Sally leaned over and stroked Ben’s hair back from his forehead. She hated to see him looking so defeated.
“My poor love, you thought you were doing the right thing. Your motives have always been of the best. Even as a little boy you were always very kind and trusting; always ready to see the best in the other children even when they were horrible. I’d hoped that studying Human Resources might toughen you up a bit, not as much as the dreaded Slime, but enough to shrug off the advances if the office harpy.”
Ben blushed profusely; it was true that none of his studies had actually covered fending off amorous colleagues, and there was no way he wanted to be as ruthless as Gavin Slime, but he thought that his studies, an increased level of maturity and years of being in a relationship with Melissa, would have enabled him to deal with the dreaded Karen.
He found himself unable to meet Ruby’s eyes across the dinner table. For Ruby, this was a turning point. She decided then that Ben was rather nice and that she should try and do something to help him.
“I’ll be your fantasy girlfriend if you like.” she said, spooning in more chilli and waiting for a reaction.
Sally laughed. Then she stopped laughing and looked over at Ruby quizzically. “Are you serious, darling?”
Ruby nodded. “Think about it. Ben comes from around here originally, so it makes sense if he has a girlfriend from the area, a girl who knew him before he went off to London and is overjoyed that he has gained his masters, and come back here to work. I’m young, free and single at the moment. I had first-hand experience of the three witches when I worked over in the office last week, so I know what I’m up against. Ben and I wouldn’t be allowed any public displays of affection during working hours, but we’d only have to be seen in the town at lunchtime, or after work at the pub before the rumour mill starts to work. Ben can say that he kept quiet about it because he wasn’t too sure about the policy on couples working in the same team – although we aren’t even in the same department. Besides, Margaret and Desmond work in the same department and they are married.”
“The less said about Margaret and Desmond’s marriage the better. What do you think Ben?”
Sally turned towards a shocked Ben, who was looking pale and making no attempt to eat all. He kept looking across the table at Ruby, who was eating her chilli with gusto. Under normal circumstances, if he’d been introduced to her at a party or in the pub, he would have said unequivocally that she was his type, and that she was very attractive, but pretending to be in a relationship with her in order to protect himself from the harpy that was Karen was just wrong. He still had thoughts of Melissa in his head every night. And day. The last thing he needed to clutter up his mind was another entanglement, even with someone as bright and gorgeous as Ruby.
“Ben. Speak to me?”
Sally put her hand over his and pulled his face round to her with her other hand.
“Ruby is very kindly offering to save you from certain misery. I happen to think that she makes a very attractive and intelligent companion, and any hot-blooded young man would be only too happy to take her out to lunch or for a drink after work.”
Ben shook his chin free and coughed in embarrassment. Ruby wondered if she had gone too far, he was actually very good-looking, especially when he blushed.
“It was just an idea Ben. I didn’t mean to embarrass you, or make you feel uncomfortable. I just thought it would be a bit more believable if your fantasy girlfriend was real. I know all about you from Sally, and I’m the only person that knows that you are Sally’s godson. It might be useful if people thought we were an item?”
“She’s right Ben. Just stop and think a bit. If you and Ruby see each other at work, she can give you some of the information you need, and you can pass things on to her as well. If Ruby’s willing to expose herself to Karen’s wrath by posing as your girlfriend, I think you’d be churlish to turn her down. Have you had enough to eat yet or have you lost your legendary appetite?”
The chilli was remembered and so was Ben’s appetite. His forehead furrowed as he tucked in again, and thought through Ruby’s proposition. Was this really what he had spent four years of university studying for his masters? Sally cleared the rest of the food away and went off to stack the dishwasher. Ruby sipped at the last of her wine pensively and looked across the table at Ben who had finally finished his dinner.
“Well?” she said. “Is the thought of me as your girlfriend so repellent?”
He had the grace to blush again. “No – please – I didn’t mean it to sound that way at all. I’m – how much has Sally told you about my current situation?”
“Not much. You’ve been at Uni in London. You have a masters. Your mum is Sally’s sister. You’re sharing a flat with a guy who runs a gym.”
“I was in a relationship until recently. We’d been together right the way through Uni and always intended to settle down together in London. Then this thing cropped up with Sally and after talking to Mum, I thought well, all experience is useful and I had to start somewhere so it may as well be here and see if I could help Sally out. Melissa, my girlfriend, didn’t see it the same way. She thought that putting my family first was wrong, and that she should be my first priority. I saw a side of her that I didn’t like, and that was effectively the end of us. I knew Simon was living back here and gave him a call, we both liked the idea of sharing again – and there we are. My life in a nutshell.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise about your – your ex-girlfriend. How long ago did you split up?”
Ben took a deep breath and tried to banish the painful parting.
“Once we’d – well I’d decided to take the job here there seemed little point in staying. I packed my things up into a van and drove home. I spent some time helping around the house, doing odd jobs, and working behind the bar at our local. Mum was glad to have me home for a while; it hasn’t been easy for her since Dad died. Keeping busy kept my mind off things. I miss Melissa though, miss the life she and I had together, but if what we had was really that good, she would have come with me. Wouldn’t she?”
Not completely sure whether she would have stayed with the bright lights of the big city, or followed Ben up North, Ruby stayed silent for a moment. Sally came back in carrying ice cream and home-made brownies. Discussion was temporarily halted whilst pudding was consumed and it was Ruby, after raising a warning eyebrow at her friend, who gathered up the bowls and spoons to take them out to the kitchen.
