Alice listened with sympathy as Rosie poured out her troubles over a late lunch in their regular haunt, a caf that they had first gone to when it was a burger bar and they were schoolgirls. In the years since, it had been a pizzeria, a Spanish tapas bar and, for a brief spell, a specialist organic vegetarian restaurant. Now it was a tearoom selling the best home-made soup, filled rolls and cake selection in town, and they met there every Monday without fail.They were as close as sisters, and Alice knew how this past week had torn Rosie apart not that her friend let it show. Rosie was one of the strongest women she had ever come across.It was there again in the way she was teasing Alice now.“What’s this I hear about you being swept off your feet by a tall dark stranger?”“Oh, I expect you mean Rob,” she admitted coyly, blushing. “I met him last Sunday. I phoned to tell you afterwards but . . . well . . .”“So tell me now what’s he like?”With her trademark humour, Alice described the comical accident that had brought about their meeting, making Rosie chuckle.“So you could say I fell head over heels!” she ended. “But seriously, we’ve been out for dinner since and it was lovely. You know how stories always say the romantic couple chatted like old friends? Well, it really does feel as if I’ve known him for ever, and yet I get as excited as a sixteen-year-old whenever I think about him.”Rosie smiled affectionately.“Sounds great. So you’ll be seeing him again?”Alice nodded.“He’s getting theatre tickets for Friday, and he asked me if I’m free on Saturday, too. Naturally I said I’ll have to check my diary. I don’t want to look too available! But he said he’ll phone on Wednesday to confirm. What do you think?”“He sounds pretty keen, Al. Keen, handsome and single you should snap him up!”“That’s just what I intend to do.”Alice chatted happily on for the next hour, describing Rob, and recounting everything she knew about him, all the time thankful to see the way Rosie’s face gradually lost its haunted look and some of the sparkle returned to her eyes.Finally Rosie glanced at her watch, and looked again.“Look at the time! We’ve been here for three hours! Don’t you have to be at work?”Alice shrugged.“I’m my own boss, remember? I am officially giving myself the afternoon off. So, what do you want to do? Fancy a root around the shops?”Rosie again glanced at her watch.“It’s tempting, to be honest, but I don’t think I can leave Adam manning the office.”“Phone him tell him something came up. He managed last week, didn’t he? And you’ll be snowed under soon enough when you’re in charge. So make the most of him while you’ve got him, and come and help me find a dress for the theatre on Friday. You always know just the right colour for me it’s your artist’s eye. Shame it never gets to express itself anywhere else these days.”Rosie frowned.“I don’t know.”“Please?”She saw Rosie waver.“Well, I suppose Adam has managed so far. And if he doesn’t it’ll prove my point. OK, you’re on.”Giggling, they left the caf, both reminded of a time in the distant past when they had bunked off school to go shopping for dresses for the Scouts annual Christmas disco.
* * * *
Slouched on the sofa, a cold cup of tea at his elbow, Alan heard the front door open and guessed it was Rosie coming home. He looked up from the evening paper, which he’d been reading with no casual interest since he was a reporter on its sister morning paper, “The Sandford Gazette”. “Well?” he said when she came into the room, shrugging off her jacket. He knew how she had been dreading this day, for so many different reasons.“I’ve been playing hookey,” she told him, laughing. “I had lunch with Alice and you know what a bad influence she can be!”Alan couldn’t disguise his surprise. This wasn’t what he had expected. He’d thought she would be immersed in work at the office.“I left Adam in charge at the yard. Apparently Mum asked him to step in. So I left him to it.”All the hurt she felt was in her tone. Alan chose his words with care.“It’s time he took on some of the responsibilities of this family. He’s no slouch, your brother. Just because he dropped out of uni . . . I always reckoned it showed backbone.” Especially since he’d had to stand up to Martin Willson to do it. Alan had always felt faintly intimidated by his big, bluff father-in-law. “Better to be honest than carry on doing a course he hated,” he added.“I know. It’s just I don’t understand why Mum asked him and not me. But anyway, I had a great time with Alice. She’s met this man who’s swept her off her feet. You know what a romantic she is!”He was hardly listening, his thoughts slipping back to the meeting he’d attended earlier, and Rosie saw it.