Philanderer by Chris Green
I have lived in the same town most of my life, yet I almost never bump into anyone from my past. This is surely beyond the realms of coincidence. I remarked on this to Suzi only this morning. She maintained we often come across people I know, but could not come up with any examples.
‘Why does it matter, anyway?’ she continued. ‘You don’t need to see those people. You can’t live in the past, you know.’
To save another argument, I let the matter go. But I am sure I’m right. When I was younger, I led a fairly gregarious life. How can it be that I never come across any old friends or acquaintances, or, for that matter, lovers? Littleton is not a large town. I go to the same supermarkets, retail parks and the same venues for entertainment as everyone else in the town, but it appears everyone I have known steers clear of the places at the times I visit. Have all my friends and old acquaintances moved away? Am I so out of favour with all my exes that they are all avoiding me? Or am I just completely out of sync?
Imagine my surprise then, when I find Rachel Love in front of me at The Merchant Of Tennis. Rachel was the first affair I had when I was married to my first wife, Jill. I haven’t seen Rachel for over thirty years, yet she is instantly recognisable.
‘Rachel! How are you?’ I say, holding out my arms, anticipating she might fall into them.
‘Bobby?’ she says. She takes a step back to look me up and down. Perhaps I am not so instantly recognisable these days.
Rachel looks devastatingly good. She has aged well. I feel old and overweight.
‘Now that it’s summer, I thought I might try to shed a few pounds on the tennis courts,’ I say to her, secretly hoping she might say that I don’t need to. ‘So I came in to buy a new racket.’
‘You’ll certainly shed a few pounds if you shop here,’ she laughs. I had forgotten that she had a quick wit. There are other things you notice first with Rachel, and she has not lost these. She is wearing a low cut floral summer dress.
‘You must come round and have a game on our court,’ she says. ‘John is away on business at the moment.’
This is how it all started before. Alan, or whoever it was she was seeing back then, was out of town. The first problem Rachel and I encountered was that Jill wasn’t out of town. Word must have somehow got around about our date at The Black Hole, and before I knew it, my wife had poured a pint of beer over my head. Guinness, if I remember rightly. Rachel and I had to sneak around and meet in less fashionable places from then on. Eventually, I moved out of the marital home and rented a flat. Rachel came round a few times, but gradually we lost touch.
‘That would be nice,’ I say. ‘Are you any good?’
‘At tennis, you mean?’ she says. ‘You ought to know, Bobby. I’m good at everything.’
My recollection bears this out. She was certainly good at the important things.
‘Aha,’ is the best I can manage.
‘Why not come over this afternoon?’ she says. ‘I’ll get the Pimm’s ready.’
If I’m going to have an afternoon of Pimm’s and tennis, and Lord knows what else, I decide I’d better have lunch while I’m in town. A healthy option one. There’s a new vegetarian place I’ve noticed just off the Colonnade called Au Naturel.
I have to do a double take. I can’t be sure, but at first glance, the woman behind the counter with the blonde hair cut into a bob looks the spitting image of Lucy, who I started seeing after my second marriage, to Carol, broke up. That would be over twenty years ago. Lucy was studying for a degree in Catering Management. Last I heard, she had married and gone off to The Bahamas, or was it Bermuda. I don’t want to make it look like I’m staring at her, but at second glance she still looks like Lucy.
Lucy and I were going along fine back in the day, until one night Rachel turned up unannounced at the door. It was difficult to explain what she might be doing calling round at eleven at night. But I managed to concoct something and everything might have still been OK, had Lucy not caught Rachel legging it down the fire escape one morning, three weeks later. Lucy had decided to skip class and surprise me by calling round early to see me. Rachel, as it happened, had called round unexpectedly late the previous night and stayed. When Lucy rang the doorbell at 9 a.m., we were still in bed. Someone from the ground-floor flat inadvertently let her into the building as they were leaving for work. I heard the echo of voices and quickly worked out what was happening. Lucy was on her way up the stairs to my top-floor flat. The fire escape seemed a good way to smuggle Rachel out, but unfortunately, Lucy caught a glimpse of her through the third-floor landing window. Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so bad had Rachel not been still struggling to get her blouse buttoned up.
Time, it appears, is a great healer because the woman behind the counter of Au Naturel greets me warmly.
