Sophie’s Choice by Chris Green
I haven’t seen Sophie for years. Not since she moved up north. So, I am surprised to find her in the wines and spirits aisle in my local Tesco. She is looking at the Sauvignon Blanc range. This was always her favourite tipple. I would always go for Italian red. Chianti, Valpolicella. Bardolino. So many varieties to choose from. And good quality control. Although Sophie and I parted on bad terms, I am pleased that at last, we may have the chance to catch up. It will give me the opportunity to try to clear up a misunderstanding or two. It wasn’t my idea to break up. This was Sophie’s choice.
‘Hi Sophie,’ I say. ‘Lovely to see you. You’re looking good. What are you doing in these parts?’
‘Do I know you?’ she says.
‘Come on, Soph! It’s Matt,’ I say. ‘You can’t have forgotten. We were together for three years. Well, on and off.’
‘You’re mistaking me for someone else,’ she snaps. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get on with my shopping.’
For a moment, I entertain the idea that I might be mistaken, and this is not Sophie. After all, it is several years since I have set eyes on her. And the mind can sometimes play tricks. But this woman’s appearance is ticking all the boxes. She is a little fuller of figure perhaps, but she looks about thirty-three, which would be about right. She is about five foot five and wears her skirt and fitted jacket in the way Sophie used to wear them. Sophie was fond of charcoal tights like these too, and block heels. Although her hair is shorter, the style is the same shape. Slightly darker, but like most women today, Sophie was forever changing her hair colour. In Line of Duty terms, this person would represent a 99.9% match.
Having added a couple of bottles of wine from the top shelf to her shop, she pushes her trolley in a determined fashion towards the checkout. I follow with my basket a few steps adrift and line up behind her. I try once more to initiate a conversation.
‘If you don’t back off and stop harassing me, I’m going to call Security,’ she says.
A burly uniformed security guard is hovering nearby. In case she gestures for him to come over, I pick another checkout, while keeping an eye on Sophie’s movements. I’m certain it is her. Why is she giving me the brush-off? Our breakup had been sudden. Up until then, things had been fine. We had our spats. All couples do. But we had some memorable times together. We had many great holidays in exotic locations, a stimulating social life and sensational sex. We did not even have the responsibilities that come with having children. We were free to do what we wanted, when we wanted. I felt we had a good life.
I make it through my checkout ahead of her. I wait outside. When she comes out, I try once more to clear the air.
‘I was only thinking about you the other day, Sophie,’ I say. ‘In fact, it was just yesterday. I remembered the time you got stranded on the platform on the Izmaylovo station on the Moscow metro with the balalaika you had bought at the market. The train left the station without you and you couldn’t contact me because your mobile phone didn’t work. I was on the train, heading west, but you weren’t. But as you know, I had the foresight to get off at the next station and come back to rescue you. I saw a balalaika in a Russian Week window display in Bigelows Department Store and remembered the problems we had getting yours back through customs. Did you ever learn to play the thing?’
‘What are you talking about?’ she says. ‘Who are you?’
A man in a black BMW drives around to the short-stay parking bay and beeps his horn. Sophie strides off towards it. The man opens the boot, ready to take the shopping. He is a large fellow wearing skinny-fit jeans and a muscleman t-shirt. He has tattoos up both arms. I have a bad feeling about what might happen if I don’t make myself scarce. Fortunately my car is parked close by.
It may be a foolish thing to do, and something that I have never attempted before, but as they draw out of the car park, I decide to follow them. Sophie won’t know that I drive a grey Tiguan, and it is a pretty nondescript car, the type you would not notice. It is so inconspicuous, I imagine it is probably the private detective’s model of choice. I expect Billy Hats drives one. It is early afternoon, and there is not much traffic on the road at this time of day, so I have little difficulty in keeping a safe distance behind.
We arrive at Descartes Avenue, a leafy suburban road on the Philosophers’ estate, and the BMW pulls into a driveway. I make a note of the house number, and keeping my head down, drive on by. I have no plan of what I might do with the information. I’m not thinking of becoming a stalker, but I feel Sophie’s address is something I ought to be aware of. I had not even known the name of the northern town she ran off to when she left. As we each had our own group of friends and Sophie did not do social media, I never discovered her whereabouts.
On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I see Magda. She comes around after work, and we have something to eat and go to bed, or go to bed and have something to eat. There is no set pattern. It depends on how we feel. But the relationship is probably going nowhere. Magda is married. I don’t know why it has to be Tuesdays and Saturdays. This is Magda’s choice. Perhaps her husband has a similar arrangement on those days. I don’t ask. It is none of my business.
Our schedule gives me scope to do other things on the evenings I don’t see her. On Mondays, I have a class in The Roots of American Jazz at the college, and on Fridays, I usually go to The Old Dog Inn or The Blind Monkey for a pint or two. But for the rest of the week, I am often left twiddling my thumbs. At thirty-six, I fall into that category between the more gregarious younger interest group and the glad to have got all of that over with older age group. People my age are likely to either be in settled relationships with young families or are socially inept.
