This story was shortlisted for the Fish Prize in 2013.
He chose the café. It has no view, not even a terrace to watch the world go by. I can hear traffic from here. There are three small tables looking on to the street. It’s raining and all the front seats are taken. I would have chosen one of the places by the river, one with a beautiful name. Café Sorrento, Vanilla, Poetry under the Trees. Even on an inclement day the river would look better than this. Red brick paving stones neatly edging a green strip of water, barely flowing.
He’s late. I knew he would be. People who organise others are rarely organised themselves. He chose everything. The place to meet, the day, the time.
“It’ll be good for you to meet someone decisive.” Verity said. “It takes you ages to make your mind up these days.” She was fishing in her handbag for her car keys, not meeting my gaze. Always hurrying off. ‘I can’t stay long’, is her usual greeting.
When she was born, I couldn’t decide between Felicity and Verity. Felicity meant happiness and Verity truth. What would be more important for my daughter in her life? I went with truth, mores the pity. Graeme was no good. He could never make a decision, he wasn’t a thinker. His face had been pale as he sat by my bedside as I held his daughter against my breast, tears running down my cheeks. Poor man, always in the background. Until he faded away, not leaving a dent.
My days are more structured since Graeme died, not less. Thursday and Fridays at the wool shop, Monday I have coffee with Beverly, my friend from school. She gets on my nerves a bit, but I’ve known her for so long. I’m too old for a clear out of friends and they seem to be doing that themselves by dying off. Tuesday is my cleaning day and Wednesday I do what I like. Which isn’t much. I had expected my life to be filled with grandchildren.
I fiddle with a sugar sachet. I’d got here early and didn’t know whether to wait for my mystery man or just go ahead and order my coffee. A caffeine headache had its steely grip round the front of my head, so I placed my order at the counter, where a bright eyed girl looked to the left and right of me. Anywhere but at me. I’m invisible to youth.
I chose a table with some difficulty. There’s no shortage of them away from the window but should I overlook the girl at work? I never could bear to have my back to people. Good manners or a fear of what people might do to me when I couldn’t see them. Run up behind me and make me jump. Stab me? The tables are wooden, round mostly which is quite old fashioned. The walls are painted a palatable yellow. I can see what they’ve tried to do. Making it cheerful. The counter is clean but lacks style. There’s an old photograph of Melina Mercouri on the wall. The girl is picking at her nails. She wears a black apron over her jeans and jumper. It’s not flattering.
An older woman stalks up to the counter. I reckon she won’t have any trouble deciding what to drink. Her hair is home dyed blonde, her scarlet lip-sticked smile turns down slightly at the corners. She looks like a clown on her day off. She raises a hand to a man wearing a red jumper, nods her head to indicate a table. He dutifully slides into his seat.
“I’ve ordered for you, John.”
Poor John. Poor me. I don’t know what I was thinking. Waiting for a man who’s late while I sit here with a performing circus in my stomach. I’ve even manifested a female clown on her RDO. I keep checking the time on my mobile. I’m doing it too often, even ‘Bright Eyes’ has noticed. She drops her gaze and starts wiping a surface. Clown Woman is drumming her nails on the table. Fuscia pink nail varnish. Chipped.
Oh bother. I’ve knocked over the pot thing with the sugars in it. I try to jam them back in. The little sachets seem to have grown with their unexpected freedom. I will get them back in. I catch Bright Eyes giving me a look.
The last internet date I tried was with a man called Barry. At least this one’s called Adam. A strong, sexy name. I met Barry for lunch at the fish restaurant in town. He forgot his wallet. I paid, never saw him again. Verity had laughed. “A whiff of romance and you’re a soft target.” My name is Desiree, but I’d have preferred Susan. There’s so much expectation on me, being called Desiree, the bane of my life. I mean I’m not Rita Hayworth.
Clown Woman is clasping her hands together like a priest who can’t commit to prayer. She makes no sound, but I can see her from the corner of my eye. John takes a notepad and pen from his inside pocket. He clicks the top of the pen off, then on. Very quickly. Click-click, click-click. I may have to kill them both.
