Would like to meet
This is a work of original fiction. The characters are mine and I'm rather possessive, so please don't steal them.
Synopsis: Who on earth still advertises in the lonely hearts? Who still answers them?
Thank you for inviting me to contribute, Stephanie. Everyone else, I hope you enjoy it.
“Who on earth still advertises in the lonely hearts? Who on earth still answers them?”
Emmy had a point. These days when everybody does everything online, meeting someone should be no exception. If it's not a dating site, it's friends of friends who become Facebook friends, who aren't really friends but become an intense distraction for a couple of weeks. You could probably pull in the chat room of Paddy Power Bingo if you put your mind to it.
I liked that this woman, Beth, this stranger I had no connection to, was brave enough to be the only Woman seeking Women in the local paper. She hadn't hidden in the safe anonymity of Gaydar or Pink Sofa. Her ad was there for the whole town to see, amongst the under-a-tenner classifieds. Reaching out to her wouldn't be a case of a hasty email or a flirty response to her comments on someone else's status update. I would have to get out my best stationery: my laid paper and lined envelopes, the fountain pen I got for passing my A levels. I would have to think about every word I wrote, watch for syntax and the legibility of my handwriting. Never things I worry about when confronted by that little box next to my avatar. I was tempted to spray the paper with perfume, to press a lipstick kiss on the back of envelope.
I liked that Beth wrote back straight away, the day my forwarded letter slipped onto her doormat. I liked her pale blue writing paper, the sort you have for thanking grannies and elderly aunties for Christmas and birthday presents; liked the way her writing sprawled its way across the page as if her thoughts could barely be contained. I sat and traced the loops with fingers, loving the curl of her Cs, the way she formed her As. At sixteen and in love with my best friend, I emulated the way she wrote her As. Eventually they mutated as my handwriting disintegrated into unravelled knitting, but that influence can still be seen: the influence of first love. Beth's writing looked as if it had a similar history. I liked that.
It's odd having a pen-friend when you're a grown up; odd but thrilling. Perhaps it was a memory of adolescence, or a reminder of the time I lived in a house with no phone and wrote to everyone instead, page after A4 page detailing the intricacies of my daily life because I couldn't be bothered to walk to the phone box unless it was an emergency. I've kept the return letters from the girlfriend who lived on the other side of town; they're tied up in a pink ribbon and kept in a shoe box, the neat handwriting of an Oxford English undergraduate. She even wrote me a poem once, something that's never happened on Facebook.
So like a schoolgirl with a crush on her French pen-friend, I wrote to Beth every day, saving up things to tell her: about the mist that clung to the sheds and pea poles in the allotments on the way to work, the sun pinking the sky behind the trees going home. I told her about the small daily victories and disappointments, and as the weeks progressed, the dreams and hopes I'd always kept wrapped up close and never told a soul.
“Are you two ever going to meet?”
Of course. After all, wasn't that the point of the exercise? But as soon as I said it, the doubts rose to the surface. What if I didn't like her in real life? Worse, what if she didn't like me? Would my openness be my undoing? Every magazine from Cosmopolitan to Jackie told me I should hold something back, to Maintain the Mystique. Perhaps I had told Beth too much and everything had moved beyond the point of potential romance. Mortified, I locked my writing paper back in the desk drawer and told myself I'd been a fool. I was still a fool six days later when I could barely lift my head from the pillow and drag myself into work. What was the point? I sat and gazed out of the window, watching the non-descript sky do nothing for hours except be overcast and unchanging. Grey and listless.
Grey and listless, I sat on the sofa and stared at the flickering television screen. A dark haired woman wearing an over-sized scarf and a balding man wearing a Crombie were trying to persuade a male couple to trade in their Battersea shoe box for a loft conversion in Leeds . The men seemed unconvinced. I wasn't bothered either way. If I could've summoned the energy, I'd have switched channels or turned the TV off altogether, but as it was I'd barely moved since I'd walked into the room at six o'clock. I hadn't made it as far as the kitchen to make a cup of tea, let alone dinner. It didn't matter. I wasn't hungry. Look at the glorious views the dark haired woman implored the two men, who wore identical polo shirts and glum expressions. It was turning out to be a harder sell than the dark haired woman had anticipated.
When I heard a door bell it took a couple of seconds to realise it was mine. I rarely got unexpected visitors unless I was home during the day, and it was a little late for meter readers or Jehovah's Witnesses. Momentarily I considered ignoring it but my response to phones and door bells is Pavlovian. I can't leave them; what if something serious has happened? As I walked down the hall, I could see the shape of someone through the frosted glass. Judging by the height, I guessed it was a woman, and was proved right when I opened the door and was face to face with a woman of about my height and age.
She was pretty, uncommonly pretty, beautiful really, and very obviously agitated. Her eyebrows were drawn almost together into the middle of her forehead over pale grey, anxious eyes. She was bouncing slightly from one foot to the other, her hands tightly clenched at her sides.
“Are you Stevie Reader?”
