Short Story: Two Degrees

‘Let’s cut to the chase’ said Fred. ‘I know we’ve only spoken a couple of times and usually I’d take a bit longer to get to know you. But you sound delightful and why hang about? Not as if we’re teenagers is it? Well, they don’t hang about either. Who does, these days?’ He chuckled, a dirty little rumble.

She liked his voice. He sounded cheerful and the photograph he’d sent her was reassuring, his face at least. His suit was a bit of a drawback; off-white linen, rather Jack the Lad, she thought. She would have preferred something more sober, a good, dark, Saville Row suit. The image was cropped at the waist so she could not see if he was wearing brown suede shoes but she suspected he was. For goodness sake, she said to herself let me at least meet the man before I start revamping his wardrobe.  She held the photograph at arm’s length and squinted at it as if, at this distance, it would yield more clues. His hair was grey and he looked distinguished with his chunky tortoiseshell frames. Fifty-five, she thought.Fifty-seven at the most. It was older than she would have liked but the voice was pleasantly youthful.

‘So I hope that works for you’ he was saying, as she jerked herself back to the present.

‘Sorry’ Janice said. ‘I was miles away. Thought I heard the doorbell. It must have been next door. What do you hope works for me?’

‘Lunch’ he said. ‘Tomorrow, 1.15. As it happens I have to collect a Rembrandt that I’m having valued at Sothebys. I thought we could meet there. I know a rather good restaurant nearby. Langans. They do a fine lunch.’

He had lost her again. A Rembrandt, she was thinking. Thank you God. Maybe a Rolls to transport it. No more Ford Mondeos. No more used car salesmen with little moustaches. This time she’d mined gold.

‘Sounds perfect’ she said and she meant it.

Research has shown that British women take between fifteen minutes and three hours to get ready for a date. Fred and his Rembrandt were worth every bit of the two hours Janice invested in her preparations. She bathed herself, if not quite in ass’s milk, as close as she could get to it with a sheep’s milk soap she’d found at a small market in Leucate in South West France. It did have a mild sheepish aroma but that should wear off quite quickly, she thought. She smoothed a mud pack on her face, relaxed for ten minutes with her feet up as she mentally rearranged the paintings in the Long Gallery Fred must surely have to display his Rembrandts. Makeup took another three quarters of an hour. She was running out of time. She tugged on her lilac crepe dress and the purple silk blazer that so perfectly complemented it. And then the taxi arrived, ready to whisk her away to Sothebys.

She stood in the marble-floored entrance, peering around her for a likely looking Fred. Standing at the reception desk was a short, grey-haired man in an old tweed jacket. It could not be …. but it was. He turned around and she recognised him, a much older Fred than the man in the photograph, and shorter than she had imagined him. He came smiling towards her and she noticed the wedding band on his finger.

‘Janice?’ he enquired‘.

Afraid so’ she said.

‘Let me just finish here and we’ll be off’ said Fred. ‘There. That’s it. ‘

He tucked a very small packet into his pocket.

‘Is that the Rembrandt?’ she asked.

‘It is indeed. Rather disappointing, as it turns out. It’s a pencil sketch with a crack down the canvas and is only worth  seven hundred pounds. I had hoped for more.’

Janice had, too.

‘Before we go’ Fred said ‘I have to confess to a couple of little white lies.’

‘You’re married’ said Janice.

‘How did you know?’ He sounded surprised.

‘The wedding ring was a bit of a giveaway but if you’d taken it off there’d have been a white indentation so probably best that you left it on. What was the other white lie?’

‘My name isn’t Fred’ he said. ‘It’s Peter Palmer-Jeffreys.’

‘On balance, I think I prefer that white lie to the other.’

‘I’ll explain everything over lunch. There are reasons’ he said, tapping the side of his nose as if therein lay the secret. ‘You will still have lunch with me, I hope?’

‘Absolutely’ she said. She was not going to let all that preparation go to waste.

