by Colin Watts

I’d arrived at eleven on the dot and been sitting there like a lemon for forty-three minutes with a small Americano. Nothing. I had thought of taking a book in case she was late, but decided that would have made me look a bit of a poser. Which I’m not. At least, I don’t think so. So I sat by the window in my new red coat and watched women going in and out of Poundland and men going in and out of Betfred. The women went in and out far more quickly than the men did. About two-point-five times more, I estimated. Michael, you could have studied sociology at a good university, if only you’d done better in you’re A Levels. Then I examined the grain of the wooden chairs and tables and admired the texture of the brown leatherette sofas and thought about the time and energy that went into creating leisure environments. I looked at the clock on the wall and pondered on how time went in straight lines these days, click by digital click, and how it used to go in circles, in tune with the days and the weeks and the months. Forget about sociology, Michael. You should consider philosophy, now that you’re beginning to understand the workings of relativity.

The original plan had been a foursome (strictly coffee, strictly public). It was Jim’s idea: he’s always trying to set me up with someone. He must think I’m lonely. You are, Michael. It was going to be him and his girlfriend, Ange, and me and Ange’s friend Jocelyn. Then Ange couldn’t make it (so Jim said), so he suggested Jocelyn and I should meet up anyway.

‘She’s really keen to meet you,’ he said, and gave me her number. ‘I suggested Starbucks; it’s like neutral ground.’

‘Sounds more like the human zoo, to me’ I said. But maybe, Michael, humiliating yourself in public would be preferable to doing the same thing in private at her house or yours. I saw it all with great clarity. I would make some crass remark about the decor; no, several crass remarks. I would apologise too loudly, blush and spill my coffee. Then I would try to wipe it up with one of those useless little bits of serviettes you get and end up with a sodden napkin and a teaspoon clattering to the floor. I would bend down to pick it up and it would seem like I was looking up her skirt. She would laugh in a brittle kind of way. We would drink our coffees a bit too quickly, mostly in silence. Apart from the times we would both start to speak at the same time and then stop. After about twenty minutes, she would make an excuse and leave. It would be our one and only meeting. Well done, Michael, another social triumph.

I practised my support group breathing technique and rang Jocelyn.

‘Hi Jocelyn, it’s Mike.’

‘Hi, Mark, how are you?’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘At least, I think so.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Jim suggested Starbucks.’

‘Is it Fair Trade?’ she asked.

I thought about that for a bit.

‘You still there?

‘Yes I am,’ I said. ‘Large as life. Well, a bit smaller really.’

She sighed a bit and then said: ‘Well, is it?’

‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Mind you, I’m not quite sure. It might be. Or it might not.’

‘Don’t go away,’ she said. I could hear her tapping away. Must have had her laptop with her. Then she said: ‘Mr Google says: “if the choice was between a Fairtrade espresso from union-busting, Guantanamo Bay-supplying Starbucks, or a Rainforest Alliance espresso from Costa, which would you choose”.’

‘I don’t really know,’ I said, ‘which would you?’

She did some more Googling. ‘Doesn’t seem to make much difference in how they treat their staff, but Costa’s run by Brits.’

‘Not likely to supply Guantanamo Bay then,’ I said.

‘Costa it is, then,’ she said. ‘See you there, tomorrow; eleven o’clock.’ She hung up.

I rang her back. ‘How will I recognise you?’

‘I’ll be wearing an occupy mask. You do the same. Only joking,’ she said, after a short pause for enjoyment – hers, obviously. ‘I’ll wear my red coat.’

‘OK,’ I said, ‘so will I. Mine I mean.’

So, there I was, not very well slept, sitting by the window in my new red coat, experiencing relativity and searching for salvation in the dregs of a small Americano. I’d sauntered in full of hope, adopting a cool sort of I-do-this-all-the-time pose. After fifteen minutes and a trip to the toilet, I had a small panic attack. It was then I knew she’d died a violent death; either run over or killed by a madman. Do the breathing, Michael, and you will be able to reformulate Jocelyn’s sudden death into missed connections and/or habitual lateness. Then another twenty minutes crawled by and her mangled body returned, along with a lot of very red blood. Ten minutes later I checked my watch for the fourteenth time. I’d started trying to work out how much longer I ought to wait, when my phone rang. It’s probably the hospital for you, Michael. Or maybe the morgue.

