“Sarah! Is it really you?”
The face that had once been so familiar hadn’t really changed that much over the past nineteen years. Millie. Sarah’s staunch companion through university who had gone off to find herself long before Andy even thought of the idea. It appeared to Sarah that Millie hadn’t just found herself, she was doing very well for herself too. Her style of dress was a little more conventional than it had been when they were students together, but then so was Sarah’s.
Millie stood at the side of the table beaming, then threw her arms around Sarah in the biggest and happiest hug she had ever received.
“I want to say that you look wonderful Sarah, but I can see that you’ve been crying.”
Millie sat down next to her and Sarah wanted to cry again but not here, in this crowded coffee shop with the three people that Millie had walked in with watching her.
“What are you doing here? Are you here for long? Can we meet up for lunch?”
Millie’s questions spilled out like rapid machine gun fire. Sarah smiled again.
“I’m visiting for the day, I have loads to tell you that will probably make me cry, so can we have lunch somewhere quiet where people won’t look at me?”
“Of course, I know just the place. I can’t stop now because we’re in the middle of filming a show, and we just had to escape for five minutes to let things calm down. It should be me that is doing the calming down, but I’m breaking in a new runner so I’ve left him to cope. “
She pulled a card out of her pocket and thrust it into Sarah’s hand.
“I’ll meet you here at one o’clock. The restaurant is just round the corner. Here’s my number in case anything happens. It is SO good to see you again.”
Another hug and a warm kiss on the cheek left Sarah feeling as if her world had just been turned upside down, but in a good way. Millie returned to the counter, and with a parting wave, grabbed up her coffee and joined her colleagues rushing across the concourse.
Sarah was in shock. She turned her attention back to her own latte and a sticky cake that seemed far more appetising now. As her watch confirmed that it was only five past eleven and that left almost two hours of browsing in shops that Andy would hate, and probably buying things that Andy would hate too.
Avoiding the camping and mountaineering shop, Sarah spent a pleasant hour in a shop full of the kind of weird and wonderful oddities that fascinated her and infuriated Andy; a miniature sewing kit inside a ladybird, a cactus shaped massage ball that she could keep in her handbag and use on her aching back at the end of the day, a sketchpad and some coloured pencils so that she hoped might reawaken her inner artist. This successful and emotionally- freeing shopping trip gave her the confidence to walk into the computer shop and open her heart to a very young, but extremely knowledgeable girl who took note of Sarah’s needs, showed her various laptops and printers and helped her to choose something that was efficient, smart and not too heavy. Sarah paid up and arranged delivery for the following day.
With a lightness of step, Sarah returned to the coffee shop and waited for Millie to return. She wasn’t expecting her to be on time; thirteen years was hardly enough to give Millie the ability to be on time. Dead on one o’clock however, a smiling Millie appeared and bestowed yet another hug. Grabbing Sarah’s arm, she steered her around the corner to an Italian restaurant that was so full of red gingham tablecloths and empty Chianti bottles sporting wax dripped candles, that Sarah felt she had stepped back in time. A smiling waiter ushered them to a corner booth at the back of the restaurant, handed them menus and took their drink orders.
“Okay Sarah, what have you been up to?”
Sarah shook her head. “You first. The last time I saw you, you were toting a rucksack almost as big as you, and heading off to India. I would guarantee that your life has been far more interesting than mine.”
Millie took a deep breath. “Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you the potted version and we can fill in the gaps at a later date. Trust me Sarah, the woman you see before you is a world away from the girl you waved off at Heathrow.”
“You look a lot better dressed, and you’ve obviously got a good hairdresser.”
“Yes, well Chapter One of the story of Millie; I went to India, fell in love, fell out of love – times that by seven in short succession. After the seventh I fell pregnant, and came home to give birth and shame my poor parents. After Tom was born, I did some top-up training, put Tom in a creche and worked with the poor and needy of Tower Hamlets. There have been several men that I thought could be potential husband and father material, but none of them turned out to be Mr Right. A friend tipped me off that a TV presenter was looking for a trained social worker to provide support on his show; I went for the job, we argued with each other, and he decided that I was just what he needed to make the show a hit. I don’t appear on set much but when I do I have to look reasonably well-kempt, hence the decent clothes and the good hair. Two years ago, production of the show moved North, so Tom and I moved up here too. My boy has done very well at school and college, so well in fact, that he has just left me and the cat to start training for a medical degree in Cambridge. I miss him. Your turn.”
Sarah shook her head in disbelief. it was hard to imagine Millie as a mother, let alone the mother of a Cambridge undergraduate. She drew in a deep breath.
“After you left on that plane to India I went home to my parents, got a job in children’s social care and led a very boring and mundane life for six years. Mum died of breast cancer and secondaries in that time. She said that she had been too busy to go to the doctors. Dad was broken-hearted and went downhill rapidly after she died. I’m not sure if you remember them, but I was a change of life baby, and they were already retired by the time I graduated. I looked after Dad as best I could but I don’t think I helped him much – all those years of social work training, and I couldn’t put it into practice for the one man who needed it.”