I never had much luck with men. A late starter my mum used to call me, after all she did, giving me a floozy’s name. Well there were some things that I never really got started on. Graeme didn’t seem to mind. In fact, I think he was relieved when our poor excuse for a sex life dwindled off fairly early in the piece. “Not to worry, Desiree. You just keep on with your jigsaw.” At least I think that’s what he said. There are times when I think I may have invented a lot of my past. No one else seems to have similar memories. Especially not Verity and she tells the truth.
I do love a jigsaw, but they can be a trial when you have friends over and Sissinghurst Garden is covering the table. I don’t trust those rolling mats so when it’s just me I have a tray on my legs to eat my dinner off. I had my jigsaws and Graeme had his detective novels.
I lied about my age with that internet dating site for mature people. I’ve been doing it for years anyway after I’d read that men preferred younger women. Adam is five years younger than me, it said so on his profile. I’ve looked after myself. Eaten the right foods and never been overweight. I buy Elizabeth Arden for my face and wear soft pastels. Verity hates it.
“I look at you and it’s like the women’s movement never happened. What were you doing when your friends were marching? Organising your accessories?”
The women’s movement is all well and good but a poor excuse for a bad haircut. Verity cuts her own. You can tell.
Adam’s bio said he likes canal walks and entertaining friends. He’s more of a Beatles fan than a Rolling Stones. He doesn’t know much about art, but he knows what he likes. He sounds exciting. I think exciting is what I need. He could be the one. I had years of dull. Growing up I always thought I’d meet a man who wrote poetry and liked to listen to classical music. I love a bit of Debussy me, Clair de la Lune. I wonder if Adam lied about his age.
The fidgety couple are still and quiet now but the looks between them are pure hate. Sometimes years together can make your partner seem irritating. The broiling in our guts full of resentment of what the other has prevented us from doing. You marry the first person who asks, bear children, no thought to a career or passion. Staying together because of the kids. It goes rancid between family holidays and graduations. The freshness of youth is full of maggots before you know it. What a waste.
Verity isn’t married. She doesn’t have kids. I don’t think she’ll attract a man with that haircut.
Bright Eyes behind the counter has a tattoo. Is that hygienic? ‘Jasper’ on the inside of her forearm in black ink, on a scroll. Neither tasteful nor original. She looks bored. One of the window seat people is paying their bill. Should I take up the free seat they have vacated or stay here? If I get up and someone comes in, beats me to the seat it could go all wrong and I’ll look silly. There’s more to see from there. Here it’s just Bright Eyes and the Clowns. The man at the counter paying is having trouble getting the coins out of his wallet. His fingers are too big for the little pocket. Still you can’t have them in your jacket pocket. Coins ruin your suit, they leave a greasy film. I know. I used to work in a dry cleaners before I had Verity. Now he’s dropped his money on the floor. Bright Eyes is looking at him. I should help. But I don’t. This café does seem to attract old people. There’s an underlying stench of antiseptic wipes and custard creams.
Adam chose this place and he didn’t look old. Late sixties isn’t old any more, it’s positively sprightly. When my mum was in her late sixties, she had a stick and a colostomy bag. It was hell getting her out and about. But I couldn’t have her move in with us. She smelt of moth balls and vinegar, it would have gone right through the house. Verity thought I was mean. She was up there every other day. Those two were always thick as thieves. Graeme said nothing. She had a lovely house near the river, my mum. Three storeys. I mean three storeys with a limp and a colostomy bag. It wasn’t right. She was on the list for a bungalow but died before she got to the top. I sold the house. It didn’t fetch as much as it should have. Mum didn’t look after it and I didn’t have time. It did pay our mortgage off and help with the down payment on Verity’s little flat. It’s what Mum would have wanted.
The door opens, the sound of traffic in rain drifts in. I love that sound. It feels alive somehow. A man emerges from under an umbrella, tartan. Chainstore. He turns and shakes it in the doorway. He has a full head of hair the colour of sand. That empty window seat is made for him. He puts his brolly down on a chair to save his seat and heads for Bright Eyes. He smiles widely at her and she looks in his eyes. Some men keep their charm into old age. Not that this chap is particularly old. Sean Connery has kept his looks. Marlon Brando didn’t, and he was beautiful as a young man. I can only see the back of the sandy haired man, he’s about to order. Studying a menu. I looked at it. It’s nothing special. His hair is just like Robert Redford’s. I wonder.
