The usual people were on display in the Crown and Key, occupying their usual spots. The combinations that conspicuously were or weren't talking to each other did not appear to have altered since the week before. Dave was in charge of the drama behind the bar at his high-camp best. The same old songs on the jukebox were competing with the hubbub of the same old voices.
I wove my way between the bodies to my customary table, deposited my pint and sat down. Jen, Sandra and Trish acknowledged me with variations on, "How yer doing?" Liz and Debbie were too busy talking football to do more than smile briefly in my direction.
I was about to fit into the pattern and offer my thoughts on Liverpool's chance of winning the Premiership, when Sandra ducked her head and whispered urgently, "Quick. Think of an excuse. Paula's coming."
The warning was a nice touch, but too general to be useful, and there was no time to ask for supplementary details. A hand descended on my shoulder. "Hey, Chris. What are you doing this Saturday?"
I composed my face into a regretful smile and twisted around. Paula loomed over me. Her persona, as ever, radiated the optimistic intensity of the evangelist - which, in a way, she was. Paula's mission was to free the world from all forms of intolerance, unfairness and general rottenness. Admittedly, these were worthy aims, but far too zealously pursued. If anyone ever finds the first draft of the Gay Agenda, I'll bet it has Paula's signature on the bottom.
"I'm sorry. I alre..."
"I'm doing a car boot sale for CEDLA. My garage is full of stuff. I'm trying to get people together to help sort through it."
Experience told me not to ask who or what CEDLA was, or even to confirm that I had heard it correctly. The name, or acronym, undoubtedly belonged to a worthwhile and important cause that was in desperate need of money, and Paula would be very willing to tell me about it at great length.
"I'm afraid I've...
Paula was practiced at not hearing excuses. "Sue and her new girlfriend are coming. So are Roz, Dee and Jackie. And Cathy and Ange said they'd try to make it."
The name hit me, just like it always did. I fought to hide my reaction as I queried, "Roz?"
"Rosalind Thompson - you remember her?"
No doubt about that.
"I thought she was still in Sheffield." I hoped that my voice didn't sound as forced to everyone else as it did to me.
"She was in here last night and said she'd call by. So what about you? Can you make it for 10 o'clock?"
"Ummm..." I had no desire to give over part of my Saturday to digging through mounds of cast off rubbish, but I'd have agreed to do far worse if it meant spending a few hours within a dozen yards of Roz, although I didn't want to seem too enthusiastic, in case anyone guessed my motive. "Er..."
Paula patted my shoulder. "Tell you what; I'll put you down as a maybe." She wandered off in search of more victims.
I tuned back to the rest of the table.
"Good old Paula." Trish said. "She nearly had you there."
I tried to match the casual grin, but my face felt numb, leading to the nasty suspicion that I'd gone either white, red or possibly green. I prayed that no one would notice and took a mouthful of beer, while flexing my throat muscles in the hope that they would perform properly.
"Did any of you see Roz last night?" Thankfully, the exercise seemed to have worked and my voice sounded steady.
"I spoke to her briefly." Sandra said.
"I didn't know she was in town."
"Been back a about a week, I think she said." Sandra glanced left and right, as if hoping for someone to confirm her memory. "She's staying with Dee and Jackie until she finds a place."
"Hasn't she been in touch with you?" Jen asked.
I shook my head "No. We sort of drifted out of contact. We..." My voice faded and I shrugged.
"Denise was an idiot." Liz said, taking a short break from talking about sport.
"What's she doing now?"
"I heard she was going out with an air hostess."
"Knowing Denise, I'll bet it's just to get cheap flights."
"Or the size of her tits."
"Roz is better off without her."
I played no part in the debate. I know my limits, and saying anything would have pushed me well beyond them.
Roz and I had met two years before. I'd felt an instant spark, which had kindled into a hot flame. And she'd seemed to like me a lot as well. We'd gone to films, pubs, shops and football matches together. Most of the time we'd laughed and clowned around, but we could talk sensibly as well, about almost anything. The only problem was that Roz formed half of "Roz and Denise', and she never once stepped over the mark of "just good friends'.
Denise, however, had not shared Roz's commitment to fidelity. After several poorly concealed affairs, she'd shown the ridiculously bad judgement to ditch Roz in favour of a hairdresser from Romford.
