Out there in the darkness a small constellation lay on its side, its orange and white stars shimmering. Or maybe it was much nearer and actually it was an ants nest, with illuminated golden ants standing guard on each side of the many pathways, and smaller ants with white glowing antennae scurrying between them and out to forage. Or a nebula space-station, the Dandelion, its yellow petals glowing and silver spacecraft moving in and out along them and into the darkness.
Actually it was the town of Baunton, four miles away, orange and white with its amber street lights and white headlights of Saturday night traffic, but still dandelion-like, and the A39 snaking down from the town like a dandelion stem to bring the soft murmur of cars to the sunken road nearby, the dandelion road, nicely overgrown with trees.
Roger swept half a cup of chopped wild garlic leaves into the lentils and absentmindedly stirred the pan while he watched the shimmering lights through the big window. It was cold outside, late spring trying to pretend it was winter. But the log fire in the woodburner burned bright, and he had to loosen his silk smoking jacket to cool himself down as he stood by the hob. A nettle soup bubbled on the back ring. Danielle would like that, she'd be impressed by this food of the land, and she would ask if it had milk in it, because she was so close to being a vegan, and he'd say that it did, and she would pause for a moment and then launch into enjoying it because that was the way she was.
He'd never thought of it as a courtship, and had laughed when they'd noticed it turning into one. Danielle said it was more like a marriage travelling in reverse, beginning with a trip to Sainsbury's, as if the stability and boredom of semi-detached life were already established, and working backwards from there.
That was his Sainsbury's they'd started with, his invitation, his idea. Soon after they'd met he'd suggested it, the familial Sunday afternoon trip, except in this case at dead of night. They'd clambered over the locked gates at the back of the Baunton store to reach the outsize self-service section, the huge metal skips packed with discarded food showing old best-before dates - packet pizzas, sausages, fish fingers, chicken sandwiches and pre-packed dwarf beans from the Gambia, all in the process of going off right now like so many bacterial time-bombs.
They'd waded among the refuse laughing and giggling like schoolchildren, which they weren't any more, and filled up their bin-liners with dying perishables, and clambered back over the gates and back into Roger's coach to drive away. On the way back they discovered that Roger's bag was full of burgers and sausages and lamb, and Danielle's was full of baby carrots and organic onions and celery, and Roger had realised that he might have to make some changes to his diet if he wanted to spend more time with this gorgeous lady.
He stirred the lentils once again and lifted the lid from the rice pan to check the turmeric colour and the pace of the simmer. Not bad. His head twitched as he caught the growl of a big old diesel engine approaching.
They'd been to the theatre a week later, to the Baunton Playhouse, where tickets cost £15 a head so they couldn't afford to buy any. But the pavement opposite the lobby was free and had high kerbs. They sat on a comfortable blanket, their feet dangling into the road, and shared a can of Special Brew and a big rolled cigarette, they watched the theatre of the smart women with coats over their shoulders, sleeves hanging free and heels clicking on the dry paving-stones, and the men with jackets and creases in their trousers, all animated and mouthing quiet critiques, bursting out of the lobby after the show inside was over, to climb into their shiny machines and drive away between the orange lights along the veins in the petals of the dandelion nebula.
On the comfortable blanket Roger and Danielle had hugged briefly, and kissed. No, pecked, a first kiss of a stranger and a stranger. There was no rush, more intimacy would come in its own time, like a pear inevitably ripens.
Through the rear window Roger listened to the diesel engine grow louder, He watched Danielle's old mobile crane lumber into view, its big long bonnet, the girder jib hanging over the cab with a red scarf tied to the pointy end, a silk scarf, a little feminine touch there. He left the hob to stand at the back of his coach and watch Danielle climb down, expertly, from her cab and wave at him, smiling wide as her Doc Martens touched the ground.
Maybe that mechanical beast of hers was part of the attraction. He couldn't be sure, as lovers never can. Her big smelly crane was straight out of a circus convoy - slow, fat, squat, bizarre. And it was legal for her to drive it on her car licence, and pay less road tax than a car-owner paid. That was a nice little loophole in the law, that Danielle was allowed the same cheap tax disc as a circus troupe, a showman's licence. How he'd admired her when she'd explained that little number. It beat Sainsbury's food skips any day.
Quickly he gathered the cords of his smoking jacket and tied them, then hit the little lever above the coach door. With a hiss of expelled air, the door slowly opened. He liked to impress. And there, at the foot of the steps, stood Danielle.
"Hello," she said, and bounced up the steps to stand level with him, smiling like an angel. "Wow, it's hot in here."
"It's nice, don't you think?"
Danielle unpopped the breast pocket of her bikers jacket and took out a long, fat cigarette, slipping it into her ruby-red lips and lighting it in a single move. She wriggled out of the jacket, bumping her elbows gently into Roger's chest without attempting to find more space for herself, then handed the jacket to him as she inhaled deeply. Roger tossed it casually down the length of the coach, so happy that it landed squarely on the bed at the rear.
He tried not to get an erection, this immediate just wasn't cool, but in the end he had to rely on the smoking jacket for concealment. He'd never seen her dressed like this. She looked stunning. A tight black singlet that made the most of her beautiful bosom (it was easy to ignore the pink stain down the side) and Lycra leggings that might have been thrown away after an Alsatian had taken a liking to them. But boy! they took his breath away. Both her knees were showing, and if that wasn't pretty enough, there was an enormous rip up the inside of one thigh. All Roger wanted to do was place his hand down there and tickle the pink flesh, but he was on best behaviour, so instead he raised a grin and looked directly into her hazel eyes.
She took the big cigarette from her mouth and placed it in his, holding it there for a moment with her fingers. "It goes with your smoking jacket," she said, picking at the hole in the jacket's silken belly with her free hand. "I love it. And this was such a nice idea, meeting up in a field outside Baunton. How did you discover this place?"
"Oh, I've parked up here a few times," he said, as casually as he could. "It's quiet."
"And such a view!" She wiggled her hips as she walked away, she'd never done that before but she was doing it now, he could swear it. It didn't help at all.
"Yes," he said, breathing steadily. "I think it looks like a dandelion."
She laughed, still looking out of the coach's broad side-windows over the trees at the gold and silver Milky Way on its side. "You're right," she said, without looking at him. "What's for tea?"
"Nettle soup. Garlic lentils with rice."
"You're so sweet."
He'd almost regained control over his body, until she turned off the gas rings, with deliberation, and sashayed back to him and popped her smoky tongue into his mouth, and wrapped her arms around him and pressed her ragged Lycra against his jeans.
"That's the great thing about vegetarian food," she said. "It can wait."
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2003, www.foxglove.co.uk.