He Likes It

She is four the first time Vernon sees her, laughing and clapping at the pink mirror and hairbrush set in her parcel from Father Christmas, then holding it to her chest and turning away from her little sister to keep her from grabbing hold of it. Even at six, and across a church hall full of excited children, Vernon recognises a girl who knows what she wants and holds on to it. He likes that about her.

They go to the same school, but the difference in their ages and the child-imposed boy-girl segregation of primary school means he only sees her in assemblies and occasionally across the playground. She is always neatly turned out, her white socks pulled up to exactly the same height, her blouse neatly tucked in, and her hair ribbons firmly in place. She is different, and Vernon likes that.

At eleven, he goes to the boys' tech, and leaves her behind. He does not see her again until he is seventeen, at a youth club disco that his friend Melvyn drags him along to. She is with a group of girls at the far end of the hall. They are giggling and preening and showing off for the boys. She isn't. She surveys the boys coolly, and lifts her chin and blinks her eyes with an air of resignation as if they are all beneath her notice. She knows her worth, and Vernon likes that about her. But he does not have the nerve to ask her to dance.

He sees her again a year or so later in Mrs Bridges' Tea Shoppe, with an apron round her waist and a dissatisfied expression on her face. She takes his mother's order with a disdainful look, as if waiting on anyone is really not her place in life, and brings their tea and cakes with a grudging air. His mother does not leave a tip, and complains about her attitude all the way home. Vernon rather liked it.

He finds himself making excuses to go into Mrs Bridges' at weekends and after work, even though Melvyn and Wayne and his other mates would rather hang out at the Wimpy Bar or the coffee shop on the corner. Once or twice, he tries to engage her in conversation, but she never replies with more than a monosyllable. He doesn't mind. In fact, he rather likes it in an odd sort of way. Anyway, he keeps going back for more.

He finally gets up the nerve to ask her out on an unseasonably cold and stormy night in July. He sees her at the bus stop, shivering in the rain, and holds his umbrella over her without a word. She nods her thanks, but does not speak, and he finds himself stumbling out a request that she go to the pictures with him on Saturday night.

She looks at him appraisingly. "What exactly do you do at Grunnings, Vernon?" she asks coolly.

He replies that he is a junior salesman, and she shakes her head. "I don't think so," she says. "I don't think that 'Grease' is really my thing. Anyway, Olivia Newton-John is far too old for the part." The bus is stopping, splashing Vernon's good trousers. "Thank you for the umbrella," she says, and steps onto the bus without looking back.

He knows that the comment about "Grease" was an excuse. She does not think he is good enough for her. He likes that she has ambition and that she knows what she wants. He resolves that he will become what she wants.

It takes him six months. Six months of unremitting slog and punishing overtime. Six months when he only permits himself to go to Mrs Bridges once a week, and only that to make sure she is still there, that no other lucky man has snapped her up. When his promotion is confirmed, in the middle of a cold and slushy January, he waits for her outside the tea shop and accosts her as she leaves.

"Petunia!" he says, almost forcing the bunch of red roses he has been clutching into her hands. "I wanted you to be the first to know. I've been promoted. Senior salesman – a pay rise, commission and a company car!"

Her reaction is just what he expected. She smiles at him, and actually kisses him on the cheek. "How splendid," she says warmly. "Perhaps you could take me to dinner and tell me all about it."

He likes the way that makes him feel.