Sunday, 8 December 2013

Brief Encounter





When I was growing up my mother’s favourite explanation for any of the thousands of questions I asked was: well, you either believe or you don’t. This modus operandi she applied to just about everything – from the moon landing to God, the hereafter, the conservative party and global warming; embracing with fervour doorstep-zealots and a Sabbath that dithered between Friday, Saturday and Sunday, depending on who rattled the letter box last. I suppose it was this laissez-faire attitude that made me what I am today; happy to leave the roll of the dice to life itself – slightly na├»ve in this hard-bitten world perhaps, and undoubtedly responsible for the disturbing events that surrounded my recent employment in Wells.
      I thought about it as I directed my car towards the city of Salisbury; all my worldly-goods in a collection of suitcases and bags stashed in the back. The rain of the past few nights had given way to a glorious morning, the sky washed clear; and with the ancient spire of the cathedral beckoning, it was with a sense of eager anticipation that I trundled through the countryside.
      The city of Wells is tiny, a Mecca for film crews, and I had been fortunate to obtain work there, particularly since we were experiencing the worst recession for decades. So lucky – you might say – that I should have clung to my post despite its pitfalls. I can only excuse my fallibility by declaring – you never encountered Frederick.
      It was the Estate Agency in the market square that offered me the job. Tucked away in the city walls, over the centuries the building had become a gaggle of eccentrically-shaped rooms and precipitous staircases, their treads narrow and dipped in the centre. I was their latest graduate recruit; twenty-one and yes, I am pretty – no tattoos; instead I brush my hair until it sparkles and regularly visit the gym. My new employers said how delighted they were I was joining them and looked forward with eager anticipation to a long and fruitful relationship. With the artlessness of youth, I gave this speech little thought, believing it my due as a nubile female.
      I occupied a bow-fronted office overlooking the market square, with its views of the town hall, an ancient black and white hostelry, and the thronging crowds that linger round the market stalls. As their latest recruit, I also held the fort while the rest of the staff went to lunch, a little before one. That was when Frederick first made his appearance. He wandered in, a pot of golden polyanthus clutched in one hand, while I twittered: ‘Can I call you Freddy.’
      After a monotonous diet of over-large and unfit clients dripping with money, his entire being filled my soul with delight. Simply to gaze upon him took my breath away – his elegance, sense of dress, his charm – but appearances can be deceptive and, regretfully, the gloriousness of Frederick, like the flowers, turned out to be short-lived. He hovered for about twenty minutes or so, while I flirted outrageously, returning the following day. By the end of the first week, flattered by his attention, I was buying new clothes and perfume, eagerly awaiting his daily visit; imagining myself head over heels in love.
      ‘Oh, Frederick, not more flowers,’ I’d gush, my office full of the bright offerings; their glowing petals expressing admiration, respect and devotion, far more eloquently than words alone.
      And so in this state of blissful ignorance a month passed; and with a change in weather, from the early blossoming of spring back to snow-driven winter, the first misgivings began to make their presence felt. By now any honest red-blooded male would have asked me out on a date but Frederick seemed content to spend our time together chatting across the office desk. I began to study him more closely, becoming uncomfortably aware that any invitation, even to the nearby coffee bar, was beyond his capability. Revelation followed upon revelation: to my dismay I discovered Frederick didn’t work upstairs in accounts or anywhere else in the building – I had been duped. With that my perception changed and I began to see through the elaborately created charade with which Frederick surrounded himself; his sense of style and good looks simply a mirage. And yet, he remained gorgeously funny and charming, but once those seeds of doubt are sown in your brain, your voice takes on an unpleasant edge and your smile becomes dissembling.
      Naturally Frederick noticed the change in me. Possibly dispirited is not quite the correct choice of word – but he definitely wilted, as did the flowers, drooping their heads disheartened.
      Filled with remorse I felt driven into saying: ‘What do you want of me? You made it quite clear that life must be grabbed, shaken and lived to the full; and I’m grateful, okay. But it’s not my fault if you can’t be part of this. You had your chance; now it’s my turn.’ I regretted being sharp but the only thing I desired was his absence; never to be bothered again.
      Yet still he persisted, hanging about in the open doorway a faded apology for a man. I know employment law provides us with fall-back rules that cover almost every situation; but not being harassed by Frederick – I checked.
      My boss said when I gave in my notice: ‘What is it with you girls – we offer you a high salary, good working conditions, and you never stay.’
      ‘There were others?’
      He snorted. ‘Enough.’
      He gazed at me blankly, obviously at a loss to understand the fly-by-night nature of the young and pretty female.
      ‘How about a bloke?’
      ‘You’re damn right. You can rely on men.’
      I bristled with indignation at his outrageous sexism but common sense prevailed and I reigned in my retort. It wasn’t Frederick’s fault; he couldn’t help being an emotional cripple who derived his kicks stalking young women. Besides, it was possible the boss wasn’t particularly bothered about Frederick popping in and out; considering him on the same level as an eccentric relative, whose oddities of speech and dress you never notice – like wallpaper.
      I have to confess, I did feel awfully guilty about being so unkind. Frederick’s a darling really and so forgiving. On my last day, he reappeared in my office clutching a bunch of daffodils as a leaving present. I guess like the rest of us he’s searching for love.
      So that’s why I am moving to Salisbury. It means a drop in salary; the Estate Agency in Wells paying top dollar – but hey – who cares about money; I’m off to fulfil my destiny. I know Salisbury is a medieval city, as is Wells but, as Mother is fond of saying, “lightning never strikes twice in the same place.” Besides, the office I’m joining is in a brand-new complex. Only just completed, the apartments above the shops are being sold through a Housing Association and I’ve been lucky enough to grab one of the studios. Not large but my own – with modern bricks and mortar and no history except the one I am going to create during my lifetime.
*
Oh, didn’t I say; Frederick’s a ghost.

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