We were at university together, the three of us. Tom and I were on the same course. I liked him immediately: his deep-seated realism, his love of taking the mickey – he gave my self-esteem more of a battering in three years than all my tutors put together – and his direct manner. And his belief that anything other than pasta and cheese was pretentious fare.
I ran into him once outside the library.
‘Where you headed to?’ he asked.
He looked at my bike. ‘That’ll be a long ride.’
The supermarket was just around the corner.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘there isn’t a Fortnums in Oxford. You’ll have to go to – where is it – Pic–?’
He gave me a lot of stick, and a lot of laughs.
Claire used to drop by my room on the way to see him. She would sing his praises, bemoan the fact that he had a girlfriend back home; or rather we would do these things together, with almost equal enthusiasm. And sometimes Tom would drop by on the way to see Claire and I’d laugh like a schoolgirl at his jokes. But I was never the destination.
In Claire’s eyes, no one came close. But Tom had been with his girlfriend for years. A creature of habit, it seemed unlikely that he would end it. And so, for two years, I listened to Claire wax lyrical about him. She did at one point chat up a refugee on a bus, inspired by one of my bolder romantic gestures, but Tom remained her gold standard.
At the end of second year, it happened. I was cycling along with a friend, and she casually mentioned that Tom and his girlfriend had split up. I stopped in my tracks.
‘Who ended it?’
It didn’t make much difference.
I shrugged. ‘Well, it’s only a matter of time now.’
Over the summer, Tom and Claire hooked up. The first term back it was strange. We spoke occasionally in the dinner queue but otherwise I barely saw them. Then, one night, the microwave on my corridor was broken. I went upstairs to the kitchen opposite Claire’s room. She was there preparing pasta and cheese. We started chatting. Tom came in.
‘What you eating?’
‘Errrr… pasta,’ I said.
‘What you having with it?’
He grabbed the jar. ‘Aubergine pesto. Oooh very fancy.’