‘Me neither,’ she said, and looked at him doubtfully.
He looked... ordinary. Mousy hair cut in no particular style, not short, not long; brown eyes, and she could tell he wore glasses by the little indents on either side of his nose. Not that he was wearing them just then. Reading glasses, perhaps, especially if he spent a lot of time reading, or at a computer? Maybe.
Jeans, plain shirt, comfortable shoes, the sort she used to call desert boots. Neat enough; clean enough. Doesn’t seem to smile much, she thought to herself; but perhaps, like her, he was nervous.
‘So,’ he began slowly, ‘why this time? Why now?’
What was she to do? Feed him some cock-and-bull story and hope it would work out, or go the Full Monty? ‘Because I’m forty-five, unlovely, lonely and very shy,’ she said, looking him full in the eye, defiantly. If that didn’t send him packing... well perhaps it was just as well. She felt uncomfortable and on edge here, anyway.
He pulled back a little, almost as though to get a better look at her, then the tiniest of smiles wrinkled the corners of his mouth. He looked down. ‘Wow,’ he said, and shook his head slightly from side to side, as though in wonder.
Helen turned as though she was about to slip from the stool and leave the bar, but he put his hand on hers, gently. ‘No,’ he said, and she looked at him in surprise. ‘Please,’ he added.
She relaxed onto the stool once more, facing the bar. She realised that she was breathing heavily, that her heart was hammering.
Jimmy had been holding his breath as though in anticipation of some calamity, and now he let it all out, a long low sigh. He, too, faced the bar, and they sat, side by side, immobile for a moment. Jimmy looked at Helen’s image in the mirror behind the bar, and saw that she, too, was looking at him through the same medium. She saw with surprise that his face was illuminated by a smile, a gentle, perhaps even tender, smile. She saw him turn his head towards her, and she looked from the corner of her eye.
‘You know, I was going to feed you some line today. Something about having been too busy for relationships, more interested in my career than in having fun. Then I was going to say that I had changed my mind. I had it all rehearsed.’
Is that what they do, Helen asked herself? All those people using dating sites, make things up? She gave a tiny nod, her head still down, waiting for more.
‘Then you said that, and I felt ashamed of myself.’
He reached for the beer he had ordered, ice-cold and dripping now with condensation. He sipped it, then replaced it on the bar, holding it in both his hands.
Helen nodded. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘So, what about you?’
Again that little smile, self deprecating now. ‘Oh, I’m just useless with women. Get all tongue-tied. Say stupid things. I’m pretty boring really.’
‘How old are you, Jim?’ She couldn’t bring herself to call him Jimmy; it seemed like the sort of name you might give a kid, not a grown man. She supposed he was really called James, and would much have preferred to call him that.
‘Forty-one,’ he told her.
‘Don’t mind the older woman?’
‘Me being the older of us?’
He chuckled for the first time. ‘Oh that. No. Don’t give a bugger.’ Then he caught himself. ‘Oh, sorry.’
‘I don’t give a bugger either,’ she said, and they both laughed.
‘So,’ Helen said after a few minutes, ‘what do you think?’
He was reluctant. ‘You first.’
‘Okay,’ she said slowly, and paused. She had been here so many times before, met so many blokes, some of whom she hated right from the word go, most of whom she thought might be okay, none of whom had worked. ‘You look okay to me, but you could be an axe murderer. I doubt it, but you could be. I’m happy to give it a go. On a ‘so far, so good’ basis, that is.’
‘Fair enough,’ Jimmy replied. ‘Can’t expect more. At least, you didn’t fake the photo.’ There was no doubt that Helen was what was called ‘plain’. A bit lumpy, not very well dressed, not what he would call a ‘catch’. But then neither was he, he recognised. The most he could hope for was that what he saw would be what he got.
‘Neither did you, thank heavens. I’m not after an Adonis. Not even a good-looker. What would a good-looker want with someone like me?’
‘You don’t pull any punches, do you?’
‘Were you hoping I would?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I dream a bit, though.’ There was that smile again.
‘So where do we go from here?’
‘Slowly, I hope.’
‘Yes, of course. But which direction?’
‘Want to go for a walk?’
It was winter, and dark, and rain had been threatening. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Not that I don’t like walking, or anything. Just, maybe not right now, huh?’
Jimmy thought. ‘Well, how about the cinema?’
Helen looked at her watch. ‘Yes, but again, not right now... it’s far too late.’
‘Not for the late films.’
‘I need my sleep. Sorry, but no late nights for me.’
This wasn’t looking too promising. ‘Okay,’ he began again slowly, ‘So just a drink or two tonight, then. What about the weekend?’
‘Not Saturday. Too busy. But Sunday? I’ve got all day.’
‘Good. So what would you like to do more than anything?’
She thought. ‘What I’d really like to do on Sunday is to stay in bed with a lover.’
Wow, he thought. That came from nowhere.
‘We might have a quick cup of tea, then fool around for a bit, perhaps ending up in the shower. Together. Then we’d stroll into town and get breakfast from some nice place by the sea. Take our time over it. Buy the papers. Stroll home, then read and chat a bit, and eventually we’d get lunch, and think of something to do afterwards. Maybe the pictures, maybe just a walk. Dinner later, before heading home for, just maybe, a bit of messing around before, or maybe after, bed.’ She looked away again, picking up her drink and sipping it. ‘But I’ve never had a lover.’
He couldn’t think of anything to say, not at first. He looked at her face in the mirror, and saw the disappointment there. Forlorn, he thought. He put his hand on hers again, gently, squeezing it in what he hoped was a sympathetic, encouraging way. ‘Sounds good,’ he said quietly. ‘But perhaps not this Sunday, eh?’
She shook her head, looking down. After a few moments he realised that she was crying, silently. He put his arm around her shoulders, squeezed her.
She leaned towards him, her head nestled against his shoulder. She said something, but he couldn’t make out the words, muffled as they were by his jacket.
She raised her head slightly, rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. ‘I’m just so lonely.’
God, he thought, she’s so needy. Did he really want to get involved with someone as needy as Helen? But on the other hand... ‘Well, that makes a pair of us,’ he said. ‘I’m bloody lonely too.’