Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In or Out? by Ceinwen Haydon

After parting for many decades, two old friends meet in an encounter that is not as coincidental as it first seems; by Ceinwen Haydon.

Jane Cherry sat in the cinema, early for the matinee showing of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. She'd almost finished her bag of popcorn before the ads began, let alone the trailers. She was always prompt and often premature, and life seemed to hurtle past her making her feel left out. When Jack was alive he used to laugh at her, but leaving late for an appointment always made her anxious.

The cinema was fairly empty and she was surprised when a hand tapped her on the shoulder from the raised row behind. She twisted around in her seat and looking up, met the gaze of a woman of about her own age. The features whispered familiarity but she could not be sure.

"Jane Bonford isn't it? You don't remember me do you? I'm Genevieve, Genny, LaCroix. We were in the sixth form together, St Dunstan's, what fifty years ago?"

"My God, Genny, of course. Fancy me meeting you here. It's a long way from the London. Do you live in Newcastle now?"

"In a manner of speaking; can I join you or are you waiting for someone?"

"No, please come down, we can sit together."

Jane took in the exuberant colours of Genny's long skirt, her black velvet jacket, dangling jade earrings and her short gamine haircut. Quite a contrast with her own muted green jumper and grey trousers, but they had always had different tastes.

"Are you still Jane Bonford, or did you marry?"

"I'm Jane Cherry, I married my husband Jack back in 1978 but he died five years ago."

"I'm so sorry; look the film's about to start can we do an early supper afterwards and catch up properly?"

"I'd like that, thanks Genny."

Jane's concentration was shot and Audrey Hepburn failed to cast her usual spell. Her memories had been stirred up like a disturbed wasps' nest. She wondered anxiously if she was about to get stung.

As the two women emerged from the cinema, blinking in the daylight, they saw that the sultry August sun had fled. An electric storm was imminent: as it broke sonic reverberations echoed across the sky, reminding old men of wrecking balls in action. Genny grabbed Jane's hand and dragged her towards a restaurant on the other side of the road. They were safely inside by the time that the first heavy drops of rain fell.

"A table for two please?" requested Genny casting her winning smile at the young Italian waitress. Jane was starting to do sums in her head, realising that by any sane reckoning this place was well beyond her budget. As if Genny had read Jane's mind she whispered in her ear.

"This is on me. My treat Bonny."

Jane started; no-one had called her by her old school nickname in centuries. She said reflexively, "That's very kind, but you shouldn't, really."

"Nonsense, it'd be my pleasure. Anyway if you think about it I owe you."

The décor of the ristorante was minimalist, Vivaldi's 'Four Seasons' floated delicately over the hum of the air conditioning and the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans mingled with the more urgent aromas of garlic and fresh chilli. When Genny and Jane had been shown to their table they were served with complementary aperitifs and they asked for a platter of rustic breads infused with oil and herbs to nibble as they settled down.

In the unhurried ambient space they watched the condensation gather on their chilled glasses. A distinct yet contained awkwardness set in. The shadows of two young girls, hidden deep inside the manifestly older women, tried to break through the time warp. It was all too hard, especially for Jane. Genny took the initiative.

"So Jane, how's life treated you?"

"God, that's a big question. I don't know where to start. Overall I've been ok, although sometimes I've wished that I'd been a bit more adventurous. And you?"

"Oh, I've not been short of adventures, but I've always felt as if I'm marooned off shore somewhere. I've never had a real friend since you were around."

"But Gen that was a lifetime ago, I'm sure that you've had loads of friends, friends and lovers, since then?"

"Wrong. That's why I came to find you."

"You came to find me? What are you saying?"

"I googled you."

"You googled me?"

"Oh yes, and I'm so glad that I did."

"What did you find out?"

"I found out that you'd been in Newcastle since you graduated, since you married Jack Cherry. That you'd taught at the university, film studies. That Jack had died."

"So all that stuff about asking me my name was a sham: and you knew all along that I'm widowed?"

"Don't be angry Bonny. I'd have put you right off if you'd have known I'd come for you. Don't you see?"

"I don't get it. And please stop calling me Bonny, I'm sixty-eight not eighteen. How did you know that I'd be at the Tyneside this afternoon?"

"I didn't. I've been going to films there for the last six months in the hope of catching you. Today I struck lucky."

