I thank my LadyCibelle and Techsan for their patience, proof reading, editing skills. I have to add my thanks to JB for his heads-up on something in this one; he knows what I'm talking about.
It seemed to me like I'd known Joe all my life. His family lived next door but one to mine; looking back I'd say Joe and I spent all our spare time together as kids. We didn't actually go to school together because Joe was American and he was sent to the nearest American school, somewhere in town. Maybe that's why he never did lose his Yank accent although he spent nearly all his spare time with us Limeys, as he insisted on calling most of us, in jest of course.
You know the sort of thing. He'd refer to us as Limeys and we'd refer to him as the Yank; it was all in good fun. As we got older Joe and I developed a special kind of bond. Something like some brothers have between them. I knew that I could rely on Joe to back me up in an argument or ruckus, and he seemed to know by instinct that he could rely on me, up to a point.
That one point was to develop when we got older, and it concerned females. When Joe and I started dating girls I soon learnt that Joe had no morals whatsoever where the female of the species was concerned. It seemed that Joe's one purpose in life was to lay any bit of skirt he could talk into bed, or into the woods in the park, or just about anywhere else that was handy. And, boy, was Joe good at the old chatting the birds up bit.
Even when he did have a steady girl he was still shagging anything else he could lay his hands on. Joe wasn't choosy either; any old bike would do for him.
Anyway fast forward a good few years and Joe's father had finished his stint in the UK and the whole family had moved back to the US. I can't say that I missed Joe that much, because I felt his antics with women were beginning to get embarrassing. You know as we were on the face of it good friends, I was beginning to get painted with the same brush in some peoples' eyes.
Joe kept in touch with me, by mail, writing surprisingly regularly and giving me the sordid details of his sex life, whether I wanted to read about it or not. I wasn't in the least surprised to hear, about a year after he'd returned to the US, that he'd put a bun in some bird's oven who he'd met at college. I think he was at what we'd have called university by then.
Much to my surprise I learnt that Joe was going to do the right thing by her and he invited me over to the States to be his best man at the nuptials. As, back then, I couldn't afford the airfare, Joe's father - who had some influence with the US forces - fixed it for me to travel on a US army transport plane, FOC as far as I was concerned. I was to fly back two weeks later, the same way.
I'd been surprised by the invite, because, as I said, where women were concerned Joe was a complete arsehole and I'd expected him to cut and run. Look, just because I liked the bloke, it doesn't mean that I liked or agreed with his attitude towards women.
Mind you, I figured that Joe had fallen on his feet when taken up with Winnie (Gwendolyn). Talk about wet dream, the girl was absolutely gorgeous. Long blond hair, a beautiful face and figure, and what I thought was a wonderful personality. Yeah, well, there was a slight protrusion in her stomach that was just beginning to show, but that would only be there for a few months, wouldn't it? I know that I would never have kicked her out of bed in a hurry. I do believe that I was envious of the man, for the first time in my life.
As I said, I thought Winnie's personality, was wonderful. She was very quiet and reserved, actually not really Joe's type at all; but knowing Joe as I did, I doubt he was thinking about a long-term relationship when he took Winnie's virginity.
Shit, if I'm being honest, had I been asked, I'd have changed places with Joe at that altar without a second's thought. Winnie was the girl of my dreams.
I seemed to get on pretty well with everyone over there. I think most folks were fascinated by my accent, although my London colloquialisms appeared to cause some confusion on occasion.
Of course there was Joe's Stag Night about a week before the wedding. The Yanks appear to refer to them as bachelor parties, by the way. Anyway the one for Joe - as I had assumed it would - featured several very questionable strippers and I'm pretty sure that Joe laid them at one time or another all during the evening. And maybe the bird that had been on reception at the hotel the party was held at as well. I can't be positive, but when Joe vanished for a while and I went looking for him, no one was on reception and there was some familiar and curiously interesting noises coming from behind a locked door marked "Office".
