‘Are you frustrated, then?’ Becky asked, later, while Georgia was at the bar. There was nobody within earshot; the Lamb and Flag was reliably quiet, even on a shamrock-draped Saturday, and the jukebox was pumping out Britney Spears by way of cover.
Colette stood to feed it another pound. ‘Yes. No. It was a stupid comment. I didn’t mean it.’
Becky narrowed her eyes. ‘You’re not usually the one to suggest going to the pub. And you don’t usually have vodka in your room.’
She queued three songs at random, and did not turn back to face Becky while she spoke. ‘Birthday present. I keep forgetting to buy lemonade to go with it.’
‘Not saving it for a special occasion?’
Colette flopped back into her chair and sighed. ‘There will never be a special occasion. Today’s as good as it’s going to get.’
Becky raised her eyebrows; but Georgia came back just then, and started talking about AngthMURC committee elections, and the conversation moved on. They spoke afterwards of Peter’s prospects of being chosen for ordination, the Fellowship question, whether Liam had in fact been worth the fuss, and end of term deadlines; left when last orders was rung; and meandered home three abreast in the rain.
‘Well,’ Georgia said once they were safely inside, ‘I hope that’s going to do the trick and knock me out, so I’m going to make the most of it and go to bed now.’ Impulsively, she hugged first Becky, then Colette. ‘Thanks, guys. If I ever do anything that stupid again, I’m coming to you.’
‘No worries,’ Becky said; ‘any time. Night.’ Feeling that she had played nursemaid long enough, she turned to Colette. ‘I think I’ll turn in, too. What with three pints of Corbett’s Old Gutrot or whatever it was, I could do with some shut-eye.’
‘Night, then,’ Colette said.
Peter came in some time later, exhorting the world to shake it like a Polaroid picture, and found her half way through both the vodka and an obscure 1980s action film, curled on the sofa with all the cushions stacked under her left elbow.
‘Hey,’ he said, gently.
‘Hi.’ She moved a box of cranberry juice from the table to the floor.
She nodded. ‘Yeah. Could be worse. Have a drink?’
He’d had a few, but still. ‘Thanks. What is this film?’
‘Dunno – I’m waiting for an ad break to find out.’ She poured surprisingly tidily. ‘Here you go.’
He sipped delicately at the vodka-and-cranberry – mostly vodka, it seemed. ‘You’re up late.’
She grimaced. ‘Don’t much want to go to bed.’
‘Why not?’ He sat down on the sofa next her.
She drew her knees up – more relaxed, but at the same time more defensive. ‘Turn the lights off: have to think.’
‘Not soon enough.’ She leaned her head, experimentally, or so it seemed, on his shoulder.
He patted it awkwardly. ‘You’re not happy.’
She made no answer, but put her hand to his face and pulled his head down to hers in a contorted attempt at a kiss. It was not a particularly good kiss, but he could not help responding. Later, he wished he had paid more attention, but then he was conscious only of horrified enjoyment. ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ he murmured, as Colette abandoned the idea and slipped sideways into his lap.
He put his arms carefully around her. For a moment, all he could hear was her breathing, and his own. ‘Oh, Colette,’ he said. ‘Not like this.’
‘It’s the only way it’ll ever happen,’ she said, looking up at him, flushed, bright-eyed.
‘I know. But still.’
He held her, very still, for perhaps ten seconds, then laid a chaste kiss on her forehead. ‘Not like this,’ he said again.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Yes. I see.’ She sat up, unfolded her legs, and yawned pointedly. ‘In which case I think I’ll go to bed.’
She was up before him the next morning. He found her sitting in exactly the same spot and the same attitude as last night, but with clothes replaced by pyjamas, and a cup of tea in her hand. The two sticky glasses still stood on the coffee table.
‘Hello,’ she said bleakly. ‘You were quite right.’
Peter smiled. ‘Damn. I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t have thought better of it.’
‘I would if I could,’ she said. ‘Or I wouldn’t if I could. You know what I mean. You’re so nice; you deserve it.’
‘Let me know if you ever do.’ He bent to pick up the glasses; she reached out impulsively and squeezed his hand.
‘I will. Thank you.’
‘It was nothing.’
‘Precisely,’ Colette responded, with a trace of her usual edge, and Peter knew that it was never going to be quite the same again.