Ex LibrisbyAlex De Kok©
This is a slow story, and quite long, but I make no apology for that. Probably a little cheesy as well, perhaps, but again I make no apology. If you haven't already been put off, read on and enjoy! I hope ...
It was an impulse, pure and simple. Or at least as simple as any impulse can be when it comes to Man and Woman. I mean, she was hardly dressed to attract, and certainly not in summer clothes, despite the glorious weather. Dull plaid skirt, somewhere about mid-calf. Sensible, flat shoes. Loose sweater, no idea at all about what sort of figure she might have. No make-up, dark red hair scraped back tight into a bun, and horn-rimmed glasses. Cliché librarian. Which is exactly what she was, because I was in the college library and she was checking my books out for me. As she handed me the last one I happened to catch her looking at me, and was caught by the beauty of her green eyes, clear behind her spectacles. The sound of my voice surprised me.
"Would you have dinner with me tonight?" I said, and stopped, wondering what the hell had made me say it. She was as surprised as I was, because she gave me a startled look and I watched in fascination as the deepest blush I have ever seen on a face spread over hers.
The time for surprises wasn't over, because she took a deep breath, nodded and said, "Yes," in a tiny voice that I only just heard.
There was a long pause and her flush, which had begun to fade, reappeared and she looked flustered. I held up my hand and she gave me another startled look.
"Where do I pick you up?" I said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"To take you to dinner. Where do I collect you?"
"What time did you have in mind?" she managed to say, the flush still suffusing her face.
"Eight, nine, whatever suits you."
"I'm working here until nine. Here, outside, at ten past?" she said, hesitant.
"Okay. Ten past nine, here. See you," I said and I swear I could feel her eyes burning into my back all the way to the door.
I debated standing her up, asking myself why I'd done it, but I'm an honourable soul - most of the time, at least - and at ten minutes after nine I was waiting outside the library. She came out hesitantly, and I think she was surprised to see me, because she stopped dead. I went towards her and she gave me a tentative smile, the flush reappearing on her face in the rosy summer evening light.
"Ready?" I said.
She was flustered. "I'm not dressed for dinner," she said, plucking nervously at her skirt.
"Do you like Italian food?" I said.
She nodded, mute.
"Tino's doesn't mind what you wear, so long as you give the food the attention it deserves. I took a chance and booked a table for two at nine-thirty. It's only a ten-minute walk, so let's go." Before she could stop me I tucked her arm in mine and led her away. I was aware that a couple of her colleagues were standing open-mouthed watching us. I think she'd seen them, too.
"Before we reach the restaurant, there's something I have to ask you," I said.
She was apprehensive. "What?"
"Oh, it's an easy one. Your name?"
She stared across at me for a moment as we walked, and I smiled. "I'm John Ridley."
"I know who you are, Doctor Ridley," she said.
"Well, that's one of us who knows the other. So what do I call you? Miss X is mysterious, but scarcely practical," I said.
A fleeting smile twitched the corner of her mouth and I began to feel that the evening was going to be better than I'd feared. "Lorna," she said, "Lorna Jens."
"Okay, you're Lorna, and I'm John, and we're going to have a lovely Italian meal and enjoy ourselves, so please, Lorna, relax! You're wound so tight I'm scared you're going to snap."
Surprisingly, she laughed. A good laugh, natural. "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm just not used to being taken to dinner." She frowned. "In fact, I've never been taken to dinner before."
"Never?" I said, surprised.
She shook her head. "Never."
"Why not?" I said. Blunt, and I regretted it immediately and opened my mouth to apologise.
"Look at me," she said, stopping dead in her tracks. I loosed her arm and did as she requested. She still looked like the cliché librarian, still flushed, with a sad look of lost hope in her eyes.
"I'm looking," I said.
"What do you see? An old maid? You must do." There was a terrible sadness in her tone, and I began to think there must be a deep, dark spot in her soul.
I shook my head. "No. I see the girl I asked to have dinner with me." I smiled at her, took her arm again and tugged her gently towards the restaurant.
"Why did you ask me?" she said.
"Because I wanted to have dinner with a pretty girl."
"Pretty girl? You're joking! I'm not pretty, I'm probably the plainest woman you've ever seen." Incredibly, she was angry.
"Says who?" I said.
"My mirror, for one," she retorted.
"Change your mirror," I said.
