That’s me. Charlie. Him, over there, steaming towards me — as much as one can steam in a crowd of students — with some poor, hapless woman in tow, was Ivan.
Exchange student? Hardly.
Ivan, the way he was back then, wasn’t Russian no more than I was male, despite our names. Someone had the brand new idea to compare him to a character in a comic, American by birth, Russian by badly faked accent. He didn’t speak like a cartoon character, or look like one, but he was decidedly squirrely. Me? Once your parents saddle you with a name like “Charlotte” and you happen to be more than just a little tomboyish, “Charlie” is the least of your worries.
He was tall, thin, cadaverous, and oddly filled with energy – overfilled, one might say and still be properly English understating the facts.
“Yes, Ivan?” I yelled. It wasn’t quite possible to talk without twisting the volume to 11, mostly — but only mostly — because the band, on stage, had twisted theirs to 10. If you’ve ever been in a too small room with too many students after too many very cheap beers, you know of which I speak. It wasn’t quite enough to rupture eardrums, but it was close. That the amplifiers were in need of recycling, preferably as scrap, didn’t help. That the band members were also students, and hence eligible to the Natural Sciences Social Club–subsidised beers, would have to take some of the blame.
We are nothing if not thorough here on the Hard Sciences side of the fence.
“Lovely, innit!” he predictably yelled back. I didn’t answer that one. My fellow CompSci students had finally, finally managed to drag me out to a social occasion, and it was as horrible as I had suspected. We’re an odd little group, and anyone who think geeks are antisocial has never actually tried to meet any. We’re just a little bit peculiar about our definition of social, see. It’s quite possible to be all alone in a crowd whilst ones hearing centres leak out of ones ears because of sounds old Decibel would never have believed.
That said, I had been on my way out the door. Still. Decorum.
“Want you to meet my girlfriend!” This, from Ivan, was quite in order. We heard that one about once a week. As I said, long, thin, and frankly living inside his head most of the time. They tended to shift in and out of the lab, and only the newbies ever got surprised. Because, decorum, I bowed — and was surprised. By this time I had expected the lass to be as sloshed and bouncy as Ivan or simply confused. This lady, however, was angry. Pissed off, even. One might say hopping mad.
To explain, see, there’s not many women on this side of before–mentioned fence. At the CompSci department there are, in our year, TWO. I’m one, but since I’m also, as it were, one of the boys … the other is so cute she should be declared a weapon of mass destruction on a campus. She’s also smart enough to stay as far from Ivan as possible. Since her long–time, very faithful, boyfriend does theoretical math and wields sarcasm as a sword — not so much a rapier as a claymore — even Ivan has taken that hint.
So we shop, ahem, on the Soft Science side. Oh, there’s the chemists and biologists, both groups with majority of women, but who wants to risk angering people with access to cyanide and particle accelerators? There you go.
Normally, then, Ivan’s girlfriends were language or philosophy students. Not in any way dumb people, but not quite used to the “Have a pint! Have another fifteen! Did I explain Turing theory to you yet? Let’s say this pint is in a box, and we don’t know whether it’s been drunk or not … ” — yeah, we can be pretty stupid on occasion. And drunk. Which explains both his normal success in picking women up and the subsequent woman–ditching–him. But it was also normally benevolent. Not like this. This lady fumed. I hoped she wasn’t a chemist …
“Gwen, meet Charlie! Charlie, Gwen! Isn’t this neat? It’s my favourite band, this!”
“How do you do?” I yelled, and reached out with my off hand, the left. In order to do the Proper, she would have to use her left, which required Ivan to drop the very firm grip on her hand. With a perceptible — to me, not to Ivan — intake of breath, she held it out. I very gently shook. See? This is what happens when you stop after the first pint, even if number two is colder and cheaper and … onward. What I was trying to say is that from time to time I manage to get a good idea. For the first time Gwen actually smiled, and didn’t look like she wanted to drop Ivan in clay and slice him up for her electron microscope.
