Authors: Jeanne Whitmee
Katie was late – as usual. No matter how hard she tried or how firm her intentions, something always seemed to get in the way of her being punctual. She’d really meant to be on time today too, so it was doubly annoying.
First, she hadn’t been able to find her one pair of earrings – mainly because she seldom wore them, but today was different; today she wanted to create a good impression. By the time she’d found them (for some weird reason at the back of the bread bin) she’d missed the bus, which led to missing the train to Wellmead and now here she was, twenty minutes late for the head’s welcoming speech, hot and perspiring, her red hair dishevelled even more than usual and her feet aching. A far cry from the cool and serene image she’d hoped to present.
Snatching a glass of plonk from a passing waitress, she gulped it thirstily and scanned the crush of people milling around in the hall of her old school, Simon Elmo Comprehensive. It hadn’t changed much in the twelve years since she’d last been here. It even smelt the same – an odd mixture of floor polish, damp gym kit and yesterday’s shepherd’s pie.
She’d been surprised to get an invitation to the reunion of her year. She still received the school’s annual newsletter but this was the first time it had featured a reunion for her old classmates. She’d accepted, mostly out of curiosity but now, glancing round at the sea of faces, her first impression was that there wasn’t a soul here she recognized. Somehow she’d expected them all to look exactly the same as they had back in 1996 but that was ages ago – fifteen years in fact, and of course people change. Had she? Did she look
different, she wondered. Looking at the same face in the mirror every morning it was impossible to tell.
! Hi! I was hoping you’d be here.’
She turned at the sound of a voice behind her, surprised to see her old school friend, Sophie Bamber. Katie would definitely have recognized her had she seen her first. Not because she hadn’t changed – of course she had after all these years – but Sophie stood out in any crowd and always had. She’d
rather than changed, Katie decided. She looked sophisticated in an inventive kind of way; her long dark hair hung loose over her shoulders and her make-up was dramatic, all kohl eye liner and lipstick in the shade of sherbet pink that would have made Katie look like a Victorian consumptive. Sophie’s outfit, that would have looked way over the top on anyone else, somehow looked exactly right on her. Katie put down her glass and hugged her.
‘Soph! You look fantastic!’
‘You look marvellous yourself – if a little stressed.’ Sophie took in the unruly red hair that never would stay in place and smiled to herself. Same old Katie. She grabbed herself a glass of wine and took a sip. ‘I can’t wait to hear what you’ve been up to all these years. It’s nothing short of criminal that we lost touch. That’s why I thought I’d organize this reunion.’
Katie stared at her. ‘
Sophie laughed. ‘Yes. You needn’t look so surprised.’
‘No – I’m not,’ Katie stammered. ‘It’s just that after all these years….’
‘I know. Someone should have done something about it years ago. The years fly past don’t they? Life gets in the way.’
‘I suppose it does. Anyway, I’m glad you did. It’s great to see you.’ Katie glanced at the elegant long skirt and beaded top Sophie was wearing and surreptitiously unbuttoned her jacket so that the missing button she’d meant to sew back on wouldn’t show. ‘Look at you, you’re so slim and elegant,’ she said. ‘You put me to shame. I don’t know how you do it, but then you always did look great, even in that ghastly school uniform. I put a pound on if I so much as
about a bar of chocolate. I suppose it must be all the sitting down.’
‘Ah, you work in an office?’ Sophie assumed.
Katie bit her lip. ‘Well no. I meant I don’t take enough exercise. But never mind me, what do
do? You stayed on after we’d left and got your A levels. Did you go to art school after that like you wanted to?’
Sophie nodded. ‘Art school and then a poly,’ she said. ‘Got a teaching diploma. I teach in a comp’ very similar to this but I do private commissions as well.’
‘Wow!’ Katie was duly impressed. ‘I always knew you’d do well.’ Her eyes raked the crowd of women filling the room, all chattering away like magpies. ‘Have you seen anyone else you know? Is Fran here?’
Sophie shook her head. ‘No – to both. Disappointing, I was only really interested in seeing you and Fran again anyway.’
‘Yes, me too. The three musketeers, remember? It would have been such fun reminiscing. What a shame she isn’t here.’
Sophie took her arm. ‘Come on, there’s a buffet over there and your glass is empty. You’re not driving, are you?’
‘Good, then come and get a refill and something to eat.’
