The room is hot and crowded with far too many people, some of whom she knows but mostly strangers – friends of Beth’s from university. Alice takes another sip from the glass that was thrust into her hand when she arrived ten minutes ago, wondering why she is here instead of celebrating the new year – the new millennium – with her family.
“Because Beth’s your best friend,” she whispers to herself. “Always has been.”
But she knows that’s not true anymore: the confident girl who’s knocking back shots almost as fast as a comedian delivering non-stop one-liners is not the Beth she met at pre-school: the little four year old who wet herself in the sandpit because she was too scared to tell anyone she needed the toilet is now happily the centre of attention, leaving Alice a mere onlooker.
A guy in a ridiculously over the top shirt looks up and catches her eye. He rolls his eyes in Beth’s direction almost as if he’s heard Alice’s thoughts. Extricating himself from the gaggle of admirers, he walks over and holds out his hand. “I’m Ben,” he says. “That guy Chris over there and I share a flat with Beth and two other girls. And you are?”
“Alice. Alice Horton. Beth and I are best friends. I mean, we used to be. We were at school together.”
“So, what’s changed, Alice Alice Horton? Why the use of the past tense?”
Despite his jokey way of deliberately mimicking her by using her first name twice, she senses that he’s genuinely interested, so she tries to explain.
“People change when they go off to uni, don’t they? I mean, it’s a chance for a fresh start: you can reinvent yourself, be whoever you want to be.”
“Is that what you’ve done too?”
He’s now close enough for her to see that what she’d thought of as random colourful blobs on his shirt are actually beautifully arranged geometrical patterns: swirling fractals in blues and pinks and yellows that repeat ad infinitum. It’s not a shirt for the fainthearted.
“I didn’t go to uni,” she mutters, her eyes still mesmerised by Ben, her brain wondering whether she is captivated by him or his shirt.
He raises a questioning eyebrow and she feels irrationally compelled to tell him the truth.
“I was going to go – I had a place at Leeds, to study English; but then I found I was pregnant, so I had to put my plans on hold.”
“I see.” The look on his face is compassionate. “That must have been hard for you,” he says gently.
She’s not used to kindness. Her mother advised her to have an abortion; the rest of her family followed suit. Even Beth thought she was mad to be sacrificing her future for a cluster of cells that wasn’t even viable yet.
“Is the father still on the scene?” he asks next, and she shakes her head. Rob hadn’t wanted to know; had insisted it couldn’t be his, even though he was the only person she’d ever slept with.
To her horror, she finds tears forming in her eyes. She’s been over-emotional ever since Chloe was born four and a half months ago, crying at the silliest of things, like Disney films and the news, or, more recently, how cute Chloe looked in her Christmas outfit.
Ben grabs her hand. “Let’s find somewhere quiet to talk,” he says, leading her away from the crowded living room and out into the garden. The air is crisp but not too cold, and stars are twinkling in an impossibly clear sky. No one else is out here: the silence is for them alone.
And so, they sit and talk. She finds herself telling him about Rob, about the constant pressure she felt under to sleep with him, about the way he sulked when she said she wanted to wait and then about the disastrous evening after drinking too much at one of Beth’s parties. Somehow, in the course of the telling, his arm slips around her shoulders so that he’s holding her close as she narrates the shock of discovering she was pregnant and the pain of Rob’s abandonment of her.
By the time she finishes her tale, she’s emotionally drained, feeling as if she’s been put through a mangle until every hurt of the past eighteen months has been squeezed out of her. He won’t want her now: she’s damaged goods, an eighteen-year old single mother; but instead of pushing her away, he pulls her closer, holds her tighter, almost as if wanting to atone for the sins of his sex.
“You’ve had a rough time,” he says at last, “but not all men are bastards. I want you to believe that.”
And when he kisses her gently, she starts to believe him.
