of an antique chandelier; my mum would be saying, ‘you’ll have someone’s eye out with that’. I felt a right twit that I wasn’t dressed up. I was already feeling uncomfortable as it was and wished I was drinking tonight. What the hell was I doing here? I’d never been to this sort of thing before; I’d never been on any kind of dating scene – I hadn’t had to. There had always been Jeff. I’d met him when I was twenty and he’d shown my brother round his first house (Jeff was an estate agent. That’s how he and Gabby conducted their affair, at lunchtimes, in furnished show homes and double beds under feature walls) and had been with him since. Prior to Jeff, I’d met boyfriends here and there – usually in clubs, like everyone else. I’d never had to do online dating, speed dating, singles’ nights, murder mystery nights which were really cop-off junkets, none of it. I really wasn’t sure it was an arena I wanted to enter. I was taking my life in my hands and I’d probably trip over spectacularly and drop it. Right down Gaga’s bacon-y cleavage, probably. I re-swivelled the waistband of my skirt – this skirt always twizzled round – and tried to hold my stomach in, to no avail. Sam was often suggesting fitness DVDs to me; she was currently extolling the virtues of some American woman called Kimberley Lake-Payne and her ‘amazing’ 60 Day T&A Blast DVD, as well as Cardio Power, Storm-Ripped Body Pump and Tummy Shrink Showdown. Did I want to borrow any of them? I always declined. Maybe one day I would stop eating so much chocolate and start shaking my sizeable booty in Lycra, on some kind of fitness drive, but I liked to eat. I enjoyed not counting calories or working out. ‘Last time I came to one of these I burnt six hundred calories on the dancefloor,’ pronounced Sam. ‘I was wearing my Fitbit, inside my bra.’ ‘You’ve been to speed dating before? You never said.’ ‘No, well, it wasn’t a huge success. It was when I first split with Graham.’ ‘Did you meet anyone?’ ‘Sadly, yes, a bloke I dated for two months. Jacob – he was really nice, at first. Except it turned out he still lived with his mum and– worse – that he was Chief Swords Person in medieval re-enactment thingies in Richmond Park, every Sunday. The mum situation I could have lived with – if you excuse the pun – but it was the muddy bayonet in the backpack which was the deal-breaker.’ ‘I bet it was!’ I said. ‘You could have told us. It would have given us hours of fun.’ Sam shrugged. ‘It wasn’t my finest hour. I’m hoping for better tonight.’ ‘So, what happens after we register?’ I said, twizzling my waistband again. ‘Do we get name badges? I don’t want a hole pricked in this blouse.’ ‘No, we don’t want any pricks!’ laughed Sam, and the girl in front of us turned round and smiled wryly. ‘Good luck with that,’ she said. It didn’t exactly restore any confidence. I had a sudden desire to go home and put my jammies on. Sam must have read my thoughts. ‘Come on, it’ll be fine. There are some nice men out there, there has to be! Sometimes they’re right under your nose.’ I caught the eye of the other Michael Jackson – complete with red leather Thriller jacket, white socks and black slip-on shoes – and he gave me a wrinkly wink. I really wasn’t sure about that. After we’d registered, and I’d got four whacking great holes in my blouse courtesy of the girl on the desk who might want to invest in some reading glasses, we stood among the expectant crowd waiting to be told what to do. Sam ran through the list of questions she had for prospective suitors, written in the Notes section of her phone. They included: ‘What do you like doing at the weekends?’; ‘What is your view on the healing power of crystals?’; ‘Do you know how to operate a washing machine?’ and ‘Have you ever, or will you ever, own a status dog?’ ‘What on earth is a status dog?’ I asked. ‘A scary dog. You know, like a bulldog or something. The ones men walk down the street with, in order to look hard. It would be a deal-breaker. I don’t like dogs much as it is.’ I laughed. ‘Right. Okay.’ ‘You have to break down your criteria,’ said Sam. ‘I know you think I’m away with the fairies half the time, but I can also be completely practical when it comes to men.’ ‘I know you can,’ I said. Sam had been known to come up with pie charts detailing her compatibility with the men she was dating. What were my criteria? I wondered. I hadn’t had to think about them for a long time – Jeff and I had just stumbled into going out and then getting serious, having a baby and getting married. I don’t remember ever trying to match him up with a list of criteria. What qualities would I absolutely have to have in a man? Deal-breakers? Once again, I came up with four things: nice, kind, good sense of humour, won’t ever cheat. It wasn’t really much to ask for, was it? Finally, after the crowd of icons (and me and Sam) had got increasingly noisy and restless and keen to just get on with the bloody thing (or was that just me?), a man in a bright yellow jacket and slicked back hair, looking like something out of a holiday camp and introducing himself as Nigel Smith-Fortescue, took to the mike on the tiny stage at the end of the bar. ‘Welcome everyone,’ he boomed. ‘You all look amaaaaazing! Well done, people!’ Oh god, he was one of those. Sam was already grinning and silently offering him a rude, derogatory signal, with her left hand, behind her bag. ‘Stop it!’ I whispered. ‘Well…’ she said. He was awful, already. He was doing that thing where you point your finger and doff it at people in turn, with an annoying look on your face. ‘You people may have read in our natty little flyer that here at Icons Speed Date we like to shake things up a bit, make things a bit more interesting.’ He laughed very loudly, as though appreciating an invisible joke. Here we go, I thought. What on earth was it going to be? Group-chanting? Line dancing? Twister? ‘We have three rounds,’ he continued. ‘Three innovative, super trendy, date-tastic rounds.’ ‘Hurray!’ shouted out the clearly already-pissed Buddy Holly, his glasses steamed up. Everyone laughed and Nigel Smith-Fortescue gave an over-charming smile. ‘Thank you, my friend. Thank you.’ He cleared his throat. ‘The first round – that’s Round One, people! – which you’ll adore, I know you will, is non-verbal communication. Vis a vis: miming.’ Sam nudged me. She did a Marcel Marceau box-making mime thing. I rolled my eyes. Miming! Oh gawd. If I’d wanted to not speak to anyone I could have just stayed at home. Nigel warmed to his theme. ‘You’re not allowed to taaaalk to anyone, you must communicate only by gestures, gesticulation, the power of miiiiiime.’ A lot of the men looked quite cocky, and were very obviously looking the women up and down. They were imagining what gesticulations they could muster to impress the ladies, no doubt. I wasn’t hopeful I’d be impressed by anyone as I looked from one disappointing, often overly made-up face to another. ‘The second round – that’s Round Two, people! – is the round we call The Eyes Have It. Do you like that? The Eyes Have It? I thought that one up, didn’t I Isobel?’ A lady in the wings, in the Madonna ‘Like a Virgin’ get-up of short, white wedding dress and long white lacy gloves, gave him the ‘A-OK’ sign, with her gloved hand. ‘You have to stare across the table into each other’s eyes for two minutes. Really look into each other’s soouuuls. We reckon it will sort the birds from the bees, the wheat from the chaff.’ He looked so delighted with himself. Isobel was laughing in the wings, her teeth catching the light. She must be his significant other, I thought. Rather her than me. So far, the whole thing sounded excruciating. I never would have agreed to come if I’d known this sort of thing was on the agenda. I had never mimed in my life – why would I have needed to? – and I hadn’t looked into anyone’s eyes for years. Jeff and I had long left behind the eye-locking during sex thing; in fact, we had long left behind the whole sex thing, full stop. I’d been blind and stupid, really. Really stupid. We weren’t doing it – I thought – because we were busy and a bit lazy and doesn’t it all drop off after forty anyway (not that, the libido thing…) and it was now all about closeness and cuddles (not that I got many of those) and doing the crossword together and stuff… when in actual fact Jeff was doing my best friend. I’d been so angry when I found out about them. I’d thrown things at him, when he finally did come home – from the Love Hotel – to collect his stuff. I threw laundry and paired-up socks (ineffective), a block of new cheese from the fridge (very effective), anything I could get my hands on. I followed him from room to room chucking things at him and sobbing. It hadn’t been pretty, but then neither was what he’d done to me. But I was over all that now. All my anger at Jeff had long gone. Now I was calm and free… and speed dating. It helped that I never saw him any more; I had no need to. I was seeing him this Friday, though: Freya’s graduation. I felt sick, suddenly, at the thought. The last time I’d seen him had been – when? – three months ago. He’d picked up the very last of his books and the bits and bobs he wanted from our old house. The rest of his things had already gone, and with Freya up and left and living in a shared house in Merton with her friends, I was rattling round that big old house (did I miss it? No). We barely spoke as he softly moved from room to room, gathering. I’d have to make proper conversation with him on Friday, for Freya’s sake, and I was now really dreading it. ‘Round Three,’ chirped Nigel, interrupting my thoughts, ‘after you’ve all revved yourselves up to the point of absolute freeenzy, people… is a good, old straight-down-the-line speed date round. Boring!’ he laughed. ‘Though we don’t think so.’ He looked stern. ‘Here you can capitalise on your miming and your fabulous eye-locking rounds and talk to each other – find out what makes you tick, explore each other’s very souls – before skipping off into the sunset together for the rest of your lives.’ His face broke into a beaming smile. ‘I need to tell you, I’ve been burning to tell you’ – he was almost hopping on the spot, his lapels flapping – ‘that we have ourselves our very first speed dating baby! Yes, just last week, here in a private London hospital, a bouncing baby boy was born to two of our former speed-daters, Leon and Katie, who are now very happily married. How about a round of applause?’ Sam and I clapped, half-heartedly: Sam didn’t do babies; she found them revolting. She’d never wanted children. She liked Freya though; Freya was cool. Others in the crowd, though, showed proper feeling. Some of the women went misty-eyed. Some of the men looked outright dismayed – they’d turned up tonight in the pursuit of some contraception-proofed sex, not marriage and babies. ‘Soooo,’ said Nigel. ‘That’s how we do things, here at Icons Speed Date!’ He grabbed his lapels with his thumbs and gave them a firm hitch downwards. ‘We’ll get started in ten minutes, so if you want to head to the bar in the meantime, please go ahead. A little lubrication can help people on their way, we find. Ah ha ha ha ha ha ha!’ I rolled my eyes. Hang on! What was Sam doing? She’d turned away from me and was talking to someone who may have come as Bruce Springsteen; he was wearing a stars and stripes bandana. Axl Rose? As the crowd moved en masse to the bar he nodded and said, ‘see you later babes’ to her. Another man – possibly Paul McCartney but it was hard to tell – offered to buy her a glass of wine as we arrived in the scrum of speed-daters queueing for a drink. ‘Soulmate?’ I enquired ‘No,’ she giggled. ‘Free drink.’ ‘You’re seeing a lot of interest already, Sam. Are you sure it’s not you who’s going to fall in love by Friday? ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s you. Don’t give up hope. The night is yet young. You’ll meet someone tonight – I can feel it in my water.’ ‘You and your water!’ I said affectionately, rolling my eyes. ‘My water has never been wrong,’ nodded Sam. ‘Trust me.’ Macca – no shoes – strode on over holding a large rosé, and a lemonade for me. ‘Thank you,’ we said in unison. ‘No problem, ladies,’ he said in a deep voice. ‘I look forward to seeing you both at the tables, shortly. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go for a wazz. The old pipework’s not what it used to be.’ I pretended to swoon and said, in a Scarlett O’Hara southern drawl, ‘I do declare, what a dashing young man! Romance is surely not dead!’ ‘Ha, ha, Daryl, you crack me up.’ ‘Well, really!’ I said. ‘A “wazz”? I’m not going to meet anyone here tonight. Neither of us are going to meet anyone here tonight.’ ‘Daryl,’ said Sam sternly. ‘There are probably lots of great men in here.’ ‘Really?’ I said petulantly. ‘Well I can’t see any of them.’ ‘That’s because you’re not looking properly. You have to see past the outfits. The dodgy make-up and wigs. The… love-handles and gammy legs. They’re all right here, Daryl. You just need to open your eyes to them!’ She gestured round her, with a sweeping hand, while my eyes rolled so much they probably resembled a fruit machine. ‘Stop it Daryl! Your glass needs to be half full, not half empty! Open your heart!’ I looked at our glasses. Her glass of rosé was nearly all gone. I had barely sipped my lemonade. I really should be getting drunk to get through this tonight. Why had I brought my bloody car? ‘I know I said I wanted to date,’ I whined, ‘but it’s all so overwhelming. What am I supposed to say to all these men?’’ ‘Nothing, until Round Three…’ said Sam. ‘Look, just chat, be your lovely funny self. Do what comes naturally and don’t worry about flirting. If it’s in the stars, it’s in the stars. He’ll come your way.’ ‘If you build it, they will come?’ ‘Something like that.’ ‘And how come it’s not written in your stars tonight? Why is it only going to be me that meets someone?’ ‘It’s not hot enough in here – they’re being a bit over-zealous with the air-con.’ I laughed. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ said Sam. ‘Try and get into it.’ I thought back to my four resolutions in front of the fountain at Trafalgar Square. Enjoy my freedom was one of them; I’d forgotten that. I should try and enjoy myself. ‘Okay, for you, Sam, I’m going to try and get into it.’ ‘Fabulous!’ I didn’t really want to mime at these men, stare into their eyes, marry them and have Speed Date babies, even if that was still biologically possible, but for Sam I’d give it a go. Suddenly a horrible klaxon thing sounded. Nigel was standing back at the mike, with the stance of an old time singer. He looked like he might break into a croon at any second, like Tony Bennett. Isobel was at his side, beaming and stuffing her cleavage into her dress with a gloved hand. ‘Singles!’ he boomed. ‘Please take a seat and let’s find you your destiny!’ Sam grinned. I groaned. Here goes nothing, I thought. I plastered a great big smile on my face and walked over to the tables. Chapter Six (#ulink_9e07c77a-97a9-5258-b9d1-c19d93f5616b) I suffered a Freddie Mercury, a Frank Sinatra and an Elvis all in the space of nine minutes. It should possibly be re-named speed hating, as they were all bloody awful, and god knows what they were trying to mime to me. As far as I could determine, Freddie liked croquet and decaf tea, Frank worked as a butcher and was very good at charming old ladies with a nice bit of brisket and Elvis had some sort of problem with his bottom. Elvis did mime singing into a microphone, at one point, but he was probably just some bloke from Tooting who worked down the local chip shop and occasionally went to karaoke. My next suitor was Ozzy Osbourne. Even as he approached my table he had his phone surgically attached to one hand while the other swiped people. Tinder, I bet. Once he sat down, he half-heartedly mimed emptying bins, but his eyes kept either glazing over or glancing to the next table where Katy Perry was pouting and flicking her hair. He looked like he couldn’t wait to get over there and I was happy for him to move on, too. There was no connection between us whatsoever. I’d never liked men with shaggy hair and heavy eyeliner. We sat there in silence for the remaining minute, with Ozzy looking at the neighbouring table from between squinted, heavily kohled eyes, and Katy looking back at him, in between miming to her suitor that she was a lap dancer. Nigel sounded the klaxon and Ozzy stood up. He didn’t even bother to say goodbye and practically sprinted to lap dancing Ms Perry and her mimed pole. I had an urge to stick two fingers up behind his back, then I remembered I’d have to face him again in two more rounds. Oh good god. I wished I could have buzzed him off somehow. The next two rounds would be a complete waste of time if all the men were like him. The next guy had come as Elton John: rainbow, heart-shaped glasses; badly-fitting toupee; mad hands. He didn’t stop miming; I couldn’t get a mime in. In that two minutes and with not a single word said, I found out he lived in Twickenham, that he worked as a fork-lift driver, that he had three children and a red setter, and enjoyed puzzles and playing scrabble. The wackiness and the excellent miming aside, he seemed very dull. There was no spark there, and his grin was quite inane. I was dreading looking into his eyes during the next round as I knew he’d just pull silly faces. And so it went on. A succession of not very attractive frogs and certainly none worth kissing: Boy George, Michael Jackson and Kanye West (gold camouflage trousers, anyone?) all came and went, with underwhelming effect. Adam Ant was, as suspected, a sex pest. I found out later he’d mimed ‘having it away’ so many times he’d got himself thrown out before he even reached my table. Then there was the Paul McCartney fellow (bell ringer, apparently), a Bruno Mars who told me by the medium of mime that he worked in a pie shop, and a David Bowie, circa ‘Modern Love’, who wasn’t quite pulling off the yellow suit – he was as wide as he was tall. They came and they went. I didn’t fancy kissing any of them. Not even just to see. Only one was slightly intriguing; a Mick Jagger lounge lizard who mimed reciting poetry and smoking. I looked forward to seeing him again – he was surprisingly good looking and a little bit sexy – everyone else was an obvious no hoper. The klaxon was once again the clanging bell of doom. The first round was over and I was already exhausted. Nigel appeared again, looking slightly unsteady, to announce the second. He actually said ‘Take it away!’ and I braced