In the dining room, the waitress who served them yesterday signals towards the breakfast buffet and invites them to help themselves. She asks if they’d like tea or coffee. Toast?
As she leaves, Charlotte reaches over to place her hand on Sean’s. Instinctively he smiles. Soon, the waitress returns with a pot of tea and slices of toast in a rack, and Sean frees his hand to let her set them down.
The hotel dining room is loud with the chatter of voices and the scraping of crockery. The ceiling is high, and the walls, a pale mustard, are peeling in places. He says he’ll look after her handbag while she fetches her food. She’ll have cereal followed by tinned fruit and yogurt, he knows, and then some of the mini pastries although she won’t be able to eat them all. Eyes bigger than my belly, she’ll say.
He sips his tea and glances round as he waits for her to return, recognising many of the faces at the tables nearby, mainly couples but with some solitary men whom he presumes are in London on business.
‘I love hotel breakfasts,’ she says, sitting down, her bowl of Cornflakes brimming.
Sean nods. At the buffet he picks a croissant from a basket and a small jar of raspberry jam; he doesn’t feel hungry this morning. He catches her looking over to him and gestures his acknowledgement at having seen her. Her eyes brighten and she gives one of her short waves.
He takes a longer route back to his seat to check that their small suitcases are still by the desk where they came in. They’ll check out after breakfast and leave their luggage at the hotel while they head towards Buckingham Palace and stroll round Green Park, returning for them to catch their train at 3pm from King’s Cross. He’s looking forward to getting home. This weekend break was her suggestion. He’d initially refused but she’d persuaded him. To make things right, she’d said.
She is thirty-two, he now in the wilderness he refers to between thirty-five and forty. They met soon after her thirtieth birthday, in a pub in Leeds as he leant against the bar, his friend, Mike, away chatting up a woman somewhere. Bored, Sean was going to leave once he’d finished his pint, when Charlotte appeared next to him. It was her deep brown eyes that he noticed first, and her rising smile.
He told her that she had beautiful eyes, and Charlotte giggled nervously. She said she’d been told that when she was put together, the eyes she should have been given had gone missing, and another pair had been hurriedly found, a temporary measure, until the originals could be located, but they never were. When he asked if she was alone, she had rolled her eyes, those beautiful eyes, and told him that her friend had gone looking for a suitable man for her. I tried to stop her, she said. He remembers the feeling of disappointment, and looking round for a woman escorting a potential suitor for Charlotte, but was elated when Ellie appeared alone. She was slim, dirty blond, and in her late 20s he guessed. She had an easy, confident manner, tipped by a flirtatious air he knew men would easily succumb to. When Sean concentrated his discussions at Charlotte, Ellie seemed put out, as if surprised that he would prefer speaking to Charlotte rather than her.
They began seeing each other regularly after that, and Sean never understood why Charlotte was so self-deprecating about her looks. She was beautiful. She complained about her nose being a bit too big (it wasn’t) and the scar she’d had since a girl on her cheek, although Sean struggled to see it until she pointed it out. He laughed at her comment that she was on the plump side of slim and had grown into the slimmer side of fat. He held her and told her not to be so silly.
Charlotte leans over to remove a fleck of food from the side of his mouth.
‘Did you sleep well?’ she asks, as she had done earlier when he’d climbed out of bed.
‘Very well,’ he says. ‘You?’
‘Love big hotel beds,’ she says, her voice childish and excited.
Charlotte watches him break his croissant and spread a small amount of raspberry jam on it. She longs for him to look up and acknowledge her, to tell her he’d had a nice time this weekend, to confirm that they are alright again now.
Over Sean’s shoulder Charlotte notices a blond woman a few tables away. She has her back to her, and for a second Charlotte is sure it’s Ellie. Her chest tightens as the thoughts she’d been trying to supress rise up in her. Then she turns to one side and Charlotte sees her face in profile. It isn’t her. Sean looks up at that point and she feels silly at her mistake, her cheeks hot.
