tagNovels and NovellasThe Ugly Duckling

The Ugly Duckling


Anna Trevena sat at a table in the university café with a rapidly cooling cup of coffee in front of her, looking disconsolately out of the window at the students hurrying to or from lectures.

Most of us when we are troubled see others as being free from woes, and that is how Anna saw those passing students; none were afflicted with anxieties and troubles like her -- or so she thought.

"Come on Anna, I've already fixed up a date for you."

The speaker was Joshua Kendal, one of Anna's troubles.

"I've already told you Josh, I've got a lot of work to do, so..."

"But it's a special occasion -- a celebration -- we're old mates and I need you there."

There it was, "old mates." That was just how Josh saw their relationship, but not how Anna saw it, or more accurately, felt it.

They had got to know each other in their penultimate high school year. Handsome and dynamic Josh was the sporting darling of the girls, but academically he was well behind the class. On one occasion Anna had helped him with a math problem, and thereafter he constantly came to her for assistance with his class work.

Like any of the girls Josh deigned to notice Anna had been thrilled by even this attention, and it would be true to say that Josh in his final year owed much of his success to Anna's coaching. Now both of them were studying law at the university, and Josh still came to Anna for help.

Josh was a problem for Anna because she felt herself to be in love with him, but she knew her love was not returned in the manner and measure she longed for. "Mates" was the operative word, and Anna had watched Josh fall in an out of love with what to her seemed an endless stream of attractive girls. He even discussed his romantic tangles with her, seeming not to realise what pain he caused her.

Now, and not for the first time, he was suggesting a double date. He reassured her that the guy he'd fixed up for her was a "real hunk," and she was sure to like him. From Anna's point of view there was nothing to say that the real hunk would like her; but that was another of Anna's problems which, in due season, must be explained.

"So it's a celebration," Anna said, "what will be celebrated?"

"Aha, that's for you to find out, and you'll only find out if you come with us."

"This date you've fixed up for me, is it anyone I know?"

"No, I don't think so," Josh replied, "that's something else you'll only find out if you come with us."

Anna really didn't want to go. She felt that it would be the way it always was on these double dates. Josh would have some super model type girl as his date, and Anna would have to watch them fondling each other in an early preparation for what was to come later.

To make the situation worse, her date, if he was halfway decent, would be carefully polite to her, while drooling enviously over Josh's date. Afterwards her date would see her home, bid her a civil goodnight, and go off languishing for what he thought Josh was getting.

"Look Anna, it really is important to me that you are with us tonight. It's...it's a big moment in my life and...and it's at the Crown Restaurant."

If it was at the Crown Restaurant it had to be something special. Anna sighed resignedly, "All right Josh, if it's that important..."

"It is...it is..."

"Then I'll come."

"Wonderful, I knew you wouldn't let me down and I promise you'll have a marvellous evening."

He rose, "I've got a tutorial to attend; I'll pick you up at seven thirty, okay?"

"Okay, I'll be ready."

Josh made his way out of the café and Anna sat on for a while thinking about the evening to come. She knew she was a fool to have agreed to go on the date; it would be another evening of torment for her, but Josh always seemed able to get her to agree with whatever he wanted of her. The one thing he didn't seem to want was what she most avidly desired to give.

She drank the coffee and grimaced. University cafe coffee always resembled dishwater, but cold it was even more repulsive.

* * * * * * * *

She had no more lectures or tutorials that afternoon, so she headed home to the small unit she rented.

She had a tutorial paper to prepare for Monday and that had been what she had intended to work on that evening. It was just like Josh to drop a double date on her at the last moment.

She sat at her computer and typed furiously but the words just didn't seem to flow as she wanted them to. The paper wasn't as she wanted it to be, but, it would have to do. All the time the words that arose in her mind were, "Why doesn't he love me as I love him?" Torts didn't seem to matter when it came to how she felt about Josh.

She gave up and for a while lay on the bed thinking about Josh; the evening to come; what her date, the "hunk" would be like, and what the celebration was about.

She dozed off still thinking about Josh.

