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.

Meeting on the Motorway

He was driving home, not for the first but the third time this week, and he was tired.

Paul’s weariness  was an insidious thing, .  It had begun not weeks but months since, an insistent fatigue beyond sleep’s cure with roots that grew a little deeper each day, spread a little wider each week; so now it invaded his very bones.  He felt older, much older than his forty-two years.  Today he had worked late and far from home, swaddling that tiredness in a further layer of exhaustion. 

Almost as indistinct, the traffic of the motorway processed about him in sound and rhythm, fast and vast, marauding or crawling, assertive or furtive.  A tune – a slow ballad – a lullaby to woo him into sleep.   His eyelids were heavy, his reason was blurring.

The mile-post for a service area found him just in time:  even then he almost missed it, sinking eyelids hiding the warnings, an articulated trailer unit veiling the essential final sign until he was forced into an ugly lane-change.  The car park beckoned him and he fell into it, slumping back in his seat.  With the tensions of the road dispersed nothing could arrest the orderly march of slumber. Recognising the futility of defence, he surrendered unconditionally.

“If you don’t mind me saying so, you look absolutely wrecked.”

At some point he must have wakened then taken a decision  to leave his cocoon in search of food.  His steps must have led him to this café, his payment app to the stack of meat, cheese and mayo which leered back at him from this plate. 

“You aren’t actually going to eat that, are you?”

He couldn’t remember ordering the food, although it seemed sustaining enough to answer a need.  Clearly, he had slept for some hours, a simple truth his digestive tract insisted he acknowledge.

“I rather think I might,” he said, and “Who are you?”

He must have dozed again, that was the explanation.  While he was in a torpid state this young woman must have slipped into the seat across from his, but why?  The café was less than crowded.  There were whole tables to spare.

“Hi,” She said brightly, “I’m Seph.  Nice to meet you!”  She removed the heavy-looking spectacles through which she had been conducting her examination of his choice of comestible and extended a hand so absolutely inviting that, caught unawares, he almost kissed it.  Convention stepped into the line of fire just in time with an admonishing finger.  He shook the hand.  “Paul,”  he said.  “I’m sorry, how did …?”

“You needed me.”

The forthrightness of the statement alerted prickling, suspicious hairs on the back of Paul’s neck.

 Awake now and thinking, it didn’t take much working out, really, did it?  Easy to watch for such travellers as he:  Mercedes in the car park, expensive business suit, new, high-end ‘phone…  She was certainly convincing, he told himself, allowing his eyes free rein; a ‘class act’, her hair darkly frizzed to emphasize the portrait of a perfectly-featured face, the widest of soft mouths, the bluest of blue eyes.  A pale blue cloud-blue shift dress draped over shoulders otherwise bare, free of straps and encumbrances.  But still…

“I needed you.  Really.”  He placed some cynicism behind the words.

“Yes,”  She said.  And when she said it, when her eyes insisted his should meet with them, he felt himself melting.  “You’re not happy, are you?”

Now what on earth would make her say that?  “I’m on my way home,” he replied defensively.  “When I get home, I’ll be happy enough.”

It was a lie.  He dreaded going home.  “You’re very direct,”  he accused her.

Home?   A very expensive roof protecting a string of complex and irresolvable debts; remortgaged many times in the cause of his his business activities.  The domain of Adrienne, his wife; very much her domain, her furniture, her colours, her choices – bought without sanction because he was never there, always working.

“Is it my home?”  did he say that aloud?  Seph’s smile of understanding seemed to suggest she had heard everything, even the thoughts he was sure he had not spoken aloud.

“There’s someone waiting for you there?”  She coaxed, settling her hand on the table so her fingers played gently with the tips of his own.

“My wife.  Are you conducting some kind of confessional?”

“Do you love her, your wife?” 

He wanted to frown, to show he was affronted, but somehow he was drawn into an answer:  “This is getting a little too personal, isn’t it? What was your name?  Seph?   I mean, considering we’ve never met before, Seph.”

