In a windowless florescent-bright room she is young and beautiful and he isn’t. In fact she is twenty-two years young and he is fifty-eight years old. Why then, does he feel she is looking at him in that way? He is supposed to be looking not for sex but for talent to augment the department he heads in his opinion quite immaculately. Sex, if any, is always a bonus. It is a business conference over two days designed to be informal, fun, inspiring, and all of the above boxes are being ticked. Not that he is a man fond of ticking boxes or in fact the use of that very phrase. He is not modern in his approach nor is he old-school, he is just plain excellent, as excellent as the contribution the young woman is making to the morning’s session. So much so that he makes a point of complimenting her during lunch, where he combs through the delegates to join her at the table at which she sits alone.
“I really want to work for this company,” she says over a plate of chips and nothing else because she needs the carbs. “It’s been my ambition to work for this company since I graduated. I’ve followed your career, read your papers, attended your lectures, and always been inspired.”
“How many of my lectures have you attended?” he asks, impressed.
“Five. Or more,” she confirms, “To be honest I can’t be exact. Would that matter?”
“No,” he assures, “I’d rather you be honest than exact.”
She smiles and he smiles back and something strange happens. Strange, surprising and certainly unexpected. She reaches over her plate and touches his hand and says, “I really like the way you dress.”
“The way I dress?”
For some reason he expects another line, a qualification or disclaimer, something like “… for a man of your age.” But this is neither in the offing nor apparently in her mind. The compliment is honest and genuine, so much so that he now knows with absolute certainty that later that night they might possibly be sleeping together maybe, but at the very least he allows himself to be confident enough to invite her to dinner when the afternoon’s session has expired.
“I couldn’t concentrate this afternoon,” he says as she sips wine in the hotel his employers have booked for him.
“Because I was thinking about what you said. About the way I dress, and it being cool.”
“I meant it. Hope I didn’t weird you out?”
He is aware of that phrase and though he’d never used it he decides to run with it as a means of proving he is in touch with modern parlance. “Not at all. I took it to be very genuine and not designed to curry favour. I admit I do try to make an effort.”
He laughs at that and so does she. “So you’re cool with us being absolutely honest here?” she says.
“I agree your performance wasn’t brilliant this afternoon. Your delivery lacked focus.”
“I was distracted,” he confesses, strangling the slight irritation, “Which rarely happens.”
“It was me, wasn’t it? You were thinking about how I looked naked and I was thinking the same about you. You knew I was making a worthy contribution to the session and I knew that too, like I knew you were impressed. And I know I’ll be good for the company and you know that too. You knew we’d be sleeping together tonight and so did I.”
It is a long speech that strikes him dumb. Not because he is uncomfortable with what is said, quite the opposite, but because it is so forthright, confident and surprising given his rank and hers and his age and hers.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she says, before another sip and apparently reading his mind through refraction in her glass. “How old you are.”
“Good,” he says.
“So I’ll go on.”
“My observations of the day. If you don’t mind, in the spirit of being honest.”
“I don’t mind at all,” he promises, beginning to feel a familiar excitement down there, like he always feels with Lucy in Derby Street and Amelia in Lock Street and Belinda in Popplewell Road.
“I could see what was in your mind,” she continues, “Us, in this hotel on expenses having wine with our dinner, before going up to your room and falling to the bed, tearing off our clothes and five-star fucking. How does that sound?”
“Amazing,” he says, “Miraculous actually, in the spirit of being honest.”
“I know. Because I think I know everything about you.”
“The whole story.”
“So how does it go?”
“In a nutshell: In the year of 68 there was a boy born and named Simon, after Simon Templar. His upbringing was happy if unremarkable. He had no brothers or sisters, an only child, which saddened his mother at times because she would’ve liked a girl to balance things up. In later life he’d wish the same – if only he’d had a sister, he said to himself, he’d be better with women. Because in later life he was a philanderer and serial heart and marriage-breaker. His first marriage to Alison ended when she found a note from his lover whose name was Katie. No mobile phones in those days – incriminating evidence found in pocketed hotel receipts and love-letters in a drawer containing his work papers, the kind of work papers his wife – in his confident opinion – would never be interested in. His second marriage ended in tragedy when his wife Trudy died in a car-crash, made all the more tragic because she was fleeing the house in rage after discovering another of his infidelities. Simon would of course feel guilty about this, and of course still does. His third and current wife Caroline, whom he married because he needed her more than loved her and she needed him less than the Chapel, will inevitably leave him also. “Am I right, Simon?”
