I'd like to say that, after the Tin Man incident, Carson and I were finally 'even' with one another, but this was not the case. He still very much had the upper hand in our metaphysical game of chess – but I had started to realise that I liked the way things worked. Our strange and dysfunctional relationship was actually rather exciting.
It was a bit like one of those horror-adventure books I used to love to read when I was younger: "Timmy hears a strange noise coming from the cellar! If he goes down to investigate, turn to page 229! If he decides to make a sandwich and watch Coronation Street, turn to page 61!" You could never tell what awaited you next; a simple turning of the page could bring you face-to-face with a horrible and grisly death. It was a world of constant surprise. But it was fun, being on edge like that all the time, and if you did die it didn't really matter. You just skipped back a few pages and pretended it never happened. In the same way, I was learning to take all the embarrassment Carson dealt out to me in my stride. I repressed it in a way that was probably very unhealthy, and would resurface in thirty years' time as some kind of mental illness that caused me to walk around the supermarket in my dressing gown shouting at vegetables; and I learned to just accept Carson for the charming and really quite loveable lunatic that he was.
One thing I learnt to accept about him was that like the bogey monster that lived in Timmy's cellar, he had an unnerving tendency to pop up at very unexpected times. The next Monday, as I stumbled out of one of my seminars blinking furiously and pretending to listen to Beatnik Boy telling me about the deeply spiritual connection he felt between him and John Keats – "Like, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and it's like he's speaking to me, you know?" – I heard a little voice coming from somewhere in the corridor:
"We're off to see the wizard! The wonderful wizard of oz! You'll find he is a whiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there was! If ever oh ever a wiz there was..."
I turned around, and said, "Hi, Carson" before I even saw him. There was only one person in the world who could manage to sing a relatively simple song and still sound like he had a dead rodent lodged down his throat.
His grinning face materialised in front of me, his smile bright enough to light up the English corridor with its stylish decorative palette of grey walls, grey carpet and grey notice-boards. "Hey, Nay!"
I glowered at him. "I'm sorry, are you talking to me?"
Carson, being basically flame-retardant when it came to sarcasm, continued to chatter on regardless. "So I was thinking, since our tea date on Saturday was ruined due to – ahem – unforeseen, shiny silver circumstances, did you want to reschedule?"
I tried to be annoyed for a moment then melted and said, "For when?" But even as I said this Carson was pulling my heavy book-filled bag off my shoulder. He slung it across his back and began to amble down the corridor humming We're Off to See the Wizard in what I assumed was his own special version of a chivalrous gesture.
"For now!" he called after him.
I shrugged and began to follow. I had no choice, and it wasn't as if I would have turned down the offer anyway. I could see the other girls in my seminar staring after him in a way that suggested they would have gladly chewed up and swallowed all one thousand five hundred pages of Romanticism: An Anthology just to get the chance to sit in a café and be ridiculed by him. I shot them all a territorial glance before I left – I couldn't deny that I was starting to feel weirdly possessive of Carson, which was very unlike me. Of course, I was a very different girl to the one I had been a week and a half ago.
We bought our tea in the café and then sat down. Then we stared at each other, both of us unsure where to begin. The last time we'd seen each other we'd been running hysterically away from Geoff before he could get up and retaliate by gauging Carson's eyes out with his pointy hat. "So, where were we?" hardly seemed an appropriate way to begin.
Just as I was about to say something to break the silence, Carson jumped, pulled his phone from his pocket and frowned at the screen as if it were ringing, which it clearly wasn't. He pressed the phone to his ear.
"Hello? Oh, hi! Yes, I'm with her now. Really? Okay, I'll pass the message on. You're welcome. Okay. Bye now!"
He put the phone back in the pocket. "That was Mr. Tumnus," he said. "He was wondering if you'd like to catch a movie on Friday."
I reached across the table and slapped him, which only made him laugh even harder than he already was, which for the record was pretty hard. I think he was even crying a bit.
