The street lights shone through the front window of the stationary car. It painted their faces the glowing yellow of cartoon characters. Her skin was smooth and unlined and on her face the light seemed like the background wash of a watercolour. His face was pocked and unshaven and on him the light gave the rougher, grainy look of an old photograph. The lights drew thick, delineating shadows around their faces. It made the scene seem even more artificial, like a page from a comic book.
He glanced at her. She had looked at him once or twice. Most of the time they faced forward along the deserted back street where the car was parked. The street had been re-surfaced at some time in the recent past to service the new buildings up ahead of them. The old buildings around them were decaying and crumbling into ruin. Buddleia and bramble spilled out onto the patched and uneven pavement. They seemed to have been sown to fill the spaces between the derelict buildings around them.
“Do you know the name of that road?” he said, pointing straight forward.
The road in front of them ran past some old brick buildings on the right. It curved left at a crossing towards a large modern building.
“No,” she replied. She hadn’t spoken for a while so her throat had dried and it made her voice crack slightly. It made her sound nervous.
“Workhouse Lane,” he said. “Somewhere around here was where they built the first workhouse in the city.”
“Really,” she said. Her reply was automatic. She seemed to be thinking of something else.
“Yes,” he said.
They were silent again. They listened to the irregular sound of the cars running along the road behind the brick houses. The rain made the tyres of the cars sound sticky as they rolled along the road.
“Do you know the name of this road?” he said. “The one we’re on now?”
“No,” she replied, shaking her head.
He smiled. “It’s called Love Street.”
She looked at him, raising her eyebrows.
“Honestly,” he said. “We’re on Love Street, looking towards Workhouse Lane.” He laughed. “Love really does lead to the workhouse. Very Gabriel and Bathsheba, don’t you think?”
“Who?” she said.
“Not a Hardy fan then?”
He flicked the windscreen wipers to clear the drizzle that had settled on the windscreen. They squeaked backwards and forwards three times before coming to rest again.
“What are we doing here?” he said, leaning forward and resting his hands on the steering wheel.
She looked down and gripped her small handbag with both hands. “I don’t know,” she said.
He leaned further forward and placed his mouth on the back of his hands. He looked up into the city-lit night sky, at the trickles of rainwater running down the windscreen.
“I think we’ve made a mistake,” he said. “Perhaps we should… ”
She leaned forward and twisted to face him, her hands wringing the handbag. “Do you think so?” she said.
“Oh, me too,” she said. “Yes, I think we’ve made a mistake too. I’m so glad you said that.”
“Only I didn’t know what to do,” she continued. “I didn’t know what to say. I’d have had to say something, eventually I mean, but I didn’t know what to say right now to, y’know, stop things. I didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t hurt your feelings.”
He leaned away from the steering wheel, leaving one arm braced against it.
“What do you mean, hurt my feelings?” he said.
She smiled. It was a weak, small smile.
“I mean, I didn’t want to upset you,” she said. “I didn’t want there to be an atmosphere at work. If we didn’t, you know…”
He gave a soft laugh and leaned back in his seat and placed his hands on top of his head.
“Oh, this is ridiculous,” he said.
He sensed her tense beside him. Her body stiffened and her lips tightened into a compressed silence. He took his hands away from his head and placed one across the back of her hands. Both hands gripped the little handbag on her lap, as if it was a lifebelt.
“I didn’t mean ridiculous in a bad way,” he said. “I meant ridiculous as in daft; you know – comical, funny. Stupid. Not stupid. I didn’t mean stupid. I meant…” he began to laugh. “I can’t even say what I really mean now. Even my explanation is ridiculous.” He laughed harder, little tears leaking out and running down his face.
He felt her grip relax beneath his hands and he looked into her eyes. He was still laughing. He could see that she didn’t understand.
“It’s just funny,” he said. “I only came along tonight because I didn’t want you to think badly of me. I didn’t want you to think I was just playing you along. I wanted you to see that I was a nice person and, you know… I don’t know… not serious but…” He began laughing again. “I’ve done it again. I’ve still not said what I mean. I think I’m losing it!”
