did she say she had a husband?

Barry was standing at the back of the crowded, dark basement bar room, near the rear door, watching the speaker at the other end.  Poor lighting meant he could only make out the dazzle of the speaker’s bald pate, and his silhouette.  The words were good though, he could certainly talk.

Behind Barry the rear door swished and he half turned around, smiling instinctively as he squeezed himself against the wall to allow her past, down the steps and into the mesh of people.  Cute, short, a frizzy dark bob, trim shape.  I may have to introduce myself during the networking afterwards, Barry thought.  But Barry thought that about practically every attractive female in the room.  There were several.

The silhouette spoke on, took questions and eventually finished.  Barry left the basement to go outside and make a call.  He returned to find that she hadn’t progressed far into the room and was chatting to a tall, thick-set young guy.  Barry introduced himself to them, noting that the young man imparticular was keen and fully charged to network.

They said what they did and swapped cards.  She was attractive, Canadian, smart, dryly funny and had a similar line of work to Barry.

During his brief trip outside, Barry had unwittingly collected pollen: his eyes stung and his nose twitched.  In the dark, full basement room of loud blaring chatter, the reverb of Barry’s voice inside his head resulted in a tickling sensation within nose cavities.  This led to onslaughts of sneezing, nose running and eye weeping.

It wasn’t pretty.

It also blotted out his hearing.  She spoke at length and he nodded, mimicking her expressions, as is done when one isn’t hearing everything clearly but doesn’t wish to stall the conversational flow every few seconds.  He continued to paw at his left eye, more weepy than his right, surreptitiously graze his nose to check that it wasn’t dripping in an unsightly fashion.  A couple of times Barry broke off to sneeze and visited the gents to splash his face, leaving them to chat together.

He returned, freshened, everything sucked in or blown out.

It’s often the case that publicity, advertising, marketing people have artistic aspirations, sidelines, extracurricular projects or hobbies.  Hers appeared to be more than aspirations, she was firmly on the road to realising a few and they discussed that, slowly marginalising their other company.  She mentioned ‘..-husband,’ her husband(?)

Did she?
Was that what she said?
Bollocks.

Barry nodded, still not quite following as she spoke quickly, interestingly and in depth, swinging from subject to subject.  He didn’t want to lose her.

Barry’s symptoms gradually passed, his hearing cleared, helped by the slow trickle of people out of the bar.  He felt able to speak for longer than ten seconds without the tickling reverb in his head.  So they carried on chatting: arts, books and films, stories found in sport.  There was a distinct lack of networking.  He bought her a drink.

After an hour or so they realised they should make an effort with other people in the room and broke off to join a group of male suits who their original, motivated company was now speaking to.

Hands were shaken and so what do you do?s swapped.  They were largely uninteresting.  Barry split away to another group he partly already knew, always mindful of her behind him.

A short time later he joined her again, sitting at a table with another pair, this time more interesting.  He wondered how they, he and her, appeared to their new company.  They were both borderline drunk now and reasonably familiar – apart from the minor detail of him not being sure whether or not she was married.  “You work together or..?” one of their new company asked.  She fiddled with a roll-up cigarette, which surprised Barry because she didn’t look like a smoker.

“You want to smoke?” Barry asked her, having qualified the nature of their relationship, breaking away from the wider conversation for a moment.

“Yeah, you?”

“No, I don’t, but I’ll come, get some fresh air.”

Don’t want anyone else pouncing on you.

“You’ll come up and watch me smoke?”

I’d watch you clean toilets, you’re very attractive..

“I have my book,” Barry said, lamely, referring to a glossy book of photography which their interesting company had just donated.  His attraction to her was probably transparent now, his lack of will to leave her.  How much did he care?  Best not to think about it.

Outside they discussed health, smoking and drinking.  She said she’d taken up smoking aged 29 after her divorce from a childhood sweetheart she’d been with since she was 17.  It had been a rebellion of sorts.  She didn’t look too much older than 29 to Barry as it was; mid thirties tops.  Superb condition.

But.. hang on, a divorce? Barry’s brain recoiled.  Had she been referring to an ex husband earlier, or a current one?  Had his hayfevery hearing blotted out the all important word ‘ex’?  She barely looked old enough to have gone through two marriages.  So was she married now, or not?

Just ask her?
No, can’t do that.

She proposed leaving there and then, although she had a drink waiting for her downstairs from our original company.  Barry said his jacket was back downstairs too, so they returned.  She said she couldn’t drink all of her new Rum and Coke and asked if they could share.  Barry accepted.

The room was thin with people.  Under a dozen remained and their modest appetite for networking had fully evaporated.  She mentioned an artistic feminism side project she was working on but uncomfortable talking about.  Barry sensitively probed for detail, offered liberal male input.

Lights came on and the basement bar looked like closing.  She went to the ladies, Barry went to the gents.  Shit.  She was amazing.  But she had a husband, did she?  What was the score? he silently asked his reflection.  It didn’t know either.  They had implicitly agreed to leave together, if only to step out of the door of the bar.  Why?

Was there more to this?  What was going on?
Barry hated this shit, would he ever get less rubbish at it?

They emerged onto the upper, ground floor bar at roughly the same time and from separate ends of the room.  They stepped out onto the street.

“Gotta get back then,” she said, looking slightly drunk now, but still beautiful, Barry thought, newly unsure of herself perhaps.  If you just mention your husband again I’ll know where we are.  Go on, mention your husband and I’ll walk away.

