LATE BLOOMING LOVE
Eunice Ç English
These thoughts sifted through Carole’s mind as her chin rested on her hand, her elbow rested on the long wooden table made up of several conjoined pine-topped student desks, and her body slumped tiredly.
Jet-lag is a terrible thing, and despite her best efforts, Carole had arrived ten days ago, ready to sleep when Britain was awake, and vice versa. It had been a long flight from Sydney, twenty-one hours with only a two-hour stopover at Singapore. She was still sleepy, and finding it hard to concentrate in class.
She had been met by her sister at Manchester airport, then transported into the wilds of Wilmslow through picture postcard snow scenes. Fortunately her sister’s modern home was centrally heated and very cosy. The ten days had been spent with Pauline and her husband, David, and various members of the family who called in to take Carole to dinner or to see the sights.
Then the day had come to leave the family embrace and head for the campus, where she would spend the next ten weeks as a writing student. No romance writing on the syllabus, but perhaps time to jot something down in her spare time, if there was any. An exchange student has only one semester in which to study in the new country.
It had been a lonely week since she came to live on campus in Alsager. Any people her age were either on staff, or in the village, a fair walk away. The young students seemed to find her invisible, and she sat alone in the canteen, or took her meals back to her room in Westfield Flat, which fortunately was well away from the liveliness of the other halls. But she paid for her quiet and solitude with isolation.
Carole was not on foreign soil as such, having been born in England fifty-seven years ago, but she had lived in Australia for thirty-three of those years, with only a couple of trips back. It was familiar, yet new, many changes having taken place due to the proximity to the European countries that were now so accessible to the British in search of sunshine. The decimal coinage was not the same as the old pounds, shillings and pence she had grown up with, and the decimal coins were worth double the Aussie ones, but bought less somehow. There had been a lot to get used to.
She had left the sunshine behind, and the 42C heat and humidity, and was quite prepared to enjoy the snow and chill winds, provided she was well wrapped up. Her new black microfibre parka was doing the job nicely, and her toes wriggled warmly in the furlined brown suede boots that the shop assistant had assured her would be all the fashion for at least the next season. Everywhere was well heated, sometimes too well, and Carole felt the need to open windows and let some fresh air in. The writing room seemed stuffy.
Carole may have been plump, some would say overweight, but she preferred the description given by a male friend of ‘voluptuous’. Her local store had a clothes section for her size signposted as ‘extra gorgeous’, which she liked. Her hair was threatening to go grey, left to its own devices, but a good hairdresser intervened, and Jo had the blonding down to a fine art. Carole hoped it would last the three months she was out of the country, until she could get back to Jo and the salon again.
She looked around the table at the fresh young faces of the other students, and momentarily felt old, until she told herself firmly that age was only a state of mind, and she was young at heart. Friends were more likely to say ‘emotionally immature’, but not often! The students seemed to have accepted her readily enough, and her input in class last week, when she was introduced, had them in stitches. After all, writing was her forte, and story-telling was part of the game.
Her gaze was wandering around the class languidly then ‘zing’, yes ‘zing’ (like the Judy Garland trolley song ‘…zing went the strings of my heart…’), and her eyes felt like they had done a cartoon ‘boiyong’ on springs as well. There was a new face in the class this week, or new to her; at least as much of the face as she could see behind his long hair, which now fell across as he turned to listen toMeriel, the lecturer, as she commented on something he had written.
He was a long-haired older male, his face partly hidden by his soft brown hair (‘clean hair’ she noted), and his voice, as he started to read his script idea was deep, but warm. The voice of a poet, and when she found out later his name was Jim Browning, he could well have been a descendant of the famous poet, Robert Browning.
He paused and looked across the table as he drew breath. Soft brown eyes, like melted Demerara sugar, met her green eyes, and both seemed to stop breathing simultaneously. The class was watchful. Then Jim gave a little shake, lifted up his script and continued.
