In the year in which my story begins, I worked in a small law firm on the outskirts of Reading; in not a particularly good part of the town and quite a walk from the station. It wasn’t a real job, you understand, just a locum placement to further the career I hoped I wouldn’t actually have to follow. I don’t really recall now how I ended up on the path I did. I wandered into it with my eyes firmly shut. I believed that when it came, something else would come along. Anyway, that particular day was freezing cold. It was around Christmas I think, although I may have muddled my memories.
The man I worked for, Robert, smelt of stress: a blend of sweat, coffee and smoke. His office was a mess of paperwork and used coffee cups. He drank it black, no sugar and constantly had a cup in his hand. A cigarette, Silk Cut I think, dangled permanently from his lips. In those days’ people smoked everywhere. It’s much better now if you don’t smoke, but if you do, well that’s just your tough luck. At the time I felt like I smoked twenty a day along with him and my lungs ached with the menace of it all. Robert was stick thin and wore cheap, ill–fitting suit that looked as though he hadn’t taken it off since the day he qualified ten years before. It was shiny with age. He was kind, though, and a good teacher. I learned a lot from watching him deal with clients (dreadful people on the whole) who really didn’t or shouldn’t have stood a chance, but he gave them one and defended them whatever.
My friends and casual acquaintances continually questioned how I could defend these dregs of the earth when I knew they were guilty. A tired, hackneyed question if there ever was one, and as with every other lawyer in the land, I would trot out the expected response that everyone deserved a fair trial and that they were innocent until proven guilty etc. etc. But, on this day, when the snow was falling gently on the shopping centre in the heart of Reading, when we were safely ensconced in the warmth of The Dog Tavern, fingers curled around our pints (a half for me), I tipped my head sideways at Jolyon, who sat opposite me, and looked at him through my eyelashes. I looked him directly in the eye as my lips, red and luscious from my new glossy lipstick, formed the words I thought I would never say (in public at any rate).
The gasp from my friends at the table spread like famine through the whole of the restaurant. And I, the pariah at the best table by the fire, sat warmed and glowing by the burning, crackling logs.
What a leap. Oh what joy to have stunned them like that? To utter such words to a group of goody goody liberals. To them, words that no lawyer should ever admit to. Lawyers on the whole are a staid and boring lot; conformist to the very centre of their being. Not liking to rock the boat or even to move too far towards port or starboard. No, lawyers on the whole like to sit true and steady in the centre, maintaining a balance and composure that is a fitting tribute to their profession. And here I was, the maverick, standing on the tip of the bow, ready to hurl myself off the side into the calamitous, seething mass of a stormy sea.
I tasted the salty spray in my mouth as the misty sea water dampened my face and hair. Felt the cool, chilly breeze that coiled around me and upwards like a tornado in May. Sucking me into its turbulence as, arms outstretched, chin tilted upwards as far as it would go, I threw myself off the side and into the dark, cold unknown.
“What on earth has happened to you?”
Jolyon’s sneering face broke my reverie as I clambered back on side, flicked my wave of cascading blond hair off my face and settled back into the wooden chair rooted to the floor by the fire.
“Oh nothing’s happened to me, Jolyon,” I said. “I’m just the same as I always was. Come on, let’s go out into the night and run by the river.”
My eyes were wet and the sparkles of all the stars in the sky flashed in them. I took his reluctant hand and dragged him away from the others, including my poor boyfriend Don, who just sat there open mouthed, staring. You’re a weak man Don, I thought instantly. Stand up to me at once and drag me off to your cave. But, he just sat there staring grimly into his pint of pale golden ale with just the right amount of foam settled quietly on the top.
I took Jolyon’s warm, squashy hand into mine and squeezed in my other hand. With one last disdainful look back at Don I laughed out of malice rather than pity and Jolyon and I stepped out together into the starry night. We walked off together at the shore talking and talking. My killer heels skittered across the cobbles as I giggled and laughed, tilting my head just so, to tell him a joke and we both giggled.
“What are we doing?” he stammered, as we slipped over the hoary pavement.
“Discovering the world,” I yelled into the night.
We stopped for a moment just by the bridge under the alien beam of an orange lamppost and talked our heart out. The discovery of what I had known for so long to be true, but had never dared to admit before: the challenge of saying the unsay able just for the reaction. Of course, Sarah would probably never speak to me again. I wouldn’t if I was her, if she had trotted out into the night with Don leaving me alone with only my drink for company. No, I wouldn’t have been much amused. But, Sarah would never do that, she hadn’t understood the question as I had. Hadn’t seen its possibilities, how it could set you free. How it could throw you off your axis on to a new one of fervour and fun, compared to the dull life of marriage and babies and lunch at the mother in law’s that was life ahead with safe, old Don.
On the river the boat chugged along sedately, passing the time. How does the song go? I forget now, something about messing about on the river. Why not? I thought. Let us do it now. Let us walk the plank of life and dare to see what is at the other end.
“What on earth has happened to you?” he whispered as shared our every sorrow with each other and heard the lapping of the waves against the sides.
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