I thought it was the start to a love story.
The boy, who looked to be around my age or slightly older, had skidded to a stop in front of me. He gave me a quick, obvious once-over and then switched on a wide, flirtatious grin. His friend, better looking but very much not grinning flirtatiously at me, rolled his eyes.
‘Heeeey,’ the boy said, just like that. Heeeey.
‘Hi,’ I said, sending up a quick prayer that my bus wouldn’t arrive before the conversation ended. I tried to flick my hair casually – difficult to do when it’s a touch on the bushy side – and lifted my chin, like my sister once showed me when she was trying to teach me how to act confident.
‘What flavour have you got?’
He gestured to the ShakeAway cup in my hand. ‘Oh,’ I said, stupidly. ‘Toblerone.’ I’d only had a few sips of the milkshake. I liked to let it melt a little before I started drinking it properly, and the cup was heavy in my hand.
‘Nice.’ The boy carried on grinning at me. ‘I’ve never tried that one. Can I have a sip?’
Here is what I was thinking as I handed over my milkshake: He likes ShakeAways! I like ShakeAways! This is a MOMENT. This is the START.
And then his back was to me and he and his friend were running away, their laughter lingering after them. When they were a few feet away, the boy turned, waving my cup triumphantly at me. ‘Thanks, love!’ he bellowed, either not realizing or not caring that he was not old enough – not to mention suave enough – to pull off ‘love’.
I just stood there with my hand holding nothing but air. The other people at the bus stop were all staring at me, some hiding smirks, others clearly pained with second-hand embarrassment. I adjusted my bag strap as nonchalantly as I could, avoiding anyone’s gaze, seriously considering stepping in front of a passing bus.
Three days ago I had turned sixteen – the first of my friends to hit this particular milestone, thanks to my early-September birthday – and my parents had rented out a hall for my birthday party. ‘You can invite boys!’ my mother had told me, looking more excited by this prospect than anyone. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t want boys (definitely not), the problem was that I went to a girls’ school, and I could count the number of boys I knew well enough to speak to on one hand. Despite the efforts of my best friend, Rosie, who went to the mixed comprehensive and had plenty of boy/friends, the gender mix at the party was hopelessly unbalanced. I spent most of the night eating cake and talking with my friends rather than flirting wildly and dancing with what Rosie called potentials, like sixteen-year-olds are supposed to do. It wasn’t a bad way to see in a new age, but it wasn’t exactly spectacular either.
I mention this so my OK-have-my-milkshake-stranger idiocy has some context. I was sixteen, and I honestly believed that I was due a love story. Nothing epic (I’m not greedy), but something worth talking about. Someone to hold hands with (etc.). The milkshake meet-cute should have led to that. But instead I was just me, standing empty-handed, and the boy was just a boy.
When the bus pulled up just a couple of minutes later and I retreated to the anonymity of the top deck, I made a mental list of milestones I would have reached by the time my next birthday rolled around.
1) I would get a boyfriend. A real one.
2) I would lose my virginity.
3) I would experience a Significant Life Event.
In the following year I achieved just one of these goals. And it wasn’t the one I expected.
‘So he just took your milkshake?’ Rosie’s voice was sceptical. It was nearly 9 p.m., and she’d called me for our traditional last-night-before-school-starts chat.
‘Yeah. Right out of my hand.’
‘He just snatched it?’
There was a pause, followed by the sound of Rosie’s laughter tickling down the line. Aside from my grandparents, Rosie was the only person I spoke to using the landline. ‘Oh my God, Caddy, did you give it to him?’
‘Not deliberately,’ I said, already wishing I hadn’t brought up the milkshake story. But it was always hard to stop myself telling Rosie everything. It was just second nature.
‘I wish I’d been there.’
‘Me too – you could have chased after him for me.’
Rosie and I had spent the day together, another before-school-starts tradition, and had actually bought a milkshake each before going our separate ways. She would definitely have chased after him, had she been there. When we were four, not long after we’d first met at a ballet class we both hated, an older boy had snatched my bow (I was the kind of kid who wore bows in her hair) and Rosie had sprinted after him, taken back the bow and stamped on his foot. Our friendship had followed a similar pattern ever since.
‘Why didn’t you chase him?’