In early February 2014 two friends made their way to their favourite pub just off Union Street. They went there because it was the place most likely to serve what they called proper beer. Paul from the highlands had pretty much never tasted anything other than lager until he met Mark. But his Geordie friend had weaned him away from all things yellow by first buying him a bottle of “dog” known otherwise as Newcastle Brown Ale and moving on from there. Paul still had the odd pint of lager when he was with other friends, but he also knew by then that however pleasant the taste of a pint of Heineken, it tasted much the same as a pint of Becks. There was nothing really to be interested in, while now as he looked at what was on offer this week at the Prince of Wales, he was delighted to see there was an ale he had never tasted before.
“I’m having one of those. Do you want one, too?” he said to his friend.
It was about four on a Saturday afternoon and the pub was fairly full. It was their habit every now and again to have a couple there and then go for an Indian around five. Most restaurants were pretty much empty at that point, and you got faster service and could hear yourself think. After that an early night, and they felt better the next day ready to study some more. They were both in their final year at Aberdeen, Mark studying English, Paul studying French and politics. They’d both done averagely well up until now and so not that much depended on the next few months. There would be some exams, but not too many. Their result was already all but decided.
“You’re still determined to turn me into a foreigner, I suppose?” said Mark.
“You know fine I’m not,” said Paul.
“I know that you’d like to convince everyone of that.”
“We’re friends, good friends now, I think.”
“It’s not as if I’m anti-English then?”
“No, of course not.”
“I just think it’s the best chance for the left.”
“Most people are on the left where I come from, too. You know, we’re pretty much agreed on the politics. Just I want to see my country stick together and you want to see your country become independent.”“But I’m British, too. I want to stay British, it’s just I want Scotland to decide everything, not some parliament where we’re outnumbered.”
“I doubt we’ll convince each other now,” said Mark. “But at least we don’t fall out about it. I’m not from Scotland and so in the end, it’s not my business. I’m not even sure I should vote.”
“Well, don’t expect me to give up trying to persuade you. It’s just you always seem to have a good argument. Where do you get them?”“Some of them I think up for myself. I’m sure you do, too. But there’s a blog I discovered that I read. I rather like the style of it.”
“What’s it called?”“Lily of St Leonards.”
“Effie Deans?“That’s the one!”
“Do you think she’s real?”
“I know she is. She’s an academic here.”“But her name is not listed. I’ve checked.”
“Wasn’t that a bit creepy of you?”
“Oh, someone online asked me, because I’m a student here.”“She uses her Russian name officially. It’s some long monstrosity that you can’t even pronounce. But she still uses her maiden name in day to day business. It’s a heck of a lot easier for colleagues and students.”
“Have you met her?”“I’ve seen her, but never really said anything. Jenny knows her though, and likes her a lot.”
They’d both known Jenny since they’d started at Aberdeen four years earlier. She was a tall, thin, blonde girl from Glasgow with a high-pitched, rather squeaky voice that they always compared to Minnie Mouse. Jenny was one of those girls who were rather shy, devout and who they both thought had never been kissed. She was average looking, pretty enough, but not someone you’d notice. She somehow seemed to lack the ability to attract. She lived in her own, rather splendid flat with Lorna and Susan who paid her, or rather her parents, some rent, though not the going rate. Mark had been with Susan for some years now. Paul had been chasing Lorna along with a lot of other men for over four years, and had got precisely nowhere.
“Have you decided to go the medic’s ball?” asked Mark.
“I’d give up on Lorna if I were you.”“I know. It’s been a pointless exercise for as long as I can remember.”
“You’re just another of her courtiers. She enjoys it very much indeed. But the enjoyment depends on sitting on her throne.”
“Has anyone made her descend from it?”“Have you ever heard her mention someone from home?”
“A name crops up every now and again. Michael. Do you know he is?”
“I asked Susan if she knew. Michael is some chap ten years older than us. He’s not her boyfriend, but he’s the only one who is liable to become one. Lorna talks about him in a way she doesn’t talk about any other man. It’s like he’s on a throne and she’s the courtier. Same problem though. Just the other way round.”
“No much point asking Lorna then?”
“I don’t know if she’s going to the ball with anyone. Michael might take her, though I doubt it. He’s never even been here as far as I’m aware. But no, not much point. She might say ‘yes’, but she might well say ‘yes’ to half a dozen others. No not much point at all.”
“I’m not sure I can be bothered going at all then.”
“Why don’t you take Jenny?”
“Are you kidding?”
“You know her as well as I do. We’ve both spent enough evenings at her flat. She’s nice. She’s really nice.”
“Wouldn’t it be a bit like going to a ball with your sister?”
“Look, I’m here partly because of Susan. She asked me to talk to you. Jenny’s not a little girl. She has feelings. She likes you. She fancies you. She wants you to ask her. But she’ll never ask herself. You know she’s far too shy. How long is it since you’ve gone out with someone?”
“A couple of years, more really. I’ve been unlucky.”
“No, you’ve been chasing someone who doesn’t want you, while right beside her is someone who does. Besides, Jenny is a much better person than Lorna. I maybe know her better than you. She’s kind and gentle and capable of giving.”
“I’m not sure I could take the primness, the Christian Union nonsense.”
“You’d be taking her to a ball, not a church service.”
Paul thought of Jenny and of the dozens of occasions they’d all sat in the kitchen of her flat. He’d chatted to her loads of times, but he’d never been in her kitchen because of her and had almost never been alone with her for more than a few minutes. He tried to conjure her image into his mind and fleetingly was able to do so. He noticed an attractiveness that had not registered before. The fact that she wanted him was in itself attractive, indeed very attractive. Here was possibility while in the past couple of years had been only frustration and disappointment.“Shall we visit them after the Indian? I wouldn’t want someone else to ask her before me?
“Why not ditch the Indian and go now?”
“I think, that wouldn’t be a bad idea”.
Half an hour later Paul, rather flippantly, said: “Jenny, you shall go to the ball.”
He saw her smile and exchange a glance with Susan. The glance seemed to say something like “Thanks.”
“Why don’t you two sit down and I’ll find something for you to eat?” said Jenny. “It’s so good of you to take me Paul, I’ve never been to a ball before.”
“Rather, it’s good of you to go with me after I asked you in that way. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m sure, we’ll have a great time together.
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