“Where you heading?” she asked.

“Um, I’ll probably just walk back through to Waterloo,” I said.

“You’ll walk to Waterloo?  From here?”

“Yeah, it’s not so far.”

Why did you say that, why don’t you just walk with her to the tube?  Idiot.

They did nice to meet yous, Barry kissed her on both cheeks, noting that she smelled brilliant.  Was there anything else? Was he being a fuckwit or just a dickhead?  Would a stronger, more confident, more assertive alpha male just Do Something at this point – regardless of whether or not she had a husband?  Risk the embarrassment and probable rejection.  She hadn’t spoken about him much; hardly at all, if she had one.  That one fleeting mention.

‘Did you say you had a husband?’ he could ask.

He didn’t.  He turned round and walked south.  She walked north to the tube, a five minute walk.  Barry paused after several steps, looked round.  She was dawdling, idling slowly, holding a phone and another roll up cigarette.  You could’ve at least seen her to the tube, Barry chided himself.  Used the tube yourself, instead of walking.  Dickhead.

Why do you always do this? he continued to slay himself.  Do absolutely nothing.  You know why: zero confidence when it really matters, zilch belief combined with a deadly risk aversion to potential embarrassment, meaning you always do nothing.

Still time though, here and now, if you wanted to sacrifice your dignity.  She’s still there, you could.

Befuddled by booze and the raging voices, Barry did it.  He turned on his heel and walked back up the road, feeling nervous and scared and like a stalker.  Still she was still dawdling, walking slowly without purpose, playing with her phone.

Barry got within fifteen yards, could almost smell her scent again, sensed that she was about to turn around.  He was close, this was terrifying.  She paused again to glance at her phone.  Barry leapt into a doorway.

What the FUCK was he doing?  Barry rested his head against cool marble.  You UTTER schoolboy.

He glanced around the corner to see her lazily walk into the tube station.  Barry slapped his forehead with the glossy book of photography he was somehow still clasping, lost, in no-man’s land.  She’d gone in, descended to the platforms.

You are pretty much stalking her now, aren’t you, you freak? Barry told himself as he passed through the barriers.  This was mindless punishment.  No, not mindless.  His mind was working overtime, it just wasn’t producing much that was helpful, chundering out bilge and idiotic decisions at will.  Barry heard a tube arrive beneath him as he descended the steps and jumped down the last few to see the tube, its doors dead ahead, the window next to them and the back of her lovely frizzy bobbed head.  She was there, still; no more than five smart footsteps away.

The doors stayed open for several moments, teasing Barry as he stood at the bottom of the steps, paralysed.  Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, chicken shit.

But was she married?  Did it matter?

She’s just there!  Last chance, idiot!  ACT!

Or don’t act, like usual.  Do nothing, except chase her up the street, into the tube station and almost into the tube, like a creepy weird schoolboy psycho.

Quick chirruping beeps saw the doors close and the tube hum away.  Barry remained standing, frozen still, excepting a slow headbutt of the shiny stone wall to his left.  Hard enough to hurt a bit – not hard enough to really hurt, draw blood or bruise or anything like that.  You’re just a fuckup, aren’t you?

Barry forlornly made his way to the other platform, hating himself, his immortal haplessness in this hideously complicated line of things.  Was he guilty of overplaying this one in his head too?  Maybe.  In femaleworld she’d likely had an amusing evening, albeit mostly with one bloke who she’d told early on she had a husband – so that was fine.  Although she mentioned him little thereafter.

On his own tube, Barry retrieved her card from his back pocket. Was a text message a bad idea?  It could confirm whether or not she had a husband, effectively exonerate him from fuckwittage and return him back into familiar dickhead environment.

Hope you got back safe, Barry typed, it was good meeting, I considered acting but it was probably best I didn’t.

Ack.  That was a bit… too much?  Barry paused over the send button, but not for too long as the signal was sporadic.  Took a breath, fuck it, clicked send.

Who is this? came back the reply two minutes later. Barry smiled initially, thinking it a genuine reflection of how long he had stayed in her memory.  Not long at all.  What was he worrying about?  Nobody remembers you even if you’ve spent three solid hours in their company.  You’re eminently forgettable, Barry, however compelling you might hope you are at the time.  His chest lightened, he flicked through the photobook.

A second message a minute later claimed it was a joke from an overly sarcastic (and married) Canadian X.

So she WAS married!  Brilliant! Great news, Barry thought. He had no reason to be proud of his peculiar behaviour, but at least he was now free, spared from further humiliation. The dunce cuffs were off.

Or were they?

In that moment outside the bar – for everything is comprised of moments of action or inaction – when he ridiculously didn’t even walk her to the tube and prolong their parting until there; in that moment her status barely mattered.  Unease or uncertainty sat in alcohol washed eyes, untrusting, perhaps of herself more than him.  If Barry had been stronger and more direct, like friends of his whose behaviour he didn’t necessarily always admire but…

Ethically unsound if she was married, sure.  But was HE really obliged to care that much?  Should he have just been bold and selfish and fatalistic.  Although bold and selfish and fatalistic wasn’t Barry’s forté.  Dithering in the key moments was where he excelled; in that domain he was virtually untouchable.  Like England and penalties.  Guaranteed to bottle it, lose and feel sorry for himself after the event.

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