Chloe looked at the station clock and stopped. She was early. From here she could see where Mark had arranged to meet, a geometric circular design on the floor of the concourse. Chloe paused and watched. Commuters hurried past, intent on their destinations. Lawyers from Colmore Row, late to leave work, dragged pilot cases full of plaintiffs and respondents and injunctions, Your Honours and m’luds and ten years behind bars. Investment fund managers with neat laptops, having descended from glass and steel towers with revolving doors, muttered into smartphones. Women with neat hair clicked past in smart shoes, others in jeans and flatties, hair swept back and careless, always with the phone pressed to the ear or held by the thumbs. Station announcements rumbled over the PAS – delayed, cancelled, apologise.
Chloe did not yet know what Mark looked like, apart from his description on the website – there was no photograph, nor had he seen hers. They were only going for a drink, after all. She walked forward, feeling exposed. Her unaccustomed high heels forced her into a stiff-legged walk across the smooth hard floor.
Chloe had come here by bus, closing down her computer before standing in front of the hall mirror in her coat, combing her heavy fringe into a line across her eyebrows, powdering the make up she sensed was too thick and sticky, trying to get pink lipstick not to smudge. The house had sounded empty as she shut the front door. It had to be done, nothing ventured, nothing gained, she told herself. She had left plenty of time, but caught in the gridlock loop that ran from the roundabout, up the hill to the station and back down to the roundabout, she had worried needlessly about being late. The station clock said ten to six.
Chloe stood in the circle’s exact centre, her tights feeling sweaty and twisted round her legs, sensing she was in the way of the commuters who strode across the concourse with trains to catch. Her body shifted in her clothes, trying to get an air gap under the waistband, the bra straps. Her perfume, that had been a little too old, was suddenly strong around her, warmed by her tension. The slinky black dress clung too much, showing some extra fat at the waist that should not have been there. Chloe thought of her daughter Megan, and hoped she was settling down for the night comfortably at Auntie Laura’s.
Meet in a public place, the website had advised, let friends know where you are going. There were a lot more things she ought to have done. Mark was coming from Lichfield, by train, just for a drink, he said. ‘Quite a catch’, said his description, ‘cleans up well, GSOH, well built, short hair. A young 35. Enjoys the finer things in life. Own house, job and car.’
She wondered if she should have written something different about herself. Saying ‘Vivacious brunette, 28 year old teacher, in need of company and TLC after traumatic divorce’, did that betray too much vulnerability?
There was suddenly a luxurious scent of vanilla and roses, and Chloe turned, sensing someone standing beside her.
‘You don’t mind if I stand here?’ said a girl, not him then, not Mark.
‘No – I – er – it’s just I need to stand at the centre,’ Chloe said.
‘So have I, but, there’s plenty of space in the middle, it’s not a problem.’
The girl’s mobile rang and she answered it, turning an elegant profile, and combing her hair back with perfect shiny red fingernails, longish dark hair, looping down over her eye and back up behind her ear. ‘Hi, yes, it’s Naomi, listen Mary, so, I’m meeting Hugo at New Street, OK? I’ll call you when I’m home. No. Yes, sure, yes, no problem. Speak to you later, OK? OK, I’ll be careful. Bye, now. OK, bye!’
Chloe had spotted something. ‘Oh my God!’ she said, ‘I can’t help noticing. Is that a real Molebury handbag?’
Naomi grinned, looking up from her phone. ‘Yeah, it’s great isn’t it? My ex…’
‘Your ex got you that? God, why did you let him go?’
Naomi shrugged, still smiling, glossy red lips parted, showing pretty teeth. Her eyes gleamed, and the handbag gleamed on her slim arm, its thick, burnished, black leather catching the glow of the station lights. ‘You waiting for someone then?’ she asked.
Chloe started to mumble at first, something about dating websites, a blind date. ‘I’ve got to do something for myself now, there’s only so many times I can go out with the girls,’ she said more firmly.
‘OK, good for you,’ said Naomi, ‘so, what’s your date like then?’
‘I don’t know what he looks like yet,’ said Chloe. ‘I haven’t seen his photo.’
‘So, what do you know about him then?’
‘His name’s Mark, and he works for an insurance company,’ said Chloe, suddenly struggling to remember how Mark’s description was different. ‘His advert says he’s well-built, with short hair -‘
‘Fat and bald?’ interposed Naomi, with an air of weariness.
‘Fun-loving, and enjoys the finer things in life-‘
‘Only interested in casual sex, and smokes and drinks heavily-‘
‘He’s looking for an uncomplicated, caring relationship, and has his own house and car-‘
‘Only interested in casual sex, and lives with his wife and kids-‘
‘I don’t think so! He said he was single,’ protested Chloe. She sensed, though, that Naomi might be right, and felt a sick, gnawing sensation in her stomach. She repressed the urge to turn away and walk back to the bus stop.