"What, not a fan of goat-men?" he chortled. "Are they not your cup of tea? Not metallic enough for you? Shall I give R2D2 a call?"
I huffed, folded my arms and narrowed my eyes in a wonderful mole impersonation – though admittedly I was amused underneath it. "If I didn't like goat-men why would I be here with you?" I resisted the urge to point out that Mr. Tumnus was a faun, not a goat, as this would have sent my geek levels crashing through the ceiling.
"Okay, fine. Optimus Prime?"
Carson managed to quell his laughter, wiping his sleeve across his eyes. "I thought you liked fictional characters, Naomi!"
"Well, yes," I said with a faint smile, "but I'd rather they stayed inside the books from now on."
"A wise idea. But, seriously, did you really think I would buy all that crap on Saturday? You and Geoff? Ha!"
I stared at him, wishing for the hundredth time I could get inside his head. Could it be that he had been double-bluffing me the whole time, that he'd known it was a set up? I tried to picture the situation: "By the way, Geoff buddy, if she comes back later and wants you to pretend to be her boyfriend can you pretend to get angry at me so I can floor you? Cheers." No, that didn't add up. Carson would really have to have some impressive supernatural powers for that to work.
"I think you did buy it," I announced after my moment of contemplation.
"Not a bit," Carson said. "I mean, for a start, you're way out of his league. And you do have your quirks, but I know your taste isn't that bad. If you wanted to convince me you were dating someone else you could have at least picked someone without a bald patch and a beer belly."
Dating someone else – did that imply that we were dating? It sounded so scary and official, and yet when I searched myself I found I wanted it to be true. Of course, I was too shy to bring it up, and so I poked him in the hand and said, "Okay, maybe it was a little unbelievable...but I still think you bought it, even if it was just for a second."
"I did not."
"Yes, you did!"
"No, I didn't."
"I saw the look on your face!" I grinned. "It was a look of panic – sheer panic. Admit it, Carson."
"No way." He put his hand on mine, leant forward a little and said, "It wasn't panic. It was genuine concern for your mental wellbeing."
I was proud of how calm I managed to remain when he took my hand; it felt warm and comfortable. Usually when a boy tried to touch my hand I would instantly acquire an itch that needed scratching, a hair that needed putting back in place, or a random object that needed pointing at, in order to terminate the physical contact as quickly as possible. I couldn't count how many unwanted romantic moments had been discarded by my crying, "Oh look, was that a blue-tit?" or something equally inane.
"No, it was definitely panic," I said. "Perhaps even horror. You looked like someone had just played you back a recording of your own singing and you'd realised you would have to cut out your own voice box for the greater good of humanity."
It was Carson's turn to glare at me. "You always have to go there, don't you?"
I smiled and pushed his teacup towards him. "There, there. Have some tea – it makes everything better, right?"
As we both sipped our tea, I wondered whether I had learnt anything else from my bizarre experiences of the past week and a bit, other than that tea makes everything better. But the more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that unlike a lot of literature, life didn't always have a point or a moral. Sometimes life was just there to be enjoyed, like a nice, hot cup of tea. And perhaps a chocolate biscuit. And I was completely fine with that.
"So, Carson," I said, "now that I have undergone various different forms of humiliation for you, am I allowed to call myself an official member of TFAS?"
Carson pulled a strange face. "Ah. TFAS. About that..."
I knew it was going to be bad news, and my face-slapping hand twitched in anticipation.
"TFAS isn't exactly, you know...well, it doesn't exactly..." His face morphed into a sequence of further bizarre expressions, as if this would somehow help him in his search for the correct word. Eventually he found it: "Exist."
I almost spat out my mouthful of tea. "It doesn't exist?"
"Well, technically, it does – but it doesn't. You know?"
"No, Carson. I really don't know. Please explain."
He sighed. "Okay. You know about the societies rule, right?"
