A Meeting on Praed Street

She is sitting by the window and far away in her thoughts when the voice intrudes, asking quietly…

“Excuse me, it’s Eve, isn’t it…?”

She is sitting by the coffee house window, staring out at Praed Street and the passers-by who hurry against the rain.   Hoods and high collars, hunched shoulders, plastic hats of clear polythene.

“…Eve?”

A peach-mac’d mother bent over a recalcitrant child, controlling her anger:  brollied partner standing by, impatient.   Two young Chinese men arm-in-arm, running and laughing…

“It is Eve, isn’t it?”

The smell of rain, that rustle only a wet coat makes, the persistent voice:  there is something familiar in it.  She turns to acknowledge its source, reluctant.   “I’m sorry?”  

“I’m Paul.”   He is standing across the table from her, one hand resting, two fingers, on the bleached wood surface, looking down on her;  “Paul Ferryman,”  He says.    Then, when she does not answer:  “You don’t remember me!  I’m sorry if I disturbed you.  I must be wrong…”   His hand leaves.

“No.   No,”  She says quickly,  “No, I don’t think – that is, you aren’t wrong.”  She doesn’t wish to be impolite.  “How are you, Paul?”  This is awkward; so awkward!  

“It’s been…oh, lord, how many years?  You look sensational!”  He laughs and the sound rings in her remembering like a peal of bells.  “Eve!   After all this time – who’d have thought of it?”  Then he remembers himself:  “Oh, look, this might not be such a welcome surprise.   I have to return to a meeting, so I won’t embarrass you any more.”

She lies.  “You’re not embarrassing me,”  Wishing she could return his compliment, she adds,lamely:  “You don’t look so bad yourself!”

“How I wish that were true!”  He says;  “But you!  You’ve scarcely changed at all. Do you still dance – is that your…?”

“No.”  She cuts in quickly,  “No, I haven’t worked in years.  I still practice, that’s all.”

He says nothing for a moment.  His eyes are clouded with memories, yet he sees into her soul as well as ever.  

 “You’re sad,”  he empathises, stepping back,  “I’m intruding on your melancholy.”   He produces a silver case from beneath the folds of his coat.   “This is a business card,I’m afraid, but the number reaches me. Maybe we could meet up sometime?  Have a coffee together, ‘do lunch’?  If you don’t hate me too much, that is?”

His card is on her table and he is gone, leaving a last brief smile in his wake.  Perhaps he will get his coffee somewhere else, she thinks?  Hate him?  No, never that.  Her last sight of him, striding away down Praed Street oblivious to the rain, awakens emotions that have lain dormant for a long time.  

Memories.   

With a sigh of resignation she rises from her table, goes to pay her check.   

Six weeks after that meeting Paul Ferryman finds a message on his ‘phone.   ‘I Can’t keep pretending this hasn’t happened.  Are you in town Saturday?  I’ll be at the Arbor Cafe at eleven o’clock – you know, stay twenty minutes, that sort of thing?  If you can’t make it, don’t worry.’ Her voice is clipped and unemotional; so unlike the Eve he remembers.

He replies with a text, simply:  ‘OK.’

She is late, though not by as much as twenty minutes.   Wearing a simple green dress of a shade she always favoured in their long ago days together she sweeps towards the pavement table where he waits, and once again he wonders at an elegance that is timeless.  He worshipped her once, idolised her – an alabaster creature of unnassailable grace and beauty.  Life has taught him since, given him ample occasion to rue his mistakes.  He was so young.  They were both so young.

“Hi, it’s so good to see you.”  She greets him, before adding in an undertone as she sits, “I nearly didn’t come.”

“I’m glad you did,”  He says.  “I hesitated too.”    A waiter appears.   He orders coffee, a cake he remembers she used to like.  “What are we doing?”  He asks.

She makes a small, open-handed gesture.  “I don’t know.   Seeing you again was nice. I wanted to talk, I suppose.”

He grins,  “Reminisce?  There are things I prefer not to remember.”

“Then those are the things we’ll avoid!”  She decides.  “Do you live in Harliston?”