Roz had been heartbroken. I'd been torn between anger and agony on her behalf, but I wouldn't be human if I hadn't also felt that maybe now I had a chance. If Roz was going to rebound, I prayed that it would be in my direction. My shoulder was all ready and waiting to be cried on, but not merely as a cynical ploy because I fancied my luck. Roz was a friend who I cared about.
And she had barricaded me out - me and the rest of the world.
I'd rung her seven times. She'd spoken tersely on the phone and avoided any suggestion for us to meet up. She hadn't rung back. The feeling grew that Roz was finding me to be an unwanted pain in the neck (or some other part of her anatomy).
I took to detouring on my way to the pub or the shops, so that I'd walk down her street, hoping that we might bang into each other "by accident'. We didn't; and I was still making the detours when I learned that she'd moved back up to Sheffield, to be near her parents.
For a while, I wondered if she'd seen me loitering outside her house and felt that I was stalking her. I wouldn't have blamed her if she had; my behaviour had been getting extreme enough to worry even me. I'd changed the wallpaper on my PC to a photo of her. I'd rung her home when I knew she'd be at work, so I could hear her voice on the answer machine. Was she frightened that I'd become a weirdo? Had she moved to avoid me? Then I worried that I was losing touch with reality, by assuming everything Roz did was in response to me. Maybe it was a sign of my descent into the stalker mentality. Most likely, Roz didn't think about me from one day to the next.
Whatever the truth was, the message was clear. Roz did not want to continue our friendship, let alone advance it. I tried to be an adult and accept this, and made a point of not finding out her new address, or telephone number, or making any attempt to get in contact. This decision was followed by me lying awake at nights, fretting that I might previously have sent an accidental "not interested" message to Roz, and that she'd started ignoring me as part of a similar attempt to "be an adult'.
I discovered that no matter how hard you bang your head on a pillow, you can't knock yourself out.
Six months had passed, and now Roz was back in town. I wondered if she was really going to help sort out the garage, or if she'd just said it to stop Paula hassling her. I wondered if Roz would want to talk to me, if we happened to be there together. I wondered what Paula was going to want us to do - because there was no way, on God's earth that I wasn't going to go.
Sue was standing in Paula's driveway when I arrived, next to a tall, gawky woman with glasses, whom I took to be the new girlfriend. Doubtless we'd get introduced, but Sue's affairs never lasted long enough for it to be worth remembering the names.
As I walked up the path, the garage door opened and Paula emerged, like Aladdin from his cave. It was a good thing that the only transport she owned was a bicycle. Paula indicated the mounds filling the space and started to list where the various contributions had come from, although I'm not sure why she thought we'd want to know this.
The sound of a car stopping made me halt and look back. Dee's blue Metro had pulled up in the street. Out of it clambered Dee, Jackie and then Roz. I tried to act as if I hadn't just been hit by a sledgehammer.
"Hi, Chris. Didn't expect to see you here." Dee called to me as she locked the car.
Roz was hanging back, but then she trotted up the path, flung her arms around me and said, "Hey, great to see you. How are you doing?"
I shrugged and wrinkled my nose. "Much as ever."
"That good, ay?" Roz gave one of her old beaming smiles.
"How about you?"
"Better." The smile stayed in place, but the single word held a serious undertone. Her eyes met mine, and stayed there.
The eye lock ended only when Jackie's arm wrapped itself around my shoulder. "So, Paula has finally roped you in to doing something useful."
Roz moved up the path to greet Sue and this week's attachment.
"Um, well... I was... I was..." I was running out of articulate speech. Luckily, Jackie was not the sort of woman to think anything of the lapse. She squeezed my shoulder again and then headed to the garage. I tagged on at the rear.
How long had Roz's eyes held mine? Did it mean anything? Was it just that Roz was trying to pass on the message that she'd recovered from being ditched by Denise? Had I lost track of time? Was I reading too much into it?
Is there a limit to how long two lesbians can hold eye contact before it has to mean something more than friendship?
While pondering this question, I joined the gang clustered at the entrance to the garage. Paula was spouting a set of incomprehensible instructions that seemed to make sense to everyone apart from me, so maybe my confusion was due to a lack of attention.
"I need someone to sort through the clothes and pick out the good stuff," Paula finished.
