They met at university – that is to say, Nell was a student at university and Digby was a 20-year-old young entrepreneur who had figured out that the students who came into his High Street deli shop for gourmet sandwiches might appreciate the availability of those sandwiches at other times.
Times such as a Thursday night, post the weekly disco held in the union hall.
He had persuaded his dad to lend him the money to buy a cheap van, which he then converted into a mobile sandwich-making and preparing venue and he parked outside the union hall every Thursday from 10pm. At that time of the night, he was targeting the swotty students who weren’t prepared to sacrifice study time on a Friday for a hangover.
As the night progressed though, sales rose dramatically. He had always been a practical person and he couldn’t understand why students wouldn’t reason to themselves that they were only yards from their student halls and bedsits so why not conjure up their own sandwiches at tiny costs to themselves?
As he said to his Thursday night sandwich assistant, ‘ours is not to reason why’ (congratulating himself on the high-brow sound of the phrase which seemed imminently suitable for the university setting) as they enjoyed raking in money from the leery students who crowded round the van and demanded sandwiches, often two at a time.
Nell wasn’t a frequenter of the Thursday night disco. Not because she was a swotty type – though she had progressed well at university so far – but because she loathed not being able to hear herself think and being chatted up by drunken morons. (Her words, not theirs.)
Thus one particular Thursday in late May, post exams, she had stumbled out of the union hall having drunk too much cheap cider and smoked too much dope. The combination had resulted in her whiting out an hour earlier and spending the 60 minutes laid across two seats while various friends prodded her from time to time to check that she was OK before taking themselves off for more dancing with drunken morons.
When she eventually started to recover, she realised that the dope had left her ravenously hungry and she stumbled out of the hall, intending to head home and make herself a sandwich. She vaguely remembered there being a loaf of cheap supermarket bread in the kitchen and thought perhaps that she still had scrapings of butter in the fridge which would do along with the jar of Marmite in her cupboard.
The attractions of this sandwich rapidly paled when she spotted the van. Enticingly decorated to match the colour scheme of Digby’s shop (which she remembered, having been in it a couple of times) and with signs worded to make each sandwich sound as delicious as possible, the van weaved its magical spell on her and she wandered over. She was at the counter before she realised she had no money left, the funds she had contributed to the joint she had smoked had taken up the last of that week’s scant funds.
Our hero, who had gone into automatic mode and leaned out of the van’s window to take the customer’s order, found himself transfixed. Before him was a tiny, pretty girl. She wore an orange ball gown, sleeveless and puffing out at her hips. It came down to her calves, where it had been badly trimmed with a pair of blunt nail scissors. Underneath it was a black net petticoat which explained the volume of the dress. Her head was shaved at both sides and the rest of her hair was dyed a red colour which clashed violently with her dress and came down almost to her waist. She was wearing Doc Martens and a black, crocheted shawl which she’d pulled tightly across her thin shoulders. She had large brown eyes, which were now staring at him and, alarmingly, looked faintly glassy as if she was about to burst out crying.
“Oh! I have no money!” she wailed.
His Thursday night assistant, the very able Joe, sighed. They were used to this with students.
“Sorry love,” he began.
Our hero interrupted. “Oh look, we’ve got some cheese savoury filling left that needs used up. As a one-off, I’ll give you a freebie.”
Out of sight of the girl, Joe kicked our hero’s calf and glared at him. Digby blushed faintly and then shrugged. He grabbed two thick slices of the bread that had been made in the shop that very afternoon and buttered them thickly. He added in the cheese savoury filling (a delicious blend of grated cheese and home-made coleslaw with chopped onion) and dolloped in an extra spoonful of mayonnaise and some sliced tomatoes.
The poor girl had looked so thin after all.
Placing the sandwich in a brown paper bag, he asked Joe to hold the fort. Joe grumbled briefly – it wasn’t yet 1am and the disco finished in half-an-hour which would mean hungry hordes descending on the van – but then smirked. Having material on the boss would mean long-term gains for him, work wise.
