In an The F Club first we publish a piece of fiction that made us ‘feel’.
Let us know what you think.
Archie puts down his pencil. As always with the first draft he is using it to write by hand in a spiral bound reporters notebook. That’ll do, he thinks. Always good to end on a joke.
The phone rings. It’s Rose and she says, “ Archie, we’re only here for a couple of weeks, could you come to dinner on Thursday; about 7.00 ?”
“I’ll go anywhere for a free meal,” he replies.
“That’s grand. Have you met Valerie ?” she continues. “Father was a local farmer. He died recently. Valerie lives alone, bit depressed poor girl.”
Oh great, he thinks. Sounds like a fun evening.
Since his wife died he is the go to person if there is a gender imbalance at a dinner party. But he is fond Rose and her exuberant French husband Jean Pierre so, despite a sinking feeling that once again he will be stuck with an elderly widow with a lengthy back story involving numerous off-spring whose names he can’t remember, he says gamely, “I look forward to meeting her.”
Ten minutes later the phone rings again. “Valerie’s finishing her report and can’t come until 7.30,” Rose says. He feels irritated; this means nothing to eat until 8.30 at the earliest. “No problem,” he says, “See you 7.30.”
It’s 7.25 and he is driving up the unmade lane to Rose and Jean Pierre’s holiday home. It’s been raining and he feels the water slapping the underside of the car as he drives through the puddles. It’s very dark. He knows that on either side there are fields full of sheep but he can see no sign of life. With little light pollution he can see Jupiter just above the horizon but the rest of the sky is covered in cloud. Pulling up in front of the house he spots a battered Range Rover carelessly parked on the grass verge. Must be Valerie’s. An advertising slogan from the 1980s, The Best 4 by 4 by Far, pops into his head.
“Failtce! Failtce!” He’s pretty certain Jean Pierre doesn’t speak Irish. But Hey! A welcome by any other name is still a welcome. He enters the house. It’s comfortably warm and the smell of peat from the open fire permeates the living room. “Valerie’s here already,” says Jean Pierre. So why did she make such a fuss about changing the time? he thinks.
She’s sitting on the sofa facing the door. Seeing him, she begins to get up and then seems to remember that it is unnecessary for a women to rise when being introduced to a man, and sits down again. But he has seen enough to excite his interest. He shakes her hand and murmurs, “Archie McAllister”. “Valerie Stewart,” she replies.
Stewart – protestant of course. Tall, maybe 5’10”. Boyish figure – as the euphorism goes. Looks as if she works out. Hand surprisingly large with a strong grip. A farmer’s daughter, he remembers. Given that this is supposed to be a dinner party she is very casually dressed in a rather worn blue jumper, jeans and trainers. Minimal make-up. – if any. Faint lines beginning to form around the mouth and eyes. Mid-forties? Hair short and spiky with blond highlights. No ring on left-hand index. Possibly lesbian ?
Sitting opposite her at dinner they are the same height and she looks levelly at him across the table. Rose is scolding Jean Pierre in the kitchen. Something about not having turned the oven up high enough. For a while they are alone and he takes the opportunity to quiz her. She seems happy to talk.
Originally from the area. Spent much of her adult life in England. In a relationship for 11 years. Now living on her own; except for the dog of course.
“What make?” he asks. “Airedale”, she replies. “Oh, a big dog”, he says unnecessarily. She shoots him an amused glance and says, “Yes, I like large animals”. Sounds sexy, he thinks, but she’s probably referring to cows and horses on her Dad’s farm.
“ Eleven years is a long time. Why did you and your partner break up?” He asks cautiously. She looks down, frowns briefly and says, “He was boring”. “Children?” he inquires. “No,” she responds curtly, discouraging further questions on the subject.
He changes tack. “What do you do for a living?”
“I translate medical jargon into standard English,” she says. He looks puzzled. “So that lay people can understand the possible side effects of their medication; among other things,” she explains. “What do you do?” she asks politely.
“I’m retired. Now I’m a writer,” he says, lowing his eyes with false modesty.
“What do you write about?” She asks.
He puts on his pretend serious face and says, “Usual stuff. Loss; rejection; alienation; guilt; unrequited love; desire.” She laughs and looks interested.
Rose and Jean Pierre emerge triumphantly from the kitchen with the sausage hotpot, which now appears to be largely cooked. “How did the party go?” says Rose.
Valerie says, gloomily, “Oh, my fiftyith ?” Then brightens, “It was grand. Very formal. All the men came in dinner jackets.” Archie thinks he now knows why Rose has invited him to dinner. Valerie may be middle-aged – though my God she doesn’t look it, but there is no getting away from the fact she’s still young enough to be his daughter.
Rose is describing Valerie’s new house built on a high, isolated bluff, overlooking the ocean. “A perfect venue for a party.” Turning to Valerie, she says, “ Archie’s a civil engineer. He would be interested to see it.” she tells Valerie.
