She was cautious of course. As woman are taught to be. The first time they would meet in public, on her territory. An emergency exit strategy had been lined up.
But that was competency rather than caution. She wasn’t the type – or age – to be taken as naïve. Early-fifties but well-groomed, technically a spinster but with history enough. Trim, with a shock of tight still-blonde curls framing a face that age had so far been quietly gentle with. It was he who seemed a little out of step with the world, his words that were wound tight, as if waiting for the confidence to unfurl. In everything she had taken the lead, going a half-step further each time until the opportunity to meet had become a reality. Even when his itinerary changed at the last minute it was she who made the offer of a spare room. That was nothing; after all, she’d offered more for lesser friends.
Later, she’d realise that meeting among the masses had been her biggest mistake. But for now, she was satisfied with arriving first, talking a small table and the seat facing the door, a cup of coffee already in hand, able to dictate the tempo of their greeting.
Of course, she had been flattered when his message popped up.
There was no use denying that. It had come at a difficult time, when her hands were always cold, when all she wanted was to lie on her bed, in the dark and not think. Heartbreak, nothing more. Not at losing Robert – during their eight years, she had always known he wasn’t that great a catch – but at losing him to a woman ten years younger. Although that had been forgotten by the time this message popped up, one afternoon when she’d been flicking through her social accounts rather than tackling the solid, unappealing pile of undergraduates’ papers squatting on her desk. The other academics, when they met up for a consolidatory glass of wine at the close of some provincial conference, would always talk of the impossibility of social media – fans, ex-students, even stalkers for those who regularly got on TV. Patricia would play along, while wondering what was wrong with her. It wasn’t as if she had no profile; mostly radio, yes, but high-profile radio, even a full page interview in the Sunday Times magazine a few months ago, accompanied by a full length colour photograph of her looking quite the Don; beaded, bespectacled, staring out the window, reclining in her old writing chair.
She couldn’t be called obscure; still no-one made a beeline for her, not even some desperate student looking for a fresh angle for their PhD. Until he appeared, not even talking about a recent appearance but an essay she had published years ago. He had been carrying the conclusion around, he said, since first reading the final page. It was a privilege to read something that would become one of the very small number of volumes that would still be on shelves two hundred years from now.
Flattered; nothing more. Although it would be a lie to say that, after reading the message through a few times and basking in its joy, she didn’t click through and expand the sender’s photograph. A small act of curiosity. He was called Sebastian; average looking, perhaps on the good-looking side of average but still an ordinary man in an open-necked shirt with a full-head of hair, posing at ease in the outdoors. Yes, for once the entry into her gratitude journal flowed easy. A ray of sunshine in that dreary faculty. And a question-mark on the final line of his message, no doubt rhetorically placed, still created the opportunity to respond. She decided to almost immediately – but then self-doubt, the chasm she always fell into, opened up. Her mind was like an ant on a summer’s page, scurrying relentlessly back on itself. It wasn’t until the following weekend that she sat resolute in her small cottage garden, shadows lengthening behind, gin in hand, laptop opened, surrounded by the smell of jasmine she’d planted last summer as a remembrance of her and Robert’s anniversary trip in Andalusia. She had typed the response as small garden birds criss-crossed their songs and flight overhead, a perfect summer’s day for a scene like that. He had replied immediately.
And so it began, she thought with satisfaction. Old habits challenged; new ways of being created. Now all she had to do was wait a few more minutes. One of these men striding up from the direction of the station would be him. He’d better hurry; the sky had darkened and fat droplets were beginning to spot the windows of the coffee shop. She worried about his hair. It had a fluffy, fly away look in the pictures. Still, at least it would be something to talk about if the worst happened, filling pleasantly the few minutes before she made her excuses and left.
Although she knew, of course, that they would have plenty to say.
