ACHING

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By Maureen Clarke

Maureen says:  I’ve written all my life, getting my first story published in Bunty in 1958. I’ve recently moved from Leicestershire to London. It is proving to be an exciting experience, with lots of writing possibilities. I am overwhelmed by the absurdities of the capital and hope I’m not too overpowered and delighted to write. 

I park the car in the central car park, planning to walk the ten minutes he said it would take to get to the restaurant. I realise straightaway the shoes are a mistake. What possessed me to wear the bloody things? New shoes. Cute shoes. Shoes that a young girl would wear for a rendezvous with a man. Why am I trying to look young? 

I was little more than a child the last time I saw him but that was years ago and he knows that. When we were last together we had only known each other for a few weeks and because I was so young, my parents wouldn’t hear of my taking him home. I wonder if I will even recognise him after all this time. 

It’s a busy street and I hobble along, apologising for bumping into folk. The story of my life. The shoes are just one of many mistakes. The man I’m meeting knows the biggest one. 

I make myself slow down and sit on a low wall to slip off a shoe and rub my toes. There’s sweat on my upper lip and ruddy great moths in my belly. 

I have to do this. My whole future could depend on my doing this. I just wish I hadn’t worn these shoes. 

Now, where did he say . . . sod it! I’ve left it in the car. What did he say was the name of the place . . . Queen something? Ah, this looks like it. Queen’s Head. Must be a pub. I thought he said restaurant in the letter, but never mind, pubs are always a bit dark which must be a plus, and I’ve got time to sink some Dutch courage before he gets here. It would be funny if he had the same idea as me. 

Okay, girl. Let’s have a bit of dignity as you walk in, just in case.

In the last second before opening the door, I pull the pink rose bud from my coat and slip it into my pocket, just in case. I’ll put it back when I’ve made myself presentable. 

A quick visit to the Ladies and I return to the large open-plan bar which seems to have tipped out its lunchtime crowd, leaving only a few die-hards. He’s not here. 

I order a large glass of Chablis, perch on a bar stool and swivel slightly so that I’m facing the door. The barman asks if I’m waiting for someone and I smile and tell him I’m not sure yet. When his friendly expression changes to one of suspicion combined with doubt, I smile again: at the idea of a 44-year-old working girl – me – propping up his bar. My warped sense of humour has me thinking of subtle ways I might encourage this misconception. For my own entertainment, you understand. 

Two glasses later, the clock behind the bar says 3.30 and I realise, a little smugly, that it is he and not I who has bottled it. I really don’t want to leave.  Even two glasses of wine are not enough to ease the pain in my toes. Or, more importantly, encourage me to weep in a public bar and make a complete fool of myself. 

I don’t want to think about what has happened to him. He isn’t here and I’m going home. I’ll do my crying there, where I usually do it. But first these bloody shoes have to go and I must eat if I’m going to drive home. 

I reach into my pocket and my fingers touch rose petals. I pull it out to find it droopy and faded. 

Across the road, next to a restaurant called Victoria’s, I notice one of those little boutiques that sell everything from crystals to handbags. In the window I see just the thing: soft grey ballet pumps. Slippers really, but what the hell? Who cares if some batty old girl goes swanning down the street in a coat and slippers? 

I notice the man at the checkout because in his hand he has one of those virulent pink and purple hair ornaments, all diamante and feathers. Hideous, and just the sort of thing I would have worn if they’d been around then. 

He sees me looking and smiles at me. That smile takes my breath away and I gasp to breathe again because it is his father’s smile. He reaches out and takes me hand and leads me to a nearby seat. 

“I’d know you anywhere,” he says, and holds up the feathers hairpiece. “It’s for my daughter and she’s got her grandmother’s eyes. How did we miss each other?”

I shake my head, and I weep, in public.