‘Hi Mark,’ said a voice, ‘Jocelyn here. I thought we had a date.’ She didn’t sound that bothered.

‘So did I,’ I said.

‘Where are you? I’ve been here ages.’

‘I’m in Costa. I thought that’s what we agreed.’

‘We did,’ she said, ‘and that’s where I am.’

‘So am I,’ I said. ‘Are you upstairs?’ I looked around; there wasn’t one.

‘There isn’t one,’ she said.

‘Are you sitting outside?’

‘It’s raining.’

I looked out and it wasn’t. Then I knew she’d stood me up and was trying to make out it was all my fault.

Then she said: ‘Where are you, Mark?’

‘It’s Mike,’ I said. ‘I told you, I’m in Costa and I’ve been here – I looked at my watch again – forty-six minutes.’ I might have been a bit on the brusque side.

‘How many coffees have you had?’ she asked. ‘I mean, where are you exactly?’

‘Just inside the door. In a window seat. It’s brown leathery stuff and the table’s made of wood. So are the chairs. I think it might be real wood. Or maybe just veneer.’

‘OK, OK,’ she said. ‘Look out of the window. Can you see Boots the chemists?’

‘No.’

‘Can you see Oxfam?’

‘No. I can see Poundland. And Betfred. It’s mostly women going into Poundland and men into Betfred? The women go in and out about two and a half times quicker than the men do.’

‘She sighed and said: ‘OK, Mark.’ Then she turned her voice away and I heard her ask: ‘Excuse me, is there more than one Costa in town?’ And then it all fell into place.

That’s how we ended up in the Green Fish – we agreed there could only be one Green Fish in town. How they can sustain two Costas is a mystery to me, but then so are a lot of things. Michael, you might have been happier in gentler times, though I suspect, despite the hustle and bustle, these might be the gentlest times we’ve ever had. No wars, no plagues, good health, clean water. For some of us anyway.

Jocelyn had given me what I felt were slightly over-elaborate directions. I got there first. Or at least, there was no one there in a red coat. Apart from me, that is. It was all old pub tables and bent-wood chairs. It had kids’ drawings on the walls and smelled fresh, like someone loved the place and cared for it. It was nice. Gentle. And it had a clock with hands that went round. I stood leaning on the counter, trying to look as though that’s what I always did. A woman in a red coat came in. My elbow slipped off the bar and I banged my shoulder.

‘Hi,’ she said, ‘I’m Jocelyn. You must be Mark.’

I stood there, rubbing my shoulder.

‘You OK?’

‘Mike,’ I said, ‘Everyone calls me Mike. Except my mother. She calls me Michael.’

We shook hands. Hers was warm and firm. Mine was a bit clammy, so I wiped it on my trousers. I’d meant to wipe it before, but I got mixed up – my shoulder was hurting. I wondered if I’d dislocated it and saw myself being restrained by a burly ambulance man, while an equally burly paramedic jerked my humerus back into its socket. I must have grunted, or yelped or something.

‘You sure you’re OK?’

I just nodded. Then I decided I probably hadn’t dislocated anything and relaxed a bit. I found myself thinking that Jocelyn looked really quite nice, gentle, even. A bit like the café. Michael, this could be the place you will always remember. She was wearing black jeans and a top, so at least I wouldn’t be dropping a teaspoon and looking up her skirt. Her big, dangly earrings were a bit scary, though. Made me think of torn ear-lobes. And some more blood.

‘Sorry about the Mark thing,’ she said. ‘I’m a bit deaf in this ear.’ She twanged one of the ear-rings. ‘I can’t stay long. Mind if I call you Mark? Then I won’t forget.’

‘Fine,’ I said, ‘I’m cool with that.’ I pictured her rushing off for a lunch date in a posh steak-house with a six-foot two older man in a well-cut suit. Look, Michael, she’s having sirloin and he’s got rib-eye. That wine looks expensive. Now they’re walking out together. She’s hanging on his arm and looking up at him adoringly. ‘Bastard!’

‘Sorry?’

‘Me too,’ I said. ‘Sorry, I mean. Just remembered something. Something someone said. Did.’

‘It’s OK,’ she said. ‘Got to go and see my mum. She’s a bit under the weather.’