‘Bob,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when I’d see you. I moved back here last year and opened this little bistro with the money from my divorce settlement. I was sure I would bump into you sooner or later. You didn’t seem the sort to move on.’
‘No. I’m still around. I’m living in Duke Ellington Avenue now,’ I tell her. ‘With my partner, Suzi.’
‘Really?’ she says. ‘That’s just around the corner from me. I’m in Charlie Parker Close. You’re not still ……… philandering, are you?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘Suzi and I are quite settled.’
‘Oh, that’s a pity,’ she says. ‘Because since Frank and I split up, I’ve …. well, I’ve been at a bit of a loose end.’
There is then a sudden lunchtime rush, which cuts our conversation short, but after I have finished my butternut squash risotto, Lucy gives me her phone number and I tell her I will call her if I too find myself at a loose end. If all the wrangling with Suzi continues, I feel I might find myself at a loose end soon. But it is better not to put all my cards on the table.
I’m thinking it would be impolite not to take some flowers round to see Rachel, so I call in at Back To The Fuchsia. Now, this is just too weird. There is Saskia, arranging bouquets of gardenias and peonies. Saskia and I had had a fling ten years ago, after I’d split up with my third wife, Linda. But, for Saskia to be here is impossible, not least because she is dead. A rare blood disease with a long name. I went to her funeral. But if she is dead, no-one seems to have told her. This is definitely Saskia. Those smouldering brown eyes are surely unmistakable. I am completely freaked out.
‘Rob,’ she says. ‘How good to see you.’
I mumble something incoherent. I am not at my best seeing dead people come back to life. It’s all a bit roll away the stone.
‘Are you all right, Rob?’ she says. ‘You’ve gone a little pale. I expect you are surprised to see me, aren’t you? When was the last time?’
How can I say that the last time I saw her, she was in a wooden box?
Saskia tells me she has bought a house in Bix Beiderbecke Drive with her new partner, Shaun. I can’t help but make the observation that Bix Beiderbecke Drive is quite close to the cemetery. She goes on to say that she met Shaun at a Living Dead concert. This seems apt. I wonder if Shaun realises he might be living with a zombie.
I try desperately to keep up my end of the conversation without putting my foot in it, hoping that an explanation for her resurrection might emerge. I tell her about my new Dacia Duster, my collection of garden gnomes, and the stars that play with laughing Sam’s dice. I am conscious that I am burbling. I am anxious to get out of there to take stock. I pick up a bunch of something or other, orchids I think, and hand them to Saskia hoping that she will gather I am in a hurry.
With my receipt, she hands me a card with her address and phone number on and says I must call round. As it happens, she is having a little soirée tomorrow. Why don’t I come along? Shaun would love to meet me. The name on the card I notice, to my confusion and horror, is Honey. Oh My God! This is not Saskia. I have mixed her up with Honey. Easily done, I suppose. My fling with Honey must have been around the same time as Saskia. And after so many, they all blend into one. To hide my embarrassment, I make my exit.
I am just putting the flowers in the back of the Dacia when I hear a familiar voice. It is Suzi. She has just come from Cutting It Fine. I imagine she has had her hair done, it’s a different colour or something, so I tell her it looks nice.
‘You’ve bought me flowers,’ she says. ‘Orchids. My favourite. How thoughtful. I expect you felt guilty after this morning’s …… words, didn’t you?’
There’s nothing I can say. I hand the flowers to her. She thanks me with a kiss on the cheek.
‘Guess what,’ she continues. ‘You know you were saying you never bump into any of your old friends. Well, I just bumped into Brad Lee and told him what you said about never seeing anyone, so he said he might pop round later for a drink and some supper.’
Doesn’t she realise it was Brad who broke up my fourth marriage, to Dawn? That it was Brad telling Dawn about my liaison with Janice, so he could take advantage of the situation that had put the final nail in the coffin. He had always fancied Dawn. Or is this just Suzi getting me back for a recent indiscretion? I cannot remember anything specific. There was Heather, of course. But that was a couple of months ago. I thought taking Suzi to Paris for the weekend would have cancelled that one out, but it is so difficult to keep track of the day-to-day politics of relationships.
‘Hey,’ says Suzi, suddenly. ‘Isn’t that your friend, Saskia in the flower shop? The one you have the pictures of. I thought you told me she was dead.’
‘Saskia? Where? …….. No! That’s not Saskia,’ I say. ‘Saskia’s dead.’
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved