Gemma had liked Mr Turner for a while. Well, it was a bit more than a while: three or four years. That was back when Mr Turner was just ‘Matt’, her brother’s uni mate. Back when she would trail around after Troy, saying she was bored and he let her come to town and hang out with him and his friends. Sometimes when Troy was impatient and tried to get Gemma to stay home, it was Matt who’d change Troy’s mind, saying, “She won’t be in the way; she’s good for a laugh.”
And it was true - Gemma had a sharp wit that caught people off-guard. Gemma listened to the conversation carefully and strived to find the appropriate funny comment, which would make everyone smile. And after Matt threw his head back in delight, he would always give Gemma a look of wonder, his eyes shining. Then Gemma would feel all warm inside, and she would hold that memory and store it away with the rest of her collection.
When Gemma entered year 11 Matt would loiter around her doorway, asking Gemma how her studies were going. Troy would be jingling his keys, ready to go, but Matt lingered.
“Hang on – I’m putting my teaching skills to use,” he’d explain. Troy would sit back down in front of the TV while Matt looked over Gemma’s shoulder, giving her help with English or research for an assignment.
“You’re my guinea pig,” Matt would laugh, and Gemma would smile a secret smile, breathing in his cologne and stealing private glances at his profile, noticing the whiskers on his jaw.
Progressing through high school, Gemma blossomed into a confident, snappy young woman (so her relatives told her), with laughter in her voice and a gleam in her eyes. She was special – yes, there was no doubt about that. While most of her girlfriends drooled over boys from the private school across town, Gemma gave barely a glance to those juveniles. She had a man waiting for her.
He hadn’t asked her out yet, but she knew Matt was giving her time. He wasn’t going to pressure her – she respected that in him. Meanwhile, Gemma did her best at school and when she brought news of her achievements to Matt, she basked in his praise.
But in year 12, things changed. Matt had graduated from uni at the end of the year and now had a teaching position at her school. She suspected that would happen. She knew it was likely since Matt had put in his preferences for this area. She didn’t realise what would happen to them.
Now it was ‘Mr Turner’, and Gemma didn’t appreciate having to treat him like a superior. Sometimes when she passed him in the school grounds she’d say, “Hello Ma- …Mr Turner”, accidentally on purpose, so he’d remember that they were friends.
The weekends were different, too. The first Sunday in February Troy grabbed his towel and got ready to leave the house. Matt was standing in the doorway; sunglasses on and soft drink in hand.
“Hey, where ya going?” Gemma looked up from the Sunday paper.
“To the coast,” Troy replied, not stopping.
“Can I come?”
Troy huffed and walked outside, while Matt glanced over. “Well, you know teachers aren’t supposed to consort with students,” he laughed.
Gemma rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, I know that!” and laughed, just a bit. But she couldn’t stop the blush coming to her face, and tried hard to keep her smile from sliding away.
What had happened? Occasionally when Matt and Troy hung around the house on slow days, Gemma would use all her resources being witty, knowledgeable and mature. Sometimes the old rapport was there, but sometimes it was strained. On a couple of instances, Gemma caught Matt looking at her strangely and a nervous doubt entered her gut and it stayed there liked an ache.
She started to pay more attention to the boys in her grade. One of them, Lochie, was a year older than the others. Like her, he’d started school later than ‘normal’. He’d had his licence for ages and began to pick Gemma up for school in his dad’s old ute.
When she got out at the high school car park, Gemma tried hard not to look if Matt was there; if he’d seen her arrive with Lochie. She flicked her hair over her shoulders and smiled and chatted. She laughed a bit too loud, a bit too long, to cover the gnawing feeling in her stomach.
So it happened that after months had passed, Lochie was the one who became Gemma’s date for the formal dinner-dance at the end of the year. It was Lochie who brought her flowers and put his arm around her waist and smiled for the necessary photos which Mum and Dad took. Lochie was the one who sat beside her and drank the rum he’d snuck in, chortling at his ingenuity. Lochie also was the bold one to end up flirting with Gemma’s best friend Lauren.
By the end of the night, Gemma felt miserable. She sat at the table alone, watching a few uncoordinated kids dancing. Looking back across the room she saw the teachers checking their watches and making preparations to leave. Matt was drinking his coffee and looked pretty shmick all dressed up, she admitted to herself. Unfortunately, he was talking to Miss McClelland, that crazy woman who thought she was God’s gift to the world. Surely Matt could see through her façade. Surely he still had some sense about him.
Just then, Matt glanced up and noticed Gemma’s eyes on him. She looked away and pretended to be using her mobile phone. Yep, she had heaps of guys wanting to take her out, just sending her messages every day. Uh-oh. He was walking towards her.
“Hey.” He pulled out a chair beside her.
“Hello, Mr Turner,” she mumbled.
“School’s over now. No more formality – please!” He smiled. Gemma saw him with her peripheral vision, but kept her eyes glued to the screen on her phone.
“What happened to your date?”
Gemma sighed. “He chose to be stupid and I chose to ignore him…. You know, if you ignore something, it will go away.”
“So that worked, hey?” He looked at her.
Gemma couldn’t believe the inane conversation. No witty comments up her sleeve now.
“Hey, don’t worry, mate. He doesn’t know what he’s missing. You’re pretty, funny, smart….”
“Yeah, I know.” Gemma tried to laugh but her throat was tight and her eyes stung.
She looked at Matt, seeing the friend who was. Man, he was so nice! Oh, Lord, give me a sign that he’s the one, she prayed. That gnawing sensation in her gut rose up again.
“So… you and Miss McClelland seem to get along.” She glanced away and rubbed a smudge off her phone.
“Hah! Tania – yeah, she wishes!” Matt laughed and scratched his chin. He lowered his voice. “Besides, she’s pretty old when you see her up close,” he added confidentially.
“Really? How old?” Gemma looked past him to the quickly depleting group of teachers.
“Oh, about 25. At least.”
Gemma snorted. “Ancient!”
Matt nodded, his eyes softening. They both smiled at each other.
Gemma wished she could capture this moment and replay it at will. She found it hard to keep her smile on her face though, while the ache inside her grew. So near and yet so far. Where’s that sign, Lord?
“Got any good leads for uni next year?” Matt tapped someone’s dirty knife on the side of a bread-and-butter plate.
“Yeah, I should get into QUT or USQ for a BA, no worries.”
Matt nodded. “I’m happy for you.” He caught her expression. “Hey, don’t look at me that way – I mean it!” He frowned and looked earnest.
“Okay… thanks.” Gemma smiled, this time more easily. A tiny ember of hope in her heart glowed warm. A sign, that’s all I need.
Matt changed the subject, clearing his throat.
“You know what, Gemma?”
She sat expectantly.
“I think: the right guy will come along for you one day. He could be right under your nose.” He spoke lightly.
Gemma’s heart pounded. “You think so?”
“I know so.”
“Huh!” she said, as if someone had told her how many Lifesavers were in a roll. Meanwhile, her internal organs felt like they were going to explode.
“Looks like the night’s entertainment is finished.” Matt stood up and stretched. “Come on, I’ll give you a lift home.”
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Aw, sweet. I love a good old-fashioned love story but I was sooooo convinced it wasn't going to work out. And I know there's always meant to be some surprising twist in the tale, but just for once it was nice to get a happy-ever-after ending.