Day 6 of The Literal Challenge aka Like The Prose

So, as the challenge progresses, I’m realising it’s not always easy to find the time to write something – hang on: isn’t that the point? The whole idea is to get people writing something every day, isn’t it? y problem is that I want to do myself justice and not just scribble any old rubbish – as I’m sure is the case with the rest of the people doing this.

Anyway, I managed to submit Challenge 6 on time – just; but it’s taken me a while to post it on here. All comments or feedback welcome.

The Letter

I gaze at the envelope in my hand, wondering if life would have been different if I hadn’t kept it a secret.

Back in the 1980s, when we were at university, Andy, Stef and I were inseparable: a sort of unholy triumvirate. I met Stef first: she was in the same Hall of Residence as me, so I suppose our friendship was inevitable: walking to campus and back every day gives you plenty of time to talk. By the time we’d stumbled through Freshers’ Week and found our feet in the English department, we felt as if we’d known each other for years – and that’s why I could never tell her how I felt about Andy.

Andy. He was one of only six boys doing English, the rest of the First Years preferring to opt for more ‘manly’ pursuits, like Engineering or Physics. Back then, girls weren’t pushed towards sciences, the way they are now. Out of the seventy of us on the course, anyone with testosterone was seen as a bit of a novelty. He was a lovely guy too: well-read, a good listener, and an incredibly dry sense of humour. We clicked straight away. All three of us.

And that’s where the problem lay. When you develop a bit of a crush on someone, you could really do with the chance to spend time with them on your own, to put out feelers and ascertain whether this thing between you is just friendship or whether it has the potential to be something more. I couldn’t do that: not with Stef always there, hanging around like Banquo’s ghost whenever I wanted to find out how Andy felt about me. Every time I suggested a drink after lectures, Stef was there too. When I told him about this restaurant everyone was raving about, ‘The American Food Factory’, and asked if he wanted to try out the lasagne sometime, that turned into a threesome as well. It seemed as if I was fated to have my best friend – the Gooseberry – at my side, no matter where I went.

It all changed in our Second Year, though. All three of us decided to audition for the Guild Music Society – they were putting on ‘Oklahoma!’ and we thought it would be fun to mess around in the Chorus together; only, it turned out I had a much better singing voice than they did, and I found myself understudying Ado Annie whilst they were relegated to Costumes (Stef) and Props (Andy).

That’s when the trouble started: although Costumes and Props were vital to the whole production, they didn’t have to attend every rehearsal, like I did; and, pretty soon, the two of them were sloping off on their own for meals and walks and trips to the cinema. I could have wept with frustration – except I didn’t want to ruin my voice.

It came as no surprise, then, when Stef burst into my room one morning – whilst I was still getting dressed, no less – all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and bursting with requited love. I tried hard not to let her know how I really felt: plastered a smile on my face, told her I was happy for them both; but deep down, it hurt like hell.

As one week slipped into another, I felt as if I were being slowly suffocated by their cloying togetherness. How could I stand up on stage in a few weeks’ time and join the rest of the cast singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’!” when I was carrying a perpetual raincloud around with me? And the worst of it was, they were oblivious to my feelings.

Then, as luck would have it, disaster struck. Stef and I had just come out of our Friday morning Anglo-Saxon lecture – sans Andy, who did Combined Honours and had a German Lit class whilst we were struggling through ‘Beowulf’ – when one of the secretaries from the Arts Faculty office came charging up to us with an urgent message. Stef’s mother had been involved in an accident and was currently in Intensive Care at her local hospital.

I saw Stef’s face blanch as she heard the news. “I’ll have to go home straight away,” she said slowly. “It’s what? Eleven o’clock now? I’ll try to catch the twelve fifteen from New Street.”

We walked back to Hall together, my mind rejecting all the unwanted platitudes I knew Stef wouldn’t want to hear. Despite the way she’d stolen Andy from me, I felt sorry for her right now; hoped her mum would be okay.

With my help, Stef was packed in a matter of minutes. “Do you want me to walk to the station with you?” I asked.

She shook her head. “I’ll get a taxi – it’ll be quicker.” Hall was deserted at that hour, so there was no problem ordering a cab via the pay phones in the foyer.

It was as we were waiting for the taxi to arrive that Stef suddenly remembered Andy. “Can you give him a note, Jill?” She was scribbling down her parents’ phone number on a scrap of paper. “I might be at the hospital until quite late, but tell him to keep ringing until he gets hold of me. I’ve no way of contacting him myself.”

It’s strange to think now how different things would have been had mobile phones been invented – or even email. As it was, Stef did the only thing she could: she trusted her best friend to pass on the necessary information to her boyfriend.

I stroke the pale blue envelope, remembering. Stef didn’t have an envelope, of course. She just handed me the note and asked me to deliver it.

Once she’d gone, I went back to my room and put the note in an envelope with Andy’s name on it. That was my insurance policy, you see: if Stef ever found out that I hadn’t delivered her message, I’d tell her I put the note in an envelope and posted it under Andy’s door. If she insisted that we went to his flat to check, I could easily drop it down the back of the fridge when no one was looking, and there was my alibi. She’d never know the truth.

But, as it turned out, there was no need for such subterfuge. I knew that Andy always met Stef for lunch at 1.15 in the Guild – there was a bargain price salad bar there and they used to make a couple of pounds last an hour – so I set off to meet him and give him my version of events.

He looked a little surprised to see me. “Hi Jill. Are you joining me and Stef for lunch?”

“Stef’s not coming,” I told him, making my voice sad and sympathetic. “I’m really sorry, Andy – she’s found someone else.”

His face fell, like I knew it would. “No,” he said at last. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I know this is hard for you,” I said gently. “They’ve gone to London together, for a romantic weekend. She took a taxi to the station just before twelve.”

At least that last bit was true.

“No,” he said again, looking less certain this time. Then, “Did you know about this? Before today, I mean?”

By the time we’d decamped to the bar and then spent the best part of the afternoon drowning Andy’s sorrows, he’d heard the full story of how Stef had been seeing this other guy behind his back the whole time she’d been dating him. “I had no idea,” he kept on repeating, the words gradually slurring into each other as bewildered incomprehension was replaced with alcohol-induced acceptance. After that, it was simply a matter of walking him back to his own student flat, to ‘keep an eye on him’, and then suggesting that the best way to forget Stef would be to sleep with someone else. Men can be so naïve at times.

I rang Stef myself the following day – ostensibly to enquire after her mother; but then I managed to inject enough guilt and regret into my voice for her to ask what was wrong.

“I’m so sorry,” I kept repeating. “It just happened. Neither of us planned it – honest.”

Stef didn’t come back to Hall until a week later; and, when she did, things were never the same. She didn’t even bother speaking to Andy – she confided to me later that what had hurt most wasn’t the fact that he’d cheated on her but that he hadn’t even rung to ask how her mum was. The light had gone out of her eyes – and pretty soon, it had gone out of our friendship as well.

She and Andy are married now – not to each other, obviously. They never spoke again after my one-night stand with her boyfriend. I had to stop seeing him too: we were both too embarrassed after that single night to look each other in the eyes again. That was when I realised that it would have been better not to know, to hold Andy in my heart as an eternal what-might-have-been.

I gaze at the letter, thirty years after I decided not to deliver it, thinking how different life could have been.

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