When Clive saw Erica standing at the bar, he was uncertain whether to approach her. He watched as she ordered a large glass of white wine – pinot grigio? Sauvignon blanc? – and deftly wove a path through the knots of early evening drinkers, to a solitary table in a quiet corner of the room. She hooked her handbag over the back of the chair and started to read the newspaper that had been tucked under her left arm. Having decided it would be best not to disturb her, he then immediately contradicted himself by muttering a brief apology to the group of friends with whom he was sitting and walked over to her.
He stood awkwardly for a few seconds before she glanced up.
“Erica?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”
She looked at him unconcernedly, as though he were a companion just returned from a visit to the toilet.
“Oh, hello, Clive,” she said.
“Are you with anyone?”
She put the newspaper down and stared at him.
“That’s really none of your business, is it?”
“No, no, of course not,” he said, flustered. “I didn’t mean… If you’re alone, if you’re not waiting for someone, can I join you?” She gestured at the empty table. “I don’t appear to be with anyone at the moment, do I? So, yes, you can join me.”
She continued to stare at him as he pulled out the chair directly opposite her, her face devoid of any emotion, reminding him of the blank expression required for a passport photograph. In the few words she had spoken to him, her voice too had betrayed none of the reactions he might have expected – surprise, anger, curiosity. He realised he had forgotten his drink and stood up immediately.
“Back in a minute.”
When he returned, glass in hand, she was reading her newspaper again and seemed unaware of his presence.
“Anything interesting?” he asked, uncertain how to resume the conversation. “In the paper?”
She smiled in a way that seemed intentionally designed to increase his unease.
“Clive. We haven’t seen each other for five years. Is this what you came over to ask me? If there’s anything interesting in the evening paper?”
She sat patiently, as he sought an answer that would not leave him open to more mockery.
“No, of course not,” he said, eventually. “I’m very surprised to see you here, Erica, that’s all. As you say, it’s been five years. It would be odd if I gave you a peck on the cheek and started chatting as though I’d seen you only yesterday. Wouldn’t it?”
He regretted his choice of words before he’d finished speaking.
“You give me ‘a peck on the cheek’ as you so quaintly call it, or try to touch me in any way at all, and I’ll scream the place down.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have come over. I’ll go.”
“Bye then,” she said, without looking up.
But Clive didn’t go. He remained sitting across the small table from her, running through the various courses of action open to him, and assessing their likely outcomes. He could laugh and say, ‘Oh, this is silly, isn’t it?’ and, as they relaxed, they would smile at each other.
He could chide her for her stubbornness and she would admit she was behaving unreasonably, saying, ‘I’m sorry, Clive, let’s start again.’
He could sit there in icy silence until she felt obliged to speak and asked him, with genuine interest, ‘How’ve you been?’
He could suggest they go somewhere else, somewhere less public, where they could talk properly, perhaps for a meal, and she would nod gratefully, thanking him. Knowing her as he did – as he had – he had to admit that none of these scenarios seemed remotely possible.
“I thought you were going,” she said after a little while.
“Would you prefer me to go?”
“I really don’t care.”
“I’ll stay then.”
“Are you in touch with anyone?” he asked. “Do you ever see Tom and Claire, or Dave, or Sally and Scott?”
She gave him a withering look. “Don’t be silly, Clive.”
“Look,” he said, in a sudden flash of impatience. “I came over because I was surprised to see you. Here, in this bar. That’s all.”
“Yes, I’ve seen the film, Clive. Of all the gin joints in all the world…”
“I just wanted to ask how you are, what you’ve been doing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Don’t you want to know? About me?”
“Go on then,” she sighed. “Let’s get this over with. If it makes you happy. What have you been doing? But please, spare me all the details. Give me the short version.”
He paused for a few seconds as a boisterous group of middle-aged drinkers, cigars and cigarettes in hand, stumbled past them in the direction of the smokers’ patio. As their noise subsided, he leaned forward, resting his forearms on the rim of the table.
“After I left – after we all left – I moved to Bangor and rented a small studio, did some photography, sold some paintings. I was there for about two years. Then I had a year in the States, in Denver with Louise and her husband. I came back here, got a job lecturing in the art college, and here I am.”
“Is that it?” Erica asked.
“You said you wanted the short version.”
“Good. Well, that’s very interesting, Clive. Very succinct. And absolutely riveting. Goodness, you’ve led a fascinating life since I last saw you. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
“And you?” he asked.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What about you?”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “That’s how we play this game. You tell me about your life, then I tell you about mine. Then you reveal a little more and I do the same. You ask a few questions; I ask a few questions. Eventually, we know everything.”