I nodded. Basically, in its attempt to make us all well-rounded citizens and future rulers of the country, or else Olympic athletes, chess champions, fantasy role-play nerds and belly-dancing extraordinaires, the university had decided to make it compulsory for every student to be an active member of at least one extra-curricular society. My effort in this area was to turn up to an occasional meeting of the Literature Society book club, sit in a corner and say something vague like, "It really spoke to me about the moral degradation of our society" whenever someone asked my opinion on whatever book it was I hadn't read, which usually caused everyone to say mmmm and nod with enlightened expressions as if I were the Buddha himself. It was a stupid rule, but there was no way around it – at least I had thought there wasn't.
"Anyway," Carson continued, "when Chris and I were roommates last year, we couldn't find any societies we wanted to join. We just didn't have any interests. But then we—"
"Hold on." I had to interrupt him at this point. "You could have just taken up a new hobby, Carson. Darts, juggling, paintball, debating, poker, the student newspaper...anything! Something normal!"
Carson looked at me as if I'd just suggested he lace himself up in a corset and join the pole dancing society. "But that would involve effort!" he said, horrified. "Anyway, you didn't let me finish. Chris and I realised the only thing we were both interested in was sitting around and drinking lots of tea. So we decided to set up a tea drinking society, except it wouldn't be a real society and we would be the only two members, so we wouldn't have to do anything. Clever, yes?"
"But that makes no sense!" I said. "How did you manage that? You can't just set up any random, dubiously themed society. You need at least thirty people to sign a petition, and then the student union has to approve it..."
"Oh, no, it was easy," Carson replied nonchalantly. "I have a friend on the societies council who owed me a favour, so I got him to set it all up for me."
I shook my head in abandonment. "How do so many people owe you favours, Carson? It's starting to get a bit scary. Are you in the mafia?"
He only shot me a look as if to say, don't be ridiculous. And I realised that it was ridiculous; Carson's mafia would be the least menacing mafia ever to exist. It would consist of him and Chris smuggling exotic tea leaves to middle-class people in their floral sitting rooms, pretending to smoke chocolate fingers and throwing digestive biscuits at anyone who dared get in their way. "Well, I think it's a shame that TFAS doesn't exist," I said. "I thought it was a really nice idea."
I nodded. And it was true, I did. The idea of TFAS wasn't just to sit around drinking tea: it was about a way of life, and it was about making people happy, brightening someone's day through a little act of kindness such as buying them a cup of tea. When Carson had bought me that first cup of tea during my miserable day at work, it had made a big difference – and why shouldn't more people experience that? And that's why I proposed to Carson the idea that had immediately sprung into my head: that we should make TFAS real.
"You can be the president," I said, knowing this would indulge his ego. His face lit up when I made this proposal, as if it had never actually occurred to him before.
"President of a real society!" he exclaimed, and then swept his hands dramatically in front of him and added in a booming voice: "I shall be the King of Tea!"
"You shall indeed," I said, smiling.
Carson took my hands again, and entwined his fingers in mine, and as he leant across the table and looked at me I knew for sure that this was more than a flirtation, and my heart leapt. "And you, Naomi," he said, squeezing my hands, "you shall be my queen!"
He lifted my hand and kissed it, just like Mr. Darcy would have done. Except he wasn't Mr. Darcy, he was much better, and much more real.
"Too right," I said, laughing.
It was a miserable day. The sky was a sheet of slate crowded with angry swollen clouds and a constant curtain of rain fell over the students who tumbled in droves across the slippery concrete of the Square, their umbrellas turned inside and their faces lashed by the pitiless howling wind. But Holly and Chris and Carson and I were sheltered under our little marquee, clustered around a big tin pot of water that sat on a hot stove, and none of us particularly cared about the cold or the wind on the rain. In fact we were all positively grinning, to the extent that passers-by glanced nervously at the tin pot as if wondering what on earth we were brewing in there.
"Tea for all!" Carson cried in answer to this unspoken question. "Free tea for everyone, courtesy of the Tea for All Society!"
