Kate Hetherington sighed and put down her drink dramatically.
“I just think there has to be a better way,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “You’d think they’d have developed some sort of radar by now.”
Her friend Sal frowned. “Radar?”
“To find the perfect man. So you don’t have to endure things like speed dating. Honestly, Sal, it was the worst night of my life. I hated every minute of it. I hated every man in there. And at the end, I still came out disappointed that I only got one number. I mean, it’s wrong on so many levels, I don’t even know where to start.”
Sal shrugged. “I bet it wasn’t that bad. I think it sounds like fun, actually.”
Kate looked at her friend levelly. “That’s because you’re happily married so you know you’ll never have to go. Things like speed dating always sound like fun in principle—it’s the reality that’s so excruciating.”
“So why did you go, then?”
“Because you made me.”
“I didn’t make you! I just said you should give it a go, that’s all.”
Kate sighed. “I know. I think a little voice inside me really thought it might work, too. I mean, I thought I might . . . meet someone’s eyes and just know. . . .”
“But it didn’t work out that way?”
“No,” Kate said despondently. “And the truth is, I’m kind of running out of options here. I’m going to be thirty soon, and I don’t see any knights on white steeds turning up to whisk me away, do you?”
Sal shook her head. “Does the steed have to be white?” she asked, a little smile playing on her lips.
Kate grinned. “I’m willing to stretch to cream,” she conceded. “If the knight is good-looking enough.”
“Ah, here you are. Sorry I’m late. So, how are we all?”
Kate and Sal turned round and saw their friend Tom approaching. “Dreadful, thanks,” Kate said lugubriously. “How’re you?”
Tom grimaced. “In need of a drink. Can I get either of you a refill?”
Kate handed him her glass, requesting a vodka tonic, and Sal shook her head. As he disappeared off toward the bar, she frowned. “And you’re sure there wasn’t a single eligible man there? Not even one?”
“Not even one,” Kate assured her. “They were all either creepy, letchy, or just plain weird.” Sal looked at her dubiously, and Kate’s hackles rose. “What?” she demanded. “Don’t you believe me?”
Sal widened her eyes. “I didn’t say a thing!”
“No, but you looked at me like you wanted to. You think I would have missed some gorgeous guy just waiting to sweep me off my feet?”
Sal hesitated, then blurted, “I just think that maybe your aspirations are too high. I mean, all you talk about is sweeping and knights and stuff. Instead of nice-looking, or amenable. I’m just not sure you’re looking for the right . . . qualities.”
Sal put her drink down. “This is the real world, Kate, that’s all. Richard Gere isn’t going to turn up in a convertible car to whisk you off into the sunset.”
“I don’t want Richard Gere to turn up,” Kate snapped. “I just want . . .”
Sal raised her eyebrows expectantly.
“Fine,” Kate said with a sigh. “I admit it. My aspirations are high. I want fireworks, and I want magic. What’s wrong with that? I can’t help it if I’d rather chew my own feet off than endure a night of speed dating again.”
“Speed dating?” Tom asked, arriving with the drinks. “So you went, did you?”
Kate nodded. “Tried it, hated it, never doing it again.” Avoiding Sal’s eyes, she took her drink from Tom and shuffled her chair around to make room for him.
They were sitting in the Bush Bar and Grill, a bar-cum-restaurant that was five minutes’ walk from each of their homes and which hosted their weekly Sunday night drinks date. The three of them lived streets away from one another in the area of London that sat
between Shepherd’s Bush, West Kensington, and Hammersmith. Which particular section they chose to tell people they lived in depended on whether they were at a job interview, trying to impress someone, or hoping not to get mugged. Sal and her husband Ed lived on a road that was officially in West Kensington; Kate’s zip code said W6, which meant Hammersmith, but she was really closer to Shepherd’s Bush. And Tom lived on the Golborne Road, a stone’s throw from the Bush Bar and Grill, and two minutes’ walking distance from both of the women.
“So it was as ghastly as it sounded?” Tom said dryly.
“Worse,” Kate said. “I had to meet twenty people for five minutes, which isn’t long, is it?” She gave Tom a hopeful look, and he nodded firmly. “But I still ran out of things to say,” she said. “I mean, they asked such stupid stuff. Like if I was an animal, which one would I be and why. What sort of a question is that?”
