Where are you now?

Short story, by Christina Mclellan

 

It was something about the set of the neck and shoulders that struck him first - and then, moving closer, the way the hair grew in a 'v' on the nape of her neck. The hair was a different colour, of course, but that didn't stop him edging round the counter to get a closer look.

As soon as he heard the voice, lower, but unmistakeable, he knew it was her. He hovered on the other side of the stand, watching her asking about prices - confident, smiling, a woman comfortable with herself.

On impulse he rounded the stand and touched her on the shoulder.

'Agnes?' - tentatively, he knew he had no right to approach her.

Turning, startled, she looked at him blankly for a minute. Why should she recognise him - portly, grey and balding he had changed far more than she had. But slowly recognition dawned.

" Gerald?" and then " Good heavens, it is you."

" Yes, it's me." He patted his paunch. "I've put on a bit of weight."

A mischievous smile - he remembered that.

" You look OK. I guess you don't have the same resources as we women," patting her hair." How are you?"

" I'm fine, I'm fine - just about to retire. Flat in the Barbican."

He saw her register the significance of "flat".

"I always thought that would be a great place to have a pad." No trace of animosity. Emboldened he found he wanted to prolong the conversation.

 " Where are you now?"

" Oh we're still in Finchley - much too big for us now with the boys gone but the thought of getting rid of all our stuff is terribly daunting so we keep putting off the downsizing."

He was conscious of an inner spasm at the mention of "boys".

" Have you, I mean are you, rushing off anywhere - would you have time for a coffee? It's been so long."

There was a wryness in her smile - " I remember" it seemed to say," but I don't hold it against you any more - I've got over it."

"OK. I've got all day actually. Just about ready for a break - Christmas shopping in December is a nightmare."

" I think we might just get in here if we go now while it's early. How about a spot of lunch?" Having blurted it out on impulse he immediately regretted it although whether the regret stemmed from a fear of rejection or of what might come out of an intimate tete a tete he couldn't have said.

There was a definite hesitation but then,

" Well alright - I will need to eat something. I do love it here."

The store, vivid as a jewel box, crammed with eager shoppers. The festive atmosphere was impossible to resist. A sense of unreality - of a moment out of time -  infected them both.

" I'm not with Anita any more," he said once they were seated. " Hence the flat. Very convenient for work. Not sure what to do after I retire though. It's rather dead at the weekends."

" Yes I had heard about Anita," she said. There was a pause. " I'm sorry about that."

"That's very generous of you," he replied, "- in the circumstances."

The response was swift and good natured.

" Oh Gerald. I can see now that it was never going to work out. It was dreadful at the time and I was very angry with you but - if it hadn't happened I wouldn't have met Sam and - and well, what can I say. I'm happy."

"Ah!" He should have expected it but it hurt.

The wine came and they both relaxed.

" I have to say" she laughed, " you look a lot smarter these days. "What happened to that dreadful brushed cotton jacket I was always trying to get rid of."

" Oh Anita just threw it out. I was quite annoyed at the time. It was my drinking jacket."

" Yes, as I remember your rationale for keeping it was that it didn't really matter if someone threw up over it. My goodness - what were we like!"

Watching her it was easy to see the young woman he had lived with for most of his twenties. He had forgotten how much she laughed. As they talked he was able to study her. Her hair was dyed of course, unlike what remained of his, so from a distance she looked younger, but the lines were very much in evidence - she looked her age. She could literally be the grandmother of his latest date.

The food came, the talk flowed. Reminiscence proved seductive and observers might have thought they were looking at a husband and wife enjoying a day's shopping together, so relaxed and familiar did they appear. After an hour she looked at her watch.

" No dessert" she said gathering herself up. " Can we get the bill? I must get on I'm afraid. I've got about five more presents to buy - the boys have both got partners now which doubles the number."

" This is on me of course," he said putting out a hand to quell her protests. He realised there was something he wanted to say before she left.

" I am sorry you know. It didn't really mean anything - the Anita thing. I mean there was nothing much there really except sex when it came down to it. It seemed overwhelming at the time."

She paused in the act of putting on her coat and said thoughtfully,

 " Perhaps I was wrong to say it could never have worked. Ten years is a lot to throw away but I couldn't cope with it at the time." A smile." We did have a lot of fun - and I suppose we could have tried harder to get through it. Ah the hot blood of youth!" Then, briskly, " I really must be getting along. Thanks so much for lunch - it was nice to catch up."

He knew he shouldn't say it but he did.

" Perhaps we could do it again sometime?"

She did hesitate for a moment or two but,

" No. I don't think that would be a very good idea." Then quietly, " I do hope things work out well for you Gerald. All the best for the future."

He watched her as she walked across the floor and out of the store. An attractive older woman, busy, cheerful, at ease with herself - content.

THE END

A History graduate who became a lawyer and moved into Corporate life, Christina has two stepdaughters and two sons with her second husband, Nigel, and lives with him in North London. Since the children have been off their hands she has been free to pursue a lifelong ambition to write fiction and has recently completed her first full length novel.

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