Many people had heard of Toni Berwick. She was the new sensation of the Ballet, a young dancer in the classic mode who was thrilling the critics with her poise and skills. Even I had heard of her. I did lift my eyes from the laboratory bench from time to time; a break from the constant research that absorbed me. In those fleeting breaks I would catch up with the news and find time for friends. So yes, I had heard of this ballerina, but I had never seen her. I read the news and sports pages only, skipping the Arts and Entertainment sections so my recognising her even if I saw her was unlikely. My world and her world were different planets and were very unlikely to collide. That would have remained the case until our Director and fundraiser; Sir Henry insisted that I should attend a reception he had organised. Reluctantly I agreed, at the same time secretly planning a family emergency that would keep me away. I had little enthusiasm for being pleasant to the sort of people who would inevitably attend such functions. Politicians on the make, looking to get their faces on camera; minor celebrities seeking publicity and a sprinkling of Lords and Ladies taking advantage of a free meal. They clamoured to be there but none of them were overly keen to get their cheque books out. That was where Henry came in; he could coax donations out of the most unwilling of donors. We needed the publicity and funds for certain, but my contribution was in the laboratory, not in the glittering halls. I had qualified as a Doctor some ten years ago and opted to go into pharmacology research. The Leinster Foundation for which I worked was in essence seeking substances from the natural botanical world that would alleviate or cure the ailments from which human beings could suffer.
My plans were torpedoed the day of the reception when in mid-afternoon the Director's secretary came into my office holding a suit hanger. "Simon, you forgot to pick up your dinner jacket. Anyone would think that you didn't want to go to this bash." I groaned as Shelley smiled sweetly at me. My secret plans foundered with her next words. "You know that the television cameras will be there, and Sir Henry wants to introduce you as the man who is getting positive results. I took the liberty of phoning your parents to let them know so they will be watching you with great pride." Damn! The sudden family emergency was unusable. Shelley had probably suspected that I would desert.
"Bitch!" I muttered.
"Yes I know, Simon. But only to you. Anyway that ballerina will be there, Toni Berwick. She wants to meet you."
"Because you are important, that's why. Because without you our research will still be blundering around in the murk. So be a good boy and go home now. Shower, shave and put on your monkey suit. Oh!" She tossed me a small package. "Put some of that on and smell like a human being for once in a while. I'll pick you up at six-thirty." The package was gentleman's cologne. It was a standing joke around the research facility that whilst I did shower every day, after shave and cologne were foreign to me. I considered that their subtle fragrance could never compete with some of the noxious odours our chemicals exuded so why should I bother? Wearily I took the suit, the cologne and drove back to my flat. Shelley was as good as her word arriving at six-thirty on the dot in a black cab. Despite my grumpy mood the sight of Shelley cheered me up. Her dress almost fitted her, or perhaps it was designed to show off so much of her anatomy, and that which was revealed was very nice I thought.
All the way to the Dorchester she gave me instructions. "Now for God's sake smile at people, they are not the enemy. Be nice and talk to them in sentences of more than one word, and in English, not that medical gobble-de-gook. Don't drink too much."
"I don't drink."
"Don't you?" Shelley was surprised. "In that case I think you should have one drink, it may make you more human ... and stop leering at my dress. You know damn well why I am glammed up like this." I knew full well that she had designs on Sir Henry.
"If he doesn't react to you in that dress then he isn't human. Let me know if you ever give up the chase."
Shelley giggled. "That's better. That was almost like a red-blooded man talking. There's hope for you yet. Oh and Simon. I'm a girl with expensive tastes, so unless you have a few million in the bank I am not for you."
The reception was all that I had feared. Pedagogues from all the political parties, luminaries from the world of the Arts, Luvvies from the stage who wouldn't stoop so low as to accept a part in television drama yet courted the cameras with a passion; and the peripheral of hangers-on who somehow managed an invite to events like this; all managing that beaming false smile chasing celebrity for its own sake. I wandered around trying to remain invisible, yet Shelley seemed to have me on her radar, and would find me whenever Sir Henry wanted to parade me like some performing monkey. To keep me in order Shelley would cling to my arm ensuring that her bosom was in close contact. Who would try and get away with that wondrous experience to savour? Sir Henry talked, the celebrity listened and I would be invited to expound on our research. But as soon as my discourse started to get technical Sir Henry would guide the celebrity away, Shelley would disconnect abruptly and I would be left halfway through a sentence, with my mouth open like a prize idiot. Free meal or not I was getting myself ready for escape when Shelley found me again.
