PLAIN JANE

Tessa was a Plain Jane.  With attractive friends like Barbara and Zelda one didn’t need a fact like that to be spelled out and, worst of all, instead of being slim and tanned like them, she was pale, large-boned and inclined to plumpness.

“Lighten up, Tess,” Barbara often complained when she turned to her books instead of accepting an invitation to the movies or to eat out.  “You can’t bury yourself in books.”  They didn’t realise she was afraid of not being able to afford to pay her share and, having taken out a bank loan, couldn’t afford to fail even one subject.  Tessa was content to listen to her more wealthy friends talk about their nights out, their holidays to exotic places and to help them catch up on their missed lecture notes, nurse their odd hangovers and try to make them understand their assignments.  Her glimpses into a world more glamorous than her own added excitement to her otherwise routine life.  She harboured no envy — until Barbara invited her to spend the day at the dam with a party of friends.

This is the life, she thought, admiring the easy lifestyle being played out in front of her.  Speedboats and water-skis, blankets, cushions and the most beautiful picnic baskets filled with food such as she had only seen in glossy magazines.  Tessa had never dreamt that real people would picnic in such style.

“Life’s not always like this,” Graeme warned with a chuckle.  “These are mostly leftovers from a party some of the folks had on Friday.”

Tessa was flattered that Graeme had even noticed her.  “Old Graeme can be relied upon to spend time with would-be wallflowers,” Barbara retorted when Tessa had happily confided in her.  “Jokes Tess, I was only joking.”  Tessa’s crestfallen face clearly indicated the harm had been done.  She found a book and settled herself in the shade of a bush after lunch.

“You’re the only one apart from me awake enough to enjoy the afternoon.”  The light touch of Graeme’s hand on her shoulder sent a thrill down Tessa’s spine.  Afraid to show her pleasure at his attention, she pretended to be engrossed in her book.  “Come on Tessa, you can read anytime.  Wouldn’t you like to come out on the water with me?”

Rolling into a sitting position, her eyes shining with pleasure, she looked at the sleeping figures of the rest of the party and noticed that both Barbara and Zelda seemed to have paired up with young men she hadn’t met.  “I’d love to, but please don’t feel you have to entertain me, I’m actually very happy to read where I am.”

“I want to take you out.”  Graeme held out his hand and pulled her up.

For the next two hours Tessa was sure that she had been transported to paradise.   Graeme soon tired of speeding around in the boat and took her to a far section of the dam where they could watch birds among the reeds and on the grassy bank.  With the outboard motor switched off Tessa was aware only of the water lapping gently against the boat and the sound of the ducks and frogs.  She soon became acutely conscious of Graeme close behind her as he looked through his powerful binoculars.

“I’ve never seen so many birds at the dam,” she dared to whisper.

“You can only reach this part by boat,” Graeme responded quietly.  He had pulled a battered notebook from his anorak pocket and was checking a bird list.  “I do this every time I come here,” he smiled.  “It’s interesting to see which birds stay or go and what they are doing at different times of the year.”

Together they identified Sacred Ibises feeding along the edge of the water, several pairs of Egyptian Geese, Yellow-billed Teal, two White-faced Whistling Ducks and a Moorhen.  Tessa became entranced with trying to guess where the Darter would emerge after diving under the water.  Her giggle was cut short by the warm touch of Graeme’s fingers on her arm.  “Look up here,” he whispered.  “It must be an immature Fish Eagle.  What do you think?”

“And where have you two been?” Barbara asked rather crossly as Tessa and Graeme joined the group having coffee and chocolates in the late afternoon sun. “So, even Plain Janes have a turn to play games.”  Barbara sounded peeved.  “Seriously though, what have you been doing?”

“Watching birds, that’s all Babs,” Graeme broke in, offering Tessa a mug of coffee sweetened with condensed milk.  As the party began to break up, Tessa found herself being edged towards the car by Barbara who then slipped her arm around Graeme’s waist and waved a cheerful farewell.

“Let’s see if we can get back to res before supper.”  Zelda eased the car forward and carefully drove past a boat trailer and a throng of young people playing handball across the road.  “Despite the picnic, all this fresh air and sunshine has made me feel hungry all over again.”

“What about Barbara?”  Tessa was perplexed.

“Oh, Graeme will probably be prevailed upon to bring her back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Silly goose!” Zelda snorted.  “Haven’t you noticed Barbara doing her utmost to attract dear Graeme?”

“Well, she has a funny way of showing it,” Tessa retorted.  “I thought she’d teamed up with that Patrick chap.”

Zelda laughed.  “That was only to make Graeme jealous, silly!”

Twice in the past month Tessa thought she had seen Graeme walking near her residence.  Each time he had been on his own and once he had been carrying a bouquet of flowers.  There had been no word from him though and she knew that she had no grounds for expecting any.  She knew it was time to explore a world she fitted into so she scanned the club noticeboards, but felt too shy to join the Bird Club so late in the term.