“Not quite.  My firm opened an office here and I moved back to Brickley just before Christmas.  You?”

“Yes.  Do you remember Alice?”

“Alice with the teeth?”

“Oh, that’s cruel!  She had them corrected, anyway.   I live in her street now…”

And they talk,  They speak of this and that, of who among their once-shared friends remain close, who is still near, who has travelled far.  Who has gone before them…

“You haven’t eaten your cake,”  He accuses her.

She is apologetic,  “I hope you aren’t offended.   They’re a little too sickly for me, these days,”  Then she says:  “Dad was only doing his best for me, Paul.”

“I thought we agreed not to go there,”  he admonishes her.  “You want to, though, don’t you?”

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it?  You were so angry, the last time we were together.   We didn’t have a break-up; not properly,  We couldn’t.”

“And you want closure.”

“I suppose I still want to know why. No goodbyes, no parting scene, you just left!   The next thing I heard, you weren’t in town anymore.”

“I was on the morning train.  I couldn’t stay near yet apart from you.  He banned me from seeing you, effectively.  He told me I wasn’t good enough; he’d set his sights high for you.”

“And you didn’t fight for me?”

“He had all the weapons, Eve.  You were too young – we both were.   I knew you couldn’t make an enemy of your father for me, just as I knew he would break us up if I stayed.  I had nothing to offer; no right to take you away from everything you had.” He adds reflectively,  “I wanted to though, I admit that.”

“We were children.”  Eve fixes her gaze on her lap, brushes absently at her skirt in a demure gesture he remembers.  “Those were such different times, weren’t they?   I think I would have gone anywhere with you that day, if you had asked, but I wasn’t strong enough on my own.  I couldn’t make myself choose.”  She sighs.  “So, what are you doing with yourself these days, Paul?  Are you still married?”  

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll return your question.  What are we doing here?”

“We’re talking.  We’re laying old ghosts.  Isn’t that all?”

“Is it?”  She says miserably.  “Why didn’t you just walk past me the other day?  Why did you leave that card?”

“Why did you dial my number?”  He counters; then, more gently:  “What do you want me to say?  How long is it?  Thirty years?  Do you want me to admit that not a day’s gone past when I haven’t thought of you, if you were happy, if you were well?

“But you married,  You got married very quickly.  I heard.  You’re still with her, I take it?”

He strives for a smile.   “Yes, in a manner of speaking, I suppose we are.  Perhaps that’s why I’m here.”

“You must love her?”

“I must, mustn’t I?”

“Tell me.”

“You’re right; I married very quickly, and for the wrong reasons.  I was angry, I suppose, with the hand society dealt me, something I was too  young to change.”

“Poor woman!”

“Ali?    I don’t think I’ve ever made her regret my mistakes.  But there,”  He hesitates as if he has a Rubicon to cross with his next words:  “When we parted thirty years ago, my energy died where love was concerned.  So were you to ask me if I love her…”

“That’s tragic!”

“No, I suppose I do love her,in my way,”  He retreats behind his coffee cup,  “Anyway, now it’s your turn, woman.  I heard not a breath about you.  Are you with someone?”

She too will find the props on the table helpful.  She can toy with them and does so – her cup, then the cake she refused that now seems so tempting.  “Maybe I will just have a bite of this?” She will not look at him as she speaks.    “I did marry.  I met someone in London in a show I was working on.  It didn’t last.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m not!  You have to stop apologizing for things, especially my inability to hold my marriage together!   He started cheating and I ran out of reasons to stay.   We divorced, in the end.”  She adds reflectively;  “Same diagnosis as you, I suppose – were we ever really close?   Anyway, that was a long time ago.  I’m promised to someone, so I’m not really free.  What a horrible word that is – ‘free’!  What does it mean?”

“In this case, I’d say it means there’s a ‘but’ in there somewhere?”

“Which is another horrible word; one I use too often.  Circumstances have changed, can I say that?   I’m not sure if I should keep my promise, Paul.  I’m not sure I can live up to it, you see.”

“Because?”