Awaking with a start she saw the bedside clock pointed to six fifteen. Josh had said he would pick her up at seven thirty. She got up and made her way to the shower, and under the warm spray ran her hands over her body; no wonder Josh couldn't fancy her, a fat girl like her. Afterwards in her bedroom she looked at herself in the long mirror.

What she saw was the image of herself as she thought herself to be; fat and unattractive; the ugly duckling.

Alice, her older sister had always been the beauty, but she...how could anyone be attracted to her? 42 D bras size; hips like...like a rhinoceros, and legs...well not too bad, but who saw them when she hid them beneath the jeans she habitually wore?

She hadn't been feeling too well lately. There was that buzzing noise in her head and headaches that she had not experienced before. The law studies that she had once found easy to cope with had started to become like a steep hill she had to climb and she found herself getting irritated when Josh came asking her to explain this and that to him.

But it wasn't only Josh. She seemed to have become the font of wisdom for a lot of her fellow students. "Go and ask Anna," was a constant cry, "she'll know."

She had become a sort of academic agony aunt; the solver of other people's problems. But it wasn't only academic matters; they came to her with their boy and girl friend entanglements and their difficult relationships with parents. In fact she seemed to have become a maternal bosom for them to cry on.

She turned away from the mirror and began to consider what she would wear for the forthcoming celebratory evening. She paid little attention to clothing, her normal wear being jeans and a shirt, with a coat on cold days. The selection was narrow and she finally settled for cream cotton trousers and a white shirt; the shirt worn over the trousers to cover what she thought of as her fat stomach and over-large hips.

It is as well to point out at this stage that the negative image Anna had of herself was not what many would have considered to be the reality. She was an intelligent young woman but like many others she had fallen for the allegedly ideal image presented by the media and advertisers; the consumptively thin models of the catwalk, or the digitally enhanced figures appearing on everything from cornflake packets to advertisements for horrendously expensive cars.

To begin with Anna was not fat. Certainly she was buxom but in the hourglass figure style. Her classical features, another cause of discontent for her, included a Grecian nose which she thought too long, a mouth she thought too wide, a chin with a little dent in it she thought ridiculous, and eyes -- well yes, her eyes; these were what she saw as her one redeeming feature, long lidded and dark.

Her hair, if she had taken a little trouble with it, might also have been another attractive feature, but she paid little attention to it, her normal way of dressing it being to carelessly drag a comb though it occasionally. It was chestnut brown and in the course of nature had natural waves and curls that with Anna's perfunctory treatment of it was usually a tangled mess.

Having dressed, she now performed her comb dragging operation, and with that, considered herself ready for the evening -- or as ready as she'd ever be.

This poor self-image Anna had of herself put her constantly on the defensive about her appearance. If she wondered why the dates Josh arranged for her seemed to take so little notice of her after the first half hour, it was this defensiveness that was the problem. Thinking she was getting in ahead of them and expressing what she imagined they were already thinking, she made disparaging remarks about herself and virtually apologised for their having been "stuck" with her for the evening.

The effect of this on her dates was the reverse of what she intended. They took it to mean that she did not like them and she was "stuck" with them; that the disparaging remarks about her self were intended to make sure they didn't try to get to know her better.

There might have been some truth in this latter thought in that she really had eyes only for Josh, and as all her dates were double dates arranged by Josh, the poor guys had little chance with her anyway.

* * * * * * * *

So Anna was ready for the evening but only just in time. The doorbell rang and she went to answer it. On opening the door and in the dim light of the hallway, she thought for a moment she was seeing two Joshua's.

Then Josh grinned and said, "This is my brother David. You remember, I mentioned him to you. Dave, this is Anna."

Anna vaguely recalled Josh mentioning his older brother David who at the time of mentioning was in London. He worked as a training manager for a London based company that had branches throughout Australia. He had been in London to be himself trained in the latest electronic communications.

"Yes, I do remember you mentioning him, and then turning to David, said, "Have you been back long?"

"Flew in two days ago, but I didn't expect to get such an attractive date so soon."

Anna ignored this comment since her attention had been drawn to the fact that the men were both wearing evening suits.

