On my first date with Hamish, he showed me a photo of Fergus, a Scottish Fold cat with flattened ears. I called it a date, but in reality it was a bite to eat at a local coffee shop between stints caring for Jane and Richard.
We sat at a small wooden table, hidden from the window to the outside world — ‘I’m not on-call twenty-four seven,’ he said — eating sandwiches and snacking on fruit. I felt nervous but, at the same time, comfortable being with him in a more intimate surrounding, although we were hardly on our own — a constant flow of voluble aid workers put paid to a cosy tête-à-tête.
Don’t become besotted.
His life was back in Blighty — between sips of black coffee he told me about the ancestral home in Ayr and his flat in Chelsea, together with a society wife, son at Cambridge, and daughter at a select finishing school near Geneva.
And what have I got? An empty house in a god-forsaken place, an estranged husband, and a daughter lost to the tsunami.
His eyes gleamed. ‘But you know one thing, Delcie? Assisting NEMO keeps my feet on the ground and my sanity intact.’ He shrugged. ‘Not that Arabella quite sees it that way.’
‘Oh,’ I said, in all innocence that wasn’t. I pulled the small bowl of fruit towards me. ‘Why not?’
He locked eyes with me. A tremor of excitement made my toes curl and my arms tingle.
‘You’re a woman. You tell me.’
I could guess. Arabella sounded like high maintenance and low security; she needed to keep her ATM husband safe from predators — in his case, other women. I glanced down, picked out a small banana from the fruit bowl, and peeled off the skin. I raised my eyes.
‘I think you’re a lucky man to have such a caring wife.’
He laughed and fingered the photo of Fergus the cat. ‘That’s what she said.’
I teased off a sliver of banana with my tongue. ‘And what does Fergus say?’
He laughed again. ‘You’ll probably think it strange, but I’ll share a secret with you.’ He gave me that look — mischief mixed with mirth — that made me feel very warm, leaned forward and whispered, ‘Fergus is a free spirit — a real Tom. When I see his picture, I’m reminded of my youth. Carefree college days and raucous nights, so unlike my life now; a straightjacket of expectations.’ His pager buzzed; a frown crossed his face when he dug it out of his pocket and glanced at the display. ‘We have to go,’ he said. ‘I’m needed.’
While Hamish paid the bill my mind went back to that determining day at Cheltenham Cricket Festival…
‘…hey, chaps, see her stumps,’ said Jamie, spilling his drink.
Mary shrieked. ‘Oh my God, I’ve wet myself. Delcie, look — it’s a streaker.’
We had booked a table of four in the Grand Marquee with an uninterrupted view of the playing field. Stupid game, but filleted Cotswold trout washed down with my favourite bubbly made it an enjoyable day out. Gloucestershire posted a high score, and now Surrey were involved in a ‘run race’ -- so I was informed by the jacketed waiter as he topped up our glasses.
Just as it became exciting — chaps were yelling and jumping up and down each time the ball thudded into the boundary boards -- pandemonium broke loose, much to the bemusement of the players.
‘A fine-looking specimen of womanhood,’ said Richard, focusing his binoculars. ‘Milkshake, anyone?’
Mary fell about laughing. I giggled. The boys were a first-rate double act. But that day Jamie was sloshed -- Mary said they had another set-to about raising a family; he said she wasn’t cut out to be a mother right then.
And now Mary was outrageously flirting with Richard. I suppose I was naïve thinking it was only to make Jamie jealous, and I shrugged it off.
And that’s when it happened.
Mary grabbed Richard’s hand and pulled him toward the marquee exit. ‘Let’s get a closer look,’ she said, grinning at me.
I couldn’t be bothered, nor could Jamie who slumped down on his seat with an insane leer on his face.
They were gone a long time.
Longer than just a look.
Longer than just another drink.
I became impatient, then worried, then irritated -- so I called Charles for solace; he was in town, and seeking company. He needed to see me, and I said I’d call him back.
Jamie dozed off and my bubbly had gone flat by the time the missing twosome returned -- Mary flushed and Richard red-faced.
‘Sorry, Delcie, I escorted Mary for a stroll around the college grounds,’ he said.
Liar. Mary didn’t do strolling.
Mary nudged him, and giggled. ‘It was my first time.’
I could tell she was goading me, but I couldn’t imagine them at it with thousands of spectators milling the grounds.
‘Is that so?’ I said. ‘While I’m stuck here with your comatose fiancée, you’re making out with mine.’
Richard held up a hand and stammered an apology, but I turned away. ‘Sod the pair of you, I’ll find someone who wants me.’
With that, I stormed out and called Charles.
It wasn’t a carefree day.
For any of us...
‘…Delcie? Are you all right?’
I glanced up. Hamish had his doctor’s face on — the one that was full of concern for his patients.
‘Merely a bit tired,’ I said, my fingers massaging my eyelids.
‘My fault,’ he said, ‘telling you my troubles. I must have bored you to tears.’
I shook my head, stood up; my half-eaten banana ploy now consigned to the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’. He proffered his arm and I linked mine to his.
‘Not at all,’ I said, smiling up at him. ‘I enjoyed our time together.’
Maybe next time...
The opportunity came quicker than I thought. Only it wasn’t an opportunity.
It changed my life.