The wedding went off fine. Except for the fact that I knew Joe very well and I could see the lustful looks he was giving Winnie's numerous bridesmaids. Personally, I was quite taken by one of them myself and, as she was giving me the old googly eyes bit, I thought I might have a chance with her later. But I hadn't figured Joe into that equation!
I don't think the dancing had been started for more than ten minutes when Joe came over and asked me to dance with Winnie for a while. "Do me a favour, Ray, and keep the little lady occupied for a while. I got something I got to do," Joe said to me.
Like a complete moron, I assumed that Joe had some kind of a surprise that he was setting up for Winnie. It was only when he didn't reappear for half an hour or so and I realised that one of Winnie's bridesmaids was also missing that it struck me what Joe was really up to.
I do believe he pulled the same stunt with his younger brother about an hour or so later and using a cousin of his later still.
Well, that fucked my chances (literally) with the bridesmaid that I fancied, because I never was partial to following anyone else down the highway of pleasure. Especially if they were as promiscuous as Joe was. Christ knows what you could pick up. Although AIDS wasn't around back then. Well, we'd never heard of it anyway.
I seemed to spend quite a bit of time in Winnie and her family's company that evening, as I had done for most of the time I'd been over there. Although I'd told Joe that I wasn't covering for any more of his exploits after I'd realised what he'd pulled the first time he'd asked me to dance with Winnie.
Winnie's father was a great bloke. He'd spent a lot of time in the UK with the USAF and we seemed to get on quite well. It was pretty obvious to me that he wasn't keen on Joe and possibly had a good idea just how much of a little shit Joe could be.
Winnie's mother seemed to spend a lot of the evening crying. Whether because she thought she was losing a daughter, or because she had a good idea about Joe's true personality, I don't know and didn't ask.
Winnie herself was obviously crazy about Joe. You know for a lot of the time I really wished that I'd refused to go to that wedding. My conscience was telling me that Joe was never going to change, and she was in for a big disappointment when she eventually found out about his character and exploits.
I had three days in the US after the wedding before I was due to fly home again. Joe and Winnie had gone off on honeymoon somewhere, so at first I thought I was going to be at a bit of a loose end. But of all people, Winnie's sister Tammy and her boyfriend came to my rescue. Although at the time I'll admit that I thought that they were looking to make some kudos with her friends by having this English bloke along with them.
Tammy introduced me to her friend Sam and the two of us hit it off like a house on fire. Now hold on, there's no point in not being completely honest here. Sam and I shagged away most of my last three days in the States. I had to wonder why I hadn't hooked up with her earlier in the trip; Sam had been around all the time.
My only surprise was how hard it was to lay my hands on a re-supply of condoms in their small town. The other thing that shook me was that you weren't supposed to drink until you were twenty-one. Christ, you can legally drink in pubs in the UK from the age of eighteen and I'd been frequenting them since before I'd turned sixteen. Depends on how old you look whether you get challenged and thrown out.
Mind you, I thought American beer was crap. Most of it sterilised chilled, and had a head put on it with CO2. Back in those days all English beer was cask conditioned and sold at cellar temperature. Did you know the colder beer is, the less your taste-buds work, so they can serve you up with any crap that they fancy?
Not surprisingly, British pubs went the same way as the American bars a few years later, when the big mutli-nationals took over all of the breweries and using TV advertising, pushed the lager habit big time. Never mind the quality, look at the alcoholic content became the watchword, and they wonder why we have all these lager louts around nowadays. Those wankers wouldn't know the flavour of a good beer if you gave them one.
Anyway I've digressed, where was I? Oh yeah, Tammy's friend Sam. Well, Sam and I hit it off quite good together. Sam was never in Winnie's class. I'm taking about the chemistry that Winnie had stirred up in my loins here; she was a real looker. But beggars can't be choosers and what with Joe's antics over the proceeding week, my hormones were giving me some real strife.
To be fair Sam was a really nice girl and, had she lived in the UK, I think it could have led to something more than the three day shagging marathon that it was. We wrote to each other for a while after I got back. There was some talk of her coming over to the UK or me even going back over there for a visit, but neither happened in the long term. In the end, the time lapse between her letters got longer and longer, until Sam just didn't write back one time.