Jane was speechless, unsure whether to feel flattered or threatened. The waitress came to take their orders, Gen was visibly taken with her, and she took her time asking about recommendations and the provenance of ingredients. Eventually their dishes were settled and their conversation resumed.

"Gen, what the hell did you expect to do when you found me? Move in with me?"

"Well yes, that'd be fantastic but I'm not a total fool. I knew that you'd need time to get used to me being around again. I've rented a flat in Heaton, and we can just take it easy."

"How can I 'take it easy' when you've told me that you've up-ended your whole life to find me?"

"So I suppose the thought of me has never once crossed your mind?"

Jane coloured deeply. She recalled long nights alone on her sofa with her laptop. The empty wine glasses at her feet were testament to her drunken bouts of Dutch courage. Hours spent surfing and searching; finding out what she could about the celebrated feminist academic and writer, her friend, Genevieve LaCroix. She remembered and she imagined: it had been a revelation to find that her juices still flowed: she felt the tension that gathered under her sensible pyjamas and she let it take her. As time went on she regularly returned for more.

As her hand shook, oil from her bruschetta dripped onto her trousers and the stain seeped visibly across her lap. Eventually her words gathered into a coherent form.

"Well I guess you're not the only one who's been curious, although your pictures online showed you with long hair, I didn't recognise you immediately in the dimness of the cinema. I do know that you sold your apartment in Camden last year after splitting with your partner Dee Randall, a novelist I think? She took an overdose didn't she? She must have been beside herself. You were always making your mark, but your presence on the web has tailed off over the last year. I did wonder if you were ok."

"Jane, thank you. Thank you. So you do still care! Are you like me? Every time I took a lover, I compared them to you, even Dee. I was a bitch, taking what I could get but knowing that I'd never be satisfied. When they rumbled me I blamed them for being inadequate in one way or another. What about you, did you keep harking back?"

"Not really I'm afraid. I was happy with Jack in a quiet sort of way; he was a very good friend and understood me well. We liked the same things, and our lives together had an easy flow. We were never the most passionate of lovers, and that bothered me in the early years. Later it didn't seem to matter so much. After Jack died my life felt hollow and I didn't quite know who I was anymore, but gradually I've started to look outwards again, take an interest. I started to realise how little time I'd given to my friends especially since I retired, and I felt ashamed. I've had a bit of a wake-up call if I'm honest."

Their main courses arrived, linguini ai frutti di mare for Gen and risotto al nero di seppia for Jane. A bottle of Borolo made a worthy accompaniment. This time Gen failed to favour the girl who served them with so much as a glance.

"Thank you, the food looks delicious," said Jane to the waitress, as she remembered her manners.

"So Jane, according to the 192 site, you live in Hexham now?" asked Gen.

"Yes, so I have to keep an eye on the train times."

"Not tonight sweetheart, you can come back to mine, please?"

"Shouldn't we take this one step at a time Gen? We haven't been in touch for decades, and the way our paths have crossed again is odd to say the least. Neither of us knows where this will end. I can't make you any promises you know."

"Would you like to look at the dessert menu?" asked the young woman as she cleared their plates.

"No, we're fine for now thank you," said Jane as she thrust her hand through her grey curls, scared and overwrought as she was.

"Gen, you're gorgeous, slim and healthy, a minor celebrity. I'm carrying too much weight, struggling with arthritis and looking for peace and quiet. We're not an obvious match. Slow down for God's sake."

"Do you remember how shy I was back then Jane? It was you who asked me to go backpacking with you. That time alone together, the scales fell away, I could be myself. It was ironic: you seduced me and then you retreated. After that long, happy holiday in France, you became timid as I became bold. Why?"

"I don't know, I was frightened by your intensity maybe? Then my mother begged me not to shame her. She'd found a letter that I'd written to you, and she knew. It was a way out for me and I could buy myself time; truthfully I was not ready. I couldn't do it."

"And you're still not facing up to it are you? After all these years, it's still a bridge too far. If you admit your attraction to me you'll be vulnerable and that doesn't fit into your tidy, carefully controlled life does it? You'd rather live as you did with Jack, lukewarm but safe."

Jane felt the dart, her carapace splintered. For the first time that afternoon she allowed herself to see Gen's eyes properly: hazel brown, autumn colours. They were full of brooding tenderness and desire, the stuff of her fantasises and of her nightmares. Gen was right, even now she couldn't quite let her in: if she did there would be no going back, ever.