“You must all come for coffee,” Valerie says. Jean Pierre laughs. “No thanks. Last time I came your dog bit me.” Archie seizes the moment and, to show he is not boring like Valerie’s previous partner, tells his dog joke.
Man goes into a bar. Nobody there except a man and a dog. Does your dog bite? he asks. No, says the man. So he pats the dog; which immediately bites him. Aggrieved, he says, I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite. That’s not my dog, says the man.
After a brief moment to work it out, Valerie bursts out laughing. Flushed with success Archie sits back in his seat and smiles. He wonders if he should follow it up with a second joke but decides, wisely, to quit while he’s winning.
Jean Pierre spots a gap and tells his guests how he has given up statins and controls his diabetes with exercise and sensible eating. Valerie outlines her weekly exercise routine which includes two evening training sessions spinning on a static bicycle; together with daily 5 kilometre runs with her dog along the beach. No wonder she looks so fit, thinks Archie enviously.
“Have you ever thought of living here permanently?” asks Valerie. It’s only after he has replied that his main home is now in England (to be near his family), that he realises that this is a pivotal question. Valerie’s face shows no emotion and she moves on to another subject.
Time to go. Rose, Jean Pierre and Valerie are standing outside the house to saying goodbye to Archie. Jean Pierre gives him a manly hug, and Rose kisses him 3 times on each cheek in the French fashion and makes him promise to come again soon. Then it’s Valerie’s turn. While he ponders whether to go for the cheek kissing option, or to shake her hand in the restrained English manner, Valerie makes the decision for him and, to his astonishment, kisses him full on the mouth.
Her bottom lip is full and soft. It tastes of salt borne by the wind blowing in from the ocean. They remain joined together for longer than is seemly and he has a sudden mental image of a honeybee sampling nectar from a plant before making the decision whether to feed or not. Confused, he stands motionless with his arms hanging by his side. Without a word, Valerie steps back into the darkness so he can’t see the expression on her face. He climbs into his car and, attempting a 3-point turn on the narrow drive, hits one of the boulders that Jean Pierre has placed on the verge to discourage people from parking on the grass. Finally, and with some loss of dignity, he manages to turn and drives away in his damaged vehicle with what he hopes is a nonchalant wave and a calm expression.
Next day he rings Valerie. She is pleasant and chats politely about this and that. There is no mention of the kiss. “Would you like to come with me to the theatre this evening?” He asks. “Sorry,” she says, “but I have to finish my report.” “Another time ?” he says. ”Yes,” she agrees.
After a week Valerie has still not rung. There has been no invitation to see her new house on the bluff. He worries that the reason she seems to have had second thoughts is that she has found out from Rose how old he is. Never be the first to leave a party. You lose ownership of the narrative, he thinks glumly. A more cheerful thought comes into his mind. Maybe she really is just too busy.
Two weeks later he invites Valerie, Rose and Jean Pierre, together with Hugo and Katriona, to his house for dinner. Hugo and Katriona are American of Irish descent and in their mid-fifties. Although he has little in common with Hugo he hopes that the couples comparative youth will make Valerie feel more at ease.
The evening starts well. The men, as usual, have made little effort to dress appropriately. But the woman look great. Valerie, in particular, looks stunning. She wears a close-fitting jacket. Her trousers tucked into calf-length leather boots make her appear even taller and he finds the overall military effect deeply disturbing. Fortunately, there are other distractions. The steak and kidney pudding encased in suet collapses impressively when tipped onto the serving plate releasing its rich aromatic contents. A salted chocolate tart on a biscuit base follows, and he demonstrates his skill at extracting it without damage from his newly acquired, loose-bottomed flan tin. Everybody claps and declares it the best chocolate tart ever.
By now, the wine has begun to loosen Hugo’s tongue. The talk turns to politics and Hugo is explaining, in a mock French accent for Jean Pierre’s benefit, the basis of the American constitution. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. He pronounces “Happiness” as “A Penis”, and Valerie’s lips twitch with amusement. Hugo spots that he has her attention and asks her what she does for a living. Valerie explains. He looks unimpressed. “The first thing I do when opening a packet of tablets is to throw the instructions in the bin. They’re a complete waste of time.” He says rudely. Valerie flushes and looks to Archie for support. What he should say to Hugo is, “If you read the instructions you wouldn’t have the side effects you’re always banging on about.” But instead he goes for conflict resolution and says feebly, “ Who would like coffee?”
Valerie looks at Archie with contempt and makes no further contribution to the conversation for the rest of the evening . It’s 11.00 pm and Valerie is leaving first. It appears she has more work to do and a deadline to meet. They are standing at the front door. As she moves away into the darkness she appears to feel the need to be polite. “Thank you for a lovely evening. You must come round for coffee one morning,” she says vaguely. He catches his breath with anticipation. But once again he has misread her and in his heart he knows there will be no invitation for coffee; or anything else for that matter.