Surprisingly, over the next couple of years, I'd get the odd letter from Tammy. It was she who informed me that Winnie had given birth to a little girl. And just over a year later, Winnie had a second one. And of course I got Christmas cards for a few years from Winnie and Joe. They usually had a brief 'keep me up to date' note in them, but that was all.
Then quite suddenly it all went quiet. I kept sending my Christmas cards to Joe and Winnie, and for some reason to Tammy and her husband as well; at least Tammy always sent one back. But she never mentioned her sister or Joe in the accompanying notes. I was to hear no more about Joe or Winnie for nigh on eight or nine years.
As I went through my early twenties, I had my fair share of girlfriends; I even shacked up with a couple of them, for a while. But by the time I was twenty-nine, I'd become convinced that marriage wasn't in the cards for me. None of the women that I ever met seemed to match up to the picture that I had in my mind of a wife. Although exactly what that picture was, I didn't really know.
It was in 1972 that things began to change, although I didn't know it at the time. A friend and I were on holiday in Venice, Italy of all places. I don't why I like Italy so much, but I'd been there quite a few times before.
The two of us were sitting at an outside café in St Marks Square knocking back what the Italians call beer. "Beera, big one!" was how we used to order it. Our hands gesturing to an imaginary glass about three feet tall. Then two ice cold one litre (or maybe bigger) glass jugs would appear on the table; probably at a horrendously inflated price. But anyone who can remember Italian money back then will know that everything was priced in what seemed like hundreds of thousand of Liras.
Vince, the bloke I was travelling with, and I were attempting — pretty unsuccessfully, I think — to chat up two Swiss - or maybe they were German — women who were sitting on the next table. Vince, regretfully didn't have the same bullshitting talents as Joe when it came to women, maybe that's why he was still single at thirty-five.
Anyway we weren't really watching what was going on around us. So when someone asked, "Would you be so kind as to take a photograph for us?" In a vaguely familiar American accent, it was with some surprise that I realised the question was directed at me.
I turned around to see who had made the request and was completely gobsmacked to see Sam standing there grinning back at me.
"Bloody Hell Sam, where did you spring from?" I exclaimed, as I jumped out of my seat put took her in my arms and kissed her. Almost immediately noting that Sam didn't exactly return the kiss with enthusiasm.
Actually she seemed quite embarrassed. Well so was I, when she introduced me to her husband, who was standing off to the side grinning at us. Luckily for me, Jake had been a friend of Tammy and Sam's way back when Joe got married and he seemed to know that Sam and I had had a little fling at the time.
"Sorry to disappoint you buddy, but I laid my brand on Sam some time back." Jake grinned at me.
We then dropped into a humorous exchange, where I accused him of stealing the love of my life from me. He took it in good heart and we finished up with Sam looking even more embarrassed than she had when I'd kissed her. Jake and I hit it off straight away, it turned out that we had a very similar sense of humour.
The two Swiss birds were forgotten from then on, as Sam, Jake and I dropped into small talk about everyone that I had met in the US. And of course the subject of Joe and Winnie came up. Sam said that they lasted about six years before Winnie finally realised that Joe was not going to change his ways and they separated.
Joe had joined the services somewhere along the line. I had never taken Joe for the military type; but thinking on it, both Joe and Winnie's fathers had been in the services, so I suppose it stood to reason.
"Joe's a damned good father though." Sam added. "As a husband he was a real asshole to Winnie. But you can't fault him on the way he dotes on those two girls of his."
"When he's in the country!" Jake said sarcastically. But that seemed to go over Sam's head; well, she ignored it anyway.
"Oh, yeah, Joe's out in Vietnam most of the time nowadays," Sam explained. "But Winnie's never short of money; god knows where Joe gets it all from."
"Probably he runs a Saigon brothel for all the other servicemen out there. That's about his mark." Jake offered. I got the feeling Jake didn't like Joe.
"So how have things been going with you since we last heard from each other?" Sam asked, probably to change the subject. "Did you ever get married?"
