Beth hadn’t ticked the yes box beside Marc’s name; Maggie had done it for her in her usual brash manner. ‘Well, it’s not as if you actually have to date him, is it? I mean, nobody can force you, can they?’ Secretly, Beth thought that Maggie had been born too late and missed her calling as one of Hitler’s right hand men. She should have been firm. She should have said no and meant it. She should have stood up to Maggie because Beth knew, all too well, that to give her an inch was to find yourself sucked into Maggie-world and all it encompassed.
‘You might as well give in,’ mumbled Graham Clarke, Maggie’s long-term boyfriend. ‘You know what she’s like.’ Far from being annoyed at the thought of his woman meeting another man, Graham viewed it with wry amusement. Maggie was a natural flirt, but she was harmless and was only ever up for a laugh. He wasn’t much for socialising at all, and liked the home life with the football and a can of beer.
‘We can double date,’ Maggie had continued. ‘That Steve was pretty cute, you know Graham, maybe I’ll go out with him.’
‘You go for it love, just remember to bring me a kebab on your way home. God help the poor sod.’ Graham knew that Maggie was only going along with this so that Beth would go on a real date. Maggie had told all the men that she’d talked to at the speed dating, that she was in a happy relationship and was only there looking for friendship, and to help her friend. Beth had been single for over five years and Maggie felt that it had gone on long enough.
Maggie had pushed and goaded and even went as far as ringing Marc’s number. She held out the phone to Beth. There was no escape.
Beth’s voice trembled, stammering like an awkward teenager. Marc had laughed at her nervousness. ‘Bethany, you have no idea just how appealing you are, have you?’ The words were patronising, but, like a fool, she was thrilled by the compliment and irritated that she couldn’t think of a sophisticated and witty retort.
With Maggie nudging and prodding beside her, Beth had tentatively brought up the idea of a double date. They could go out with Maggie and whichever of her thirteen ‘ticks’ she had decided to test drive.
‘Beth, dear, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than wanting time to get to know you and finding myself, instead, embroiled in the life and times of the overbearing Maggie.’ Beth shuffled nervously and held the phone closer to her ear. ‘I would much prefer to meet you alone,’ he said. ‘There will be plenty of time for us to socialise as a couple, later.’
Beth’s first thought was that he jumped to an awful lot of assumptions, this Marc fella. Their joint life experience together amounted to just three minutes and here he was talking about them as a couple. Yes, she was irritated, and no, when faced with his confidence she couldn’t think of anything to say in reply. But over and above the irritation, she was flattered and felt an uncomfortable warmth crawling onto her cheeks and seeking harbour there.
She moved the phone onto her other ear, and stepped a few feet away from Maggie who was trying to get her ear up to the phone to hear what Marc was saying. They made arrangements to meet the following afternoon for coffee at The Lancastrian. It was close for both of them and on a Saturday afternoon there would be plenty of diners giving the requisite safety in numbers.
Maggie sniffed in disdain as Beth tried to smooth her ruffled feathers. ‘Well, he looks like a right ponce, anyway.’ She was still coming to terms with the fact that Marc hadn’t ticked her as possible dating material and two rebuffs from him in one day were just too much for the effusive Maggie to deal with.
Beth’s bedroom resembled delivery day at Debenhams by the time she had dressed for her date. Her wardrobe, doors flung wide, displayed a rack of empty coat hangers, and the bed was piled high with discarded clothing. She settled on a calf-length black skirt with a print of tiny pink roses and a pale pink top that accentuated her slim figure. She wore black knee-length boots and Maggie said that she looked mumsie and offered a black Lycra mini skirt, which Beth declined.
He was waiting for her outside the bar. He held out a bouquet of a dozen pink roses that matched the print of her skirt perfectly. He told her that she looked beautiful and kissed her lightly on the cheek before guiding her gently by her elbow into the lounge of the bar. He escorted her to a table by a large bay window before going to the bar to order their coffee. He had suggested lunch at first but then, as if sensing that Beth was a person who moved cautiously, he had said, ‘Or we can just meet for coffee and see how it goes.’ Beth had appreciated this small act of thoughtfulness. He had good, old fashioned manners, rare in a man of his age. He seemed so assured and strong. She felt out of her depth, yet reassuringly protected by him.
Coffee did stretch into lunch and one hour became three. Lunch lapsed into red wine and after her third glass she felt the affects of the alcohol warming her and loosening her tongue. The conversation, never stilted, came more easily with every sip. He was adept at filling any potentially awkward gap with a witty quip or a relevant question. They talked and laughed and made eyes at each other as the afternoon shadows moved around the room with the passing of the day. He showed an interest in her life, but Beth never felt under fire.
She didn’t want to be the one to end the date and he seemed comfortable. It was the perfect first date. He made her feel attractive and intelligent. After almost six hours, Beth knew that she wanted to see him again. She was smitten.
