A/N: Story notes on profile. Thanks for reading!
About three days after the date had been arranged I used the internet to look up that poem that I only remembered a little fragment of but remembered I liked. I went to the library even knowing James wouldn't be there. I argued for slightly too long with someone over the correctness of naked sculptures. At the back of my mind I knew what this was about, but I ignored it. The following day I borrowed a classical CD from my friend Julie and fiddled with a Rubix cube I hadn't touched in years. The day after that I spent ten minutes looking at the film reviews for adaptations of Great Expectations, following some odd line of curiosity, but then ended up eating an unhealthy amount of popcorn and watching Shaun of the Dead instead. I made up for this by, for no particular reason, rememorizing the Hamlet speech of 'to be or not to be' which I had known off by heart for a small class drama challenge back in high school and had always been proud of. This took, in sections, around one and a half hours. And that was when I knew I had gone too far. I needed to confront what on earth I was doing and why.
It was to impress James, if I was to be brutally honest with myself. Or perhaps just to attempt to live up to James' standard, as I saw it. But the more I looked at things the more it seemed was still to do, the more the gap between us seemed to widen. It felt like I was getting closer but was still miles away. And then I told myself to stop. I couldn't be someone I wasn't, and I wasn't going to try to for James. I wasn't. I wasn't. What was the point of it? I sighed. There was no point in having him like me for something I couldn't keep up – couldn't keep up, Sam, be honest – and then find out who I really was afterwards. He might as well see me as I was from the start. If he didn't like me then he didn't like me and I was just going to have to accept that. Have to accept that. My hands twitched in a half panic to do something intelligent despite this conclusion. I buried my face in them. Why was I doing this again?
The day of the date arrived. I dressed myself up reasonably well in a stylish blue t-shirt and crisp dark jeans. I pulled on my fat, well-worn trainers and hung a light black jacket around my shoulders. I looked at myself in the mirror and caught the grudging yeah-that's-me smile on my face. My hair looked like someone had squashed a large chocolate button on top of my head. The brown hair was mostly flat all over the top but then when it reached around my ears it flicked outwards horizontally as if it had a personal aversion to touching my cheeks. I shrugged. It always looked like that. At least I'd sorted out the frizz.
I walked to the bus stop area slowly, hands in pockets. There was good weather today; a bright and sunny Sunday. Small white clouds dotted here and there. You know, picturesque. I saw him standing by the furthest bus stop, glancing around from time to time. He was dressed neatly, with dark green slim-leg trousers and smart brown shoes to go with his pale shirt and light grey smart-casual jacket. The shirt was tucked in. I gave a small internal shake of the head at that, even though I knew he always wore it tucked in. I must admit I liked formal wear but it seemed a little out of place. It was a warm day – that couldn't be comfortable.
"Hi." I smiled at him. He nodded curtly, his eyes flicking across my face and away again before he figured he should probably say something.
"Did you want to go anywhere in particular?"
His grey eyes locked onto mine in a flash. "You mean you haven't already picked a place to go?"
I pulled a face. "I didn't know what you would like. Do you have a preference?"
He shrugged, looking a little thrown. "I don't know."
I used my most serious tone. "Right then – how about we go canoeing down by the lake? I'll race you. And then maybe we can go back to my place and…knit."
He stared at me as though I had just sprouted an extra eye. "Um…"
"Ah, so you do have a preference, then." I grinned. He gave me a look, realising he'd been tricked. My grin widened.
He struggled for a moment. "I…don't know," he said again. I finally voiced my idea.
"How about this – I need to grab some more plates. Fancy tagging along with me to a car boot sale?"
He looked a little bit more positive about that one, if somewhat surprised by the suggestion. I waited, but when he said nothing more I flagged down the next bus.
Car boot sales were a bit of an old love of mine. My parents had taken me to them around once a month for a long time when I was younger. They always enticed me with the thought of hidden treasures, all sorts of unusual bits and bobs that you just wouldn't find anywhere else. The one I took James to was about a ten minute bus ride away and I walked down the road eagerly to the entrance. I told James about my parents' love of these sales, and how our family home would have been such an odd mix of items if viewed separately. If it wasn't for my mum's amazing sense of interior design it quite easily could have been a disaster. I gestured at the grand space of the field and waited for James' response.
"It's busy," was his first comment.