I went on to give them an extremely brief and extremely sketchy run down on the last few years of my life. Then we made plans to meet for dinner that evening.
I was to discover from Jake later that Joe had tried to seduce Sam a few times. Sam had always taken Joe's attempts as a joke, but Jake knew better and had had to keep a close eye on the pair of them. Not because he didn't trust Sam, but Joe was quite an expert and Sam could be so dammed naive sometimes.
"Jesus, she's something," Vince remarked, after we'd seen Sam and Jake onto the Waterbus back to their hotel.
"You're not kidding. We only spent three days together and my bleeding balls ached for at least a week when I had to fly home and leave her," I replied.
"Jesus, Ray, how did you let her get away?"
"Look, mate, she was on one side of the world and I was on the other and, well, when a girl's got a sexual appetite like Sam's ... Jake was local, wasn't he?"
"Can't say I can blame the bugger," Vince said.
"Neither can I. I think Sam fell on her feet there though. He sure seems like a really good bloke to me."
"Better than that mate of yours, what was his name, Joe?" Vince suggested.
"Yeah, Joe is a complete arsehole, always was. But he was just one of those characters; you just had to like him," I said.
"I'll believe you, but from what Sam and Jake had to say about him, I'd say thousands wouldn't," Vince commented.
At first Vince wasn't going to join Sam, Jake and me for dinner that evening. Although, as he had sod all else to do and it was the first that time he'd been out of the UK. I think he was a little hesitant to go out around Venice on his own, so in the end he decided to come along. I do believe it was possibly the best decision that he made in his life.
Sam and Jake turned up at the restaurant with Cyn in tow. Cynthia was your typical American tourist, or unfortunately, what is often taken for the typical American. She was/is very um ... outspoken, and extremely loud. Anyone and everyone in that restaurant, who could vaguely understand English, soon learnt that Cynthia was a thirty-something-year-old war widow. Her husband had been one of the first US advisors to be sent out to Vietnam and he'd returned home less than two months later to claim his personal spot in Arlington cemetery. Cynthia had three children and her father owned a print shop, where she apparently worked, or drove everyone nuts.
I think during the meal Cynthia did almost all of the talking; hind legs off Donkey style. I'm not sure who's idea it was later to take an evening gondola ride, but somehow Sam, Jake and myself finished up in one boat, whilst Vince and Cynthia got into another. And that was the last that I was to see of Vince until the last day of the holiday. As I understand it, he and Cynthia married a few months later and he now manages her father's print shop in some small midwest town somewhere.
Apparently whilst Sam and I had been chatting earlier in the day, Vince had told Jake that he worked in printing in London and Jake had played matchmaker. It was a long shot, but it worked out well for Cynthia and Vince.
I spent the rest of my holiday playing gooseberry to Sam and Jake, but they didn't seem to mind. I knew Venice quite well and took them to a few places that I doubt they would have found without me.
When I got back home, letters stuffed with photographs of Sam and Jake and their children started to turn up with regularity. After a while some pictures of Tammy, her husband and their children showed up as well. Then finally some of Winnie and her and Joe's two girls, along with a little note from Winnie saying that she was so pleased to hear that I was doing okay.
I suppose it was in the early spring 1973 when I received a letter from Sam telling me that she and Jake were planning on bringing their children over to the UK for their family vacation that year. I'd bought myself a fairly reasonable sized house by then, and invited them to stay with me. I think I was just slightly offended when the offer was turned down.
At first, I took even more affront, when they refused my offer to collect them from the airport and take them to their hotel. But then in another letter Sam mentioned that the party they would be with would be far too large for a single car. It was then that I realised that either Sam or Jake's parents, or perhaps both, must be coming with them and that explained them refusing my offer of accommodation as well.
Sam called me on the telephone the moment they got to their hotel and invited me to join them for a formal breakfast the following morning. As previously arranged I'd taken a couple of weeks off of work to be available to act as a local guide to their party. I gladly accepted the offer of breakfast, but I was not at all prepared for what greeted me when the waiter led me to the table Jake had arranged. It was bloody massive; I think you could have sat a football team around it.
