‘I’m not going,’ said Mary.
‘It’s pointless—all these deadbeat men who lie about their ages and their jobs, their divorces and their marriages, who make jokes that aren’t funny…’
‘It’s not worth it.’
‘Give him a chance.’
‘No. Why should I?’
‘It’s a twenty-minute drive to Kington. What else are you going to do?’
‘I could watch Game of Thrones.’
‘You don’t like Game of Thrones.’
Oh yes, I do, thought Mary. Sometimes. Her heart sank as she thought about her date in Kington. Games of Thrones seemed much more interesting.
‘You didn’t see the last two men!’ she said. ‘They were…’
She was shouting and there was a horrible desperation in her voice. Mary shook her head, told herself to calm down. No point in getting angry with Em, even if internet dating had been her idea. She sighed. They’d only argue if she stayed. She’d better go.
‘This one might be different,’ said Em in a sensible, optimistic tone that infuriated Mary.
‘Now, look, mum—if you’re going to do this, then you might as well—’
‘No!’ Mary swallowed, shocked by the fury that gripped her. ‘I am not going to dress up for this date. Don’t you dare—’
She scowled and was satisfied to see Em step back.
‘No, Em, there’s no point. If these clothes are good enough for the supermarket, then they’re good enough for this last bloody date. Because this is the last one.’
She half-hoped Em would challenge her. Instead, Em turned to the coat-stand and picked Mary’s smart, black raincoat.
‘Okay, mum, but just wear this coat. To make an effort.’
Mary bit back the retort that came to her. She took a deep breath and then said as calmly as she could:
‘Em: I’ll decide what I’m wearing, ok? You go to your room.’
Mother and daughter stared at each other for a moment.
Then Em said, ‘Sure, mum’.
She walked up the stairs and turned round at the top to call cheerfully, ‘Text me!’
When Em was out of sight, Mary reached for her comfortable orange cashmere coat.
In her car, Mary’s mood lifted a little. It was a cool, bright April day. Try as she might, she couldn’t make herself believe that this man would be her life-long soul-mate. But maybe… Maybe he might be interesting, maybe he might be honest, maybe they might chat, like adults, for an hour or two… And… she had to admit, the idea that a man might fancy her was—well, a bit flattering.
She pulled in to a layby, got out one of those trad-jazz CDs that her granddad had left her, the ones that Em hated. She turned up the volume and then bounced along the dappled, curving country lanes with Eric Silk’s Southern Jazz Band a-thumpin’ and a-whoopin’. This didn’t feel too bad.
Somehow the music slowed her down. Kington was packed and her usual parking spot was full, so she was twenty minutes late at the Honey Cafe. Not that it matters, she thought. It’s not as if… Echoes of her argument with Em came back to her. Who gives a flying fuck? This would be the last one.
Mary walked up the café steps, pushed open the door and smelt coffee and chips. She glanced round. Where was he? Had he even turned up?
‘There you are!’
In one of the booths close to the door, a thin man with little round John Lennon-specs stood up and waved, a happy smile on his face. Mary checked him out: didn’t look like his photo, but they never did, did they? About the right age. The smile sort of fitted. Hadn’t he been a bit podgier in his picture?
‘Thought you’d stood me up,’ he said.
Mary nodded. She knew what he meant—it had happened to her often enough.
‘No, no…’ She laughed nervously. ‘It was just—just the parking…’
‘I know—one fair and the whole town comes to a complete halt.’
Mary chuckled as if he’d said something hilarious, took off her coat and sat opposite him.
‘I can recommend the blackcurrant cheesecake.’ He smiled and out of the blue Mary felt a flicker of sympathy for him, imagining him eating his cake, spoonful by spoonful, wondering if she was going to show up.
‘Really? I never say no to cheesecake.’
She waved to the waitress, ordered a cappuccino and a cheesecake, and sat back to look at him properly. A bit seedier than in the photo? Stubbly beard—but it suited him. Something—something sad about him. Baggage. Definitely carrying baggage. But who wasn’t?
‘So you’re…’ she searched her memory desperately, trying not to confuse him with her last date. What was his name? She couldn’t remember. ‘…you’re—working in films?’
He shook his head gently. ‘Banking. Admin, not finance. And it doesn’t mean I’m fantastically rich.’