Yes, while it would sound foolish to claim that she knew him, she did know him just a little (she smiled to the room, which made the brisk, matronly waitress with a single slab of meaty breast think she needed something else, but no thank you). It was exciting to have a friend issued brand new, just to you, not tied to other acquaintances or, worse, to the workplace. She hadn’t experienced that since her undergraduate days, and their conversations did have a lot in common with those dorm room chats. It was liberating to be able to talk about the world anew, as a whole, without being made to feel she was too old to give opinions or that there were some issues that it was not appropriate for her to comment on. Not because of her views – she was a liberal academic after all – but because her experience, or lack of, seemed to make people think she should stick to her own personal ambit. But he, like her, believed that nothing was off limits. Why should it be? We have minds, empathy; we read. Yes. Speaking to him made her inquisitive for the world again. He wanted none of the banal rituals of private life – what you had for tea, how was your day, a photo of your morning coffee or your big ginger cat asleep on your books. People, he said, were designed to share so much more. But then, you can’t photograph a thought. It was clever that, and his comment about their conversations being a safe but exciting space, like a Bloomsbury drawing room. How she wished they had spoken before that Times piece, which had focused too much on her past, with that indented comment about her parents being her last true friends (which she’d overheard the neighbours laughing about) and where she’d mentioned Robert – not by name of course but in the guise of her last partner, a little too much, coming out as needy rather than strong. Now she would have so much more to add into the debate, a bank of opinions ready-formed to own. She took a short sip of coffee, determined to pace it. Was looking forward to getting the niceties over and getting somewhere private they could really speak. Not that she expected anything more than talk – flicking her nails nervously – there had been nothing like that. But this was a small step back to life again, and she was determined to take it.
Just then a boy appeared.
Early teens perhaps and due a growth spurt, his duffle bag like a misshapen Siamese twin, such was the similarity in size. Some boys keep their angelic faces to this age or beyond, but he was not one of them. The gentlest emotion twisted his features into a marrying squint. The rain had soaked through his khaki coat and jeans. Too unsure to be out alone, he looked around, searching – she assumed – for his mother.
But his eyes alighted on her. Shambling up, he thumped his bag onto the table and pulled out the seat opposite.
“Sorry, someone is sitting there” but he ignored her, pulling open the drawstring of his damp bag to take out a can of coke. “I’m sorry” she tapped on the table, “but you will have to sit somewhere else. I’m waiting for someone.”
“I know” he flicked open the can. The escaping hiss punched through the air; the waitress noticed and looked at her with disapproval, as if she were in some way responsible.
“He will be here in a moment, so if you wouldn’t mind moving….”
“Sebastian isn’t coming.” It had an effect. She started back, almost upsetting the coffee cup. The clatter caused the waitress to look again. It was little wonder that she remembered them so vividly afterwards. He didn’t glace up to savour the impact but just continued to unpack his bag, looking for something, absorbed on the task in hand like an overgrown baby.
“How do you know who I’m waiting for?” He shrugged; the gesture almost lost in his oversized coat. Now it mattered, it was difficult to judge how old he was. The great unknown, children, childhood, avoiding her eyes across the divide. Assuming the obvious, she searched the young face for a paternal echo but he was too young, the bones of who he would soon be had not yet formed and any foundations already in place were hidden by a pallid layer of puppy fat. Sebastian had said that he had no children but of course, he could be his, either biologically or belonging to him in a more convoluted fashion. The Gods and the zygotes have their mysterious ways.
He took out a pre-packed sandwich, much to the waitress’s chagrin, and ripped it open. Relaxed, he betrayed no intention of speaking.
“So are you going to tell me what this is all about” he just smirked. “Did he give you a message for me? Or doesn’t he even know you’re here?”
“Sebastian of course.”
“Ah yeah. He knows. I’ll tell all, don’t worry” spoken with his mouth full, “once we get back to yours.”
“That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
“But I can’t take you back to my house.”
“Look I’m sorry if I’ve become involved with some family…dispute. I knew nothing about it. Now if you would excuse me something has come up at work and I need to go, so if you could tell Robert….”
