Read by Clareine Cronin
I am not really reading. I'm thinking about my bag. I didn’t know if I should bring it. I thought it might be presumptuous - embarrassingly so - to think if everything goes well then we’ll do it tonight. But to not have it would be worse. If he wanted to … and I couldn’t. An opportunity missed. He might be put off. And then, disappointed, never contact me again. I don’t know if I could go back trawling the site. So I brought it, and now I'm looking past my book at it, and worrying it's too obvious. If I were the sort of person who carried a handbag this wouldn't be a problem. The bag-for-life is just too orange.
I wait, as if finishing my sentence. Take a deep breath and then look up from the book.
“Yes.” TwentySeven is my profile name. We've agreed not to use our real names.
“Hullo. I’m Glen.”
“Sorry,’ says Glen. “Do you mind so much? I just … that other name doesn’t really feel like me.”
I can’t help it. My eyes flick up and down him, from the wispy blond hair to the jeans with the crease down the middle. He guesses what I'm thinking, and colours slightly.
“Silly, I suppose. It was a play on words. My surname’s Knight.”
He laughs. Around his embarrassment, he has an unnerving cheeriness. “I suppose I shouldn’t have told you that, either. Not doing very well, am I?”
I don't tell him my real name, which is as inapt a description of me as his username is of him. I do kick the bag-for-life so it’s partially hidden under my chair. I’m looking for someone who’ll stick to their word. Someone I can trust.
Glen Knight sits down and calls the waiter. Orders hot chocolate and a scone. Takes off his fleece.
“So! Have you met any other people from the site?”
He seems unbothered by mentioning the circumstances that led us here. I thought maybe we’d ignore them. Pretend our relationship started here, in this John Lewis café, not with five alternately terse and chirpy messages sent over the space of three days.
“No.” I say. Which is true. I haven’t met anyone else. I did talk to rufus70 online for about a month, but when I suggested meeting up, in response I received a LOLcats picture telling me I actually could NOT haz cheezburger, from which I deduced I’d been duped by teenagers. How I laughed. Actually, I did laugh. But when Glen contacted me, I said straight away, let’s meet.
“Me neither,” Glen says. “I don’t think anyone really liked the sound of me.”
The cheeriness flickers.
“I’m sure it’s not that,” I find myself saying. “I’m not sure very many people use that site.”
He’s back to full wattage. “You’re right!’ he says. ‘It is a bit niché.”
I can’t help but smile at this. Encouraged, he smiles back. Reflected in his glasses I see my own image. Hair I’ve cut myself. Skirt I’ve made myself. Too thin. Pinched. Hungry-looking. I see my smile wavering. “I’m glad we’ve met.” I say, quickly.
“Oh, me too.” He sits forward a little, starts to say something. He’s interrupted by the waiter, bringing over a mug and plate. Glen takes both and with the largesse of people in our situation, gives the waiter a fiver and says ‘keep the change.’
The waiter smiles. “That’ll be six pounds twenty. Sir.”
Glen Knight colours slightly, mutters something about London prices, and fishes two coins out of his pocket. The waiter leaves.
“Some people just do this over the computer, you know.”
I do know this. I find the thought horrific. “Yeah,” I say.
“Sky each other. Or whatever. I couldn’t do that. If someone won’t meet you - how do you know they’re for real? That they’re actually interested.”
He leans forward again. ‘I heard - sometimes? You get two people, on the computer. Both get ready but only one person does it. The other person … just likes to watch.”
I don’t believe him. And then I do. Eventually, I believe in everything.
“That’s horrible,” I say.
“That’s people for you,” he replies, sitting back. “You can’t trust anyone.” Slurps his hot chocolate. And then. “But I trust you,” he says. “You’re really interested, aren’t you? You really want to do it.”
Given what he's just told me, this is crazily naïve. I’ve done nothing to warrant this. The fact that I am not someone out to dick him around is not something he can assume from the fifteen minutes we’ve spent together. Or maybe he can, insists something inside me. Maybe he can see it in you. Maybe this bespectacled little man with the bad hair is actually incredibly perspicacious.
“Yes.” I say.
“Thought so. Why? Why do it this way?”
I sit back, away from him. My foot kicks my bag, under the table.
He seems to sense my awkwardness.
“Me, I was diagnosed with cancer. Terminal.” He says it quickly. Then, just as quickly. “I’m not wasting your time. Just found out. I've already told the wife -“
“... the best friend, the dog. Signed over the house, the accounts. Made it easy for them, you know. Told them to get on with their lives.”
He pauses for a moment. Worries a raisin out of his scone and pops it in his mouth.
“That’s what they did. Her and him. Got on. They think I don’t know. Think they’ve managed to keep it a secret. But they’re so excited. Even just waiting, like they are now. It’s like someone’s put lightbulbs in their eyes. Instead of ... their eyes. She was never that happy with me. Not like she is with him. It’s better for everyone if I just … find another way. I’m used to the idea now, to tell you the truth. More curious about what it’ll be like than anything else. But I don’t want to be alone.” He looks up from his scone. “You think that’s pathetic.”
“No I don’t.” I really don’t. “You love her. I don’t think I’ve ever loved anyone. Or been loved.”
He breathes through his nose. A kind of sad huff.
“Gosh,” he says. “That’s why you’re on the site? Now that's pathetic.”
I feel my face twist, and my throat catch fire, then see a broad grin break across his. He’s joking. It surprises me into a laugh, like I’ve been punched in the stomach.
“Well. Shall we?” he says, tipping his head back for the last of his drink.
“I’ve got a hotel room,” he says. “Save the cleaning up. You know - in case it’s messy.”
I think about what is in my bag and suspect that it will indeed be messy.
“Just like that?”
“Only if you want to,” he says. And looks away from me, so I can make up my mind.
I think that I don’t want to be alone, either. I look at him, at the halo of wispy hair, and the eyes with their kind crinkles. At this man, who is asking me to go with him, who needs me, perhaps. I think about how lonely I have been, and how it has felt, these past months, as if I can’t go on. And I decide.
I pick up my bag.
Inside are the instructions I printed off from the website. “DarkAndStormy, John Lewis, 6.30.” is written at the top, in blue biro.
With my other hand I take Glen’s.
“Shall we?” he says. Again.
“Yeah.” I say. “We shall.”
Joy by Alleia Jones was read by Clareine Cronin at the Liars' League Dark & Stormy event on 12 October 2010 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, London
Alleia Jones lives and works in West London. She is currently trying to write a good book.
Clareine Cronin trained at Drama Studio London. Stage work includes Susan in The Future (Pentameters), Tanya in Paper Thin (Barons Court Theatre) and Eva in Tough Luck (Hen and Chickens). Screen credits include Tiz in Forna, Teresa in Making It Mean Something and The Bill. She is also an experienced voiceover artist. www.clareinecronin.com