Seph leaned her elbows on the table, letting her chin rest prettily upon her interlocked fingers,  “I’m genuinely afraid for you, Paul.   It’s three o’clock in the morning, it’s a summer dawn; if love and happiness are waiting at the end of your journey, what are you doing here?”

“I had to pull over to rest.”  Just by reminding himself, he stirred a cloying mist of sleep.  Why was he so, so tired?  Adrienne slipped back into his thoughts, bringing contemplation and silence…

  Oh, there was a presumption of love.  There was a history, a time when there had been something between them they could excuse as love, when Paul was the beautiful young man and Adrienne his feminine equal, courted by an eager succession of suitors.  Perhaps Paul was the man Adrienne had been looking for, then.  Perhaps his relentless energy, his quiet, distant manner satisfied her, for she was never a passionate woman and she had few sexual needs.  Salivating young grads with nervous, uncertain eyes who danced on her strings amused her, but never tempted.  Paul saw her as she was, focussed; and she was drawn to his perspicacity.

That was then, and maybe it was a flawed foundation for a marriage, a mutual admiration rather than a friendship, a partnership rather than a passion: now it was a floor show, played out on their public stage.  In private, it was ice.

 “That will be cold,”  Seph interrupted his thoughts, rescuing him from despondency.  She directed his leaden eyes to the plated enormity stacked before him.  “If there’s anything worse than grease, it’s cold grease.”

Paul had to agree.   He was hungry.   But the challenge which confronted him was, in construction, a burger, and he hesitated to engage in the two-handed assault that threatened to release missiles of gherkin and cascades of mayonnaise while under the scrutiny of this attractive companion.  He was drawn to her, wasn’t he?  He was intrigued.

“Knife,”  She said, producing one from somewhere and sliding it across the table.

Paul accepted it.  “Do you work here or something?”

“No.  You hate her, don’t you?”

“I’m sorry,”  his mouth was half-full.  “Hate who?”

“Adrienne.”

Paul stopped chewing, staring into Seph’s eyes as he sought some answer to a question so obvious he almost baulked at asking it;  “How do you know my wife’s name?  Do I talk in my sleep, or something?  Have we met before?”

“Have we met before?   Let me see…”  Seph’s hands slipped below the table and came up with a small notebook.  With her spectacles replaced halfway down her nose she flipped pages.   “Well, no.  No, we haven’t actually met.   Do you think I look too stern in these?  He says they make me look stuffy.  What do you think?”

Had Paul been in a mood for honesty, he would have replied that in his opinion she looked beautiful, but he saw a small advantage.  It seemed unlikely someone so lovely, and so overtly happy, would not be in a relationship.   “’He’?   Is ‘he’ your boyfriend?”

She pouted, an admission perhaps that she had been caught out?  But then there was a trace of a smirk,  “I wouldn’t call him that, exactly.  Anyway, we were talking about you.  I know all about you, Paul; you and Adrienne.  I’ve been studying you both for a few months now.”  She slid the spectacles right down to the end of her nose, treating him to a penetrating look over the top of them.  “Stern, yes?”

Genuinely, Paul was beginning to feel a little out of his depth.  Although this woman’s research begged explanation, he still favoured his initial theory.  This was a pick-up; a very professional one, but nonetheless…“Is this a regular haunt of yours?” He asked brutally;  “Cruising the motorway stops for tired professionals with fat wallets?”

“I see, sir,”   Seph took off her glasses;  “So I assume this is a practice of yours, trawling for chicks at night in tawdry dens of lust like Knutsford Services?  Fat professionals with tired wallets?”  But her eyes were liquid.  She looked solemn and genuinely sad.   “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Paul, but I’m not for sale.   Not even for rent.”

“Then what are you, what is it that you do?  Where DO you work?”

“Wherever I am needed.  At the moment, that’s here.”