Barbara and Zelda resumed their busy social lives after the holiday break and the relationship between the three friends continued as usual until the afternoon when Tessa walked into Barbara’s room to return her hair dryer to find her arranging some long-stemmed roses in a glass vase.  “Barbara, they’re so beautiful!”  Tessa leaned forward to smell them.  “Who gave them to you?”

“Graeme brought them to me.  Isn’t he a darling?”  Barbara beamed at her.  “Thanks for the dryer, Tess.  I’ll be needing it before the Lawyer’s Ball tomorrow.  Graeme’s taking me.”

“How lovely,” Tessa answered in a small voice and fled to her room.  If Graeme was a student in the Law faculty it was no wonder their paths never crossed.

Zelda brought Barbara into Tessa’s room before they left for the ball.  “Do you think we look O.K.?”  Tessa smiled at them.  For the first time she derived no pleasure from her friends’ social successes or their beautiful clothes.

“Enjoy yourselves,” she responded more pleasantly than she felt.

Tessa’s room was empty when Barbara finally roused herself from her slumbers the following morning.  Feeling disappointed, for she had been looking forward to telling Tessa about Graeme, Barbara made her way to Zelda’s room where she slumped on the end of the bed.  “Has Tess been here?”

“I’ve only just woken up.  She’ll be along soon.  Be a love and make us some coffee.”  Zelda stretched and sighed.  “Frank is quite the most divine person I’ve ever met.  He wants me to sail with him over the long weekend.”

Tessa didn’t appear until much later that evening, having been out with the university Bird Club for the first time.  They had visited a farm some way out of town and then gathered at the local steakhouse for a simple supper.  The atmosphere there had been relaxed and it didn’t seem to matter who sat with whom.

“Don’t you want to hear about the ball?”  Barbara pounced on Tessa as soon as she heard her friend’s door open across the passage.

“Not now thanks Barb, I want to shower and then read over the notes I’ve made for our tutorial tomorrow.”  Tessa pointedly picked up her towel and soap.  “I trust you had a wonderful time?” she asked more out of a sense of duty than genuine curiosity.

“Oh Graeme was such delightful company.”  Barbara settled herself on Tessa’s neatly made bed.  “I must invite him home over the holidays.  Once he sees where I live he’ll know I’m the right person to further his career.  My Dad has all sorts of influential contacts in the legal world.”

“Good luck then.”  Tessa left the room, inwardly fuming at the depth of her feeling of, yes, admit it, jealousy at Barbara’s success with Graeme. ‘Yet what do I have to offer him?’ she tried to reason with herself under the hot shower.

The Bird Club’s next outing was a day trip to the municipal sewerage farm.  All morning Tessa delighted with each sighting and was thrilled to see Spoonbills from close quarters.  It was frustrating not having her own binoculars for her father had said it was out of the question to spend money on a pair until she was sure her interest in birds would be a lasting one.  She thus contented herself with ticking the birds off a list and counting the number of each species her group could positively identify.

“See the pair of Dikkops in the dry grass over there!”  Sarah Samuels whispered excitedly.  “Look to the left of that small acacia tree.  Low down Tess.  You’ll have to look very carefully for they’re so well camouflaged.”  Tessa peered across the water but could see nothing with her naked eye.  The club bird list indicated that the birds had been sighted in the vicinity before, but not often.  She waited patiently for Sarah to give her a turn with her binoculars.

“Would you like to borrow mine?”  A familiar whisper behind her took Tessa by surprise.  She turned around quickly as Graeme placed his finger on her lips in a gesture of silence and handed her his binoculars.  The Dikkops instantly became visible, standing rock-like against the dry brown grass.  How long had Graeme been standing behind her, she wondered, daring to revel in his proximity.

“Why have you been so elusive?” he asked carefully once they had finished a light meal at the steakhouse on their return.  “Not even a thank you for the flowers?”  His voice was gentle with a teasing quality to it, yet Tessa sensed an underlying note of seriousness.

“What flowers?”

“Come on Tess.  I’ve spent a fortune on flowers and even sent you some long-stemmed roses to soften you up for the Lawyer’s Ball!”

“Long-stemmed roses?  A whole dozen of them?”  Her mind was in a whirl.

“That’s right.”

“But you took Barbara to the ball!”

“Only because you said you couldn’t make it.”

“Graeme, you never asked me to the ball.”  Tessa’s heart began to thump uncomfortably.

“But Barbara was playing fairy godmother for me.  Only she said you weren’t prepared to risk turning into a pumpkin.  I’d already paid for the tickets so —“

“So you took the godmother instead of Cinderella?”  She fingered her coffee spoon while absorbing the vivid memory of the long-stemmed roses on Barbara’s table.  “Graeme, do you believe in wicked fairy godmothers?”  She allowed her hand to touch his across the table.

“I’ve been trying to get hold of you ever since we met.”  Graeme smiled broadly as the reality of the situation dawned on him.  “It would have been far easier had you left a glass slipper behind at the dam.”

“Deal direct and skip the fairies.” Tessa found herself laughing, filled with a joyous feeling that somewhere her real fairy godmother had waved her magic wand.

 

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