She didn’t want any more to drink though, she’d had enough. As he poured the last drips of the wine into her half full glass, he asked if he should get another bottle, ‘Or…,’ he tailed off lamely, ‘do you have things to do?’ She didn’t want more wine, but it gave them a reason to sit and talk even though Mark was driving, he only had one glass and she was the one doing the drinking.
The second bottle came and he poured it, suggesting that they make a night of it, that they move on from there to see a film at the cinema. She nodded happily. He handed her the glass that hadn’t quite needed replenishing and as she reached to take it his knee knocked against the table causing her to fumble. The glass tipped and she watched in horror as the contents emptied down the front of his shirt.
He jumped up and grabbed a serviette to dab it.
Beth stood too, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t know how that happened.’ She tried to help blot the stain. His smile when he looked at her was forced and stiff. He glanced around the room, seemingly embarrassed by the disturbance and of the spreading stain to his shirt. Beth thought he was being flamboyant and making an unnecessary fuss. It was only a shirt but she did feel clumsy and stupid.
He managed a tight lipped smile. ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m sure they’ll be able to do something with it at the dry cleaners. It was an accident, it could have happened to anybody. I’ll have to go home to change, though.’
Beth felt irritated that he was blaming her, as though it was entirely her fault that he’d knocked the table.
‘Look,’ he continued, there was that word again, ‘I’m not sure that the cinema is a good idea now, maybe we should leave it for another evening.’
She tried not to let the disappointment show. ‘Oh, okay, yes, of course. I’m really sorry about your shirt.’ She felt humiliated. Should she offer to replace it? How much did something like that cost? She’d blown it. He obviously regretted being seen in public with a woman as clumsy as her. It seemed to Beth that he couldn’t wait to get away. The date had started out so well, too.
He was still talking. ‘Unless, of course, you wouldn’t mind waiting. It’ll only take me a couple of minutes to change.’
It wasn’t over after all. She smiled, ‘Of course not. Do you want me to wait here?’
‘No, I think we should get out of here now, don’t you? People are already staring at us.’
There was reproach in his words and she felt the sting of having been told off like a naughty child.
‘I suppose it would be best if you came home with me. You know I live just around the corner from you and I’ve got the car outside. We can go straight to the cinema from there. I can get you some water at my house; it might help to steady your hand.’
His words were barbed. Christ, she thought, it was an accident, get over it, man. Jesus, she’d only had two thirds of a bottle of wine and a brandy after lunch. She liked him very much but he did seem a bit overbearing sometimes. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to go to his house after that, the condescending arse. He was already guiding her out of the pub.
He saw the uncertainty cross her face and settle in the folds of her brow. ‘I’m sorry, Beth, that was stupid of me. Of course you shouldn’t get in a stranger’s car. You don’t know me. We’ll do this properly and I shall call you soon.’
‘Yes, that’s probably best,’ Beth said, reaching for her purse. ‘But I do insist on paying the cost of your dry-cleaning.’
‘Now I’ve offend you. I’ve enjoyed this afternoon. Let’s not let one silly little incident spoil a perfect date.’ He winked. ‘We’ll go to the cinema as planned and to salve your conscience, you can buy the popcorn. How’s that?’
She gave herself a mental ticking off. Marc was okay. He wasn’t one of the dating agency weirdo’s that she’d heard about. He was just particular about appearances.
His previous good humour seemed to return in the car. He had been stiff and uncomfortable when he had paid the bill in the bar. He refused Beth’s offer to split the cost between them and said that when was treating a woman to lunch he didn’t expect her to pay for it. Beth always liked to pay her way, but she would tackle her fierce independence another, more appropriate time.
She was looking forward to seeing inside his house. As a child growing up on Croftland’s Estate she had passed it daily on her way to school. The house was old, gothic, lacking a gardener, crouching at the top of Springfield Road like a stalking tiger. A wall of Lakeland stone surrounded the two-acre property, but the ominous turrets of the west-wing tower were visible over the top. She remembered visiting the house one Halloween. They had been very daring then, egging each other on. Maggie, of course, had been brash, claiming to the world that she wasn’t scared, but she had found herself at the end of the path even before Beth had time to turn from ringing the bell. Beth had always been in awe of the great house covered in emerald green ivy. It had been anti-climatic when nobody answered the door but they had made their retreat rapidly, half disappointed and half terrified, convincing each other that curtains twitched in the upstairs rooms and that sinister old ladies embroiled in dark deeds lurked behind them.
For several years now the old place had been a nursing home. Marc had recently bought it with a view, he said, to development and returning it to a grand family home.
‘What are you smiling at?’ he asked, as he pulled up in front of the house and got out.
‘Oh, nothing really, you know, just ghosts from the past.’ She felt stupid under his intense gaze.
He indulged her with a smile. ‘I want to hear about all of your memories, Beth. All of your dreams, too. I want to know everything there is to know about Bethany Armstrong. Well, don’t just stand there, come in and I’ll get changed.’