Shortly I saw Jake and Sam leading a quite large entourage in my direction, as they got close I stood to greet them and this time it was Sam who took me in her arms and kissed me full on the lips.
"Take it easy, girl. Didn't Jake tell me he was a crack shot with a thirty-eight the last time I saw you?" I whispered in her ear. I'd been sent plenty of pictures of Jake with his shooting trophies.
"Don't worry, Ray. He only shoots his little target pistol, and they wouldn't let him bring it on the plane," she replied, grinning at me.
"Damn, woman, if you two keep carrying on like that I'm sure I could pick up one over here somewhere." Jake said, as he shook my hand after I'd untangled myself from his wife. But as he'd said it, I spotted that Tammy and her husband were standing behind Sam and Jake.
Both of them gave me a hug, Tammy's husband - like me - had been a pseudo-hippie when I had first met him, so it wasn't such a strange thing for us guys to do.
But as Tammy was kissing me on the cheek, I spotted that long blond hair on the woman waiting her turn at me.
"Winnie!" I almost shouted. At that time I hadn't realised how much the woman had gotten into my skin. I should have realised long before that it was most likely Winnie that I'd always been comparing other women to. But even when I took her in my arms, the truth didn't sink home in my psyche.
I was formally introduced to the hoard of children, not that I could fit the right names to most of them, until just before they returned home. I'm afraid that meeting Winnie again kind of flustered me some. All of the children immediately and regardless of who their parents were started to refer to me as Uncle Ray, so that didn't help much either.
For some reason it was Winnie's two girls who where the only ones that registered in my mind straight away. Possibly because both Reba and LeAnn were young versions of their mother, even down to the hairstyle and mannerisms.
After breakfast I led the party on its first excursion into London's Underground system. Getting off the train at Lancaster Gate we walked through Hyde Park following the bank of Long Water and the Serpentine and then the path on the Hyde Park Corner. Winnie and I led flanked by Reba and LeAnn. Reba walking on my left and Winnie on my right; suddenly Reba, after a very clumsy attempt to pretend that she had stumbled, took a firm grip on my left arm.
At first I was somewhat flattered to think that the child who had only just met me, appeared to like me so much that she wanted to hold my arm. But I soon began to realise that there was more to the gesture than first appeared. Or should I say that Reba and LeAnn — who, after Winnie and I bumped shoulders a couple of times, I noted was hanging onto her mother's right arm - were inexplicably pushing us two adults together. Eventually Winnie was forced to hold onto my right arm to stabilise the situation. After that, Winnie it appeared had gotten into the habit of holding on my arm.
Some time after we'd crossed Hyde Park Corner and the visitors had taken photographs outside Buck house; anyway we were walking up The Mall toward Trafalgar Square when I realised that Reba and LeAnn had disentangled themselves and were walking behind with the other children.
When I looked around to check where the girls were, my eyes locked with Tammy's for a few seconds. Her face broke into a massive grin and she winked at me. As I turned my head back to the front, my eyes were caught by Winnie's for a few seconds and she gave me a little smile as well, before she blushed and turned away.
"Is someone trying to tell me something?" I asked Jake, later when we were alone in the gents' toilets in Trafalgar square.
"I'm not supposed to say anything my friend. But Winnie's always had a soft spot for you, you know," he replied.
"Since when?" I asked.
Jake grinned, "I'm told since the day she first met you, when you stepped off of the aeroplane. Tammy claims that Winnie nearly called off the wedding over you."
"You're funning me."
"It's no joke, Ray. The times we've heard Winnie say that of the two guys standing at the altar that day, she had to go and marry the wrong one."
"But, she doesn't even know me," I blustered. "Not really."
"Don't ask me, man. All I know is that Winnie thinks that the good Lord made you and her for each other. For some reason Tammy and Sam have always agreed with her. And after meeting you again in Italy last year, I'm of the opinion that you're pretty stuck on Winnie myself."
"What makes you say that?"
