This was my submission for GiantJuly19: First Date. It was part homage to the literary stylings of MR James, Sheridan Le Fanu, and GK Chesterton, and part exercise to have one of the main characters absent but fully influential.
It was an uneventful Sunday afternoon that found me locking my front door and stretching my legs for a brisk constitutional, one that mystically situated me around one of my three favorite public houses. Respecting the ineffable wisdom of what gods oversee us, I ducked in for a pint.
Hardly had I removed my jacket when I recognized a certain Mr. Crowder of my acquaintance; as he had likewise recognized me, I was obliged to take a seat beside him. I waved for a stout, drew a deep breath, and we began: no, the weather wasn’t behaving as it should; yes, the saber-rattling was likely only so much wind; how on earth has such-and-such politician retained his office, after the latest scandal. Having confirmed the welfare of each other’s families, lastly, we were technically free to address any topic our minds might conjure.
I signaled the bartender and stood Crowder for another round of plain, for which he was grateful. Slowly we sipped that dark milk and counted the various whiskies on the back wall, when slowly I came cognizant of a niggling question in the back of my skull that wanted air. Crowder, Crowder… how did I know him? Not the office, obviously. Husband to one of my wife’s friends? Perhaps, but I felt that missed it. Crowder, Crowder…
“Oh, the club!” I nearly ejaculated. We’d missed him at snooker the last couple of meetings, down at the club, as he was purported to have embarked upon a new relationship. Strange, how a woman does like to see a man in action, but once she has him she likes to extricate him from that action. I was glad to learn he hadn’t died, at any rate, so I asked how things fared with the little lady.
From deep within his corpore gurgled a black laugh. ‘We are no longer an item,’ he intoned. I regarded his complexion, drooped from distantly neutral to sepulchral, cheeks hanging as though searching for any excuse to leave. I told him this was too bad and, before I could throttle myself, asked what had happened. In a rumble like hauling the stone door from a crypt, this is how Crowder explained it to me.
‘It seems Adeline was on the rebound from a prior relationship, sowing her wild oats, seeking her jollies. Been devoted for so long she missed moving under her own volition. Fine with me: I’ve got a few good years left, no need to start nesting unless it’s with the right bird, you catch my meaning. After a few nice letters, some chats on the phone, she agreed to meet me for cinema and supper. I’d wanted to see Dr. No, but I’m not so thick as to drag a girl to that, not on a first date. She was keen on A Taste of Honey.’
We exchanged eye-rolls, though his took a bit longer, and I swear I could hear sand grinding between stone slabs.
‘Happily, she was up for the Elephant and Castle afterward. I’d a plain, she’d a cyser, and we got cozy in one of their booths, giggling, nudging each other, and cracking wise about the passers-by, the barflies, the lads playing darts. Good craic, the Elephant and Castle.
‘Conversation wended as it will: where’d you go to school, what’d you wanna be when you grew up, so on and so forth. Adeline had gone to college to become a secretary, such was the demand for it at the time, but then one of her friends fell ill and she determined to become a nurse. Probably influenced by the war as well. She’d always wanted to travel, after all.
‘There she was, telling me about all the world cities she wanted to visit, hugging my arm. All through the movie, all down the sidewalk, and now in the pub. First date and all, I thought this was a little forward, and I guess my face showed this. “You don’t mind, do you?” she asked, giving my arm another squeeze. “I’m just so glad I can do this.” What, see a movie with a bloke? Go out for a night on the town? “No, just hug your whole arm.” Deuced thing to say, but I didn’t mind the attention. Hug away, hen.
‘Then she holds my hand against her hand, palm to palm, see, and she’s shaking her head and saying, “my, my, my.” She prods her fingers into my chest and says, “so spongy.” Spongy! Next thing you know, she’s got her dainty little paws around my throat and is telling me, “would you look at that, both my hands.” Well, that was quite enough and I demanded to know what she’s playing at. Adeline apologized and tried to derail the conversation, but I’d had a few and said out with it. Her behavior was noteworthy. Take a look around, I said, sweeping my arm to indicate the couples laughing, drinking, talking. None of them were pawing each other in amazement and confusion.
‘She sighed, then, and said, “I’m afraid I’m still not past my old boyfriend.” Well, that was reasonable, after all, it had been a significant relationship for so many years. She thanked me for my consideration, “and I don’t have much dating experience. I’ve certainly never dated anyone like you before.”
‘Now that got me. I asked her had she something unflattering to say about Irishmen? “No, no, nothing like that,” she said, measuring my eye with her thumb and forefinger. What is it, then? Do you have a problem with my Catholicism? Because I’m not so religious lately. “No, no, nothing like that,” she says, sitting up straight and straining to look down her nose at me. Well, I should hope you’re not casting aspersions upon the class into which I find myself born. She laughed and promised me she couldn’t care less about such things.