It’s only much later, after they’ve kissed and talked and kissed again, that the sound of revellers counting down to midnight reminds them that they’re not the only people in the universe. By now, she knows all about him: that he’s the youngest of three brothers; that he hates spinach but loves Dickens; that his eyes are the darkest brown she’s ever seen and his lips as soft as whipped cream. They’ve bonded over a shared enthusiasm for Shakespeare; but she has to confess to never having heard of the obscure bands he’s into. “I’ll burn you a CD of some of their best songs,” he tells her, “and then you’ll know what I’m on about when I start referencing their lyrics the next time we see each other.”
The next time … She likes the sound of that.
“Ten … nine … eight …”
They should really go inside and join everyone else for the big “Happy New Year!” but neither of them wants to make a move. Intimacy wraps itself around them, cocooning them in their own little world. It’s like something out of a Hollywood rom com, she thinks dreamily as his lips meet hers on the count of three and stay locked in place until well after all the shouting and cheering.
“You were the last person I kissed in the old millennium,” he tells her softly as he reluctantly pulls away, “and the first in the new one.”
She’s not sure, but she thinks she hears the swell of violins.
And so that’s why his next move seems totally inexplicable when he kisses the top of her head and tells her he has to go. If this were a real fairy story, she’d be the one leaving on the stroke of midnight; but her parents are babysitting Chloe and have told her it doesn’t matter how late she gets back.
“I have to go,” he tells her regretfully. “It’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow – today – and there’s a big family party. If I leave now, I can be back just after three and still fit in a few hours’ sleep before the rest of the relatives start arriving.” Noting the concern in her eyes, he adds, “Don’t worry – I haven’t touched any alcohol – I never do when I’m driving.”
Uncertainty hovers in the air between them. This night has been special – but is it a one-off, or the start of something more permanent?
“Give me your number,” he tells her, whipping a Nokia out of his back pocket. “I’ll call you when I get home and we can talk about when we want to see each other again.”
She retrieves her own phone and reads out her number to him, watching as he punches it in to his address book.
“I won’t ring as soon as I get in“ – he gives her a lopsided grin – “I don’t want to wake you or your baby. But as soon as I wake up, I’ll call.”
Part of her wants to ask if he’ll drop her back home – just so she can prolong this magical evening a little further. But it’s a three hours’ drive to Surrey, even on New Year’s Eve when the roads should be clear, so she smiles like a grown up and says she’s looking forward to hearing from him before watching him say goodbye to Beth and stride out of the house.
She leaves herself soon after that – there isn’t really any point in sticking around. Ben has her number and he’s promised to call; the new millennium is off to a good start.
For once, Chloe doesn’t wake her up at the crack of dawn; and when she finally begins to stir, just after seven, she’s content to feed and then go back to sleep. Alice can’t sleep herself, though: she’s too busy counting down the hours, waiting for Ben’s call.
She’s still waiting when midnight comes around again. It must have been one hell of a party, she thinks as she wearily switches off the light, for him to forget his promise to her so easily.
Ben doesn’t ring the next day, nor the next. She wonders if he’s lost her number, then remembers that he stored it in his phone. The glow of optimism that’s surrounded her for the past few days is beginning to fray at the edges. Should she call Beth, she wonders, and ask for Ben’s number? She must have it if they’re flatmates in term time.
Her fingers hover hesitantly over the keypad of her phone until she pushes it away with a sigh. If Ben really wanted to see her again, he would have called by now. But he’d seemed so sincere, so genuine when he took her number … Perhaps he’d meant it at the time, but then he’d woken up to the reality of her having a baby and how that would complicate things. Let’s face it – Rob hadn’t wanted to know, and he was Chloe’s father!
Her mind wanders back and forth for the next hour or so; analysing, speculating, tying herself in knots as she tries to second-guess him. He hasn’t rung yet, but that doesn’t mean he never will. It’s a slender thread of hope; nevertheless, she manages to use it to weave an elaborate fantasy in which Ben turns up on her doorstep, having lost her number but knowing he has to see her again. It’s the fairy-tale film ending, but reality is more prosaic; and, six months later, she resigns herself to the fact that their one perfect night will never be replicated.