The girl had walked away after Joe had begun his ‘sorry love’ speech, recognising it as refusal. As the cider was still swishing round her system (and she wasn’t used to it in such quantities) she had only got so far before plonking herself down in the grass and settling her arms around her knees and her head on top of them.
“Hey,” he prodded her gently and sat down beside her. “Sandwich on me.”
“Oh thank you!” She flashed him a brilliant smile and took her sandwich. The sight of the stuffed-full sandwich was heavenly, even if she hadn’t been taking the dope earlier that evening. At first bite, the sandwich tasted so amazing that any excitement she might have felt at a young and attractive entrepreneur personally serving her up a freebie didn’t register at all.
Three bites in, she remembered her manners. “Thank you so much. This is the nicest sandwich I have ever tasted. What’s your name by the way?”
He told her.
“Oh wow, what a great name! I really like it. Are you named after the shop then?” She gestured at the name on the van.
“Well, the shop’s named after me,” he said after a pause.
She nodded. Now that the drink and drugs had begun to wear off and her belly was replete with food, she could feel herself wanting to fall asleep. This was not the time or place for snoozing.
He could sense the change in her, but knowing that he was stone cold sober and she was not, gave him courage. It had been a difficult year – the business he had started at the tender age of 18 had taken off in a way he’d never have thought it could in his wildest dreams.
Young Entrepreneur of the Year, they called him – in between trying to get him to give talks at local city chambers meetings, none of which he could ever make because he was so busy.
He was thrilled with its progress and it looked as if he would be able to open up other shops in the city within six months, but he had worked so hard for the last 12 months and his mum nagged at him all the time. “All work and no play makes you a dull boy”, was her frequent refrain.
Not wanting to waste time, he summoned up the direct, no-nonsense talk which had enabled him to start and run a business at such a tender age.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She smiled. “No, I don’t.” Having a loose arrangement with one or two of the students in her year didn’t count did it?
“I’d like to see you again.”
She smiled once more. “See me again at your sandwich van, or see me again as in ‘we go out for a drink’ or something?”
He nodded in acknowledgement of her inadvertent directness. “See you again as in we go out for a drink. Or something.”
She nodded back. He couldn’t tell if she was nodding to say, yes she would go out with him, or nodding to say, ‘ah I see what you mean now’. Seconds stretched by. He could feel himself flushing once more.
Words burst out of her in a rush. “Thank-you-such-a-lovely-offer-but-it’s-end-of-term-and-i-am-booked-to-go-camping-next-week-always-wanted-to-go…” She noted his look of faint bewilderment and forced herself to slow down.
“Oh, that didn’t come out well. Booze… I mean, meant that I’m s’posed to be off to Camp America next week for the summer.”
He didn’t know what Camp America was, but he took a reasonable guess. He supposed was that it was something to do with going to America and that the girl felt it wasn’t worth seeing someone for a week if you were about to go away for four months. He heard his mother’s all work refrain in his head once more.
“Oh so what? Maybe we’ll hate each other anyway. I’m off work Sunday and we could go for a picnic by the river. I’ll bring food from the deli.”
Her head battled with things – her attraction to this man and her wish to go out with him, the feeling that it was pointless going out with anyone given her Camp America experience about to happen and her suspicion of anything that felt like commitment. Her mum and dad’s lives always felt like a warning against the perils of commitment and where it might lead.
There was also the matter of her eating disorder – the condition ran rampant round uni halls that particular year – and saying ‘yes’ to a picnic was consent to proximity to food that would no doubt be stuffed with calories.
After a minute or two’s frantic thought (it’s just a picnic, nothing else, I’m going to Camp America anyway, I can always tell him I’ve already eaten), she nodded, making sure she did so vigorously to make up for the insulting amount of time she had taken to come to a decision.
“That sounds great.”