Carol’s dog, whom I have just discovered is called Ralph, is sitting in the corner of the kitchen gnawing contentedly on the pork joint that Marie and I were supposed to eat on Sunday. Ralph’s owner herself is pacing around the kitchen like an excited young kitten: opening drawers, cupboards, inspecting the contents of the fridge, looking inside the dishwasher, running her eyes with maniacal intensity over the pile of unwashed dishes that have accrued in Marie’s absence. I’m following Carol, an indulgent smile air-brushed on to my face. My encounter with the delightful Brian has left me completely sober and I’m considering what I should do next. I’m wondering if my taking pity on Carol was actually such a good idea; but I’m also consoling myself that under the circumstances I had no choice: I just couldn’t have left the poor girl sitting there in the rain – could I?
Carol didn’t say much during the ten-minute walk from the cash dispenser to the house; although she did give me a strange look when I explained that Marie was away on holiday and wouldn’t, as earlier intimated, be there to act as emergency chaperone if the need should arise. It is fairly obvious that she remains unconvinced of the motives behind my act of charity. You can understand her concern, I suppose. She might get cheese sandwiches bought for her by strange men in the street but I doubt that many of them invite her back to theirs for the night. Or maybe they do.
It’s quite incredible when you think about it, but this is actually the first time that I’ve ever been entirely alone in the house with a woman who isn’t Marie, that’s if you don’t include Sophie, our cleaner, and I’m a little unsure of what exactly it is I’m supposed to do if I’m to get it across to Carol that my intentions are genuinely honourable. If I offer her a drink, which is something that I’m in pretty dire need of right now, is she going to assume that I’m doing so because I’m trying to get into her knickers? Likewise if I roll a spliff, which is also something I’m in pretty dire need of right now, is Carol going to take it as an attempt on my part to get her stoned, thus rendering her less capable of defending herself should that potential crisis emerge? I don’t know what to do – I really don’t.
The problem is that deep down I’m not entirely sure what my intentions are. I know that I didn’t drag Carol back here expressly with the idea in mind of sleeping with her but even so: the thought is not actually that repugnant to me. What if? What if we do have a drink and a smoke and get talking and I put a record on and she starts smiling at me with that pretty face of hers and we’re suddenly finding ourselves edging closer to each other? What then? What would I do?
“Are you always this quiet?” asks Carol, who is now fiddling around with the controls of the microwave like it’s some kind of space age toy. “Aren’t you going to offer me a drink, then?”
“Oh yeah… sure… sure… sorry,” I blush. “What would you like?
“What have you got?” she smiles.
“Um… I dunno… beer? wine? brandy? vodka?”
“What sort of wine?”
“Erm… I’ll have to look.”
I move to our wine rack (our wine rack… mine and Marie’s wine rack). “We’ve got some Crozes Hermitage – will that do?” I say.
I run my eyes over the bottle’s label. “1995,” I say.
“Okay,” says Carol, nonchalantly.
“Are you telling me that you wouldn’t drink it if it was from 1996?” I ask.
“Don’t be silly,” says Carol. “I just like to know the year of the wine that I’m drinking.”
I look over at Carol, with her army fatigues and yellow black eye.
“What’s the matter?” she asks. “Isn’t a dirty squatter like me allowed to have any taste?”
Ralph has now joined us in the living room: he sniffs around a bit before finally taking up a position next to the radiator beneath the window. If I’m reading his facial expression right he looks happier than usual: maybe he’s another who wishes that Carol would get a job and a proper place in which to live. I open the bottle of wine and I roll a spliff (which slightly surprises Carol: which secretly pleases me) and put a CD on. I sit on the sofa and Carol sits on the floor: old habits die hard, I suppose. But we don’t start talking and she doesn’t start smiling at me and we don’t edge closer together. Instead, Carol let’s out a snort of disapproval when the music starts up and quickly moves over to my CD player and starts ferreting around in my CD collection.
I sip my wine and smoke my smoke and pretend not be interested as Carol goes through my CDs one by one, tutting occasionally, sometimes shaking her head. It is now 12.35 a.m.. Finally, Carol moves back to her position on the carpet, leaving my original choice still playing.