Banking? thought Mary. She could’ve sworn…
‘It’s not exciting, I know.’ A frown crossed his brows. ‘The thing that keeps me going is the music.’
To her surprise, he told her that he helped organise a trad-jazz club. He didn’t play himself—he’d tried and failed—but he loved the music. They swapped impressions, creating a little duet of unfinished phrases, drifting over the table.
‘It’s the sheer exuberance of the stuff…’
‘Not necessarily skilful, but still…’
‘Doesn’t take itself too seriously…’
‘I mean, Ken Colyer, he was a bit of a purist…’
‘Wasn’t he just!’
‘But you can’t help smiling…’
‘Blues, boogie-woogie, rock-n-roll, it’s all there…’
‘Always uplifting, specially on a bad day…’
‘Oh, it’s got heart, it really has heart…’
Mary nibbled at her cheesecake, growing puzzled. What was happening? This guy was—well, likeable. Interesting. Not mad. Not a show-off. Didn’t seem to be lying: he knew what he was talking about. And who’d fake an interest in trad-jazz? The last bit of her cheesecake vanished. He’d been right, it was wonderful.
He looked down at the table, noting her bare plate and empty cup.
‘So…’ he said, an expectant look in his eyes.
‘Shall we go…’
‘Here seems fine.’ Mary was baffled.
‘Jasmine must’ve told you: I use a place just round the corner.’
Jasmine? thought Mary. Jasmine? Is he confusing me with someone else?
He frowned, looking as puzzled as her. ‘Well, we haven’t come here to chat about trad-jazz and eat cheesecake, have we?’
‘Time’s getting on. I need to be back in Bristol by six. Let’s make a move.’
Bristol? He’d said he lived in Brecon—hadn’t he? She wished she’d read his details more carefully.
‘It’s a nice little hotel, really,’ he assured her.
‘Look,’ said Mary, ‘I don’t know what you’re expecting…’
He looked her straight in the eye, obviously annoyed at having to spell it out. ‘I’m expecting you to sleep with me in the hotel room I’ve booked.’
‘To sleep with you? But I’ve only just met you!’
‘Yes, but Jasmine—’
‘Who is this bloody woman? I don’t know any Jasmine.’
Doubt crossed his face. ‘You’re not—Loretta?’
‘No, I’m bloody not. What d’you think I am? A call-girl?’
He stared at her, his gaze steady and sad. He nodded slightly, then softly said: ‘Yes.’
‘Why the fuck would you think that?’
He pointed to her coat. ‘Jasmine said you’d be wearing an orange cashmere coat.’
For a second, Mary saw red. She was not wearing a call-girl’s coat.
They stayed and ordered second coffees.
‘No more cheesecake?’ he asked.
Mary scowled at him. Just for a moment, back then, just for a moment she’d thought… Well, that’d teach her.
He wanted to talk—maybe to apologise? A story came out, bit by bit. He was married, of course. Mary glanced down, noticing his ring for the first time. One child, a daughter. He showed her photos. A bright blonde ten-year-old beamed out, clutching a huge pink teddy as if it was the most precious object in the world. She was utterly charming.
He sighed. ‘But she’s caused some problems.’
It had been a difficult birth, a dreadful birth and her mother had stayed in hospital for weeks after. When she came home, she said just one thing:
‘No more children. Never, ever.’
He’d accepted. But… ‘There was a problem. A problem with sex.’
It turned out his wife didn’t only mean no more children, but no more sex. Ever. He’d fallen in love with his daughter from the second he saw her. She was everything he’d ever wanted. As for the mother—well, they made an efficient co-parenting team.
‘Why don’t you leave her?’ asked Mary.
He grimaced. ‘Can’t. She’d get custody! The courts always favour the mother.’
Not always, thought Mary. But she knew what he meant.
Her phone buzzed.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Gotta take this. Might be Em.’
It was a text from her real date. He’d gone to Knighton, not Kington, and was in the Honeycomb pub. He’d just realised his mistake.
‘Idiot,’ she murmured.
She showed the text to her new date and he grinned.
‘Maybe Loretta’s there too?’ he said. They both laughed.