Tom frowned. “What animal did you say you’d be?” he asked with interest.
“I started off with a dolphin, and then someone made a joke about sperm whales and I lost the will to live. After that, I was a crocodile twice, a rottweiler, and a meerkat.” She smirked a little.
“Well, no wonder you didn’t meet anyone nice,” Sal complained. “They probably thought you were a total Froot Loop.”
“But a very sweet Froot Loop,” Tom said affectionately.
“I could set you up with one of Ed’s friends, if you want,” Sal interjected. “I think I can safely guarantee that none of them would ask you any animal-related questions at all.”
“Thanks, Sal,” Kate said with a shrug. “But I’m not sure I’d have much in common with many of Ed’s friends. . . .”
Sal frowned. “Because you think financiers are all pinstripe shirt– wearing bores?” she asked crossly.
“No!” Kate said. “Not at all. But come on, you and Ed are so . . . grown-up.”
“Ed’s only thirty-five,” Sal said defensively. “It’s not so old. And I’m no older than you.”
“I didn’t say ‘old.’ Grown-up is different.”
“How?” Sal asked, her eyes narrowing.
Tom grinned. “Sal, darling, don’t play the innocent with us. We both know that when you’re at home, you and Ed talk about stocks and shares and the impact of the Budget on your pensions. Whereas I doubt Kate here even has a pension. Do you, Kate?”
Kate shifted uncomfortably in her chair. “I’m going to. You know, at some point.”
“Kate!” Sal said, shocked. “You don’t have a pension? That’s so . . . irresponsible.”
“I rest my case.” Kate sighed. “None of Ed’s friends would be interested in me because I don’t have a stock portfolio. I don’t even know how I’d go about getting one. And the truth is, I don’t even care. So either I have to give up completely, or accept that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my days at nasty speed-dating events at which hideous pigs leer and stare at my breasts all night. Bloody marvelous.”
“Seriously?” Tom asked. “They stared at your breasts?”
Kate hit him. Her lack of cleavage was a running gag with Sal and Tom. Had been since high school when she’d been the last girl in their whole class to need a bra. “One guy stared at them for the full five minutes, actually. And then he gave me his card and said he’d love to see me again! Can you believe it? Steve, his name was. I kept his card as a reminder of everything I’m not looking for in a man.”
“Nothing wrong with staring at breasts,” Tom said, grinning. “I think they’re a great indicator of marriage potential, as it happens.”
Sal rolled her eyes. “Tom, you are incorrigible. And I don’t know why you’re so laid-back about the whole thing, either. When’s the last time you had a serious girlfriend?”
“I pride myself on steering clear of seriousness in the girlfriend department,” Tom replied with dignity. “I have enough seriousness at work, thanks.”
“Being a surgeon doesn’t preclude you from falling in love,” Sal continued. “Don’t you ever meet anyone you actually like?”
Tom blanched. “Like is an odd word, don’t you think?” He looked down at his empty glass. “I like lots of things. Doesn’t mean I want to move in with them, does it? Doesn’t mean I want to sign my life away.”
Kate pounced on the opening. To Sal, she said, “See? You say I’m hopeless, but I’m not as hopeless as Tom.”
“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong,” Tom said quickly. “You are the epitome of a hopeless romantic. Hopeless, ironically, because you do hope that the fairytale love story will come true for you. I, on the other hand, am comfortable with the fact that it doesn’t. Therefore, I, unlike you, am never going to be disappointed.”
“You think I’m going to be disappointed?”
Tom raised his eyebrows. “Kate, for a man to live up to your expectations, he would have to be six-foot-four, strapping but sensitive, intelligent but always willing to accept your point of view, continually sweeping you off your feet and basically dedicating his life to you. For a woman to live up to mine, she would need to be . . . well, female. And perhaps not a complete dog.”
Kate scowled. “I am not a hopeless romantic. That’s rubbish.”
“You’re not?” Tom said with an ill-concealed grin. “Do you remember how many universities you had on your shortlist?”
She looked at him curiously. “Two,” she said. “No, three.”
“You may have had three in the end, but only because you were forced into it. Don’t you remember? You were madly in love with that guy in the year above us, Paul James. And you insisted that you had to go to Bristol because that’s where he was going, and the two of you were meant to be together.”
“So?” Kate knew where this was going. “I liked Bristol. It was a great university.”
