“You know I don’t want to interfere.”
Julie sighed, knowing where this was going.
“But Greg’s a lovely guy. I don’t see why you’re making him wait.”
“If I’d known you’d be like this I wouldn’t have told you. I wish I hadn’t.”
“You can’t keep it secret for ever. Unless you’re going to elope.”
“I may not marry him.” Julie looked hopefully at her phone, but no one was going to call on a Sunday morning. No one would magically ring the doorbell. There was no escape from mum’s interrogation.
“Why on earth not?”
“Because I don’t know if I love him. That’s why.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong with him. I’m not sure I love him.”
“Pah. I didn’t know if I loved your father when we got married, but we perservered and had a happy thirty years. Anyway, Greg’s a perfectly pleasant young man from a nice family, and I’m sure you’ll be very happy.”
Julie looked up at her mum, who by this time had taken on her perplexed and slighty pained expression she used at moments like this. “It’s not as if you get hundreds of offers, is it?”
“Well thank you. I should marry him because I’m desperate – is that it?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
“I’m not going to say yes, and I’m not going to say no. I’m thinking about it. I told him that, and I’ve told you, although I regret bothering. I’m not going to say yes just because he’s the first man to ask me.”
“And the only man you’ve been serious with for years. You’ve been with him since… end of first year, wasn’t it? If there’s something you don’t like about him wouldn’t you have spotted it by now?”
“I may have. I don’t know. I like him, but he’s self-centred.”
“He’s just making sure of his doctorate – you know that. He’ll spend more time with you when he’s finished.”
“It’s not that, mum. It’s not that.”
“Well what then?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I probably wouldn’t. How can I understand a foolish child who’s getting scared about saying yes to a very nice young man she’d be very happy with.”
Julie looked down at her uneaten toast and cold tea. She regretted saying anything. She took a deep breath. “I may not know what I want, but I don’t think it’s Greg. I shouldn’t have told you. You don’t know better than me. I don’t want to have to perservere for thirty years to be happy. I don’t want your life.”
* * *
The door opened slowly. Julie had been lying on the bed thinking, occasionally bursting into tears for what she considered no good reason.
“What is it?” She tried not to sound like she’d been crying.
“Can I come in?”
Julie wiped her eyes on her pillow, not that that would stop her mum from knowing. “Okay.”
Her mum came and sat down next to her on the bed. “I’m sorry about this morning. I shouldn’t have tried to interfere – I only want you to be happy.” She opened her hand, revealing a small blue box, containing a Viking ship brooch.
“I thought that had gone.”
“Your grandmother wanted you to have it, but I kept hold of it until you were old enough not to lose it. After all, it was her grandmother’s – it’s probably worth a fortune by now.”
Julie reached out and picked it up. The black and white sail was as intricate as she’d remembered. The little shields along the edge, and the waves crashing on the bow – it had always captivated her, back when Granny had worn it, all those years before.
“I thought you could wear it at the ball. Assuming you’re still going back for it.”
Julie nodded, speechless.
“Good,” said her mum, walking towards the door. “I’m sure Greg will appreciate your new ball gown.”
* * *
Greg did indeed appreciate it, and spent some time in silent admiration when he came over to the halls of residence to pick Julie up. She gave him a quick twirl, rather enjoying the swishing sound as she turned, and he placed his hands gently on her shoulders and smiled. “You’re beautiful,” he said.
“I’ve not seen that brooch before.”
“It was my Granny’s.”
As they went out to the waiting taxi Julie suddenly had second thoughts about the brooch. Until you were old enough not to lose it. Julie felt suddenly angry. Why give her something that was still not really hers? If she owned it, she could lose it. She owned it.
She looked up at Greg.
“Sorry,” she said. “I was miles away.”
“Hope you’ll join us for the ball. I wasn’t planning on taking a mannequin.”
Julie smiled. “Course not, dear.” She leant over and kissed him as the taxi sped off into the bitterly cold night.
* * *
Julie found herself at the rowing club bar. She’d been introduced to new members, leered at by older ones, and then abandoned with the girlfriend of the club captain.
They managed painfully slow small talk for a few minutes, and then even the club captain’s girlfriend rejoined the fray. Julie watched Greg, social butterly he was, flitting around chatting to everyone, mixing with the people who were destined for success. That was who he was. She wasn’t so outgoing, and didn’t like chatting to people she didn’t know. She preferred quiet social gatherings, two or three friends at the most, but that was no reason to cling to Greg’s arm all evening and stop him. He was enjoying himself.
She ordered a double vodka without thinking. It wasn’t her normal drink – vodka was normally saved for depressing occasions. One of the other rowers appeared next to her.
“I’ll get this,” he said.
“I’m with Greg,” she replied, instinctively. Some of the rowing club girlfriends had been liberally shared about over the years, and she had always been determined to avoid any suggestions that would be her.
“I know. I’m Jason,” he said, offering a hand. She shook it. Unusual – most men trying to chat her up insisted on kissing her hand – something she found intensely irritating.
“Stroke of the second boat, aren’t you?”
“Yup. Well, was. I’ve been out of practice recently and lost the place a month ago. Stupidly I took some time off training to get my dissertation finished. The rest didn’t take kindly to that.” His pint arrived along with his change, and he turned around to face the ball. Julie turned round too. “Enjoying yourself?” he asked. Without waiting for a response, he added “rhetorical question. I hate them too, if it’s any consolation.”
She looked up at him, and then back over towards Greg. “Who’s that girl Greg’s talking to?”
“The one in the red dress? That, technically, is my date. Fiona.”
“I brought her here. We went out last term, and bought the tickets before she found that my family aren’t rich.”
“Hint of bitterness there, Jason?”