Mary texted Em: It’s ok, he’s not an axe murderer. Within seconds, Em replied with five emojis: one thumbs-up, two hearts and two that Mary didn’t recognise. Were they rude? She shrugged and put her phone down.
‘So…’ she prompted, wanting to hear the rest of his story.
‘So…’ he sighed. ‘A year or two afterwards… I mean, I wanted a bit of excitement, you know.’
‘So I got into—into all this malarkey.’ He waved his hand in a vague way to indicate Mary, the absent Loretta and the nearby hotel. ‘The first times were pretty awful and I left saying never again. I can’t imagine why men…’
He stopped, confused.
‘But you do!’ said Mary.
A sad look crossed his face. ‘I know, yes, I know… But…’
The chatter from the café surrounded them. Another couple walked in, a man in the corner called for the bill.
Mary’s new date sipped his coffee, then looked her in the eye. ‘I always went back to them, it’s true. Thankfully, after a couple of years I found Jasmine. Nice girl, much more reliable that the others. Feet on the ground.’
Mary frowned. ‘But, she’s a—a prostitute?’
‘Yes…’ He seemed reluctant to say the word. ‘I suppose you’d call her that.’
‘Why don’t you—get together with her?’
He shook his head. ‘She’s too smart to get married. Independent. A free spirit, I suppose.’ He struggled to collect his thoughts. ‘We—we connect at some level. Not just sex. But it’s not love, I’m no fool.’
‘Now’s Jasmine’s away—gone back to Rumania for a couple of months—I realise how much I depend on her. She fixed me up with Loretta, she said I’d like her.’
Their eyes met. Mary thought about what he’d said. A couple sitting two booths along burst out laughing, a mum in the corner warned her son don’t.
‘So…’ he said.
Mary smiled. ‘So…’
‘Guess I’ll make tracks. Hope this hasn’t been too boring for you.’
‘No, no, of course not… Always a pleasure to meet a man who can tell his “Brown Skin Mama” from his “Kansas City Kitty”.’
He laughed. ‘Great stuff.’
He looked at her, curious.
‘Look,’ said Mary, uncertain of what she wanted to say. ‘I haven’t had sex in seven years. Since the big break-up. You’re after uncomplicated sex, I’m searching for…’ Mary stopped. What was she searching for? She wasn’t sure. ‘What the hell. Let’s give it a go.’
‘You mean it?’
He’d been wrong about one thing, thought Mary as she drove back. It was a scruffy old hotel. She shook her head. Beggars can’t be choosers. All in all—it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. In a flush of enthusiasm, she’d asked to meet him next week. Somewhere else. She thought she’d meant it, she really did.
Of course, there were problems. She laughed. This man—Gerald—didn’t so much come with baggage as with a whole lost luggage office.
‘Bad Penny Blues’ came on the CD-player. Great stuff. Mary turned up the volume and hummed along. Em really hated this one. Still, wasn’t that the purpose of pop music? To annoy your children. Then it hit her: Em. She’d been gone nearly five hours. My God, what am I going to tell her?
Sharif is a retired history lecturer who lives in South Wales. While an academic, he mainly researched minorities and marginalised peoples in modern Europe. Among his academic publications are:
- ‘The Oak and the Acorn: Music and Political Values in the Work of Cecil Sharp,’ https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/oak_acorn.htm, posted on 17 April 2019
- The Hippy Trail: A History (1957—78) (Manchester University Press, 2017), co-authored with Brian Ireland
- Outcast Europe: Refugees and Relief Workers in an Age of Total War, 1936-48, co-authored with Fiona Reid and Laure Humbert (London: Continuum, 2011)
- French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: UWP, 2010)
After retiring, Sharif turned to creative writing. He has had twelve short stories published, including:
- ‘The Old Man and the World’, Abergavenny Small Press Literary Journal 3 https://www.asppublishing.co.uk/sharif-gemie
- ‘Helping the People Help Themselves’, Storgy (https://storgy.com/2020/04/27/helping-the-people-help-themselves-by-sharif-gemie/)
- ‘Leonard and the Mad Girl’, Magazine of History and Fiction 1:4 (Winter 2019) https://magazineoftheoldwest.neocities.org/leonardomadgirl.html
His first novel will be published in 2022. It’s called The Displaced, and concerns a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany in 1945.
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