Having unravelled his tale and left her remaining morsels of steak and his to go cold, she penetrates him with a look. Her eyes are blue as jewels, one of which sometimes obscured by the asymmetric fringe she coils seductively behind her left ear pierced with understated diamond stud.
“Am I right?” she repeats as he is miles away.
“In a nutshell?”
“Mmm,” he admits, not thinking for one moment that he should ask how she knows all this. He is thinking other matters. “Just one thing. Why will Caroline leave me?”
“You’ve been up to your old tricks.”
“I’ve been faithful to her,” he insists, before adding “Mostly.”
“She knows that. She knows it’s only mostly.”
“But how? I’ve been very careful.”
“Which is interesting. The wife you’ve least cared about is the one you’ve most wanted to protect. You know why? A man in his fifties, done well for himself, owes not a penny, not even a mortgage, nice Lexus which she’s allowed to drive to the supermarket come the weekend, risen to senior management level, company so fond of him they pay for swanky hotels like this… Looking to retire gracelessly and keep Caroline quiet with a nice Chapel to worship, a nice suburban garden with perennial flowers and caravan holiday in Cornwall. All nice and cosy. So why wouldn’t he be careful when he does what he’s about to do tonight?”
“You’re right,” he says, newly encouraged.
“I’m never wrong.”
“Except you are.” She cocks her head to one side at this, again wrapping the fallen fringe ear-wards so he can see the raised eyebrow. “My first wife was not in fact called Alison, the lover was not in fact called Katie. My second wife was not in fact called Trudy though it’s true she met a tragic death, and Caroline is, in fact, called Carol.”
“Artistic licence,” she says, and they both laugh to break the awkwardness before she continues, “You said in the conference you’d been married three times et cetera. You like to personalise the content where necessary, make the whole thing more informal, it’s your MO. I was simply plugging the gaps in your story.”
Just then, another voice enters the equation, the waiter seeking confirmation that they’ve finished their unfinished meal, cutlery placed symmetrically.
“Yes thank you,” they say, and Simon confirms they’d neither of them be requiring pudding and that the tab should go on Room 968.
When the waiter has taken their plates, she remarks on the room number, saying it’s lucky because the digits amount to twenty-three, the date on which she was born, and that the number twenty-three has many more significances though she won’t elaborate. Another time perhaps.
“Another time,” he agrees, enjoying the promised dessert of another time in her company.
“So?” she says.
“So,” he says, “I’d very much like it if you’d join me in 968.”
“OK,” she says.
“But first. May I ask your name? Only at the conference you didn’t wear your lanyard.”
“I’m such a maverick,” she teases, “hope that doesn’t give me a black mark?”
“I like a maverick,” he says promptly, “The company needs more mavericks.”
“It’s Keeley,” she says, and without further ado she stands.
Room 968 is penthouse, with a private balcony monitoring the starry blackness of London. On it, they sip the wine he’s carelessly plucked from the daylight robbery mini-bar. She loves the view, she says, confessing she’s never stayed in such a salubrious place before, and finds the room to be sparsely-tasteful in neutral colours. She’s tried all the lights which always baffle Simon with their arbitrariness. She’s explored the bathroom with its bath, shower, bidet and sauna. And finally, she’s sampled the bed for firmness and approved.
“Are you sure about this?” he asks, meeting the twinkling London Eye instead of her own blue ones.
“If you are,” whispers Keeley, reassuring that if he is nervous then it’s fine because she is too, she doesn’t normally do this kind of thing even though she’s a maverick. “But first take a shower, relax, I’ll be waiting.”
He would protest, saying he’d rather just get on with things, but she’s already pecked his lips, a gesture designed to stop them speaking rather than to whet their appetite. So Simon, chastened, does as he is asked. The shower is warm, welcome and indeed relaxing. He can hear music through the water and smiles to himself, knowing she’s helped herself to the sound system. She’ll be on the bed now, waiting in her underwear like Lucy in Derby Street and Amelia in Lock Street and Belinda in Popplewell Road. When he is done he wraps a towel around him, checking in the mirror his paunch, which isn’t too bad and anyway he can breathe in and fight against the crapulence the steak and wine have given him. He carefully combs his thinning hair in the way he believes thickens it, kicks on the slippers bearing the hotel logo and pads into the bedroom to join her on the bed.
