‘Go on, Beth, It’ll be a laugh.’
She laughed when she said it, too, sitting there at the table with the newspaper spread out and a coffee stain on a buy-one-get-one-free pizza advertisement, her eyes bright and sparkly.
Everything about it felt wrong. Beth’s instinct screamed at her to take heed for once in her stupid life. And so, with Margaret pumped and ready for anything, it started. The thing that destroyed them all began.
‘You’re joking, no way!’
Beth protested. She wasn’t a push over. The words came out of her mouth strong enough but, sparring with Margaret’s enthusiasm, she stood no chance. Wasn’t it Maggie who persuaded her to dye her hair green? That was a lifetime ago. They were young then, foolish.
‘Look, Beth.’ Look at the beginning of a sentence was a sure sign that Maggie was irritated with her. ‘Every Wednesday night we go to the quiz at the Black Bull. Every Saturday we sing “I Will Bloody Survive” on the karaoke, and Christ knows how, but somehow, we always do survive. We watch Corrie on the telly and then dissect it over coffee and fags.’
This last sentiment seemed to spark some inner reflex. Her right hand reached across the table and without pausing for breath or breaking eye contact, she helped herself to one of Beth’s Super Kings. She paused, long enough to spark up, absently flicking a second cigarette across the table.
‘For Christ sake, Beth, let’s do something different before we die.’
She blew a plume of hoary smoke into the air and Beth watched it unravelling as Margaret continued to talk. The battle was already won. They both knew it but went through the motions anyway, because that’s how the game was played. Beth didn’t hear what she said next.
Before we die. It seems prophetic now, those words a portent to take with them on their mad adventure.
‘Isn’t it?’ She’d asked a question but didn’t bother to wait for an answer. ‘And anyway, it’s at Club M in Barrow, a theme night to grab the punters early in the evening. But, I’ll tell you now, I’m not paying over three quid for a vodka.’ She pulled a face. ‘We’ll take a half bottle out with us and sneak it into our cokes when we go to the loo. So, are we up for it then, or what?’
Beth loved Maggie even though she irritated the hell out of her. It’s that love that you can only have with a life-long friend but nothing like the feelings Beth once had for Rob, or the way Margaret loves her kids.
Beth hasn’t been to see the kids since it happened. One more thing to feel guilty about. But what would she say to Jess and Ben and little Connor? What could she say?
She knew where Colin was and one day, just that one thing, just knowing that, would probably drive her insane.
The following Tuesday, Beth was in a frazzle about what to wear, how to do her hair, what jewellery she should choose. Vodka is an evil beast, they had three large ones with coke as they dressed, and Beth was caught up in the moment. It was exciting. She felt daring. She was alive, and for the first time in months, she didn’t have to check her pulse to confirm it. She’d made Maggie promise that the evening was only going to be a one off. She wouldn’t be verbally bullied or pushed around by her.
That was the proviso; she only agreed to go along if it was just a laugh for that night, something crazy that you do, just to see how it feels. ‘After all,’ she reasoned, ‘the Yanks gave us bikini waxing and that wasn’t a good move, was it?’
Maggie agreed, no follow-up, they were just going for the experience and to see if they could still pull if they wanted to. It was a brief return to their youth. They felt the blood pump through their veins. It was seeing if they still had it.
Maggie's daughter was horrified. ‘Mu-um, speed dating? Ye-uk. How tacky. I can’t believe you’re doing this. H-ow embarrassing. How could you, you've already got a boyfriend.’
Maggie pushed her daughter's objections aside and said, ‘Darling, I’d never do anything to hurt him, he’d have to be awake for that. It’s just a laugh. And anyway, your Aunty Beth needs a man and I’ve made it my mission in life to find her one.’
Beth opted for tight black pants with flared bottoms. Can’t go wrong with a good old pair of any time-any-place-anywhere black pants, she thought. Teamed with a tasselled belt and a black top with a playful glittery motif, she hoped that a few years would melt away. Subdued lighting would help. If God was merciful, there would be a single low-wattage bulb. Oh, and no grids of any description, she decided, grids and high heels don’t work.
They got there early, intending to have time for a drink before the evening descended into sleaze. It seemed everybody else had the same idea because there was already a school of women fishing at the bar. They were corralled away from the men. They were eager. They were alive too. Some of them had done it before, speaking with an air of authority, imparting tales of caution and some unbelievable horror stories. Beth wanted to flee from the moment they arrived but Maggie was having none of it. She thought it was all good sport.
