White blonde hair, red plump lips and a dress that swished and swayed around your knees. Killer calves. Round eyes and a button nose.
I was lost, watching you roll your shoulders to the music. Watching you mouth the words to a song I couldn’t even hear. The world had gone silent, everyone had disapered. Your beauty filled every corner of that tired old social club in the arse end of Hackney.
You saw me staring, I looked back down at my lap and fidgeted in my seat. I’d been caught. I thought about standing up and leaving out the back door before you accused me of being a pervert or some kind of peeping Tom.
As I was about to stand you sat next to me and asked, ‘is this the way to Amarillo?’ I said I wasn’t sure what or where it was you were looking for. I was about to offer you a London map that I carried in my pocket but you interrupted me with a laugh and a touch of my arm.
It felt like you’d set me on fire. Hot blood ran to my face and pumped my heart so hard I was sure you could hear it over the music.
“Am I?” I said.
You sipped your drink, threw your head back and laughed again. I sat up straight, like I was taught to by my Gran. “Women don’t like men with hunches Harold.” She’d say.
“Relax,” you said. “It’s a party.” I let my shoulders drop slightly and my arms fell limp down my sides. You put your hand on my leg. My neck felt too fat for my top button and I couldn’t swallow. You tapped my leg three times and said: “Let’s dance.”
I tried to say no, I don’t dance. But you’d pulled me to my feet and were clicking and swishing and stepping in time to the music. I stepped from left to right, right to left. I didn’t dance. My feet didn’t understand music and beats and rhythm. I counted to 100. You must have seen the concentration on my face because you leant in and told me to smile. I forced a big toothy grin that no one would believe. There was no smile in my eyes, just panic and anxiety.
You’d dragged me outside when the song was over and the next one was kicking in. I was puppy on your leash. Unable to pull away.
“No,” I said.
“Mind if I do?”
“So, how’d you know Shelia?” You put a cigarette between your painted red lips and lit it with a big orange flame.
“She’s my sister.”
“She didn’t tell me she had a brother.”
“I don’t live close. Out of sight, out of-“
“Yeah, I get it.” Like a dog with a bone you wouldn’t let the conversation stop. I was glad because I didn’t know what to say past ‘how are you’ and I thought we were over that point.
“I work with Shelia. Down at the Grand Hotel. We’re on reception together.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Worked together for a few months now. She never mentioned me?”
“We’re not close. I live far. In the country.”
“Come buy me a drink,” you said, stubbing your half smoked cigarette out on the wall and flicking it to the floor. I swallowed hard and loud, resisting the urge to pick up the butt and bin it. You pulled at my tie. “Come on. I want to hear all about Shelia’s mysterious brother.”
You ordered us both some kind of gin cocktail that I’d never heard of and told me I’d love it. I paid. £15.00. I never could get used to those city prices on a country wage.
We were worlds away.
You found us a table with four seats. I pulled out the chair to sit opposite but you patted the chair next to you.
“It’s too loud, I won’t hear you all the way over there.” I sat down and twirled the cocktail stick in my glass, knocking the ice cubes together, pushing the lime further down the glass. I dreaded drinking it, I hated Gin, it made me feel depressed.
“So,” you said. “Tell me about you.”
My mind went blank. Where did I start from? When I was born? It occurred to me then, I couldn’t remember the last time anyone asked me about me. I couldn’t remember anything about me.
“I’m Harold,” I said finally, crossing my arms.
“Hi Harold, I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you.” I put my hand out to shake yours as that felt like the right thing to do. You giggled, showing your brilliantly white, straight teeth and put your warm hand in mind.
We spoke for hours. Well you spoke. You told me about your travels to Mexico. Had I ever travelled you’d asked, I said does the train to London count. You laughed and moved on to your travels in America, back packing in Peru, parties in Thailand under the full moon. You were saving money from the hotel to go again, but to Europe this time. You said I should come.
That’s when I fell in love with you.
You were the other me. You were everything I wanted to be. But the whole time I was there with you, looking into your glassy brown eyes and the hair that kept falling across them, I was thinking about my train home. How good it would feel to shut out the party and be home. I tried to shake it off, enjoy being there, with you, learning about a life I couldn’t have.
After a four more Gin cocktails I was feeling heavy. You grabbed my hand that was limp on my lap and asked if I wanted to get out of here. I looked at my watch. It was 11pm, to get a full 8 hours sleep I had to be in bed asleep by 12. The hotel was 12 minutes walk. I told you I had to leave.
“Come on, Harold. Let’s live a little. You’ll sleep when you’re dead.” I thought about telling you that you sleep when you’re tired, or eventually you will in fact be dead. But, you were already up and putting on your long, mink coloured coat that enveloped your body perfectly.
That night was the best night of my life. I’ve lived 80 long years, and that was the best one of the lot.
We walked by the Thames, got a waffle from a stand that boasted a 2 star hygiene certificate, we got on a Rickshaw and we drank cheap wine from the bottle on tower bridge, watching the boats sail beneath us.
You leant your head on my shoulder and instinctively I put my arm around you, pulling you close. You said again that I should come visit Europe with you, see Paris. I hardly knew you. How could I travel Europe, leave my world and move into yours? I couldn’t see it working, so I said maybe, though I knew I meant no. All I wanted was to go with you.
We sat in an all-night café, you told me about Paris, Germany and Belguim. I listened, stiring 2 sugar cubes into my coffee. Three stirs left, four stirs right. But I kept forgetting the number of stirs because I was lost in your talk of Europe. When you couldn’t supress another yawn you said goodnight, kissing me firm on the lips. You were so warm. I wanted your face on my face forever.
You told me to ask Shelia for your number and we’d meet again next time I was in the city, or you’d come and try out country life. I knew I’d never ask Shelia. I knew that would be the last time I’d see you. I watched you leave in your long mink coat, buttoned to the top to keep the cold out.
Time passed, as it does, in days, weeks, months and years. I never called you. I went back to my life up in the north, drinking cheap pints, eating ready meals at 6.30pm and walking to the top of the hill and back every morning.
Life was simple. I met Jane, a woman who lived down the road and we fell into something. She was plain too. She slotted perfectly into my life, so much that I hardly even noticed her. That was it for 50 years. She died and I still can’t notice that she is gone. Isn’t that terrible?
Did you see Paris? Did you travel the world? Or did you marry a Jane and get stuck in the wheel of mediocre life, or was that just me?
Some might be happy with the norm. The morning walk to the newspaper shop. The 10am coffee and two biscuits. The weekends in front of the telly. I thought I would be. But the whole time I’ve been looking for something else. Something more to set my blood on fire like you did that night we met.
Nothing has ever come close.
I’ve always had one eye open for it, but too afraid to investigate. Instead, I sit here, 80 years old, in a pair of slippers and a pipe at my lips, wondering how I’d look back at life now if I’d gone to Europe. If I’d let you drag me around on that leash forever.
Like they say, we only regret the things we didn’t do in the end. That age old cliché has never felt truer.