Venus stacked up the plates. I collected the serving bowls and followed her into the kitchen, where I tipped the leftover sprouts and carrots in with the roast potatoes and stretched clingfilm over the bowl. Neither of us spoke, the only sound the clatter of cutlery and crockery, and the humming of the fridge.
Venus slipped the last plate into the dishwasher. “I’ve been such an ass.”
I gripped the edge of the worktop. Was this about my declining the holiday invitation or was she gearing up to reopen the inquest into Ellie’s nightmare?
“I’m sorry, Di.” Venus closed the dishwasher with a thud. “Of course you’d be furious when I tried to set you up with Simon. In fact, the signs were there from the day we met.”
I almost preferred her being cross with me. At least I knew where I stood. “I haven’t the foggiest what you’re on about.”
Venus turned on the tap above the sink with her elbow. “Of course I’m a tad disappointed you didn’t come out and tell me already.”
Sweaty palms and a sinking feeling in my stomach: symptoms of the fight-flight response reporting for duty. I counted five paces to the outside door. I could grab my bike and be home in under an hour.
“Come on, Di, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Venus plunged her hands under the gushing tap. “It’s obvious you’re gay.”
The idea was so preposterous, I had to laugh. “What?”
“Homosexual. Lesbian. What do you want me to call it?”
Ever since I was tiny, I’d hated to be categorised. Long before being introduced to labelling theory, I’d understood the tyranny of if you’re this you can’t be that: “What on earth gave you that idea?”
Venus rubbed her hands on a chequered tea towel and flung it into the washing machine. “One, the passionate friendship with – what was her name? – Geraldine, never mentioned, even in passing. Two, the football. Three, the fact that you haven’t been out with a man in nigh on twenty years…”
“Mu-um.” We both jumped as Josh poked his head round the kitchen door. “We’re waiting for dessert.”
Icy mist wafted from the freezer as Venus reached inside for a tub of ice cream. “Take that. We’ll be along in a minute.” As soon as the boy moved out of sight, she edged closer to me. “In fact it’s quite common for folk to repress their true sexuality. Of course, you’re brought up to think there’s only one way. If you don’t fit the norm, it takes a humongous amount of courage to admit it. You could waste your entire life contorting yourself into a mould that’s not for you. But, Di, isn’t it time to admit that it’s making you unhappy? I’m here for you, you must know that.” She turned away, embarrassed perhaps by her rambling homily, and unloaded a stack of gaudy painted ceramic bowls from the pine dresser. “Of course, you’d feel awkward going into gay bars on your own, so I could come with you. In fact it’d be a pleasure, like being a student again.”
“There’s really no need. I’m seeing someone.”
Venus wrapped her arms around me. I caught the smell of sandalwood as her shelf of a bosom cut into mine. When she stepped back, still holding on to my elbows with her manicured fingertips, her eyes were glistening. “That’s marvellous! Who is she, Di? If you need me to be discreet, I won’t even tell Paul.”
“I told you, Venus, I’m not gay.”
“You’re seeing a man?” She looked perplexed, as if one of her equations refused to balance.
“It’s no great mystery,” I said. “I had lunch with Simon.”
Venus gasped before treating me to a repeat of the That’s marvellous! and massive bear hug routine. “So when are you seeing him again?”
“I’m not sure. We didn’t exactly arrange anything.”
“You let him go without fixing up another date already?”
Two minutes earlier she was convinced I was gay. “He never asked.” I wasn’t sure our bargain business lunch even qualified as a date.
“Of course the distinguished Dr Dodsworth hasn’t a tongue in her own head!”
It was all very well for her. A married woman didn’t have to worry about making a fool of herself if she invited a man in for coffee. “It’s not easy, you know. Not at my age.”
“You’re such a goose! The world’s swarming with people looking for love on the other side of forty. Nobody finds it easy. Not even Simon, especially if you don’t offer him any encouragement.”
“You think I should’ve asked him?”
“Let’s not fret about what you should’ve done. But you can certainly ring him up and arrange something now.”
“I don’t have his number.”
“Even you could manage to find him on the university intranet. Or would you prefer me to get his number from Giles?”
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