Dancing to a New Beat 19

The drive back was just as long, obviously, but it was extended by our Tesco run, and there was a new cat toy I just had to buy, but yes, the Sutton stocks of bacon and sausages were given a major boost. Most of it would end up in the chest freezer, of course, but as long as Mam gave us a little notice we would be properly prepared this time.

It is an odd thing, catering for your own parents. You feel the bar is set at a very high level and no matter how well you prepare, in your heart of hearts you just know that failure is inevitable. My parents would never say so, and objectively I realise they wouldn’t actually think it, but paranoia is a given when your mother sits at your own dining table.

I kept the evening meal simple, grilling some lamb chops and serving them with some new potatoes, peas and halved tomatoes cooked beside the chops. I had spotted two other things in the supermarket, and they were a real find: trays with a built-in cushion underneath. We sat on the settee, meals on our laps, and left a certain feline in the garden for the duration. He would get any leftovers, but the way Blake cleared his Blake their existence was doubtful. Replete, I sat back as my husband let the huffy little carnivore back in, and I could read Fritz’ mind all too easily: where was MINE? In the end, after a fruitless search of the room for any escaped lamb, he gave up and settled on my lap to purr and dribble as we watched the news, most definitely more in hope than expectation. Nothing new, in any way.

“You know, love, I could always drive you over there”

It was tempting, and he knew it, but I had to say no.

“Said it before, haven’t I? She’s getting herself all sorted out with a good bloke, and a sort of ex-girlfriend turns up. How to fit that one into a box? Especially with her family the way they are. They wouldn’t be thrilled, would they?”

2Offer’s still there”

“I know, love, and I appreciate it. You back in tomorrow?”

“Yeah. Someone upstairs had a brainwave for some work, so it will be a long day. They have a commercial burglary gang in Bristol, and he wants their time banged up cross-reffed to incidences of industrial burglaries”


“Big money stuff, love. They’ve got someone in Bristol who really doesn’t like the lot they’ve got banged away and is looking to show how it all ramps up when they aren’t inside. Means it’s all indoors shit, no trips to crime scenes, no witnesses, nothing. Most definitely bloody ‘review’ work!”

“Well, stop by Gemma’s place, then. Just remember I want some as well”

“Want to pop round and see the girls tomorrow?”

“Why not? I’ll give Deb a ring some time, and let you know if they’re OK with that”

I couldn’t hold back a sudden urge to laugh out loud.

“And don’t tease Gem about rugby players!”

He was away early the next day, and it was a wrench, as always. I had well and truly passed beyond Evans’ shadow, it seemed, and Blake’s presence beside me was no longer a shelter but a joy, pure and simple. My parents had described him as ‘on of the good ones’, but in all senses now he was MY good one, and I almost resented my little passenger for my enforced absence from the office and my man’s presence there.

I caressed my bump. Almost, but not really. I remembered Elaine and Siân’s description of their Greek holidays, and took a few minutes to run a little internet search on villa holidays. That led me to the photo files, and I spent a much longer time looking at the ones from our family stay in Venice.

I ended up with Fritz on my lap, hot chocolate beside me, and time evaporating as I reminisced and looked at smiling faces and glittering waves. What to do? I was tempted by the Powells’ offer, but the memories of Cavallino were so good, and there were my parents to consider, and, and.

The realisation was there, though, that I had time. I was still young, all of us were healthy, and I now had a life ahead of me rather than a history dragging me back. In the end, I made my decision. Holiday in Greece with new child, and then, as they grew, the waterparks near Venice and a return to that terrace where Blake had done…

It was stupid, I knew, and it was hormones and pregnancy, but I had to cry, and then Fritz needed moving so I could have a wee, but even through the tears I knew I was still smiling. Once my face was clean again, I rang Deb.

“Hi, Diane. I was going to ring you. Timing is everything. We are all out tonight for a meal. You up for that?”

“Occasion, Deb?”

“Oh, yes, but more than one. Not the sort of do for the house. We have a room booked at Angelo’s just off Queen Street. You two up for that?”

“We should be, but what occasion, woman?”

She laughed. “No need for flowers or anything like that, Di. Just be there. OK? About seven?”

“Ah, I’ll drive then. I’m off liquids for a while, and that’ll let him indoors have a couple. I’ll let him know. See you later”

I rattled around the house that day, doing a little housework, some light laundry, and other essentials such as introducing Fritz to his new toy, which was a device with an off-centre weight inside driven by an electric motor. It had a long tassel on the top, and as it wobbled around the kitchen floor, he looked first at the device, then at me, and his expression said so clearly and disdainfully “And how old do you think I am, woman?”

Bollocks. I left it running, and turned to do the dishes, and naturally, as soon as my back was turned, he pounced on the thing and started chasing it round the floor.

Bloody cats.

Blake was back on time, and as I had given him a heads-up e-mail he was quickly changed into less formal clothing and occupying the passenger seat of my little car, said seat pushed so far back to accommodate him I was glad we had no passengers to squeeze in. I parked behind the Millennium stadium, and we walked hand-in-hand along the street opposite the wall with all the odd animal statues on it, and I noticed more than a few people, mostly older women, smile fondly at seeing us, bump to the fore and hands linked. Most definitely a future, woman.

