I’d just got my driving license and I was allowed to borrow my parents car on condition I did the errands like drop my kid brother off to play with his friends and all that crap that my parents had had to do before I passed the test. I didn’t really mind. Anything to get to drive.
That very first week my brother had to be dropped off and collected at his friend Darren’s house. Darren lived in the next borough and it was quite a complicated drive if you wanted to avoid the M25 ring road. It turns out Darren only went to our school because he’d been kicked out of all the schools in his borough for being disruptive. We didn’t really know that bit at the time and my brother was allowed to go round to play.
So that Saturday morning I dropped Simon off. Darren was out front and said his parents weren’t home, which wasn’t no problem so I left my brother and told them I’d pick him up at 4.
4pm came around and I got back to Darren’s promptly. It was quiet. I knocked on the door. There wasn’t any answer.
The woman next door opened her kitchen window which was right overlooking Darren’s front door and said ‘she won’t hear you, you know. What do you want?”. I just explained nervously that I was collecting my brother. “You’d better go up the side then, she’s always round the back” was all the woman said, and she closed the window as though that was that.
The gate just had a latch and I went up the side of the house and round to the back garden.
And what a garden! Picture it. Its like going through a portal from a normal London drive into Narnia!
A normal suburban semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac like millions of other houses in suburbia all over London. A normal semi just like where I live. But there can’t have been another semi in London with a garden as gorgeous as this!
It was lush and green and a riot of colour. It was full of tall shrubs and ferns and things that looked like bamboo and palm with a tropical feel. How on earth did any of this grow in London?
I stood in awe. I could only see a dense thicket of rain forest and a canopy of vines on a lattice and a narrow path of yellow patio stones snaking around a corner. I couldn’t see much. I called out “Hello?” and walked slowly forward. I felt like I was intruding. But I was dumbstruck by the vivid green walls of foliage that hemmed in the garden making it the most private feeling space in the whole of London.
“Can I help you?” a girls voice behind me made me jump. I turned around. She was holding a garden fork firmly with both hands, the tines pointing nonchalantly towards me like she could strike out effortlessly if she needed to.
“Eh, I’m supposed to collect Simon” I said. She stood silent and still like she was waiting for more. “Eh, he’s playing with Darren and I’m supposed to collect him at 4?” I asked even less sure of myself. I began to have that sinking feeling I had come to the wrong house, I was in the wrong garden, talking to the wrong stranger and I had just been caught trespassing.
She smiled. “Ah right, yeah, they are supposed to be back by now. You want a cuppa?”.
Not waiting for an answer she walked around the bend in the path and disappeared. I followed. Around the corner was a small patio with chairs around the back door, completely walled in by greenery. It was an oasis of calm. I could see the path led onwards away from the back of the house and there was just the hint of a small lawn further on and more walls of thicket and the promise of more tranquility and beauty.
“I’m Sally, by the way,” she said from the kitchen door “Darren’s older sister”. As though that needed any explanation. She had to be my age. She was petite and skinny. She had shiny brown hair in a bob, rosy red cheeks like apples and a wide mouth and brown eyes and dimples when she smiled. She stopped smiling. A sudden fear jumped in the pit of my stomach making me feel ill - had I been caught staring at her? I turned away awkwardly and asked about the garden to cover my embarrassment.
She transformed. She bounced happily out of the kitchen and started pointing things out in answer. She started to explain everything. This was clearly her garden, her sanctuary, her love. She led me all around the garden talking the whole time, excited the whole time. And I actually found it fascinating! Everything was hardy and she gushed about how easy it all was but it really looked like she lived out in the garden, lived for the garden, and spent all her time tweaking and weeding and pruning.
The tour was interrupted by Darren yelling “we’re home” from the back door. He didn’t come out. Sally turned to me “sorry about Darren. He’s a bit ... overactive underachieving if you know what I mean” she looked aside embarrassed like it was somehow her fault. “He’s not allowed in my garden obviously” she said quietly as though that needed no explanation.
