Chapter one: ‘The best days of your life’ cont.
There was a knock at the outer office door. ‘Hi, come in,’ called James without looking. Emma glanced at the clock on the wall. Stopped. Brilliant. Her computer read 6p.m. She craned her neck around to see who was outside. John, the caretaker popped his head around the door, ‘Alright there Emma,’ he said, with a friendly smile, ‘five minutes ok?’ She nodded in reply and quickly hit save.
‘Yeah, no problem John. Give me a sec to sort myself out. Been busy today?’
John shook his head and propped himself up against the doorframe for a chat. He took off his wire-rimmed glasses and polished them on the un-tucked tail of his plaid work shirt. ‘Not too bad. Mainly clear up after the fire drill.’
James snorted and pulled his coat on. The school’s regular termly fire drill had gone off without a hitch, well, unless you counted the mess left in the home economics kitchens. Year nine had been right in the middle of a lesson on how to make plum crumble when the bells rang. Unfortunately by the time the class got back to the kitchens, their puddings had turned into hard, caramelised lumps in the oven, which John and the teacher, Mrs. Jones had to chisel off the industrial sized baking trays. Julia Jones had slammed into the staffroom swearing about the inconsiderate nature of the management. After a cup of sweet tea she had calmed down although she did throw a placemat at Dave Bartholomew, the History teacher for pointing out that she could just have turned the ovens off before they all left the room.
‘If you ask me, Julia’s one beer short of a six-pack,’ said James turning off his computer and looking around the office for his umbrella. ‘Seriously, she’s losing it. Darren Braithwaite told me she punished his whole class for making sandwiches in the wrong order.’
John guffawed and Emma giggled in spite of herself. James clicked off the lights as Emma finished packing her own marking and folders. Slinging the heavy bags over her shoulder, she grabbed her phone and car keys and locked the office. John turned off the staffroom lights and his walkie-talkie crackled: ‘John mate? You there?’
The caretaker ushered Emma and James out of the staffroom and towards the stairs. ‘So, you definitely don’t want to meet at the pub later?’ James asked, giving Emma the half smile which she knew was the subject of many conversations between the sixth form girls about which teacher was the ‘fittest’. ‘No, I’ll pass this time. You know, stuff to do. But I’ll definitely come along…’
‘Next time,’ he finished for her. ‘I know. But Em, seriously, don’t isolate yourself. How long have you been single now? There are other people out there,’ he trailed off as they reached the bottom of the stairs and waited for John to let them out of the building. They could hear him on the walkie-talkie as he checked the boy’s toilets for any stragglers.
‘Yes Bob, what is it?’
‘Check the teacher’s car park will you mate, there’s been a report of someone hanging around out there.’
‘OK, will do Bob.’ John slipped the radio back into his trouser pocket and walked towards Emma and James.
Emma stood awkwardly juggling the weight of her bags. ‘I know James,’ she said quietly, looking at the ground, ‘but doing things by myself is more important to me now.’ She felt rather than heard him sigh.
John reached them and pressed the button to release the doors. ‘Bye then,’ James said abruptly and headed out of the double doors towards the bike racks. He always cycled to work in order to ‘reduce his carbon emissions’. Emma knew it wasn’t easy for him living with his parents to save money, saddled as he was with huge student loans. She watched him walking away for a moment.
‘I’d better just see you out,’ John said to Emma breaking her reverie. She smiled at him and asked after his grandchildren. They had just got onto the third story about little Ben and Alfie when they reached the car park. It was a large open space, bordered by the lower school playground on the right and sport fields at the rear. Emma blinked in the low light; it seemed gloomy following the glare of school fluorescents. Her car, a compact Renault Clio sat immobile in the middle of the empty parking spaces. John moved away from her, walking towards the gate on the left. Despite the remaining warmth of the day, Emma shivered slightly and pulled her fleece around her body, zipping it up in one quick motion. She walked rapidly towards her car, gripping her keys for comfort. The door was slightly rusty and it protested as she pulled it open to sling her bags on the passenger seat. Emma slipped gratefully into the snug interior and turning her key, she revved the engine and waited for John to come back over.
Emma wound down the window, John leaned in. ‘Doesn’t seem to be any issues. The gate’s secure and I can’t see anyone down here.’ He stood upright and patted the top of the car. ‘See you tomorrow then!’