“I don’t need you,” he tried to say it kindly.  “Look, Seph, I’ve no idea where you’re coming from, so let’s agree to a moment of honesty, shall we?  You seem, for reasons only you can explain, to be interested in the state of my marriage.   Well, if I admit it isn’t the best marriage in the world, and from your perspective it must seem pretty depressing, can we close the subject and get down to whatever this conversation is really about?  Can we dispense with the subtleties?”

“No!”  Seph gripped his hand fiercely, then released it as quickly and sat back in her chair,  “This is a one-time offer, Paul.   One stop only, no repeats.  Do you know what I see?  Someone who’s ruled by life, Paul.  A caged soul.   It isn’t your fault, perhaps; you have the fast car but someone else is driving.  Nor is the fault Adrienne’s, because a woman like her was raised with expectations and her choices have failed her.   But you are not free and I must free you, yes?   That’s why I sat down at this table.  That’s why you have to take my hand, now, and let me guide you.  Please?”

Paul felt he had to shake his head because the sleep was coming in storm clouds.  Suddenly, it seemed imperative to think clearly, but clarity wouldn’t come.  He strove for an answer.  “See, Seph, that’s just how it is.  It’s the life I’ve got.    There are moments in it you could call happy.  If I’m prepared to settle for that version, and I am, although you are the most wonderful-looking reminder of the youth I once had, you must accept I don’t want rescuing – even by you.” 

“So,” Seph sighed,.  “You don’t need my help, then.  You’re going home and you’re ‘happy’, Paul.”  She shrugged.  “An opportunity missed.  I’m very glad for you.”

“Thank you for the thought,” he replied generously, “It was nice to meet you, Seph.”

A slow smile of kindness, tinged with regret, played across her face.  She rose gracefully from her seat, turning to follow the aisle to the doors, her blue dress floating about her – reeds in a stream, the rush of breeze in the willow.  He watched her go.

“Seph?”  

What made him do it?   Adrienne made him do it, the future in that hard voice, those acerbic jibes, waiting at the end of his road.  The darkness made him do it.

Then out of the darkness came Seph, taking his hands, drawing him to her.  “I was rather hoping you were going my way,”  she said sweetly.  “This is the very best thing!  Thank you, Paul!”

“My car’s in the car park,”  he said.

“We don’t need a car,” Seph replied.

© 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.

Cherie

“Are you not going to talk to me, then?” 

“Yeah, of course – if you want, like.”  Martin knew he was blushing.   The girl with the long sun-kissed legs confronted him as he stepped out of the elevator cage.  Jack, his mate, followed him, making a sound of appreciation in his ear which, had he been a horned toad and not a bricklayer, might have sounded like a mating call.  

“’Cos you wolf-whistled me yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Did Ah?”  That was different.   Yesterday Martin was two storeys up, looking down from the scaffolding.  This was face to face.   A paragon of all that was beautiful, standing a couple of feet away.

“So I thought you fancied me.  Was I wrong?”

Her eyes were a dark challenging blue, lips full and wide.  Her hair was black, her teeth even and very, very white.  She was wearing the same red top as yesterday.  The same blue denim shorts.

“No.”  He muttered.  “No, you’re – you’re not wrong.”  He had only dared to whistle because Jack had done it first.

“Well, what we going to do about it then?  It’s all right, you can talk to me you know.  I won’t break.”

#

“So what ‘appened?”  Jack had returned with their fish and chip lunch.  “Hey, I bet you embarrassed yerself, you!”

“No – no I didn’t!”  Martin defended.  “Of course I didn’t!”

“Spent five minutes thinkin’ o’ dead cats, then!   She were tasty, her.”

“Aye.”   His mate was right about the cats.  “She’s real nice, like.  We’re goin’ out Thursday.”

“Yer lucky bustard!    Why Thursday?”

“As good a day as any, i’n’t it?”

“What’s her name?”

Martin thought for a moment.  “Don’t know.  Never as’t her.”

#

Her name was Cherie.  Introductions had to wait until Thursday, because Cherie did not appear again on the town square below the building site in the following few days, though Martin hoped for a sight of her.  By the morning of the appointed day he was already wondering if he had done the right thing.  Martin was always uneasy in the presence of eligible girls – their disguised interest, the giggling, the sotto voce comments whenever he was near, made him nervous and on edge.   Jack, who couldn’t understand his reticence, teased him.

“I don’t know what yer’ve got, lad, but I wish I had it.  Yer’d not catch me blushin’ and hidin’ in corners, I can tell thee.”

#

Martin wore the shirt his favourite on-line store said would look good on him, the three-quarter trousers that they said would match the shirt.  He drenched himself in the men’s cologne someone gave him for Christmas two years before; and in all fairness he felt quite self-confident when he hit the street.  As he approached the meeting place he had agreed with Cherie, however, his eyes settled upon her shortest dress of darkest red, and that confidence began to evaporate.

For her part, Cherie had to weigh her recollection of the half-naked, dusty male god from the scaffolding against the shop window figure who wafted to greet her on Mathesons’ corner.   As he approached, her practised smile twitched a little and almost faded – her full red lips closed over those white, white teeth.   But still, she persuaded herself, at least he had made an effort; and really, once she had changed sides to stay up wind, he was quite a creditable companion on the street.  Eyes were drawn.  She liked that.  She hugged his arm.

“Go clubbin’ yeah?”

Martin’s confidence graph took a further plunge.  “Ah’m not mooch of a dancer, like!”

“Why man, you’d be fine.”  Cherie produced a small polythene bag from her purse.  “You tried some of these?”

Martin eyed the little white pills within the bag with suspicion.  “What are they, like?”

“They make you dance!”

And dance Martin did;  wildly.  And if a few toes got trodden and if a face or two got elbowed no-one seemed disposed to make a point of it.  And Cherie?  She was delighted.

It was half-past-two before the pair left the Hot Licks Club.  Martin had somehow endured seven hours of closeness to Cherie’s graceful, swaying body without doing anything that would make his mate Jack ashamed of him.   Around the back door behind the dustbins, his supply of dead cats ran out.

#

“Chuffin’ ‘ell!   Yer look like the eight-forty-nine from Newcastle ran over yer!”   Jack commented the next morning.  “Good night, was it?”

“It were all right, like.”  Martin blinked at his watch.   “Eight-forty-nine’s not due yet, like.”

“I know, lad.  I know.”  Jack soothed.  “It’s joost an expression, see?”

“Ah.”

“Well, gan on then, what were she like?”

“She were all right, like.”  Martin wasn’t at all sure he remembered what Cherie was actually like.  He had a vision in his head of an undulating goddess, but it was fogged.  Those little white pills were responsible.  He had never taken anything of their like before, so he had never been ‘up’.  And never having been ‘up’, he was unprepared for coming ‘down’ – which he was heavily in the process of experiencing.   That morning, after he nearly fell from the scaffolding twice, his foreman put him in charge of stores.

Jack caught up with him at the rear of the site at lunchtime.   “I’m off to get t’ fish and chips, yer havin’ the usual?”

“Ah.  Awreet.”  Martin assented unenthusiastically.

“That right you got another date with yon Cherie lass?”

“Aye.  Ah think so.”  This was another of the things he was unable to recall clearly.  “Saturday, I think, like.”

“Well, there’s someone out the front to see yer.”  Jack told him.  “Have fun, lad!”

#

Cherie stood waiting by a forklift with the sun behind her so Martin could not immediately read her expression, though he might have been disappointed by the modesty of her floral summer dress.

“Ah.”  Martin said.

“Hello Martin.”  She said.  She sounded upset.

A tall figure hidden from sight behind the machine stepped into view.  “This is your Martin?”  His accent was thick and heavy with Eastern European inflections.  “You are lucky boy, Martin.  Yes?”

“Ah.”  Martin said.  “Who’re you, like?”

#

Jack and Martin sat eating their fish and chips together.