"Change my - you're joking, and I don't like it! I'm not pretty. I never have been, I never will be." Her colour was up again, but the listlessness had gone and there was animation in her.
I stopped and turned her to face me. "I am not joking," I said. "You are a good-looking woman, or will be, if you relax a little. You have the most beautiful eyes and mouth I have ever seen on a woman, your skin is as clear as a baby's and your hair - well, okay, your hair needs the attention of a good hairdresser, but it looks clean and healthy."
She stared at me for a long, long moment and then her face crumpled and she began to cry, soundlessly, tears running down her cheeks. I moved towards her and touched her arm and the next thing I knew she was sobbing on my shoulder, my arms around her, just holding her. Her hair smelled fresh and sweet, and the only other smell was her skin, not only as clear as a baby's but with a similar warm sweetness to it. I didn't say anything, just held her lightly and it wasn't long before she pushed me away, fumbling in her oversized purse for a tissue. I took a folded handkerchief from an inside pocket and held it out to her. She took it, wiped her eyes, blew her nose and finally allowed herself to look at me again.
"Feel better?" I said.
She nodded. "That was the nicest lie I ever heard," she said, a faint, tentative smile on her face.
"I don't lie." She didn't say anything to that, but the look she gave me spoke volumes. I grinned at her and took her arm again, turning her towards the restaurant. It was about three-quarters full, and Tino spotted us immediately we went in, hurrying across to us.
"Doctor Ridley! Signorina! Welcome, welcome. Your table is ready. Please, this way." He led us towards a quiet corner table, waited while I seated Lorna, who looked flustered again at the attention, and handed us menus.
"You want drinks before your meal?" he said.
I looked across at Lorna. "Do we?" I said, "or do we just have wine with the meal?"
"You decide," she said, and flushed again.
"We'll have wine with the meal, I think. Two mineral waters for now, please."
"I send them over," said Tino, and bustled off. I glanced at Lorna who was avoiding my eye by studying her menu intently.
"Any favourites?" I said. She wouldn't look up, and shook her head. Tino's was popular not only because of the quality of the food, but because it wasn't overpriced. I reached over and took her menu from her. "There'll be a special on, and it will be delicious. Have you any dislikes, or is there anything you must avoid?"
Finally, she looked up at me and shook her head in a tiny negative.
"Shall we have the special, then, and let Tino recommend the wine?"
She nodded. "Okay."
"Are you hungry?" I said.
She smiled suddenly, warm, broad, startling me with the way her smile lit her face. She nodded. "I'm starving."
The waitress came then with our mineral waters, closely followed by Tino.
"Have you decided?" he said.
"You have a special on tonight?"
"We'll have the special, then. Starter, main course, and dessert. You choose, and you choose the wine," I told him.
He looked pleased at that, but, careful as ever, said, "You are sure?" I nodded affirmatively and he turned to Lorna. "Signorina?"
She flushed again, but answered readily. "Please. As Doctor Ridley says."
Tino beamed at us, and bustled off. To be honest, I remember little of what I ate, save only that it was delicious, as always. The starter contained ciabatta bread and roasted sweet peppers, that much I remember, although it may have been focaccia, rather than ciabatta. The main course was chicken, definitely chicken, cooked with cream, wine, garlic and herbs - simple ingredients, but the combination of flavours was superb. Forced to describe the sweet, I would have to say, some kind of cheesecake, with berries, lots of berries, and that wonderful Italian ice-cream. The wine was slightly sparkling, crisp, semi-dry, delicious.
Lorna ate with appetite and I enjoyed seeing the delight with which she approached the food. We spoke little during the meal, trivial stuff, inconsequential. Almost surprised, I found I was enjoying her company. Once she'd managed to relax a little, I found her conversation stimulating. It may be that the wine relaxed her, for I suspect that normally she drank little, if at all.
It was almost eleven when we left the restaurant. The evening was warm, and I turned to her. "Time to take Cinderella home," I said. "But first you'll have to tell me. Where is home?"
"It's only five minutes walk," she said. "I'll be fine."
"A gentleman does not leave a lady to make her own way home," I said. "Especially late at night. Show me the way."
She pointed, and I tucked her arm under mine. We set off, and I realised she was humming under her breath. The walk was too short for me, because we hardly had a chance to talk about anything before we stopped in front of an apartment block. "I live here," she said. "Apartment twelve, top floor."