Carole was shaken to her core. Jim had had an immediate impact, and she had long thought she was past all those kind of feelings. Her whole body seemed to come alive. Every pore seemed to be open to absorbing his essence, and parts of her were tingling that had been dormant since her dear partner Neville died, or at least since her favourite man Rodney had gone on his heart tablets.
Rodney had not made her feel like this in many years, and their friendship was now that of comfortable old friends, plus Rodney was far away.
Carole looked across at Jim, absorbing him. His fingers were long and sensitive, and she blushed as she imagined how they would feel spanning her ample breasts. The room seemed
unnecessarily hot, since it was trying to snow outside.
Again Jim paused and looked up and across at Carole steadily, and she smiled, but too soon the lesson was over, and in the clamour he had gathered up his things and gone. He seemed a fairly introverted type, judging by the way he sat, hair over the face hand up as if to fend off his neighbours.
Carole felt let down. He was the only person near her age, though a few years younger, and she would have liked to have talked to him.
There was a good chance she would run into him again, since many of the students lived on the campus like her. He would not be in her building though. Carole was sharing with three young men in a quiet building over by the sports field. They were quite separated from the general hubbub of the campus, and all the action.
A few days had passed, and the weather had changed to springlike sunshine, although spring was some weeks away. The daffodils were shooting through the damp rich soil, as if they thought the sun would never come again. Early crocus, looking rather spindly, gave bursts of lilac colour here and there in gardens as she walked into the village. It was Wednesday and that was walking-into-the –village‐day, and a break from study; and the canteen food. Fhe young ones the walk was a short stroll, but to Carole it required a determined effort.
Fortunately she had found ‘The Coffee Pot’ café tucked away next to the bookshop exactly halfway on her round trip, and this had become her refuge.
Firstly though, she thought she would see if she could access some cash from the ATM. It seemed much less in pounds than it had begun as dollars, and she had to be careful. The village charity shops (called ‘opportunity’ or ‘op’ shops at home) had some good-quality clothing, and she was desperate for a change. There was only so much she was allowed to pack for a long-haul flight, and it was disappointing how much had to be left out to make the correct weight.
There hadn’t been much time for trying on clothes when ‘doing the shops’ with the family, so she fervently hoped something would be waiting on the racks today. The bell ‘tinged’ as the door opened, and two friendly ageing faces greeted her with a smile. Carole headed for the remembered ‘large’, (sorry, ‘extra-gorgeous) rack, and spotted a green velvet skirt; long, slightly A-line, looking brand new. There was something about the colour that made her think of hunting. There was a colour called hunting green wasn’t there?
In the changing room she peeled off her padded jacket, cardigan and stretch jeans, and pulled on the skirt. The fabric had a slight stretch, and it was very comfortable. It also matched her blouse.
‘Does it fit?’ called out the lady at the counter. Carole threw back the curtain, one hand holding the skirt in ballroom dancing style, and pranced jokingly out into the shop.
It had been empty a minute ago, and she had not heard the doorbell go, but right in front of her stood Jim! Her cheeks could not go any redder, and were already rosy from the cold wind and the shop heating. Jim had a big grin on his face, and so she decided to brave it out. Twirling around she asked him. ‘How do you like this? ‘Very nice’, was his reply, and she thought he meant it. They chatted for a couple of minutes, two shy people conscious of the watching counter staff. Carole desperately wanted to ask him to go for coffee at the ‘Coffee Pot’, but she had to pay for the skirt. She ducked back into the fitting room, and battled into all her own clothes, hoping he would still be browsing when she emerged, but her heart sank to see the shop once again empty. How did he manage to get in and out without that dinging bell?
Back in the street there was no sign of him either, and she was enveloped by loneliness. A hot chocolate and cake in the café were not the usual comfort food, and the second leg of the round trip seemed a long way. There was no further sign of Jim, except when he was surrounded by young people at a table in the canteen, and she was not going to set herself up for ridicule in front of them by going over and starting a conversation.
She was really out of practice with the dating game, and the young students didn’t seem to flirt at all, just a couple of words and back to one of their rooms.