Sally grabbed Ben’s hand again.
“Before you say anything more, I have to tell you that I’ve been talking to your mum whilst I was in the kitchen. Don’t look at me like that Ben, she is my sister after all. She told me what happened in London. Darling I am so sorry. Perhaps it’s too soon to be pretending that you have a new girlfriend when you’re still tender from splitting up from Melissa. I’m just worried that although Karen and her chums have lost a considerable amount of their power now that Mandy is out of the picture, she can make your life a misery if she can’t get her claws into you. Ruby supplied me with some very graphic descriptions of the three witches the other day. I’ve worked with women like that before. I really don’t want you chewed up and spat out in bubbles my love.”
Unable to suppress a grin at the very thought, Ben looked a lot happier when Ruby came back into the room. She had eked out her absence as long as possible but even after a visit to the bathroom had been accomplished, she couldn’t stay away any longer. Sally got up and fetched two A4 pads and two pens from her desk. She placed them in front of Ben and Ruby.
“Okay you two. I want you to write twenty things about yourself that you think would be important for a partner to know. I’m sure I can do better than an online dating agency any day.”
Ben gave her a look. “I haven’t said yes yet.”
“Nor will you until you’ve both done as I’ve asked you to. It may well be that you have nothing in common, and are completely incompatible. On the other hand, you may discover that there are several areas of interest that are the same, or at least overlap. Get writing!”
Ruby giggled and picked up her pen, intrigued to find out whether she and Ben were a match or not. Ben had to admit, only to himself, that this was more fun than brooding over Melissa. Sally returned to the kitchen, made a huge pot of coffee, and texted an update to both her sister, and Ed. By the time she came back Ben and Ruby were both writing furiously and on their second sheets of paper. Once they had finished, Sally gathered up the papers and with her spectacles perched on the end of her nose, smiled as she worked her way through them.
The coffee was good; hot and strong with cream and brown sugar on the side. Ruby poured cups for the three of them, and watched as Sally’s smile spread into a grin. She put the papers down and looked from one to the other.
“Well. It would appear that the two of you have a great deal in common. There are a few areas of slight disagreement, but I assume that’s fairly normal. I’ve been with your uncle for thirty-four years Ben, and I still don’t understand why he refuses to drink coffee when he loves the smell of it. I’ve explained to him that the rubbish instant coffee he drank as a teenager bears no resemblance to the decent coffee I use – but he won’t even try it. There are some things in life that aren’t worth having an argument about. Why don’t you have a look at each other’s answers?”
She passed them the papers and sat back, cradling her coffee cup in her hands as she sipped it slowly.
It was Ruby that started laughing first, then Ben joined in and as both of them showed Sally what had caused their amusement, she started laughing again. Ruby looked over at Ben.
“Fancy ‘My Cousin Vinnie’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ being your favourite films!”
“Or the fact that you love crab sandwiches and hate Brussel sprouts.”
Sally pulled a face. “Everyone hates Brussel sprouts. Don’t they?”
“Okay.” said Ben. “Not everyone likes salad cream and sliced cheese sandwiches, or going to the beach when it’s raining.”
“Or Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.”
“Or listening to the Divine Comedy and Joni Mitchell.”
Nodding sagely, Sally shrugged.
“I rest my case. You two quite unwittingly have many shared interests. Now write down the things that you think someone like Karen would expect you to know about each other – where you live, how old you are, family members and friends – don’t put me down either of you – pets, schools, universities, qualifications – you know the score. When you’ve finished, swap over and memorise. Your Aunty Sally will give you a test and there will be a prize for the winner.”
“What kind of prize?” said Ruby eagerly, her competitive edge beginning to show.
“Certain safety for my lovely nephew, and something to keep you occupied so you don’t end up strangling Bob or head-butting Margaret. If you make Adam cry Ruby, I will get cross. The poor man is just a lamb to the slaughter in all this.”
“Humph, he still collects a salary at the end of the month though doesn’t he, which is more than you do anymore.”
“Concentrate Ruby, I think you’ll find that Ben is just as competitive as you are.” said Sally. “You may even have met your match. One thing you will have to do Ben, is to explain your relationship with Ruby to Gavin Slime. He may see it as a threat to his plans to scupper my tribunal, but on the other hand, he might think that he can get you to find out more about my plans through Ruby.”
Ruby snorted. “As if I’d give anything away that would help that creep!”
“Think laterally darling. I can give you misleading information that you can pass on to Ben, and he can give it to the Slimy one.”
Ben was seeing a sign of Sally that he had never seen before. She had always been his kind and funny aunt, but now he could understand how and why she had written such a devious and cunning exposure of her ex-colleagues in her book. His mother had given him a copy when she knew that he was considering taking up the job offer. Although he had only been working for the local authority for a short time, he had already identified some of her characters, and witnessed some of the sharp practices that she had exposed.
“I have a feeling that I know what’s going on in your mind Ben. You’ve read the book and now you are smack in the middle of the den of manipulating wolves. If this is too much, then cut your losses while you are still on probation. This is going to get very ugly, and I have no serial killer to bump off those who would seek to destroy me.”
He had to admit that he had thought that some of the issues in the book were a bit far-fetched, but now he was experiencing the corruption for real, he could see why Sally had proved to be such an annoyance to her more incompetent colleagues. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and grinned at Sally and Ruby.
“My mother always says that I take after you more than her, Sally. Stubborn and too strong-willed for my own good. I hate admitting defeat so I accept the challenge!”