They meet at a horse dressage event; she’s the friend of a friend of Minty’s, and he takes a shine to her right from the start. She doesn’t talk much, until he lets it slip that he’s an airline steward – or airdot, as it happens – and her face lights up all of a sudden. He tells her everything about G-ERTI – well, minus the bit about his Dad, actually – and she tells him about going plane-spotting on the riverbank south of Fitton Airfield sometimes.
In the end, he writes down his phone number on a scrap of paper he finds in his pocket, and she promises she will text next time she’s in the area. She doesn’t give him her number, but that’s okay, he thinks; still, he looks her up on Facebook that night, and he almost sends her a friend request, but in the end decides against it. If she wants to text him, that’s up to her, and he’s fine with it, honestly.
(He scrolls past the relationship status, trying really hard not to think about what ‘it’s complicated’ means, and closes the page.)
Tiffy texts him a week and a half later, but he doesn’t get the text until they land in New Delhi, and they won’t be back in Fitton for another four days, anyway. Pushing away at his sudden disappointment, he sends a photo of G-ERTI all locked up in her hangar, and Tiffy immediately texts back to say she’s a beauty, which brings a huge grin to Arthur’s face.
When he sprints to catch up with Skip and the others, Mum eyes him suspiciously, as if she’s wondering what he’s been up to; he slips his phone back into his pocket and tries to act as if nothing happened, which he suspects he’s not entirely successful at.
A week later, he’s doing the hoovering when his phone pings with a new text from Tiffy; he tells her he’ll join her in twenty minutes, very nearly forgets to lock everything up in his haste to leave the Portakabin. By the time he gets to the top of the riverbank, Tiffy’s already there, camera in hand, snapping away at the small Piper that just took off. For a moment there, he wishes he were like Skip, but Tiffy doesn’t seem to mind his questions about all the different types of plane she’s managed to photograph so far.
He tells her about Karl, how great it is to have his familiar voice welcome them home; she tells him about taking photography lessons, and when it gets too dark for plane-spotting, they go to a nearby café where Arthur buys her the most extravagant hot chocolate he can think of. Tiffy smiles, thanks him for a lovely afternoon, and promises to call soon.
She does, two days later, and he doesn’t care that Douglas is glancing at him across the Portakabin as if he knows exactly what’s going on; he’s just happy to hear from her, and no amount of teasing can change that, not even Douglas’. They arrange to go for a walk together next Friday; Tiffy said she absolutely loves dogs, and he can’t wait for her to meet Snoopadoop in person – or, well, in animal, he supposes, but it doesn’t matter.
It takes all of five minutes for Snoopadoop to decide she likes Arthur’s new friend; they spend a lovely day in the park, playing with Snoopadoop and wandering aimlessly through the trees. Tiffy is smiling a lot, and it makes his heart beat a little faster every time; he’s pretty sure he’s grinning like an idiot now, but she doesn’t seem to mind, so that’s all right, too.
When it’s time to say goodbye, Arthur impulsively leans in to press a little peck on her cheek; he means it as a friendly kiss, mostly, as he’s still not entirely clear what their little outings are all about, and he’s not at all prepared for the way she recoils, as if burned.
“I’m – sorry,” he hastens to apologise, feeling like he just did something unspeakably horrible. “I won’t do it again, I promise.”
Tiffy’s face is carefully blank now, and Arthur has to fight the urge to step closer in his desperate need to comfort her. “I – have to go now,” she speaks stiltedly, almost trips in her haste to get away from him. Arthur stands there for a long time, ignoring Snoopadoop’s repeated attempts at getting his attention, mentally calling himself all the worst names he can think of.
Back home, he leaves a note explaining he’s not coming down for dinner tonight, locks himself in his room, and spends the next two hours writing and deleting several texts in rapid succession. In the end, he settles for a simple I’m terribly sorry for making you uncomfortable, and I understand if you don’t want to see me again.
He presses send, turns off his phone, and spends the rest of the night tossing and turning until he eventually falls asleep sometime around dawn. When he switches his phone on in the morning, there is no text waiting for him, so naturally he assumes she’s still angry for what he did, and he honestly can’t say he blames her.
Mum’s waiting for him at the office, so he downs a cup of lukewarm coffee, and settles for nibbling at a couple of biscuits as he forgoes his car in favour of a brisk walk to the airfield. He pauses in front of the door to the Portakabin, makes an effort to summon a smile so that the others won’t notice – much.
“There you are,” Mum sighs, reaching for her bag on her way out. “Drivers are already out there doing whatever it is they like to do when we’re on standby. I’m going down to the canteen, please don’t do anything stupid in my absence.”
“Right-o,” he shrugs, and very nearly trips on his own two feet when he finally notices there is someone sitting behind Douglas’ desk, and it most definitely isn’t Douglas.
“Tiffy,” he says, idiotically – yes, that’s her name, do keep up Arthur – finding it surprisingly hard to swallow around the sudden lump in his throat. “Hi.”