“I hope you know that you’ve just given me the biggest insult imaginable,” I say when Carol is settled. “To actually object to what someone is playing in their own home and then to inspect the contents of their CD collection and then… and then not be able to find anything that you like … what an insult!”
“I know,” says Carol, suddenly grinning. “I always do this when I go into people’s places – it usually drives them mental!”
Now I’m laughing and Carol is stretching out on the carpet laughing, too. And already I’m thinking, way, way, in the back of my mind, that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if – at some point in the far, far distant future – we did actually find ourselves edging closer together.
Then, for no particular reason, I say: “Why don’t you take your coat off?”
Even though Carol is sitting there on the carpet in the same khaki-coloured coat that she wears in all weathers looking more than a little overdressed, and even though our house (mine and Marie’s) is centrally heated, therefore making it unnecessary to wear a coat such as the one that Carol is wearing right now, my comment is, of course, entirely inappropriate. Because even though the encounter in the café between Carol’s chest and my eyes has never been spoken about, I’m betting that neither of us has entirely forgotten about it. Judging by her reaction, Carol certainly hasn’t. She’s stopped her laughter and has tensed up and is looking over at the gently snoring Ralph; I can’t be sure whether the expression on her face is fear or annoyance. “And you think that I wouldn’t know if I needed to take my coat off?” She doesn’t actually say this but I would have deserved it if she had.
I pass Carol the joint, which, if I think about it, is probably not the most ideal way to attempt to alleviate the tension but it seems to do the trick nevertheless. She takes a drag and then closes her eyes for a moment, eventually handing it back to me. Then, without saying a word, she takes her coat off and lays it down beside her on the floor.
While she’s doing this I’m looking at the ceiling… the light fittings… the bookshelves… the curtains… I’m looking at everything in the living room apart from Carol, which, once again, has to seem pretty strange to her. I have a quick rethink: I decide on the opposite approach. Now I’m looking at nothing else in the room but Carol, which I guess must seem even stranger in view of what I’ve just done. Finally, I’m studying the burning spliff in my hand like I’ve suddenly noticed that it’s developed a personality of it’s own. Then Carol says: “John, why are you so nervous?”
“I’m not nervous,” I reply.
Carols sniggers a little. “Could have fooled me,” she says playfully.
Now Carol’s smiling and looking at nothing else in the room but me and I’m grinning shyly and once again looking at everything else in the room but Carol. This, I suppose you could say, is what they call slow progress.
“Do you bring many women back here, then?” she asks.
“Only one,” I say, meaning – obviously meaning – Marie, but suddenly concerned that Carol might think that I mean her, which might imply that I’m some kind of middle-aged stalker who’s developed a fixation on her and has finally managed to drag her back to his lair to get his wicked way. “Marie… I mean Marie,” I say, rather too hurriedly.
“Me thinks that thou doth protest too much,” grins Carol.
“No… really… I don’t do this sort of thing usually…” I say earnestly. “I’m too… too… old…”
Carol’s smile deepens. Then she frowns a little. “And how old are you?” she asks.
I think for a moment, and all of a sudden I can’t remember my age. I really can’t. I’m desperately subtracting my year of birth from this year. “Thirty-seven,” I reply after too long a pause, quickly realising that I’ve done my sums wrong but sensibly electing not to correct my error.
“That’s not old,”
“It’s old enough.”
“Come on… there’s professional athletes who are older than you – you’re not old.”
“I’m old compared to you.”
“Don’t be silly… I’ve been out with guys who were older than you.”
“Course… why not?”
“Well I just couldn’t do it,” I say.
“Go out with a girl who’s young enough to be your daughter.”
Carol pauses for a moment and looks at me quizzically. “Why your?” She says.
“You said your daughter – not my daughter …but your daughter.”
I take Carol on a tour of the house. I show her where the bathroom is, where the towels are kept, I lead her into the spare room and show her where she will be sleeping. I do not show her where I will be sleeping.
I sit downstairs while she takes a bath and idly flick through the Ceefax. I drink some more wine and smoke a cigarette. I feel stoned and exhausted and self-absorbed. Then Carol comes into the room wearing one of Marie’s dressing gowns. Her hair is wet and hanging loose on her shoulders. She has removed her nose ring and is standing barefoot on the carpet. She looks absolutely, absolutely beautiful.