She took her hands away from underneath his and drew them and the bag upwards. She held them tight against her midriff. He thought she looked like a pantomime washerwoman. He tried to control his laughter but when he looked at her a raspberry burst from his lips.
“It’s just daft, isn’t it?” he said, still gripped by giggles. “You’re here because you didn’t want to upset me and I’m here because I didn’t want you to think I was just stringing you along. So we’re both here for the wrong reasons. And what we both really came for was…”
“Was what?” she said. “What did you really think we were here for?”
“Well…” he said, calming down. “You know…”
“Well, I don’t,” she said. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
“You know.” He was looking away from her now, avoiding eye contact. The laughter had faded to a smile and the smile too was fading away. “I thought this was what you wanted. That you wanted us to, you know, get together…”
“Yes, get together.”
“You mean in bed?” she said.
“No!” he said. “No, not that. God! No, I mean start something. Get serious. You know.”
“You mean in bed,” she said, nodding.
“You must do,” she said. “Why have we met here, in this dingy little back street away from anywhere that we could be seen if that’s not what you meant?”
“But it was you who suggested it,” he said, his voice rising. “You were the one who said we should meet somewhere like this.”
“No I didn’t,” she said.
“Yes you did.”
“No I didn’t.”
“You bloody did,” he said. “You said, ‘let’s meet somewhere after work where nobody can see us’. You did.”
“I didn’t mean to meet here,” she said. “I didn’t mean to meet in a nasty little back alley. I meant to meet somewhere that none of the people from work go to. I didn’t mean here.”
He shook his head. A smile returned to his lips.
“Unbelievable,” he said. “Another misunderstanding. First of all we misunderstood why we were meeting. Now it looks like we’ve misunderstood where we were meeting.”
“Well, who’d want to meet here?” she asked. “I thought we’d be going to a nice pub in the country or something. I didn’t think we’d be just sitting in a car in some shitty street in the city centre in the pouring rain.”
“Yes, it’s a bit grim isn’t it?” he said, looking out at the sodium yellow surroundings. “I only suggested here because it was in walking distance. And we’d be somewhere else by now if you hadn’t told me to wait a bit.” He turned his head to face her again. “Has a bit passed yet? Can we go?”
She shook her head. “No, not yet,” she said. “I think we need to clear things up before we do anything else.”
“Clear things up?” he said. “Like what?”
“Like what you said. What are we doing here?”
He thought for a moment and then sighed and nodded. “Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he said. “OK.” He took a breath and sighed again and then clasped her hands in his. “OK. What I’m here for is you. I want to find out more about you. I want you to find out more about me. I want to find out if there is something between us, something in us that might lead to something in the future.” He put a hand on her thigh and then realised what he’d done and quickly withdrew it. “I mean, lead to a relationship or something.” He smiled at her. “You must know I like you. I’ve liked you for ages.”
She looked at the place on her thigh where he’d touched her and then she looked into his eyes. Her eyes searched his face. She seemed to be looking for something deeper inside him.
“What I’m here for is you, too,” she said. “You seem quite kind and helpful and most people seem to like you so I wanted to find out more about you too. I thought you’d be a good person to have as a mate; as a friend.”
“Ah,” he said. “Right.”
He turned to face forward and began to chew his bottom lip. She watched him as he switched off.
“It isn’t too long ago that you were in a relationship, is it?”
“No,” he said. “Not long. Couple of months or so. How did you know?”
“Canteen gossip. What happened with that, then?”
He squirmed in the contoured car seat. “We sort of… fell apart,” he said.
“Fell apart?” she said. “I wonder what your ex would say about that. Who felled who?”
“What do you mean?”
“Who made the parting?”
“I’d rather not talk about it if you don’t mind,” he said. “I don’t want to say anything about my ex.”
“But you’re here talking about starting another relationship.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well,” she said. “I’ve not had many relationships myself but I’ve watched lots of them come and go amongst my friends and even my family. One thing I’ve noticed is that the leaver is usually the one who looks for a new relationship first. It was you who broke things up. Am I right?”