“We’re just talking, Erica. Exchanging news, catching up. That’s what people do when they meet old… friends.”
“Is that what we are? Well, thank you for telling me. It’s not the word I would have used.”
He was about to ask what word she would have used but thought better of it. Instead, he drained his glass and made a show of looking at his watch, pretending to gauge the time, wishing to give the impression that people somewhere might be waiting for him, eager for his company.
“Don’t let me detain you,” she said sweetly. “I’m sure you’re a very busy man.”
“No, no, it’s okay.” He was embarrassed that his subterfuge had been so transparent. “Would you like another drink?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
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He found himself at the back of a deep queue at the bar, and it was ten minutes spent wondering if she would still be there, before he returned to their table. But she seemed hardly to have moved in his absence.
“Sorry it took so long,” he said, raising his pint of bitter. “Cheers.”
After a few seconds, she responded. “Cheers,” she answered, in a tone that seemed to him deliberately drained of warmth or affection.
Clive felt a hand on his shoulder and twisted around in his chair to see his companions with their coats on, ready to go.
“We’re just heading for a pizza.” The taller of the two women from the group leant in. “Hello,” she said to Erica. “I’m Marion. You’re welcome to join us.”
“I’m Erica. I won’t, but thank you. It’s kind of you to ask.”
“Actually,” said Clive, “I think I’ll give it a miss too.”
“Okay,” said Marion, moving to re-join the rest of the group, who were already through the door. “Have fun.” She looked back and waved goodbye to them from the pavement.
“You’ve disappointed her,” said Erica. “She wanted you to go with them.”
“But then I might have disappointed you,” he replied, in a cautious attempt at humour.
He watched her small smile carefully – the first of the evening – as she shook her head.
“Is that what you think?” she asked.
Encouraged by what he took to be her first tiny acknowledgement of him, he said, “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
She cocked an eyebrow, as if considering whether to answer him.
“I’m here for a job interview.”
“Oh! Really? Are you still in personnel? Sorry, human resources?”
“Where’s the job?”
“The University Hospital NHS Trust.”
“So, tell me what happened? How did it go?”
He knew the significance of what he was asking her, and that his self-conscious attempt to maintain a light-hearted tone was all too obvious. Again, she studied him forensically, like a scientist trying to make sense of an unfamiliar specimen.
“They offered me the job.”
“Oh, well, congratulations!”
“I said I’d let them know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I haven’t accepted yet.”
“You haven’t? Why not?”
“I wanted some time to think it over. I agreed to tell them by tomorrow morning.”
“And if you accept?”
“I start in June.”
“And if you don’t accept?”
“I suppose they’ll offer it to one of the other candidates. And I’ll stay where I am.”
Clive sat back in silence. He found it difficult to calculate the potential repercussions of their unexpected reunion. Now that she knew that he was here, in this town, would it influence her decision? To be near each other again… what would it be like? For both of them. Would it make her more, or less, likely to take the job? He wondered what he would do in her place.
“Is it well paid?” he asked, for want of something to say.
He told himself that his anxieties were unwarranted. It was all so long ago. It was years since they had seen each other. He was merely someone she used to know. He was no longer of any interest to her. And, he reminded himself, it was a large town. Their paths might never cross. Nonetheless, despite her behaviour and his own repeated reassurances, he knew it would be irresponsible to try to dismiss all that had happened, dishonest to pretend to forget. He wished he’d followed his initial instinct not to approach her.
“And what do you think you’ll say to them?” he asked apprehensively.
“Oh, I think I should talk to them first. It wouldn’t be very professional of me if I were to start telling other people before I told them.”
“No. No, it wouldn’t.”
“So, now you know. That’s what I’m doing here.”
“Yes. Well… don’t let me influence your decision,” he said. “There’s no reason why you should, of course,” he added hurriedly, as he caught her staring at him in disbelief.
“Are you serious? You are, aren’t you! Well, you needn’t worry yourself on that score. But tell me, Clive, I’d really like to know. Why do you have such an inflated opinion of yourself?”
“I don’t,” he said, genuinely angry for the first time this evening. “But I’m honest enough to admit that if our roles were reversed, and I’d been offered a job here, and I suddenly discovered that you were living and working in the same town, I’d think carefully about what to do. You’d be a factor.”
“Well, let me put your mind at rest,” Erica said. “You’re not a factor.”
“If you say so,” he muttered.