He was right. I loved the bustle. "Come on." I beckoned for him to follow me and plunged into the crowd.
The general layout was in the style of long, wide isles, with tables and their goods spilling out behind and around the rows of cars. Well, I say layout. To be honest, I'm not even sure you could draw any straight lines between the tables given an aerial photograph. But that, really, was half the fun. The sunlight glinted off the cars as people of all ages shuffled around.
"Hey, look over here! It's one of those really old irons!"
The lady behind this particular table gave me a smile. "Antique," she agreed, nodding.
It wasn't electric. It was one of those old metal things you might just see in a period drama, if ever. James peered at it, squeezing into the space beside me.
"I thought we were here for plates?"
There was no impatience in his voice, so I laughed. "Right. And this place is so organised we can just find one by searching."
"Browse," I encouraged. "Don't worry about the plates. At some point we're bound to happen across them, but we don't want to miss out on anything in the meantime."
James ran a finger over the roughened metal of the old iron. I nodded at him.
That's the thing about car boot sales. Something for everyone, or at least enough oddball goods to keep you occupied. Some of those manning the tables had lovely stories to tell about some of the pieces. James admired some Chinese screen doors and I grinned at one man's extensive collection of nodding dogs. James gave me a slightly critical look when I attempted to get them all (29, I counted) nodding at the same time. And then, to my astonishment, he helped me. I was pleased to see him so relaxed, and the question of why he had interviewed me brewed progressively in the back of my mind as I watched him.
Something I noticed about him fairly quickly – he couldn't barter. I'm not sure why, but he always just asked for the price and when they gave it to him he took it as unmovable. I told him that car boot sales were one of the few places where you could try and barter, but his next purchase – a charming porcelain photo frame that he thought his mother would like – I could have sworn I could have bartered down to half the price he paid for it, at least. He'd pulled a face and everything, but he still hadn't fought over the price. So when his eye caught on a pretty metal lighter I damn near snatched it out of his hand to barter on his behalf.
"How much?" I asked the woman behind the table.
"Twelve?" I asked incredulously. "Come on, it's a lovely day, give me your best price. It's beautiful. Please." I gave her a winning smile and ran a thumb over the engraved design; a detailed, delicate leafy pattern running over the whole of it. She picked at one sleeve of her floral dress. She looked like she could have been one of my aunts.
"Ten pounds," she said.
"Aw, come on. It's just a trinket. Two pounds."
"Tsk. It's a classic!"
"Ohhh." I grinned at her. "Two fifty."
She shook her head, smiling back. "It's chrome," she said.
"Shiny." I beamed. And waited.
"Three fifty," I said firmly.
"It will be." Liar. There wasn't a single engraved letter on the areas where it could be personalised. The smile never left my face. I loved the stubborn ones.
"Seven fifty. Lowest," she said after a moment.
"It's second hand. Four pounds."
"It's good as new." She crossed her arms with a smile. I could see she would definitely go lower, but she was enjoying this too much. I cast a glance over at James, and feeling a mild urge to wind him up, went on –
"Go on, make my day. Four ninety nine," I said cheekily, "It's for the pretty one." I gestured in James' direction. He managed to both scowl and blush simultaneously. It was an awfully charming look. She obviously thought so too and smiled, glancing between us both. James had the wonderfully flustered look of wanting to object but worrying that if he did he would lose the lighter.
"Oh, alright then," she smiled. "You drive a hard bargain."
"A pleasure meeting you ma'am," I drawled with a dramatic flourish, handing over a five pound note and accepting in return the lighter and one penny. I walked away a little and then passed the lighter over to James. His expression was a mix of things; a look as though I'd done something mildly socially inacceptable, like burp in public, and then gratitude and perhaps just a hint of admiration.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"See, it's easy to…negotiate pricing," I pointed out. We walked on, and my attention was briefly diverted by the sight of a woman passing carrying a huge bundle of decorative peacock feathers.
"I guess." He paused. "But I…" He looked awkward. "I don't smoke." We drifted further away; my eye caught on other tables. One of them was bearing some rather impressive brass candelabra.
"So?" I prompted lazily.
He fiddled absently with the lighter. I looked at him.
"You mean you don't think you'll use it?" I asked.
He passed it to the other hand and then back again, looking even more awkward.
I paused, focusing. "Didn't you want it?"