“She’d probably say that we gave up on each other, I think.”
He thought for a moment and then shook his head. “No,” he said. “No, probably not. It was me. I broke it up.”
“I thought so. Can you say why?”
He shook his head. “Listen, this is a bit heavy for a first date, or whatever it is that we’re doing here. Do we have to do this now?”
“Not if you don’t want to,” she said. “I just needed to know who ended it. I wasn’t asking you to tell me why you broke up, though. I was asking if you knew why you broke up.”
“What kind of a question is that?” he said. “Of course I know why we broke up.”
She didn’t look at him. She stared out through the windscreen, nodding slightly, not speaking. He watched her as she stared out into the darkness. He saw that she was waiting for him to continue and wondered what she was really waiting for.
“We broke up because I wanted more,” he said. “I wanted what I hadn’t got, whatever that was. The usual greener grass syndrome, I suppose.”
“And what about your ex?” she said.
He looked at her, a look of puzzlement on his face.
“How is she?” she said. “Is she OK? I just want to know if she has been able to move on, that’s all; that you haven’t left her in pieces on the kitchen floor.”
“Well, she’s got the kitchen,” he said. “She’s got the whole bloody house at the moment. I said she could stay there until we sell it. We haven’t really spoken since the split but I’m sure she’ll be OK. Anyway, we were only together a few years and there’s no kids so it’s not like a massive deal is it? She’s a big girl. She’ll move on. It’s me that’s struggling. I’m living alone in a little flat right now, paying her mortgage and my rent and everything.” He fidgeted in the car seat and looked at her again. “It’s just round the corner, as it happens. The flat.”
He noticed that she had let go of her handbag, which now nestled in her lap. Her hands were clasped together, barely touching. Her lips had lost the thin line that betrayed her feelings. She was no longer tense. She was looking at him.
“See, I wasn’t sure about you,” she said. “I thought we could be friends, perhaps something more, so I needed to find out. That’s why I’m here tonight. I thought that’s why you were here too, but I was wrong. There was something I couldn’t see until just now.”
“Oh yes,” he said. “What is that, then?”
“You’re not unusual, which is the saddest thing. Most men are like you. They can’t see a woman as a friend, as a partner, an equal partner. They see a woman as a mate, not in the sense of being a friend but in the more basic, biological sense. Someone who can be picked up and then dropped, or taken to the flat round the corner, as and when it suits them. That isn’t right. It isn’t fair. It isn’t what I’m looking for. You’re not what I’m looking for.”
His patience finally expired. He looked at his watch.
“Fair enough,” he said. “I don’t think we need to waste each other’s time any longer. Do you want me to drop you somewhere?”
She shook her head and that weak, little smile returned to her face. She opened the car door and popped up a small umbrella before stepping out into the drizzle. As she moved to close the door she bent down and stuck her head inside the car.
“Do you know what’s wrong with you?” she asked. He didn’t reply. He didn’t even look at her. He was already thinking of something other than her. “You’re an idiot.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, without looking at her. “In what way?”
“Because you can’t see how similar we are,” she said. “You’ve got a good back story there, I’ll grant you that, and you hide your thoughts well enough. I suppose we both do. But I saw through you from the minute you tried that pathetic ‘made a mistake’ routine to get me into bed. I’ve just been playing with you since then.”
A puzzled look spread over his face. “What d’you mean, ‘routine’?”
She shook her head. “You can knock it off, now.”
“The act,” she said. “Pack it in.”
“What act?” he said. “What are you talking about?”
She looked him full in the face and sighed. “You’re not faking it, are you? Oh, my Lord. I thought only mortals were this dense.”
He shifted in his seat. “Mortals?” he said.
“Yes, mortals,” she said. “Humans. The things that incubi and succubi prey on.”
He stared at the woman. Rain pattered softly on umbrella and the roof of the car. After a moment, he closed his eyes and shook his head. With a deep sigh, he slouched back in his seat, folding his arms and pouting. “You could have said earlier.”
She gazed off into the dim wet night.
“We’ll never live this down,” she said. “You know that, don’t you?”