“I worry about you, Clive,” she said, shaking her head again. “Or rather, I would, if you meant anything to me.”
“Yes. You’ve made it very clear how little I mean to you. Or you’ve tried to make it clear. But you try too hard, you know?”
“Go to hell, Clive!”
“Fuck you, Erica!”
They stared at each other, ignoring the glances and whispers from nearby drinkers. Eventually, he looked away and, when he did, she pushed her empty glass across the table.
“I’d like another drink, please.”
This time he was glad of the delay at the bar. It gave him time to think. He considered walking out and leaving her sitting alone in the corner. But to do so would make him appear weak and foolish. He was a grown man, an adult. Adults didn’t stamp their feet and run away in a sulk. He wondered what might have happened had she seen him first. Would she have said hello? Would she have turned around and left the bar immediately? Would she have paid him no attention and carried on just as she had done? For all he knew, that’s what had happened – perhaps she had caught sight of him across the bar and left it to him to make the first move.
“I’m sorry I swore at you,” he said as he returned to the table.
“It wasn’t surprising,” she said, and he was unsure which of them she seemed to be criticising.
“Are you leaving tonight?” he asked. “To wherever you are now.”
She looked up sharply at him and he continued.
“I’m sorry, I’m not prying, Erica. Really. I’m interested. Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?” He paused. “How couldn’t I be?”
“I’m living with my parents again. I have been for quite a while.”
“You said you’d never enter their house again.”
“I was wrong.” She smiled. “And, no, I’m not going tonight. I leave in the morning.”
He knew, without asking, that they were both sharing the same thoughts, viewing the same images, hearing the same protests and arguments and accusations. He remembered the bewilderment of their parents, the anger and hurt on the faces of their friends. He recalled how they’d tried to comfort each other, repeating over and over again that things were going to be alright. He remembered a small copse of trees, guarding an ancient quarry where, on an idyllic summer afternoon, they had made love for the first and last time. He remembered how they undressed each other slowly and deliberately; how she gasped breathlessly and beat his back with her clenched fists; how her eyes filled with tears and she clung to him, her arms and legs clasped tightly around his body. He remembered the two of them cycling back into the village where they were all staying, and rounding the last bend…
“Have you ever been–”
It seemed she had been waiting all evening for this question.
“I couldn’t,” she said slowly. “And I don’t need to go back. I’m there all the time.”
He nodded. “I know.”
Gradually, the crush of people eased as they departed for their next destinations. Clive and Erica remained at their table, like half-finished statues waiting for someone to give them life.
“I wish I could–” she began.
“No, that’s not what I was going to say. I wish I could… not ‘get over it’. That would be stupid. But, maybe, just ‘move on’? No, I don’t even mean that. I don’t know what I mean. I feel I’m powerless. I’m anchored there. The time, the place, the people.”
“And if you could move on, is there anyone you’d want to take with you?”
“No one. No one at all. You?”
He shook his head. “No. No one.”
She reached across, touching his hand briefly.
“I used to think,” he continued, “Oh, I know it could never happen. But I used to think that if we could all somehow be together again and…”
“That would be a mistake,” she said.
“Yes. You’re right.”
When they had finished their drinks, they wandered out into the still-warm evening. He asked where she was staying, and she gave him the name of an expensive hotel in the pedestrianised heart of the city.
“That’s on my way. I’ll walk back with you, if that’s okay.”
When they reached the plaza, still busy with late-night shoppers, they turned to face each other.
“Well, goodbye, Erica,” Clive said.
“Would you like to come up?” she asked, neutrally. “I’m on the top floor. There’s a view of the whole city.”
“What do you mean by ‘come up’? To enjoy the view? To have a quick drink? To stay the night?”
After a few moments’ contemplation, he shook his head. “No. I think that would be a mistake.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Peck on the cheek?” he asked, and they leaned into each other, holding the past and the present like fragile ornaments in their arms.
When they eventually released each other, she said, “Goodbye, Clive. Oh, and by the way, I’m not taking the job. And it’s nothing to do with you. I’d already made my mind when you saw me in the bar.”
“Can I ask why not?”
“You know as well as I do. What would be the point? The promotion, the salary – let someone else have them. Someone who’ll value them, someone who’ll enjoy them.”
He watched her as she climbed the short flight of steps into the hotel foyer. After a few minutes, he saw a solitary light come on the top floor, and a woman stood, illuminated, by the window. He wondered if she could see him, a small figure gazing back at her, unwilling to move, unaware of the people around him, uncertain which direction to take.
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