‘Believe me,’ said Naomi. ‘You’re new to all this, aren’t you? I can tell. I’ve been on the dating websites for ages, and honestly, it is really hard to find anyone who’s not a disappointment.’
‘Well, who are you meeting then?’ challenged Chloe, wondering why a good looking and confident girl like Naomi was cruising the internet.
‘OK, his name’s Hugo, he’s a doctor. He’s into sailing. He actually has his own yacht in Plymouth.’
Chloe once did a Day Skipper course, long ago, in a life before marriage. She remembered that sailing usually involved broken fingernails, tattered hair thick with salt, and skin burned red by wind. She wondered if Hugo is the right choice for Naomi.
‘Do you like sailing, then?’ she asked.
‘I’ve never actually sailed, but, well I could see myself maybe, with a G&T, tanning on the sundeck. I could get him to move the thing to the Med.’
Perhaps, thought Chloe, Hugo will be right for Naomi after all. She imagined a bronzed face and a navy blue blazer with brass buttons embossed with anchors. Naomi’s slender feet were, she noticed, encased in black satin court shoes with gold designer logos.
Hugo was tall, but tended to stoop his shoulders slightly, and did not carry himself well. He had a handsome face with piercing dark eyes and high cheekbones. If it were not for his little defect of posture, had he carried himself confidently and straightened his back, been able to present himself confidently, he might have been wealthy. Instead, he was a doctor working in elderly care, who earned nothing from private practice.
Hugo had once wanted to be an artist, not a doctor, but, influenced by a father who was a distinguished surgeon, and a mother who was a formidable ward sister, he found himself at medical school obediently shovelling anatomy, physiology and biochemistry into his head. Working in a National Health Service run by managers who seemed uneducated, he would strive, with a few handfuls of pills, to halt the inexorable advance of time in his patients, the fading of memory, the gradual failure of all the processes of the body that he had studied in such detail as a student. He had not emulated his father’s choice of a wife, preferring to escape from the sharp officiousness of his colleagues.
Hugo’s elder sister, after supporting him through a series of unfortunate situations, had advised him:
‘Hugo, before you get involved with a woman, just ask her three simple questions, OK? Number one, have you got a criminal record? Number two, have you been involved in Class A drugs? Number three, have you got a violent ex-partner? If the answer to any of those is yes, then just apologise quietly, and back away.’
Hugo remembered trying to protest, but Cheryl had silenced him. ‘Hugo, I’m sure there are a lot of wonderful girls out there who might have to answer yes to one or more questions. And you might end up missing out on a beautiful relationship. But honestly, it will cause you much less trouble in the long run.’
Hugo ran this conversation through his mind as he walked across the station concourse to the agreed meeting place, and saw not one, but two, pretty, dark-haired women. One of them had to be Naomi. He wasn’t sure about Naomi, but she seemed to be someone of whom his sister would approve. A conveyancer, according to her details on the website, who presumably had no criminal record, at least.
Hugo paused a few feet away from the women. They were in conversation and had not yet noticed him. One was wearing a tailored dress and jacket, and glossy heels, with something stern about her lipstick and high cheekbones. She brushed her shiny hair back off her face with her fingers. The other looked flustered and anxious, her tight black dress outlined a little roll of belly fat, which he found oddly comforting. Love handles, he thought, and then the women both noticed him at once and broke off their conversation.
‘Hi, I’m Hugo.’
Naomi stared at a tall, stooping man, with dark hair swept back from a high forehead. He was wearing a t-shirt under a lumberjack shirt, baggy shorts, and a couple of wooden beads on a thin leather thong around his neck. Hairy legs were visible above scuffed trainers. He was another disappointment. His eyebrow lifted slightly as he met her eyes.
‘Er, I’m Hugo?’ he said, again, but as Naomi opened her mouth to say something, she was aware of Chloe brushing past her, stepping forward and blocking her out. ‘Hi -I’m Naomi,’ said Chloe, ‘only that’s just my avatar name, my real name’s Chloe. Shall we go?’
Naomi remained silent, as she watched Chloe grasp Hugo’s elbow and steer him firmly into the crowd. They were out of sight in an instant.
In a few moments, someone, who could only be Mark greeted her.
‘Hello- are you Chloe? Sorry I’m late,’ he said. He was in his late thirties, sharp-featured, balding, dark haired and dark-eyed with tanned skin and a hint of stubble. He looked her up and down with a quizzical expression and a bit of a smile. His broad shoulders filled out an expensive suit. His shirt, fashionably tie-less and open at the neck, was white and crisp, and he wore highly polished leather brogues. There was a white line around his ring finger.
‘Hi, Mark,’ Naomi smiled. ‘That’s just my avatar name,’ she says, ‘My real name’s Naomi.’
Copyright © 2012 chateauxenespagne.wordpress.com
All characters are fictitious, and any resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely unintentional.