Summer had long gone and everywhere heavy coats and scarves muffled prickled skin against the cold. The pace at work had dragged to a slow trickle and we had plenty of spare time to think up new tortures for each other. Things were about to change though as Annika was due to leave for Europe in a few days, backpacking for nine months, starting in Scandinavia and ending up in London. I was happy for her to be getting away from work and the winter here but knew I was going to miss her like crazy. I’d lent her my backpack from when I went to South East Asia and ironed on a little cat shaped badge in the corner. Scandinavia sounded so impossibly far away and being Annika she’d planned hikes and camping through just about every remote mountain trail you could imagine. As she was packing I slipped the photo of us with the love heart drawn around it from the Christmas party into the bottom of the bag.
Annika had promised to write and I knew she would, but part of me didn’t want to see postcards from exotic locations or photos of her overlooking sparkling glaciers from some impossibly high mountaintop. I knew she would love England in the summer time and imagined her wandering through the impossible green of Canterbury or sitting at some Tube station listening to Beatles records through her headphones.
We went out for dinner, just the two of us. It was lovely nestled in there, in the cosy corner of a little Japanese restaurant. We’d managed to get a booth out in the tiny back garden of the restaurant, overlooking the gravel beds and maple trees. We sat cross-legged on bamboo mats at a little low table, surrounded by delicate paper screens. Little plates of tempura, sushi and agedashi tofu arrived, as well as soba salad and yakitori. I’m not sure if it was the heater or the saki that we had gradually stopped wincing from but slowly we unravelled out of our many winter layers and sat like butterflies in split cocoons.
“Yes Jelly bean?”
“You’re coming home aren’t you?”
“No Jelly, I’m going to fall in love with a Finnish ski instructor and I’m never coming back. We’re going to become St. Bernard breeders and live in a log cabin. Then we’ll have blonde babies with blue eyes that will terrorise the local village.”
“Nikki, that is very unfair as I have already planned our very cool inner city art loft and gallery where we will put on weird performance art shows of us rolling around naked covered in chocolate.”
“Jessie that is so 1990s. No one does chocolate any more, these days you have to writhe around in something vegan. But if you ask nicely I’ll roll around naked in chocolate just for you.”
I contemplated that as I sipped more saki. Chocolate with caramel sauce would suit her complexion, I would probably look better in raspberry syrup with lemon sorbet. I suggested to Annika that we could save on cleaning if we just licked it off each other, to which she heartily agreed. With a cheeky smile she asked if I wasn’t sure that I’d rather have Chris suck it off my toes, seeing as he was so earnest about such things. I giggled as I pinched her under the table and then it was all on, tickling and pinching and wrestling in that tiny booth in the garden.
A rather timid waiter coughed and we paused like cats trapped in the glare of headlamps. I was pinned under Annika desperately trying to prize her slender fingers out of my armpit. With little resistance on my behalf she had straddled me and was poking all my tender places, eliciting barely stifled yelps. She leaned back on my legs bent at the knee like she was sitting in a throne, barely batting an eyelid.
“We were just discussing if we would like some more saki and green tea ice cream.”
The waiter shot a concerned look at the fragile paper screen inches from my elbow, then nodded quietly backing away. When he was out of sight Annika leaned back and helped me sit up, our legs wrapped around each other and hips nestled together.
“Don’t worry Jessie, I’ll come back.”
Her momentarily serious gaze gave way to more tickling as we uncoiled and resumed a less scandalous seating position. We didn’t say much else until dessert arrived, and I toyed with chopsticks as Annika fiddled with the bamboo matting, both of us lost in thought. After making a considerable amount of noise on the stairway the same waiter arrived with a small flask of saki and green tea ice cream in two black ceramic bowls. Apparently relived to see all the screens intact he smiled and wandered back inside.
“Open your mouth Jessie” I duly parted my lips as Annika’s silver teaspoon heaped a mound of pale green ice cream in my mouth. The coldness stung my tongue and the roof of my mouth.
“Is it nice?” My mouth was too full to reply so I smiled and nodded. Annika leaned her face closer. “Can I try?” Her lips melted over mine, her tongue flicking at the corner of my lip, snaking its way inside. Her warm tongue caressed the puddling ice cream and curled like a cat’s drinking milk. Her warmth flooded over the coolness left by the ice cream and the traces of rice wine burned between us. We alternated spoon-feeding and kissing each other, marvelling at the texture as quick fingers caught the trails that spilled onto our chins. We ate ice cream kisses as the heater blazed and reddened our cheeks.
The restaurant started closing up for the night as we gathered up our discarded layers and regrouped the fragments of our minds scattered from the saki. A little unsteadily we climbed the narrow staircase and wobbled through the neatly stacked nests of tables. As slowly as possible we inched towards the street corner that marked our separate directions. Annika had the look of someone about to travel far away, the expression of someone whose mind was walking foreign streets long before their body was. Despite the late hour her pulse was quickening and her eyes shone. One last night on her mother’s couch before the drive to the airport and she would be catapulted into the clouds, into a million different scents, sights and sounds.
We stood on the street corner to say good bye. She curled my fingers into hers and leant her head against mine, as we had grown accustomed to doing. I breathed in her perfume as she stroked my hair, gazing at the flashing neon streetlights. Our breath made vapour clouds as she kissed my cheek.
“Good night Jessie, I’ll see you very soon.”
“Bon voyage Annika, have a wonderful time.”