"I'll do it," Roz said.
Roz grinned at me. "You? Don't tell me you've gone and acquired some idea about fashion while I've been away?"
"No, which is why I'd be the ideal assistant. I won't be tempted to waste time arguing with your decisions."
Everyone else was happy to leave the clothes to us, and before long, Paula had her team marshalled and lugging objects around to her satisfaction.
Roz and I knelt at one side, by a heap of black rubbish bags. We got into a rhythm. I opened the bags, pulled the clothes out and arranged them on a plastic sheet for Roz's inspection. She made her decision, put the rejects back into rubbish bags and folded the "good stuff" to form an orderly pile.
As we worked we chatted. It was almost like old times, but not quite. A stiffness remained. The words didn't flow effortlessly and silences had a brittle edge. Neither of us mentioned Denise, or anything about the previous seven months. Yet, I was enjoying myself; at least we were together and talking.
When I could, I stole glances at her. In photos, Roz's face was very ordinary, but in real life, it held twice as many expressions as anyone else's. She had wavy, brunette hair, thin lips and warm brown eyes that radiated intelligent good humour. Her body was round and soft, not enough to count as fat, though definitely on the cuddly side. She wasn't your film star, drop-dead gorgeous supermodel, but she had me totally besotted.
On about the eight or ninth appraisal, Roz caught me watching her. "What is it?"
I covered. "How do you tell which clothes are good ones?"
Her frown changed to an amused smile. "It's all a mystery to you, isn't it?"
"Completely and utterly."
Roz pulled the top item off her neat pile and passed it to me - a leather jacket. "Now, look at the cut."
I held the jacket up by the shoulders and studied it. The seams on the back panel flared outwards at, I estimated, about 15 degrees off the vertical. However, I had a strong suspicion that by "the cut" Roz was referring to some mystical quality that could not be measured with a protractor.
"So what am I supposed to be seeing?"
"That jacket would have cost 700 pounds new."
"It cost what!"
I lowered the jacket. In the instant it got below eye level, I saw something flying towards me, but had no time to duck. Roz had been waiting in ambush. The missile hit me painlessly - soft material - a rolled-up pair of knickers from the reject heap. I peeled the item off my face and held them up.
"Ugh. I don't know where these have been."
"Round someone's arse, most likely. Just pretend you're k.d. lang - she gets pelted all the time."
We were both laughing. I threw the knickers back at Roz, although to less effect, and then passed over the jacket. "Were you telling the truth about the price?"
"If you added together all the clothes I own, it wouldn't come to 700 pounds."
Roz covered her eyes in mock despair. "I know. It shows. It's tragic." She then carried on laughing.
And that was it. The tension had gone and we were right back where we'd been before Denise had pulled her stunt with the hairdresser. Was it merely camaraderie? If so, then I'd accept it. Roz was more fun to be with than anyone else I knew. I would always want her as my friend, but I couldn't help wishing and wondering.
Is there a limit to how well two lesbians can get along before it has to mean something more than friendship?
After another hour, Paula announced that we were nearly finished. I looked around in bewilderment. From what I could tell, the junk had been sorted into rubbish stacked at one side of the garage, and a slightly bigger pile that failed to reach even this standard on the other, but everyone else seemed to think that we'd achieved something worthwhile. I guessed that I could congratulate myself on a job well done, but I wished I knew what it was. Sometimes I worry that I'm missing a vital bit of wiring in my brain.
Roz deposited the carefully selected pile of clothes with Paula and then shuffled out of the garage and stood, apparently admiring the garden.
I looked at her. Why couldn't I go over, say something to her, test her reaction? I'm not normally this hopeless. I've hit on women before, and survived a rejection. Where had my courage gone?
Answering myself was all too easy. It was because Roz meant so much to me.
I imagined myself, going over to her and mumbling something that started, "Roz, you know I really like you a lot. I have for ages. And, now that you're not with old fishface, do you think you'd like to go out with me, and see if we could make..."
And another image jumped, unbidden, into my head - Roz, embarrassed and sad, saying, "I'm sorry. I like you... we're friends... but I'm afraid I don't feel that way about you."
My stomach turned to ice. My skin prickled. I could feel tears in my eyes - and that was just from imagining Roz turning me down. I couldn't bear it even as a daydream. I'd never survive it for real.