He glanced at me and then looked quickly away again. His lips parted a little and then closed. "I…not originally," he confessed reluctantly. "Well I mean I wasn't really considering…I like it. I like it, though." He glanced up at me apologetically. "I did like it."
I shook my head and grinned. "You mean I did all that bargaining for something you just thought in passing was pretty?"
He shrugged a little and then a smile crept over his face. He muttered something that sounded like 'pretty one' and then his smile widened a fraction further.
"Hmm hmm," he went. I looked at him. It was an odd, contented but stilted sort of hum. Pleased. It sounded – "Hmm hmm. Hmm hmm hmm." Amused. It sounded amused. And then I realised that was his laugh and a warm, happy feeling filled me. I smiled so much my cheeks hurt. I resisted a sudden urge to grab him in a hug and express my joy at his adorableness. Emphatically. He looked at me and I rolled my eyes. His laughter broke out with vowels, his mouth opening and his eyes lighting up. I would have laughed more myself but I was caught up in watching him, amazed. And I realised that now I had no idea why I had fancied him before, but I think it must have had something to do with how I viewed the sort of me that would be with someone like James. That image was a sort of intellectual, cultivated ideal of myself that I would never reach, an ideal that was tied up in being a match for James. But now he was really here, right beside me and laughing… Well I could have fancied him right then for a much simpler reason. I watched him tuck the lighter into his pocket. Then he hesitated.
"I should pay you back."
I shook my head. Oddly enough, I hadn't even thought of that. "Nah. Consider it a gift."
We continued browsing. There were plenty of items to catch the eye and we wandered around for a long while, the minutes melting away in sunlight and fascination. Another lovely thing about car boot sales is that they essentially eradicate awkward silences. In the silences you could simply look at goods to occupy your attention, and inevitably something interesting would spike a comment and conversation could resume. We found plenty of plates and in the end I bought five (a tenner for the lot and they weren't plastic) plus some extra cutlery. He did ask me, however, why I hadn't bought the plates earlier if I needed them. I told him somewhat reluctantly that I'd broken a few the previous weekend due to a party I'd offered to host, in which some people got slightly drunk and may or may not at the same time have attempted the circus trick of spinning plates. He didn't respond to this as negatively as I expected. He only seemed mildly surprised, and then asked me what exactly I meant by spinning plates.
Nothing much happened for the remainder of the morning. We made casual conversation (which I think is a statement that deserves much more credit) whilst making our way slowly between the tables. Then as the day drew on towards noon I was just looking up from a table with some really old books (disappointingly non-fiction, mostly), when a large man strolled past, hefting a door over his shoulder. A door. I was too preoccupied with that thought to notice anything else for a moment. But just then James stepped out and they collided. The man was too large for it to affect him but the edge of the door collided firmly with James shoulder and spun him around so that he almost fell. I caught his back as he staggered so that he wouldn't collide with one of the tables.
"Sorry," the man apologised. It had obviously just been an accident of bad timing.
"You should be," James cut back harshly.
"James," I reproached without thinking.
"Sorry." He mumbled the apology in a rush as soon as I had spoken and I looked at him curiously. Both his apology and the fact that he had snapped back in the first place startled me. The man walked away from us, shooting a look back at James. I rubbed James' shoulder a little, partly to make up for the fact that I'd practically scolded him for his response instead of taking his side. But he shrugged me off and pulled away, looking as though he just wanted to forget it and get back to browsing. He'd let me check his accusation though – why? I caught his elbow gently so that he turned back to face me.
"That's your automatic defence, isn't it?" I asked lightly.
"What defence?" he snapped.
He glared at me.
"Because you know that was an accident," I concluded. I smiled at him, thinking. There had been something of an automatic 'strike back' reflex in his manner. I wondered if that applied to the coldness in his interview, too. But that didn't make sense – I had never done anything to him.
"Shall we go grab a hotdog?" I suggested.
He glanced at me, his expression lifting. "Okay."
