Joanne had a two-room bedsit with wash facilities and a TV, a real coal fire and a single bed. The fire burned low and kept going all night, not that much heat coming from it but it gave out a flickering red light that I would stare at sometimes, when I woke.
We were at that point in the relationship where the sex was still electric but the spaces in between were beginning to widen. We filled those gaps with talk and sleep and being apart. At all of those times we wondered about each other.
One night we were lying in front of the fire, naked but still warm with love, and she said, ‘Tell me about the most romantic thing that has ever happened to you.’
I shook my head, not having an answer.
She pushed up on her elbow; her hip silhouetted against the glow of the fire, leaned forward and kissed me.
‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘about the most romantic moment in your life.’
I kissed her back and then thought for a moment, and said to her, ‘Alright then.’
I said, ‘When I was thirteen years old I used to go to a youth club at the Methodist church hall over by Burn Park. You know the place?’
‘Most of the other kids were two or three years older than me, and they were tough kids, but they looked after me. It was a good place to be when you’re thirteen; the rest of my life was pretty bad at the time. I had a few good friends there: Mickey Yuill, John Young, and Mickey’s half-brother Mark, he was my hero. I wanted to be like him; walk like him, hang out with him, cheer him on when he got into fights. Mick worried about Mark but I was, like, an acolyte, you know. A fan.’
She smiled at me.
‘And there were lots of girls there too; pretty girls like Wendy and Heather and Vicky who’d laugh and carry on like mad things, girls with long hair and cool clothes and who knew how to dance. They would teach me the moves.
‘There was one girl, Carol, she was fifteen.’
‘An older woman,’ Joanne said, teasing.
‘Yeah, like so much older than me, really, and I adored her, more than any of the others, and I could never tell her.
‘Anyhow, one day we had all gone on a trip to this old people’s home on the Low Ford estate to do a Christmas service.’ I explained, ‘The youth club was run by this vicar, Dave Hill, and this fat guy with one leg called Walter, and two middle-aged twins who taught aikido. They persuaded us to do this singing thing, this service for the old people, and we didn’t mind, the old people liked it and when we were done we got biscuits and tea. It was a trip off the estate and there was no risk of trouble. All these raggy kids, these chavs, singing out of tune at the tops of their voices. We couldn’t remember half the words of the carols so we were making a lot of it up.
‘Afterwards we had to walk home, it was about three miles and it was early December. Three or four miles.
‘So we started walking back, talking, carrying on, showing off to each other, the usual stuff, and after about half a mile Carol stepped over and linked her arm into mine. She said she was cold and did I mind? It was starting to snow, just a little bit, and the next day it would be a complete white-out, though we didn’t know it right then. She kept her arm in mine and we walked and talked. This pleased me so much. Once she left go of my arm to go into a shop to buy gum and I worried she’d start walking with someone else when she came out but she didn’t, she linked her arm onto mine again. She held onto me like we were a couple, or at least she knew that I had a crush on her and she wanted to make me happy.
‘When we got close to her house she had to leave go; her dad was strict, really strict. We’d heard rumours that he used to hit her and stuff, though she never talked about it. And he didn’t approve of any of her friends. Only the fact that it was a church youth club made it possible for her to be with us.’
I paused for a moment, thinking about what I had just said, suddenly realizing that Carol wasn’t just a girl I had known and idolised, she was a real person, with a life as imperfect as my own.
I said to Joanne, ‘That was it really, my most romantic moment, just walking arm-in-arm with Carol who I adored, and knowing that she knew it and that she liked me too.’
‘Did you ever get with her, you know, properly?’ Joanne asked.
I shook my head, ‘No. I stopped going to the youth club not long after that. Mark got barred for fighting, so Mickey stopped going, and John was Mark’s best pal, so he stopped going too. Then others; it all began to die off. So I stopped going too.’
Joanne put her arms around me, pulled me down onto her.
As we kissed I thought of the last time I saw Carol; she was about twenty one or two by then, she’d come back from uni and she was living with her grandmother in a big old house on the edge of town. We went for a coffee and reminisced about the gang. She told me Mickey was working abroad, and I said that I’d heard John had been married but his wife had died and he was left with a little boy to bring up. She’d heard that too. Vicky was at medical school. Heather was in a band. Mark was working as a doorman and dealing drugs. Everything had changed and yet nothing had changed. I still adored her and I still couldn’t tell her.
Then Joanne whispered something to me, her voice breaking into my thoughts, bringing me back to the moment, and I gazed down at her as she reached up for me, whispering something more, raising her hips toward me.
The fire gave off its warm glow.