I nodded and then watched as relief washed over her face, pushing her eyebrows back to where they should be: arching over those glorious silver eyes.
“O thank God you're alright”
For a moment I was puzzled but then in instant I knew who she was.
It was her turn to nod.
“I – I hadn't heard from you for a few days and I thought something might've happened, and, God, you must think I'm such an idiot to come round like this – but I didn't know what else to do and – ”
The eyebrows were back in the middle of her forehead, her clenched hands thrust into her armpits as she ran out of rambling steam. An all too familiar gripping in my stomach almost overwhelmed me; after a childhood of living with my mother, I recognised guilt straight away, but there was another sensation that stood a good chance of subsuming it. A tickle and then a fluttering in my rib cage that felt something like joy. This woman, this uncommonly pretty, this beautiful woman had been worried and had come looking for me. Me , Stevie Reader, she'd come looking for me . I fought hard, and almost successfully, to suppress the grin that threatened to split my face wide open. After a moment of delighted gloating I realised that Beth was shivering; she wasn't wearing a coat and was still on the doorstep.
“Please, please come in”
Beth followed me in and when I asked her to take a seat, she sat down on the edge of the sofa as if I might suddenly change my mind and she could make a quick getaway. She was rigid with tension; I wanted to soothe her but didn't know how.
“Can I get you anything?”
She shook her head.
“Are you sure? I was about to make myself a cup of tea”
Okay, that was a lie but only a small one. A forgivable one, and earned me a smile from Beth.
“A cup of tea would be nice”
When I walked back into the living room a minute and a half later, Beth was still on the edge, her eyebrows drawn, her hands clenching and relaxing, clenching and relaxing. Suddenly she couldn't wait any longer and blurted:
“Stevie, did I do something wrong?”
I sat down next to her and took one of her hands in mine. Beth had told me that she was a landscape gardener, so it was no surprise that her hand was a little rough and callused. It was a strong, capable hand. I liked that. I'd taken it to calm her, and myself as I felt a wave of embarrassment and shame churn in my stomach. I couldn't meet her eyes even though I knew she was looking at me.
“I – erm – I got scared and panicked”
There was a thin silver scar between the knuckles of her middle and index fingers. It stood out against the rest of her skin which was still tanned even in February. It gave her a vulnerability that squeezed at my heart. I still couldn't make eye contact, and when I spoke, I found myself stroking the scar with the edge of my thumb.
“I was afraid that you wouldn't like me in real life, and then I thought I'd told you too much, that I'd ruined everything”
“But I liked what you wrote”
I looked up into eyes that were as soft as her voice. I gave her a half smile.
“I never said I was rational”
Beth shifted her position until she was facing me, and took my other hand in hers. In the kitchen the kettle came to a furious boil and switched itself off, but I couldn't pull myself away from those grey eyes or the fingers that linked with mine. A cup of tea would be nice, but not just yet. We sat quietly for a moment, then Beth looked down at our joined hands and sighed. When she spoke, her voice was barely more than a whisper, as if she was talking to herself.
“On the first day when there wasn't a letter, I was a bit disappointed but I told myself that maybe you'd been busy or it was stuck in the post. I mean, that does happen, doesn't it? I told myself that on the second day too. That it was all the Royal Mail's fault, like those postcards you know were sent but you never receive. Then I told myself it didn't matter if you weren't in touch everyday, that this was good. I was getting too dependent on you for my well-being and happiness, and that wasn't healthy. But no amount of rationalisation made me feel better. I missed you so much”
Her voice caught on that admission. She let go of my right hand to run shaking fingers over her forehead, blocking my view of her eyes. I wanted to take her hand again but I didn't feel like I could. I'd caused this unhappiness for no good reason than my own insecurities.
Beth dropped her hand into her lap but kept her eyes closed. This close to her I could see that she had another scar; one that bisected her eyebrow. It looked like an exclamation mark lying on its side. Some people would have thought it an imperfection, but not me. A wave of tenderness surged through me and before I could stop myself, I was reaching out to touch her bifurcated eyebrow with the tips of my fingers, causing Beth's eyelids to flutter open and our eyes to meet.
“Beth, I'm sorry”
Her smile was small but genuine.
“I don't mind”
Heat poured into my face and for a moment I broke eye contact.
“I meant for hurting you”
Her fingers squeezed mine until I looked back up. Her smile had widened, causing the tickling sensation behind my ribs to return: a sensation I was starting to associate with Beth. I liked it.
“I'm glad you came over”
“Me too. It wasn't how I intended us meeting. Actually, I was – I was going to ask you if you wanted to have dinner with me on Monday”
“On Monday? You mean – ”
“I understand if you don't want to – I mean I kno – ”
Beth didn't finish her sentence. It was difficult for her to speak with my mouth pressed to hers, her surprise a huff of breath against my lips. I leant back and looked into soft, slightly dazed eyes.
“I would love to have dinner with you on Valentine's Day, you soppy cow”
O I liked that smile. I could bask in the warmth of that smile all day and never get tired of it.
“How about that cup of tea now?”
“I'd like that”