There wasn't exactly a nice eating area – most people were walking around with their food. But there was, however, a small arrangement of square hay bales for people to sit on and I perched on one with James as we ate. I glanced over at him; he was casually licking his lips of some of the tomato ketchup that had escaped. It had been a really nice day so far. Hanging out with James had been…nice. I liked him. He seemed so relaxed right now, and there was nothing in his expression that I could connect to the guy who had interviewed me for our very first conversation. I couldn't puzzle it out. I watched the sunlight give the skin on the back of his neck a lovely golden tone and listened to the hubbub of conversation around us. I attempted some small talk and he replied, so we chatted for a few more minutes. I finished my hot dog and wiped my mouth, contemplating how much of the car boot sale we hadn't yet seen. He'd finished his too and smiled at me, waiting for me to say something or stand up, presumably. I looked back at him, wondering if this was some sort of test and waiting for him to say or do something first instead. How could it be that he was smiling at me so easily now? I was tempted to avoid asking any such questions and just stand up and continue with the date. I didn't want to spoil anything when everything seemed to be going so well. But I couldn't help my curiosity. And as we sat there in a sort of…mutually contented stalemate, I decided the atmosphere was relaxed enough for me to venture the question.
"You –" he began at the same time.
We both stopped. I gestured for him to go ahead but he just shrugged. I waited for a moment or two but he didn't show any signs of beginning again. Hoping I hadn't interrupted anything important, I resumed my question.
"Why did you interview me?"
I still couldn't understand it. The question hung in the air for a moment. But as soon as I had asked his smile had faded and I instantly regretted bringing it up. He looked away, as if looking for inspiration in the crowd or clouds. Then he straightened his shoulders a little and turned to face me, but as soon as our eyes met he looked away again and his shoulders slumped into a sort of shrug.
"I didn't want to look pathetic." He looked down and noticed that the shoelaces on one shoe were coming undone. He bent down to do them up, as if he wanted to leave the conversation there. But I was far too confused by his answer to let him get away with that.
He gave up on the pretence and let the shoelaces drop, sitting upright again. A moment of silence slipped by. He briefly folded his hands in his lap, and then put them down either side of his thighs on the hay bale instead. "You're…I thought you were intimidating," he answered quietly.
I almost wondered if I'd misheard. He was the one that had unnerved me! "What?" I repeated dumbly.
"I figured you looked down on me," he explained.
My eyes widened. I was completely bewildered. That was the last answer I had expected. "Huh?"
Now he frowned at me. "You just said 'hi' and then 'bye' a second later as if I meant nothing –"
I was flustered. "I –"
"And I thought you'd figured me out and were mocking me so I snapped at you and then you just admitted you had a crush on me so easily, as if you were just saying it to see my response or it didn't matter if you had one because you would never do anything about it because it was me," he rushed.
The words couldn't come fast enough. "What, no –"
"So I wanted to take you down a peg," he ploughed on, into the flow of his confession now, "and make it look like there was a demand for me so you didn't take me for a nobody. I didn't want you to just walk over me so I thought I'd…" He trailed off and shrugged. "It was an impulse. It probably wasn't the best idea. I didn't feel very convincing and I couldn't tell if you bought it. I just…wanted to put you on the spot so you would feel like I did. Like tit for tat." He looked a little ashamed of himself.
"And then you called me arrogant and I couldn't believe it," he continued. "I guessed I must have overdone it but I didn't really think you would believe me. And then I'd kind of…trapped myself into the act by then."
"And then I interviewed you…" I said numbly, barely able to register what he was telling me.
"It felt so horrible," he admitted. "I couldn't believe I'd made you feel the same when I interviewed you. It felt like you were looking down on me again and if I failed this then that was it. I'd messed up on my act and you thought as little of that as you would have of me anyway."
"I…" I half expected him to cut me off, but when he didn't I continued, "I couldn't bear to continue the interview because I saw how uncomfortable I was making you," I rushed – there were too many things to say. "That's why I stopped."
"I thought I'd failed."
I opened my mouth and a garbled mess of consonants fell out. Too many words were cramming to be spoken. I took a breath and tried again. "I thought I'd failed," I said.
My mouth opened to answer and then I decided that could wait. "Why did you think I looked down on you?" I asked.
He shrugged awkwardly. "You have it all –"
I opened my mouth to butt in right there and he hesitated as if expecting it, but then I closed my mouth again and waited for him to continue. He made a general gesture at nothing.