"Stop trying to hide, Simon. Now come along Miss Berwick wants to meet you." She dragged me through the crowd to where I could see Sir Henry talking to a woman. He is quite tall so his bulk hid the lady from me. "Here he is Henry." Shelley called as we approached. He turned and for the first time I saw Toni Berwick who aimed a big, beaming smile at me.
"Antonia! Bloody Hell!"
"Nice to see you too." She laughed as for the first time that evening both Sir Henry and Shelley were struck dumb, something that ranks alongside of virgin birth in rarity.
Antonia had been a variable commodity in my younger years. She was a friend of my sister, Rebecca usually known as Becky. Becky was six years younger than me and I supposed that Antonia would be about the same age. I didn't enquire after all what teenage lad would want to know his sister's friends, particularly when that sister was an absolute pain most of the time. Becky was at that age when she was still viewed as a girl, yet her hormones were trying to tell her she was a young woman. Her attitude reflected that quandary, she would leave the room as a child and re-enter two minutes later as a woman. Antonia had the same disposition, girlish and Jezebel within the space of a heartbeat. However as much as Becky would chatter, Antonia would rarely say anything. Yet when they went up to Becky's room she would be as garrulous as my sister. They spoke in whispers using that girls language that no one else could understand. As I passed the door I could hear them, although their sonar would react no matter how quiet I was and there would be a sudden silence.
I tried not to take notice of either of them, a difficult task as Becky for some reason or another always wanted to know what I was doing, where I was going and could she and Antonia come along with me. Of course when I said no, I became the unfair, unthinking, horrible big brother. That is until Becky appealed to the supreme authority, mum. There was no arguing with mum who was incapable of understanding that I didn't want my sister with me. It usually ended with the words. "Oh let them come with you Simon. Why are you so nasty to your sister?" I knew then that if I didn't allow the two pests to join me, sanctions would apply. So Becky and Antonia would tag along to watch me play Rugby in the winter, cricket and swimming in the summer. The two pests were always there. They would blight my activities which at that time were concerned with getting to know girls. Sitting outside the cricket pavilion waiting to go in to bat was an ideal time, the girls looked so pretty in their summer dresses. My attempts were often thwarted by the presence of Becky and Antonia, especially when Becky would arrive at my shoulder and enquire of me innocently. "Are you chatting her up, Simon?" Then to the girl. "He fancies you." It made any love life very difficult.
I got some relief when I went off to University, studying medicine which meant that I would only have to put up with Becky and Antonia when I was between terms. I continued to play rugby and cricket even managing to get a 'Blue' in rugby albeit in the second team. Becky changed as she grew up and I found that sometimes I actually liked chatting to her. Antonia remained a frequent visitor at our home so I saw her a lot, but we never passed anything more than a polite "hello" and "how are you?" Her resistance to speech persisted.
Mum and dad looked forward to calling me Doctor and I did eventually achieve the right to call myself that. They didn't understand my decision to go into research rather than practice medicine. To a certain extent my choice was influenced by my dealings in training with real patients and the twelve months obligatory service after graduation in the hospital. I took exception to patients whose lack of personal hygiene was abysmal and thought that the doctor could diagnose their condition without the patient describing the symptoms. By the umpteenth time I had gone through the twenty questions to discover the patient had loose bowels I had enough. So I chose a branch of medicine where they and I would not come into contact, although I have to say in my own defence that research had always appealed to me. I was intrigued by the way that some substances would react upon human cell forms. So I was now employed at a charitable institute researching the potential of new drugs, in particular drugs derived from botanic sources. Someone would eventually make a lot of money out of a successful drug, but it wouldn't be the Foundation nor would it be me. Whatever Sir Henry had to say about my contribution it was a team effort and it embarrassed me being singled out for praise.