“Charlie, is it? I’m Cassandra, Cass for short. How do you do?”
This wasn’t a surprise either. I did my best to keep cool about it – knowing Ivan he’d not even noticed the exchange. I was proven right.
“Listen, Charlie, I gotta go do this thing. You know, be somewhere. Look after Gwen for me, would you? Obliged!”
With this he ducked into the crowd and was gone.
It took us a bit of time to reach the doors. Most people around here think parties start at eleven at night, so the influx was greater than the out–flux. We managed, mostly because Cass was in that lovely zone somewhere between homicidal and philosophical where you really start to wonder what, exactly, life is made of and how, exactly, you can reduce it, or him, to its component parts to find out. While she was shorter than me, and quite obviously smaller, she was not to be denied. People moved out of her way, voluntarily or not.
Outside, in the dark and cold, with what passed for music mercifully dampened, she turned to the currently only available target. Yes, Charlie.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“Ah, well, yes, that’s Ivan. Admittedly, this is somewhat on the off even for him. Normally he’s the one that is ditched, and strangely enough it doesn’t normally involve others.” I was, also admittedly, babbling. It’s not every day someone dumps their girlfriend in your lap, figuratively speaking, and disappears. “I can’t explain it, sorry”
It was a sight to see. This woman was impressive. She managed to take that in, mull it over, scroll through a number of responses – including, very likely, a few that did my future no good — and end up with something approaching sane.
“Why are you sorry?”
“Well, you did ask a question, and I’m loathe to leave you without an answer, so I’m sorry.”
“Did YOU do this?”
“No, no, heavens, absolutely not, no!”
“Then. Why. Are. You. Sorry?”
This diplomatic kind of ’fing isn’t easy. I took a very careful step back and tried to debug the situation.
“Don’t get me wrong; I can’t speak for Ivan, and I’m certainly not in the possession of an answer to why he did what he did, but since he’s not here and you asked me, I feel obliged to give you some sort of semi–coherent reply which … ” I was interrupted at this point.
“You are babbling”
“I’m babbling. Sorry. Habit.”
“And you are sorry again.”
“Yes. Sor … ”
She seemed to have calmed down after this highly intellectual discussion. All to the good, thought I.
“I am sorry, however. It was rude, even for Ivan. We, that is, CompSci, doesn’t really need more of a reputation for being strange.”
“This is true” she agreed. While having a lady agree with me is pleasant, I couldn’t help thinking that the timing would have been better.
“There’s not much I can do … except, perhaps, fetch your jacket? It is a bit chilly, and I expect you’ll want to go home?”
“Yes. I do want to go home. My jacket, however, is in your printer room”
Frankly I don’t know what a double take is, but I suspect I took one. See, Ivan not only studies CompSci, he works for the Uni, in a sort of advisory position in the labs. So he has keys. To the labs. Which were, at this point, closed.
“He … said the jacket would be safer there. With my phone and wallet”
“It is safer there” I admitted “There’s three locked doors between us and it, not to mention the kind of security system you’d expect in a computer lab.”
We both remained silent for a moment. I did not work at the Uni. I’m quite certain you get the picture. She certainly did, and the cursing impressed me.
“Perhaps Ivan will remember” Perhaps us IT people deal in the abstract so often we lose track of the real world? “In the meantime, let me offer you my jacket. Ah, you are more lightly dressed than I, and I’m, ah, more padded for the chill.”
This was as true then as now. She was petite, and very nicely dressed to boot. My jacket, and, yes, I admit to some apprehension here, fit her very well. If by “well” you can imagine a tent on a peg. I wear a size 22 around the shoulders. She didn’t quite drown, but it was a very nice leather jacket, so she was at least warm.
With nothing else to do, we sat on the stone steps in front of the building and eventually talked; of this, and that, and a variety of other issues. I learned she was that most frightful of all creatures: an extra–hard science student — theoretical physics with a side order of string theory. Probably on first–name basis with Stephen, would be my guess.