"Would you like some coffee ladies?" asked the girl. They both declined, shaking their heads in unison.

Gen was piqued by Jane's caution, another major difference between them.

"For fuck's sake Jane, at our age it may be our last chance to get our lives back on track."

"Gen, I don't buy this wasted years stuff, not at all. I've had a life, not the best but certainly not the worst and I don't intend to disown it now."

"Well I'm in a different place. I came to find you because nobody has ever mattered more to me than you. When I first started looking, when I came up north to find you, I was flaky with optimism. It's not quite that simple now. You say that I look healthy; appearances can be very deceptive. Last Easter I found a lump in my breast. Since then there've been tests and I've got to say, your Freeman Hospital is outstanding. But even the best medics can only do so much. Jane, the fact is I don't know how long I've got."

Jane heard this news and caught her breath. Her mind began to race, she'd be trapped, how could she reject Gen when she was dying? Then it came to her, she could do the right thing after all. In the name of kindness she could put her own worries to one side and accept Gen's invitation. It would be time limited; she would not have to lose control after all. Greatly relieved she left the biggest tip ever; as Gen paid the bill. They went to the bathroom before leaving, and once inside Jane put her arms around Gen's slender waist,

"Yes, Gen, I'll come home with you, and yes I'll stay. My place or yours, we can work that out. You needn't be frightened of being alone; I'll see this through with you."

Gen smiled to herself giddy with triumph. At the same time she fingered the clinic letter in her pocket; the one that had given her the 'all clear'.

The Italian lass smiled gently as she opened the door, and she watched the two older women go out into the humid night, arm in arm.

13 comments:

  1. Poor Jane, trapped by her own kindness! A good ending, Ceinwen, although upsetting to think that at the age of sixty-eight a woman could still be so naive and vulnerable. A clever story with descriptive passages that provided the right setting and added authenticity.
    Best wishes,
    Beryl.

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  2. Well written. Though not my cup of tea, I was drawn in by your way with words. ("The features whispered familiarity" - a good example) Nice turns of phrase and it kept me reading. Beryl's point about the age is well taken, though I guess at any age we sometimes choose to hear only what we want to hear, no matter what is actually said.

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  3. I really liked this. nice build up and lovely descriptions. Jane doing the right thing for the wrong reason?

    nice Twist

    Anyway, really good!

    Mike McC

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  4. Hi Beryl, Jim , Mike and Tony,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and comment on my story. I value this feedback from fellow writers as I try to learn my craft (as a late starter!),
    Best wishes,
    Ceinwen

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  5. Hi Ceinwen, This is my fourth comment....For some reason none are being published on this list??? Well done on your story.

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  6. Thank you that is very kind. I'm sorry that you've had problems getting your comment published - it normally works if you send it through as 'Anonymous', but I struggled too when I first started to leave comments for other people's work,
    Best wishes,
    Ceinwen

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  7. Hi Ceinwen, I liked the depth behind this story. On the surface two elderly ladies reunite to rekindle their teenage friendship, seems innocent enough. But it is the manner and reason for meeting after all those years that becomes intriguing,they are like silent stalkers. There is an element of doubt that creeps in along the way and the ending leaves a sinister reverberation. This could be the beginning of an intense psychological thriller, but as a short story it works well enough as it is.
    Enjoyable read.


    James.
    PS. did you get my e-mail??

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  8. Hi James,
    Thanks for your review. No I haven't had an e-mail? Could it have gone to my work one? My personal address is chaydon@btinternet.com,
    Best wishes,
    Ceinwen

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  9. As a heterosexual male I have no credibility to comment on the reality of this story, but I like the level of detail. I can easily visualize the scene.

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  10. Many thanks Doug for reading my story. It was not the sexuality of the characters that interested me so much as their personalities and the dynamics between them. However at the time when the protagonists would have been growing up the climate of fear and secrecy would have undoubtedly affected what happened to them as young women,
    Ceinwen

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  11. Fine story for the Age of Google. Cautionary and engaging. I want to say "Poor Jane," but who knows? Maybe she's in for a great time!

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  12. Ceinwen writes about relationships with real depth and insight. I hope she writes a lot more

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