Dakin lets out a shriek “Ow, fuck!”
“Sorry. Not how I wanted to spend my Saturday evening”
“Yeah well, next time I get punched I’ll make sure it’s on a school night”
“You say the sweetest things”
“Here, I couldn’t find an icepack but hopefully mixed frozen veg will do?” Misjudging the distance, she plonks it on Stu’s head where it lands with a painful thunk.
“Perdi love, that needs a tea towel around it” Posner appears as if by magic and hands her one.
“God, sorry! I’m so sorry” She starts sniffling again and Scripps wraps her in a hug.
“It isn’t your fault, Perdi”
“No, but your Florence Nightingale impression is shit. I think a carrot stick just poked me in the eye” Stu wails, cupping his hand over the eye, purpling and swelled shut even before Perdi and her attempts at first aid.
Crouched on the carpet in front of him, Tom dissolves into laughter.
~Earlier That Day~
it was supposed to be a fun afternoon out - getting date ready.
Perdi was aflutter about a third date that evening with someone from the polytechnic and, more importantly, Tom had finally rung and he and Stu had arranged to meet for the first time since school. As soon as he had spilled the news to Perdi, and Scripps had helped him to fill her in on their history, her most pressing concern was which pants he was planning on wearing.
“I dunno - whatever’s clean”
She’d pulled a face.
“Uh uh, wrong answer. Talk me through the options”
None of them were judged acceptable based on her categories, which as far as he could tell were: age and something indefinable that she ‘knows about men’. Whatever it was founded on, she insisted they go and get some new ones, or risk destroying his entire future.
So here they are, in the city centre after morning lectures, buying sexy underwear together. He isn’t entirely convinced she didn’t just trick him into going with her for her own reasons, but as an excuse to hang out it’s as good as any.
“I mean, speaking as a man, I couldn’t describe a single pair of pants I’ve encountered in a bedroom scenario, ever.” He yawns over the rails of eye-wateringly expensive frilly things she’s browsing though.
“You’re saying you would sleep with me if I were wearing my big, grey, baggy Little Miss Sunshine undies?”
“I’m going to be honest, love I don’t think that would be the major stumbling block - but theoretically, even if you had such a pair of knickers, you wouldn’t have to worry”
She hooks her thumb into her waistband in response and hoiks up the greyed and fraying elastic of a truly enormous pair of pants. “Don’t say ‘knickers’, it’s vulgar”
“Jesus Christ.” he laughs. “I’m just saying it wouldn’t be enough to turn you back from the brink, not once you’re in the zone.”
“Well trust me, you need some sexy foundation wear. What if he’s not a horny pig like you?”
There’s always the off chance she’s right. He decides it’s not worth the risk, and picks up two multipacks - one of boxers and one of briefs, which she makes him swap for some individual ones on hangers that look pretty much the same but are five times the price.
“Do you mind me and him meeting up?”
“It doesn’t bother you hearing about it?”
She shakes her head, but doesn’t look up from rifling through the lingerie. “Why the concern? You didn’t ask if I minded about Marcus, or Lucy” Lucy who he’d been going out with only a week ago but he’d dropped like a hot potato when Tom called him. He feels a bit guilty about that, not that there was ever any contest.
“It just feels a bit bigger than them. Maybe I’m maturing”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. No darling, I don’t mind. we had our shot, remember? I wish I didn’t, it was awful”
“I was fucking drunk!”
She does a stilted jiggling mime that he assumes is supposed to be his drunken attempt at sex. “‘is it in yet?’”
She snorts a laugh.
“Last time I take your feelings into account. I thought you were suffering a resurgence.”
She shrugs, still fighting back giggles. “I am, but - You’re like one of those fancy cocktails at the yuppy bars - every time I see someone with one I think it looks tempting and then I come to my senses and remember I’m not blowing all my drink money on one thing that’s instantly regrettable and makes me feel like shit afterwards.”
“I’m tempted to leave you here”
“But that’s what I mean: temptation is nice, there’s no need to spoil it with actualisation. What do you think of this bra?”
“Yeah, it’s nice.” He nods, not looking.
“Do you think he’ll go mad for it?”
“No. We don’t go mad for bras, we go mad for tits, come on.” He drags her to the queue for the tills. “You don’t mind”
“I really don’t”
Wandering out of Debenhams, weighed down with far more shopping than either of them had gone in for, Perdi pokes the side of her nose a few times pensively, and drops a bag on the pavement. She scoops it up seamlessly and turns around to walk backwards so she can talk to him.“Should I get my nose pierced?”
