I think to myself for a moment. What do I want to know about this enigma of a girl? Why are you pretending to be called Allie? Or why do you have the name Emma on your notebook? What’s with the need to usurp your sister? Why do you hide behind highbrow fiction in coffee stores? But instead of asking any of these questions I go with the basics.
“Where did you meet me?”
She doesn’t hesitate, and it’s as if she’s had the story planned out in her head. “Vintage book fair by the Thames. We both wanted a copy of Pride and Prejudice but you let me have it in exchange for my number.”
“How gentlemanly of me,” I laugh. “But that’s not a very masculine of me. Can’t the book be something like Dorian Gray?”
She shakes her head quite resolutely, and I’m compelled by her persistence. “I can’t stand Wilde,” she remarks as if the author is a type of cheese, or a wine. “My Mum will never buy it. How about Wuthering Heights?”
I shrug. “Sure.”
“Where did you take me on our first date?”
“Restaurant?” I offer, and this prompts another eye roll. It should be quite unbecoming, but it’s endearing more than anything.
“Boring.” She groans, “Can’t you be a bit more exciting? If you’re going to have swept me off my feet and convinced me to marry you in such a short space of time, you need to have a bit more of the wow factor.”
“I’m very exciting I have you know,” my ego retorts, feeling severely battered, “I once took a girl to Paris for the weekend.”
“That’s not exciting,” she laughs, “That’s textbook romance. You need to be less predictable.”
“Fine,” it’s my turn to roll my eyes. “I took you to a record store and bought you some vinyl.”
“Bleuuugh,” she mimes throwing up. “That’s too indie. Also, makes me seem like a charity case, which I’m not.”
“Fine you know what I think we should just call this whole engagement off,” I declare, jokingly, “We’re clearly not compatible.”
“Okay let’s see what we do agree on,” she laughs, “See if this relationship is salvageable. Favourite band?”
“Impossible to choose,” I state, “But the Beatles are up there for sure.”
She smiles. Seems like I’ve hit a solid foundation for our rapidly developing relationship – perhaps we’ll actually agree on something by the time we’re due to meet her Mother and sister. “Favourite Beatle?”
“Ringo.” I saw without so much as a moment’s hesitation.
“Thought as much,” she smirks.
“What’s that meant to mean?”
“You’re the underdog, it’s natural for you to sympathise with the least famous band member.” She spiels as if she has a major in psychoanalysis. The way her sentences come out sounding like facts irritates me to no end – and the presumptions she makes about me are too close for comfort. Being read by a complete stranger is unnerving, and I’m beginning to think I’m not as mysterious as I’d like to appear.
“Okay so if you know everything about me, what’s my favourite food?”
She tips her head, thinking, before answering, “Something pasta based. I bet you like to pretend to be cultured.”
“Lasagne. Lucky guess - that was too general,” I laugh, “and doesn’t everyone pretend to be cultured?”
“To an extent,” she muses, “But you’re less able to hide it than the rest of us.”
“Says little Miss I’m-going-to-sit-in-a-coffee-shop-and-read-posh-books-and-wait-for-some-charming-stranger-to-come-and-sweep- me-off-my-feet.”
“I’m that predictable?” She giggles, “Shoot.” Her expression changes to one of complete seriousness. “But hey least I can read.”
I’m offended, which she can probably tell by the fact that my mouth is agape.
“Allie!” An enthusiastic woman with the same blonde hair as my company envelopes Allie in a crushing hug, and I stifle a chuckle as she mouths “help me” over the shoulder of what I can only assume is her mother.
“So, where is he?” her voice is laced with scepticism, any idiot can tell. Allie breathes in heavily, before turning and introduces me.
“Mum, this is Joshua. Joshua, my Mum.”
I manage an awkward smile and something that resembles a wave, but that is regretted as soon as I do it. When you’re stood a foot away from someone, waving in their face is possibly the most idiotic thing you can do. I sigh. I’ve fucked things up already.
“It’s nice to meet you, madam.” I feel my heart fluttering in my chest which is bizarre considering I’m only acting.