She’s made an effort all weekend to remain upbeat and she smiles now, but it doesn’t feel convincing, even to her.
Charlotte thinks of Ellie and the night she’d first met Sean. Ellie had recently joined Clark & White where Charlotte was a secretary. Ellie said a new bar had opened in town and would she like to go with her? She was drunk early on in the evening, having finished off a bottle of wine before she went out, and danced in the bar, her arm raised, holding a bottle of Sol, and her eyes closed, lost in the music. She wore a short black skirt, and had enviably slim legs. Charlotte told her she wished she could wear something like that. When Ellie returned alone after searching for a man for Charlotte, her lipstick was smudged, as if she’d been kissing, and had raised her eyebrows when she saw her speaking to Sean.
‘You’re a sly one,’ she said, swaying gently, as if on a ship. She suggested they went to the Ladies.
‘He’s gorgeous,’ Ellie said as they stood by the sinks.
Charlotte couldn’t stop grinning and felt her lips would join up at the back of her head. She noticed Ellie glancing in the direction of the bar as if she could see through the wall, to Sean.
‘I saw him first,’ Charlotte said quickly, but at once felt any grip she had on him to be tenuous. She wasn’t sure whether she should have left him now, and wondered whether he’d still be there when she returned.
Out of the cubicle, Charlotte reapplied her lipstick and fixed her hair. Ellie hadn’t yet appeared, and Charlotte briefly hesitated before calling out to her: ‘I’ll see you back inside.’
They check out and take the Piccadilly line to Green Park. The leaves have started to change colour; he loves the browns and the oranges that line the path. Charlotte talks of what they could do when they get back home.
‘Not that I want to hurry our time away here,’ she adds, and links her arm with his, burrowing her cheek in his shoulder. He squeezes his arm tighter, bringing her in. She’s always been more tactile than him. He used to find it endearing, and she would often hold him at any time in the house for no apparent reason. It became a running joke that she would do so as he made them tea.
‘I just need to get some milk,’ he would say as she clung onto him.
‘That’s OK,’ she said. ‘But I’m not moving.’
And so he shifted towards the fridge as she held him, her feet resting on his, her arms tightly around his waist. She managed to hold on while he picked the milk from the fridge, step back towards the kettle and pour it into their mugs.
‘Still not moving,’ she said
He laughed and couldn’t stop. It kept coming back and forth over him in waves.
The sun breaks free of a cluster of clouds and warms his face. They are standing by the railings by Buckingham Palace along with other tourists, looking in.
‘I wonder what the Queen thinks of the people gawking at her?’ Charlotte asks. ‘All that constant intrusion.’
Sean looks at her, studies her face. ‘I imagine she’s used to it. As anyone can be, I suppose. She’s known nothing else.’
‘Intense,’ she says.
Sean lets out a cough but she doesn’t seem to notice.
‘I used to run along here,’ he tells her as they start to make their way towards Green Park. ‘When I was working in London more often. Along the Mall and Birdcage Walk.’ His arm is outstretched as he points out the route. ‘Made my way to Westminster and ran alongside the river.’
She says something about Oxford Street but he doesn’t hear. Although she has never said so explicitly, she resents him doing anything without her. He thought initially it was all part of that longing they had for each other, when you want to spend every minute of the day with someone. They used to throw sickies and stay in bed all day, have toast and tea. And sex.
Sometimes it became easier to not go to the gym, to prevent her from having a long face and becoming taciturn. But when he told her he wouldn’t go, she’d suggest he should, although he knew she didn’t mean it. Then her eyes would look mischievous, and she told him she’d thought of another way of helping him burn some calories.
