"...and that was why I never did my A-levels.” Rose paused, suddenly appalled. “I’m sorry, I’ve just realised I’ve been talking about myself all this time.”
The other woman laughed, leaning back in her chair. Above them, the table umbrella was bright with the afternoon sunlight shining through it. “No, don’t worry about it. I’m interested, honestly.”
“Right, yeah...” She sounded sincere, but Rose was dubious, all the same. Wasn’t that the cardinal sin of a first date, as she’d moaned to Shireen at length over the years? Don’t monopolise the conversation, don’t ramble, and for god’s sake don’t be boring. She’d been doing all three, and to make things just that little bit worse, it would have to be a blind date, as well. She avoided them nowadays; it tended to go along the lines of oh, you’re bi? I know a girl who’s a lesbian, and then it’d turn out to be one of those wide-eyed girls with scars all the way down her arms, or a fifteen-year-old in search of an “experience”, or worst of all, one of those short-cropped stomping-boot types who believed in using the word “vagina” in every conversation. She’d rather be single.
But this one... this wasn’t bad. Good, even. She was a bit older than Rose, a pretty, bohemian type with dark curls and pale skin, and she was funny and normal and fun.
And she wasn’t, strictly speaking, a lesbian either; she Did Not Care About Genitalia, as she’d explained solemnly, and they’d had a giggle over the difficulty of explaining the concept to one’s friends and relations, especially at the coming-out stages.
“I had a boyfriend back then,” said Rose, remembering. “He was so scared he’d turned me gay! He was a bit of an idiot, really.”
Her date laughed. “I can imagine. D’you want another coffee?”
“Yeah, thanks.” Rose tried to grab the waiter’s attention, but it was a lovely day with lots of people sitting outside, and he was too busy to notice. Rose let him go. “What about you?” she asked. “Any idiotic boyfriends?”
“One or two.” Her expression was so wicked that Rose had to laugh.
“I won’t ask!”
“No, don’t.” She really was very pretty, Rose decided, apropos of nothing; perhaps it was something about the sunlight falling on her in just that way. “I did notice that you used the plural, though — you’ve had more than one idiotic boyfriend?”
“Well, no,” Rose said, grinning. “After Mickey — he was the idiot — I had a friend who could have been more than a friend and we spent a lot of time together, and I really loved him… but not like that. You know?”
“Yeah.” Her date nodded. “I’ve had my fair share of them. So, what happened to him?”
“God, I’m sorry.” The atmosphere immediately tightened, despite the bright light and warmth around them, and Rose regretted saying it.
“He didn’t die, exactly,” she said helplessly. “He... got better, sort of, but he was different. Not the same person I’d known.”
“And loved,” her companion agreed. “I understand.”
“I think you do,” Rose said before she could stop herself. “You do understand, don’t you?”
There was a long pause, broken only by the sounds of other people’s chatter and traffic on the street, and the awkwardness rose like a tide. In a conscious attempt to lighten the tone, Rose said quickly, “You’ve heard way too much about me by now, I’m sure! What about you?
“What about me?”
“Like... oh, I don’t know, let’s be cliché. Where are you from? What are your likes and dislikes?”
“Describing myself in a few adjectives, then?” Her voice was bright and bell-like, and Rose felt a sudden urge to kiss her. “Let’s see... I’m not from London. I’m from a small place near Guildford, you’ve probably never heard of it. I like reading and writing, but I don’t like arithmetic.”
“Who does?” They both laughed and Rose began to feel something approaching comfortable again. She turned her head for moment, scanning the other tables. “Where is that waiter?”
“Gone to have a quick fag, most likely.”
“Yeah, probably!” Rose grinned. “So, what else do you like?”
“I like dark chocolate. I like pretty girls. Sometimes” — and her expression was wicked, again — “both together. I like nail varnish. I like atlases.”
Rose, lulled by her voice, sat up and blinked. “Atlases? You like atlases? Is that what you said?”
“Well, yeah.” She sounded contemplative. “I don’t like getting lost, but I do like travelling.”
“Me too,” interjected Rose. “I’ve travelled a lot.”
“With the friend who could have been more?”
“Yeah,” said Rose, surprised. “How did you know?”
“It happens, doesn’t it? You go through a lot together, you start seeing each other in a different light.”
Rose nodded. “That was it, sort of. Only before we ever did anything about it, he...” She trailed off. “You know.”
“Oh, I know.” Her voice was low, and her breathing rapid, and without really thinking about it, Rose leaned in and kissed her. It was a short kiss, sweet and to the point, a meeting of lips and a brief burst of passion that ended too quickly.
The waiter had arrived. With a teatowel slung expertly over one arm, he stood to attention and was thoroughly ignored.
“Tell me,” said her date quietly, without looking at Rose, “when your friend came back, how exactly was he... different?”
Rose reached out and brushed the curls out of the other woman’s face, looking at her eyes. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, no.”
“Hello, Rose,” said the Doctor.