But she isn’t on the bed, waiting in her underwear. She is gone, along with the keys to his Lexus. Of course he quickly realises he’s been taken for the fool he is. How could he be so stupid, so naive? What kind of man could be taken in, delude himself that he’d be attractive to a beautiful blonde some thirty years younger or more? The kind of man he is, the kind of man who is right now checking for his wallet in the left inside jacket pocket and his phone with its six missed calls from Carol in the right. Both are still there, it was the car she wanted. After some seconds pondering the dangerous folly of drawing attention, he phones reception to tell them he thinks he’s been robbed. But of course it is too late, of course the girl has gone, and of course the hotel’s CCTV has temporarily blipped at this most inconvenient time.
Simon doesn’t for a moment think he’ll sleep tonight and doesn’t for a second believe the girl will be in attendance at the conference next day – a glance at the list of attendees bears proof – nobody called Keeley. And not for a second does he concentrate on the sessions next day, which drag far longer than scheduled and steal his focus, a fact which doesn’t escape his boss who’s dropped by. But that’s to be another story, the story about his awkward meeting with his boss next day and his gradual decline in the company pecking-order and eventual severance…
It’s a fortune to travel home by taxi and an expense he wouldn’t dare claim back. The taxi driver bemoans the traffic and Brexit and many other things besides, but Simon isn’t listening. He isn’t even watching the disappearance of London through the window and the gradual crawl towards suburbia. He is thinking what can he tell Carol about the car? How can he explain his visit to the police station without feeling physically sick that the officer couldn’t help smirking at his gullibility?
As he deftly but begrudgingly pays the driver outside his modest rural semi with Carol’s immaculate bed of perennials he doesn’t know the name of jiving colourfully in the wind, he’s decided he’ll tell her he left his keys in the hotel bar after drinks with the boss, and he doesn’t want to talk about the conference because he’s tired and needs an early night because, genuinely, he has a meeting with his boss first thing. He’s decided other things too. He’s decided he will never so much as look at another woman again, young or otherwise. He will not be seeing Lucy in Derby Street and Amelia in Lock Street and Belinda in Popplewell Road. He will not think again about what his father said to his mother the day he left, that she’d never said he was brilliant the best she’d ever had. He would never again ask the girls to say that he was brilliant, and hear them say it without meaning because money had changed hands. And finally he’s decided he loves Carol and their beautiful house she dutifully keeps clean and tidy, and her wordsearch puzzles and Delia cookbooks and her garden and her simple tales of chapel life and the fact she never bothers much in the bedroom…
“Hello love,” he says as she lets him into the hall and he shrugs out of his coat and inhales the smell of a baking pie.
“Hello you,” she returns, he’d later reflect a little flatter than usual, just as he’d later reflect that the aroma of cooking is mixed with a faint scent vaguely familiar but he can’t quite put his finger on.
“How was the conference?” she asks.
“Good,” he says as they move through to the lounge, “I’m very tired though. Afraid I had a bit of a mishap.”
“You mean these,” she says, taking his keys from the sideboard that shelves their marriage photo. “The car has been returned. I put it in the garage.”
“Thank God!” he manages, suppressing his growing suspicion and clutching at some nebulous straw that this can pass in peace, “So did the police fetch it?”
“Dinner’s in the oven,” she says, taking her coat from the settee.
“You going out?”
“Chapel Job Club meeting,” she says. “It’s steak – I hope the hotel haven’t been feeding you too much steak?”
With creeping unease he watches her head for the door, where she pauses, and without turning says, “I’ve seen the things in your work drawer, the hotel receipts, the items of underwear that once belonged to certain girls. I’ve even seen the texts on your phone. You’ve been lying to me for a very long time. So we at the chapel wondered how you’d like it.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Very beautiful girl, Keeley, isn’t she?” she says, now turning. “Also a very talented member of the Chapel Players. Wants to make a career of it, I think she stands a chance, don’t you? Would you say her performance was brilliant?”
“We laughed so much on that settee. About you and your clothes and your farcical attempt at looking young. Jeans and trainers and a leather jacket a man of your age. Breathing in that pot-belly. The way you comb what little bit of hair you have left to make it look like you’ve got more, a comb-over I believe they call it, and yes even take to dyeing it for heaven’s sake! You’ve gone very pale, Simon, is everything alright? Perhaps you need a good sleep after your pie. I’ve made up the bed in the box room. Tomorrow, after your difficult meeting with your boss, we’ll talk about you leaving.”
And with those words definitive and unchallenged by a man on rung one of a horrible downward spiral staircase, she calmly blinks away the tears of a torn marriage and closes the door behind her.