The house was a work in progress but it was already spectacular. Marc and his team of designers were working hard to keep the character of the old house, while giving it a fresh, modern twist. The furniture that lined the hallway would have cost more than the entire contents of Beth’s house. The light was fading now but Beth could imagine sunshine streaming in through the front door in full daylight. Antique and modern sculpture complemented each other. The attention to detail in the refurbishment was sublime and no cost had been spared to make the ambiance just right.
He ushered her into the main lounge. The room was vast with bay windows looking out onto the garden. Marc explained that everything was on a centrally controlled timing device. At dusk the curtains had closed automatically and the lights had come on. Water features had become popular in people's lounges this year. Praying hands, elephant herds and earthenware gourds were all on sale in any market hall with their tiny waterfalls and up-lit prisms. Marc had taken the concept a step further. The right hand corner of the room was dominated by the sculpture of a dancing lady in treated bronze. She was in a classic ballerina pose, hands high, almost meeting in an arch above her head, left leg, slim and pointed, sticking out high in front of her, the positioning and delicate point of the foot a testament to the fact that this home was certainly not child friendly.
The golden curves of her body were subtly lit with unseen coloured bulbs in the trough below. Water cascaded over her breasts and a filter controlled exactly how much pressure was forced through the fountain heads for whichever mood was desired. At the moment the water trickled gently, sighing and gurgling as it made its way lazily into the font at the base of the statue. The statue was life-sized, the fountain containing her, monumental, a lesser room could never get away with something of this size and flamboyance.
Experts say that a room should have one dramatic focal point. This room had two. An enormous open fire was laid with wood and coal, ready to have a match put to it if the evening should turn chilly. The hearth was set with old fashioned irons. The fire-surround dominated its fore, hewn from Lakeland stone, set with small alcoves and deep recesses where ferns had been placed far enough into the cool rock to be protected from the heat of the fire when lit.
The polished real-wood floor shone. Five plush leather sofas were placed with care at angles to encourage conversation. There was no visible entertainment system in this room, no television, until Marc went to a discrete control panel hidden in trunking by the side of the fireplace. Beth could see that he loved showing off his home to new people.
He reminded her of the ringmaster at a circus she had attended as a child. He pressed a couple of buttons on the panel and the huge oil painting on the wall, commissioned by the Lakeland artist, Len Mein, slid up to the ceiling on silent motorised tracks and settled into its new niche on the wall. A plasma television of cinematic proportions, and the best in home entertainment centres, lay snugly where the oil painting had been.
Marc handed Beth an ordinary remote control and told her to help herself. He pushed buttons on the panel and four racks of CDs trundled from the wall cavity to show thousands of albums. More buttons released a similar array of DVDs. He showed her to a room off the lounge, a fully equipped bar. He said that he was going for the quickest shower in living history and would be back very shortly. He told her to avail herself of anything she required and asked her to pour him two fingers of bourbon over ice for when he came down and said that they would take a taxi into town.
When Marc left the room, Beth looked at the remote control still in her hand. Way too many buttons, she decided, and she put it down on the arm of one of the sofas. She wandered into the bar. Looking through the vast array of bottles on the shelving, some on optic, some standing free, she shook her head, she couldn’t see one that said ‘bourbon’ on the label. She knew it was some sort of whiskey, but had no idea in what form it presented itself. Oh, bugger, she thought, where’s Maggie when I need her? She grinned. Maggie would have loved all this. She could just see her friend gazing around in awe and calling Marc a flash, poncey git.
Beth had a vague idea that Bourbon was American whiskey. She settled on a bottle of Wild Turkey that sounded sort of American and would just have to do. He probably couldn’t tell the difference between one whiskey and another, anyway. She poured him what she figured was probably about two of his big chunky fingers and couldn’t find any ice. She poured herself a smaller glass of the nasty looking brown liquid, smelled it, pulled a face and poured her glass into his. She put her glass on the bar and went back into the lounge.
He had left the door open. She walked to the threshold and listened to see if she could locate the sound of running water. His bathroom was too far away to hear anything and the house hunkered over her with a dense silence. She felt uncomfortable and couldn’t pinpoint why. Shivering, she went back into the warm atmosphere of the lounge.
She was running her finger along the spines of his CD collection when she heard whistling followed by footsteps coming quickly down the stairs.
‘There, that’s better,’ he said, coming in through the door and leaving it open behind him. ‘I feel clean now.’ He stopped in the middle of the room and stared around him. ‘Oh, Bethany, I expected you to put things away after you’d finished with them. Look at all these racks left out to collect dust. You’re not a very tidy person, are you? We’ll have to do something about that, you know.’
Beth didn’t hear a word he said. When she’d heard him coming, she’d turned towards the door smiling. She had moved on from his CDs to his DVDs and held his copy of Dirty Dancing. She had been going to tell him that it was one of her favourite films; she had been going to ask him if he knew Swayze’s mother owned a dance school; she was going to ask him if he was ready to go. She didn’t say any of these things.
He shut the door with a soft click.