The buffet consisted of some rather tired looking sausage rolls and several almost empty plates of curling sandwiches. Sophie pulled a face. ‘Looks like the others have been here before us.’
‘I was late,’ Katie said, helping herself from the depleted buffet. ‘For some strange reason I find it almost impossible to be on time for anything, no matter how hard I try.’
Sophie laughed. ‘No change there then.’
They found a table and sat down with their glasses and plates. Katie looked at Sophie’s left hand. ‘Oh, you’re married.’
Sophie nodded. ‘Yes, I’m Sophie Turner now.’ She grinned. ‘Great name for an artist, eh?’
Katie took a bite of her sandwich. ‘So – tell me all about him – Mr Turner. How long have you been married? What’s his name and have you got any children?’
‘He’s a commercial artist, an illustrator. We met at college. His name is Rex and we’ve been married six years.’ She took a sip of her wine. ‘And no, no kids.’ Sophie raised an enquiring eyebrow. ‘What about you?’
Katie shrugged. ‘I’m still waiting for that someone special to turn
up – if he actually exists, but I’m not all that bothered. I quite like being on my own.’
‘And what did you say you were doing?’
Katie hesitated. This was going to be difficult. She was well aware that the stories she used to make up at school had earned her the reputation of fantasist (a kinder word for liar) but those days were long gone. Surely she wouldn’t still be tarred with that particular brush. ‘Well, as a matter of fact I’m a fashion designer,’ she said.
Sophie took in Katie’s crumpled outfit and general air of dishevelment.
‘’Course you are.’ She laughed and patted her arm. ‘Good for you – same old Katie.’
Katie’s heart sank. The old label had stuck fast then.
Sophie put her plate with its discarded sandwich down and glanced round. ‘Look, it’s like the parrot house in here. I’ve said hello to everyone I wanted to, so why don’t we go and find ourselves a nice quiet little café somewhere?’ She held up her glass and pulled a face. ‘This stuff’s pretty vile, isn’t it? Overtones of paint stripper. I don’t know about you but I could murder a cup of tea.’
Katie grinned. ‘Me too. I slept in and I didn’t have time for any breakfast.’ As they walked out through the main entrance into the car park she took a deep breath. ‘Phew! Great to breath fresh air again. I’d forgotten that suffocating school whiff. It awakens some of the memories you’d rather forget.’ At that moment an open sports car drove in through the gates and both girls gasped. ‘Wow!’ Katie said. ‘Look at
! Someone from our year seems to have done well for herself. I wonder whose it is.’
‘It sure as hell puts my old banger in the shade,’ Sophie said. ‘She would have to park right next to it, wouldn’t she?’ She indicated the battered Ford Focus next to the shining newcomer. ‘I wish I’d put it through the car wash now,’ she added wryly.
The scarlet Mercedes coupé pulled smoothly into a vacant space and drew silently to a halt. The driver pulled off her headscarf revealing exquisitely cut and highlighted hair but as she took off her shades Katie heard Sophie draw in her breath sharply.
, I don’t believe it!’
Katie peered at the car’s driver, now opening the door and extending a shapely leg. ‘Why? Who is it?’
Sophie clutched her arm excitedly. ‘Don’t you recognize her? It’s
?’ Katie stared in amazement. The Frances Garner she remembered had been a quiet, rather mousy girl, small and thin for her age and, although cleverer than both herself and Sophie put together, always the last to speak up for herself. When out of school uniform she’d always worn drab jumpers and skirts in beiges and greys as though she was trying to merge into the background. If it hadn’t been for Sophie’s recognition Katie would never have known her.
They hurried across to greet Fran as she climbed out of the car and there were squeals of delight, hugs and exclamations all round.
Facing one another round the table in the Pickwick Tearoom on Wellmead’s High Street twenty minutes later, Katie looked at her two old school friends. Both of them had obviously done well. Both were married – apparently happily and, if Fran’s chic designer outfit was anything to go by she seemed to have landed squarely on her feet. She told them she had been married for nine years to a businessman whose secretary she had been. His name was Charles Grayson and he was quite a bit older than Fran by the sound of things. He owned and ran his own electronics business. She had an eight-year-old son called Harry, whose photograph she proudly showed them.
‘What a good looking boy,’ Sophie remarked. ‘So you’re a
-home mum now then?’
Fran nodded. ‘I am at the moment but Harry is off to boarding school next September. I’ll be at a loose end so I might go back to working with Charles again.’
