The Last Hurdle (1:12)

They figured that the best way to introduce Anna to Jake was at the football – Jake would be distracted by the game and might have fewer questions. As it happens, a good move.

Calling in a favour from Pat, Paul managed to get hold of three seats in the Executive Box – there was even a warm buffet, where they could help themselves to snacks throughout the game. As it happened, Arsenal delivered, too, thumping Aston Villa by the resounding score of 4-1.

The verdict? Well, from her side, he was a ten-year-old boy, a lot of his interests were weird.

From his side, she fancied his dad, so a lot of her interests were weird. It helped, of course, that she liked the Arsenal, too. Little did he know…

Paul had his speech prepared. As Arsene Wenger would be giving his half-time team talk, so too Paul was giving his. Nothing would change. Had Jake noticed any change in the last six months? No? Well, that was roughly how long he’d already been seeing Anna.

– What about mum?

Again, Jake had seen nothing different these last six months, had he? He’d been with Anna all that time, and still stayed on good terms with his mum. In fact, Beth had known that Paul had been seeing somebody for a few months, just not who, and the pair had never met – Paul was quite determined about that. Present meeting Ex was the very last thing he wanted. If it ever did happen, he wanted to be a long way away!

The football helped. Jake seemed to concentrate more on the game than on Anna. Anna felt she had got off quite lightly, Jake had had very few questions. She left it to Paul to get Jake back home and after the game, the three went their separate ways.

Paul broke the ice.

– What do you think of Anna?

– She’s really your girlfriend? But she’s beautiful, why is she going out with you?

Paul laughed.

– I wish I knew, buddy, but that’s girls for you. Mad, every one of them!

Jake conceded eventually that she had been okay.

– So, you don’t mind if we meet her again?

– Guess not

said Jake.

– Besides, I’m counting on you to teach her the offside rule!

The seeds had been sown.

I Do (1:11)

In the weekends before the wedding, Anna had gone home, to see what she could do to help. The actual week of the wedding, she’d taken as leave, just in case, and had stayed with her parents. Zara was often quite busy, now with two little ones to worry about, but Diane was never far away.

The night before, Paul had travelled down from London. Anna met him at the station, and they grabbed a bite to eat before she finally took Paul home to meet her parents. It was all cordial enough – Paul, by now was nicely house-trained, and nothing more was said that evening.

The day of the wedding arrived, a good day for March, and Anna looked resplendent in her peach bridesmaid dress. The bride and groom disappeared early – they were all going for two weeks over to Corsica, and the waiting limo took them all the way to their hotel at Gatwick, ready for their flight the next morning.

Anna and Paul stayed in the hotel of the reception.

In the morning, Anna left Paul lying in, and headed over to say goodbye to her parents. She could not resist

– what do you think of Paul?

Diane was somewhat equivocal. She came out with a myriad of fine qualities, but she was holding something back.

– Mum…

– It’s nothing, darling, but isn’t he a bit old? I mean, come on, he’s almost my age.

In fact, she was a good ten years older than Paul, but the analogy helped her point. “Oh, no”, thought Anna, “here we go…”.

– I mean, you’re not getting any younger, are you? Do you really think, with a child of his own already, he’ll be wanting to start another family with you? And how old will he be when the child is your age?

– Look, mum, there won’t *be* any children. God knows whether he wants children or not – it is not even something we discussed, but *I* don’t want them. So there won’t be any. The only person who wants them is you!

After a few moments pause, Anna was more soothing.

– Please, I know you want more grandchildren, but that’s not me. Be happy that Zara keeps knocking them out. I don’t know what will happen with me and Paul, but whoever I’m with, or even if I’m on my own, that’s how I feel. I’m not gonna have children. But let’s not fall out, I need to be getting back now, but let’s at least part on good terms.

As Anna left, Diane wiped the tear from her eye.

There was, of course, one more ordeal to face.

Up to Scratch? (1:10)

Pat was a walkover. In fact, he had been well primed by Paul to be on his best behaviour, and they met one Tuesday evening in October, in the Irish Rover. Pat was the same age, roughly, as Paul, and a divorcee, like Paul. A fair bit bulkier than Paul. He was a manager at an IT Services company. She learned that the company entertained sufficiently-important clients and prospective clients with a box at the Emirates Stadium – a sure-fire way to close the deal! So that’s how Paul got those tickets, she’d registered. During the evening, Anna learned that Pat, too, had Irish ancestry – his grandparents had come over from County Cork, which might have explained his liking for pints of stout.

Anna thought that Asha might be a different prospect, however. Anna would never say this, but Asha was quite…demanding. Though diminutive, at under five feet, and weighing as much as a sparrow, her glare could cut people down like a knife, if she were not impressed.