“Lots of reasons.”  Her eyes at last agree to meet with his, for she can no longer hide that same melancholy he detected in the coffee bar on Praed Street six weeks before.  “I’m not sure I’m capable of giving someone the depth of love they will need.   Perhaps I’m like you, my energy for love is dead?  You said that so well, you made me think…”

“Is he still around, your father?”

 “He died two years ago. We hadn’t spoken for some time before that.”  She reaches across the table so their fingers may touch, a gentle invitation he takes, and their hands join. 

“I’m sorry,”  She whispers;  “Sorry for all the hurt he caused you.  I wish we’d kept in touch somehow, or things had been different.  I just…”  She shrugs, smiles;  “…wish.”

He says, quietly, that he would join her in that wish, and  he asks, quietly, what she is doing with the rest of her day; has she plans?  When she replies in the negative, he asks if he could spend her day with her.  She says, gladly, that he may.

Come evening, as they wait for the taxi that will take him home he wants to know if she will join him tomorrow, or the day after that, and she bites her lip before she asks:   “Paul, will you tell your wife about today?”

He nods.  “I won’t hide it from her.  I don’t think it’ll surprise her  too much.  We’ve been huddled together on a raft of deception for a long time, now.  She’s been seeing someone I’m not meant to know about. It might even be a relief to her if I wasn’t quite so intensely loyal.  The climb to the moral high ground might be rather less steep.”

Three weeks pass:  three weeks of stolen encounters, some short, some longer, the precious minutes of which they count, and fill with new memories.  With each new tryste another bridge is crossed, another precious affinity revived until their harmony is such that although they both fear it, there is a conversation that can no longer be postponed.   

This Saturday, this epic meeting day, they greet each other familiarly with a kiss, and walk together beside the river which divides their town.   He knows it must be his obligation to speak.

“How long can we go on like this?”

She turns to face him.  “Do you want to stop?”  There is a plea in her eyes which speaks for her better than words.

“No.   No, I don’t!  Every time we part it feels like a little piece of me dies.  I feel closer and closer to repeating the mistake I made all those years ago.  Listen, Eve, I’m not the only one with a life to dismantle here.  If I asked you to come to me, to break with this guy I don’t know, go somewhere so we can both start afresh…If I asked you?”

Her face betrays her troubled heart.  For an age, it seems, although she must have turned her answer over in her mind again and again, she delays her reply:  “I would do it.  I would do anything you wanted me to do.  You know that.”  She puts her hands on his shoulders,  “But think, darling, please?  You have a marriage, someone who’s been there for you for a long time.  Think of her, too?”

“I have,”  He takes a deep breath.  “I told you I wouldn’t deceive Ali.  She’s (he chooses the word carefully) aware of you, and all you mean to me.  She’s been surprisingly understanding, really.”

“Meaning?”

“We’re still together, in much the same sense we’ve been for the last ten years.  We share the same house and greet each other when we meet.   But I don’t think she’ll be surprised if I vacate my half of it.”

Her eyes brim:  “Are you asking me?”

“To live with me, yes, that and more, if you want? I mean, will you – could you do that?”

“Of course!”  She draws him close and they kiss as passionately as teenagers, then crease with laughter as a boy no more than twelve years old scooters past offering advice.  “Please!  Get a room!”

Thereafter for a while they say nothing, wandering aimlessly, arm in arm, along the riverbank until they find a park bench where they can rest and watch the river.   “Goodness!  Where do we start?”  She says.

In a week or two Paul has found a little flat close to his work which they both agree upon, and they furnish it together.  Ali, Paul’s wife, has exhausted her fount of patient understanding, so he has moved into this new home, where Eve will join him on a day that she has set.  Much of their time is spent together now, fulfilling the demands of the missed and neglected years.  Both are as happy as their moral sense will allow.

No time at all, it seems, elapses before the morning when Eve moves in.  She will wait for him at a corner near their favourite bookshop at eleven am.  

“Leave room in the back of the car.  I’ll still have a bag or two, I expect,”  She advises him happily.

