"Good weekend?" I asked young Rose, not expecting anything more exciting than the latest news about her mother and the cats.
"Wonderful, thank you, Sandy. I went camping with Claud. He's a fireman and a real outdoorsy type. We climbed a mountain for the clear air and wonderful views. Then went swimming in a lake. I was cold and hungry until we lit a fire and cooked fish we'd caught earlier and wrapped in wild garlic leaves. They were delicious!"
I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open by the end. It was the longest speech I'd ever heard her make. Usually she gets in a dither about leaving her mother alone when she works late and her idea of an adventurous meal is to have pickle in her lunchtime cheese sandwich. As for an action man boyfriend, it didn't seem likely. I looked at her more closely. There was a healthy blush to her cheeks and her eyes sparkled.
"Sounds like fun," I said.
"Oh it was! I wasn't sure at first I'd be comfortable with someone so ... rugged, I suppose is the word."
"But you were?" I prompted.
"Once I'd discovered the truth about the accident, I was. He's so considerate. He carried all our gear in a massive backpack so I was able to keep up with him, just about. And he has a vulnerable side. You should have seen his face when he thought of those poor little children and what people said about that."
Of course I wanted to know what people said about the children and if that were connected with the accident Rose referred to, but I didn't get the chance. One of the girls who runs our conferences phoned in sick and I had to rush off to Bath for a week. Later I asked Rose about her boyfriend.
"Carl is fine," she told me. "Would be, wouldn't he? Thinks he's above everyone else and doesn't care about people except as patients."
"Yeah, Carl the Snarl, most obnoxious surgeon at St Mary's."
"Right," I muttered, wondering why she went out with him if that's what she thought.
"Brilliant of course, which partly justifies his arrogance. He can be charming if he wants to and he's so good looking and fit." Her sigh as she said the last bit answered my question.
"But what about Claud?"
"That's a shame."
"Not at all; there are so many more."
At that crucial point my boss informed me I'd have to spend the day in Oxford with another colleague. On the drive up I raised the puzzling subject of Rose and her boyfriends.
"Weird isn't it?" Laura said. "I mean she's not hideous or anything, but you wouldn't expect her to attract a hunky fireman and then dump him for a celebrated viola player would you?"
"You're forgetting Carl the Snarl."
I explained and asked, "Do you think she's making it all up?"
"I did wonder. Have you heard of Gregory Menzell?"
"No, but I haven't heard of any viola players except Yehudi Menuhin."
"He's a violin player," Laura corrected me.
"There's a difference?"
"According to Rose there is."
The day after my trip to Oxford, I bumped into Rose and asked how she was getting on with Carl.
"Sandy, I feel dreadful."
"Oh dear, has he split up with you?" I asked, really wondering if she'd callously dumped him and moved onto the next already.
"No, I feel awful about the way I misjudged him. I've just found out about his parents. What a terrible tragedy," she broke off to wipe away tears. "No wonder he can't allow himself to identify emotionally with his patients and has to distance ..."
She was too distressed to explain properly so I patted her shoulder and suggested she get herself a cup of tea.
A few days later we learned the girl who'd gone sick just before each conference was in fact pregnant and suffering terrible morning sickness so I worked with Laura quite a bit over the next few weeks. We compared notes on Rose's love life.
"She has to be making it all up," Laura insisted. "The last one was a racing driver who took her to St Moritz for a week. She's got a sick mother and millions of cats so who looks after them while she's away?"
"There are only three cats, but it does seem strange," I said. For all I knew the frail mother and cats she'd been telling me about for the last two years were the real fantasy.
"And what about that chef, Luigi was it? She ate so many pizzas and pasta dishes and rich desserts I almost went off Italian food hearing about it, yet she's still stick thin."
Rose isn't so terribly thin, but certainly slimmer than you'd expect from someone who's taken out for lavish meals several times a week and who's recently dated a chocolatier.
"She describes these men in great detail and they all sound very real."
"True," Laura agreed. "But if each one is as marvellous as she says, how come she quickly loses interest in them and moves onto the next?"
"I know. That doesn't sound like the nice considerate girl I've always thought she was."
"It just doesn't add up. Anyway, where on earth does she meet them all?"
I nodded. Although I didn't like to think Rose had become a serial liar, that seemed more likely than her suddenly becoming simultaneously irresistible to men and completely shallow and heartless.
When yet another conference coincided with Laura's holiday I decided it was the perfect opportunity to learn the truth about Rose and asked her to accompany me to Plymouth. Rose made arrangements for neighbours to keep an eye on her mother and look after the cats, but that seemed to involve far more fuss for two nights than had been the case for any of her trips away with boyfriends. By then I'd remembered seeing photos of the cats and speaking to the mother on the phone once and was sure then that she'd been lying about the men. I gave her a chance to come clean.
"Won't you miss your boyfriend, that is if you have one at the moment?" "Not at all; I'll bring him with me. I can bring one for you as well if you like?"
"Rose! I'm happily married and this is a work trip. I can't book an extra room ..." I trailed off as it occurred to me that someone who got through men like she did wasn't likely to want a single room.
She just smiled and told me not to worry.
Of course I did worry until she turned up for the trip without a man. Instead she had an armful of books: romances.
"You can borrow as many as you like," she assured me.
I flicked through a couple and soon learnt where she'd met Claude, Carl, Luigi and all the others. Then I saw her chuckle.
"Sorry, I know I talked about them as though they were real, but to me they sort of are and anyway, it was fun to tease you. Sorry."
"All right, I'll let you off," I said. "Reading them has certainly brought a smile to your face and a sparkle to your eye. But, Rose, you shouldn't rely on books alone for romance. They're fine for a bit of fun and escapism, but you need to get out in the real world. You'll never meet a man this way."
"Actually I have. His name's Jimmy and he works in the bookshop. I read quickly but only buy one at a time so I have to go in quite frequently and we usually chat a bit."
I grinned. There was no 'have to' about it, Rose deliberately went in as often as she could because she liked the look of this boy, I was sure.
"I went in yesterday and bought two, explaining it was because I was going away with you, Sandy. He thought you were a man and asked if I was your boyfriend. When I said I didn't have one, he asked if I'd go out with him when I get back."
I don't know if they'll live happily ever after, but I'm looking forward to hearing much more about that particular story.