The first time he meets her, she is busy setting up her new classroom, which happens to be just a few doors down from his. He had planned on just stopping in for a minute to introduce himself, but ended up staying the rest of the afternoon helping her put up maps on the walls and arrange the desks. She is an animated conversationalist, and her eyes light up when she talks about her preparations for the coming year. He enjoys the afternoon more than he thought was possible when one was shoving around unyielding dusty furniture, and he too finds that he is excited about the approaching school year and teaching down the hall from Miss Wright.
He rationalizes that the reason he sits across from her every day in the lunch room is that she doesn’t really know anyone else, and she seems to be willing to play along long after she has met and been accepted by the rest of the staff. He looks forward to that relatively uninterrupted half hour where they either talk about everything under the sun, or say nothing in companionable silence. Sometimes, other colleagues will join them, but most often it is just the two of them. He tries not to read too much into that, other than that Barbara seems to enjoy his company as well.
Towards the end of her first month at Coal Hill, she initiated another tradition: after classes were done for the day, rather than grade and make up her lesson plans in the solitary realm of her empty classroom, she would bring her papers into his classroom and they would celebrate their successes, commiserate about their failures, and laugh about their days together. On the rare occasion that it takes her longer to clear up from her day than it does him from his, he joins her in her classroom. It was just a natural continuation of their day when he asked her to join him for dinner at the end of a particularly harrowing day. It seemed natural when this too became a part of the routine.
He starts to dread the weekends, because it is two days he has to wait to see her. He is not in love with her, because he isn’t shaking with nerves when he sees her, smells her perfume, or holds her hand when they walk to the pub down the street. It is a comfortable friendship; he doesn’t need to be a knight in shining armor for her. He’s Ian and she’s Barbara and they are colleagues and friends.
It still takes him several weeks to ask her to join him at the movies on Saturday. It is raining when they get out of The Great Escape, and she laughs as they make a mad dash to his car, during which his suit is completely soaked and even her indomitable hair seems to have admitted defeat. He glances over at her in the seat next to him, absolutely soaked to the bone and still laughing, even though November had been unseasonably cold that year and she must be chilled. In that moment, she is the most beautiful, amazing woman in the world and he almost leans into kiss her before he remembers that this is his close friend and fellow teacher and he can’t risk losing those lunches and that after school time. If he screws this up, he will lose her. He manages to move his arm back in time to grab the slightly musty jumper in the back seat and hand it to her so she won’t freeze to death before he can take her home.
He knows he imagines the faintly disappointed look in her eyes as he bids her goodnight and promises to save her a seat at the staff meeting on Monday.