From the first moment I see you, that’s it.
We’re on our lunch from work, taking advantage of the dry weather and kicking a ball around the Common, when Mac suddenly stops and nudges me.
‘Jones-y. Check her out.’
I look in the direction he’s indicating – towards you. I’d already seen you earlier, but knowing what he’s like, I purposely show little concern, as my interest will only increase his. He’s always been the competitive type.
He looks at me, raising his eyebrows. ‘Maybe I should go over? Say hello?’
‘Try it,’ I say, surprised by the warning in my voice. I can see Mac is, too.
‘Alright, alright, mate. Keep your shirt on.’
I still half expect him to amble over, but instead he shrugs, throws the ball in the air and boots it over to Pommy. That’s strange. I’m not used to Mac giving in so easily. Over the years, most of the guys have, at one time or another, had their crushes or dates pilfered by him. But then, they’ve got a lot of confidence, and Mac’s more protective of me. Maybe he thinks I deserve a chance.
I stand a minute or two longer to observe you, sitting on the bench facing the bandstand, a portfolio bag at your feet. You are perfectly placed, like a work of art, between the two lamp-posts. Your back is straight, and the sun casts a halo around your hair. I hate the word nibbling when applied to people, but that’s exactly what you’re doing. You are absent-mindedly nibbling at your sandwich while reading your book. You turn the page with the sandwich hand, the piece of bread nimbly balanced between thumb and index finger as you catch the corner of book with the remaining digits. You read the last few lines of one page, and then immediately start on the next. Of course, it’d be easier to put the sandwich down entirely, but you’re so absorbed in the book, you can’t look away, even for a moment. Something warms inside me. I know that Mac would say it’s nothing more than lust, but I know it’s something else.
‘Jones-y!’ Mac points to where the ball’s landed at my foot. ‘Come on, mate.’
I grab the ball, and jog over towards the others. We kick around for another ten minutes or so until it’s time to go. When I turn to the bench again, you are gone.
For the next couple of weeks, if it’s a nice day and if I’m lucky, I see you sitting on the bench. You are nearly always reading, though sometimes there’s someone next to you, playing with their mobile phone, fiddling in a bag, or reading a paper. Though they aren’t with you, I’m envious of their proximity. On the few occasions that one side of the bench is empty, I feel a strong compulsion to sit with you, but always walk past.
One Friday, I decide that if I ever see you again, I will talk to you. Though that’s a big ask for me. I’ve never been good with women. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I’m okay with girls – after a few pints, that is – but women, they’re a different matter entirely. I mean, though I’m twenty-five, and some people might describe me as a man, I still see myself as a lad, which come on, let’s face it, translates in the real world to boy. Inside, I’ve never grown up, and I’m terrified of authority figures. I don’t want to be like this, but I don’t know how else to be.
Women are like authority figures, aren’t they? They’re grown ups. Yet women who are girls, they are adults but more like kids inside, like me. I mean, you meet thirty-nine-year-olds who can be described as girls. Hell, you can even have sixty-year-olds girls. But there are some that you’d never call a girl. Women who are women are a particular type – sure of themselves and mature right to their very core. At least, the women I know at work are. They are the ones that are good at their jobs and want to get somewhere; to achieve. They never question themselves, they stand up for their beliefs, and they don’t take shit, and that’s good. Sometimes, I just wish they’d take a minute, and maybe have a sense of humour about stupid stuff. Soften up a bit.
But weirdly, I recognise you as a woman. A grown up. You’re not my usual type. I sense you are certain of yourself, responsible, that you want to be taken seriously: the way you sit, the way you dress, in your double-breasted coat. But I feel that you might be a woman who can also be a girl – that sometimes you like to tie your hair in a ponytail, or that you might like lying in bed in your pyjamas all day reading a favourite book, or that you’d sit on the beach in your best skirt and not worry about getting sand in your knickers. You look like you laugh easily, at stupid stuff no-one else gets, and might cry at weddings and films. You look like you wouldn’t mind either, if I made stupid jokes, or if I cried at weddings and films. Because I do. A lot.
I tell Mac about my decision, that you’re the perfect girl for me, and he just laughs and tells me I’m a soft-arse and to find someone in my own league.
The next time I see you is over a week later, on a Saturday in May. I’m cutting through the Common on the way to Mac’s, and you’re on the bench again. You’re wearing strappy heels and a tailored summer dress. Floral. No sleeves. It shows your arms and your collar bone and you look feminine and… well, to be perfectly honest, totally amazing. You aren’t reading this time, but gazing at the bandstand. The sun is strong in the sky, and blankets and lovers and families are strewn over the grass, together with the daisies. Children run wild, shrieking like hurricanes, and within it all you, reposed on the bench, are the eye of the storm.
Remembering my promise to myself, I hesitantly step off the path and perch on the edge of one of the wooden slats. I’d like to say I’m relaxed, but my chest tightens and a cold sweat breaks out on my forehead. Unsure of how to begin, I glance briefly at your arm resting on your leg, and notice a tiny freckle near to your wrist. Somehow, this tiny mark is reassuring, and I allow myself to settle further on the seat. Though there’s plenty of room, you hutch up a little, smoothing your skirt beneath you. You’re holding a well-worn book I read earlier this year, and your thumb acts as a bookmark, three-quarters in. After a few seconds silence, with my mind floundering for the perfect first words, I take a deep breath.
‘It’s good, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘I was terrified for most of the book.’ Then I curse myself silently. Are men meant to show fear?
You glance at the cover – which displays a man’s fingers clenched around a dagger – then at me. I can sense you quickly scrutinising me, to check whether I bear any similarity to the psychopath in the book, and then you smile.
‘Me too. Totally terrified. To be honest, I’m having a break from it, because I’m not sure whether I can handle the rest. I’m always a total wuss where horror is concerned.’
I like you. You’re honest, and like me, you give away slightly too much information.
‘Have you read his other stuff?’ I ask.
‘No, this is the first. Probably the last. I prefer a more gentle read usually, but a friend lent it to me.’
I think of Mac, who introduced me to the particular author. I’ve only read a couple. They’re stomach-churning.
‘She’s made of strong stuff.’
‘It’s a he,’ you say, then glance at your watch as if remembering something, put your book in your bag and stand up. ‘Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve arranged to meet someone.’ There – too much information again. You grin, sheepishly. ‘But it’s lovely to meet you.’
You’re so endearing, I nearly ask for your number there and then, but it’s a totally random thing to do in the park. I wonder why it’s okay to do this when everyone’s had a skinful in a pub at night, but not when you’re sober in the cold light of day. Seems all wrong to me.
I watch you step away, listening to the rhythm of your heels grow quieter on the pathway. You walk out of sight and for a while, I watch the children playing on the bandstand, before I set off to Mac’s. All the way there, I go over our conversation, remember your smile, and hope that I get the chance to see you again.
Never mind – Mac will put my mind off it with a few beers. And he said he might invite a few of the lads round later for poker.
But when I get there, he’s not in. He must have got a better offer.
The fog presses down heavily, which is unusual for June. It leaves a moist coating on everything it touches. I’ve not seen you in a few weeks, even though I’ve taken to walking through the Common to and from work. It’s the long way round, and adds an extra fifteen minutes to my journey, but I still hope every day you’ll be there, in your usual place. Every time I pass I remember the last time I saw you, and curse my hesitation. In the thick mist, the bench is visible between the two lamp-posts – the view perfect in its symmetry – but the bandstand is indiscernible in the greyness beyond.
It’s a relief to get to work, and Mac is already at his desk, where he’s packing up his stuff. Lately, he’s always in early, and usually stays later than me. Put in the effort and get the rewards, is how he puts it. Or another of his favourites is, If you want anything enough, eventually it falls into your lap. Usually a woman. Shame that doesn’t work for me.
‘Arsenal won three nil last night, mate,’ he says, forming his thumb and index finger into an L-shape and placing them on his forehead.
‘LOOOOS-ER, LOOOOOS-ER,’ he chants at me.
I shake my head. This is par for the course, though I never get offended where Mac is concerned. When it counts, he’s a real friend. And it’s true, I’m going to miss him now he’s moving to another part of the office. We both started at the publishing firm as grads, but Mac is far more determined than me, which means he’s recently been promoted from editorial assistant to junior editor. I can’t say it doesn’t bother me – I’m ambitious, obviously, but I’m progressing less quickly than him. Yet, I can’t begrudge him either – he works hard and deserves it, though no-one can deny, in some ways it’s simply that his face fits with our boss. He’s not terrified of her like I am, and though she’s got zero personality, she puts up with his dodgy humour. I never understand how he gets away with it. If I said some of the things he does, I’d be sacked.
‘You up for a pint tonight?’ I ask.
‘Can’t. Gotta… You know?’
‘Again?’ I say. ‘You serious about this bird, mate? ‘
‘Oh,’ he nods with pretend gravitas, ‘very serious. Gotta keep her happy, you know.’ He forms his mouth into an O and sticks his tongue through it.
‘I’m sure she’d love to know you do that when she’s not around,’ I say.
‘Oh she knows I do it,’ He sticks his tongue out again, further this time, ‘and of course she loves it. That’s why she keeps asking me to do it. Over and over and over again.’
I start to feel uncomfortable, so I change the subject. ’When am I going to meet her? And why keep hiding her away? You scared she’s going to fancy me instead?’
‘In your dreams, pal. In – your – dreams.’
Thankfully, when I come out of the office, the fog has disappeared, and I’m wondering whether to go for another wander in the park before I go home. I need to be honest with myself. Really, it’s unlikely I’m ever going to see this girl again, and I’m not the type to broadcast one of those emotional pleas on the radio. Though I have toyed with the idea. A lot.