A little after ten o’clock on the appointed morning Paul is dancing with anticipation, his emotions turning somersaults more becoming a man half his age.  The knowledge that within the hour he will be embarking on a new life after so many unhappy years so excites him he finds the inaction of waiting intolerable.  The bags she mentioned would be heavy, would they not?  He supposes there might be extra things she needs, weighty items not accounted for, awkward burdens unsuitable for carrying through the streets.

As the minutes tick by Eve’s imagined burden grows greater, until his mind’s eye sees her struggling that half-mile to the bookshop under a Sisyphean load.   It does not occur to him that in such exigency she might simply get a taxi – no, he must help!  He tries to call her, only to find she has not switched on her ‘phone, so ignoring their arrangement he gets into his car and drives to her house.  After all, what can be wrong with picking her up outside her door?  He need not go into the house, if there is any chance the person she is leaving is there, and anyway, she has never made reference to them actually living together.  It has been, from the little she has divulged of her relationship, a stilted, rather distanced affair.

Ten-thirty sees him drawing up before her house.  There is little chance, he tells himself, she has already left, so all he need do is wait.  Minutes elapse:  five, ten….

The front door opens.  Paul climbs from his car, advances, ready to help.  The plangent whine of an electric motor reaches his ear.   

At first he thinks the doorway must be empty, that the door has just swung open, improperly latched. Then he looks down; he sees the ramp that covers the steps, the handles bolted to the walls.  He sees the pair of weary  eyes that are fixed on his midriff somewhere, the wheels of the chair, the fingers playing on the keyboard that make up the rudiments of a voice – a cold monotonous voice:

“Is it you?  Are you the reason she is going?  What is your name?”

In horror he retreats the few steps that will take him onto the street,  a guilt that has yet to find a name compelling him to glance right and left, as if he is afraid of being seen.   Eve, carrier bags in hand, is rounding the corner, not four houses down.  She stops when she sees him.  The voice, now behind him, repeats:  “What is your name?”

Eve raises the bags a little to support her explanation.  “A bit of shopping.  Some food for…”

“What is your name?”  An electronic accusation, not a question.

“Before the accident,”  She says helplessly,  “I could have coped.  I could have, before then.  Before  us.”

The street is suddenly so, so long.  She is very far away and the sky is darkening:  “It’s going to rain soon”, she says.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Seventeen.   A Deeper Darkness

Alex Chernenko

The story so far:

No sooner has Joe Palliser discovered sick younger brother Michael has been removed from Maddockgate care home, than his elder brother Ian summons him to a meeting.  Ian, who is on the verge of election to parliament, tells Joe the press are pursuing him, and offers to pay him to move out of reach, but Joe refuses.  He also learns that Ian has tried to move Michael, and Michael has vanished.

Shortly afterwards, Joe receives the news that Ned Barker, landlord of ‘The King’s Head’ has died.  With time in hand before he takes the ‘bus to collect his new car, Joe keeps an appointment to view a house, and is captivated by it.

For a distance no more than a dozen crow-flown miles, Wilton Bishop by service ‘bus involved three changes, so the hands of Joseph’s body-clock had crept to lunchtime before he could collect the Wolsey car that awaited him on Maybury Motors forecourt, polished to an imperious shine.  He steeled himself to climb into a driving seat for the first time in many years, ashamed of how he trembled at even the thought of driving, yet eager for freedom regained.  Wallace Maybury found him there as he rolled and paddled his panting body up the hill from the village, bearing an unfurled newspaper where lurked his lunch of fish and chips.

“Little beauty, isn’t she?” Enthused the salesman, his lustful fingers embellishing Joseph’s cheque with patches of cooking fat. “Any trouble with her, you don’t hesitate to call me!”

Joseph gritted his teeth, turned the key and pulled the starter.  There was little hint of femininity in the protest from the gearbox at his unaccustomed touch, but after a second attempt at a start the Wolsey swept him regally away. From a layby a hundred yards away a younger Austin slipped into more elegant motion.  As inconspicuously as possible, it tagged along behind.

