It was an orange hour, nearly seven o’clock, when I arrived. That time of day has always been the most beautiful season for me, when the neon starts to burn and line the edges of houses and hedgerows. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. In the middle distance there was a roar of traffic by the main road but it was intermittent, irregular, and did not intrude upon my reverie.
The houses were small and brown, little bungalows almost, and draped with trees. The streets were all named for men. I saw the signs for “Henry Close” and “Andrew Estate” in the half-light. The smell of laundry and cooking dressed the air, here Persil, there faint Indian spices. I could see the shimmer of women moving in headscarves in the low balconies.
We had arranged to meet at the Beetle and Piano, just past the estate through which I was walking. It had new pine furniture and the perennial red leather sofas. The waitresses were always friendly and always messed up your order, but did it with a smile. I got two glasses of white wine and slumped into the cushions, draping my City coat with the brown velvet collar on the other seat. I was nervous and my left leg trembled.
Her messages had always been a mixture of tension, laughter and subjects running into each other. The words didn’t matter. The content didn’t matter. There are only three reasons for that kind of breathlessness. The other two are asthma and running. She hadn’t been running, that was for sure.
I hadn’t really noticed her at the party where we first met. I’d dropped some wine glasses and they’d rung out on the ground like fallen coins. She was nearby and seemed faintly amused. She had a face where the eyes were slightly too close together, pretty perhaps at the edges. Nothing really stirred on my register then. But this was a second-born love, which you ignore and then springs up. A dirty little creeper, a rosemary bush, slow to grow but tenacious. Her name was Evelyn and her family sold diamonds.
“Aren’t you going to move your coat?” she asked.
“I thought you’d want to sit opposite me. Hello,” I said.
She usually wore small shoes, like slippers, quaver black and scuffed at the tips. Not tonight though: calf-highs in dappled shades of brown. She sat down next to me and crossed her legs. I couldn’t really look at anything other than the boots and snatches of her face as a result. The rest of her body, the midriff and the torso drifted out to the periphery of view, ghostlike and indistinct.
“Have you read it?” I asked.
“Yes. My neighbour gave it to me yesterday. It was a lovely letter. It spoke to me. Very you.”
“Good. Can we get back to it? I want to hear about your day.”
“About Japanese poetry? Because of course you have a serious interest in that.” She drew the word serious out, slightly too long, a note of acid playing about it.
“Precisely so. I read haiku during the P.E. lessons because I was too fat for football. Bubba on the benches.”
She waggled her nose. There were little flecks of metal in her eyes as she continued.
“And you’re still such a chubster. Fine, I’ll play along. I’ve been working on Issa. He writes very tight elegant verse with a particular affinity, I think, for cats and small children. All his poems are warm.”
“But with a hint of danger,” I said, and went on. “Hmmmm. Hot rather than warm. Words like fire circles.”
“Oh, you have actually read him?” she queried.
“There is an English trope, isn’t there, where you comment on books for hours and when someone asks if you have read them you have to say no. A kind of literary gossip or hearsay. But I have read him,” I said, emphasising the point.
She hummed and took a sip of wine. The second time we met was at a fancy dress do. She was wearing a pirate costume with a tricorn hat, an eye patch and gold epaulettes. I’d come straight from work, unadorned. She expressed her irritation by poking me with her plastic hook. It was a total cuteness, that plastic pirate poke. I sighed.
“That was surprisingly deep,” she said, as if making a note of it.
“You should also hear me sneeze,” I smiled, “Anyway, it’s my trademark sigh. Copyrighted. Enforced by the law. Not to be reproduced without permission.”
I waited an instant. “This never gets any easier,” I continued.
“This, being, what?” she answered, with a hint of puzzlement. I couldn’t tell if it was real or not.
“This being: I like you. You have other options. Well, we both do. I’ve picked you. Pick me.”
She shook her head.
“It’s a risk with you…” she said slowly, “I’ve taken so many risks. It never works out. . . .”
I interrupted her.
“Oh, soft. Don’t you know that I’m taking a risk as well? But no one avoids suffering by hiding from it. It just moves into another mode. Same song, different key. If I’m going to get cut up, I want all wounds to the front. Like that Dauphin who died in Africa.”
Her face came into focus again.
“You are handsome,” she said.
“Well, because in the final analysis this is all about looks,” I said.
“And superficial,” she said, immediately.
“Superficiality has its place,” I answered. “And its place is the beginning. Adam blurts it all out with Eve before he speaks to her, just on looks, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. What otherwise? Go out with someone you are not attracted to?”
“OK. Go on,” she said, waiving me on with a gesture.
“Have I told you about the three challenges?” I said.
“Not exactly . . .” she said.
“Not properly then. There are three fights, tests. The first, with another man. That’s the easiest. The next, the man convincing the woman. Much harder. Finally, the woman convincing herself. That’s the real deal. Men don’t understand it. You have all these hidden kingdoms inside you which we can’t see but are nonetheless real.”
She paused and twisted her fingers down the stem of the glass.
“Where are you getting this all from?” she asked.
“France! They were geniuses, these French troubadours. They wrote all these inner worlds up as external events. All the stuff about dragons and quests and towers is really about the dynamics of the human heart. Allegory. Magical stuff.”
“With a bit of adultery thrown in, I think?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, flatly.
“Have you ever two-timed anyone?” she said, her tone very still.
“No. It would kill me. Is that what you mean? I’ve met up with more than one person. . . .”
“Not what I meant. Everyone does that. Cheating.” There was something there, something hidden in her voice.
“Never,” I said.
She nodded and a quick spark of emotion flashed across her face.
“That is what I’m trying to live: a full life, the nobility of it,” I said.
“Nobility is an interesting thought. Are you a king, then?” She was teasing me.
“It is you who say it,” I told her.
She tweaked out a tiny little smile.
“Bravo!” she said, bringing her hands together in a silent clap.
“More like touché. You can take the girl out of Oxford…”
“ . . . but you can’t take Balliol out of the girl,” she concluded.
“Well, one of us is the sacred feminine, the very crown of creation. The other is just a hairy Slav. I’ll leave you to work out the relevant roles,” I said.
There was a much longer pause before she spoke.
“I was nearly Catholic, you know. My first boyfriend. I really loved him. We were going to get married and then he ended up kissing another girl. It was the worst thing. But so long ago. It doesn’t matter now, of course,” she murmured, shaking her head slightly.
I shook my head. “It always matters. You are allowed to hope, you have permission. There is a hard innocence at the end of experience. Sometimes, we can win everything when we surrender. I want to win my life,” I said.
She went all gunshy.
I took advantage of the pause. “I’m all in, Evelyn. Come with me. What do you say?”
All her sophistication faded away. She was that young girl again, with auburn hair like blood, with all her feelings cut into her face, wounded and alone.
“Let me think about it,” she said.