Jack was chuckling unsympathetically. “Yer’ve put yer foot in it this time!”

“Ah didn’t know she were only sixteen!”  Martin moaned.  “She never said, like, did she?”

“Oh aye!  Like she would!   And he was her brother, this big bloke?”

“Ah.  One of eight.  Eight brothers!”

“Chuffin’ ell!  What sort of people have that many kids?”

“Ah’m aboot to find out.  Her muvver and favver want to see me tonight!  About my ‘plans’.”

“Plans?  Chuffin’ell.  Yer nivver planned owt in yer life, lad!”

“Anyway, this brother of ‘ers, this Dimitri, he says it’s alright for ‘er to see me, like, because sixteen’s quite old to still be single, where they cooms from.   I think they want me to marry ‘er, like!”

Jack’s hell chuffed once more.   “It’s ridiculous, that.  I mean, yer didn’t do nothin’ to her, did yer?  I mean, first date and all?”

Martin probed the fog mournfully.  “Ah don’t rightly remember.  Ah think ah might ha’ done.”

#

Over the weeks that followed Jack’s lunches became solitary affairs.   Cherie brought sandwiches and other more exotic treats to sit with Martin in the park while she regaled him with details of the wedding dress she wanted, the celebrations that people of her country enjoyed on such occasions, and his duties as a bridegroom.  Cherie’s brothers acted as chaperones:  their small, packed household reverberated to the beat of raucous folk music,  while he sat in silence for hours.  His hosts prattled happily in their own language.  Only Cherie  spoke to him in English. 

#

“Where is she now?”  Jack asked.  It was the first time he and Martin had shared their lunch in quite a while.

“She’s off gettin’ fitted for the dress.”  Martin explained.  “It’s not that I don’t like, ‘er, like…it i’n’t her so much – it’s her fam’ly.  Wor can’t get away from ‘em, like!”

And Jack said:  “Still, lad, it’ll be awreet once tha’s married, won’t it?”

“Ah, well that’s the thing.    ‘Er favver wants us to work for ‘im.  Ah’m fam’ly now, ‘e says.  Ah says, ah’m norra plumber.  ‘E says, that’s awreet, ‘e’ll teach us, like.  Boot ah don’t want to be be a bluddy plumber, do ah?   Ah’m ‘appy wi’ the bricks, like!”

“Well, tell ‘im that.”

“Oh ah, you try!  An’ Cherie’s brothers, see?  They works for ‘im awready, an’ he don’t pay them ‘ardly nowt.  Ah’m spendin’ more time wi’ them than ah am wi’ Cherie.   It’s all the heavy hand on the shoulder an’ ‘you be a good lad an’ do what Papa wants’.   And ah’m buyin’ all the drinks, like!”

“Let me think.”  Said Jack.

#

Jack, at forty-one, could have looked upon his young friend’s plight from a mature perspective and concluded that Martin’s fears would resolve themselves, given a little time.  But he was concerned.  Martin’s brow was furrowed, his complexion pale.  He seemed to be sagging beneath the burden, not of his relationship with a pretty girl who, despite her tender years, Jack rather liked, but the grasping aspirations of her father and her brothers.

The girl’s horizons could not extend beyond her family.  It was a powerful influence, and Martin needed some inspiration to introduce a little slack to those natural ties.   The trouble was, good and honest as his young friend was, Martin had never suffered the pangs of inspiration.   Ideas were not his strongest suit.  A vissicitude of fortune needed to step in.

Which was why, on one warm weekday evening, Jack was to be found stuffed into his best suit, standing outside a church hall beside a board that announced a meeting of the ‘Jesuit Society’.

“Hello, love!  Are you a newbie?”   She was smartly dressed in blue, with her hair coiffed neatly beneath a dark navy hat.  “I’m Ethel.  Come on in and let me introduce you.”