"My God," she said, indicating their suits, "this really is a formal evening and I haven't got a..."

"You look charming as you are," David commented, as if to avoid her further embarrassment.

Then Anna produced one of her negatives.

"There's no need to be polite, I know how I look, and I haven't got any evening wear anyway, so you'll have to take me as I am."

The moment the words were out she regretted them. On first appearance, and although he looked very much like Josh, David seemed to have a more serious manner than the somewhat exuberant Josh. His words had seemed to be sincere, which was more than could be said of Josh, who flung compliments around like confetti when it suited him.

"Time will tell," Anna thought, and then said, "I'll just get my handbag and be with you."

As she walked away David whispered something to Josh. Although Anna did not catch the words, she put her own interpretation on them, which went something like this; "Why did you land me with this frump?"

When she returned they made their way to Josh's car, Anna and David sitting in the back. As they drove off Anna called out to Josh; "This isn't the way to the Crown."

We've got to pick up my date first," Josh replied.

They drove on until arriving outside one of the more upmarket blocks of flats.

"Shan't be long," Josh said, and got out of the car and entered the building.

As they waited Anna asked David, "Do you know what we're supposed to be celebrating?"

"No idea, he wouldn't tell me. He said it would be a surprise, and he's obviously not told you either."

Josh emerged from the building, his arm round the waist of a girl. In the street lights she looked rather like most of Josh's dates. A slim figure she was dressed in a dark red evening gown. Even in the uncertain street light the dress looked as if it had cost a fortune.

As the girl and Josh got into the car, and in the interior light, Anna could see that the girl was exceptionally good looking.

"This," Josh said triumphantly, "is my fiancée Deborah."

He looked as if he had won a million dollars, which in a way wasn't so far from the truth.

There was a stunned silence for a few moments. Anna felt the blood drain from her face and the buzzing noise in her head seemed to grow louder.

Always she had hoped that one day Josh would realise how much she loved him, and for as long as there had been no firm attachments she had clung to that hope; now hope was lost.

David said, "You devil you, you never said a word. Congratulations; I suppose this is what we're celebrating."

"It certainly is," Josh replied exuberantly.

"Have you told mother and father yet?"

"No, we're going to the old place next weekend to let them know."

"Congratulations," Anna murmured weakly as she cringed back into the corner.

Josh started the car and drove on to the Crown.

* * * * * * * *

On arrival they were met by the maitre d'hotel with that curious mixture of arrogance and obsequiousness that seems to cling to such people like bats to a cave roof. In fact he looked a bit like a bat in his tail suit.

They were shown to a table with many bows and compliments, and it seemed that Deborah was well known to him.

Effusively the maitre d'hotel congratulated Josh and Deborah, adding, "I trust we at the Crown will have the pleasure of catering for your wedding breakfast." With that he snapped his fingers and waiters sprang into action.

It was clear that the evening had been planned well in advance. Champagne was brought in an ice bucket, and the wine poured.

There was a little ceremony to begin with. Josh drew from his pocket a small velvet case, which on being opened contained the engagement ring. Anna nearly gasped with amazement when she saw it; a huge diamond set in a cluster of sapphires

"My God," she thought, "he must have put himself in hock for that." Josh was reasonably well off, but not as well off as that.

As Josh put the ring on Deborah's finger David proposed a toast to the "happy pair."

Anna sat back slumped in her chair. Her head was aching abominably and she had to make a powerful effort to even appear to be involved with what was going on.

It was only after her third glass of champagne that she entered that early cheerful stage of inebriation. She started to chatter incomprehensible nonsense in a loud voice; telling Deborah how fortunate she was to have got herself a "randy" fiancé like Josh.

David, her date, she virtually ignored, concentrating on Josh and Deborah, and most especially on Josh.

She went from champagne to gin and tonic and her remarks became ever more ribald. Deborah and Josh tried either to pass what she said off as a joke, or ignore her. David watched her increasing intoxication with concern.

At one stage Anna tried to rise to her feet in order to announce to the whole restaurant the engagement, but in doing so lost her balance and plumped down on the floor.

