The One


"Alan? Alan Palmer?"

I was miles away daydreaming over a cup of coffee in the hotel lounge, I guess. I had just closed my laptop and was thinking about my wife of twelve years, the mother of my three children, the images of her in her lover's usual room, early afternoon on a Wednesday. She was currently sucking her lover's dick, trying to get him up for one more time, while he was lapping at both her holes. I had a contract that apparently was not worth the paper it was written on. One that she signed after swearing to forsake all others. Evidence to the contrary gave testimony to that lie. This Wednesday afternoon was a regular thing, so for them it was 'same ole, same ole', apparently.

I found it difficult to think of anything else.

My ears pricked up at the sound of my name. I slowly reacted and turned my head to the speaker. She was tall and slim, an attractive redhead, with a rather hesitant smile on her flawless face.

I didn't recognise her and looked her over, first down and then up again. She was dressed in a crisp sleek blue pin-striped business suit which emphasised the nicest pair of knees and legs I had seen in a long while. Both her hands were occupied with gripping a smart thin briefcase and an expensive-looking black leather handbag. I think I smiled back at her, more in embarrassment than welcome, while desperately trying to place her face from recent acquaintances, former work colleagues, wives of friends, mums from the school run or customers of the gym I had recently joined. I knew for certain that she'd look better than good in running shorts, without a doubt.

Other than that, nothing, complete blank, didn't know her from Eve. She apparently knew me, that much was obvious. Perhaps she was a messenger from the solicitors who had been shown my photo?

"Sorry?" I said dumbly.

There was something intangibly familiar about her, but it completely escaped me. I tried to work out where I might have seen her before. I guessed her age was about 35 or 36, some ten to twelve years younger than me. I lost all my hair long ago and have shaved my head for about ten years now, so she must have known me from somewhen in the last decade.

I suppose my eyes were still moist from seeing and thinking about my wife being royally fucked by her lover, and it was almost impossible to get this stranger's face fully in focus through my tears. That's my excuse, anyway. One thing I was certain of, the redhead was a class act, well out of my league. Damn it, at my age, looks and current relationship circumstances, they all were.

Her bright smile froze at my lack of recognition and her face rapidly took on the aspect of a frown. Her mouth pouted and she looked, well, hurt. That was crazy. Nobody looked hurt around me; upset, angry, frustrated, pissed-off, especially disappointed, but never hurt. After all I was the number one stupid dolt of all time. Who cared what I thought?

Where was my life at anyway? My lovely bitch of a wife, who was ten years younger than me, was a successful editor of a high-circulation women's magazine and I had sacrificed my career, as an advertising copywriter, to be a stay-at-home husband and... this was a laugh on me... I was reduced to the role of being a caring father to my two sons aged eleven and three and daughter age seven.

Meanwhile my wife had been running around with her boss at work, well... presumably for years. My children's recent DNA tests showed that I wasn't even remotely related to any one of them; I had lost the few good looks I may have started out with and my body had been allowed to run to fat and I was now at the lowest ebb of self confidence ever. I'd never been even vaguely self-confident to begin with. I even doubted my sanity, knowing that nothing was going right for me and I was as miserable as sin.

Even knowing what I had to do and what I had already set in train hardly empowered me, my actions only confirmed how completely clueless and hopeless I had been all my life. I was only sitting in the coffee lounge of this smart hotel watching the lift doors and waiting for my wife and lover to emerge before confronting them both. However, short of killing them I was pretty well powerless to do anything about their affair other than end my involvement in her life.

Now on top of all that I was having to contend with, there was this beautiful redhead virtually snarling at me because I couldn't remember who the fuck she was.

So I scowled back at her. Who was she to be critical of my underdeveloped cognitive skills? Didn't she know I'd had a lot on my plate of late and had had it up to the top of my scrawny neck?

She set her jaw squarely, leaned into me and punched me quite hard in the chest, bared her perfect white teeth and said in a low bit penetrative voice:

"Just cos you dumped me as your girlfriend twenty years ago, doesn't mean you can treat me like a complete stranger after all this time. We lived together for five years for crying out loud! You once even asked me to marry you! You. Complete. Arsehole!" She jabbed my bruised chest with a pointed finger to emphasise each of the last three words.