Emma thanked him and wound her window back up. She switched the radio on and humming along to the Beach Boys, she drove out of the school gates.
Twenty-five minutes later and Emma was steadily swimming lengths at the local pool. As her head broke the water she glanced up at the clock, squinting to see the time. Water distorted her goggles; the clock was a rainy blur. ‘I’m telling you, Uniform Dating, it’s the way to go!’ Emma’s best friend Maggie said, recovering her breath after swallowing some pool water. ‘They already know that I’m a nurse, so there’s none of that ‘why d’you always have to work funny shifts’ business, they expect it. I’ve had three date requests for this weekend already.’ Emma carried on with her patient breaststroke, while Maggie clung onto the side. Reaching the end of the pool she turned under water and made her way back up the lane. ‘I mean, what’s the harm in putting yourself out there to meet people,’ Maggie wheedled, casting a sly glance at her friend as she drew level again.
‘I’m fine, honestly,’ Emma said gritting her teeth and carrying on towards the deep end, Maggie easily keeping pace alongside her. Maggie was the first friend that Emma made outside work since moving to Colchester. She had met her at the leisure centre. They had arrived after work on Friday for three weeks at exactly the same time and said nothing to one another until Maggie needed a pound for the lockers. And that, as Maggie would say, was that. Kismet. Maggie had somehow got the idea that Emma was lonely and that it was her job to sort her out with a man as soon as possible. As far as Emma was concerned, she already had her mum and two sisters on the case, she really didn’t need her friend wading in there too.
They carried on swimming, the chlorine stung Emma’s eyes, washing in under her prescription goggles. Twenty-two lengths. They paused at the deep end, treading water. Maggie tried another tactic, ‘Ok, if you don’t want to use a dating website, why not see if anyone has an available friend?’
Emma snorted and ducked her head under the water, blocking out her friend’s good intentions. Right, blind dates, because they always work out so very well. She thought to herself, opening her eyes to see their legs waving underneath them. She spied a small dark object at the bottom, probably a hair band. Emma resurfaced. Maggie was still going, ‘I mean I know that we’ve got to the age where everyone seems to be pairing up, but there must still be some attractive single men out there.’ Emma pulled off her goggles, rinsing them in the water to get rid of the condensation. ‘Mags, seriously, you need to calm down about this. We’re in our late 20s, not 40s. After all, we’ve both got careers, I’d rather just sort myself out and try to get something published before you marry me off.’
Maggie propped herself on the side of the pool and unclipped her long, dark hair. It sank into the water and spread out around her. With her pale skin and chestnut curls, she looked just like a Pre-Raphaelite water nymph. ‘I suppose that I just want everything right now,’ Maggie said, ‘I look at our friends and they’re settling down and getting married. It just seems that we’re not keeping up somehow.’ She gave Emma a sad little smile.
‘Oh! Ok, Ok. If it will make you happy I’ll take a look at that website.’ Emma said finally giving in. Her friend beamed and quickly clipped up her hair again. ‘What about that guy you work with, James isn’t it? He seems lovely,’ Maggie said, leaning back against the wall and kicking her legs in the water.
‘James? No, he’s…he’s a colleague. Someone I talk about literature with and moan about students misbehaving. I don’t think about him like that at all. Not romantically,’ Emma replied, creasing her forehead. But Maggie was right, James was good looking and available, maybe she was angling for a proper introduction?
Emma looked at her friend and realised that Maggie was scrutinising her closely. For some reason this really unnerved her. It looked like Maggie was preparing to do some matchmaking. Time to distract her with cake!
‘Look,’ said Emma, ‘why don’t we finish off early and go to JavaJoe’s? I’m pretty much done in anyway.’
‘Done and done,’ replied Maggie, ‘now follow me towards that fit looking lifeguard!’ She disappeared under the water and shot off towards the other end of the pool. Emma peered through her goggles at the lifeguard, a tall, muscular blonde guy who looked about twenty. He caught her eye and grinned. Emma blushed scarlet and her heart beat faster. She ducked under the surface and followed Maggie, hoping that the water would cool her burning cheeks.
This is the next part of ‘Writing my way to romance’ – for the opening section, please see ‘Writing my way to romance – part 1’.
Image from Wikipedia.