I felt a tap on my shoulder. My friend’s face looked serious. ‘Loo, now?’
I smiled at the Englishman, ‘Sorry, I’ll be back.’
He looked surprised but I didn’t have time, my friend was already dragging me away from the table.
We made our way through of throng of people on the dance floor and passed the bar where my eyes met with the year 4 boy who’d asked me out. He lifted his glass as if to toast me. He’d loosed his black bow tie and undone the top button of his shirt. He was leaning casually against the bar, with the drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I smiled confidently back at him. I was so happy I didn’t care what he thought.
‘Guess what?’ I said once were were inside the gleaming ladies’ room. The School of Economics Ball was held in a smart private club in the centre of Helsinki. I’d never been inside. Every room was decorated in a thirties art deco style, with black marble and shining chrome. Absentmindedly I wondered how they could keep a bathroom so clean all the time.
My friend looked at me through the mirror where she’d started adjusting her make-up.
‘The Englishman asked me to marry him!’
My friend dropped her hand, ‘What?’
‘Just now, isn’t it wonderful?’
‘What about your studies?’
I looked down at my hands. It was as if she’d splashed cold water over my face from the white shining sink. ‘Yes, I know, I’m not going to drop out – again – but isn’t it…
‘Have you even read Doris Lessing’s The Perfect Marriage?
‘I’ll lend you the book.’ My friend turned back to face the vast mirror. She was dabbing at her make-up while tears ran down her face smudging it further.
Suddenly I remembered she’d wanted to talk to me. ‘What’s the matter?’
‘He’s dancing with another girl!’
My friend shot me an accusing glance, ‘The Incredible Hulk. I saw them smooching before and just now I saw him kiss her. On the mouth!’
My friend’s boyfriend had an incredibly strong physique and with his spiky dark hair, he looked just like the cartoon character. The Hulk was her partner at the ball. I knew she was really smitten with him, although she said she didn’t believe in love.
‘The worst of it is , I know her. We went to school together, but she didn’t get into the School of Economics. No brains.’
I hugged my friend. ‘Bitch.’
She nodded and took a deep breath in. ‘They can both go to hell. I was getting bored with the Hulk anyway.’
We walked out of the ladies room through a set of double doors. ‘But, you must promise me that you’ll not marry the Englishman. You can’t just become some one’s wife. You have to finish your studies.’ My friend was facing me, her expression eager.
I knew she was right. I’d been to England, I’d seen how difficult it was to get a job. I didn’t want to end up being a barmaid in a pub somewhere, bringing up the kids while my husband was away at sea. Or worse, have no job at all, to become a housewife. ‘I promise.’
The Englishman was sitting just as I’d left him, with one elbow on the table holding a cigarette. He stubbed it out and got up. His politeness broke my heart. No Finnish boy would even have known that’s what you do when a lady comes back to the table.
‘Everything alright?’ he said.
‘It’s a long story.’ I watched as my friend made her way to the other side of the long table. I was glad to see she had another boy, our mutual friend to talk to. There was no sign of the Hulk.
The Englishman’s gaze was steady on me. I knew he was waiting for an answer.
He took my hands into his. It felt trapped. I had a sudden desire to pull away from his grasp. I lifted my eyes to him. His dark eyes were wide, his mouth set in a straight line.
‘I have two years left at university.’
The Englishman let go of my hand. He lent back in the chair. ‘I thought you might say that.’ He was smiling. He gave me a light kiss. The Drinks Master had climbed onto the table. It was time for another drinking song.
You are a stronger woman than me. But then I never really had a career dream. Your Englishman is a dream such manners. Mine learnt them but has long forgotten to use them.
dan powell says
Just a quick comment to let you know how much I am enjoying reading this set of posts. Thanks for sharing what is obviously a highly personal part of your life. Apologies for not commenting sooner.
Helena Halme says
WS – Don't forget we are talking of a newly commissioned naval officer. Young and eager…as for me, I was idealistic and very independently minded. In Finland feminism is still very alive and kicking. Which is why I think Finnish men aren't so chivalrous. But this is a long discussion on which I could write a thesis.
Dan, thank you. I am touched. No apologies needed, though as you know it's more than lovely to hear positive feedback.