Always Meet in a Public Space – F C Malby

Mark Jackson
47 years old
Electrician
Likes football and climbing
Seeks 30-40 year old female for adventure.

After three months of chatting online, this will be all you know about Mark. You will arrange to meet at Waterloo station on Saturday morning for coffee. It is half way between Stevenage and Horsham, and in a public place. Always meet in a public space, you never know, Stacey will tell you. Stacey will tell you lots of things, wade in on a lot of your internet dating with opinions and advice, some of it will be unwarranted. There will not be anything in particular that might give you cause for concern from your ‘chats’ with Mark, nothing that will ring any alarm bells. He will be polite and interested, will ask questions about your life.

But, you will know little about him, except that he will have a teenage daughter, Kate, who wants to be a nurse, and he will go climbing in Scotland and sleep out in the wild without a tent. He will tell you a story about putting up some tarpaulin between his motorbike and a friend’s bike on a recent trip to France, hoping neither of the bikes will collapse on either of them, crushing them in their sleep. He will be funny, charming and less invasive than Tom, a thirty year old chef, who will ask you about your underwear and ex boyfriends, or Henry, a thirty-six year old plumber who will ask for your number in the first message and ask to chat ‘offline.’ You will not be sure whether to decline or ignore, eventually choosing the latter.

Your mother will ask why you can’t meet people the ‘old fashioned’ way, you know, face to face. You will fob her off with the excuse that no one meets like that these days and that no one actually has time to meet face to face — long work hours and modern living. Your mother will roll her eyes and tell you about how she met your father at school, and how he was the only man for her. You will hear the story more times than you will ride your bike to the office, and listen to your mother complaining about plummeting marriage rates and sky rocketing divorces. She will always exaggerate. Face to face meetings will consist of blind dates with oily business men, organised by well meaning friends, and recouping with ex boyfriends at parties, or at the pub, after one too many.

The truth will be that you are afraid of men. All your friends will be married and you will not want to be alone, despite your fears, or childless, by the time you are forty. That is Mark’s dating cut-off point’ so there must be some truth in the matter. Internet dating will be easy. You will log on, late at night with a glass of Pinot Grigio, in your flannel pyjamas, and chat to men without leaving the house. The idea of meeting up will be less appealing, but you will want to see what Mark looks like in the flesh, find out if there is any chemistry between you. He looks warm and friendly in his profile picture. The light makes you think it is summer. He is crouched down in a garden with a brown and white collie — intense, brown eyes, tongue hanging loose.

Can’t wait to meet you, he will say in his last message. Looking forward to seeing that pretty face. It will be Wednesday and your stomach will flutter.

Saturday morning will bring with it a cool, fresh start. You will pull on a polo necked sweater and jeans — not wanting to look too smart — followed by your white Nike trainers. Waterloo will take an hour and nineteen minutes from Horsham via Clapham Junction. You will leave the flat at nine twenty, allowing for a ten minute walk to the station and time to buy a ticket. You will take a book for the journey, Girl on the Train, and understand the irony. It will be an intense read and there will be an absence of commuters. The carriage will be empty, apart from a man at the other end, reading a paper. You will remember to text Stacey to tell her where you are meeting, will have fed the cat and told your mother you are going for a job interview. Two of these things will be true.

An announcement will crackle across the tannoy: something about not leaving belongs on the train and Vauxhall being the end of the line. You will slide the book into your bag and glance across at the man at the other end of the carriage. He will already be waiting by the door. The cafe will be located in the atrium of the station and you will wonder whether Mark might already have arrived. As you reach the door, you will realise you arrived first and will take a place at a table near the door, just in case. He will arrive five minutes later, dressed in smart trousers and a pressed shirt. It might as well be starched at the collar. He will smell of cologne as he leans in to kiss you on the cheek. Your stomach will lurch as he touches your skin.

“Excuse me, could we have two coffees?” he will ask the waitress.

“Certainly, Sir. What would you both like?” She will look at you.

“I’ll have a cappuccino, thank you,” you will say with a smile, but it will be forced.

“And I’ll have an espresso.” The waitress will watch Mark intently. You imagine most women linger; he is good looking and toned, dark hair, blue eyes, long lashes. He will take your hand. “I’ve been wanting to meet you since we started messaging, but I didn’t want to seem too keen.”