In the ensuing two hours Jack experienced more religion than had passed his way in a lifetime of resolute agnosticism.  It was, he justified to himself, suffered in a good cause, especially as it offered every opportunity to socialise with Ethel, who was a member of a mysterious ‘Committee’, and a perfect receptor for his plan.  Oh yes, Jack had a plan.

“That’s why I’m ‘ere!”  Jack proclaimed.   “I think it’s terrible, the way these bloody fanatics is pollutin’ our religion (pardon my language, Ethel).   They’re weedlin’ their way in, makin’ all these heretical changes!  They’re ruinin’ our Church!”

“Oh, I agree!”  Ethel said.  “Er…who, exactly, love?”

“Them Scientologists!”

“Oh aye, them.”  Ethel nodded.

“Aye, and I’ll do better than ‘who’; They’re everywhere!  I’ll give thee an example!  Right in this diocese, like, there’s someone actually pretendin’ to take instructions in the faith who’ll be getting’ married at the Sacred Heart in six weeks.  He’s a known Scientologist, is ‘im, but he’s marryin’ there before the altar, bold as yer please;  and into a good Catholic family, an’ all!”

“Oh, my good Lord!”  Ethel said.

“Yes!   An’ once the canker starts, mind, in a good God-fearing fam’ly like that, it spreads.  Blasphemy, that’s what it is.   Blasphemy!”

Ethel laid a reassuring hand on Jack’s arm.  “I so agree!”

#

“Ah don’t understand it!”  Martin exclaimed, as he buttered his thirtieth frog of the morning.   “One minute ‘er fam’ly’s all over me, like; next minute they won’t speak to me!  T’wedding’s off!  Father sommat-or-other from the church comes ter see Cherie’s Da’ and tells ‘im ‘e won’t marry us, an’ him and ‘er brothers are at me fer bein’ a Judas, like!  What have ah done?”

Jack grinned.  “Seems like tha’s got theself a bit o’ space, lad.  Tha’s what tha wanted, weren’t it?”   It was time to ignite the spark of inspiration.  What does Cherie think about it?”

“She says I should ha’ told ‘er I was a Scy-tologist or sommat, an’ I says I weren’t.  Ah’m Church of England, man!”

“Strange ‘ow things works out.”   Jack nodded, sagely.  He knew that however robustly his friend defended himself there was no possibility Father Kelly would change his mind and consent to conduct the marriage.  Once the Jesuit Society had their teeth in the hem of his cassock it was more than his life was worth.   “Does she still want to marry yer, lad?”

“Oh ah.   She’s dead unhappy.”  Martin flushed and muttered into his chest:   “She says she loves me, like.”

“Yer can still get married then, can’t yer?”

“Ah don’t see how.  ‘Er parents won’t consent no more an’ she’s under age.  Us’d have to wait two year, an’ ‘er brothers are talkin’ about  ‘er gannin’ back to ‘er home country.  They.ve got some mate of ‘er favver’s as they wants her to hook up ter.  Nah, it’s all off, far as ah can see.”

#

“Gretna Green?”   Cherie’s face lit up.  “We can really get married there?”

“Ah.”  Martin nodded.  “Or anywhere in Scotland, Jack says.  Sixteen’s old enough up there, see?  We can nip off on the quiet, soon as y’like.  Ah can get the train tickets fer tomorrow morning…”

“Oh, Martin, that’s brilliant!”

“We’ll have to be careful, mind.”   Martin looked deeply into his girlfriend’s shining eyes and through them saw, for a moment, another kind of reflection – that of a doorway hanging open – a path to freedom, and though he was unsure he wanted it, a way of escape.

“Of course, if you didn’t want to do it…”   She was giving up her family, her brothers, her home.  She only had to show doubt, and he would sympathise:  he would understand.  After all…

Cherie stopped his train of thought in its tracks.  “Not want to?  Don’t be daft, Martin man, of course I want to!”

“Anyway;”   She patted her stomach.  “There is another little problem.”

© 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.

Image Credits: Scaffolding, Hebi B, from Pixabay

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