I nodded. "Did you enjoy your meal tonight?" I said.
"Very much. It was delicious. I mean, I've used the same ingredients for cooking, well, except the wine, and mine tasted so different."
"You like cooking?"
"Yes, I do, but I rarely bother to do much for myself." There was a silence, then she turned to me. "Saturday?" she said, her voice hesitant.
"What about Saturday?"
"Are you working?"
I laughed. "No classes on a Saturday, thank goodness." And not many classes anyway, as for most of the university it was the summer recess. Some of us had summer students, worse luck. "What about Saturday?"
She took a deep breath and when she spoke it was in a rush. "Can I cook you dinner? Sort of a thank-you for tonight?"
I was surprised, but took care not to show it. "I need no thanks, Lorna, I enjoyed your company. Anyway, I want to ask if I can see you again."
She blinked, then smiled tentatively. "You do?"
"Yes, I do," I said.
"I'd like that," she said, and even in the dark I could see her face flush, "but only if you'll come to dinner on Saturday."
"It's a date," I said.
She looked startled for a moment, then smiled. "It is, isn't it? Seven o'clock?"
"Seven. I'll be here. Shall I bring wine?"
"Would you, please? I wouldn't know what to choose."
I smiled at her. "It would help if I knew what you were cooking," I said.
"Oh! Of course. Goodness, I don't know yet."
"Not a problem. I'll bring red and white. Whichever one is left, you can keep for another time." I was hoping she might ask me in for a coffee, but I wasn't going to push it. She intrigued me, intrigued me enough that I wanted to know her better. I wasn't going to push myself in case she panicked and ran. She seemed to be a complex mixture of neuroses and very nice woman. I just hoped I wasn't adding to her neuroses.
"Saturday at seven, then?" she said.
I nodded. "At seven."
She stood uncertainly for a moment, then leaned forward quickly and kissed my cheek. "Goodnight, John," she said, and she was gone. She turned as she disappeared through the door and I waved. She gave me a half-wave and then she was gone. I turned and made my way towards my own apartment, like hers within walking distance of the university. I found myself whistling the same tune she'd been humming and laughed to myself.
The days before Saturday were busy and I didn't find myself thinking about her too often, but when I did I found I was looking forward to seeing her again. She intrigued me. Saturday came and I bought two bottles of wine when I did my grocery shopping. I bought some flowers, too. They weren't expensive, but the bouquet looked good and I hoped Lorna would like them. I showered, changed into some half-smart casual clothes and at seven sharp I was ringing her bell.
At first I thought I had the wrong apartment, because I had to look twice to make sure it was Lorna. The horn-rims were gone, replaced by stylish, modern, frameless spectacles. Gone too was the tight bun of hair. Lorna's hair was loose around her shoulders, curling softly. The biggest change was in her clothes. The plaid skirt and loose sweater were gone. Instead she wore a knee-length denim skirt and a simple sleeveless white blouse, buttoned down the front.
I think I must have been staring, because one thing hadn't changed - the deep flush that appeared on her face.
"I - " she began, but I stopped her with a gesture.
"You are lovely," I said, and meant it, because she was. Is. I handed her the flowers. "For you."
She took them, bending her head to smell the bouquet. Bending too, I think, so as not to have to look at me for a moment.
I took refuge in cliché. "You look great," I said. Her eyes came up and she flushed again.
"I had help," she said.
"Help? How? Or should it be who?"
"Jackie, she's one of the girls I work with, she saw us the other night and wouldn't let me rest until I told her about it."
"Not much to tell," I said with a smile. "So what did she help you with?"
"She took me shopping for clothes, made me get new glasses, and her sister - she's a stylist - cut my hair." Lorna smiled briefly. "I wouldn't let her take too much off."
I looked at Lorna again, and even with the high colour in her cheeks she looked lovely. Her skin is as fresh as a child's, her lips red without cosmetics, and her eyes as clear as spring water - I know, cliché again, but they were. "They did a great job, Lorna, because you look lovely."
Her colour was still high, but she smiled. "I feel good," she said.
She turned away. "I'll just put these in some water," she said, bending to smell the flowers again. "Have a seat in the living room," she said as she disappeared into the kitchen. I shook my head and followed her.
"Lorna?" I said as she took a vase from a cupboard. She turned, a little startled. I held up the bag with the wine.
"The white needs to be in the refrigerator," I said. "It's a warm evening."
