A short story by
The wind whistled down the High Street, scattering litter and leaves over home-bound commuters. A piece of wet newspaper wrapped itself round Diane Povey's ankles; she kicked it away and pulled her collar closer around her ears.
Darn. It was not the pleasantest evening to be kept hanging about, barely under cover, waiting for her daughter. "Come to the first showing, Mum!" Ellen had said on the phone. "I know you want to see that movie. It's had great reviews. That Michael Caine is supposed to be marvellous." The invitation had been pressed on her, since Ellen's latest boyfriend Joe was out of town: "Bit miserable spending Valentine's night on my own, Mum. Do me a favour, come with me then we can have a meal after and a natter."
Diane found a tissue and blew her nose. Beside her at the cinema entrance a small queue was forming, mostly couples, some hand-in-hand. The tickets nestled in her pocket next to her mobile; that was her side of the bargain, then Ellen would buy the dinner. They had a lot to catch up on, though it was an odd evening to be doing it.
It hadn't occurred to the girl, of course, that Diane herself might have been feeling a bit low on this date. She took it for granted that her mother was free, and was not wrong. It was more than six years since the death of Ellen's father; six long years since any man had taken her out, to a film or show or a candlelit supper on this cold winter's night.
Kids! How cruel they could be, how wrapped up in their own affairs. How unwilling to recognise that parents were human too, with emotions, and needs. They had not brought up their children to be selfish, and Diane was sure that, had she uttered a word, her daughter would have been contrite; but the thought should have been there in the first place. It was the way of the modern world, moving so fast, with barely a moment's consideration for anyone else. Especially for the generation that had gone before, as if being over thirty meant that a person no longer counted.
Diane studied the film posters and caught a glimpse of herself in the glass. Chestnut brown hair, a bit unkempt in the wind, but heavy and shiny, the colour still gloriously her own. Her face a little more lined than it had been at thirty, or even forty, but that was inevitable; when she smiled, her eyes lit up with amusement. Neither tall nor short and still relatively slim, the result of walking everywhere, for choice; when Douglas had been so ill she had taken to long energetic trudges in order to empty her brain, anywhere, setting off along footpaths with a map and old hiking boots till she could return to the sickroom hours later, refreshed and ruddy-faced. She had regaled him with what she encountered, the pheasants in the lane, a ragged scarecrow up a hill, or the cottage windows dressed for Christmas. He had squeezed her fingers and shared her delight, until one morning he had held her hand no more.
The cinema doors opened letting out a flood of stuffy air and the queue began to move. It was quite dark now, with street lamps bathing the whole area in a garish yellow glow. Not the most flattering light, Diane reflected. She worked for a film company which made television documentaries, a job which had seemed glamorous when she was younger and which kept her going reasonably well after her widowhood. The money was handy, the people mostly hard-working and creative and it helped keep her busy. Ellen had preferred the City, an investment bank where she earned many multiples of her mother's income, but most importantly it was a job the girl adored, though it tended to encroach on her personal life.
In Diane's pocket the mobile bleeped. It was Ellen, a text message.
"Mum sorry...got to stay late. You go in, I'll get there later. Love you lots. Ellen."
With a shiver of disappointment Diane turned to the poster again. There wasn't much time to decide, but she did have the tickets and she did want to see the movie. The alternative was to cross the road to one of the small cafés or restaurants and waste a couple of hours alone… but then she might miss her daughter and the whole evening would be spoiled. She hesitated.
"Good evening. Would you by any chance be Mrs Povey?"
Diane nodded uncertainly. The man was tall, well dressed in a navy blue overcoat. A black fedora hat half hid a broad brow, a square lean face and a moustache. What hair was visible was silvered, but he was not elderly. In his gloved hands was a bunch of red roses in cellophane. He tipped his hat brim in a curiously old-fashioned gesture.
"I thought so - you have the same hair as Ellen. Horrid night, isn't it? I'm Joe's father - Matthew Lewis. Is she not here yet?"
Diane was puzzled. Joe? That was Ellen's boyfriend, the one who was away. They had been going out for several months; Ellen's conversations had been full of him. On the brief occasions when she had introduced him to her mother, Diane had been quietly impressed. But young people these days thought of nothing but their careers, so the relationship might come to nought; it did not do to set up false hopes.
"No, she's going to be late. I've just had a text message," Diane answered. "I thought Joe was out of town?"
"He was, but he got back yesterday and badgered me to come along. He called it a double double - the idea, I think was that we would be a foursome. The two youngsters and us as chaperones, I guess." He paused, removed his hat and ran a gloved hand over his hair. "Well, that's no great problem. He's on his way. He asked me to pick up these roses. I had mentioned I was keen to see this film, so here I am."