Then she threw herself into a padded leather chair opposite me, slung her briefcase and handbag onto the the table between us, rattling my empty coffee cup in its saucer, and continued to glare at me. Waiting. With folded arms. Continued waiting while my tortured mind ran through my remembered images of... of her. None of them matched, not really.

"Lesley?" I enquired, not believing it possible even for a moment. "Lesley... Collins?"

"Who did you think I was, Florence bloody Nightingale?" she snapped.

"But, you can't be," I spluttered, "You, you are young and... and... beautiful."

Her frown softened and her once-oh-so-familiar brilliant smile returned to stab me in the heart, immediately under my fresh bruises. I didn't think my pain could get any worse than it already was but just at that moment it did. I really didn't need this. Please, God, I never ask for anything as You well know, but don't let me have my two worst fucking nightmares together at the same time.

"Lesley, oh my God! I cannot believe it" I blurted, putting in as much effort as my weak knees could muster by getting up out of that deep leather chair and pulling her up from hers to hug her tightly. I daren't kiss her, I had already noticed the wedding band and huge-rock engagement or eternity ring on her left hand. You couldn't miss them.

"Wow! Muscles," she said approvingly, her arms running over my shoulders and upper arms as we separated. "Been working out, Alan? I'm impressed."

I must have gone bright red, my face certainly felt very hot.

I jabbered back, "Been going down the new suite at the school gym five mornings a week for a month, now," I explained, "I got a week's free trial as an introductory offer, enjoyed focussing my anger on the machinery and punchbag down there so much that I signed on for six months about three weeks ago. I still haven't got any abs to speak of yet, though!" I grinned stupidly.

Oh dear, I thought. When I'm nervous a talk a lot of rubbish. Stick around long enough, and you'll get used to how pathetic I am.

We both sat down, holding hands across the table. Damn, I thought, as I inadvertently ran my thumb over her diamond ring, it was absolutely huge. It made the yellow-tinged diamond-chip ring I had bought for her, and lost a fortune over when I sold it back to the jewellers, seem pathetic in comparison. I moved my thumb away and consciously stroked the knuckles of her index and middle fingers instead.

"Anyway," I added, as brightly as my tortured ego could manage, maintaining my first smile today since dropping my son Nat off at the play school and greeting my fellow friendly house-fraus, "What happened to you? You must have lost fifty pounds since I saw you last, you look absolutely amazing and... no wonder I never recognised you at all... you are no longer blond!"

She laughed. "I only looked blond, thanks to bleach, back then when we were together. I naturally have light mousey brown hair and I now prefer this dark redhead look. I changed it and joined a gym, funnily enough, almost directly after you bloody well dumped me, you arse!"

"I never dumped you," I protested, "You dumped me the very moment that I asked you to marry me."

I remembered it only too clearly, I'd had nightmares about it for years afterwards. Five years and two bloody months together and she turned me down flat and admitted wanting to fuck other men.... Men, not 'Another Man' or just 'Someone Else', but 'Men', fucking plural.

God! I am so pathetic! Always in love with the wrong bloody woman at the wrong bloody time. No, make that every bloody woman I've ever loved, every bloody time!

We let go of each other's hands and returned to glaring at one another again. I think we both clenched fists. I know I did. I couldn't see her hands, I was rigidly maintaining eye contact, like I imagined I would when faced with a rearing, spitting cobra.

"I never dumped you," she insisted, then continued, in a more considered tone of voice. "I just said that we should see other people before we got married, and then I never saw you again!... until now."

Her steely grey-blue eyes blazed as she spat those last few words back at me. Her new hair colour suited her, she was certainly fiery and I was clearly not in her good books, probably never had been. To be honest, I didn't have any positive entry in anyone's book right now.

Only my kids loved me and they weren't even my kids, I had recently discovered.

Hang on a minute, it occurred to me, she's actually trying to wriggle out of dumping me, to justify her cruel actions all those years ago. Does she still think I'm a bloody wimp? Well she's picked the wrong sodding day for that!