Anna need not have worried. She and Asha instructed Paul to meet them at their favourite wine bar one chilly Saturday night, and when they all met, it helped that Asha and Paul could both chat forever about the state of the world, and Anna hardly got a word in edgeways. It helped that Asha’s grandfather had come to the UK from Jamaica in the early Sixties, that she herself had been stopped innumerable times by the police, for no reason other than that she was black, so Asha knew all about human rights already! Paul did not mind one bit, spending the evening talking shop, because it was refreshing to find someone of that age who cared. Or, maybe he just didn’t meet enough 25-year olds? His every impression was that they lived their lives through Saturday night wannabe tv nonsense, day-dreaming their way to being rich and famous, but Asha was more tuned-in.

As October rolled into November, they started thinking about their first Christmas together, and both managed to get the same week vacation, just after the schools had gone back, so Paul could also spend some time with Jake. For now, best to keep those two threads separate. An ideal time for skiing, and they managed to get a last-minute package, staying just outside Geneva. They were fortunate that, with her new job, she was earning almost as much as him, although Paul thought that the student loan that she still had to pay back was jaw-dropping – how are people supposed to succeed in life when you kneecap them from the off?

By now, Anna’s family knew all about her mystery man, although they had never met him. This was to change, however, when not long into the new year, Zara announced that she and Dan were finally getting married. Second son was now a few months old, and Zara was starting to feel fashionable once again. Dan was…. well, let’s just say that Anna thought he was okay, but not at all who she’d have gone for. Drive was important to her, and Dan seemed to have precious little. Paul could not really back out of this one.

Fresh Fields (1:9)

They hardly saw each other during the month of September. There were various “admin” things – online courses in things like Money Laundering (chance would be a fine thing, it would be years before she even sniffed any money) – Anna wanted to get these out of the way. In any case, it didn’t harm for the new girl to be noticed. If Clive, a Senior Partner at the firm and, day-to-day, her new boss, looked up and saw her at her desk, working early, working late…well, it couldn’t hurt, could it? She had already received some interest from the other new recruit, but she scared him off when she told him that she already had a boyfriend and was incredibly happy with him. In truth, Paul and Anna were hardly at the stage yet where they thought of each other as boyfriend and girlfriend, but the lie served its purpose.

Anna still had the weekend, though, and she saw Paul twice during September. They had synced their schedules so that she saw him on weekends that he was not seeing Jake. It was a double win for her. First, they got to spend time alone together, and second, it kept Anna away from Paul’s son. How would he react to her? She was great with her nephew, but Jake was so much older, and an entirely different proposition.

One weekend, she visited her parents, but remained tight-lipped, and the last weekend, she just wanted time on her own. She and Asha went out late, to the market.

Asha did not want to put Anna under the microscope, she knew how difficult it could be at the start of a relationship, but she could not help being intrigued. She had caught a glimpse of him a few times, normally as they’d been leaving the house. He was tall (everybody was tall to her), a dark-haired white guy, and looked old.

Asha had met Anna when they had been in their first year at King’s. They both lived in the same Halls of Residence, but Asha was studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Asha had lived in London all her life, coming from an estate just over the river in Clapham. They had become friends and, along with three others, had decided to share a house together at the end of the first year. They spent their second year in a shared house in Enfield, a real rat-hole, and four of them found the house together in Camden at the start of the third year. Terry (Theresa), the fifth, had parted from the group to move in with her boyfriend. The house was in good condition, a steal for the area, and they had no trouble when they advertised for a new fifth.

At the end of their degrees, Mo and Lisa had also gone their separate ways, leaving just Anna and Asha. They advertised for, and easily found, new housemates.

So, Anna and Paul prepared for the first major test of any new relationship – trial by friends. To an extent it was planned, to an extent, it would have to happen anyway, sooner or later. But at least they wanted to control *how* it happened. Before any family were involved, they wanted dry runs with Paul’s best friend, Pat, and Asha.

Wrapping Up (1:8)

Tongues did wag, however. Not least Anna’s best friend Asha, who had noticed that she did not come home that night.

When she finally did get back, at 7:30 the next morning, it was for a quick shower, a quick change of clothes. No time for questions. “I’ll tell you tonight”, was about as much as Asha got.

Truth be told, Anna wasn’t sure. She had ignored all the reasons why it should not happen and gone for it anyway. But maybe that is how you get into any relationship? Knowing when to ignore the warning signs, and proceeding anyway? This was a learning curve for Anna every bit as much as for Paul – she was not exactly experienced, having only ever had one semi-serious relationship before then.