I’m pushing through the revolving doors at the entrance to our building, when I notice a familiar tan coat passing into the building through one of the clear partitioned sections of the door. I make a decision fast and continue round in the circle until I’m back in the building again – hoping, hoping – until I see that it really is you. Your waist looks dainty in your belted coat, where a portfolio bag is strapped to your side. I want to shout to you, but I realise I don’t know anything about you, not even your name, and to yell out ‘Oi!’ doesn’t seem right.
Instead I try to catch up as you head towards the lifts, but the foyer is busy with people leaving, and I’m flagging behind. When I see you press the button for the third floor, I hesitate. It’s the floor I work on. The floor where Mac is still working, killing time before his secret date.
It all starts to fit together. I want to kick myself for being so stupid.
No I don’t. I don’t want to kick myself.
I want to kill Mac.
Love at first sight – if that’s what I’m experiencing – what is that? What does it mean? Does it mean that I’m deluded, that I have hopes and dreams about someone who is unlikely to ever have any feelings for me in return? If so, what’s the point? Not only have I been an idiot about you, but also about Mac, who’s been playing a game with me all along. How could I have ever thought he was a friend? How could I have ever expected any sense of loyalty from him. He was far from loyal – just biding his time, obviously. I laugh, realising I’m not just angry with him but with myself.
I think about going home, but no. I remember Mac’s mouth earlier, shaped in a tight circle like a sphincter, and his tongue poking through. I think about his raucous laugh, and my fists tighten. For once, I’m going to brave this out, tackle something head on. The foyer is empty now, as most people have gone home. I press the button for the third floor, step into the lift, and wait for the automated voice to tell me that I am at my destination.
There are no voices when I reach the third floor, which is what I expect. I take it you’re both otherwise engaged. But what I am surprised to see is you standing alone and perplexed in the centre of the room. When you hear the slide of the glass door you turn.
‘Oh, hello,’ you say, recognition registering on your face. ‘You work here?’
‘You’re here for Mac?’
‘Yes.’ You hold out your hand. ‘I’m Jenny Peters.’
‘Good to meet you. I’m Nick Jones.’ The whole situation is measured and reserved. Not how I imagined when I found out your name.
I can’t blame you for this. You’ve never known anything about my feelings. If I didn’t have the guts to do something about it sooner, then it’s my own fault. Mac, however, is a different matter. Yes, he’s a chancer, but he’s also my friend. He knows how I feel about you.
‘I’ll see if I can find him,’ I say.
I wonder where Mac is, and what I’ll do when I find him. Although it’s like him to forget when he’s got a prior arrangement, it’s not usual where women are concerned. He’s probably faffing around his new desk. As I walk up to the partitioned section that separates the editors from the rest of the room, I hear an unusual sound from the boss’s office, as if someone’s in pain.
I knock, gently. ‘Tabatha? Are you in there? Is everything okay?’
‘Just a minute,’ she calls. There’s something different about her voice. It’s higher in pitch; more feminine; almost uncertain.
There’s a lot of shuffling, and after a few seconds, the door opens. First Mac walks out, straightening his tie, and behind him, Tabatha. Her neck and cheeks are blotchy and flushed, and though she appears neat, she’s less fastidiously arranged than normal.
‘There’s someone here to see Mac,’ I say, the words sticking in my throat.
You walk over. ‘Hi. I brought my portfolio – we spoke on the phone.’
‘Oh yes. Jenny, is it? We didn’t expect you yet,’ says Mac. ‘You’re early.’
‘The early bird and all that,’ you smile, nervously.
The whole room reeks of awkwardness, and as I stand in the middle of you and Mac and Tabatha, it becomes clear. You don’t know Mac. You’ve never met. This isn’t what I thought.
I look at Mac’s new place in the office, and Tabatha’s red face, and finally Mac.
Neither of them meet my eyes.
Sitting on the park bench in the late afternoon sunlight, it’s hard to believe that this morning, the whole area was suffocated by an overwhelming fog. The bandstand, free from the dense, grey curtain, rises grandly from the grass, its rich pewter-and-green peaked dome supported by sixteen paired red columns.
I don’t realise you’re here until you’re beside me.
‘I’ve always loved this place,’ you say.
We sit in silence for a while.
‘So how did it go?’ I ask.
‘It went well I think. They said they loved my artwork; that I’ll hear from them soon.’
‘Great. And what about the book?’
‘The book you were reading? From your friend?’
‘It was okay. But I think I prefer something a little more steady in future,’ you say.
I glance at you out of the corner of my eye. You’re a virtual stranger. Definitely not a girl. A woman. Taking risks frightens me. It always has. But if I’m going to win, I have to be in the game.
The freckle on your arm peeks out from beneath the wristband of your coat.
‘You don’t fancy having a drink some time, do you?’