At the first service station Joe added fuel to the pint or so of Maybury’s contribution and replenished his own tank with coke and a soggy cheese sandwich, before making his way to the county town, where he intended to seek out the office for a local newspaper, the County Despatch.   He discovered it lodged in a tall narrow building of four storeys, sandwiched between ‘Godfrey’s Shoes’ and a store devoted to ‘Surgical Requisites’ on the lower main street,

Selwyn Penny, a reporter of some vintage, seemed eager to help.“Matheson – I remember that one.  Poor child!  A man walking his dog found the clothing, as I recall.   I saw the chap who was sent down for it. Toby Bridall was presiding at Quarter Sessions that winter.  He reduced the sentence to life because there was no body, you see; the victim was never found.     What was the accused’s name now – Robertson?  Robinson?  You’ll find it in the archive somewhere.  He was always going to be in trouble because he had a record of minor crimes against children – molestation and so forth – but killing wasn’t in his nature:  you could see that. I’ve never been entirely satisfied with that one.”

“Tabloid stuff, though?”  Joseph suggested.

Selwyn nodded.  “Yes, I sent in some copy.  Strange, sometimes, how you think the things that should galvanise the ‘nationals’ don’t even get space on page fourteen.  It wasn’t used – borderline, I’d say.  There were a lot of other things going on at the time; political scandals, and so forth.”

Joe thanked Mr Penny.  Outside, heavy rain was setting in, compelling him to make a dash for the refuge of his car, parked some distance up the street.   There, as a storm gathered, he sat listening to the raindrops’ steady hammer on the roof, mentally brushing dust from the archives in his brain and letting his mind go to dangerous places.

“There are things I know,” Michael had said.   And he had spread his arms in a cruciform imitation of Violet’s execution.   Only one means existed by which he could have known how she had been displayed.  He had to have been there.

There were things which now, perhaps, Joe thought it might be better not to know, for the coven dancing in his head was no longer a circle of credulous village women –it was something demonic, and he could picture Michael in it, clasped hand in hand with Violet Parkin, with Dot Barker, Janice Regan, Hettie Locke…and who else? What was the secret Michael was so certain Ned Barker had known, that could make that evil cabal turn upon one of its own?

He could not help but wonder now if, as his aunt had implied, those women were somehow implicated in Christian Matheson’s disappearance, too.  The little boy’s scattered clothing had been found near Slater’s Copse – the hill where Aaron Pace had once seen the witches dancing.  Michael would have been thirteen years old and already very disturbed, when the Matheson child was taken: so impressionable, so young – surely too young to be accepted by those women?  But who knew what they were capable of:  the headless crows, Benjy the cat’s mutilated carcass impaled upon his aunt and uncle’s front door?  These were evidence of something very dark indeed.

Joseph’s memory of that time burned bright: Michael was hurting – so badly hurting!  Joe?  All Joe could do was hide in his room, afraid of the shouting, the rows from the floor below.

Michael’s tremulous crescendo:  “I call you, I call you!  You are commanded to come!”

Julia:  “Michael, stop it!”

“Come before the council and be tried!  Stand before us and be tried!”

“Oh, Michael!  For goodness sake, please!”

It would go on, and on.  Michael raving his distress, Julia torn between pity and fear; for there was no doubting the terror Michael inspired in his aunt.  Were he one of her own and not the child of her dead sister, maybe it would have been different; but he was a surrogate child, and now, a changeling.  A stranger; a violent, dangerous stranger.

“Honestly Oz, sometimes I think he’s about to kill me!”

If Joe’s brother in his illness might have done some terrible, some dreadful things, then what satisfactory reason had he to pursue Jack Parkin’s cause?  Michael was out there, somewhere, and though he hated the phrase he must use it:  ‘on the loose’.  Was he, Joseph, not the only Palliser in Hallbury that hot afternoon when Violet Parkin died?  Was his thirst for justice enough, if it promised to bring down the roof on one of his own  family?

In celebration of the new freedom which came with having transport of his own, Joe spent two hours just driving aimlessly before he returned to Hallbury, and even then he did not return immediately to his aunt and uncle’s house, but parked up on Wednesday Common, near to a place where he and Emma had once spent time together, hiding from the lights as teenagers in love will hide; for now his lost loves were very much on his mind – Marian and Emma; the one gone forever, the other a living temptation whose cries from among the rocks bade him sail ever closer to ruin.