A few miles away, Paul, too was full of guilt. Wouldn’t it have been better to have left things as they were? This girl will be gone in a few weeks, anyway, And, never mind that age difference!

There was an awkwardness, therefore, when they saw each other at work. In fact, Anna had become very busy, trying to tie up loose ends before she left, but Paul took it for rejection. When, by Wednesday, he still hadn’t called, Anna called him.

It was perfectly clear in Paul’s head, but for some reason, the words just wouldn’t come out of his mouth properly. “Fucking hell”, thought Anna, “why don’t men grow up?” She was not normally given to expletives, but…really! Wasn’t he meant to be the mature one? From Paul’s side, he still could not quite believe she was interested, still wasn’t sure it was the right thing anyway. And many’s the girl who has woken up in the morning and thought, “what have I done?” Exasperated, Anna said, “Look, I’m going out for Dim Sum again on Saturday. Do you want to come with me?” This time, they skipped the movie, and ended up back at Anna’s house.

That second time helped a lot with Paul’s anxiety – after all, if the first time had been a mistake, she would hardly have stayed around for more.

The last week was Anna’s busiest. Arrangements had been fixed, she finished at RightWay with a glowing report, had a month’s vacation due, and would start at Maynard Fleischmann in September. On the spur of the moment, it was not possible for Paul to take leave, although he wangled three days off, with a sob story about Jake. Anna and Paul headed up to Cromer, in Norfolk, for a long weekend. They hired a car for the duration, and escaped from the city along the M11.

 Anna’s leaving RightWay had a positive effect, because Paul no longer had to worry about being reserved in her presence. And it had an advantage because when he told Anna about work, she knew who and where he was talking about.

They spent a lot of time together during her vacation, mostly at Paul’s bedsit, and Anna started at Maynard Fleischmann as planned.

Lunch (1:7)

There was contact between them at work, of course, but not enough that anyone would notice.

They’d spoken to each other, in the evenings, about every four or five days, and Anna called Paul, the Wednesday before their date, to check that everything was okay to meet. They agreed to meet up on Saturday afternoon, and head up to Covent Garden together, maybe visit a few of the posh shops, or have a bite to eat if the fancy took them.

Saturday, at ten to two, Paul was waiting at the entrance to Chalk Farm tube station. Anna turned up right on time at 2 o’clock, and they caught the next Northern Line train to Leicester Square. From there, it was a short hop to Covent Garden – London is actually an excellent walking city, the centre at least. They made a note of the films at the cinemas in the square, and strolled off together.

In this part of London, the tourist part, there are restaurants every minute, and after two hours shopping, the pair were ready for a late lunch. Back they headed, to Chinatown for some Dim Sum. They made another discovery, then – that they were both vegan, not only that, but both for the same reasons.

They ate and talked, talked and ate. There was a constant supply of green tea, to stave off any thirst they might have had. With an eye on the clock, Anna finally said, “do you fancy seeing that film? It starts at 7 and if we leave now, we can make it.” Not particularly wanting the day to end, Paul agreed. They split the bill, and strolled off to watch “The Leading Edge” together. When they left the cinema, arm in arm, the sky had become dusk, as they headed back home.

They got off again at Chalk Farm station – she’d stayed on the train an extra stop, because she didn’t want the day to end just yet, and because it was a warm evening, Paul had decided to walk home from there. Their first real kiss was just past the ticket barriers, watched rather too closely by an employee of London Underground!

Anna broke her usual rule, and agreed to meet Paul on Thursday. Against her better judgement (she could not stand football) she agreed to go with Paul to watch Arsenal, who were playing Sevilla in the Europa League that night. Paul had a friend who had some job which meant he could get tickets, apparently. This was the semi-final, not that Anna would have cared. Arsenal ended up drawing 2-2, not that Anna would have noticed.

Given the crowds of people, and the warm evening, they decided to walk back. They could have been quicker but they stopped for a nightcap, when Paul treated Anna to an expert analysis of the holes in Arsenal’s defence!

That night they consummated the new relationship. To avoid unnecessary questions from housemates, they had ended up at Paul’s. Anna was the first woman since Beth, and she had less than a month to go at RightWay.

Repercussions (1:6)

In the minicab home, Anna mainly felt tired. She had enjoyed being with Paul, for sure. His jokes had been funny because they had been so bad, and he seemed to have his heart in the right place. She was wary of office romances, though – surely the point of seeing someone *outside* of work was to *get away* from work? But Paul had been good fun. Right now, though, she was tired. After the cab dropped her off, she crept into the house, her first goal to take her shoes off, and she tip-toed past the sleeping house to her bedroom. It had just gone 5AM.