“Yeah,” He twists her round just in time to stop her colliding with an unsuspecting homeless man. “why not?”
“My parents would kill me, but I think it looks nice”
He shrugs. “It’s your life”
“Who did your ear? Lets go and see if he’s got a free slot”
“Is it still infected?” She pokes it and he jerks away as far as he can in the narrow space of the hallway that doubles as a waiting room.
“No, it’s fine now.” He whispers. It’s still really sore, but he doesn’t say so. “Just don’t tell him I changed the jewellery before I was supposed to. He scares me”
“What’s it worth?”
“Deal” She takes a handful from the proffered paper bag.
“Oi that’s my lunch”
“We’ll stop after this.”
“Do you do anal?”
“I’ve tried it” She twists the new diamond through her nose, wincing.
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, but it’ll calm down in a few days, right?”
“What? No, you plum, anal sex”
She stops walking, causing a few people to tut as they have to swerve around her, and looks him up and down, a smile creeping across her face. “Good grief,”
“You are so into him! It’s adorable!” She squeaks, poking him in the side.
“Shut up! Does it though?”
“No, not really. Just take it slow and don’t do anything you aren’t ready to”
“That’s what Posner said”
“Well there you are, he’s a wise man. Come on,” She grabs his arm and steers him down the lane to the Turf Tavern. “Time for a drink before we get ready”
He’s meeting Tom at the station later and the plan is to get ready at hers together and then head out as her date is coming off his shift at a restaurant nearby. He suspects it’s an excuse for her to meet Tom ‘by accident’ but he doesn’t mind.
“I wish Mr Gibson had fancied me - he was our school fitty - taught lacrosse. You think you’re going to do sexy teacher stuff? Ooh, maybe he’s got a cane”
“I didn’t go to school in the sixties, he isn’t a cartoon teacher” Now Stu thinks about it, he probably does have a cane. He crosses his legs and wills the image away.
“It’s hot though”
“Yeah” He grins into his half pint - ordered on her command (“You’re really into him, I’m not letting you spoil it with a floppy cock!”).
Perhaps it would have been alright if they’d left together, he’s run into the group of guys before and there’s never been a problem. Like his own group of Cutler’s School boys, there’s a core group of the Dulwich College lot, and they’ve always been fine, if on the boorish side once they’re a few drinks down and inclined to make fun of his accent and working class roots, but by no means nasty - or so he’d thought.
Perdi is still in a college room and excuses herself to make a trip to the loo before they leave. As usual, it’s bloody freezing inside - he doesn’t know how she can stand it for three years - and he heads down to the courtyard for a smoke and to thaw out while he waits for her. Besides, he doesn’t want to keep Tom waiting and it’ll have the added bonus of speeding things up. He loves Perdi to bits but she’s a bloody nightmare and whenever they go out for the evening he now arranges her to meet her whenever she shows up. The alternative, as he’s learned from painful experience, is to wait hours for her to restyle her hair, forget her handbag, lock herself out and finish her makeup on the way before they even get to the bar. He doesn’t know how long he’s been standing waiting, but it’s by no means long enough to make him worry before he contemplates sparking up a second time and checks his watch. They’ve still got ages, but he calls up the staircase just to chivvy her along. He isn’t sure if he’s imagined it at first, so he calls up again and this time there’s a definite answer - at first quietly and then louder. She sounds terrified.
As he rushes up the stairs he sees the group from Dulwich College along with some other public school blokes he doesn’t know standing against the wall, laughing at something. They’re in such a tight huddle around her that he almost runs past them, but she lets out a yelp as he reaches the landing and he shoulders his way into the tight knot to find one of them holding her flush against him, cupping her boobs to keep her in place.
Back home, Fiona would probably have rolled her eyes, stamped on the top of his foot and elbowed him in the balls, but she was used to this kind of shit. Perdi, on the other hand, went to Roedean: protected in an all-female fortress above the sea, and during the holidays her muslim mother, lapsed or not, fiercely guarded her only daughter from contact with boys, so he can understand why this behaviour catches her horrifyingly unprepared.
Later, he'll wish he had something less stupid to say other than “You alright, Perds?” but it has the effect of announcing his presence, nevertheless.
The guys don’t address him but a mutter goes round that ‘she’s got a boyfriend’ and their friend releases her.