Slowly, cautiously, as if wondering what was in it for them, people began to approach our stall. The four of us scurried to and fro, ladling hot water into polystyrene cups, adding a teabag and then a splash of milk (no sugar, of course, on pain of death) before handing it to the sodden, red-nosed patrons. The crowd grew bigger and bigger as people began to realise it really was just free tea – and their smiles grew bigger too.
"See?" I said to Carson, handing out what felt like my hundredth cup of tea. "I told you this was a good idea."
He turned to me and grinned. His curls were flattened to his head by the damp air, his cheeks and nose painted red by the cold, and his eyes were like a deeper, pearlier version of the bland sky. We stared at each other, the King and Queen of tea, and I resisted the urge to throw my arms around him and nestle into the five jackets he was wearing to keep out the cold, and which made him puff up like a marshmallow. But the moment between us was broken as a boy approached the stall and called out, "Excuse me – do you have coffee as well?"
We both turned on him in disgust. "How dare you," Carson spat, eyes blazing. "Get out of my sight!"
The boy looked between us, laughing nervously, and then realised we were deadly serious and began to back away with the expression of someone who has just turned up dressed as Yoda to a Star Trek convention. As soon as he was gone, Carson and I both burst into laughter.
"And if you want to become a member of the society," Holly was explaining to a girl next to us as this happened, "just sign the form here. We have regular tea parties, nothing too formal, we just sit and hang out...and we have cake."
"Cake?" the girl cried, snatching up a pen.
"Anyone feeling a little parched? Come partake in some tea!" Chris called to the passing students in a ridiculously posh voice. Holly laughed, put her arms around him and told him not to be such a geek, to which he apologised and kissed her on the head. They had been officially dating for a month now.
As for Carson and I? We didn't really do official – but we made each other smile, and that was all that mattered for the moment. Who knew what would happen in the future? That's what I liked about Carson; he was full of surprises. I never knew when he would pop up again, dressed in a stupid costume or serenading me in a voice that could clear a football stadium, and when he did he would always manage to embarrass me and yet make me feel good about myself at the same time. And I was happy with this arrangement – in fact I had never been happier than I was now.
"Well, that's it," Carson said. "We're out of tea. Good work, guys."
"Out of tea?" repeated Chris, and he looked up into the sky, his eyes wide and round, as if it were the onset of the apocalypse and meteors were about to start raining down on top of our little marquee. "But we didn't even have a cup ourselves!"
"Ah." Carson's eyes twinkled. "Never fear. When I say out...I mean there's enough water left for four more cups!"
We all let out a sigh of relief as he distributed the water between four cups, and then added the teabags and milk. When the tea was ready we all huddled in a close circle, the steaming cups enclosed by our gloved hands, the mist of our frozen breath filling the space between our faces. Carson lifted his cup and raised a toast – "To TFAS!" he said triumphantly, and we bumped our cups so that tea splashed over the edges. "And to Naomi," he continued, "for inspiring me to get off my backside and actually do something for once!"
"To Naomi!" everyone repeated, and Carson leaned down to kiss me on the cheek.
I smiled. "Thank you. And I would like to propose a toast to the magical liquid that somehow makes everything better." I raised my cup high in the air. "To the healing properties of tea!"
"The healing properties of tea!" we all chorused.
I expect our fellow students thought we were a bunch of complete lunatics, getting all excited about a flimsy white cup with some brown liquid sloshing about in it. Until each one of them had an utterly miserable day, and until someone then came along and pushed that steaming cup full of brown liquid into their hands with a smile, they would never understand that a cup of tea could be more than just its contents. They would continue to think we were crazy.
But like I said before – none of us cared in the slightest.
Author's note: Well, that's it. I hope you enjoyed my little story. If you're disappointed it's over, don't worry, I'm sure there is another cutesy romcom on the horizon somewhere. I can't help writing them. :)
My excuse for not updating in so long is that I took part in NaNoWriMo and have just written 50k of another story. So you're not allowed to tell me off.
Thanks to all the lovely people who read and reviewed!