David helped her rise and got her seated again.

Anna called for another glass of gin and tonic and David said mildly, "Don't you think you've had enough, Anna?"

"Who the fuck are you to tell me whether I've had enough?"

Then she went into an exaggerated act of contrition.

She patted his cheek and said, "You poor shod, got shtuck with the ugly one din't you. Never mind, perhapsh Josh'll share Deb with you ternight..."

Josh rose saying, "That's enough Anna, you're ruining the evening."

"Rui...rui... evenin' am I, then I'd bettgo."

She rose, this time successfully if unsteadily. She made a mock bow which nearly had her falling on her face, then saying, "I...I bid yall goo'night," she staggered towards the exit and stumbled. David went to her and put his arm round her.

Anna yelled, "Leave me 'lone, can manage wiout your 'elp." She struggled out of David's arm and staggered away.

"I'd better go after her," David said. "She's in no condition to make her own way home."

Deborah was in tears. "The bitch," Josh snarled, "she's deliberately wrecked the evening. You do what you like, I never want to see or hear from her again."

Anna had failed to negotiate the two steps up to the foyer, having fallen at the first one. She was helped up by a waiter who hustled her as quickly as she was able to move into the foyer and out into the street.

In the street she tried to wave down a taxi without success, until a car drew up and a window was lowered.

There were two men in the car and one of them leaned out of the window and said, "Were you waving us down, sweetheart, how much?"

"Wha...whacher mean...mush?"

"She's drunk," the man called back to the other who was at the wheel.

"Good," the driver replied, "we can have her for free, get her in."

The car door was opened and a hand grasped Anna arm and a voice said, "Come on sweetheart, we'll give you good time, there's plenty of booze back at my place."

Anna struggled weakly saying, "Leggo me, I...I don' wanna..."

Another voice cut in, "Let go of her or I'll break your arm."

The man holding Anna's arm started to get aggressively out of the car, and then glancing up at David got back hastily saying, "Quick, get moving, there's a big guy with..."

What else was said was not heard because the car door was slammed and the window raised as the car sped off.

* * * * * * * *

David supported Anna, and this time she made no effort to resist him. She felt extremely unwell, everything was spinning and the ground was heaving up and down. After a couple of minutes David managed to hail a taxi, and gave the driver Anna's address.

When they arrived David paid off the taxi and helped Anna to her flat. Anna seemed to be completely unaware of where she was, and it was David who had to search her hand bag for a key. Finding it, and still supporting Anna, he opened the door and half carried her in.

There in the small lounge Anna started to retch and then to vomit. The vomit ran down her shirt and trousers, and David, who was still holding her, got some of it down his shirt and jacket.

When Anna had finished David, not used to dealing with drunken females, hesitated, and then decided that the first thing was to get Anna's clothes off. By then she was not able to stand even with his help, so her lowered her into an armchair and went in search of the bedroom.

The flat being small it took only seconds to find it. He picked Anna up and carried her into the bedroom and laid her on the bed. Knowing he couldn't leave her the way she was he took off her shirt and trousers, and then leaving her wearing only panties and bras, went in search of a washing machine.

He found it in the kitchen, a place which seemed to combine a number of domestic functions. He put her clothing in the machine together with his shirt; he removed what he could from his jacket, but clearly it was a job for a dry cleaner.

He looked around for something that could be used if Anna started to vomit again, and seeing a metal waste bin he carried it into the bedroom and placed it beside the bed.

Anna was lying on top of the bed covers apparently asleep or more likely comatose.

By moving her from one side of the bed to the other he managed to get her under the covers. He went to the bathroom and getting a wash cloth and towel he returned to wipe away the vomit still clinging to Anna's mouth and chin. He then set about removing as best he could her vomit on the lounge floor.

Finishing this task he sat on the bed wondering what to do next. He decided he would stay awhile in case Anna vomited again or woke up needing something.

He sat looking down at her. Her hair was a mess, but in sleep her face was relaxed.

"What a shame," he thought, "what a damn awful shame; an attractive girl like her getting into this state."

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