With any luck it would blow over. I wouldn’t miss her, though. In fact, now I thought about it, I could quite happily live without Alice wandering around the empty, echoing corridors of Thurkett Grange, dressed in nothing more than a long-sleeved shirt – pale green stripes on white – with her small, hard breasts showing through the material like two cherry tarts. As often as not she’d be humming tunelessly, frowning, pacing up and down, sometimes muttering to herself. And as for ‘Steve’!
I couldn’t even be sure how we came to be together. I’d met her somewhere, a restaurant, a party, my mind’s hazy on that point. She had a lean, smooth face, with mediumly-full lips, neat white teeth and large grey eyes, all framed by an inverted ‘v’ of tight curls in straw coloured hair, cascading down to her shoulders.
She wasn’t especially pretty, but attractive, if you know what I mean.
“Hello, I’m Alice, who are you?”
“Stephen, … well, people call me Steve.”
She’d seated herself opposite me, plonking a large glass of lemon-coloured wine down on a table between us, so that some splashed onto the tablecloth. She giggled. “Whoops! … That’s a coincidence, my cat’s called Steve!”
“Why did you call him Steve?”
“I didn’t. He told me that was his name.”
I laughed. “Sounds like an unusual cat!”
“Someone said you live in the old manor house. On your own. Do you get lonely?”
I’d blushed. Truth was I did sometimes. Since Lorraine had left a year ago. “Not really.”
“Can I come and see the place?” She smiled a quizzical, endearing smile, smoothing her short black skirt down over long slim legs with orange-painted fingernails.
So, as a patron of the county art society I’d shown her round my gallery, which housed a number of the society’s finer works.
She’d traced her fingernails over a moody seascape, executed in oils.
“Careful! That’s a valuable painting!”
“This was painted by my uncle Maurice. He lived out by the coast – in Mablethorpe.”
“Really?” Maurice Sotherton had indeed lived in Mablethorpe and the painting was signed just ‘M.S.’ “That’s a coincidence.”
Then the library. Thousands of volumes rubbing shoulders from floor to a high ceiling where light entered through small leaded windows in the sides of a white-painted cupola.
“I wrote a book once,” she said.
“Really? What was it about?”
“It was called The Seven Spiritual Laws of Excess … it was supposed to be funny.”
“Did you sell many copies?”
“One. To my husband.”
“Actually, you know him.”
“Tom Prince. You play pool together at the Blacksmith’s Arms. Or did.”
Well, that was strange. I did know Tom, a friendly guy, aged about thirty, but we’d mainly played for different teams. Then one day he’d vanished. No one knew where he’d gone and his house was looking rather dilapidated. I’d never heard him refer to a wife.
But all that was in the past. Alice had left as suddenly as she’d moved in, taking her vociferous Siamese cat, Steve, with her. I could honestly say I missed him like a hole in the head. But Alice? Well, she wasn’t all bad. We’d had good times together, not just in bed. She was a font of bizarre and irrelevant knowledge and a frequenter of odd galleries and museums. The type that lay hidden down ancient cobbled alleyways and which hardly ever seemed to open.
My finger hovered over her number on my speed dial. I reckoned it wouldn’t do any harm to give her a call. Just to see how she was doing, nothing more, you understand. Here goes! I pressed the number just as the doorbell rang. I thought I heard the yowl of a cat. Another damned coincidence! My heart beat a little faster and I found myself smiling. ‘Better the Devil you know’ came to mind.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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