“You can’t go and leave me here alone!”
“Of course I can. It’s not like I’m responsible for you.”
“It’s your fault I’m here.”
“No” standing abruptly, “Like I said, I had no idea… if you need money to get home, tell me now and I’ll get you some but that’s it. I really have to go.”
“If you leave now, you’ll never get out of this mess” his tone made her stop.
“Think about. If you leave, I’ll have no choice but to stay. And when that kind old woman over there asks if I want anything else, I’ll say that I don’t know, that I’m waiting for you to come back, that you told me to wait here. And then as it gets later, and they start to worry about shutting up on time, sure they will keep asking and I’ll have no choice but to handover your phone number, your address.” She remained standing, her jaw emptily masticating. He could have all that, of course. Sebastian had it. Perhaps she hadn’t been quite as careful as she’d thought. And all people here would’ve seen was her waiting, him arriving, them talking. Unwilling to show her confusion, she grabbed her bag and stalked over to the till. It was a futile gesture. The boy wasn’t that stupid; he didn’t even look up. Waiting in line for the bill she glanced; he did look young, really short from this distance. Should she just walk out on him, when boys that age disappear all the time? How would it seem if she just upped and left? No, she would have to call his mother. There would be a scene – it would be impossible to leave Sebastian’s name out of it, even if she hadn’t been desperate to know. The boy had shrugged off his coat and sat, biting at his knuckles, not looking at his surroundings at all. It was animalistic, his solipsism.
“Do you want anything else?” the waitress with the sagging face and battered, busty apron asked.
“No thank you. Just to pay up please.” She was flustered; clearly flustered, whatever the old hag would say later.
“£8.10. You are not supposed to eat your own food in here, you know.”
“Sorry, he was hungry” the waitress remained stony. “He’s had a long journey” even then, she regretted it. Later it was impossible to explain, how banal excuses like that just come tumbling out. Impulsively, she grabbed a packet of crisps and some chocolate from the counter, as if the extra margin would atone and took them back to their table, dumping them in front of him.
“Thought you’d get me something healthy” he said flatly.
“You need to tell me your Mother’s phone number. She needs to come and get you” he snorted but only said:
“I’ll tell you everything once we get to yours.”
“You tell me now. And then we can talk about what happens next.”
“Not doing. I think you owe me at least that.” His features were like the Easter Island statue that towers over the British Museum. Even sitting opposite she felt beaten, exhausted from a lifetime screaming into a void engineered by men like this.
“I owe you nothing.”
“You can’t expect me to tell all here. It’s hardly a Bloomsbury drawing room.” So, he had seen their messages.
“I’ve done nothing to be ashamed of you know.” Opening the chocolate, he said nothing. There was a further twenty minutes of tedium; she trying to be forceful, he mockingly rebuffing, the waitress circling the table, tongue clicking. Ultimately, it was that which made her succumb, to tightly put on her coat and walk out with only a quick backward glance to see if he was keeping up. She’d spend the rest of her life trying to explain to people why she made that decision; but sometimes it’s enough to have the decision put forward to be made. Sometimes people just don’t have the imagination to say no.
“You moved it” he nodded towards the high-backed writing chair, bought for show more than anything else, upholstered with a favourite William Morris print.
“No” handing him a glass of water, which he knocked back in one. “It’s always been here.” The Ginger Tom stuck round her ankles, afraid of the visitor.
“No, it should be over there. By the window” the meaning of his words didn’t hit home immediately, not until her mind was freed by her hands taking on the mundanity of making tea. But when it did – people would ask if it had felt unreal, like watching a play or being stuck behind a pane of glass. But no. If anything, physical objects had more presence – the china mug unbearably solid within her grip – and sensations were overwhelming. Cold. Tiredness. The light. She had to shut her eyes to block it all out.