They walked briskly to Langans, not talking as they dodged through the lunch hour pavement traffic. ‘Palmer-Jeffreys’ he said to the Maitre d and followed the man to their table, tucked away by the edge of the bar. ‘I thought we could talk more privately here’ said Peter.

They studied the menu briefly. She ordered sole. He asked for trout. ‘Now’ he said. ‘I expect you’re wondering why I have contacted you when I have a wife.’

‘It had crossed my mind’ she said.

‘Well’ he said ‘It goes back rather a long way, I’m afraid. Twenty-eight years, to be precise. That’s when our youngest son was born.  Things went a bit wrong, you know?’

She did not know. She did not nod encouragement. He was forced to elaborate.

‘Plumbing’ he whispered. ‘Tubes and pipes, that sort of thing. Water works. Afraid it has never been the same since. But I have no complaints. None at all. We enjoy a wonderful family life in all other respects. And Clarissa, my wife is very understanding. Provided I am discreet,‘ his voice had  hushed to a whisper, ‘she doesn’t mind. You must understand, I am not a fly-by-night. I am looking for long term companionship. I did have a wonderful friend for eight years but she has just returned to the States.’

‘And now you are looking for a replacement’ she said.

‘Exactly so’ Peter seemed relieved to have got that part of the story out of the way. ‘There is, though, another reason.  I need a travelling companion.’ He held aloft a small, blue enamel pill box.

‘Ah yes’ she said. ‘You are ill, I take it.’

He nodded. ‘The beginning of Parkinsons. Not very bad, I hasten to add, and quite containable provided I remember to take the pills. I might need a bit of a nudge every now and again but usually I am quite good.’

‘I’m sure you are’ she said. ‘So what do you see as my role in all of this.’

‘I thought I’d explained’ Peter looked pained. ‘I’d love you to come travelling with me. Cruises, pleasant escapes to sunny climes. That kind of thing. What do you think?’

She could not express to him what she thought. Instead, she said ‘Absolutely. I’m on for it. There is just one small condition.’

‘Yes?’

‘You must ask Clarissa’s permission’ she said. ‘No yay, no cruise.’

He seemed surprised. He considered it for a moment. ‘Well, yes, I suppose so. Why not? I should think that might be alright. I hadn’t thought of it before. I’ll ask her and let you know what she says.’

Janice was very keen to hear. ‘Good. That’s settled then.’ She said. ‘Now, let’s play my favourite game with people I’ve never met before. I have a theory that we are all connected much more closely than by six degrees of separation. In fact, I bet you and I know somebody in common.’

He laughed. ‘I doubt it’ he said. ‘We know nothing about each other.’

‘You told me you were a magistrate. And you live in Wiltshire ‘ she said. ‘That’s enough to begin with.’

He leaned back in his chair, looking amused, like a man who was enjoying himself, now that his revelations seemed to have gone down so well.

‘Fire away, then’ he said.

Janice did know of one magistrate but he lived in Surrey. ‘Gerry Templeton’ she offered.

‘Afraid not’ he said. ‘Never heard of him. So it seems we might be the exception to the rule’. He laughed. ‘Coffee?’ he asked.

Janice was still thinking. She smiled. ‘I know’ she said. ‘You’re a magistrate in Wiltshire. You must know Priscilla Charlesworth.’

She looked over at Peter. He had been pale before. Now he was noticeably paler.

‘Are you alright?’ she asked. ‘Have you forgotten to take your pill?’ Despite herself, she was taking on the nursing role he clearly had in mind for her.

‘Jeffrey Charlesworth was my best man’ he sounded shaky and it had nothing to do with his early Parkinsons. There was a long pause. He looked at his watch, made a scribbling motion in the air to summon the waiter with the bill. Then he leaned towards Janice. ‘I tell you what’ he said. ‘If by any chance you should bump into Priscilla in the next little while, perhaps’, he paused, seeming to search for the right phrase. ‘Perhaps’ he said, ‘it might be better if you didn’t mention this meeting.’

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