"You have parties and go out and get drunk, but you also read and discuss art and…" He actually looked embarrassed at his own words. "All I do is read and study and watch some plays," he finished feebly. I was so stunned I didn't know what to say. Awkward in the silence he continued, "You ran into me once from behind and I almost fell over but you didn't say a word and just kept running…"
I blinked. I had no recollection of that at all. "I was probably just in a hurry," I said with detached dismissiveness, my mind still mulling over the other things he'd said. Then I continued, feeling it was more important get things said right then than worry about how exactly I said them.
"I don't have it all," I said. "I'm neither here nor there. I don't party all the time to be totally part of that group, and I don't know enough clever things to be part of…yours. To my mind you enjoy all the 'proper' things whilst I mess around with parties and drink, having too much fun and not taking enough things seriously." I searched his expression for a response. "I thought you looked down on me," I murmured.
"What?" His eyes widened.
"I thought you looked down on drinking and partying. I figured I'd never be serious enough for you."
And then he stared.
And then I explained.
I explained that that was why I had intended to give up my crush that day, why I hadn't expected us to be compatible so I hadn't tried to make conversation with him, assuming failure, and that we wouldn't have anything in common. Then how everything had followed from there.
Once I'd finished we just sort of sat there, semi-stunned and halfway between laughing and sighing in despair at ourselves and our misinterpretation of each other. Then after several seconds I looked at him and merely grinned, impressed by the greatness of both the feasibility and the absurdity of our misunderstanding. I could hardly believe it. We caught each other's disbelieving looks and then a second later we both finally gave in and laughed. I shoved at him playfully but with a touch too much nervous energy and he toppled off the hay bale. Then he came back and shoved me in return and we threw bits of straw at each other until we ended up sitting on the grass and chuckling. Then we calmed a little and picked pieces of straw from our clothing, our shoulders just brushing. I sighed, giggled, and nudged him playfully with an elbow. He nudged me back.
"Thank you," he said after a moment. "For giving me a chance."
"Ditto." I was immensely touched. It was improbable, it was stupid. It was perfect. I leant back against the hay bale, propping myself up with my elbows and letting the sun warm me from head to toe. I couldn't believe that he'd actually had a crush on me at the time when I was thinking we were most incompatible. To know what he did about me he must have observed me as I had observed him, though apparently neither of us had caught the other at it. I had figured he must have had fancied me somewhat when he told me I had been the only 'candidate' interviewed. But to think now how he must have felt when I had nearly walked away from him… The very same resignation that I had felt when I had confessed I fancied him. When he'd thought I'd figured him out before I said that fateful 'Hi', that must have been what he thought I'd figured out. That he'd fancied me. I shook my head slightly, shaking the thoughts away. I smiled at him.
"Well that was unexpected."
He smiled back in agreement. And filled with a sudden burst of affection and a desire to surprise him one more time I leant in and kissed his cheek. When I pulled away he put his hand to the place I had touched and narrowed his eyes at me with a bemused what-was-that-for look.
"I thought you believed I was the classy one," he muttered, raising an eyebrow. "On the cheek? Really?"
"Ah, well…of course. Naturally I had to be the brash one that went in first," I improvised. I blushed and tried to subdue my embarrassment, but his gaze on me only made me blush further.
"Ah." He gave a patient nod. And then without giving me a single hint of warning he leant in and with one smooth movement placed his lips firmly over mine.
Many more eyebrows were raised then, but I didn't see any of them because I had my eyes closed.
We got to know each other pretty quickly in the weeks after that. Our dates were an eclectic mixture of events and places. I took him to a horror movie, claiming to be introducing him to the 'wild side.' He took me to a picnic, and mockingly made me tuck a napkin into my top. I took him to arcades. He took me to Chinatown. He teased me for dribbling a little at a restaurant and I promptly cracked a joke that made him snort his soup halfway across the table. We popped into an exhibition over at the Art Department and I clapped gravely as he told me amazing amounts of background information. Then I promptly invented far wackier and filthier explanations for the origins of the paintings until we got looks for giggling. We got drunk together and recited poetry at each other. We played the joke of our original misunderstanding through amusement and flirtation until ultimately we knew each other so well and had done so much together that any differences we had were long since irrelevant. We knew each other by then, and we liked many of the same things.
And when, weeks after that, I attempted to do the romantic thing of inviting him over for dinner and completely messed up the omelettes so that they were a scrambled, semi-burnt mess? Well I served them on two of the plates I had bought at that car boot sale so long ago, and he lit the candles on the table with his chrome lighter.
Incredible how things turn out.