Thursday, April 11, 2013

As Salisbury was an hour and a half's drive from Flintock, Linda tended to stay over in the Premier Inn when she had a case in the Magistrates Court. She didn't like driving after dark. You could usually get a very reasonable deal mid-week. And it meant Harold could have his librarian friends round to play their weird role play games. (She often wondered when he would grow out of this but he wasn't showing any signs of tiring of them yet.)

She would usually stay in the hotel, dine in the restaurant (fish pie, broccoli and an ice-cream sundae for dessert - her little treat) but Barry had talked her into meeting him for a drink in town. What good was a night away from home if the mice didn't play a little, he said? She thought silently that this was a terrible mixing of metaphors but the latest Philippa Gregory was much the same as all the others so she thought a small glass of wine wouldn't do any harm.

They met in the Wig and Quill, near the Cathedral. Barry had suggested it. She was practically a lawyer, he said, it was only fitting. No matter how often she told him that she was only a Community Liaison Officer for the Council, he didn't seem to take it in.

It was a damp night so she'd popped to the toilet to powder her nose on arrival and when she went back to find Barry, he'd taken the liberty of ordering a bottle of Chardonnay. "We should live dangerously, eh, Linda?" said Barry. And gave her a long look.

She rather wished he wasn't living dangerously because she didn't have much in common with Barry at the best of times. He enjoyed relaying long and rather dull anecdotes about his work colleagues to her, none of whom she knew more than by sight. So it could be difficult to muster much interest in them. He talked very vigorously about football. And with barely concealed disdain about his wife. She had apparently been a "real looker" when they got married, twenty-three years ago, "much like yourself, Linda", but four children had not been kind to her. "She's a sack of bones who wouldn't know a bit of lipstick and a nice skirt if they came up and slapped her round the head", said Barry, a trifle disloyally. "Not like yourself, Linda."

She stepped off to the powder room as a prelude to taking her leave and came back to find an outsize glass of wine and a limpid pint placed on their table. She tried to attract the attention of the bar staff to let them know of the mistake but Barry said it was his treat. So she got to hear a great deal about the faithful spaniel that Barry had owned from the time that he was knee high to a grasshopper. Dumbo. On account of his floppy ears. She drank her wine rather too fast. And then Barry made a break for the toilet.

She sat, peaceful, happy, ears empty at last, rather enjoying the freedom of the strange town. When:

"Mrs Fawcett" and a yuk yuk yuk laugh like a mischievous machine gun, "the saucy civil servant from Flintock!"

A clutch at her heart. She turned to the voice.

And there he was.

The Highwayman.

"Mr Byron," she managed. Better not be rude.

The man had not been convicted earlier that day. Insufficient evidence. It seemed that a week's naked shed occupation had addled Pat Pickles' brain and he'd proved incapable of categorically identifying Mr Byron by sight.

"What's a foul-mouthed lady like you doing in an esteemed establishment like this?" said Mr Byron.

"A drink. A friend. Telling me about his dog," she offered.

"His dog, eh, Mrs Fawcett? Is you sure that isn't a metaphor?"

"Dumbo? I really don't think so."

"You know you really can't trust a man with a dog."

In the light of what happened later with Barry, she had to concede that Mr Byron was right. But he couldn't have known that.

"He's a friend," she said, a little limply.

"A friend, eh, Mrs Fawcett? I'm not so sure that married women should have male friends. Is it possible, Mrs Fawcett, tell me what you think for I'm all ears, is it possible for a lady and a gentleman to ever be simply friends without"

and here, he hesitated and gave her a look that made her feel as if he'd seen her when she was six years old and being teased about her awkward bunches and her unfashionable school bag and that he saw her now, aged thirty-six, a regular at the church coffee mornings with a husband who played role play games with his wire-rimmed spectacled friends

"without The Other getting in the way. The - you and I know it, Mrs Fawcett - the sexy stuff. I think you and I both know that That always gets in the way between a boy and a girl. What do you say?"

She was aware suddenly that she had stopped breathing. Her heart was racing. Her thoughts clustered but offered no response. And:

"Mr Byron!" It was Barry. "What the fuck?"

"Lovely Linda. I'll see you later." And with a flick of his cloak, he was gone. The highwayman.

Barry sat down heavily next to her but she didn't hear his subsequent speculations about the rapacious nature of Mr Byron. Nor did Barry hear her subsequent protestations at his wholly inappropriate approach. She made her excuses and hurried back to the thin-mattressed comfort of the Premier Inn.

Never trust a man with a dog.

To be continued.


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