On Thursday evening, I am driving home from work with nothing on my agenda. On the spur of the moment, I decide to take a detour along to Descartes Avenue to see if anything is going on. There is a silver Mercedes A-Class parked on the drive at number 66. No sign of the black BMW. Not sure what conclusions to draw from this, I park up a little way down the road under the shade of a London plane. I can wait here a while to see if there are any developments. Perhaps the Mercedes is Sophie’s car and her tattooed lover is out somewhere in the Beamer. But the Merc was not there the other day. Maybe lover boy is a dealer in luxury cars. But it doesn’t feel right. After all, this is suburbia. There must be something more sinister going down.
I don’t have to wait too long for a development. Another Tiguan draws up, this one a top of the range model with dark tinted windows. Nobody gets out. Could this be Billy Hats on a stake-out? If in the unlikely event it is, why is he too watching Sophie’s house? I’m not even sure that Billy Hats exists, or whether he is a fictional private detective. Perhaps it’s a name I picked up from a Darius Self thriller. But it is clear someone is watching someone here. And number 66 seems to be the focus. Perhaps it is part of an undercover police operation. I can’t hear the blues and twos yet, but I need to stick around to find out what is going on.
A broader, more tattooed version of last week’s bruiser emerges from the house and gets into the Merc. Sophie’s choice in men has apparently taken a tumble in the years since she we split up. These guys look like seasoned gangsters. There is no sign of Sophie. The Merc drives off at a pace. Seconds later, the Tiguan follows. If I were a betting man, I would back the Merc to lose the VW pretty easily, should it to come down to it. I don’t see any point in my joining the pursuit. I’m not sure what to do about Sophie, though. Is she part of some underworld gang? Might she be in danger? What could I do about it if she were? Probably nothing. She may of course be in the house. But, even if she is home, she is not likely to be in the mood for a visit from me. After a few more minutes without further incident, I head for home.
There has been a jazz revival lately, so I am kept busy at Brass and sometimes have to work late. Along with Magda’s visits on Tuesday and Saturday and my evening class, my week suddenly seems quite full. I stop off at Tesco some evenings for a bottle of wine on the off-chance of bumping into Sophie again. But other than this, my amateur sleuthing takes a back seat.
Lee Shirt comes in to Brass buy a new mute for his trumpet. Lee is an old friend. We go back to our days in The Hat Band, a colourful jazz combo. I don’t play in a band any longer, but Lee has stuck with it. The Hat Band sound good. I don’t think they miss me that much. If you get the chance, you should go and see them.
‘I saw Sophie last week,’ Lee says. ‘She was with this huge fellow with a shaved head. I tried to get her attention, but I don’t think she saw me. They were going into Barclays.’
I am tempted to ask what kind of weapon her friend was carrying, but I resist.
‘Are you sure it was her?’ I ask, instead.
‘Not one hundred percent, mate, but Sophie is pretty stunning and always dresses like she’s going somewhere special, so I’m fairy sure. Don’t know what she was doing with this mean-looking dude, though. He was built like a WWE wrestler. He didn’t seem like her type at all. It seems a bit odd, don’t you think?’
Magda remarks that I seem distracted during our lovemaking.
‘You used to give me big rogering and make me sing out,’ she says. ‘Now I am left waiting for that good seeing-to. Have you been visiting Valentina Vamp?’
I apologise and begin to tell her about Sophie and the hoodlums.
‘So you want this Sophie too,’ she says. ‘Am I not enough for you? Or perhaps you are liking these big boys now. Is that what it is? Anyway, it’s up to her who she hangs out with. That’s Sophie’s choice.’
Once you are on the lookout for someone, you imagine you see them everywhere you go. On the street, in the pub, in the queue at the post office, at the waste disposal site, in the back garden, everywhere. Wish fulfilment, I suppose. Sophie isn’t remotely interested in jazz. Years ago, she threatened to take my saxophone to British Heart Foundation if I didn’t stop playing it around the house. So when one morning I imagine I see her come through the door of Brass, I let Django go across to see what she wants. Django has just started, and he is keen to make an impression. Obviously this is not really her. Sophie wouldn’t be seen dead in baggy jeans and a John Coltrane t-shirt for a start. She ignores Django and comes over.
‘I’ve been the victim of identity theft, Matt,’ she says. ‘They have cleaned me out. They hacked my email, and most other accounts are connected to email, even bank details, etc. But somehow they even managed to crack my facial recognition stuff. Someone around here is impersonating me. There must be a lookalike. I got a fellow on to it, a private detective, but I haven’t heard from him for a while. ’
‘Not so good, but that might help to explain a few things.’
‘Look, Matt! I was hoping you might be able to help me reclaim my identity. I haven’t even got my birth certificate. I know you’re bound to have some of my old paperwork. I know what you’re like. You never throw anything away. Anyway, I didn’t have a phone number for you, or any other way to contact you. So I’ve driven all the way down from Yorkshire to come and see you. I know it was my choice, but I’m sorry I left you like I did with no warning, not so much as a note or a forwarding address. Water under the bridge I suppose, but I want you to know I do feel bad about it. I hope you haven’t been too miserable.’
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved