The new waitress says he reminds her of someone. She presses a finger to her lips, frowning slightly as she looks him up and down, then shakes her head.
‘I can’t think who it is. The image is blurred, a little fuzzy around the edges. If I could sharpen you up, pull you into focus, I might be able to figure it out.’
She smiles at him, tilts her head to one side, all pout and flirt, then reaches up to adjust her hair, holding the clip between straight white teeth. He wants to lean across the counter and trace his finger down the curve of her slender neck. He can sense the pull of her, the dangerous current that would drag him under, yet he wants it all: to taste the salt of her skin, to feel the crackling static of something he’s always been too timid to take.
He can see that she’s not much younger than he is. When she stands by the window in sunlight, the lines around her eyes and mouth are clearly visible, yet she carries herself like a dancer or an athlete: head held high, shoulders back, every movement graceful.
When she brings his order over, the silky sleeve of her blouse strokes his wrist as she sets down the tray.
‘You should think about getting a blue shirt,’ she says. ‘It would bring out your eyes.’
He feels his heart banging against the bars of his ribcage. No one has paid him any attention before, nobody has ever noticed the colour of his eyes – well Helen, perhaps, but that’s best forgotten. Yet he can’t look up at her as she’s talking, can’t risk her seeing straight through him and finding him lacking, seeing what everyone else sees.
‘What’s your name?’ she asks.
There are two Alans in the office where he works. His supervisor once asked everyone to think of nicknames to differentiate them. Bob in accounts suggested Weird Alan and Normal Alan. He said he meant it as a joke, yet Alan knew it wasn’t. They think he’s weird because he lives alone in the house that belonged to his parents, because he eats his evening meal in the cafe every day, because he’s never had a girlfriend. They don’t know he cared for his mother for the last eleven years of her life, that he lost touch with his friends, that he goes to the cafe every day for the company. So Weird Alan stuck – and the other Alan wasn’t given a nickname at all.
‘Thanks for the advice about the shirt,’ he says to the waitress. He can feel the two hot spots of colour that are burning his cheeks.
‘You’re welcome, she says. ‘I’m Carol.’
Alan reaches up and shakes her hand, and she smiles at him before she turns back to the counter, tapping the tray gently again her thigh.
When he leaves, he calls out to her as he fumbles with the door latch.
The words come out softly, little more than a murmur, and the coffee machine hisses, drowning them further. She turns at the sound of the bell jangling, gives him a tiny wave, like a half-salute.
He walks down the high street, his face still flushed with confusion and embarrassment, and as he passes the department store he notices a window full of male mannequins dressed in summer chinos and casual shirts. They are holding holiday bags and rolled beach mats, wearing sun hats and oversized shades. All the shirts are blue. He looks at his watch and sees the store is still open. He wanders down to the men’s floor, flicking through the racks of shirts as he glances around, hoping to avoid being accosted by a salesgirl. He makes his decisions quickly, buys five shirts in shades of sky and ocean, cornflower, duck egg, cobalt, taking them straight over to the cashier without trying them on.
At home he pulls out the cornflower blue one: lightweight linen, button down collar, one breast pocket. He looks at himself in the full length mirror. It suits him, he can see that. He leaves it out ready for the morning and hangs the others up in the wardrobe, labels still attached.
‘I told you blue was your colour,’ Carol says. ‘You should get your hair cut shorter at the sides. It would give you a bit of definition, show off the strength of your jaw.’
She sticks out her arm and draws an imaginary line in the air at the side of his face. Alan wants to take hold of her hand and press it to his lips, feel her crimson-tipped fingers slide around his neck and pull him towards her soft mouth.
When he leaves, he goes straight to the barbers – to a new one at the bottom of the hill. He points to a picture in the style folder and the man cuts it without a word, as though it’s an everyday thing rather than a life-changing moment.
No one in the office notices.
But Carol watches him walk across the cafe towards her, nodding with approval as he nears the counter.
‘I knew that haircut would suit you,’ she says. ‘But you should shave off your moustache as well, get your eyebrows plucked – they’re a bit on the wild side. You need to aim for smooth, groomed, all clean lines.’
She twists her ponytail around her fingers, and he wants to pull it loose, feel the weight of her hair on his bare skin as she sits astride him, leans over him, whispers to him. Sometimes he thinks he’ll wait for her when she’s on the late shift, follow her home. Then he remembers the misunderstanding when he followed Helen that time, the awkwardness when the police arrived, the unofficial warning.
‘And contacts,’ Carol is saying. ‘You need to ditch the specs.’
He makes an appointment with his optometrist, buys tweezers to tame his eyebrows, shaves off his moustache with a brand new razor, pats cooling balm into his face. When he looks in the mirror he hardly recognises himself. He is sharply in focus. Carol has opened him up, prised him apart, made him see he has possibilities. He’d thought he was already the finished article, rounded off, sanded down, all that he would ever become. Yet now he knows he can be more, and that if he follows her instructions to the letter he can become the man Carol wants him to be.