They are quiet on the tube, gazing up at the map above the window, their suitcases at their feet, as they head towards King’s Cross. There’s a pretty blond woman sitting opposite who reminds him of Ellie. She crosses her legs and her skirt rises a little to the middle of her thigh. She’s reading a book, but he can’t make out the title. She glances up at him, pauses, and looks back down. He isn’t particularly looking at her, but a minute later, she catches his eye again and smiles before returning to her book. He finds himself smiling too but in the reflection in the tunnel-darkened glass he notices Charlotte staring intently at him, an unfeigned scowl across her face. He holds her gaze, waiting for her expression to change but when it doesn’t, he slowly tips his head back, closes his eyes, and feels the air rush out of him. All that is left is taut muscles becoming tighter and tighter. Nothing has changed, has it? He wonders now whether she’ll be quiet or vocal?
He’s reminded of when he recently told Charlotte that he’d bumped into Ellie at lunchtime. Quite by accident, he’d said.
‘Ellie?’ she said.
‘You used to work with her. It is Ellie, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. I didn’t realise you’d remember her.’
‘Well she saw me first,’ he said.
Charlotte turned her head towards him.
‘That was what I said to her when you and I had just met.’
He laughed, poured himself a glass of wine and gestured to her, asking if she wanted one. ‘Staking your claim?’ She shook her head, her expression impassive. ‘We chatted for a while,’ he continued. ‘Took me a while to remember her name.’
‘Haven’t seen her since she left.’ She paused. ‘I think she fancied you.’
‘Really? Well I didn’t get that impression today.’
Charlotte shrugged. ‘Is she enjoying her new job?’ There was a hardness in her voice.
‘Seems to. Says the people are nice.’
‘I did think it odd how she left Clark & White so abruptly. Always thought there was some reason for it. Something that made her leave.’
He waited for her to say something else as she continued to look at him as if expecting an answer, but she left the words hanging there, like a piece of music without a final note.
The station concourse is busy. An announcement comes over the speakers that there’s been a flood near Peterborough and there are severe delays. There are no platforms quoted on the departures board.
‘Might have to stay another night in London,’ she says, smiling. ‘Shame.’ She’s trying to keep upbeat, trying to forget the woman on the tube, but it’s hard. It really is.
‘I’ll go and see if we can get some more information,’ he says, and makes his way towards the information kiosk.
She stands with the luggage at her feet. A short distance away people are lining up to have their photograph taken as they hold the trolley handle half submerged in the wall under the sign that reads, ‘Platform 9 ¾.’ She smiles and thinks she’ll suggest to Sean that they have their photo taken there too when he gets back.
Soon she becomes impatient and looks around for him. More and more people arrive at the station, filling up and taking all available space. She glances up at the departure board again. The trains are still delayed.
After ten minutes there’s no sign of him and she wonders where he is.
She’s glad that she’s not had one of her dreams for a while now, yet remembers them vividly and the feelings that they evoke. The first was soon after he’d told her about meeting Ellie. She knew it was stupid but the dream felt so real, as if he really had gone off with her. She was left, on waking, with a feeling of desertion, even though he was lying there next to her. He looked confused when she told him, and kept telling her it was only a dream.
‘But something can’t be right if I have such a dream can it?’ she said. ‘It comes from somewhere. There has to be a reason for it.’
‘You can’t punish me for one of your dreams.’ He waits for her to say something but she remains silent. ‘Where does that leave us then?’
She shrugged and turned away.
She couldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day; the sense of betrayal was too strong. But the next morning, after a clear night with no dreaming, she was well again.
But, after a week, another dream would arrive, and another, battering her each time with his infidelity.
‘It’s only a dream,’ he kept saying. ‘It’s not real.’
He said this just to pacify her, she felt, amidst these terrible storms. To keep her from knowing the truth. He was hiding something.
But then, after each new day, when the darkness of the previous tempest had subsided, she welcomed him in again. But when he came home from work, she couldn’t help herself asking what he did for lunch, trying to make her voice sound casual but failing. Had he met anyone?
At first he told her not to be so silly but as the questions recurred, he just shook his head.