"No, that's not right," I asserted firmly, struggling to keep my temper and my voice at an even level while I explained the situation we had been in half a bloody lifetime ago, "When you turned down my marriage proposal it was because you said you weren't sure if I was 'the one'..."

Yes, I did gesture little bunny ears with the index and middle fingers of both hands as I said it. I couldn't help myself, all right?

I continued "... and you said you wanted to try other partners to see if you could find 'the one'. It clearly wasn't me because you said, while I was still on my bended bloody knee, with everyone in that swanky restaurant staring at us, that you 'would know him when you found him'..."

Bunny ears again, I'm so pathologically predictable. Anyway, I was in full flow now.

"... We had shared a flat for five years and nearly two months for Christ's sake, so I was clearly not 'the one', was I? I loved you enough to commit my life to you and then you basically admitted that you never really loved me at all. I wasted those five years and more. Well, I hope you finally found 'the one' in the end."

I even surprised myself that I got all that out without interruption from her. I think Lesley was stunned. It took a long moment of staring at me round-eyed, her lips attempting to form a circle while preventing her jaw from hitting the table, before she replied, quite quietly, almost too soft for me to hear.

"Yes, I think I did, eventually. Did you?"

"Not really. I suppose I settled." I was still seething.

"But you are wrong, so wrong Alan, I did love you, I was just mixed up and confused back then. I was thinking about you all the time at work the next day and when I got home, desperate to see you so we could make up, you had moved out. You left your empty drawers open and had disappeared. I was devastated, I was going to ask you to ask me again to marry you but you had vanished. And I never saw or heard from you ever again. Who does that after five years and two months together? Where the hell did you go?"

"It didn't sound to me like you were mixed up or confused, I snapped back, still full of anger. "You very clearly said 'no', and then went on and on about wanting to see other men, that we should see other people. You explained by reminding me that you were a virgin when we met and therefore you felt that before you committed to marriage you needed to check out other men."

"I didn't use those exact-"

I interjected, in full flow, "You mentioned getting more experience, probably to check if I was up to the bloody mark or something in bed. You actually said you had been thinking about it for some time and hadn't found the right time to bring the matter to my attention. Until that bloody night in the restaurant, when I was on my bended knee offering you a ring that cost the best part of a month's wages, that is."

"Well, being asked to make a decision about my future at that moment, when I had been seriously thinking about our relationship for a couple of months, certainly had the effect of concentrating my mind." She looked away at her hands, her rings, breaking eye contact with me for a moment. She looked up again. "On our fifth anniversary of being together I thought you were going to pop the question then-"

"I couldn't," I interrupted.

"Let me finish," Lesley bounced back. "I let you have your say."

I nodded, resignedly.

"I expected your proposal then and was going to say yes. But you never did propose. We went out for the whole day, to the zoo, with a picnic. We cuddled on the grass on that blanket and held hands all day long. We made love as soon as we got back. We didn't even make it to the bedroom, the floor of the landing was as far as we got, our clothes scattered all over the hall and stairs. We made love twice more once we got to the bedroom and again on Sunday morning. It was a wonderful day and night and you never bloody asked me to marry you, you bastard!"

"I was still saving up for the ring," I pleaded in mitigation, "It cost me an arm and a leg. I couldn't get any more credit as I was maxed out and it took me four months before I had enough money together, which was twice as long as I hoped it would take. I even got your sister to find out your ring size so it would fit. I couldn't ask you to marry me without an engagement ring, could I?"

"What a mess," she said, reaching out and holding my hands again. "I was broken-hearted when you left me. I took the morning off work a couple of days later and went to where you worked at the time."

"I wasn't there any more."

"I know. They said you left the day before and didn't leave any notice or forwarding address or anything. Your P45 turned up in the post at the flat about six weeks later. I tried to speak to your mum that first evening but she wouldn't speak to me, called me a heartless bitch and said I'd broken your heart and that you'd moved away."

The lift dinged and I looked past Lesley but it was only a couple of strangers and a teenage girl wearing garish stripy tights. I thought about looking at the laptop again to see if they were finished, or in the shower, or still... well, still bloody well fucking their brains out, but I couldn't bring myself to look, even if Lesley hadn't been there. Some images were burned forever into my skull and I didn't want to reinforce any one of them. The solicitor could access the feed that the private investigator had installed and she was getting paid well enough to deal with it. I just wanted it all over and done with. Lesley was an unforeseen complication that I could have done without.