Although I had recognised her immediately I was astonished how Antonia had changed. Not just becoming Toni Berwick. She was always slim, and although she had filled out attractively in important areas was still lithe. Now however, she had about her a carriage and elegance that was never there before. Her elfin look had matured a little into the face of a woman who was confident in herself and also how she appeared to the world. She had grown a little taller. She had made that seismic shift from ingénue into a lovely woman. Think of Audrey Hepburn and Antonia was her clone. I offered my hand to shake, but she ignored that and moved gracefully towards me, hugged and kissed me on the cheek. A real kiss, not an air- kiss. Sir Henry and Shelley were still trying to understand what had happened here.
"It's good to see you again, Si." She used the diminutive that most of my family used for me. "How many years has it been?"
"I think it must be at least ten years. And it's really nice to see you Antonia. Your change of name fooled me. I can understand Toni, but where did the Berwick come from?" That was me being me, always researching. Some people had the nerve to call it being nosy!
"That was mum's name before she married. It seemed to work better than Birtwhistle."
"Birtwhistle is a good Yorkshire name!" I exclaimed.
Antonia nodded. "Yes it is. But can you imagine what those hacks in the media would have done with it?"
Sir Henry had recovered his aplomb by this time. "It is obvious that you two know each other." Henry had the ability to state the obvious and make it sound as if he was the bearer of astonishing news.
"Yes." Antonia replied. "Simon's sister was my best friend. So you could say we grew up together, although Simon tried hard to get away from us. I, of course fancied him terribly, with dreams of him carrying me off in his strong arms to somewhere secluded and kissing me beautifully." She sighed theatrically. "But it was not to be." I blushed, Henry smiled and Shelley gave me a look of approbation. Evidently being fancied by a top ballerina got you brownie points. Henry took charge of the situation.
"I am sure that you two will want to catch up, so I'll leave you. But I will insist on our conversing later, Miss Berwick."
He nodded and walked away with Shelley caught unawares unsure what to do, until she decided to chase after Sir Henry. Antonia watched in amusement. "She won't get him that way."
"How do you know that she wants to?"
"Women know when another woman is on the hunt. But dressed like that?" She shook her head sorrowfully. "Men like him see her as a tart and treat her accordingly. She needs to be a little less obvious."
"She's actually a quite nice girl." I sprang to Shelley's defence.
Antonia had a wry smile as she looked at me. "Are you sleeping with her then?"
If I had a drink in my hand the glass would have shattered on the floor. I gulped. "No I am not. Anyway she's out of my league."
"You are so wrong Si. She doesn't even qualify for your league; you're much too good for her." She looked around a little as waiters circulated trying to get the guests into the dining room.
We watched the great and the good shuffle and push to get a table where the TV cameras would catch them.
"Are you hungry, Si?"
"Not particularly. Why?"
"Let's bugger off and go and find somewhere quiet, then we can talk." The expletive coming from someone appearing so refined and wearing such an elegant dress was a shock. But the suggestion was balm to my ears. I could get away from the great, the good and their boringly self-congratulatory speeches.
"Yeah. Good idea."
We walked through Mayfair and eventually found a little Bistro in South Molton Street and with coffee and a sandwich in front of me and a glass of still water for her, we could talk. Antonia ate nothing.
"I have been on a diet for the last sixteen years." She explained to me. "I can't afford to put on weight; the male dancers wouldn't be able to lift me. I might just pinch some of that lettuce though." She reached across and pulled out a single leaf from the sandwich, crunching it without enthusiasm. I was wearing a dinner jacket and black bow-tie, she was wearing a simple pale gold, long dress which even to my untrained eye looked Haute Couture and very expensive. We were sitting in a little bistro in a side road just off Oxford Street and no one gave us more than a casual glance. That was London for you.
Our talk was about the past and how we got to this present. I was particularly interested in her being a ballerina. "I didn't know you were doing that." I told her.
"Becky knew. Didn't she tell you? I was taking ballet lessons from five years old."
I shook my head. "Well she could have mentioned it. But it probably didn't register."
"Didn't register?" Antonia laughed. "More likely you didn't give a toss." She was right. I wouldn't have. "But what about you, Si? We were all pleased when you qualified, and now this research stuff. Is it interesting?"