To make matters worse by the time she’d come back in with her tea, ready to confront him, he’d moved the chair from the fireplace into the bay window – just where the Times’ photographer had moved it, for the light. He sat perched on its back, with muddy boots in the seat, watching the traffic from the village go by, softly crunching an apple from the bowl. She wanted to lean across and draw the curtains, to take some control. Instead she said:
“So, you’ve seen my picture, read the article. That’s how you found me. There’s no Sebastian, is there?” he only smirked, the apple’s soft flesh spittling over his smooth chin. Panic crawled up her insides, desperate to get out but kept slipping back down and flaying around in the pit of her stomach. She had known, of course, that she had come across as ridiculous, even desperate. It was impossible to ignore the catty comments dropped by her colleagues, the neighbours laughing outside her window when they thought she couldn’t hear. But that some child could read it and have the measure of her, so completely…
“You’ve had your fun” she said wearily, “what’s next? Do you want some money or is it enough to have made me look stupid?” Yet, instead of gloating, he refused her eyes and stared at his large, awkward hands as they nervously rolled over each other. He must have consumed the apple, core and all.
“It’s not like that. It wasn’t a joke. Apart from the pictures, it was all real.” And he told a tale of a home with no culture, a life with no guidance, a great potential that risked being unfilled; all because of the limits of his circumstance, the stupidity of his parents. “If they beat me, it would be better. I could get social services involved, end up around people who would see my talent. But they can’t even do that. I’m left to rot.”
“And what am I?”
“Someone who can help me.”
“What, like some kind of mentor?”
“See, I knew you would be the one to understand.” Now it was her turn to snort.
“It sounds pathetic.”
“Does it? You said your parents were your last true friends. You said that you owed them everything. So why should I have my choices limited?” She should be something, afraid or moved, possibly both. But she was just tired. A headache had started up behind her eyes, down her neck, into her throat. The tea was still too hot to drink. She wanted to be alone, lying without effort in a darkened room.
“It’s getting late. Your Mother will be worried” the wrong thing to say; his voice regained its thickness.
“No, she won’t. She always says, she wants the best for me. Now she can prove it.”
“And what about me? My life?”
“What else do you have? You said that I was showing you how to live.”
“I said Sebastian was.”
“And I’m him! If you just relax…”
“Look you can’t stay here a moment longer. You do understand that, don’t you?” He shook his head slowly, like a weak tree caught in the breeze. “Imagine what people would think; you know what I mean, right? Us; together, alone. It looks bad.”
“It looks bad for you, yes” picking up another apple. “Though no worse than it already looks.” And then softly he unfurled a twisted version of the story, how she had first approached him; asked him to set up the public profile; all the while smoothing things over, licking wounds clean, until he ended up a poor little puppy dog, thoroughly groomed, willing to do anything for her, no matter how perverse it may seem.
“You don’t frighten me” but her back was starting to sweat. “I will speak to your Mother, explain it all. You may think that she’ll always be on your side, but adults know, understand, when someone is telling the truth.”
“It’s not Mum I’m worried about. It’s the police.”
“Police? They wouldn’t have to be involved.”
“They will be, even without me. Like you said, it looks bad. Your neighbour saw us getting out the car together and now keeps walking past and nosing in. When she hears the shouting and the banging and the crying as you try and throw me out, she’s gonna get worried. Nope, the way I see it” he paused to pull the pips from his teeth. “You’re in deep trouble if you try and get me to leave before I’m ready.”
“Well, that’s something I am willing to risk” she picked out her phone from her cardigan, making ready to dial – who, she wasn’t sure who – but it was enough. He sighed, shrinking inwards.
“Ok, ok. Don’t do that. I made a mistake. I’ll go. I’ll call Mum and get her to pick me up from that pub we drove past. You can leave me in the carpark. That way nobody will ever know.”
“Thank you” releasing her grip from the phone.
“But she won’t be in from work until six. So just wait until then, okay?” it sounded as if he couldn’t live far away. That was a relief. Glancing at the clock, it was just over an hour.
“But can we eat first? I’m starving.”
“Some food. Alright.”