“It’s good to take things slowly.” He will not respond.

“So how was your journey?” he will ask.

“Smooth, no problems. I’ve almost finished my book. How about you?” You will imagine that he might ask about the book.

“It was fine. I’ve been here for a while.” You will wonder what he did before he met you.

“Your job must keep you busy.”

“Yes, but it earns me good money.”

He will run his finger around the rim of the sugar pot. You will watch the waitress making the coffees, willing her to join you, but you will not be able to explain why the thought enters your mind. You won’t feel comfortable with him in person. There will be no real reason, but something won’t feel right. Trust your gut, one of your friends will tell you. Maybe there will be something in it. The coffees will arrive, but Mark won’t look up. You will want to grab the waitress’s arm, stop her leaving. Your reaction will make you question whether or not there is something wrong with you. Trust your gut.

“Tell me about Kate. How is she doing?”

“My daughter? She’s good, gone to see a friend today. She’s studying for her mock GCSEs. It’s a stressful time.”

“I can imagine.”

“What about you? How was your week?”

“We had a big project to deal with, lots of meetings.” You will not be able to remember any further details, and won’t feel comfortable elaborating.

He will raise his eyebrows and take another sip of coffee. He will be cooler in the flesh than the warm and interesting online version of himself. Always meet in a public space, Stacey will say. “Tell me about your relationships. Any bad stories?” he will ask.

“Nothing I can think of. Why?”

“It’s always interesting to find out who people have been out with in the past. What luck they’ve had.” He will smirk.

“It’s not something I feel comfortable talking about.”

You will get up to pay for the coffees and walk towards the counter at the back of the cafe. Always meet in a public space. The waitress will give you the bill as you will pull out a crisp ten pound note. It will have been newly printed. You’ll feel nauseous, won’t want to return to the table.

“Were the coffees okay?” the waitress will ask.

“Hmm? Yes. Lovely, thanks.”

“Are you all right, Madam? You look pale,” she will say.

“I think so. The man I’m with, what do you make of him? I know it’s an odd question, but it’s a blind date and I don’t feel comfortable.”

“I don’t think you need to worry.”

“Why?” you will ask, and you’ll lock eyes with her. The waitress will nod in the direction of the table by the door. You’ll turn to find it has been vacated. Mark will no longer be there. “Is he in the men’s toilets?” you will ask.

The waitress will shake her head. “No, he left through the front door just as you got to the counter. I did think it was a bit odd. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you get up? You’ve only just arrived.”

“I needed to get away. I feel a bit sick. Can I have a glass of water?”

“Yes, of course. Do you want me to call someone for you?”

“No, I’m fine. I’ll head home. Thank you.”

You will leave and catch the next train back. You will not be able to bring yourself to read the rest of the book. Your nerves will overtake your desire to discover the ending. The carriage will almost be empty again. You’ll watched the trees pull away into the fields as the train picks up pace, and wrestle with questions about the date, about him; and you’ll wonder. Always meet in a public space.

At Horsham, you’ll pick up a Gazette. You will walk the ten minutes to your flat, turn the key in the lock and climb the stairs. You will kick off your shoes and flick on the kettle, find a corner of the sofa and pull out the paper. Flipping through the first few pages, you’ll glance at the weather on the back page, then scan the crossword. It will be a tough one this weekend. You will hear the kettle switch flick up and you will get up to make a coffee, then settled back down and turn to the middle section. He will be there. Mark’s face will be in the paper.

Jeffrey Richards (56), wanted for the murder of Kaylee Williams (16). There will be a picture of the bloodied face of a teenage girl next to his. The words, ‘violent sexual assault,’ will begin to blur as you try to read the detail. You will want to vomit, want to scream. Always meet in a public space.

You will contemplate emailing the dating app, calling the police, calling Stacey or your mother, but you will be unable to move; instead, you will drop your coffee, watch it spill across the sofa and across your lap, watch the brown liquid bleed into the fabric. Always meet in a public space.

 

F C MALBY is a contributor to Unthology 8 and Hearing Voices: The Litro Anthology of New Fiction. Her debut short story collection, My Brother Was a Kangaroo includes award-winning stories, and her debut novel, Take Me to the Castle, won The People’s Book Awards. Her stories have been widely published both online.

Image by Primrose from Pixabay

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