Diane showed the two tickets. "Me, too," she explained with a rueful laugh. "I thought I was being helpful getting here early. Kids! However much you teach them, they just aren't as reliable as we were brought up to be, are they, Mr Lewis?"
He grinned. "Perhaps we were the same with our elders. I can remember being astonished that my mother was terribly upset when I forgot her birthday - I hadn't a clue it would matter so much. I'm Matthew. You're - Diane, isn't it?"
Diane was suddenly guarded. He was respectful and well-mannered, and clean and smart, but surrounded as they were by bustling commuters and shoppers she felt hideously self-conscious. "Yes, that's right," she answered formally and held out her hand. He shook it and tipped his brim again. Her eyes strayed upwards and he chuckled.
"This blasted hat? It puts everyone off. It's simply that after years in the army I feel half-dressed if I go bare-headed. Anyway, it keeps my head warm."
"No, I think it's rather - dashing." To her horror Diane could feel herself blush. "It must make you easy to find in a crowd." A gust of rain blew in her face. "Better than an umbrella, anyway."
He glanced skywards. "Look, it's about to tipple down. Why don't we wait inside?"
He held out his arm. What an unusual man he was, with these little gentlemanly gestures and his trim moustache, as if he had been reared in a different century. Her first instinct was to demur, indeed to go home without further ado, but that could be interpreted as going off in a huff. His suggestion made sense. When Joe arrived he would buy his ticket anyway; she would refuse any offers of reimbursement, to retain her dignity and independence. It would however be rude to hesitate any longer. This argument she would allow the chap in the hat to win, just for now. She accepted his arm and they entered.
It would be another ten minutes till the main feature. The cinema was a local independent with two tiny theatres and one larger one, where the Graham Green adaptation was being shown. Several customers were crammed into a narrow bar; the atmosphere was convivial and cheerful. Diane loosened her coat as he ordered two glasses of red wine. The roses lay on the counter, their petals and glossy leaves studded with raindrops.
It was necessary to be polite, or at least not too frosty. That would only make matters worse. Diane's defences were so habitual that it required some effort to recall how to make conversation with a relative stranger. But she was also curious. "So why didn't Joe suggest that Mrs Lewis should come?" she asked as she sipped the wine. It was a merlot, quite drinkable. He had taken off his hat and folded the leather gloves inside.
"Because there isn't a Mrs Lewis," came the reply. The voice seemed studiously neutral but he kept his eyes on his glass. "She left three years ago. In Abu Dhabi where I was serving as an adviser. Fell in love with the businessman next door, and that was that. I quit the army at the next opportunity and came back."
"God, how awful." Diane could not stop herself. "You must have been very hurt."
"Probably." He lifted his head and she could see brown eyes full of sorrow. "If I had been aware she was unhappy…but I wasn't. My own fault, I guess. I took hasty decisions then about leaving which I do regret now - I loved the army and could have done another turn. Now I advise security firms but it's not the same."
"Do you get lonely?" Diane could have bitten her tongue out, but then she saw that he treated this as a kindly inquiry, not as a play for him. She held her breath as he answered, then realised she need not have worried.
"Sometimes, naturally. But to be truthful, it took so much effort to find somewhere to live, to settle into a new career, and to re-establish oneself - as a human being - that I haven't cared too much about all that. Civvie street alone has been a huge culture shock. The divorce was awful. I wouldn't want to go through that again. So I don't dwell on it."
The barman leaned across. "The film is about to start. If you don't take your seats now, you'll miss the beginning."
"Oh!" Diane jumped. "But where's Joe? We can't go in without him."
"Oh, yes we can." Joe's father downed the rest of his glass. "If he hasn't the decency to turn up on time.. come on. When Joe eventually arrives, full of excuses, he can get his own ticket and find us. No doubt he will." He helped her to her feet.
"But what about…?" She pointed at the bouquet, now looking so forlorn.
"It was supposed to be for your daughter from my son. But what the hell. Allow me.." he said, and with a sweeping gesture placed them in her arms.
It was strange, this sensation of a man's firm hand on hers as they found their seats. Unfamiliar, to hear his quiet breathing, to be acutely aware of a living flesh-and-blood body next to her own. He made no attempt to touch her, though in one exciting part of the film she almost clutched him, springing back as she realised what she had nearly done. On her lap the roses nestled as if they had been intended for her, which sadly they weren't. Never mind; her pulse was beating faster than for ages.