Marian had rescued him, hadn’t she?  Plucked him from the street and given him self-worth when he needed it most.  So was it love or gratitude that filled his memory of her?  He might doubt the integrity of his feelings, even at the time when her love for him began to cool – was it his heart or his insecurity that had most troubled him then?  And now, as he thoughtof her – as she immersed his mind with her memory – did he think of her for love lost, or in fear of a truth he did not want to face:  that loving her, he had killed her?

Now there was Emma, who had saved him, too, in her way.  When his adolescent passion for Sarah had left him languishing in a pool of despondency, it was she who taught him love could be fun.  Emma had helped the scarred boy become something of a man, or as much of a man as he thought he could ever become.  And Emma was married to someone else, forced to accept a lesser kind of love because he had deserted her, and made no attempt to retrieve what he had lost.

The wheel of fortune had turned, had it not?  He was faced with a moral dilemma:  should he quit the field and leave the love he betrayed behind once more, or take her as he surely could from the arms of his best friend?  Although all his sense of rectitude and all its probable consequences militated against the latter choice, yet he was consciously driving himself towards it:  buying a house in Hallbury was probably the worst life decision he could make – which was probably why he was making it.

The tap on the car window made him jump so hard he almost hit his head on the roof.

“Excuse me!”  A feminine voice – the window had steamed in a renewal of the rain, so Joe could not see.  He wound it down to reveal its owner – a pretty dark-haired woman in a white blouse and short skirt.  The neck of the blouse gaped open sufficiently to reveal a generous cleavage.  “I hope you don’t mind, but I saw you were parked here.  I wonder – could I be awfully cheeky and ask you for a lift?  My car’s gone phut you see, and I really have to get back to…I believe it’s Brenton, isn’t it?.”

“Braunston,”  Joe corrected her, “Sure, get in.”  A damsel in distress:  what else would he do?

“Golly, thanks!”

She tottered on heels to the passenger side and slipped expertly in beside him, demurely pulling at the hem of her skirt.  “I’m so sorry to be a bother.  The blessed thing just stopped working – aren’t cars awful?”

Joe smiled, thinking that cars weren’t awful at all.  “You’re soaked!”  he said.  Her wet blouse clung to her enough to reveal evidence of a low-cut lacy bra.

She looked down at herself.  “Oh, golly!”  She folded her arms across her chest, giggling at her own embarrassment, her tiny nose wrinkling as she laughed.  She really was, Joe thought, extremely alluring.

He retrieved his jacket from the back seat, “Here, you’ll be cold.”

“Oh, you are kind.”  She snuggled down into the seat. “This is so cosy!”

Joe started the car, wiped away as much condensation as he could, and U-turned, wheels slipping enough to give a moment’s concern.  “Of course, I could be stuck myself.”  He admitted.  “Where in Braunston  did you want to go?”

The Wolsey bounced back onto tarmac, swerving to avoid a stricken-looking Austin Princess which stood dripping and inert beside the road.

“I’ll get the AA man to look at it for me.”

She was down from London visiting friends, it transpired; her name was Jennifer, and she was staying at a Braunston hotel.  “But if you wouldn’t mind just getting me to civilisation?”

Joe wouldn’t hear of it.  No, he would not turn her out into this rain, her hotel was not far.

“Oh, you are kind!”  Jennifer enthused.  “My saviour!  You haven’t told me your name…”

“It’s Joe.”

“Honest Joe!”  Her laugh was music.  “Do you live here, Joe?”

“Nearby.”

“Really?  I was visiting a chum in Little Hallbury – you might know her, Joe.  Sophie Forbes-Pattinson?  Do we have a mutual friend?”

Joe said yes, indeed he did, and yes, Sophie might have mentioned him and his second name, since she asked, was Palliser.

“Wow, what an inspiring name!  Don’t I know it from somewhere?  Oh, my god!  I don’t suppose….you couldn’t be any relation to Ian Palliser, could you?  You look so alike!”