A woman approached the microphone. Beth commented that she ‘looks like summat out of Strictly Come Dancing.’ She wore a tight silver frock and her boobs only stayed in because gravity had taken its toll. She was a real hoity-toity, with hair piled up on top of her head. Beth nudged Maggie and said that she could have been Lily Savages’ twin sister. That’s when she learned that sound carries in the corridor.
‘Good evening, ladies,’ said Elaine, their hostess for the evening. She dropped Beth a withering look. ‘We are about to start, but for those who don’t already know, I’d just like to explain the rules.’ She patted her hair with a manicured hand and smiled a simpering smile. ‘In a moment you will be given a number and escorted to your individual table. The men are lined up at the other side of the building and will join you shortly. You will then have three minutes to find out as much as you can about each other. Keep the conversation flowing ladies, flirt, and enjoy and remember it’s all in fun.
After those three minutes the men will rotate and you will have a new partner to toy with.’ She peered over her bifocals. ‘As each man leaves you, ladies, you will be required to tick either the yes or the no box on your form. He will do the same. Where two yeses match up, you will be given contact details for the men you’ve expressed an interest in with a view to meeting them for a proper date.’ She went on to detail some rules of safety, like meeting in public places, always telling somebody where you were going. It was the stuff that parents tell their teenage daughters. ‘I need you to make sure that you have all signed the disclaimer, given to you as you arrived, before you take your seats. Have a good evening ladies and I’ll see you in the bar.’
Have you seen what they’ve put in this disclaimer?’ Beth whispered to Maggie. ‘They don’t want to be held responsible for anything.’ It was all a bit cloak and dagger and her feet were killing her.
‘Right ladies, I’ll show you to your tables now.’
Maggie was number thirteen and Beth was fourteen. Maggie had to nudge her friend in the back to make her move. They passed the time leaning over and making whispered remarks about their female ‘competition’. Soon, there was a low hum of conversation as the men filtered in. Beth craned her neck to try and see what her man looked like but all she could see was the brassy perm of the blonde three tables down.
Maggie was already chatting to hers in full flow despite the fact that the dates had not yet begun. Beth couldn’t hear what they were saying but one look at him was enough to tell her that he wasn’t dating material. If that was the standard of the meat for sale in this market then she needn’t have worried about ‘follow up dates’.
She half rose from her seat and shook the sweaty hand extended to her as number fourteen introduced himself. He was certainly nothing to get excited about in the looks department. She told herself not to be so nasty. He was a nice enough bloke, sort of ordinary, tired looking, worn. ‘Hello, number fourteen,’ he mumbled, ‘I’m Ron.’
Beth giggled and said in a Liverpudlian accent, ‘Hello, number fourteen. What’s your name and where d’you come from?’
‘Oh, my mam loves Cilla Black, got all her records, she has. You’d love my mam. But she’s got that senile disease now.’
As three minutes go, they were long ones. After talking about his mother and his border collie, conversation dried up. He replied to her questions with monosyllabic answers and his only other input to the conversation was a repeated, ‘You?’ At a loss, they took to gazing around the room. Beth caught Maggie’s eyes and she pulled a face, it seemed the next one wasn’t going to be much better than the first. The silence drew out uncomfortably. Beth reached into her vocabulary and pulled out the first constructed sentence she could find. ‘I don’t reckon much to number thirteen,’ she said with a wry grin.
‘That’s my brother,’ he answered. ‘You’ll like my brother’. The date wasn’t a success. She felt that their relationship had run aground and it was time to kick him to the curb along with his senile mother, his brother and his elderly border collie, called Blackie.
It turned out number thirteen was an improvement on his brother. The man was passionate, fired up, enflamed, but his passion only extended as far as the wondrous joy of fishing. He droned on for the entire three minutes about coarse fishing, fly fishing and angling. She noticed that his fingernails were filthy and could only imagine which poor fish had lost its guts under the long, dirty talons. It may have been her imagination, but she was sure that he had an unpleasant odour about him; imaginary or not, it was unmistakable, the coddled smell of fish.
Number twelve, who apparently rode into town on his bicycle, was called Martin. He told her he could carry nearly as much on his handlebars as most people could fit in their cars and bragged that he’d once moved all of his belongings from an old girlfriend’s house to his new one using only his bike. Beth couldn’t resist dropping her pen so that she could look under the table. Sure enough, one leg of his jeans was secured just above the ankle with an elastic band instead of a bicycle clip.
Number three asked her if she was adventurous in the bedroom.
Four was in love with his wife.