Listening in unintentionally on several student canteen conversations it became obvious that the students did not know how to play the game either. So many of them, male and female seemed to be sufferig agonies for love, or lust, and not to mind who knew it. But thenon but then they were ďŕama students!
Carole could not get Jim out of her mind, but she knew the weeks were flying by and she told herself it would be too hard to get into a relationship now and have to leave him behind, even if he had been interested.
One day she ran into him as she was heading for her room. He was emerging from the student union office where he ran the student magazine. He was always involved in something, but never anything she could share in, except for when he had told her his new band was playing at the pub, and by the time she had arrived (at the usual Australian going out time) his segment was nearly over, and he did not see her packed among the drinking melee. Carole was about to go over when she saw him sit down with a woman more his age, and realised he had a partner. How foolish she felt then, and headed out to find a taxi. They were not as available as she was used to either.
Now he was coming towards her, a big smile on his face. Slight panic struck her dumb, this mature woman who had flirted her way through several offices in her working life, and enjoyed male company. This man mattered, and she was like a teenager.
‘Hello;’ said Jim, how are you enjoying the classes?’ ‘Oh I can’t get enough of them. There are too many tutorials and not enough group events.’
‘We feel the same about it.’ A voice was screaming inside Carole’s head saying ‘What the hell are you waffling about woman, ask him for coffee, ask him to bed, don’t just talk about classes for God’s sake!’
‘I saw your band play’ came out like a prim Sunday school teacher. It was hopeless, she was past it. How fat and old she suddenly felt. ‘It was good, but I got there a bit late. Well I had better go and get some tea.’ Jim didn’t take the hint and offer to go to the canteen with her, and headed in the opposite direction. It was Friday and Carole still had lots of credit left on her meal card when she carried her take-away dinner out of the serving area. There in front of her was Jim, sitting alone, looking sad.
‘Hi would you like a free dinner, I have tons of credit to use up and you would be doing me a favour, unless you are a vegetarian of course, it is quite nice for once, pork and all the trimmings, would you like it? A pause for breath.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, here, take this one and I will go and get another. Do you mind if I join you?’
‘No that would be good.’ Jim looked relieved. Carole headed into the servery, walking on air, feeling nineteen and 50 kilos light.
They were really getting along great when one of the young band members joined them. The conversation turned to music, and once it got technical she excused herself and left them to it.
They ran into each other once more, when Jim said they had a concert and he would do a song for her. The one she had said she liked the first night he played with his band in the campus disco, sitting on the stage floor totally absorbed in his bongo playing and ignoring the audience. That was the attraction. Carole had picked someone unattainable to fixate on so she would not be distracted elsewhere, or so she told herself..
These feelings for Jim were not going away, and it was starting to hurt. He was never seen with his girlfriend and lived in another building just off campus with some other students, but she could not just go over there and see if he was alone. She did send some emails with pieces for the magazine but these were not commented upon until before class one day, when Jim stopped to say her poem might be going in the next issue, but it would be published after she had gone.
‘When are you going home?’ he asked.
‘In two weeks.’
‘You have got me thinking that I should do something like that.’
‘Well you would like our campus, we are near the city, and the beaches, if you don’t mind a bus ride. We would see you had a good time.’ (‘Wouldn’t we just!’ said the wicked voice in her head).
‘Looks like our concert has been cancelled.’ Carole felt like a blow had struck her. She was so looking forward to this final night of music and who knows what before she headed home. Now it was just work, work, work to finish three lots of assignments to hand in.
She told herself to ‘get real, get a grip’ and all the other motivating catch phrases, and time flew as she finished all her work, which she loved doing. She had met another mature Exchange student, Sue from Buffalo, New York, who had all the guts and go Carole realised she had lost over the years since Nev died. The two caught up with each other a few times when they were both on the same campus, and the local Italian restaurant was their favourite haunt.