Roz was drifting down the path towards Dee's car. Though I couldn't come right out and say how I felt, there was no need to let her go without making plans to meet up again soon. A quick glance showed that Dee and Jackie were still dithering in the garage. I jogged down to Roz's side.
"Before you head off, I was just wondering if you wanted to see the new Spiderman film. It sounds good for a laugh, and..." My voice trailed away. Roz was already looking apologetic.
"I saw it on Tuesday with Dee. We didn't know you'd want to go. I'd have..." She shrugged awkwardly. "Sorry."
I shoved my hands into my pockets, hunched my shoulders and tried desperately not to look hurt. "OK. It was just an idea. Next time... um. You've got my number. It hasn't changed. Give me a ring." I gave a big smile to show that I didn't mind, retreated a few steps, mumbled, "Take care," and then turned and marched up the path.
Dee and Jackie passed me, going in the other direction. Somehow, I managed a reasonable attempt at a friendly goodbye.
Paula, Sue and the new girlfriend had left the garage and were walking around the side of Paula's house. She waved, as if worried that I might not see them. "We're having a cup of coffee. Do you want one?"
"Ah... yes. I just need to get... something first." I pointed vaguely towards the garage, pulled the door half way up and ducked under.
Behind the boxes at the back was a small clear space where no one could see me. I pressed my hands against the wall at head height and stared down at my feet. If Roz had asked me to go with her to a film, I'd have said yes. It wouldn't have mattered if I'd already seen it a dozen times. But Roz had said no, and I guessed I should take it as my answer. It meant that she didn't feel about me the same way I felt about her.
I leaned forward until my nose was less than an inch away from the concrete, and then repeatedly, although not hard enough to hurt, I began to bang my head against the wall.
"Chris? Are you alright?"
I spun around. Roz had followed me into the garage.
"Oh... er... yea. I saw a nail sticking out and I couldn't find a hammer." I pointed to the wall, but it was a weak joke and it wasn't going to convince Roz that I was in a normal frame of mind.
She came towards me, looking concerned. "Whatever it is, do you want to talk about it?"
"No." I knew my answer came far too quickly.
Roz reached out and put her hand on my upper arm - a friendly supportive gesture, but I felt myself freeze. If I stood still long enough, she'd read it as "back off" and move away. Was that what I wanted?
From somewhere, I gathered my courage and put my hand to her waist - a matching friendly gesture. Roz didn't have to read it as anything more than that, if she didn't want to.
"Idiot." Roz breathed the word with gentle affection. She turned and enfolded me in a hug.
I knew that it didn't have to mean anything. Lesbians hug each other at the drop of a hat. The trouble is that we're too damn friendly. But at least I could match the action. I wrapped my arms around her. My forehead rested on her shoulder, which was far warmer and softer than the wall had been. Neither of us spoke and the hug went on and on. I certainly wasn't going to be the one to break it.
A logical voice in my head was screaming, "Don't read anything into this. She's seen that you're upset. She's just being kind." but nothing else in my body wanted to agree. My heart was thumping so hard that I knew Roz must be able feel it. So why wasn't she stepping back and asking if I was having a heart attack? Seconds ticked by, and still she didn't let go. Each beat from my heart pounded the screaming voice a little further into submission.
Is there a limit to how long two lesbians can hug each other before it has to mean something more than friendship?
And then Roz's arms around me tightened, and I could feel her shaking. Her breath sounded ragged in my ear. And that meant something more than friendship - I was sure of it.
I started to raise my head, so I could look into her eyes and get the confirmation I wanted. Roz gasped faintly and her hand slid up my back, over my shoulder and neck, until her fingers ran into my hair, then gently, and so softly, she pressed my head back down onto her shoulder.
And that was it - the gesture that could not be due merely to friendliness. The tension flowed out of me. I didn't need to worry any more. I knew what was going to happen. Soon enough, Roz would let me lift my head; I'd look into her eyes, we'd kiss and talk. Things would progress from there, but it could all wait. Roz's cheek was pressed against mine, while her fingers stroked my neck. The solidity of her body in my arms was everything in the world that I wanted. I relaxed and surrendered to the peace and joy of the moment.
The moment when I knew that it was going to be all right.