Five, six and seven were all okay but none of them were the type of men you could take home to meet your mother. Another glance across at Maggie showed that she was enjoying herself immensely. She was animated and flirtatious, showing too much thigh and more than a hint of stocking top. Beth could only imagine what number three had asked her.
Number ten had soulful eyes.
Sixteen wanted a British passport.
Number twenty-one smiled into her eyes, shook hands with her and hitched up his jeans at the knees before sitting down. He looked a little tired. He’d been introducing himself all night. ‘I’ve been looking forward to getting to you,’ he said, with a grin. ‘You have a nice smile.’
Beth laughed. ‘And how many times have you used that particular line this evening?’ She wasn’t sure whether to feel amused or insulted by the blatant chat-up line.
He chuckled. ‘No, I mean it. I saw you on the way in. I might have been a bit rude to the other girls. My only interest was getting to you. You don’t belong here.’
He made this last statement with an air of assurance and she bristled, who the hell was he to tell her where she did or didn’t belong? She couldn’t think of a single worthy retort and her cheeks burned. He exuded quiet confidence and she felt a little thrill mixed with a lot of caution at the thought that this debonair man had been watching her from across the room, the small amount of confidence that she had felt earlier fled, leaving her floundering and trying to come up with something intelligent to say, she couldn’t think of a damned thing.
He smiled again, a slow, wide smile, making no secret of the fact that he was weighing her up, assessing her. ‘Marc,’ he said, offering his hand across the table, ‘with a C.’ They shook hands for the second time.
‘Beth,’ she replied, ‘with a B.’ His eyes darkened, it seemed that number twenty-one didn’t like to be teased.
His grip was firm and he neither kept his hand still nor shook with too much vigour. He left it to Beth to break the contact. ‘People will insist on spelling it with a K.’ He grinned and relaxed into his seat. ‘So, Elizabeth, tell me about you. Why does a lady who obviously finds this whole set up distasteful agree to come along? Which of these painted beauties dragged you here tonight?’ He glanced around the room and caught sight of Maggie bending backwards in her seat, giving Beth a thumbs up, with shining eyes and wide grin. ‘Ah,’ he said, turning back and giving Beth his full attention. ‘I see you are with the enthusiastic Margaret.’
Beth giggled under his disapproving gaze. ‘Oh, don’t let her hear you calling her that. She’ll freak, it’s Maggie, only ever Maggie. You’ve got me wrong too, actually. It’s Bethany, not Elizabeth. I much prefer Beth, though. I don’t go in for all that formal stuff.’
Marc, with a C, said that people do insist on bastardising traditional names. He guided the conversation confidently, asking her questions. He listened carefully to her answers, interjecting with snippets of his life. He seemed genuinely interested in what she had to say. Gradually he led her to reveal more about herself. They discovered that they both lived in Ulverston, quite close to each other, in fact, only a few streets apart. Beth wondered then, if she had been stupid for giving out the name of her street. She mentally chastised herself and decided to exhibit more caution. Marc alternated between pompous and charming. He made her laugh several times despite her misgivings. The conversation flowed and Beth didn’t even notice that she was enjoying herself.
Along with jeans he wore a smart shirt, though she had the impression that he was the type of man who was just as comfortable in a suit and tie. His shirt, fastened apart from the top two buttons, stretched revealingly over his pectorals, a small wisp of dark hair tantalisingly peeping from the neck opening leaving Beth to wonder how much more was concealed below. The thought was enough to make her blush especially when he caught her eye taking in his masculinity. His hair was black, perhaps too black to be natural, and his grey eyes had a steely penetration that seemed severe until he smiled. His frame was broad, his waist slim and he carried self assurance as an accessory. Beth felt that he stood out from all the other men at the event. His confidence was impressive and daunting.
He looked good and she felt like a self-conscious little girl sitting opposite him. She was attracted to him and intimidated by him. She was even a little bit turned on by him. He intrigued her and she was flattered that he’d singled her out from the other women, if his introductory words were to be believed. He seemed too perfect a man to be at the lost and found of lonely hearts. What was a man like him doing speed-dating when he could have his choice of women from the classiest of wine bars?
The gong, indicating the end of their time together, interrupted them. Beth jumped, not expecting the intrusive suddenness. She was sorry that the date had ended and felt a pang of something akin to jealousy.
He picked up her pen and handed it to her. ‘I trust you’ll want this, treasure. The yes box is the one on the right.’
He was rude and patronising, insufferably arrogant and condescending but he was sexy as hell, and Beth was fascinated.
Marc turned his charm on the next lady and an air of danger walked behind him, but all Beth saw was a tight fitting pair of jeans.