“Yes, but you split up with Paul at the beginning of the summer holidays! You made a major decision about your life based on some romantic notion that you were meant to be with some spotty teenager, and it could have been a disaster.”
“But it wasn’t, was it?” Kate said hotly. “And at least I’m open to love. At least I’m open to commitment and marriage and living happily ever after. You’ve become way too cynical, Tom.”
“Maybe. But if I have, then I’m pleased,” Tom said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Anyway, it’s not as if anyone has ever expressed any interest in marrying me. I mean, would either of you take someone like me on?”
His eyes met Kate’s for a moment, and she frowned. “God, no,” she said quickly. “Can’t think of anything worse.”
Sal sighed. “Me either,” she relented, prompting Tom to pull a face of disappointment. “Fine. Well, you both enjoy your lonely existences, and drop in on me and my boring husband from time to time, won’t you?”
Kate leant over and squeezed Sal’s arm. “Sal, you were always ahead of the game. You had your university offers before we’d even got round to applying. You had a job before either of us had got over our end-of-university hangovers. We’ll get there eventually. At least, I hope we do.”
Sal smiled. “Fine, you’re right. But I still think you should let me set you up,” she said with another sigh.
Kate shook her head. “Thanks, but no. I’ll meet my Mr. Right eventually,” she said, shooting Tom a meaningful look. “At least I hope I will.”
“So you’re just going to wait around for Mr. Right to show up?” Sal asked. “What if he doesn’t? I mean, isn’t it a bit . . . risky?”
“Isn’t it more risky ending up with the wrong guy because you were too scared to wait around for Mr. Right?” Kate asked defensively.
Sal frowned and Kate immediately backtracked. “I didn’t mean you. God, I just meant, you know, that I want to be sure. . . .”
“Okay,” Sal said. “Well, lovely as this has been, I think it’s time to call it a night. Ed will be back from his stupid client golf weekend any minute and it would be nice to see my husband for an hour this weekend before it’s time for bed.”
Kate nodded. “Yeah, I guess it’s getting late.”
“This is a sign that we’re getting old, you realize,” Tom said as they pulled on their coats. “A few years ago, ten p.m. still felt early.”
“Not on a Sunday, Tom,” Sal said matter-of-factly. “If you’re not careful, you’re going to turn into one of those people who says that summers are never as long as they were when you were young.”
“They’re not,” he protested. “And it used to snow at Christmas time, too.”
The three of them left the Bush Bar and Grill and emerged onto the Goldhawk Road, shivering against the February night. “I’m going to run, I’m afraid,” Sal said as soon as they’d got outside. “See you next week sometime?” She blew kisses at both of them and hurried down toward the large house that she shared with her investment analyst husband.
Tom looked at Kate and grinned. “Come on, I’ll walk you home,” he said, putting his arm around her. “Can’t have our hopeless romantic on the streets alone at this hour.”
Kate gave a plaintive sigh as they began to walk. “You don’t really think I’m hopeless, do you?” she asked Tom.
“I think you’re an optimist,” he replied cagily. “And that’s not entirely a bad thing.”
“Do you really mean it, about never getting married?”
He shrugged. “I dunno. I s’pose if I meet the right woman I might.”
Kate nodded. “It’s not as easy, is it? I mean, it’s not as easy as they make it out to be. I sometimes wonder how on earth anyone ever manages to get together and stay together. How did our parents manage it?”
“They didn’t. Not all of them,” Tom said with a caustic twist of the lips.
Kate reddened. “Sorry. I didn’t mean your parents.” Actually, she realized none of their parents had exactly aced the whole love and marriage thing. Tom’s mother had left out of the blue when he was just seven, Sal’s mother had brought her up on her own, and her own parents had spent the last thirty years arguing.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I don’t consider my mother to be a parent, anyway. I mean, you have to actually parent your child to get that moniker, right? Buggering off when he’s eight and ceasing all contact doesn’t exactly qualify, does it?”
“Still no word then?” she asked gently. Tom almost never talked about his mother. He had barely mentioned her existence since she disappeared one day with no explanation, not even a note. But Kate knew how much it had upset him; she had seen him emerging from the bathroom at school with red eyes, fiercely denying that he was in any way bothered. That was when he had started to get so cynical. Eight was a very tender age to realize that you couldn’t trust even your own mother not to let you down.