‘What does non-scene mean?’
‘You’re looking at the wrong bit.’
‘You’re not interested in gay men.’
‘Ohh. Yeah. No.’ She giggled, too long, too loud. I came to this corner of the park to think in peace: the fine weather had put the same idea in too many heads. I was about to gather my things and go, when I noticed the frog.
And not just the frog. They were a peculiar trio, picnicking under the hawthorn hedge. The older woman with her transparent wings, like a cellophane butterfly; the younger woman’s blonde plait coiling around the blankets, with the end tangled in the hedge; and the large green frog, trying to bite the corner off a chocolate brownie. They had all the usual picnic hamper paraphernalia, a selection of the better newspapers, some magazines, and a wand, tipped with a tiny silver star. I thought I recognised the wand’s owner.
‘What does LTR mean, Auntie?’
‘Long term relationship.’ Auntie helped the struggling frog with a cake fork, then went back to flipping through a magazine. The younger woman wrinkled her nose: the brownie was on her plate, which she now pushed aside. Frog stared at her, crumbs emerging from the sides of his mouth as he chewed. She wrinkled her nose again. Frog winked, wiping his face with fastidious thumbs, then helped himself to her coffee with a teaspoon. He didn’t spill a drop.
‘Oh Zella, don’t fuss. You know Frog isn’t into girls.’
‘Yes, but that’s twice he’s helped himself to my brownie.’
‘Have another one then dear. And Frog? Pack it in.’
Zella took a bite of brownie, and went back to poring over the lonely hearts; exclaiming over the requirements, the descriptions, while Auntie flipped through her magazine, and supplied explanations: GSOH, WLTM, NS…
‘Funny, isn’t it, how they all like the arts? And what on earth does “pref.shaved” mean?’
Frog gulped a chuckle. He and Auntie shared a look. He wasn’t so green, Frog, for all that his back was emerald bright in the sunshine.
My first husband had made art his public pastime. He’d had an eye for beauty – and its acquisition – but I think he did it to appear more human. I wondered what he might have written, had he advertised honestly for a wife:
Millionaire serial killer with trust issues WLTM compliant beauty with just enough curiosity to make the end interesting. Must like beards.
I survived that marriage the best way I could. Once upon a time, there were no lawyers who could act on a woman’s behalf. The world has changed vastly while I was away. And I was away for a long, long time. I don’t remember the dreams.
I sighed. Third time’s the charm.
My sigh was echoed: Frog had joined me.
‘What’s your story, gorgeous?’ His voice was hoarse, like someone beginning to recover from laryngitis. ‘Poisoned apples? Glass shoes?’
I thought about my almost finalised divorce.
‘My story’s a long one. Longer than most. But recently… recently there were blood red roses, with thorns a foot long.’
‘Ah. I heard about that. You don’t need Auntie’s help then?’ Frog’s bulbous eyes were kind.
I shook my head.
‘Some can cope, and some can’t. Take her,’ he jerked a thumb at Zella. ‘Her chap had a head for heights, but in the long run, not much else. Poor girl was kept in cotton wool, growing up, and now with twins to bring up… she needs all the help she can get. And Auntie intervened.’
‘So she is the fairy godmother of divorce? I thought so.’
‘Ironic, really,’ he sniffed. ‘Then there’s me: I live in hope that the right man will come along, one day. In the meantime…’ He shrugged.
He didn’t sound hopeful. I gave him a kiss. Just because. And he smiled, a little.
‘Good luck, gorgeous.’ He handed me a dandelion clock, and crawled back to his companions.
Fairy tales: they can be a consolation. They tells truths, sometimes – but it depends on who is doing the telling. And the weight of expectation of those last three words can crush hearts. I’m not the only one to have swallowed the lie. And I won’t be the last.
And yet, I did believe. Twice.
Happily ever after is a dangerous promise to make, to anyone. I was still young; I still had time. I shouldn’t have to spend the rest of my life trapped in ornamental gratitude. Why should anyone be entitled to a bride because he’d hacked his way through a hedge to kiss her? I’d had no choice. My prince put me on a pedestal at his peril. But once I’d climbed down, and pointed out how incapable we were of being happy together, how relieved he was.
I have no memory of that kiss.
I should be wiser, now. Yet I still hoped that next time would be better. That I could be happy. That there would be a next time.
I blew the dandelion clock. Once, twice.
Next time, there will be wisteria, not roses, round the door. Next time, I’ll be no one’s reward. I’ll choose, for myself.
No blood, no thorns, just me.
Third time’s the charm. The dandelion seeds danced on the breeze.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Auntie’s wand sparkle. And I thought I heard her whisper something. Something that sounded like would like to meet…