A waitress, who appeared to have been hovering, considering the charged interchange between the pair of us, saw me look up and took a hesitant step towards me. She was quite pretty, I noticed, perhaps that was a sign I was getting over Natalie already. Fat chance of that in a hurry. I nodded to her and lifted my empty cup, the waitress came over to our corner.

The single word "Rosamund" announced her on the name plate pinned to her starched blouse. A pretty name for a pretty girl, I thought, it fitted the classy hotel somehow, which my wife and her lover upstairs certainly didn't.

"Would you like a coffee, Lesley?" I asked, "It's very good, here."

"Yes, please, that's what I came over here for, actually." She turned to the waitress and smiled. "Large skinny latte, please."

"I'll have another large black filter, thank you," I ordered, attempting a wan smile. Rosamund smiled at me in return and glided away with my empty cup. I made a mental note to leave her a nice tip.

"Scotland," I said.


"Edinburgh for a month, then eighteen months in Glasgow, then onto London for a couple or three years, coming back home here about 15 years ago. The answer to your question 'Where did you go?'"

"I followed you to Edinburgh after your P45 turned up. Firstly, I went back to your company based here and spoke to your mate, the other copy writer in your office, Peter or Paul or something?"

"Paul Metcalfe, that pussy hound, he was never a friend of mine."

"No, he wasn't!" Lesley snorted, "He made me go out with him twice before he would give me any info."

"Bastard!" I snarled, even after twenty years, it still rankled.

I guess some things you never get over. Did he succeed in getting into Lesley' pants? Did they marry? Did he buy her the rock and have her any time he wanted? Did I really want to know?

Yes, bugger it, I did want to know. But I would never ask. No definitely never ask. Never in a million... Lesley interrupted my thoughts.

"Yes, he was a right bastard, that Paul, he kept trying to get into my knickers..." Lesley hesitated and then she smiled as if recalling some magical memory.

Bugger, bugger, bugger, did he? Did that smarmy shitface bastard fucking-well nail my girl? All right, she had been my ex-girl who I still cared so bloody much about that it hurt me to this day. My thoughts screamed in my head while I did everything I could to keep my poker face on. Lesley didn't seem to notice, she just kept rabbeting on.

"I had to knee him in the bollocks in that wine bar that used to be in Church Lane, the one that's now the specialist pork butchers. Lovely sausages they do in there. That knee jerk made that jerk cry real tears. Then he told me you had gone to their Edinburgh office to work off your notice."

Yes! Re-bloody-sult! Arsehole gets his knackers crushed, good old Lesley, I had never been more proud of her.

OK, even if she never physically kicked me in the balls, there with my knee resting on the ground and my legs spread apart in that restaurant, it had always felt like she had. I still carried the bruises of that metaphorical blow to the gonads; at least Paul's pain was over in a matter of minutes, I was still walking funny twenty years on.

I had even hated Lesley for a while back then. Would you believe it? There, the love of my life and I think for a few short moments in time I actually stopped loving her and allowed my feelings to run in completely the opposite way?

Lesley still kept talking over my stumbling thoughts. Do all women's mouths come fitted with Duracells, or only the ones I know?

"By the time I got to Edinburgh you were gone. They repeated the story that you were only there working out your month's notice and then you were off. I had a long talk with Justine. I think she fancied you, so I suppose she opened up to me to find out from me more about your story. She said that nobody could get through to you in that month, even though they tried everything to get you to stay, and then you were gone. She had kept some of your best slogans and advertisement blurbs. She showed me them, stuck in a scrapbook."

"Nice lass, Justine, talented graphic artist," I recalled.

"Justine thought you were special, definitely very special. Disappointed that you were completely impervious to her obvious charms. Well, charming if you don't mind big chested girls who talk with a funny accent. Then your trail went cold. I tried your professional organisation, but they were prevented from giving me any info. I even tried your mum again but she still refused to speak to me. What happened to you Alan?"

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