"Your main topic of conversation over there, Ray, that's what!" Jake replied with that grin still on his face. "No joking, man, considering that you hardly knew her, you spent most of your time talking and asking questions about Winnie."
"I did?" I said in surprise.
"You sure did, my friend," Jake assured me.
God knows how long Jake and I stood in those toilets talking. But all of the women were waiting for us impatiently when we reappeared. Kind-of turned the table on the usual scenario.
Winnie latched onto my arm again and we all strolled off towards Piccadilly to continue our walking tour. I think that we were all feeling a little tuckered out by then, especially the children. So after having lunch in a restaurant off Leicester Square, we took in a matinee at one of the cinemas. Then at the children's insistence, it was a trip back to their hotel on the top deck of one of the old Route Master's that London was so famous for.
After they had eaten their evening meal — I didn't join them for dinner that night; I'd eaten enough for one day but Americans appear to eat much more than most British folks do — the adults settled into the hotels lounge to drink and chat the rest of the evening away. The young ones played havoc up in their rooms; Tammy had to go up and restore order a couple of times.
I left the hotel about midnight to make my way out of town to my home in the suburbs. Pleased with myself that I'd decided not to take my car that morning, I was in no condition to drive that night.
Sitting in the almost empty last train to Stanmore, I played over the day's events and what I'd learnt about Winnie, in my mind. Almost ten years on and she was still a really fine looking woman who had taken my breath away the moment I laid eyes on her, just as she'd done the first time we'd met. I wasn't sure that I loved her — Christ, I'd always thought love at first sight was something you read about in books — but I was pretty convinced that I wouldn't have to be around her for very long before I was infatuated by her. Perhaps I already was, and that's why I hadn't been able to find love with any other woman.
I had the weirdest dream that night. In my dream we were back at Joe and Winnie's wedding; only Winnie wasn't marrying Joe, she told the minister that she was going to marry me instead.
"Good on you, man. You'll make her a better husband than I ever will!" Joe had said, then he had pushed me towards Winnie with a big grin on his face.
The next few days were kind of repeats of the first day. I met them for breakfast and then we all went out to some tourist sites or shopping places in town. Most of the evenings were spent in the lounge of their hotel, except for the one evening we all spent at St Martin's Theatre watching "The Mousetrap" the mystery play that holds the record for the longest continuous run in the world. I think all the adults enjoyed it, but I fear the younger children would have preferred to have been back at the hotel watching TV.
It must have been on the six or seventh day. As arranged I didn't arrive at the hotel until ten that morning. They'd all had their breakfast and we set out on yet another walking tour almost straight away, Winnie promptly taking up her usual position hanging on to my arm. By then she had to gotten used to regularly changing sides. It didn't take her long to work out that the man always walks on the outside nearest the curb.
"It goes back to the old horse and cart days," I'd explained. "I'm supposed to take any 'you know what' that gets splashed up from the road, to stop it getting onto your dress and also to ensure that you don't stumble off of the curb, of course."
I think everyone smiled at that one, but then I noticed that the other two guys had begun changing the side that they walked on when we crossed the street after that.
That day we took the underground to Trafalgar Square and then walked down Whitehall so that they could take pictures of the Lifeguards on their horses, then we went on past Downing Street to Parliament Square, where - as usual - I had to explain to the children and possibly the adults as well that the tower was called the Clock Tower and that it was the biggest bell inside the tower that was called Big Ben. I was quite enjoying playing tour guide by then.
After that we embarked on one of the river cruise boats to take a ride to Tower Pier, from where we did the Tower Bridge thing, and then visited the Tower itself. Culminating the day was a climb to the top of The Monument that was built to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666. There were so many of us that we kind-a took over the viewing platform at the top, for a while.
From there, as my American friends were beginning to get hungry, we headed back into the West End of town and found a restaurant to eat in. I suppose it must have been about eight o'clock when we decided to conclude the day with a walk along the embankment. I can't even remember how we got back down there.