Graeme’s hair was an indiscriminate colour. Sometimes it looked fair and at other times darker. I don’t think he washed it enough. Verity got his hair, but she dyes it. ‘Passion Pink’ it says on the box, I had a peek. Looks like she’s run it through with beetroot juice. Might be healthier if she did. I have mine done at the place on the edge of town. It’s a bit run down but Shirley keeps it nice inside. Lots of glass, chrome washstands, very modern. I have it lightened now, like Ingrid Bergman. The lighter shades have fewer chemicals they say. So, Shirley says.
Sandy, the new chap, sits down. His back is still facing me, and I can’t see his face. It’s frustrating. Maybe if I move to the other side of the table, face the front, I would be able to see him better. Not sure if I dare, it might look odd. What the hell. I shift into the seat on my right, trying not to make a noise. The bloody chair scrapes. Sandy looks up. “Nicer view from here.” I venture. My face flushes. “I mean from the window.” Hands flailing, I only go and knock the vase over next. Daisies. “I’ll get it”. I shout to Bright Eyes. She looks over. “I’d rather you didn’t.” She’s over in a flash, mopping up smelly flower water.
“Could you take it away, please?”
Sandy looks over and I catch him. He smiles weakly. His face is a disappointment. He sports a grey moustache and enormous glasses in need of a good clean. I wish I hadn’t moved seats now. At least I’ll be able to spot Adam when he comes in. Only the light is shining on me now. Showing up all those thin lines on my face, like creases. I’ve always had such a pale, creamy complexion but age comes to us all eventually. Even Joanna Lumley.
I’ve forgotten his sign. Maybe he’s already here. It can be a flower in your buttonhole, a newspaper or magazine. Mine’s a poppy. Lucky it’s November. One popped through the door with an envelope asking for money only last week. Plastic but cheerful. I prefer plastic or silk to real. Plastic is easy to keep clean. I can’t remember Adam’s sign. Barry’s was a rolled-up copy of Anglers Monthly.
I can see the street from here. Not the wet tarmac or the oppressive sky, but the people who hurry past. None of them is smiling. The rain in November wouldn’t make anyone smile. Clown Woman and John are sipping their beverages. I can see him more clearly now, he has his back to the window. His face is in shadow, but his eyes are soft. Not hateful. He has a lovely face. Thin but fleshy. Tidy eyebrows. Not like Sandy’s. His could do with a bit of work.
Where is he? Bloody Adam. Could he be Sandy? Or that man a couple of seats behind me who looks like he’s hiding. I’d remember if Adam’s sign was a tartan umbrella, sticks in your mind, a detail like that. The rest of the customers in here are women, except for John and no blind date would bring his wife along. Blind date. I’ve said it. All week I’ve been calling it ‘my meeting’. Verity smirking behind my back. She likes to be straight with words. When my sister, Bianca, went on a blind date years ago, she made a couple of girlfriends sit in different places, discreetly. They met in a pub, Bianca was no stranger to alcohol. Martin, her date, was a cop and didn’t fall for her friends sneaking around the place. He spotted them almost immediately, invited them over, ended up marrying Bianca’s friend, Marion.
Nearly eleven o’clock. I’ve been here since ten. I’m always early. Unfashionable Verity calls it. She believes in being fifteen minutes late. But if we all went round doing that we’d never actually meet, and time would have no meaning. He must have been unavoidably detained. Perhaps his dog is sick, or he’s had an important call from work. Adam’s a vet so maybe those reasons could be combined. Excuses not reasons. His wife used to work with him. He’s widowed like me.
I told him I work in fashion. Actually, I mind the till in the wool shop, ‘Snipping Yarns’, on Thursdays and Fridays but fashion sounds more glamorous. My phone rings. I rummage in my bag for my glasses. I never answer unless I know who it is. Just before it rings off, I see it’s from our Verity. She’ll ring back. I won’t wear my glasses out unless I have to. They’re a bit old-fashioned but they work fine. No need to buy new. At least they’re clean, not like Sandy’s. My coffee has gone cold. I’ve been keeping some in the bottom of the cup, so I don’t feel pressured to buy another. Bright Eyes has been hovering.