“He’s my brother.”

“Really?  Golly!”  Exclaimed Jennifer, wide-eyed.  “Isn’t the world just absolutely tiny?  You must be so proud of him!  He’s going to be most amazingly famous, you know.  Daddy’s a member of the Party Selection Committee thing, and he’s terribly enthusiastic because they don’t pick just sort of anybody and members from our constituency usually end up being in the cabinet for something or other.  What’s it like to have a famous brother, Joe?”

A bit of a problem, Joe said.  The miles passed unnoticed as Jennifer’s words tumbled over one another in an enthusiastic cantilena to life and living.  He joked, she laughed; her eyes sparkled.  More than once he glanced sidelong at her to see her approving him.  And the conversation turned.

“Well I hope Sophie’s making good use of you.  You’re rather a nice chap, Joe.”

“Thank you.”  He said.  They were nearing Braunston.  As if upon a whim, Jennifer suddenly moved across her seat so her head could rest on his shoulder.

“My god I’m cold!”  She said.  “You’re so warm and comfy, do you mind?”

He didn’t.

Jennifer was staying at one of the smaller hotels:  “Travelling’s so expensive, isn’t it?  Daddy’s awfully careful like that.”

Joe parked at the roadside close to the hotel’s front doors and remarked foolishly that the rain had stopped, which of course was obvious, but he felt so confused by the mesmerising presence at his side he couldn’t think of anything more profound to say.  Jennifer did not move.

“Gosh, you really are a super bloke, Joe.”  Her eyes shone; her lips slightly parted to reveal white teeth; her hands, clasped around one knee, tightening her shoulders so the valley between her breasts was dark and deep.  With difficulty, he tore his eyes away, knowing otherwise he must suffer obvious humiliation.  Jennifer seemed delighted with her effect upon him.  “Well, I suppose that’s it?”  She asked.  It was a genuine question.

Hurriedly, lest humiliation should visit him anyway – his thoughts were running faster than his self-discipline could follow – Joe alighted, walking around to her door and opening it.  Jennifer’s long legs swung out, riding up her short, short skirt for a moment:  a glimpse of pink satin – “Oops!” – before she tugged it to respectability.  Then, in a movement bordering on the miraculous, she slid herself upright so that every part of her body pressed to every part of Joe’s body; and before he could stop her she was kissing him on the mouth.

She had surprised him in every sense, so much so that he could not react.  Before he could respond she moved her head so they were cheek to cheek as she whispered, with an inference that was plain:  “Come in with me?”

What made him draw back, alarm, instinct maybe?  Where did she spring from, this divinity, this gift from God?  Why had she, on so brief an acquaintance, taken to him so much that she wanted to share herself?  Maybe that; or maybe some instinct, a fear even, that this was not all it seemed.  Anyway, step away he did, and however reluctantly he gave his refusal.  She looked mildly taken aback.

“What a pity.  You’ll never know what you missed, now, will you?”  Jennifer reverted to the formal.  “Well, thank you for the ride, Sir Joe.  I’m sure we’ll meet again sometime.”  And she clacked away on those impossible heels, leaving Joseph admiring and helpless in her wake.

He did not drive away immediately.  He sat in his car, simultaneously castigating himself for turning down the opportunity of a lifetime and wondering whether it had all been some kind of self-delusion – a dream.  There was no reconciliation to be found, however, so at last he started the Wolsey to begin his drive home.

Joseph would have been interested in a meeting which took place in the lobby of the hotel, five minutes after his car had turned the corner at the end of the road.  Jennifer, who had not gone straight to her room to change from her wet clothing, was sitting in one of the leather armchairs when a conservatively dressed middle-aged man with greying hair and a goatee beard sat down on the sofa opposite her.

“Did you get anything?”  Jennifer asked the man.

“Not much chance – one of the kiss, I think, though it won’t be very clear.  The light’s bad, too.  How many times do I have to tell you?  Stand the other side of the car door, Jen.”

“I must be losing my touch.”  Jennifer said.

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.