But we didn’t touch on that topic, or physics. Which is good, as I can at a pinch make things blow up. But … everything else. It was a surprisingly nice — if cold — time.
While talking I remembered that I knew something she did not: Gramps. No, that’s not his real name. He’s not my grandfather either. He’s not even very old; a few years my senior. Not in any way or shape a grandfather, come to think of it.
Picture, in your mind, a skeletal, pretty tall, fellow with a huge head of curly white hair, under–the–knee cutoffs, a gaudy blouse, and a stinking meerschaum pipe sticking out the corner of his mouth at all times. Got it? Good. Gramps isn’t like that at all, but he is my best friend.
Since I knew he was passing by at some point during the evening, I had A Plan. His lady love is one of those eerie biologists that make even other biologists somewhat nervous. The kind you can discover coming out a door marked with “Biohazard”, wearing long green rubber gloves with stains you really don’t wanna know what is, and a white apron splattered with what is blood. She knits too. Surprisingly nice lady, even if she is handy with a needle. Knitting needle.
She’s also on some sort of committee, and it was meeting late. Gramps would quite possibly have a bite to eat, then while away a few hours at the lab before picking her up. So he’d pass by here. And he did.
He’s clever, too. And he’s got a key.
“Charlie” he said, in way of greeting, and looked from one to the other as we sat on the stairs.
“Gramps. This is Cass. Long story quickly shortened: Ivan. Could you let us into the printer–room for her jacket?”
We’ve both known Ivan for a number of years, so he could fill in the blanks. I’d have to correct a few of those later, but overall the story wrote itself. For a moment he did look weary. Told you he was smart. And a gentleman.
“Pleased to meet you, Cass. Yes, of course. I was just on my way there, as a matter of fact.”
It was pretty painless from there on.
You might think it all ended here. I certainly thought so. A few days later I had a phone call …
“Would you like dinner?”
“I always like dinner … ”
“With me, Geek.”
“Oh. Like … eating food together?”
“You can’t possibly be that stupid”
Wise as I am, I avoided this obvious trap, and decided to climb out on a branch, carrying a saw, instead.
“As in dinner … date?”
“As in dinner. Because you were quite kind, and very practical, in an otherwise rather impossible situation. And because I need to trounce you further on account of your weird beliefs regarding Marmite.”
“I will, of course, be happy to oblige. Six o’clock? I am in the possession of a stout pair of legs, and will pick you up.”
She could not, could not possibly, have missed that I was, in a manner of speaking, indeed one of the boys. I’ll have you know I sported a crew cut in those days, that my favourite colour was black, and my favourite material leather. None of this queer make, but, y’know, it helps.
At five–fifty–five I rang the bell, and met the parents. Or, half of one, since the male of the species had gone his own way some years previously. Cass’ mum was a journalist, and a good one if one can judge from the third degree I got. Cass was nowhere to be seen.
When I asked the whereabouts of the other party to this dinner lark, her mum pointed me further inside the apartment. There was light coming from a doorway, and I peeked in — standing to the side of the door. The journalist took up a similar position to the other side.
“No, no, this won’t do”
Please recall of whom we are now speaking. Yes? You have the lady firm in memory? A blouse came out the door, at speed, and dropped to the floor. We kept staring.
“This? No, too sombre. This? HELL, no. What abou … no, not this.”
The storm of clothes continued for some time, and we made a tactical advance to the rear.
Cass’ mother offered me a cuppa at this point, and the above story was finessed from me, delicately, with a figurative crowbar. I avoided making an arse of myself, and did emphatically not tell her that I would, at least, not bring her daughter back pregnant. Bad form, what?
Cass and I did get to dinner, if not quite a the agreed upon time. The rest, they say, is history.
And that, judging by the size of your eyes, is that, children. I strongly suspect that your mum is actually standing in the doorway behind me, and has been long enough to hear at least part of this tale. You might have to prepare yourselves for not hearing bed–time stories from me for a while … good night, sweet dreams, and don’t mind the mumbling from the kitchen. That’ll just be me babbling to save my skin …