myself for the dreaded ‘staring’. The first guy I got, Michael Jackson II, kept winking at ten second intervals. He hadn’t quite got the brief. I actually found the non-stop staring really difficult; it was like that hideous game you play when you’re kids. I could never do it. My eyeballs always hurt after five seconds – the eye equivalent of a stitch – and I’d blink more than ever. Playing it with your brother was bad enough, playing it with a complete stranger was totally freaking me out. The second guy… oh god help me, it was Elton again, and he now looked even more of a nutter. The staring brought out a random twitch at the side of his nose. He looked like he was wincing at a constant bad egg smell or that he was a very sensitive bunny rabbit. I wanted to focus on something else, like his chest hair, but that was against the rules. The eyes it was. It was unbearable. Ozzy was next. He looked as enchanted as I was. He stared at me in quite a hostile manner for the first minute and nodded off for the second. I looked across at Sam. She was on the table by the door opposite someone who looked like Rod Stewart, and had another full glass of wine in front of her. She winked at me and I shrugged in return. The klaxon sounded. It was time for Mr Osbourne to move on. I nudged his elbow with my hand. He blinked his kohled eyes, mumbled, ‘See you’ and meandered off. Fourth starer was Kanye. He didn’t blink once. I felt like I was going into a trance. He was like the snake singing ‘Trust in Me’ from the Jungle Book – I thought the whites of my eyes would turn into spirals and I’d fall away in a dead faint. Finally, it was over and Kanye loped off to scare Katy Perry half to death. It really wasn’t going very well, so far. None of these men were for me; there was no one here I liked. I was incredulous at the thought someone could waltz into my life in four days’ time. How ridiculous! Oh, hang on, I thought, things could be looking up. Mick Jagger was slouching up to the table. I liked his style and didn’t think he’d even come in fancy dress. He wore a louche, undone paisley scarf over a navy velvet jacket extremely well; his skinny jeans and pointy boots were just the right side of flamboyant. He sat down with a waft of aftershave and a lopsided grin, Nigel’s klaxon went off, and we began looking into each other’s eyes. It was really intense – quite sexy. Ooh, he could be interesting. His eyes were really dark and broody, his eyebrows all dense and quizzical and he looked like he was not only undressing me with his eyes but tethering me to a willow tree and whipping me lightly with peacock feathers. By the time the klaxon sounded I was quivering slightly and praying that when I spoke to him in the next round he’d have a voice like a rumbling Heathcliff and not disappoint with an unmanly helium squeak. The remaining contents of an eighties reunion festival, Ringo, Bruce, Bruno and that low rent Michael Bublé later, Nigel announced the third round with two blasts of that bloody klaxon and a balletic twirl. He was staggering around a bit now and laughing wildly at random, while Isobel glared disapprovingly from the wings and waved a grubby gloved finger at him. Finally, I’d get to actually talk to someone, I thought. Bring it on. Let’s get this whole charade over with, and as quickly as possible. Up first to the post was Ozzy and he cut straight to the chase. ‘Do you fancy me?’ ‘Do what?’ He acknowledged my surprise. ‘Well, no point beating about the bush, is there?’ He would never be beating or anything else about my bush, so I decided to join him in the straight-talking. ‘No, there isn’t. And no, I don’t fancy you.’ ‘Ditto,’ he said. ‘You’re a bit too fat. Next!’ and he made a great show of looking behind him as though Britney bloody Spears was going to be waiting there, ready to fall at his ridiculous feet. Well, actually she was. She had a pina colada in her hand and was swaying slightly, in front of the bar. ‘The klaxon hasn’t gone yet,’ I said tersely. ‘And I am not fat.’ Fat! How dare he? At least he could have had the decency to say curvaceous. He should pack up his Tinder and go. ‘I’ll just go and hover,’ he said. He downed the rest of his beer, issued a small belch and went and stood at the next table, where pole-dancing Katy was tittering at Bruno Mars. At least he was honest, I thought, as I gave a giant sigh. About not fancying me, that was. And I’d been honest with him. I suppose this was the point of speed dating, right? Quick fire. Do you like me, yes or no? Then move on, as quickly as possible. It was very cut throat, and also very antiquated, really. Men move round and round, all proactive, while women wait at the tables like sitting ducks. Still, you could argue I was proactive simply being there. I was out. I was open to suggestion. I was not sitting at home with a box set of Mad Men and a large portion of chocolate cheesecake. I smiled ruefully and looked around the room. Some people were laughing, others sat in nervous or cheesed-off stony silence. A few women were furiously hair-flicking. The only people actually roaring with laughter were the hosts. Isobel had got over her disapproval and she and Nigel were now hanging onto each other in convulsions. She had a large glass of something in her hand. He was stroking her wig. Timberlake, Jackson et al passed through my table on their way to better prospects. None of them were very interesting or at all interested in me. Our conversations were dull, uninspiring and devoid of sparkle. Now I really wanted to go home. I looked around for Sam. She was with a red-faced Boy George and was laughing her head off and flinging her arms around. Sam was having fun, Sam was great; she’d make the best out of anyone. Maybe it was just me who was a miserable old cow. Maybe that’s why Jeff had left me. My Last Man. Oh god, it was him. Mick Jagger. My prospective Heathcliff. God knows why I was calling him that and hoping he’d be that way. I’d read that book; it was bloody awful. Still, I did hope his voice matched his pleasing appearance. Things could be looking up. He was tall. Really tall. He still looked tall sitting down. He was quite delectable, I decided, but I didn’t know if my opinion was a result of the other men being so terrible. I readjusted my cleavage. It was looking a bit uneven. It often does. The ‘v’ of my top had veered too far to one side and half a boob was exposed. I sorted myself and it didn’t go unnoticed. Mick gave a sexy half smile, his eyebrows raised in a seductive fashion. I blushed under my bronzer and my highlighter. Highlight your face, it makes you look younger, all the magazines said, but I may have overdone it tonight. I’d done nose, chin, cupid’s bow, below eyebrows and apples of the cheeks. I looked glowing and illuminated and like I’d been dabbed all over the face with a Pritt Stick. Concentrate, I thought. You’ve got his complete attention. Okay, let’s have it. What was his voice going to be like? ‘Hello,’ I said, in what I hoped was a highly alluring manner. ‘Hello,’ he said. I waited for him to say more. ‘What did you think of the staring round?’ he drawled. ‘Quite a good idea, I thought.’ Oh yes, bingo! Result. He was rumbling, husky, very northern and sexy as hell. Yum. ‘It was… intense.’ I said. Oh, he was quite delicious. Smouldering eyes, full sensuous lips, a knowing, teasing look in his eye. The night could definitely be looking up. ‘Yes. I had great success with it,’ he said, leaning forward and putting both elbows on the table. I moved my glass as he was in danger of knocking it to the ground, along with all of my senses. I was giving his sexy voice my full attention. I sat up straighter, squeezing my boobs together slightly with the sides of my arms. I didn’t care if one popped out a bit now – let it! ‘Did you?’ I matched him flirty tone to flirty tone. This was going well. ‘Yes. Four phone numbers and the promise of a blow job. Quite an impressive strike rate, even for me.’ My heart sank. My boobs subsided. Oh no. He was a pervy lothario. I should have known he was too good to be true. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I see.’ I dropped the flirt and went for world-weary. ‘So you’re here to gain more notches on your bedpost?’ ‘A few more can never hurt. I’ve got a way to go before it completely disintegrates.’ He chuckled, low and long. I was going off him more by the minute. ‘Would you like to partake?’ ‘Partake?’ ‘In my love. There’s plenty to go around.’ ‘In your love,’ I repeated, dumbfounded. ‘And I’m sure there is. Though I bet they’re queuing up.’ ‘They are. Care to join? You’ve got some curves I’d love to get a handle on.’ I hurriedly pulled my top up. I’d zip it up to my neck if I could. The damn cheek of him! It was outrageous. It was more outrageous that his sleazy tactics obviously worked. I had a feeling a lot of women were powerless to his dubious charms. Poor devils. ‘The queue? No thank you. I would like to decline your love, thanks all the same.’ He suddenly looked revolting in my eyes. Pathetic. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘You’re one of those. You’re looking for a deep and meaningful…’ ‘Relationship. No, not at all. And I’m certainly not looking for someone like you.’ ‘Too bad.’ Mr Sex-Mad-Speed-Dating-Perv was smirking at me, despite my rebuttal. ‘You have some serious curves for an older woman.’ ‘You’ve already said that. Repetition is incredibly boring. And you have some almighty nerve for an out-and-out creep.’ ‘Touché.’ Touché? That didn’t even make sense! ‘What?’ ‘Farewell.’ That did. ‘See you, wouldn’t want to be you,’ I said, childishly and stood up. Mick was my last man. That was it. I looked round for Sam as the final klaxon sounded and everyone scraped back chairs and rose to their feet. Some people couldn’t wait to get away from their last table partner; others stayed hovering and chatting away. A lot were a combination of both: one trying to edge away, the other trying to make them stay. I marched away from Mick, who was already casting his roving eye around for fresh prey, and stood at the edge of the room. I sighed. Sam was nowhere to be seen – had she pulled? I desperately, desperately wanted to go home and put on my dressing gown and my slipper socks and eat cake. I wouldn’t even care if Will caught me in the act. In fact, I could even invite him round for cake – I had that chocolate cheesecake in the freezer I could stick in the microwave. I bet he’d still be up. I could tell him all about tonight and how awful it was and we’d have a good old laugh about it, then we’d laugh together about that Save the Whale poster and how funny it was when he’d seen me coming back from the skip and… Ugh. I was being stupid. Will wouldn’t want to come round my house for cheesecake and a chat at this time of night! I shouldn’t even be thinking about it. He was my neighbour. Yes, it would be nice having a man to just have a normal conversation with again – no agenda, no game playing, no danger of getting hurt – and we could be casual friends, possibly, who would talk on the drive and help each other with neighbourly stuff and give each other a hand with the odd bit of decorating, but we wouldn’t be having cosy, late-night chats over cheesecake where we’d share confidences and laughter. The fact that he was just a nice man to have a normal conversation with should be enough to deter me. Why ruin that? Inviting a man round late at night was dangerous territory, and I was so not interested in getting into anything untoward with this man – it would be a total disaster and I was being a complete twit. I looked around for Sam again. Tonight had not gone well, had it? In fact, it had been bloody awful. My first foray back into the world of dating, after all these years, had been a giant disappointment. I was so not ready for all this. Chapter Seven (#ulink_2b123232-2953-50f0-bf93-73bc70642f7d) People shuffled on the dancefloor to Take That. Bruno Mars was swaying in the centre, his eyes closed. Ozzy had struck lucky, he had his arms round a giggling Ginger Spice, complete with Union Jack dress, and was singing in the poor woman’s ear. Elton was grappling with Britney. And there was Sam, jiggling like Olivia Newton-John at the end of Grease and swigging from a glass of something that must hold at least four hundred calories. It would be a manic burst of sit ups and a set of burpees before bed tonight for her, I knew, but I was happy she was enjoying herself. I smiled as I watched her; we could stay for a bit longer. And I was very happy that I wasn’t counting calories. Food was coming round now on trays carried by Jedward. I grabbed a duck wrap and dipped it into plum sauce; all this unsuccessful dating had made me ravenous. There was a bench up against the side of the room. I plonked myself on it, polished off the duck wrap and then eased my shoe off my right foot. ‘I’d put that away, if I were you. You never know if there are foot fetishists in tonight.’ I stuffed my foot back in my shoe, mortified. Of course I was wearing my customary ruby red nail varnish but my foot looked all pinched and a bit swollen. It was autumn, my feet were not supposed to be out on display. ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to give anyone any fodder,’ I said, looking up. ‘There’s probably all sorts in here.’ I found myself looking into a pair of very green eyes under a curtain of tousled, curly-ish blonde hair. There was a man sitting next to me – a smile on his face, a beer in his hand. My first thought was ‘young farmer’. My second was that he looked like a boy in a man’s body. He looked… cheeky. Like a kind of grown-up, very good looking version of the Milky Bar Kid. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/fiona-collins/cloudy-with-a-chance-of-love-the-unmissable-laugh-out-loud-r/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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