‘You might think about a leather bracelet, Alan,’ she says as he goes out of the door on Friday evening. ‘Something to zhuzh you up a little, to bring you into the 21st century. See you on Monday!’
He drags the long, empty weekend around with him like a boulder, blinking, red-eyed, trying to adjust to his new contact lenses, glancing down at the unfamiliar leather plait that encircles his wrist, rubbing his finger back and forth across his newly-smooth top lip.
He watches a morning TV show on the Sunday: celebrities he’s not familiar with talking to chefs he’s never heard of, cooking up their favourite summer dishes. They make salads: bright, colourful, zesty plates of food. Reds and greens, yellow and orange, creamy, crumbly cheeses, olives, glistening silver anchovies. He thinks he could make something like that. Buy a sourdough loaf, some olive oil, some expensive ice cream for dessert. He goes into the kitchen and reaches up for his Bialetti coffee pot, gives it a wipe with a damp cloth, rummages in the cupboard for the Arabica.
He decides he can do it. A small dinner party for two. Candles. Flowers. Music turned down low. He writes a list, goes out to the supermarket and brings back everything he needs, vowing to himself that he won’t make a mess of it with Carol the way he did after the date with Helen.
He realises he’s too impatient to wait until after work on Monday. He knows Carol starts at lunchtime, so he decides to go to the cafe in his break, ask her if she’s free for dinner that same evening.
And then he thinks about what will happen afterwards, when they’re sat on the sofa. He won’t tremble with nerves like he did with Helen when he puts his hand on her thigh, and he won’t be as clumsy when he tries to undo the buttons of her blouse. He’ll make sure she doesn’t jump up and leave so that he’s forced to follow her home, and he won’t let her suspect his inexperience and then punish her for seeing it.
On Monday morning he puts in his contact lenses, dresses in another of the blue shirts – Italian, fine lawn cotton, no pockets – and fastens the leather bracelet around his wrist.
Carol’s busy when he goes in at lunchtime, and he’s served by the owner. When she eventually comes over to his table she stares at him for a long time. Then she laughs.
‘I know who you remind me of now,’ she says. ‘I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. You look just like Douglas.’
‘My husband, Douglas!’
She gets out her phone to take a selfie. Her arms encircle him from behind, soft caramel skin brushing against his pale cheek, hot spearmint breath in his ear as she tells him to smile for the camera. He can feel her pressing against him, her thigh touching his. Everything he wants. Everything he can’t have.
‘My friend will never believe it,’ she says. ‘The likeness is uncanny.’
He laughs, makes all the right noises, looks at the photograph of Douglas on her phone, then finishes his coffee in one quick gulp and tells her he’ll be late back to work.
After he leaves, Carol suddenly realises she implied her husband was still alive. She’d noticed Alan’s face fall when she likened him to Douglas, but she hadn’t understood why. So now she knows; she has an admirer, but probably not one she wants to encourage. She was stupid to egg him on, but she thought she was doing him a favour. She decides that when he comes back in at teatime she won’t put him right.
As Alan walks down the high street he feels a buzzing in his head, a swarm of angry bees behind his eyes, blood pounding in his ears. He stops for a moment by Outdoor Warehouse, leans against the door frame until his heart slows. This is the shop where Carol said she’d seen some man bags that would suit him, that he should get one to carry his phone, his wallet, his newspaper, wear it across his body like the hipsters do. He can see one in the window, slung across a mannequin in walking gear. The mannequin next to it is dressed for the winter slopes, wearing a ski mask and a thin thermal hat.
Back home he puts the ski mask and the black hat inside his new man bag. There’s a paring knife on the worktop and he absentmindedly picks it up, slips it into the side pocket.
After work the next day he goes to a different cafe round the corner, reads the papers for an hour, drinks endless cups of tea until it’s dark. He looks at his watch and then gets up to leave – Carol will be finishing her shift in another ten minutes. He’d like to persuade her to come back to his house and have dinner with him – she led him on after all, and he hates wasting food.
When he hears her shouting goodnight at the cafe door, he’s already waiting in the alleyway to step out and take her arm.
Amanda Huggins is the author of the short story collection, Separated From the Sea (Retreat West Books), which received a Special Mention in the 2019 Saboteur Awards.
She has also published a flash fiction collection, Brightly Coloured Horses (Chapeltown Books) and her short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous anthologies, literary journals, newspapers and magazines. Her travel writing has won several awards, including the BGTW New Travel Writer of the Year in 2014, and her short stories and poetry are regularly placed and listed in competitions.
In 2018 she was commended in the Bath and InkTears flash awards, shortlisted for the Walter Swan Poetry Prize, the Colm Toibin International Short Story Award and the Fish and Bridport prizes. In January she was awarded third prize in the Costa Short Story Award, and she was also a finalist in the 2019 Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Award, longlisted for the Alpine Fellowship Award, and her unpublished novella was shortlisted for the Best Opening Chapter Competition at the York Festival of Writing in September.
Her debut poetry chapbook will be published early next year by Maytree Press.
If you enjoyed ‘Uncanny’ leave a comment and let Amanda know.
You can find and follow Amanda at:
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