In a way, Paul had been relieved, too. He had never been in one but had seen friends caught up in office romances. Most romances finally end, just as his marriage had, and that idea of constantly seeing somebody after it had finished must be unbearable. In truth, Paul generally felt that way anyway – *all* relationships were headed for the rocks, so why bother in the first place? Of course, there were the odd exceptions, but look at the odds….

So, best to regard the evening just at face value. Anna had been good company, but there could be nothing in it.

In fact, neither of them need have worried. The next day, Anna arrived late (nobody noticed), survived the day on double espressos (nobody noticed), left early (nobody noticed) and went straight home to bed, buying a quick pasta ready meal from Waitrose as she came out of Camden Town Tube station, she’d have to have an extra-long session at the gym tomorrow. With his thumb heavily bandaged, Paul was no good for typing anyway, and had called in sick, saying no more than that he had fallen, had injured his thumb, and had spent the night at the Vic. Besides, he had the scars to prove it! Nobody connected the two patterns of behaviour. Paul spent most of Wednesday asleep.

 Paul was off work for two days, and when he came back, not much was said between them. But Paul called Friday evening. Anna was just relaxing with a glass of Chablis, ready to go out later with Asha to a wine bar just along the High Street. Anna had preferred weekends, preferred to keep work-nights free, although, as it happened, Paul was seeing Jake this coming weekend – Paul had got hold of some tickets, from Pat, to see Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday. Paul liked a bit of soccer now and again – as a teen, he had been quite keen – trained with the schoolboys at West Ham – until he was told he would not make the cut, and he developed “other interests”.

For her part, Anna had arranged to go over to her parents’ the weekend after that. She enjoyed seeing her parents, enjoyed seeing her nephew, enjoyed giving him back! And so, steady as she goes, a date was set for Saturday night, in two weeks’ time, the venue tbd.

Hot in the City (1:5)

Since asking Anna out, Paul had cooled somewhat. There was no way she could be interested, and in any case, his life was already complicated enough. After the divorce, he’d vowed “never again”, so why was he tempting fate? The only way to play this was to put any thoughts of romance out of his mind.

She arrived almost fifteen minutes late. He thought she’d stood him up. When she finally arrived, she explained that the Northern Line had been suspended – a suspect package – but had started again after five long minutes.

And so they bowled. It might have been one of the works nights out. The chatting was quite effortless, the alcohol greased the wheels. He told her about Jake, about Beth, about how his mum lived not far away, aged 79 now, and how he often helped out with odds and ends. Anna was still in the house in Camden, not far from the canal, that she had shared as a student – besides, renting in London was so expensive. One of Anna’s favourite days out was to go clothes shopping at the market there. She told him about her family, that she was already an auntie, almost twice! She hadn’t intended to, but decided to tell him about the job offer. Even her best friend Asha, who’d studied alongside Anna, and who still shared a house with her, got a mention.

The first game was a whitewash, Anna winning by more than forty points. The second was closer – seventeen points. Paul had insisted on a “decider”, he wasn’t particularly competitive, but he was enjoying himself. The second frame, however, was to be their last, Not seeing the spilled drink on the floor, Paul slipped. He almost – not quite – regained his balance and grabbed onto the seating to stop himself from falling completely, bending his thumb backwards.

Nursing a very red thumb, Paul conceded defeat. He was not sure if he’d broken anything, so wanted to get himself checked out at the hospital – the Princess Victoria was only a mile away, and they catered for emergencies. It was already late, so Paul prepared to say his goodbyes, but Anna would not hear of it, she was coming with him. They found a minicab very quickly, checked in at the hospital, and settled in for a long wait.

As it happened, the NHS was having a good night. Only a four-hour wait to be seen. Then another 45 minutes while the X-Ray team was paged. Neither of them would be much use at work tomorrow!

The final verdict? Badly bruised, but not broken. Take paracetamol until the pain became bearable. They had, at least, put the thumb into a bandage for him. The tired junior doctor probably thought of this as success, another satisfied customer, if he thought anything at all behind those eyes, blanked from working twenty hours straight. Paul couldn’t help wondering whether he’d have been better off just going home and wrapping his thumb in some frozen peas.

It was approaching dawn when they got out into the open air. Deflated, Paul felt he had wasted not only his time, but hers too. They shared a minicab, which would drop Paul off first, then continue on to Anna’s. What a night! Outside Paul’s bedsit, Paul could only apologise one last time for the mess. To his surprise, she pecked him on the cheek and said “don’t worry, we’ll have to be more careful next time”.

“Next time” – those two little words that made Paul’s evening.