"Of course," she said. "Just a moment." She busied herself with the flowers and then took the white wine from me and put it into her refrigerator.
"What are we having?" I said.
"Wait and see," she retorted, and I grinned at her. She flushed, but I was beginning to realise it was her natural reaction, that I shouldn't take too much notice. I knew, though, that she was nervous at having me in her tiny apartment, just from watching her hands.
"Call when it's ready, or if you want me to open the wine," I said. "I'll get out of your way for the moment."
Her answering smile was a little abstracted as a timer sounded. I thought it best if I really did get out of the way and went into her little sitting-room. I smiled involuntarily. Books everywhere, just like my own place. Apt for a librarian, I thought. She had Spenser's 'Faerie Queen' and I sat down with it, reading a few stanzas just for the pleasure of it. I wasn't aware she'd returned until she spoke.
"You like Spenser?"
"He's hard work, but yes, much more than some free verse I read." I smiled at her. "I suppose I'm old-fashioned in my poetry tastes."
"Perhaps just as well you teach on the computing side of the university," she said, her expression solemn, but I caught a twinkle in her eye.
"Perhaps," I said, fighting a grin, but she caught it and smiled.
"The starter's ready, come on through." Her apartment had a tiny dining-annexe, tucked in a corner between the kitchen and the living-room, and the table was ready, spotless checked table-cloth, gleaming cutlery, plates waiting ready for us. "A cold starter," she said, "because there's only me preparing the food."
I enjoyed the meal, very much. Nothing fancy. Lorna had done a prawn and melon starter, with chopped watercress and a balsamic vinegar, ginger and honey dressing. The combination of flavours was startling at first, but surprisingly tasty. She followed it with fresh tuna cooked in garlic butter, served with zucchini fritters, sugar-snap peas and a baked potato, followed by a simple baked-apple pie with ice-cream. We finished the white wine with our meal, and Lorna made coffee.
"You go and sit while I do the dishes," she said. She smiled. "I hate leaving dirty dishes." She had relaxed a lot as the meal progressed. Yes, and as the level of the wine bottle had fallen. She wasn't tipsy, far from it, but I think the wine had made her more comfortable with me. I shook my head.
"You're not doing the dishes by yourself. Do you want me to wash, or dry?"
She stared at me for a long moment. "You're sure?"
"If you wash, please. I know where everything goes."
"Fine. Let's get started. Sooner started, sooner finished, and that coffee smells delicious."
It didn't take long, not with two of us, and we carried our coffees through into her living-room. It was tiny, and sensibly she had only a couch to sit on, big enough for three, if they were friendly, ample for the two of us.
"Is there anything you want to watch on television?" she said, eyebrows raised.
"Not for me," I said. "I'm the neanderthal who thinks that the best thing on television is often the 'off' switch."
Lorna laughed, a gurgle that made my prick twitch, startling me. "I agree," she said. "Music?"
"Music is good. Anything special?"
"What do you like? Pop? Rock? Country? Classical?"
"I enjoy them all, at the right time. Now? Now, I think, is a classical moment."
She nodded, solemn, but there was that twinkle in her eye again. "Classical it is. Borodin?"
We sat for a while, finishing our coffees, enjoying the music. Lorna took our cups away and came back with the red wine, and the corkscrew. "The label says it's a wine for enjoyment by itself, and not necessarily with food," she said. "I thought it might be nice to have while we listen to the music." She held the bottle and corkscrew out to me. "Would you open it, please, while I fetch the glasses?"
I was slightly surprised, because I knew from our conversation that she wasn't a drinker, but I'd found myself wanting to kiss her, and I thought a glass or so of wine might just relax her enough that I could. She seemed much easier with me now than she had when I'd first arrived. I glanced at my watch. Hey! Over two hours ago.
We were half-way through the bottle when the CD finished. We sat for a moment, the final strains of the 'Polovtsian Dances' in our minds.
"Another?" Lorna asked.
"Please, but you choose this time."
"Change of theme, then. Vocal, this time. Jazz, sort of."
"Sort of, eh? Interesting. Who?"
I nodded. "I've heard of her, but haven't heard her."
"I think she's good," said Lorna. She was right, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the CD. When it was finished, so was the wine. I felt slightly guilty for making sure Lorna drank as much as me, for she was clearly no drinker. I glanced at my watch. Almost eleven. Time to leave, I thought.