He catches a glimpse of her wet face as she stumbles towards him, before she throws an arm around his neck. He feels it like an ice cube in his stomach. “I’m not her boyfriend. Do you want to give her her bag back?”
“Join in if you want”
“No thanks. Bag”
He manages to catch it before it hits her head, but can’t stop the eyeliner pens, paperback and assorted detritus that falls out of it on the way. Her arm tightens around his neck to stop him bending to pick it all up. Against him, her normally loose, gangly frame is like a board, her face rigid with anger and fear.
“Just leave it” She hisses. He would have, too, except as they turn to go, the dropped contents of her bag pelted at their backs, he can’t ignore the sniggering insults that follow them.
“Dunno why they even let your type in here,”
“Your dad cleans my toilet, mate”
“I don’t fuck Pakki’s anyway.”
“Leave it!” She squeaks, but he’s already sprinting back up the stairs, to a chorus of ‘Oooo’s. He doesn’t know which of them said it, but he knows which one grabbed her and he makes a beeline for him, catching him squarely on the nose with his forehead.
So it is that they ended up at the flat he shares with Posner and Scripps, blood spattered and tear stained, and Scripps was sent to collect Tom, who is now kneeling at his feet in entirely different circumstances to those he’s been imagining.
“Hardly the romantic reunion I was hoping for” He mutters, echoing Stu’s thoughts as he gently presses a bag of pulped cauliflower to his swollen eye.
“What did you have in mind?”
Tom blushes and fusses with the makeshift icepack. Behind him, Perdi stalks up and down the room, alternately bursting into tears and trying to convince everyone it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.
“It’s not as - I mean my mum is from Pakistan” She wrings her hands.
“Yeah, thing is love, I don’t think a respectful discussion on your racial heritage was what they were after”
“God, Stu,” She gulps, staring aghast once again at his injured face. “I’m so, so sorry”
“Stop, no, none of that now. I’m just glad I was there” He shudders at the thought of them encountering her all alone. “Pos can you make Perdi some more tea while we figure out where she’s going to go tonight?” He asks, in the hope that one or both of them will stop pacing.
“I’ll do it, I think we could all do with some” Scripps offers, pressing Posner into a chair. “Sit down, love. Tea with five sugars, coming up”
“Fucking Dulwich College fuckers!” Pos grits out. “I always knew they were bad, but this is barbaric”
“I went to Dulwich college, you know” Tom murmurs.
Stu tries to roll his eyes but throbbing head protests.
“Of course you did”
“It was shit. You would have brightened things up. With your fists.” He smiles, dabbing antiseptic onto Stu’s split lip.
“I don’t understand how those neanderthals even got into Oxford” Pos fumes. Stu can’t be sure but he thinks he even sees him cracking his knuckles.
“Money” Perdi chuckles bitterly.
“Can we stop talking about it please?” Dakin sighs. Things have gone badly enough without bringing the university, and who did and didn’t get in, into it.
“Well no, because we need a plan of what’s happening next” Scripps interjects. He’s right as always, but right now Stuart just wishes he’d shut up.
Tom dumps the last of the bloodied cotton wool into a basin and stretches. “I should get going anyway.”
“You don’t have to” Stu hates how childlike he sounds to his own ears.
“I’ll go!” Perdi shoots out of her seat, sending half a cup of cold tea over the carpet, and Posner scampering for the paper towel.
“Don’t you dare! Seriously though, Tom you can stay”
“Thanks, but I’m in the way here and you need to sort your friend out without worrying about me. Besides, you look like you need to rest. I’ll call you and we’ll rearrange.”
Reluctantly, Stu helps him to his feet and shows him to the door.
Glancing over his shoulder to see if the others can hear, Tom leans in and drops his voice. “Maybe you can come to me next weekend and we’ll go to dinner? You could stay over if you wanted” He’s distinctly pink so Stu is reassured that he’s not walking out on him.
“I’d er - like to kiss you but” He gestures to his painful and gory face. “I’m sorry about this”
“Please, it’s about time some of those arseholes got taught a lesson. Just a shame that lesson was how easy you are to beat up”
“Yeah well, we were outnumbered, and she’s useless in a fight” He gestures behind him to where Posner is trying to be patient with Perdi and her attempts to help clean up the mess she’s made.
Tom laughs and lays a hand on his shoulder, where it lingers for a long moment. “I’ll call you”
The door closes and he turns to his friends who are making themselves painfully obvious in their attempts not to listen in.
“Fuck Dulwich College”