I wonder if Sandy’s dirty glasses are preventing him from seeing my poppy. I know Adam’s sign isn’t a tartan umbrella, but it could be big glasses. Or that tangerine silk hanky I can see sticking up out of his breast pocket. I can feel my face turning pink and I know that under my smart jacket there are wet rings under the arms of my blouse. Feel the fear and do it anyway, Verity says. So, I get up, taking my bag with me. It’s my good one. I walk over discreetly, only I find I’m sort of lurching forward like someone in the jungle. I’m only missing my elephant gun.
“Excuse me.” He looks up, a bit startled but his face is kind. “Are you from Autumn Rendezvous?”
His brow wrinkles so I repeat myself in case he didn’t hear the first time. The frown disappears and I think I can see a spark of pity in his eyes. I’ve got it completely wrong. I don’t look around, but I feel eyes upon me and I catch a whiff of something unsavoury under my signature scent. My phone rings again.
“Hi Mum. What are you up to?”
I’m surprised she doesn’t know. I’ve been worrying about it all week. “I’m in the café but I can’t remember his sign.”
I don’t want to talk too loudly. I’m still standing near Sandy’s seat. “Adam’s”.
“It’s a dog lead. But he won’t be coming.”
What would she know about it? “Oh. And why not?”
“Because it’s Tuesday.” There’s exasperation in her voice now.
“No, it’s not. It’s Wednesday.” But I realise it is Tuesday. Verity’s right. I thought the kitchen floor had looked a bit grimy.
I pay for my coffee, but I still have the headache. I try not to think how long it had taken me get dressed this morning. I feel like an elderly woman playing dress-ups. I’d laddered two pairs of tights. Fawn. I walk carefully from the car park. I’m not used to the heels, they’re not even that high. Not like Verity wears when she goes out with her friend Carol. Great big black shiny things they are. Not good with her thick ankles. I also don’t want to splash rainwater up the back of my tights. You can see the splatters with fawn, and I won’t wear black. Traffic wardens and prostitutes wear black stockings. No point telling Verity that.
I can’t believe I’ve mucked the day up. “I was sure he’d said Wednesday.” I’d told Verity on the phone.
“He did. But today is Tuesday. Are you alright, Mum? You sound a bit more batty than usual.” That’s when I put the phone down. You can’t slam it anymore. You have to swipe the button and that’s not the same. Not very dramatic if you need to make a point. It’s all words these days, we use words rather than dramatic gestures. Verity says I’m good at dramatic gestures. Slamming phones, doors. Stomping. Leaving the room with an air of theatre, flouncing. I’m not that good with words. Or rather I use a lot of them but often get the wrong word for the meaning. Verity’s good with words. She writes. Not for any magazine or paper I’ve heard of. Feminist. It’s called Lesbos Ladies, something to do with Greece. She sends me a copy, but I bin it still in its plastic wrap. I’ve met some of her colleagues too. No men of course. I don’t how she’s going to find a man. She doesn’t work with them, she doesn’t socialise with them. And here’s me ready to have a second go.
Have I got the energy to get ready for another meeting? Blind date. Do I really want to go through all this again tomorrow? Finding something comfortable to wear that doesn’t age me. It has to be subtle. That’s why I like pastels, they’re kinder to the face. I don’t go in for all those bright colours some women wear. They look ridiculous. I don’t want to draw attention to myself. No. I like pastels. And fawn hosiery. My shoes are tan. Not American Tan like the tights we wore in the seventies. Those were more orange than tan and why they blamed it on the Americans I’ll never know.
By the time I get to the car I wish I’d bought a cake. Bright Eyes had had a few in her display counter. But I want something with cream and meringue. I want something to cheer me up, a sugar hit. I head for Angel Cakes in the high street and order the biggest, stickiest meringue they have.
“Here or take away?” The girl behind the counter doesn’t have bright eyes but I think she has alopecia. I look around. There are two tables in the small space the shop offers. One is empty and at the other one is an old dear buttoned up to her neck in tweed. She’s slumped over a sausage roll, staring at it, not eating. She grips a plastic fork in her claw-like right hand.
