Genre: FICTION: Children/YA
Author: Sue Hampton
James woke without the usual help. No shouts from downstairs, no knock on the door and no complaints or threats. He breathed out hard, as if the night had been an effort. But in fact he’d crashed out and slept through in one long stretch. Effort didn’t cover an evening with Eleanor Langridge, one-to-one. It was his first date, and he’d needed to blank it. As far as Eleanor was concerned, it was definitely the last.
At eight twenty-nine, outside the restaurant, came the first missed kiss. Standing aside for Eleanor to walk in ahead, James noticed her hesitation. With a clientele as young as the waiters and music to fit, he’d thought the place was safe. The last tomato-stained high chair was being wiped and folded up as families made way for groups of student-age friends, and couples who seemed casual, established, easy. But from the start, his evening was full of empty pauses, pricked now and then by jagged conversation.
“I don’t normally go to pizza places,” she said, to the cutlery.
James let his eyebrows do the talking. It was a trick that amused his sister Faith, but Eleanor didn’t seem to notice. Mainly because she was preoccupied with the fork, angling it like a diamond – found in a cesspit.
“It’s dirty,” she said.
“My English grandparents had a dog that ate mess from the ground,” he said. “It didn’t come to any harm – well, until it died.”
“Is that a joke?”
“The dog isn’t laughing.”
James felt bad then, because he’d been fond of Benji. But Eleanor didn’t spare any sympathy. She was putting on her glasses and inspecting the menu as if it was covered in stains and someone should take samples to a lab. Eleanor wanted to do sciences for A Level, and be a pathologist.
James remembered Olly saying Eleanor should be on a Spec Savers ad, looking clever and classy.
“I’ll have a salad,” she said. “No dressing.”
The up and down look she gave him suggested that he might have taken dressing a bit more seriously himself. Eleanor couldn’t have looked much more stylish if she was meeting an aristocrat for cocktails at the Savoy. In fact…
“My dad says you should be on standby tomorrow,” he told her, but as she lifted her head and removed her glasses he knew it was a mistake.
She squinted briefly. Now James felt like a stain himself.
“Sorry?” she asked.
James lost confidence in everything – including the other kind of date. Was it tomorrow? What was the bride’s name?
“At the Royal Wedding?” he tried. “In case she doesn’t turn up...” He looked down at the menu himself, even though he always chose the same: dough balls with mozzarella, followed by a marguerita and the cheesecake to finish. “He meant it as a compliment.”
Eleanor fixed him hard. He felt like a cucumber slice being speared.
“I’m not twenty-nine,” she pointed out. “And my mother wasn’t an air hostess.”
James noticed that she didn’t deny her father’s million (or two).
She hardly agreed with anything all evening. And James was used to that, with Faith, but Faith grinned while she retorted or contradicted, and cushions got thrown and dodged. The insults muttered or lobbed were crazily inventive. It was different with Eleanor, who didn’t seem amused, or even measurably annoyed. She spent more time looking at her shoes than her date.
Eleanor had the strange good looks of another life form with super-human style. But James decided she was flatter than the pizza he planned to enjoy – while her glare tried to make it decompose. He nearly asked her whether she had a little sterile bag on her, and offered her a corner to take away for analysis. Would his saliva be a bonus?
Eight thirty-nine. That was when James gave up on any kiss at all...