She doesn’t really see Beth at all over the next few years. Her former best friend has a bar-job and a boyfriend, both of which conspire to keep her in Hull for the Easter and summer holidays. Not that it would have made much difference: the two of them had begun drifting apart long before Beth went off to university and left Alice behind. She’d said as much to Ben during their lengthy conversation under the stars: “You’ve no idea how lonely it can be when you’re pregnant and the rest of your friends are still drinking and partying like there’s no tomorrow.”
At that, he’d kissed her hair and stroked the side of her cheek. “I was never that into partying and getting drunk,” he’d told her. “I’d rather have a night in with someone I care about than a night out with a crowd of people I hardly know.”
From time to time, as she watches Chloe grow from a little bean bag to a crawler then a toddler, she thinks of Ben’s words and the promises he made, and wonders if he too regrets their evening together now.
When September comes and she finds herself off to Leeds, a year later than originally planned, baby in tow, she’s far too busy to mope about Ben. Leeds and Hull aren’t far apart, but she knows it’s a journey she’ll never make. For the next three years, she juggles essays and assignments with parenting a lively little girl, too exhausted by her full-on lifestyle to think about romance. Once a year, on New Year’s Eve, she sips a glass of Lambrusco and remembers the chance meeting that gave her hope for a while. 2000 slips into 2001; and then, before she knows it, it’s 2003 and Chloe is off to school, barely a few weeks after her fourth birthday, while Alice herself is starting teacher training. (She’ll be glad of the school holidays as she won’t need to arrange childcare.)
She enjoys her first teaching practice, despite the rough area the school’s situated in. In fact, when a post becomes vacant, she applies straight away, even though she’s not fully qualified yet. Her first year of teaching is much harder than she’d expected, but the older teachers are generally kind to her, especially John – a divorced maths teacher in his mid-thirties.
Somehow, she finds herself drifting into a semi-relationship, spending most of her weekends with John and his eight-year old daughter who adores Chloe. John’s nice enough, but he isn’t Ben – and then she scolds herself for still hankering after someone who never wanted her enough to call her, in spite of his kisses.
There’s a new site on the internet that claims to enable users to get in touch with people they know. She joins Facebook and searches for Beth Jenkins, thinking that Ben might pop up on her ‘friends’ list. He isn’t there, but Alice doesn’t stop looking. How can she work out how she feels about John when she hasn’t been able to achieve closure with Ben? All she needs to know, she reasons, is why he didn’t call her back like he said he would. Was it the single mum thing; or did he just meet someone else he liked better?
She’s been seeing John for six months when a new science teacher starts at the school. Chatting in the staffroom, she finds out that Ruth went to Hull too and that she and Beth were on the same chemistry course. They both marvel at what a small world it is, and Alice tells Ruth how she and Beth lost touch once they were both at different universities.
“It’s no one’s fault really,” she says thoughtfully – “it’s just that we were both living different lives. Once she went off to uni, she found a new circle of friends; and with a baby, I just didn’t fit in.”
“I don’t think it’s a simple as that.” Ruth’s words surprise her. “She was absolutely devastated when her flatmate died – what was his name? Something beginning with B …”
“Ben,” Alice says automatically, hoping that Ruth will contradict her and say, No, not Ben, Brad; but Ruth nods, sighing that it was all very tragic and that she understood completely when Beth cut herself off from all her friends for the next couple of months. “I think that’s how she and Chris got together,” she says now. “They’d both lost a flatmate and they bonded over that.”
Alice doesn’t hear the rest of the conversation: her mind’s in shock, reeling from the announcement of Ben’s death. His words echo in her memory: “You were the last person I kissed in the old millennium, and the first in the new one.”
Over the weeks that follow, she gradually pieces together the story: Ben was driving home after Beth’s party when his car was hit by another that veered into his lane on the motorway. The driver was over the limit: he and all his passengers had been out drinking in the new millennium.
Briefly, she wonders if Ben’s life flashed before him in the moments before he died: whether he saw himself talking to her again at the party, kissing her as one year merged into the next. And then she feels ashamed at her own selfishness at wanting to know whether she mattered to him. And she wonders, yet again, how different her life might have been if he had called her like he promised.