Darrell ordered a scone and butter while Gwen opted for a frosted cream slice. Her companion didn’t comment but Gwen had seen the way Darrell’s eyes travelled over Gwen’s curves when they met at the ‘Cosy Baker’.
The cream cake was an act of defiance. Even when she half-starved Gwen found it difficult to lose weight so she might as well have something she liked. Darrell was as whippet-thin as she’d always been. Perhaps it was something to do with liking sports. Relative poverty had forced Gwen into brisk walking but she still hated all organised games and refused to go swimming no matter how often she was assured that the municipal pool was heated.
It was warm in the tea shop. Gwen slipped off her jacket and wished she could do the same with her block-heeled shoes. She had spent much of the day on her feet. Later, she promised herself, there would be a warm bath with lavender salts.
It was four years since Gwen had last seen Darrell although they had exchanged a few brief notes. Darrell had not changed – her hair and clothes were still sensibly cut. She was on her way to visit a university friend and Gwen’s village lay directly on her route. Gwen had accepted the tea invitation happily although she was now getting that dreary feeling forever associated with school.
She’d not so much been a square peg in a round hole as a round peg in a square hole.
Frank had made that joke. She’d been spoiled, selfish, intolerant, but recently Gwen had started to wonder if her unhappiness at school had entirely been her fault.
Frank had been scathing, “They laughed when you were homesick and pushed you in the pool. Nice girls."
“It wasn’t like that,” she’d protested.
"So tell me,” he said. “What was it like?”
But it was impossible to explain. Malory Towers had consumed her for years – while she was there and after she had left. She remembered standing alone at the window of the North Tower watching the other girls and wanting to be like them, liked by them, and yet hating the things they held dear.
But that was the past. She was different now - older, if not wiser. She’d never been clever.
She and Darrell exchanged pleasantries over their pastries. Darrell talked about her writing. Gwen asked after Felicity who was now head girl at Malory Towers and set to follow Darrell to St Andrews.
Darrell asked about Gwen’s work. Gwen started to explain about the business and its recent expansion from repairs to selling new cars before realising the enquiry had merely been polite. Darrell clearly had no interest in trade.
Finally Darrell ‘noticed’ Gwen’s ring.
It was an enormous diamond. Frank said it belonged in a Christmas cracker but he had laughed and added that she was the one wearing it and she should have the ring she wanted
Daddy had never met Frank. Gwen sometimes wondered if he would have approved. She hoped so. In many ways they were alike – patient, kind. Mother and Mrs Winter did not know what to think. Frank was very rich but he was most definitely ‘not one of us’.
The waitress arrived with a smile and more hot water for their tea. Gwen waved in response. Ruby had white blonde hair made brittle by bleach and bright red lipstick. She was the first real friend Gwen had ever had.
Ruby had admired Gwen’s golden hair
It’s natural, isn’t it? You lucky thing!” She fingered her own pale locks. Gwen nodded, uncomfortable. Her whole life she had been told that it was fine to be brainy or musical or artistic but not to know you were pretty – even if you had nothing else to be proud of.
Ruby had commented on the film magazine Gwen was reading. Gwen loved Hollywood films. They were a world away from the dingy reality of struggling to maintain a too-big house (mother would not consider moving) that was warm in only the parlour and the kitchen.
Gwen had not known how to respond but Ruby was one of those people who could talk to anyone. She rattled away about her favourite films and actors not seeming to notice Gwen’s awkwardness. When Gwen next came in Ruby had greeted her by name and eventually Gwen was visiting the cafe two or three times a week. Ruby would time her breaks so they could chat
Frank sometimes joined them. He knew Ruby from school. They had gone to the grammar together. Gwen asked her once about university. Ruby had laughed. She’d turned down Oxford. Gwen mentioned finishing school. Ruby had laughed even louder. Gwen was already too posh for words.
Frank arrived as it was getting dark. Frank with his wayward hair, scarred face and the heavy limp gained during National Service. Seeing him Gwen warmed inside. Frank had been kind to her from her first day. She hadn’t known he was the boss’s son. He did not look like the film star she imagined marrying. Frank hadn’t got angry when she made a mistake on the takings, simply scribbled a new total and handed it back with the remark that ‘best of three’ was always the way to go. On her next attempt the numbers matched. She’d learned. It was simple accounting but she was proud of her achievements.
Gwen stood up and waved Frank over. Watching his halting approach Darrell’s face became overly welcoming.
“We’re getting married in the summer,” said Gwen after the introductions were concluded. “Perhaps you’d be able to attend?"
"That would be topping,” said Darrell. “Goodness, is that the time? I simply must run. Gwen, it’s been lovely to see you. Give my regards to Mrs Lacey and Miss Winter."
They embraced stiffly.
"She won’t come,” said Gwen sadly, as she watched Darrell leave.
"No,” agreed Frank. He kissed her palm and folded the fingers over the spot. “But then she was never your friend."