"Yes at times. It is continual experiment, trying substances and reactions over and over again. Hoping that one day you would see a reaction that either proved that it would work or not. When you get the breakthrough that's when it becomes interesting, trying to isolate the substance that triggered the reaction." We talked on long into the evening, my coffee was refreshed frequently, Antonia's water was topped up and the conversation was good. I had never talked so much with Antonia ever before. The mute girl had vanished along with the years. I smiled as I remarked. "You seem to have discovered your tongue these days." She poked the aforementioned article at me.
"I couldn't say much to you then, as you would have discovered my secret."
"And what secret was that?" I bantered.
"That I was in love with you."
"Oh how sweet, young love, here today and gone tomorrow."
"Don't mock me." The anger in her voice stopped my banter. The coldness in her eyes told me that I had overstepped the mark.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to poke fun at you. I fell in love with girls so quickly and fell out of love just as easily. I think all young people do that."
"Some do." Antonia sounded slightly mollified.
"Some do. But I didn't."
"What do you mean?"
"I am still in love with you. I will always love you. I can't help it." Tears started in her eyes. "There! Now you know."
I was unable to think. Fortunately Antonia gave me some time as she fished out a delicate lace handkerchief from her clutch bag and dabbed at her eyes. I gathered my thoughts.
"I am sorry, Antonia. I didn't know."
"Of course you didn't. It was my secret."
"Did Becky know?"
"A girl's best friend knows everything. Oh I knew it was futile. I was six years younger than you. You didn't even notice me; I was just the silly girl that hung around with your sister, someone you were always trying to get away from. But Becky had to be with you because of me, so that I would be near you." I was to say the least a little dumbfounded. But Antonia hadn't finished. "All those times that Becky would embarrass you when you were trying to chat up a girl. She did it for me, so that no other girl would get you. I nearly died when you went away to Uni. I was certain that you would find a girl and would be with her. I was in bits because I couldn't do anything to stop it."
"Antonia." I started; she put her hand up to stop me.
"If you are going to say all the stupid things that people do say, don't! I don't expect you to say you have suddenly discovered feelings for me or anything like that. You wouldn't even know if I hadn't let it out. You see? That's why I didn't talk to you because I knew I could not help myself but tell you. I should have listened to my head and not say anything.
It hadn't been my intention to say anything like that, but what I had discovered was the sheer pleasure of talking with her. Something I would like to repeat. I decided to say what I had intended. "No Antonia, I wasn't going to say any of those stupid things. I was going to say that I am flattered for a start; it's not every day that a very attractive woman tells me she is in love with me. It is so unusual, well more than unusual it's actually unique; that I don't know how to react. You have grown into a lovely woman and it was so easy to chat with you. I was dubious about coming to the reception and I tried to get out of it. I am so glad now that I didn't succeed. Seeing you again was good but with you finally finding your tongue and talking with you was exhilarating and I would like to do it again. Can we take it from here? I don't know if I will come to feel about you as you seem to feel about me. What I will say is that if we don't see each other then there is no chance of that happening." She looked at me, examining my face just as my mother had, to see if I was genuine.
"You're not just being kind to the afflicted?"
"No. I am certain that I would enjoy getting to know you."
She nodded. Then broke into a lovely smile. "Am I a very attractive woman?"
"Antonia." I said wearily. "If you don't know that your mirror needs changing. So what do you say?"
"I would like that." Then she grinned. "Who knows, after two or three dates you might get lucky." I shook my head.
"Not even then. I am not that easy." Antonia giggled then burst into laughter. It was time to go, we exchanged telephone numbers both land-line and mobile. I paid the bill and we walked out. Taxis were frequent at that time of night, yet neither of us hailed one as we chatted. It had been warm earlier and Antonia had not bothered with a wrap. Now it had turned cool, so I took my jacket off and draped it around her shoulders. She didn't say anything but her eyes thanked me. We remained on the pavement talking for another ten minutes when at last she flagged a taxi. The last thing she mentioned before getting into her cab left me speechless again.
"I am still a virgin, you know. I have been saving it for you." She handed me back my jacket and then she was gone.