‘Well?’ she would say, but he was already walking away.
When she could see clearer, she made a point of making light of what she’d done, and telling him she wouldn’t do it again. It was only because she loved him so much. He must see that? He had to believe her even if she wasn’t entirely convinced herself.
Soon after, he went to the gym one evening. Just for an hour, he’d said. She flicked through the TV channels, then got up and went into the kitchen, turned on the kettle and waited for it to boil. She remembered Ellie’s face, the incredulous expression, when she saw that Sean was interested in her and not Ellie. And the envious faces of women in the street when they saw them together. She’d loved that. For once, she was the one who’d been chosen.
She looked again at her watch. The hands had hardly moved. She raised it to her ear and sighed to hear it steadily ticking. Back in the living room, she dunked a digestive into her tea and sat back watching TV.
An hour would make it 9.30, she thought. Not long to go.
Charlotte was standing in the hallway at 9.45 when he returned, his gym bag slung across his shoulder. She played with her fingers, and stopped when she realised what she was doing. She tried to appear calm but she needed to know if he’d been seeing her.
‘You alright?’ he said.
‘Fine.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I thought you’d be back by now.’ A thin, nervous smile slowly appeared on her face and then gradually retreated like a small animal wary of its surroundings. She kissed him. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I was just a bit worried. Thought something might have happened to you.’
‘I’m not late am I?’ He checked his watch.
She shrugged. ‘Bit longer than you’d said.’
She didn’t respond at first, and her eyes darted quickly around her before settling on him again. ‘No, you’re right. Not much.’ She raised her hand and softly stroked his cheek.
He manoeuvred his bag from his shoulder, and she reached out to take it.
‘It’s OK,’ he said.
‘I was going to put a wash on. I’ll put your things in there too.’ She held the handle, her hand next to his.
‘I can do it,’ he said, and pulled it a little towards him.
Her expression changed, as if an invisible string attached to the corners of her mouth had been pulled down.
‘Why don’t you let me take it?’
They fixed their eyes one another as the handles separated and each was left holding one.
She tugged harder at the bag but he held firm.
‘Why are you being so secretive? What have you got to hide?’
‘What are you talking about?’
She leaned back and pulled, letting out a high-pitched grunt as his fingers squeezed and he gripped tighter. The straps were almost horizontal now, and then a rip tore through the bag, growing wider across it and ejecting the contents over the floor. She was left holding her solitary handle, now detached from the bag. On the floor were his sweat-drenched shorts and top, his trainers scattered about them.
Sean watches Charlotte from his vantage point on the first floor overlooking the concourse, a warm cup of coffee in his hand. She can’t see him; he likes this. There’s only her, unaware and true, as she can be. He wants to remember her like this.
He looks at the board again but there are still no platforms assigned, and the concourse is teeming with people. They have all been consigned to this no man’s land while they wait.
He thinks again of the love he and Charlotte have. He recognises that it’s love that feeds her and drives her. And afterwards, after the darkness of her dreams, when there is clarity and sunshine again, they are happy, and the wariness he’d felt dissipates and is forgotten about.
He’s told himself many times he should have left before, but she’d been so sorry, so upset at her behaviour that he couldn’t bring himself to do so. And each time, he’d longed for it not to happen again. But after a while it always did. In his mind he pictures her face reflected in the tube window, the intensity of those green eyes he’s seen so often, and knows there’s no more that she can do, and that he will miss her.
She sees him, smiles broadly and raises her hand to him and waves. She looks lovely; she is lovely.
Then she frowns and mouths, ‘What are you doing up there?’
He waves back but pretends he can’t make out what she’s saying.
About the Author: James is a novelist and short story writer. His work has previously been published in the Best British Short Stories 2013 anthology, Tears in the Fence, The View from Here, and in Matter Magazine. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize in 2010, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Sheffield Hallam University.
Image: (c) Hannah Swithinbank
Image: (c) Hannah Swithinbank