Winnie, as was usual by then, was hanging onto my arm, and I was spouting off about the old ships moored along the river there. We were heading away from Victoria, intending to make our way to Cleopatra's needle, when Winnie and I suddenly realised that we were alone.
"Where'd they go?" Winnie asked.
"Buggered if I know. They were all there five minutes ago," was all that I could reply.
"Well, it is sort of romantic here. Perhaps they thought we should be alone for a while," Winnie suggested.
"I hope they haven't got lost," I said, Winnie's statement having not really registered in my brain.
"Don't be silly, Ray. Where could they have gone astray? The river's on one side and the road on the..." Winnie stopped speaking because at that moment a bus went past with most of the rest of the party, waving at us wildly from the top deck. Jake was standing on the rear platform and he shouted that they'd see us back at the hotel, as the bus disappeared into the distance.
"Not very subtle, are they?" I suggested.
"Well, what do you expect? The way you're going I'll be lucky if I get a kiss out of you before the vacation is over," Winnie replied.
"Is that what you want me to do, kiss you?" I asked.
"Ray, we've got fourteen days left of this vacation. Let's make the most of them, shall we? Christ, you were quicker than this when you took Sam to bed," Winnie said, then she put her hand behind my neck and pulled me down to her level.
Well, the embankment in the evening is a place for courting couples, so no one batted an eyelid that Winnie and I stood there kissing and cuddling for I don't know how long. I had no idea where all this was going to lead. After all, besides being an American, Winnie was still married to Joe; although I don't think I would have called him a friend by that time, not after the way he'd treated Winnie.
Winnie and I eventually did make it as far as Cleopatra's Needle, but it took us an hour or so because we kept stopping. Then we grabbed a cab to take us back to the hotel. The reception we received when we entered the lounge was loud and embarrassing for both of us to start with. But they laid off us pretty quickly when they realised how embarrassed we were.
It was about midnight again when I suggested that I thought it was about time that I went home.
"Do you have to go?" Winnie asked as she came over to the door with me.
"If I don't go soon, I'll miss the last train home," I told her.
"Then miss it. You can always stay here for the night."
"Winnie, that sign over there says no vacancies!"
"Who cares about that? There's a vacancy in my room with me."
"Winnie, what about the girls?"
"They have their own room, Ray. I planned ahead."
"There's confidence for you," I said laughing,
"No, I wasn't confidant, but I knew how I felt about you and how you felt about me when we met before the wedding. And Sam told me she thought that you were still sweet on me when she ran into you in Venice last year."
"What do you mean, how I felt about you at the wedding?"
"Ray, I saw the way you looked at me and you were overheard giving Joe a piece of your mind about what he did with one of my bridesmaids that night."
"Shit, I wasn't, was I! Who overheard us?"
"Never mind, it's not important. But I wish you or someone had told me about what Joe did at the time. As it was, they only told me after I caught Joe with some slut and threw him out."
"I'd hoped Joe would start behaving himself," I said sheepishly.
"Come on, Ray. I'm sure that you knew Joe better that that. I don't think he knows how to keep it in his pants."
"I'm afraid to say that you're probably right on that one, Winnie."
"Anyway are you going to share my bed with me tonight or not?"
"I'm sorry to be so forward, Ray, but I told you earlier, we've got fourteen days left to work out whether we can make something out of what we feel for each other. Besides Sam says you're quite a stud on the quiet."
"Oh, she does, does she? I wonder what would Jake say if he heard her say that."
"I think Jake's words were, 'You get the bastard into bed, Winnie, and keep him there or I'm likely to lose my wife on this trip. I always knew she was comparing me to someone, ' " Winnie told me with a grin on her face.
I think I was still contemplating that statement when Winnie tried to drag me into the lift.
"I'm sorry, Winnie, you are a wonderful woman, but you are still married to Joe. I'm sorry, girl; but I'm afraid as much as I'd like to, I can't do that kind of thing."
A look of disappointment came over Winnie's face. "Alright, I understand. I'm used goods in your eyes."
"Oh, Christ, no, Winnie! I think you are the most wonderful person in the world. I really think ... No, damn it, I know that I am falling in love with you. But ... I'm sorry I've just got a conservative nature, I suppose. Separated or not, you are still technically married to Joe and it just doesn't seem right to me for us to ... you know ... while you still are," I tried to explain.
A little smile came back onto Winnie's face. "Damn it, I did mess up when I married Joe, didn't I. My father told me that you were a real gentleman, but I didn't realise how right he was until now."
"I'm flattered. Winnie, if you were divorced from Joe, I'd ask you to marry me right now, this minute. And your feet wouldn't touch the ground until we hit that bed together. But you're still hitched in the eyes of the law, so no matter how much I'd like to, I just can't."
"God, I can't half pick 'em, can't I?" Winnie said, a big grin back on her by then.
"Its not like I don't want you or anything, Winnie, but ... Well, for one thing there's Reba and LeAnn to think about as well. What kind of a message would it send out to them if we jumped into bed together at the drop of a hat?"
Winnie blushed and it could be that a guilty expression came over her face. Then she said, "I guess you're right, Ray. Although it pains me to say it."
We went into a clinch, kissed and Winnie told me she'd see me the following morning; then I left the hotel and headed home.
I got some strange looks from a young couple — the only other people in the same carriage as me - when I suddenly heard myself saying, "You know, you're a pompous bloody idiot, Ray Price!" out loud during the journey home that night. I'd just had my ideal wet dream inviting me to take her to bed and ravish her, and like a bleeding idiot I'd turned her down.
After breakfast the following morning, Winnie asked me to go up to her room with her so that we could talk in private for a little while.
"Ray, didn't I tell you that I planned ahead? Reba and LeAnn's room is three floors up with the other children's rooms. They would never have known if you'd spent the night in here with me unless we told them," Winnie said, as we entered her room.
Then going over to the little stand that her suitcase was on, she opened it and took out a large manila envelope, withdrew several documents from it and handed one of them to me.
"My divorce from Joe will become final in six weeks time. Here, look for yourself. I'll be a free agent, Ray, and I'll be able to do what I like," Winnie said smiling at me.
"I'm pleased to hear that, Winnie, but before we go jumping into anything, you must think this all through carefully. After all you know nothing about me really. Except that I was a friend of your extremely dodgy ex-husband. You never know, I might be an axe murderer or something."
"Ray, I have some very good friends and a loving family. I made a complete mess of it when I got involved with Joe. Do you really think that they would let me make the same mistake again?" she asked.
"I have no idea, Winnie."
"Well, they wouldn't. Now please don't be annoyed about this; they were only trying to protect me, but I owe it to you to show you this," Winnie said, offering me some more papers from that envelope.
I glanced through the little file. "Well, I'll be buggered!" was all I could think of to say. Look, it isn't everyday that you find yourself reading through a private detective's report on yourself.
"Bloody thorough, weren't they?" I said.
"Yeah, they cost my dad and Pete (Tammy's husband) a few thousand. I hope that you aren't annoyed about it."
"After Joe, no, I don't think I could be, Winnie. I think that I can understand their concerns, but why?"
Because you've been bugging me ever since I first met you. Ray, do you believe in love at first sight?"
"That's a question I've been asking myself for a long time, Winnie."
"So you do feel the same way as I do."
"Yes, Winnie, I think possibly that I do."
"Good, so there is hope for us then!"
"Now hold on a minute, girl. This isn't as simple as all that."
"Why ever not?"
"Well, think about it. You live three thousand miles away, so if we find we can't live without each other, someone's got to move a long way away from home. Now I'm sorry to say that isn't in the cards for me, because I've got a damned good job here that pays extremely well. I'm willing to bet I wouldn't find an equivalent one in the States in a hurry."
"So the girls and I will move into that nice little house of yours, with you."
"What, just like that? What about their schooling and leaving all of their friends and things? And what about how far you'll be from the rest of your family? Then there's Joe. He might not like the idea of you bringing his children over here to live."
"God, you are really trying to find anything to keep us apart, aren't you?" Winnie sounded a little annoyed.