Angelo’s had a whole room set aside for us, tables set in a square, and as Blake got outside of a pint of Peroni I consoled myself with a huge glass of lime and soda. Most of the girls were there, and as I did the rounds, I realised that those I thought of as the central characters were missing. I asked Deb, but she just smiled and said they were on their way. Ten minutes after we had taken our places, Tiff and Charlie appeared, grinning happily and hugging me carefully, and then Gemma, smiling just as broadly, and clinging possessively to the hand of her rugby player.

There were still empty places, and two of them were filled a few minutes later by the Sedakas and the two women Paula was calling Nell and Jazz, who looked a little lost but were swiftly put at ease by the girls sat next to them. There was indeed something going on, and to my astonishment the last four places were taken by Peter and Ben Nicol-Clements, and a slightly embarrassed-looking Jon and Rhys, the latter catching my eye and shrugging.

The drinks orders were taken and filled, and Deb rose, tapping a glass with a fork in the well-worn signal that people should shut their mouths and listen.

“Hiya all of you! Tonight is a bit of a celebration, and I am glad I was lucky enough to get the last two I needed to make this evening complete. So, sod introductions, but a couple have to be made. Benny here is an old friend from my childhood…”

I noticed Kimberley look up sharply at that, but Deb simply flowed on.

“His husband, there, is Peter. We were out of touch for some years, but thanks to the two couples there—Di and Blake, and Jon and Rhys---we are back in touch and, as is the way of things, finding out all sorts of things to share.

“So, why are we here? Lots of reasons, but all good, all things to bring a smile. So, first: Charlie and Tiff. Congratulations are due on two fronts, the first being their A-level results, which are excellent. Charlie and Tiff!”

Glasses raised, applause given, and then Deb’s hand up again.

“The second thing is just as important. You all know why I run the house, and you all know that it is a place of refuge. That doesn’t mean it is a final place to hide, and so once again, we say so long, but not goodbye, to a couple of girls who have made their life their own. Kim?”

The older girl stood up, smiling at Deb.

“I suppose I am one of the lucky ones here, one of the first Deb ever took in, and without her, I have no idea where I would be. Well, actually, I have some very clear ideas of where, but that didn’t happen, and Deb is why. Charlie and Tiffany here are two more. They have moved out, found their own flat, and left room for other strays to be helped. Congrats, you two. Life starts now, starts properly. So let’s drink to two girls who are showing others the way! Charlie and Tiff, once again!”

Kim sat down, and Deb indicated Paula, who was patted on the shoulder by her two friends as she rose.

“Hi from me. I feel a little odd standing here like this. You all know where I was, apart from the two gents over there, so I suppose I should spell it out. Peter, Ben, I was on the game, after… events in my childhood. Many of the people here were also victims. Those four Deb mentioned, they dug me out of that, and Nell and Jazz here, well, I have had some really shitty times with things like getting straight, withdrawal, stuff. Always there, those two, always at the end of the phone when I needed them. Sisters, that’s what they have been to me. Anyway, part three of this celebration is my book. Written, published, serialised in the Grauniad. I am an author, now, a woman with a story to tell, not just a whore and a smackhead. Four coppers who supported me, who listened, who never condemned, and two sisters to help me through the dark places.

“There’s one more, though, and he is sat beside me. I don’t know how many times he nicked me, how many times he took me off the streets, but never with a sneer. I suspect he saw something in me, and in the end what he offered me was protection. I was asking myself the other day if Paul and Deb there were separated at birth!”

She was smiling as others laughed, and Paul was smiling up at her, and then she lifted her left hand.

“Sod it, there you are. Yup! He asked, and I said yes. I am finding it difficult, I will admit that freely, as I have a lot of issues about intimacy that will never go away, but sod it. Carpe diem and all that! We will set a date when his bosses are clear about all the propriety shit, but he asked, and I said yes, and that is all we need”

Deb called for the toast, and I realised I was weeping as freely as Tiff. As freely as Benny was, in fact. That was when Rhys stood up, looking across at me and winking.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, all that stuff, so I will keep this bit short. Thanks to all round this table, so on and so on, and especially to the fat woman—sorry, Di! Thanks to that wonderful and caring pair Di and Blake and yeah, me and Jon here. I asked, he said yes, and that’s my news. Our news”

Blake patted my knee.

“Shut your gob, love. You look like you’re catching flies”

I looked across at him.

“You knew, didn’t you?”

He grinned. “They told the whole team three days ago. Your fault for getting up the duff”

“Bastard! You were rather involved as well!”

“Oh, shut up and eat, wife!”

So I did, and the evening got steadily better as the meal was finished and people settled into little knots of conversation, congratulations and human warmth. That concept was shining in my thoughts all evening, the idea of a future rather than a past. Paula could never, ever be ‘just another woman’, but she was now becoming her own rather than anyone’s.

I drove a slightly wobbly husband back home, my heart singing, and as we ate our breakfast the next day, Blake already suited and booted for work, the TV news showed the doors being put in in Sussex, Newcastle and Belfast. I wrapped up all the positive thoughts from the day before and sent them off to Annie. That was serious shit going on.

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