Millie took Sarah’s hand in hers. “Join the club love, social workers are lousy at organising their own lives.”
The waiter brought their drinks over and in accordance with his suggestion they both ordered garlic bread with mozzarella and the special, seafood ravioli in a crab and sweet pepper sauce.
“More?” said Millie, raising her glass of red wine. Sarah smiled as their glasses met.
“A friend persuaded me to take Dad on a tour of one of the local stately homes. He wasn’t really that interested, but he’d always enjoyed gardening so I thought he’d like the gardens there. They were beautiful. It was a mistake though. It just reminded him of Mum, and he sat down on a bench and cried like a baby. One of the gardeners came over; he seemed a nice chap and he helped me get Dad back to the car so I could take him home. He asked for my phone number. I thought it was because he was interested in Dad so I gave it to him.”
Sarah took a long sip of her wine.
“Dad had a stroke that night and was unable to call for help. By the time I went into him with a cup of tea the next morning the damage was done. He died three weeks later in a hospice. The nice gardener – Andy – called to ask after Dad several times, and even came to see him in the hospice. Andy was very kind to me, a real gentleman, and he stopped me from falling apart when Dad finally died. I clung to Andy like a drowning woman, and inevitably our friendship grew into something more serious.”
“You got married?” Millie asked.
“No. That was against Andy’s principles. I found out later that he had a great many principles but at the time he was all that I had. I sold the house and moved in with him. We were together for ten years. He was promoted to head gardener, and I worked my way up to senior practitioner level. I suppose you could say that I led a double life; competent and composed at work, subservient to Andy when at home, although of late I have been rebelling. I met Jude at work, she is my very best friend. She’s given up social work now because she has three children to look after. Andy and I agreed that we didn’t want children though, and he had a vasectomy because he thought I was too scatty to remember to take the pill.”
“Oh nice! I can’t wait to meet him.”
“You’ll have to go to Thailand. Six weeks ago, he dumped me. Told me he was going to Thailand and selling the house, so I’d have to find somewhere else to live. In for a penny in for a pound, I took voluntary redundancy, and took the train up here today armed with my CVs, in order to find a new job.”
“Oh Sarah! You are well rid of him. It wasn’t Andy you were crying about, were you?”
Sarah shook her head and explained about the disastrous agency visits.
“Miles is okay,” said Millie. “We use Miles when we need any extra staff. I’m not surprised that you opened up to him, he has the reputation of being something of a ladies’ man.”
This news cheered Sarah a little. She hadn’t been looking forward to starting the rounds of agencies all over again.
The garlic bread arrived and Sarah steered the conversation back to Millie’s present job.
“Oliver is the presenter of the show – you’ve undoubtedly heard of him although I don’t suppose you watch it. He specialises in stripping away facades and getting to the ‘truth’. Most of the people who come on his show have had a very colourful past; drink, drugs, prostitution, domestic violence, custody issues. The show provides counselling, detox, rehab, and organised access, and that is where I come in. I run the social work side for the psychologist. I make all the arrangements for after care, and sometimes I get called in to give an opinion or mediate with the really difficult cases. Oz isn’t a social worker or a psychologist, but he is very skilled at getting people to open up and talk about their issues. He opens Pandora’s box and I have to jam the lid back down again.”
Wiping her garlicky hands on the napkin, Sarah said “You don’t like him much, do you?”
“For the first couple of months I hated him, and hated the show, then I realised that for every ten awful chavs who just wanted the publicity, there was always going to be one that wanted help, and that we could provide it in a way that no one else can. Oz is not the nicest of people, but he is honest about what he does and how he feels. We frequently disagree but that adds to the interest. More wine or some water?”
“Water please. I have to get home on the train yet.”
The waiter brought plates of steaming ravioli in a delicate peach coloured sauce. It was heaven, and there was little conversation until they had both cleaned their plates. Sarah excused herself and went off to the lavatory, a haven of black tiling and white porcelain with her favourite hand driers. When she returned, she found Millie poring over the dessert menu with a big grin on her face.
“Guess what! I just phoned Oz, and he said I could smuggle you into the audience this afternoon – only if you want to and you don’t have any other plans, mind?”
It might have been the wine, or the Marsala-filled zabaglione that finished off their dinner, but Sarah felt light-headed and ridiculously happy as Millie took her arm and led her over to the studios. She had to fill in several security forms in order to get a pass. ‘Access All Areas’ made her feel incredibly important.
Millie introduced her to people as they walked through corridors and small ante-rooms. Sarah smiled back at everyone; they were all very busy but found time to say hello to Millie’s long-lost friend. By the time they got to the studio, people were beginning to filter in; shown to their seats by a number of black clad assistants wearing headsets. Millie took Sarah to a seat right at the top of the tiered seating.
“You’ll be okay here. Just follow the instructions from the floor manager and stay put whatever happens. And Sarah …”
“Welcome to my world. It’s a joy to have found you again.”