She chuckles, perhaps bemused by my formality. “It is indeed – finally! Allie’s hidden you from the rest of us for long enough. But no need for the formality, my dear,” she smiles fondly at me but I can feel her judging my jeans, my un-ironed shirt. “Call me Francesca. Shall we sit?” I’m guided over to a booth, Allie placing her hand on my elbow, and I can’t help but feel calmed, reassured when she slips her hand into mine under the table. It’s as if she can read my hesitation, sense that I’m thinking this is the worst idea I’ve ever gone along with.
“Your sister is late,” she tells Allie, “She’s with David, picking out baby clothes.”
Allie smiles politely and nods. But it’s a façade – there’s no spark in her eye to match her smile – and I’m desperate to find out why this entire situation is necessary.
“They’ll be here in ten. Can I get you a drink?”
I’ve never felt so pressured in my life to choose a suitable beverage – this woman’s judgement on her future son-in-law depends entirely on what I order. I swallow, my throat clogging up. “Coffee please,” I manage a weak smile, “Allie, what are you having, darling?”
She kicks me under the table. Clearly, pet names are not an enthusiasm of hers – maybe she could have been less violent about getting that across, though. “I’ll have a camomile tea please, Mum.”
Her Mum nods, and gets out the booth to go get the drinks.
“What was that for?!” I hiss, nursing my injured shin.
“Trouble in paradise?” A feminine voice giggles, simpering and I look upwards to see a tall, slim blonde – think Barbie doll – stood at our table.
Allie shoots me a warning look. “Hey Melissa, Mum said you would be here soon. How was your shopping trip?”
She completely refuses to acknowledge the brown haired, chiselled man beside her sister, and I wonder what that’s all about.
“It was great thank you,” Melissa slides into the booth. “But you’re being rude; I believe introductions are in order.”
“Oh,” Allie shakes herself, and she appears distracted, edgy. “This is Joshua. My fiancé.” She rolls the word around in her mouth and it sounds good – there’s a ring to it. I smile, and take the hand that’s offered to me by Melissa, and her partner.
“I’ve been dying to meet you,” she smiles, “it’s nice that Allie’s found someone, at last.”
Her tone oozes patronisation and I can’t stand her already, I’ve decide, and a glance in Allie’s direction indicates she can’t either.
“This is David,” she plants a kiss on the looming man’s cheek and he nods at me, regarding me with curiosity. “My husband and the father of our child.” His hand wanders to her stomach and he caresses it in that sickening manner than smug couples do. I don’t have to look to the left of me to know that Allie will have undoubtedly rolled her eyes.
I smile, congratulate them, but the words taste sour, spoilt. I wonder if they can tell I don’t mean them – that I’m pretending.
My hand wanders to Allie’s thigh – she’s remarkably quiet, and with a family as exaggerated as hers, who can blame her – and I stroke it. She doesn’t push me away, so I continue tracing shapes on the denim of her jeans. She looks at me questioningly, but there’s gratitude in her eyes as I make menial conversation, waiting for her Mother to return so that we can busy ourselves with our drinks.
“So how come we haven’t heard about you before?” David questions, and suddenly I feel as though I’m in a police interrogation room; spotlight shone in my face as all eyes watch for the slightest sign that I’m lying. “Allie’s not one to hide her conquests away,” he grins, “You must be special.”
I can’t speak, my own voice box betrays me. But Allie comes to my rescue. “He is special,” she simpers in a chillingly good impression of her sister. “He’s special, and he’s mine.”
I smile, hoping it resembles that and not a grimace. I don’t want to look like a serial killer.
“That’s great,” Melissa beams, “We’re happy for you. Where did you meet?”
“At a vintage book fair –”
“Near the Thames –”
“She wanted a book that I wanted -”
“But in exchange for my number he let me have it.” Allie finished with a smile.
“Wow,” David smirks. “You even finish each other’s sentences. How romantic.” The sarcasm practically oozes from his words, and I feel myself overcome with a sudden desire to punch him. Not being an especially violent individual, I wonder what’s come over me. I don’t like him – and by the looks of things, nor does Allie.
I want to know why.