“I’ll take it with me. Thanks.”
The funniest thing. As I try to count out the coins, I can’t remember which is the higher value. Is it the larger or the smaller? This sometimes happens to me and then I remember. Stupid girl I am, I’ve only been counting coins daily for the last fifty years. I worked in the stationers in my adolescence. Alopecia girl is staring at me, not unkindly. I offer a hand filled with all the coins I have in my purse and she takes some of them.
“Thank you, Mrs Stone.”
She knows me but I can’t place her. I used to help out at the school, I played the piano for Music and Movement. She might know me from Infants. She’s much younger than Verity. I nod. “Thank you, dear.”
I squeeze into the car, catching the seatbelt in the door. Open the paper bag, cram the cake in. It explodes. Lovely. I don’t eat all of it. Quite a bit of it ends up down my front. My lilac suit will need to be dry cleaned.
I jam the key in the lock. My legs feel a bit shaky.
“What are you doing here?”
Verity is waiting at the bottom of the stairs. She smiles but I know that face.
“I just thought I’d come round and see you.” She’s dressed in a powder blue velour two piece. Particularly unflattering, she’s thicker around the middle than me.
“You turned up for your date a day early.”
“Oh that. Put the kettle on love.” I struggle to unbutton my jacket. It’s sticky.
“Oh, Mum. Look at that.”
“Don’t start. I’ve always been messy. It’s not as if I’ve forgotten where my mouth is.”
I can hear the sound of crockery and glass from the kitchen. I raise my eyebrows at Verity. It’s Carol.
“We thought you might like some company.”
Carol is wearing a similarly hideous outfit but hers is in pale rose.
I wish she wouldn’t call me that. I’m not her mum. Her mum lives in a hamlet outside Colchester.
Suddenly inertia creeps up on my bones. I feel so tired. Surely if I can come up with words like inertia and still do the Sudoku what I fear is happening can’t be. I can remember all the members of the pop group Herman’s Hermits but I’m damned if I can recall where I put my car keys.
I sit. Carol slides across a cup of over-milky tea. I take it black. She sits too close, I can feel her breath. I can smell her fear. And mine. I didn’t ask for any of this. Any of it. Being single, Verity’s quite obviously not being single. She’s not waiting for the right man. Carol is the right man. While I’m sliding into old age with about as much grace as an Alsatian on roller skates. Parts of my brain no longer link up. You’d think medical science could find something to join those loose bits together again. The brain equivalent of Blu-tack. They have successfully used teleportation on rats. Admittedly the rat was a bit poorly afterwards but still, quite an achievement. While my grey matter falls into its own gravy.
“I don’t think it’s anything sinister, Mum. Just the usual. Getting older, memory banks filling up.”
Finally, Verity lies to me. Or to herself, I’m not sure. Is this my choice of her name coming back to mock me? Is this the first untruth of many? Who am I kidding? Going out there again, meeting another man. Starting another story. I’d even picked one younger than me. Perhaps I can point to the intimate body parts I no remember the names of.
I’m very enlightened for someone who won’t admit her daughter is on the other bus. Lesbian is such an ugly word, but I’ve heard worse. I can see Verity and Carol are close, loving even. I mean if she’d stayed with Gary from the co-op I wouldn’t think about them having sex. But it’s been hard for me to look at the pair of them and not wonder what goes where and why.
“Who was that writer who wanted old people put to sleep in their sixties? Was it Timothy Leary?”
“Aldous Huxley, I think, Mum. Brave New World.” Verity looks tired herself.
“I think he had a point.”
They sit there, their mouths working but not knowing what to say. I laugh. Put them out of their misery. Not everything has to be so serious. “I’m not doolally yet. I’d love a drink. I think I still have some of that Pinochet Grissle you gave me, Carol.”
“But Mum, it’s noon.”
“I don’t care. I still have so much to fit in.”
We sit around my Formica table in the kitchen, it’s so old it’s come back in fashion.
“Can you girls help me out with what I should wear to meet Adam tomorrow? Only I don’t really do casual.” I nod towards their leisure suits. “And if I catch you lying to me again Verity, you’ll swing for it. I could have named you Felicity, the point is I didn’t.”