She stands up, arms wrapped protectively around her front, which doesn’t seem terribly promising. “Sorry I didn’t text you back. I owe you a proper explanation, and didn’t know how to fit it all into a text.”
“It’s okay,” he blurts out from where he’s still rooted to the spot, not daring to come any closer. “I know it’s all my fault.”
“No,” she counters quickly, and way more forcefully than he’s expecting. “That’s the whole point. You were absolutely lovely, Arthur, and I shouldn’t have run away like that.”
He glances down, absently notices there’s a smudge of dirt on his right shoe. “I know I should always ask before kissing or hugging someone, I just – forgot.”
“Oh, Arthur,” she sounds like she’s about to cry now, and he can almost feel his stomach drop somewhere in the vicinity of his shoes.
“I don’t suppose we could still be friends, can we?” he pleads softly, even against his better judgement – which is not that good, admittedly. “It’s just, I really like you, and it’s okay if you’d rather not, but,” he trails off, wishing for Douglas’ eloquence to descend upon him, somehow.
Tiffy shakes her head, her fingers worrying at the thin white gold ring he’s always seen her wearing on her left middle finger. “I like you too. More than just as a friend, I mean. Only, I don’t – I’m aromantic, actually,” she finish in a rush, as if anticipating her statement will invariably get challenged, for some reason.
“Oh! Okay then,” he nods, brain working overtime to slot all the pieces together.
“It’s all right if you don’t know what that means,” she adds, sounding a bit like she’s been through this a lot.
“But I do, I think?” he frowns in concentration. “It’s sort of like being asexual, but with romantic attraction, right?”
She looks at him as if he just offered her a lift on his own charter plane, pilots and everything. “That’s – yes, that’s pretty much spot on. Most people haven’t even heard of either of those words, you know.”
“Oh, you see, Mum sent me on a course on understanding people in Ipswich,” he explains, heart leaping in his throat when the beginnings of a smile play out across Tiffy’s face. “In fact, I know what we could do – if you still want to spend time with me, that is.”
“Believe me, I do – I’m just not sure it’s a good idea, that’s all.”
He’s almost afraid to ask, but he finds he absolutely needs to know. “Because of what I did yesterday?”
“Because I think you’re romantically attracted to me, and as much as I wish I were attracted to you, it’s simply not going to happen.”
“I don’t mind,” Arthur says with absolute conviction. “We can just be whatever you want us to be. In fact, what I was trying to tell you is, we should make a list. Well, could – it’s up to you really.”
Tiffy blinks, slowly. “A list?”
“That’s another thing they taught us in Ipswich! We should write down all the things you’re okay with, and then all the things you’re not, so that I won’t get those two mixed up ever again.”
“That’s – really quite thoughtful, Arthur. It’s not really fair on you, though, is it?”
He tilts his head to the side, considering. “Actually, what is really not fair is you having to put up with stuff you’re not comfortable with, just because someone else assumes it’s fine.”
“Two lists,” she agrees at last, taking a step closer and extending her hand for Arthur to take. He does so with a smile, cradles her fingers ever so gently. “One for you, one for me.”
“Oh, that’s easy. I’m fine with pretty much anything, except shouting – well, and fighting, too.”
They stand there holding hands and smiling tentatively at one another, until Arthur remembers Mum is probably hovering outside, waiting for the two of them to be done talking. “Listen, I need to be here for the rest of the day if the client decides to show up after all, but I’m free tomorrow. Do you think you’d mind joining Snoopadoop and me for another walk?”
Tiffy squeezes his hand, a soft smile tugging at her lips. “I’d love to. And I believe I owe Snoopadoop an apology as well.”
“Well, she’s a dog, so she probably won’t know what aromatic means.”
“Aromantic,” she corrects him, but she looks at least a little bit amused. “See you tomorrow, then.”
Arthur gets the brief urge to kiss her goodbye again, like he was used to with his previous girlfriends, but he clamps down on it straight away. And she’s not your girlfriend, Arthur, not unless she agrees to put that on her list.
He walks her to the parking lot, and she gives his hand another squeeze, before finally letting him go; he waves her off as she drives away, then slowly heads back to the Portakabin. There he finds Carolyn back at her desk, looking for all the world as if she never left the office – if it weren’t for the tall cup of canteen coffee sitting in front of her, and the faintest trace of maternal worry clouding her expression – and on a sudden impulse, he sidles up to her and throws his arms around her neck in the closest thing to a bear hug he knows she will tolerate.
“Not that I’m not touched by this sudden display of affection, dear heart, but if I may, what brought this on, exactly?”
“Just happy,” he mumbles, mindful of not mussing up her hair. “That’s all.”
She ostensibly shakes her head and rolls her eyes, but he can feel her posture relax fractionally. “Yes, well. Why don’t you go and make yourself useful, then? I believe our useless pilots will soon require their teas and coffees, and I’m not splurging out on any more fancy hot drinks from the canteen.”
“Righto, Mum,” he grins, and all but waltzes into the kitchenette.