It had been out of the question, dates with other men. Douglas had been so precious, the months spent nursing him so desperate and burned into her memory, that she had wanted no one else. She had enough funds to manage, enough activity to keep herself occupied, enough friends both at work and outside not to get bored. The sex thing had not mattered that much to her when she was married, so its lack had not disturbed her too greatly. Indeed, solitude had its positive side; she could read a good book without being disturbed whenever she wanted too. Her health was excellent, a great blessing. In many ways she had a lot to be thankful for.
Last year Ellen had begun a sentence, "Mum, you know that if you ever wanted to get married again…" But Diane had stopped her. "It won't happen. I'm not a dried-up old spinster; I've had a wonderful life, and will make the most of whatever years are ahead of me. Your father would have expected no less. But other men? No, thank you." More recently, as the girl enthused about Joe, Diane had intercepted similar hints, but without rancour. Her daughter was concerned about her welfare, that was all, and needed reassurance that there was no problem to fret over.
But.. loneliness crept in, some nights, and shivered under the bedclothes with her. Hours of blackness when she was too conscious of being alone, with no warm body beside her. It had been her habit to listen to the tempo of Douglas's breathing, particularly once his illness was diagnosed; those nights when he slept well gave them both the strength to carry on. Without him, the silence could be overpowering, suffocating. Those were the nights she dozed only fitfully, and woke to find the pillow damp with tears.
And now here was this man, sitting at her side, filling up his seat with a solidity and manliness which made her catch her breath; his damp coat folded on his lap, his hands with that extraordinary hat. The dark hid his features, except that he glanced at her and smiled; then his attention turned back to the screen, as if unwilling to embarrass her. He was a stranger, this man, this - Matthew, and yet not really; she had heard a great deal about Joe, and had begun mentally to prepare herself to welcome him as a son-in-law. Perhaps she should have been nosier about his family, but it was not her way.
The movie was drawing to its end. The outcome was sad; were her eyes pricking because of the tragedy on the screen, or because her own reflections had made her grieve? As the lights went up and the credits rolled she was dabbing her eyes and started guiltily. Matthew was standing over her.
"Oh, it was a lovely movie," she explained, trying not to sniff as she fastened her coat. "Don't take any notice of me. I'm an old softie. Wasn't Michael Caine great? Such a brilliant actor."
She wondered if she was babbling on, but he supported her gracefully: "You're absolutely right. He's over seventy and still a master at his craft. Maybe there's hope for us all?"
Outside it was still damp and cold but the wind had dropped. They stood together uncertainly as she held the roses close. Matthew set the hat on his head but kept his gloves in his hand. He glanced up and down the street. "I shall have words with my son, when I see him," he remarked grimly.
"No, don't be too hard on him," Diane protested. "I'm sure he didn't mean to let us down. Anyway, I am so glad you insisted that we go in. The film was great and I have thoroughly enjoyed myself." She did not add, "in your company." That would have been too forward. And too close to the truth.
"Me too," he answered promptly. "I haven't been to a movie in ages. Maybe I should do this more often. Am I right in thinking you're in the film business?"
"Sort of," Diane laughed. "But not at this level. Otherwise I'd be getting free tickets and probably go too often. But I can see how it's done, how a particular effect is produced, and that's interesting."
Matthew was gazing straight at her. "I should like to hear more, but if you don't mind, somewhere warmer than on the street. There's an Italian place round the corner - Joe phoned and was lucky enough to get a table. Are you hungry? How about something to eat?"
"Oh, I can't…" she trailed off.
"Nonsense. Of course you can. And I owe you something - can't let a woman take me to the pictures, now can I? Come along. Take my arm."
She took a deep breath. It would do no harm, not this once. Two old fools with nothing much better to do, at least for the next couple of hours. It wasn't as if anyone was watching. And the roses were hers. She slipped her arm through his.
"Oh, well. Why not? As long as I can pay my share…"
In a tiny café on the far side of the street two young people pushed away their plates and clinked glasses.
"Yesss!!!" said the girl, punching the air in delight.
"Hush," said the young man, "keep your head down. We don't want them to see us."
The girl ducked behind her menu and peered through the plate glass window. On the table sat her mobile phone, next to Joe's. "I don't think they can. They seem quite wrapped up in each other. I was bothered about deceiving them, Joe, but it's working a treat. Don't they make a fine pair?"
"No finer than us, my darling, my Ellen," the boy replied. "Bloody good idea of yours. Especially the flowers - that was inspired. Now, what about us? We will just be in time for the second showing. Have you got the tickets? Then let's go…"
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