He smiled. It was a genuine, warm smile. Not the kind of smile Julie was used to seeing. “Not really. I wouldn’t want the pressure. She’d want me to go and work in the City. No, we’re both better off.” He was already half way through his pint, and turned and waved to the barman. “You going to need another?”
He downed the first pint and headed back into the throng with his second.
Julie looked back at Greg, who had at least stopped talking to the girl in the red dress, and was now concentrating again on the guys. He glanced over her way and smiled. She smiled back. She regretted not taking Jason up on the extra drink, as the room seemed to be becoming more and more crowded with people she didn’t know.
Jason popped back fifteen minutes later, at the end of his pint. “Still here, I see. Greg gave me permission to ask you for a dance, if you want a break from being a barfly.”
She nodded and gave him her hand.
She enjoyed the distraction of a dance. When the song ended he walked her back to the bar and ordered them each a drink. He was obviously searching for something to say. “Nice brooch.”
She looked down at it, a symbol somehow of her mum’s control. Or disapproval. Her mum seemed to be controlling her through it. Making sure she did what was sensible. Making Greg happy. She realised the source of her frustration. “No,” she said, pulling the brooch off and throwing it into her clutch bag. “It’s not.”
He looked stunned. “Sorry – meant no offence. I’ll leave you to it.” He picked up his pint and walked off, confused. He went over to Greg and pointed back at Julie. Greg came over.
“Jason wondered if you’re not feeling well.”
“I could use some fresh air, I guess.”
Greg smiled. “Okay, let’s take a walk.”
They stepped out into snowy night air. Julie felt glad to be outside. The cold was refreshing, and the ringing in her ears slowly abated. As they rounded a corner Greg turned and kissed her. He pushed her against the wall. She felt suddenly vulnerable.
“You thought any more about my offer?” he asked.
“Not tonight, Greg. Let’s just enjoy the ball.”
“Okay,” he said, and ran his finger down her front. She moved her hand to grab his, and placed it behind her again. He moved it again.
“Greg…” she said.
“What?” He sounded annoyed. “What have I done? You come out, don’t talk to anyone, and now get all shirty with me. What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know, I just don’t feel like it tonight.”
“You never do. I’m not going to wait forever, you know. It’s not like I don’t have other options.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been the ‘nice guy’, waiting around for the ‘right time’ for you for two bloody years now, Julie. I’m not going to wait forever.” He tried to kiss her again, more roughly. She ducked sideways to get away, but slipped, falling into the snow and dropping her bag.
“Now look what you’ve done,” she said.
He shook his head. “You slipped. How is that my fault?”
“If you hadn’t been…” She pulled herself to her feet and looked at her dress. Half of it was now a different colour. “My dress is ruined. I want to go.”
“For heaven’s sake. I’ll need to go in and get my jacket. Come on.”
They went back inside. Julie waited just inside the door, hoping no one would see her with her multicoloured dress and wet hair. She watched as Greg made his way through the crowd, chatting to people happily as he went. He stopped to talk to the girl with the red dress. Julie grew increasingly angry, until Greg finally walked back over. Without his jacket.
“I’ve ordered you a taxi. It’ll be here in a few minutes.”
“I thought I’d stick around.”
Julie stared at him. She opened her bag to check she had enough money and her heart sank. “Oh my God,” she said, desperately pulling everything out.
“You got enough?” asked Greg, offering her a twenty.
“What about it?”
“I must have dropped it. Come on, I’ve got to find it. Mum’ll kill me.”
“If you’ve dropped it out there it’s lost, Julie. It’s snowing again. Maybe someone will find it and hand it in when it thaws.”
“Greg! Come on – you’ve got to help me!”
Greg glanced back over towards the centre of the room. The red dress was there. Greg shook his head. “If you want to go hunting for a needle, be my guest. It’s only a brooch. “
Julie turned and walked back out into the cold, alone. She returned to where she’d slipped over and began hunting around in the snow, digging with her already-numb hands.
Jason appeared beside her. “Need a hand?”
She looked up at him, a mess of running mascara, hair plastered to her face, shivering. He took off his jacket and put it round her shoulders. “What’re you looking for?”
“That stupid brooch. I must have dropped it.”
Jason took out his key ring and turned on a small torch. “Handy things these,” he said, leaning down and sweeping the light back and forth across the snow. “Light might help.”
She stopped digging around wildly and knelt next to him, no longer caring about her dress being wet, scanning for any glimpse of black. Jason stopped a couple of times to pick out stones, and then saw something shiny, on the path half inside a snowy footprint. He knelt down, scooped it up, and held it out. She took it and stared down at it, then burst into tears.
He put an arm gently round her and pulled her to her feet.
“She’ll kill me.”
“Mum. She said I’d lose it.”
“But now I’ve broken it.”
“Is it hers?”
“Then what does it matter? It’s only jewellery. Come on, if you don’t get back into the warm soon, you’ll catch your death.”
She offered no resistance as he walked her through the ballroom out towards the front of the building. She no longer cared about the looks of the others. The brooch was broken. Greg was still talking with the girl in red. She realised her decision had been made for her. The water on her face was not just snow any more.
Jason led her out and sat her down in the taxi. She looked up at him, and held his hand. “Thank you, Jason. Really. I’m sorry for earlier.”
He squatted down, still holding her hand. “Well, if you need someone to blame, you can always tell your mother I dropped it.” He smiled.
She leant out of the taxi and kissed him on the cheek. “Call me,” she said, as he closed the door.
She looked down at the brooch in her hands with its crack running down the middle. A jeweller might be able to fix it. She stopped crying. Maybe, she thought, as the taxi drove off. Maybe I’ve found him at last.