‘Well, then what in God’s creation could it possibly be? She hemmed and hawed, but I was too far along to give up the chase now. She peered good and hard at me, then knocked her drink back at a toss and said, “Okay, but promise you won’t be ridiculous.” I sit up and fold my hands and smile as pleasantly as I may, and Adeline blinks slowly at me, and her dimples form around her grin, and those pretty lips parted to say, “I’ve never dated anyone so short.”
‘You could have bowled me over with a feather. I’m a head taller than her, amn’t I? She’s a frail thing, six stone sopping wet, and she pulls this. Well! She must be having a laugh, so I go along with it. Is that so, I says, was your last man very tall? That makes her laugh, but hard. She nods and says, “Yes, you could say that.”
‘And a tall man like that must be pretty strong, I says, flexing my bicep in her grasp. Was he much stronger than me? Oh, how she laughs and laughs, slapping the table, and says “A bit, perhaps.”
‘I’m beside myself. She’s taking the piss, sure. And so goes the evening: we order some supper, and I’ve got a nice, thick porterhouse before me, baked potato, trimmings and everything, and she says, “Light eater, then?” I got up to find the WC, and when I returned I stumbled and crashed against the table, stomped all over the wooden floor by our booth, and fell ass-over-teakettle into the booth. Adeline’s just looking away, watching people dancing, says she didn’t notice a thing. Oh, but when I’m walking her home and the toe of my Brogan snags a jut in the sidewalk, then she goes screaming and pitches herself into an alley, screaming, “Look out! Make way!”’
Crowder drew a long breath and seemingly collapsed under his heavy sigh. I was about to flag for another couple of pints when he caught the bartender first and stood us for a couple hot whiskies. I thanked him, my head spinning with trying to make sense of this.
‘By this point, I’m starting to feel a little concerned, you know. Have I connected with someone who needs to be carted off to Bedlam? Just my luck, isn’t it, I finally meet a pretty girl and she’s soft in the skull. But I walk her back to her flat and she’s unfazed. Smiling, even. Asks if I wouldn’t mind a touch of tea. I figure I can sit on the far end of the couch and gaze at her eyes from a safe distance. But she doesn’t want the night to end: she puts on a record, finds a bottle of gin, and then one thing leads to another, you know.’
I stared at him in disbelief. To his credit, he had the decency to hide his face behind his shoulder.
‘You have to understand, things are going so nicely at this point. Adeline’s turned down the lights and led me to her bedroom, I’m getting undressed and helping her get undressed, and we’re back to giggling and purring at each other. But then she rolls on top of me and wraps her arms and legs around me and starts bouncing, like. Heaving herself, up and down, something like trying to haul a 50-pound sack of concrete or an overly amorous Golden Retriever.
‘I look up at her and ask her what in the blue blazes she thinks she’s doing. She blinks at me and laughs and mutters about “old habits,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. She slides her hand down and grips my pego, and you know what she says? “Look at this cute little thing! You know, I just bet it could fit inside me.”
‘That’s the living end! I’m out, I’m done! To Hades with this daft bint! But then the room goes dark. There’s the lamp by the bedside, but her bedroom window overlooks the city, and it all just goes black. Like someone pulled a curtain over it. I look at her and she looks at me, and we both look out the window. There, in the lamp light, is this enormous glassy eyeball, like a detailed mural by one of those beatniks on acid! Enormous bloody thing, wet and clean and huge, and it turns to me. I can see my naked self, curved in the reflection of its lens. Behind it, an inky pupil widens until nearly all the sky-blue iris is gone, leaving a yawning pit I could’ve pitched myself into!
‘I’m frozen in terror, I don’t mind telling you. I’m rooted to the spot, two seconds away from soiling myself. Up springs the bird, swinging a pillow and hollering at the eyeball. “James, you cad! This is exactly why we broke up! This is very disrespectful, you have to give me my space!”
‘In a trice I’ve pulled on my trousers and I’m out the door, clutching my clothes and I don’t care how I look. I throw myself down the stairs, decide it’s not safe to be outside just yet, and go down to curl up behind some storage trunks in the basement. Spent the whole night down there, unable to sleep a wink. Snuck out in the morning. Adeline won’t stop calling, but…’
Crowder stared at his hands: they were shaking. If he questioned dear Adeline’s sanity, I had to wonder about his. I clapped him on the back and wished him the best, slid my whisky closer to his and made my exit. Damnable tale, that. Dunno what to make of it. Gave me the heebie-jeebies, what: I headed back home, trying to cleanse the creepiness of it in the sunlight. The street was strangely empty, I noted, not a motor or a bird’s chirp to be heard, yet I couldn’t shake the sense that someone, somewhere, was staring at me, studying me, looking for something.