Straightening up and taking charge Sally beckoned “Simon, you can go out this way”, waving towards the path up the side. Simon and Darren said gruff goodbyes and Simon went up the side. I turned to follow. “Eh nice meeting you, eh,...” she said, still embarrassed. “Eh, James” I finished her sentence, realising I hadn’t even told her my name. I hadn’t really told her anything. I’d just been listening the whole time. “Sorry about the tea” she said as I left and I looked over my shoulder and smiled “another time perhaps”. It was the kind of automatic answers that grown ups give, but it was autopilot and my mind was reeling like a teenager. She hadn’t even put on the kettle.
On the drive home I tried to get out of Simon what the set up at Darrens was. Simon kept taking the conversation off elsewhere, not understanding my interest. I didn’t want to show my hand. But slowly I extracted out of him that their dad had left and Sally did most of the raising and their mum worked long hours. Sally had just got a part time job in Woolworths. Darren thought his sister was mean and stupid. Simon then went on and talked about Darren’s remote-control car and how there was a MacDonalds nearby and I tuned out; he didn’t really pick up my interest in Sally.
That weekend all I did was fantasize about Sally. I day-dreamed by day and dreamed by night. Standard fare for an eighteen year old shy awkward boy like me to be infatuated with every girl they meet no matter how unrealistic and unapproachable the girl is.
By Monday, I had a plan. There was only so many Woolworths near Darren’s house. Three nearby, in fact, and two dozen if I had to cast a wider net. I didn’t know what hours she worked or even which days. But I went off meaning to visit every single Woolies every single hour of every single day until I located her. In my twisted mind this seemed somehow something I needed to do.
I was in my fifth Woolies when I saw her. She looked quite different in the gray Woolworths apron and uniform. Woolies were always quite quiet on Mondays so she was standing bored at a till next to another girl. Her hair was so shiny. It was her dimples that made me sure it was Sally.
I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t thinking, I was just somehow acting on instinct. I went up to her till and picked up a biro from the box right in front of it. Who goes and buys a single pen? She had a name-tag on her chest saying “Trainee”. She was completely unfazed that a customer was buying only a pen- “Will that be all?”
“Hi Sally”. This broke the pattern. She wasn’t expecting a customer to say that. She looked up. She smiled and her dimples showed. Her eyes darted sideways both sides as though seeing if the coast was clear. She lent slightly forward, and said quietly “Hi James, what are you doing here?”. “I needed a pen” I lied. We both stifled a laugh like it was the funniest secret joke in the world. I followed through with “What time do you get off work?”. It was bold. I hadn’t rehearsed this. I had no idea what to say and my subconscious took charge, saying the suave kind of thing my characters said in dreams but never dreamed of saying in real life.
Sally glanced sideways again, particularly checking the girl standing at the other till silently watching us. “Why?” Sally asked. “You’ve a long way home” I said. “I take the bus” she replied. “I have a car” I countered. “Ok” she surrendered, reddening, “3”.
I brought the pen. As I left, the other till girl came over to Sally and they started whispering.
Then I had to leg it off to my mum’s works which fortunately wasn’t too far from this Woolies and beg off her the car. I had a mission. Driving a girl home was almost a date. I’d never dared do it before.
At 3pm I went into Woolies and Sally saw me, waved, brushed past the other till girl and disappeared through a door. I stood there stupidly grinning at the other girl, loitering awkwardly. A few minutes later she came out again in normal clothes and I opened the shop door for her.
We walked in silence to my car. I gallantly opened the car door for her. “Thanks” she said. That was all that was said for the first five minutes. My tummy was doing somersaults. I felt a bit queasy.
“So you don’t talk much” Sally laughed. I tried to laugh back. “Do you have a job?” she asked more seriously. “I’m looking-” I replied “do you always finish at 3?”. She told me she worked Mondays Wednesdays Fridays and half day Saturdays.
There was another long silence. “So are you always going to be so quiet and mysterious?” she laughed again. “Sorry” was all I managed. And then we were getting real close to her house. I felt like this was the worst possible ride home, like I was throwing everything away. Sally started giving directions. “Just pull over here” she said, still round the corner from her house. I stopped the car. Was this when I kiss her? What do I say?
As soon as the car stopped she jumped out and, leaning back in, said “Thanks for the lift, James. Really appreciate it”. She said it in a smiling nice genuine voice. And then she was gone. She went up an alley between the back gardens. That was probably the way she always went home I guess.
I drove back to my mums work and waited for her to finish.