Sue had met a man in Manchester, and had gone into a relationship boots and all, or no boots and all, but now she was suffering because her man had suddenly got cold feet. They both commiserated, not knowing whether it was best to have given love a shot in such a short time, or to be like Carole, heartsore and frustrated. It also gave them a few laughs, and a sense of being ‘one of the girls’ again.
Jim was frantically finishing the film script that had been occupying his working time all semester, and Carole had not seen him. Her old school friend from her happy childhood in Scotland had come over for the weekend and they were all outside at the parking space when the doors of the gym slid open and a man in very short nylon shorts, curving against firm brown muscular thighs came striding out, carrying a sports bag. Boy those were great legs! His longish hair was tied back and his profile was so handsome.
Schoolmistress Lesley and her husband Alan followed Carole’s gaze as she gasped ‘That’s Jim!’ At the same time he looked in her direction, and although he could not have heard, gave her a friendly wave. She weakly raised her hand in return. Alan opened the car door and they started to get in, as Jim appeared around the other side of the building. He stepped up to the door of the Union office, and those long masculine legs in the short red shorts were etched indelibly in her mind forever.
Lesley and Alan were unaware of her feelings towards the attractive man, and they all got in the car and drove off for a wonderful day visiting antique barns, historic cafes and fascinating old churches, the sort of pursuits she genuinely enjoyed, and very suitable for a matron of her years, but the long legged image popped up from time to time, and was enjoyed ‘for its artistic content.’
Everything was now finished, the bags packed and repacked in a repeat of what she had done before leaving. Eventually lots of bags went with her when Pauline and David collected her from the rapidly emptying campus. Many daffodils had now bloomed, and as they headed for Manchester hundreds more nodded in the sunshine, glowing yellow, a sign of spring to come, and new life.
The next ten days with her family were bittersweet, knowing it would be some time before she saw them again, and the flight home was uneventful. She watched several dvd’s, too sad to chat much to the other passengers. After disembarking at Sydney Carole walked the corridor to the carousel. She found her luggage without trouble, and nervously presented them to customs, although there was nothing to declare. All she wanted now was to see the face of her son waiting on the other side of the barrier to take her home.
At first there was no sign of Richard among all the foreign faces and just as she was feeling a little wobbly, there he was striding among all the throng, looking like a displaced Viking ancestor; his blonde hair and beard contrasting against the dark beards and turbans of the families joyously meeting relatives.
There own meeting was more restrained, as befitting someone who grew up with British restraints, but they were soon chatting away as Richard pushed her trolley out of the sliding glass doors and into the Australian night…
Three months had passed, and it had been hard to settle down again in her little flat, with no family nearby. Carole went to visit her other son and his family, and loved cuddling young Myles again. They lived a couple of hours travel away, but the trains were tiring. Her grades arrived in the post and reflected well the effort she had put into her class work.
There was still three weeks until the next semester started. Carole was tired of editing her book. Then she had the chance to interview the skipper of a boat that was in the news, and several days were spent setting up then writing and editing a newspaper feature.
Carole felt she was back on her feet, and on with her life.
The phone rang early one morning. Carole looked at the clock. 4am! She nervously lifted the receiver, hoping nothing was wrong with her folks in the UK.
‘Is that Caròle?’
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘Er, um, this is Jim Browning. Do you remember all that information you gave me about your University?
‘Well I put in an application and it came through. I wasn’t sure how you would feel about me coming over, but the place sounded too good to miss.’
‘Well that’s great. When are you coming?’
‘Er, I arrived yesterday, and I have jetlag, which is why I can’t sleep. You gave me your phone number one time.’
‘What did you say?’ Carole started to giggle hysterically..
‘Well, I am here on your campus, in International House, and it is full of young students. I think I am the oldest student on campus.’
‘Darling, I know just how that feels! Go back to sleep now and I will be over in the morning to rescue you. I have got some great beaches to show you, and I promised you some great times.’
‘That you did.’ Chuckled Jim.
‘Well you just hang on to your Akubra hat, mate. This will be an exchange visit you wont ever forget!’.
©Eunice C English