I stopped holding my breath and coughed.

‘You OK?’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Just a bit of coffee down the wrong way.’ Jocelyn grinned. ‘From before,’ I said. ‘Costa.’

We got coffees and sat down. I managed not to spill any. She told me about her mum and I told her about mine. We had a laugh about the two Costas and at how localised rain could be. Then there was a bit of a silence, so I tried to work out whether I fancied her or not. She wasn’t pretty in the normal way of regular features and stuff like that. Actually, hers were sort of irregular and her hair was a bit all over the place: she’d tied it back but not very well. Her eyes opened rather wide, which made her look startled and a couple of her teeth were a bit crooked. On the other hand she moved like she enjoyed life and she had this lop-sided smile that gave me goose-bumps. Plus a laugh that skittered around the café and made other people laugh as well. She asked me how long I would have waited if she hadn’t rung. I told her I would have waited for ever. Longer, even.

‘Yeah, yeah,’ she said.

‘I thought you’d been run over and were dying in hospital. Possibly already dead.’

I thought you’d stood me up,’ she said. I must have looked a bit upset because she reached out and touched my hand. ‘It’s all right, she said, I didn’t really.’

I relaxed a bit then and told her how I’d once waited two hours for a girl I’d fancied to turn up for a date. I’d been so scared, I’d not slept the night before, so of course I’d fallen asleep in a corner of the café. When I finally woke up the waitress had said: ‘Are you Mike? Cos if you are, she’s been and gone.’ We both laughed at that. And it seemed like she was laughing with me, which I’m not really all that used to. It felt really good, so I told her about the time I’d sprayed water on my suit trousers in an embarrassing place just before a job interview.

‘Did you get the job?’ she asked.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I told the panel what had happened.’

“We need people like you,” the chairman had said, and the rest of the panel had all nodded. “We need risk-takers, go-getters, young men who stand firm in the face of adversity; young men not afraid to admit to their mistakes, to learn from them and move on.”

Jocelyn gave a sort of splutter.

‘Actually,’ I said, ‘I didn’t bother with the interview. I went straight home and had a bit of a cry. Well, a lot of one, actually. About an hour and a half of one.’

‘Aaah,’ she said, in a way that touched something in me I didn’t know was there. She touched my hand again and said: ‘You know what; I think you’re funnier than you think you are. And nicer.’ She looked me up and down, squinted, leant back in her chair and looked me in the eye. ‘How about tea?’ she said.

‘I’ve already had two coffees. I don’t normally allow myself more than one.’

She raised her eyebrows and quickly lowered them.

‘Do they do tea?’ I asked, looking at the coffee machine and noticing the row of teas from Oolong to Darjeeling.

‘My place,’ she said, firmly. ‘Tomorrow.’

I tried to look as though I’d known what she’d meant all along and was checking my heavily populated mental calendar. But I coughed instead.

‘You need to get that sorted,’ she said.

‘I’ll be fine.’

‘I know you will,’ she said, and leant back and crossed her arms. ‘Well?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I’d like that.’ And I realised that I really would. ‘Would that be afternoon tea,’ I asked, ‘or dinner tea?’

‘That would be cocktails at six,’ she said, ‘followed by dinner at seven.’

‘Wow,’ I said, ‘I’ll bring some fizzy stuff.’

She took a felt pen out of her bag and wrote her address on the back of my hand. ‘This is my one and only place of residence,’ she said, ‘so you should be able to get there OK, so long as you don’t wash.’

‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ I said.

We sashayed out onto the street and shook hands.

‘Till tomorrow.’

‘Till tomorrow.’

‘By the way,’ she said, ‘I like your new coat.’

‘Thanks,’ I said.

‘Matches your eyes,’ she said over her shoulder, as she moved off.

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, as her laugh carried her away. I watched her, bouncing along on the balls of her feet. Past M&S. Past Specsavers. Round into Church Street. She didn’t look round once. I checked the back of my hand.

˜

Colin Watts is seventy-three, married, with grown up children and lives in Liverpool. His publications include two poetry collections, assorted short stories and some flash fiction. He cycles everywhere, shares an allotment, co-runs a monthly Story Night and is a long-standing member of the Dead Good Poets Society. See his website at www.cutalong.com.