“Not just some food but dinner. Proper. At the table. Together. Just this one time. And then I’ll call.”
“OK.” Now this was all nearly over it was worth humouring him, although not too much. “But in the meantime, please put back that chair. Or at least, sit on it properly and take off those shoes.”
She made tuna Bolognese. A simple meal, she found herself saying, if you had the right tins in the cupboard. It’s what they really eat in Bologna, they never touch spaghetti. He asked questions as she cooked but fell silent when they sat at the table. As before, he ate with an obsessive – almost obscene – focus, shovelling in large spoonfuls at speed. Only once the plate was empty, and the last of the sauce mopped up with a slice of bread, did he speak again.
“Yeah, this is just how I thought it would be. Not like at home, stuck in front of the TV with some chips and nothing to talk about. We could be such good friends.”
“A grown woman cannot have a child as a friend.”
“Because it’s not right.”
“But we were always clear in our messages that there was nothing dodgy in it, just the meeting of minds. Look I’m sorry if you…”
“No, of course I didn’t” she began to stack the plates, to hide a blush. “But you must see it makes a difference.”
“Why? If I’m mature enough to hold your interest. You’re not the first woman I’ve tried. But in the end the rest either want to fuck me” he dangled there, in the darkness, pleased with himself to use such language openly in her living room, “or mother me. But not in the real sense. A housekeeper to sort my life, make my bed. But I can do all that for myself. It’s like you said in our messages, that’s not what intimacy is. You understand that there is more to it than all that.” She almost answered him then; yes, although I have no idea what. But that was how they used to be. Instead, she pulled down the coats from their pegs and found herself saying.
“And we can have a relationship like that. I can help you, talk with you. Yet staying here would jeopardise it all” amazing the reflex of the mind; still some small part trying to save what the rest was almost ready to throw away. “You were right when you said people wouldn’t understand. The police would become involved and then I wouldn’t be able to even write to you, let alone see you.”
“I won’t go back.”
“It’s six o’clock” the hall clock chimed in support. “You promised.”
“I’ve changed my mind. And you won’t throw me out. You couldn’t even walk away from me in a busy café. You won’t dump me out on the street.”
“But you must see it wouldn’t work. Be practical. What would we do about your schooling?”
“You can send me to one here, say I’m your nephew or something.”
“It doesn’t work like that. They will ask questions.”
“We can think of answers.”
“We will need proofs.”
“Well then, I am sure you will think of something” jerking up from the table, he threw himself in the closest armchair. Inexplicably, she was angry with him – not for lying but for not thinking it though. In everything else he had been so calculating, so assured that she had been ready to succumb and be folded unthinkingly into his desires. But he was just a child, a child who still needed her to write the answers, a child who would ruin everything. Now when she could have cried, screamed, soiled herself with good reason, the panic had left and there was nothing to drawn upon. It left her exhausted, with no more fight left. She sank to her knees.
“Don’t cry” he lent over the arm of the chair, down towards her level. “We can make it work together. I won’t even need to think about school until after summer. Now, what shall I do? I’m sure you wouldn’t like me to waste the evening watching TV.” She picked a book unseen from the closest shelf and handed it to him. Wiping away her tears, she said that it was time to clear the dishes.
The butler sink was low, positioned next to the backdoor which was flung open to let out the steam. She ran the dishes under the tap; thought about drying them too but the tea towel was already damp. It fell to the floor, was left where it landed. The only sign of struggle. Impatiently, the Ginger Tom butted her ankles, but he wouldn’t be getting fed tonight. She stood on the threshold, as if counting the stars. Still something called, as if this wasn’t oblivion enough. Still something dragged her onwards.
Leaving the key for him in the lock, she went out into the throbbing, breathless night.
Having worked in the bruising environment of political lobbying for 13 years, Jennifer Amphlett has only recently begun to try her hand at the slightly less strange world of literary fiction. Groomed is her first short story, although a first novel is also nicely bubbling along.
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