‘If I had kids I’d never let them go to boarding school,’ Katie put in. ‘I’d want them round me all the time.’ The minute she’d said it she wanted to take it back. She was always putting her foot in it and Fran’s slight wince didn’t escape her notice. She forced a laugh and tried to backtrack. ‘But hey, what the hell do I know? Spinster of this parish and all that jazz.’
Sophie smiled. ‘We all idealise motherhood till we have kids of
our own,’ she said. ‘I’m no different. But I imagine there comes a time when you want to move on and do your own thing again. And I bet Harry can’t wait to go to his new school.’
‘Probably,’ Fran said wistfully. She looked up. ‘What about you, Katie – how has life treated you?’
Sophie cut in before Katie had time to speak. ‘Our Katie is a fashion designer, no less,’ she said with a smile.
Fran’s eyebrows rose. ‘Well, well. Good for you, kid. You were always good with a needle, weren’t you?’ She looked at Sophie. ‘As for
… it was always a foregone conclusion that you’d take up art if you could. I’ve never seen a more typical artist. I bet you’re married to one too.’
Sophie nodded. ‘Rex is an illustrator. We met at college. I teach art at the local comp’ but I take private commissions too. At the moment we’re up to our necks renovating a Georgian house – doing most of the work ourselves.’
‘Yourselves? Wow!’ Fran pulled a face. ‘Brave of you.’ She helped herself to another scone. ‘So – no family?’
Sophie shook her head. ‘Haven’t had time for that yet.’ She took a sip of her tea. ‘But who knows? Maybe one day.’
‘What was the head’s speech like, by the way?’ Fran asked. ‘It’s not still Miss Bowler, is it?’
Sophie laughed. ‘Good God no! Hattie must be at least a hundred and ten by now. It’s a Mrs Kirsty Aitken now. She’s new – a trendy Scotswoman from Edinburgh, a dead ringer for Miss Jean Brody. About forty I’d guess. I got to know her over the phone while I was organizing the reunion. I only caught the end of her speech but she clearly has ambitious plans to stir up the old place.’
‘Not before time!’ Katie chipped in. ‘Unfortunately, I slept in – missed my train and arrived too late to hear any of it.’
Both the other girls laughed. ‘Same old Katie!’ It was the second time Katie had heard that remark today and she winced inwardly. Had she really always been seen as hopelessly pathetic? Sophie laid a kindly hand on her arm. ‘But we wouldn’t have you any different, would we, Fran?’
Fran shook her head. ‘Many’s the time you cheered us up with one of your outrageous stories. It’s so reassuring to know that you haven’t changed.’
‘And you still live locally, Fran?’ Sophie enquired.
‘Yes. Well, a little way out. We live in Melford. When we married, Charles bought the Manor House and we had it restored. It took two years and a lot of angst, so I sympathise with your project. I can’t imagine what it must be like doing the work yourself. It was bad enough supervising the professionals. I have to say it was worth it in the end. We have almost two acres of ground, half an acre of lovely old English garden and an acre and a half of wildlife garden. We have foxes and badgers and all kinds of birds. You must both come and see it.’ She frowned. ‘Where do both of you live?’
‘I’m in London,’ Katie told her. ‘I keep meaning to get a car but driving in London’s a pain and the train only takes an hour.’
‘And I’m only about an hour’s drive away, on the outskirts of Leicester,’ Sophie put in.
‘Oh well, neither of you is too far away,’ Fran smiled suddenly. ‘Oh, it’s
lovely to be together again. Why on earth did we lose touch? Now that we’ve got together again we must make sure we don’t let things slip.’ She looked at the other two. ‘I know life must have changed for us a bit. It’d be strange if it hadn’t after all these years, but basically we’re just the same. Do you remember when…?’
There followed half an hour of reminiscences and gales of laughter as they reverted to their schooldays until Katie looked at her watch and realized that it was almost time for her train.
‘I should be going too,’ Sophie said regretfully, gathering her belongings together.
‘I’ll give you both a lift,’ Fran said. ‘And on the way we’ll exchange addresses and phone numbers. Being together again has been wonderful!’
As Fran’s car was only a two seater the girls had gone into town in Sophie’s Focus and in the end it was she who dropped Katie off at the station. Katie stole a look at Sophie as they drove and thought that her old school friend looked slightly pensive.