A re-working of a short story first published in 2012.

THE ONE

“Alan? Alan Palmer?”

I was miles away daydreaming over a cup of coffee in the hotel lounge, I guess. I had just closed my laptop and was thinking about my wife of twelve years, the mother of my three children, making love upstairs in her lover’s usual room, early afternoon on a Wednesday. Same ole, same ole, apparently. I found it difficult to think of anything else.

My ears pricked up at the sound of my name and I slowly reacted and turned my head to the speaker. She was tall and slim, an attractive redhead, with a rather hesitant smile on her flawless face.

I didn’t recognise her and looked her over, down and up again. She was dressed in a crisp sleek blue pin-striped business suit which emphasised the nicest pair of knees and legs I had seen in a long while. Both her hands were occupied with a smart thin briefcase and an expensive-looking black leather handbag. I think I smiled back at her, more in embarrassment than welcome, while desperately trying to place her face from recent acquaintances, former work colleagues, wives of friends, mums from the school run or customers of the gym I had recently joined. I knew for certain that she’d look better than good in running shorts, without a doubt.

No, nothing, complete blank, didn’t know her from Eve. She apparently knew me, that much was obvious. Perhaps she was a messenger from the solicitors who had been shown my photo?

“Sorry?” I said dumbly.

There was something intangibly familiar about her, but it completely escaped me. I tried to work out where I might have seen her before. I guessed her age was about 35 or 36, some ten to twelve years younger than me. I lost all my hair long ago and have shaved my head for about ten years now, so she must have known me from somewhen in the last decade.

I suppose my eyes were still moist from seeing and thinking about my wife and it was almost impossible to get this stranger’s face fully in focus through my tears. That’s my excuse, anyway. One thing I was certain of, she was a class act, well out of my league. Damn it, at my age, looks and current circumstances, they all were.

Her bright smile froze at my lack of recognition and her face rapidly took on the aspect of a frown. Her mouth pouted and she looked, well, hurt. That was crazy. Nobody looked hurt around me; upset, angry, frustrated, pissed-off, especially disappointed, but never hurt. After all I was the number one stupid dolt of all time. Who cared what I thought? Where was my life at anyway? My lovely bitch of a wife, who was ten years younger than me, was a successful editor of a high-circulation women’s magazine and I had sacrificed my career to be a stay-at-home husband and … this was a laugh on me … I was reduced to the role of being a caring father to my two sons aged eleven and three and daughter age seven. Meanwhile my wife had been running around with her boss at work, well … presumably for years. My children’s recent DNA tests showed that I wasn’t even remotely related to any one of them; I had lost the few good looks I may have started out with and my body had run to fat and I was now at the lowest ebb of self confidence ever. I’d never been even vaguely self-confident to begin with. I even doubted my sanity, nothing was going right for me and I was as miserable as sin.

Even knowing what I had to do and what I had already set in train hardly empowered me, my actions only confirmed how completely clueless and hopeless I had been. I was only sitting in the coffee lounge of this smart hotel watching the lift doors and waiting for my wife and lover to emerge before confronting them both. However, short of killing them I was pretty well powerless to do anything about their affair other than end my involvement in her life.

Now on top of all I was having to contend with, there was this beautiful redhead virtually snarling at me because I couldn’t remember who the hell she was.

So I scowled back at her. Who was she to be critical of my underdeveloped cognitive skills? Didn’t she know I’d had a lot on my plate of late and had had it up to the top of my scrawny neck?

She set her jaw squarely, leaned into me and punched me quite hard in the chest, bared her perfect white teeth and said in a low bit penetrative voice:

“Just cos you dumped me as your girlfriend twenty years ago, doesn’t mean you can treat me like a complete stranger after all this time. We lived together for five years for crying out loud! You once even asked me to marry you! You. Complete. Arsehole!” She jabbed my bruised chest with a pointed finger to emphasise each of the last three words.

Then she threw herself into a padded leather chair opposite me, slung her briefcase and handbag to the side of the table between us, rattling my empty coffee cup in its saucer, and continued to glare at me. Waiting. With folded arms. Continued waiting while my tortured mind ran through my remembered images of … of her. None of them matched, not really.

“Lesley?” I enquired, not believing it possible even for a moment. “Lesley … Collins?”

“Who did you think I was, Florence bloody Nightingale?” she snapped.

“But, you can’t be,” I spluttered, “You, you are young and … and … beautiful.”

Her frown softened and her once-oh-so-familiar brilliant smile returned to stab me in the heart, immediately under my fresh bruises. I didn’t think my pain could get any worse than it already was but it did. I really, really truthfully didn’t need this. Please, God, I never ask for anything as You well know, but don’t let me have my two worst nightmares together at the same time.

“Lesley, my God! I cannot believe it” I continued, putting in as much effort as my weak knees could muster by getting up out of that deep leather chair and pulling her up from hers to hug her tightly. I daren’t kiss her, I had already noticed the wedding band and huge-rocked engagement or eternity ring on her left hand. You couldn’t miss them.

“Wow! Muscles,” she said approvingly, her arms running over my shoulders and upper arms as we separated. “Been working out, Alan? I’m impressed.”

I must have gone bright red, my face certainly felt very hot. I jabbered back, “Been going down the new suite at the school gym five mornings a week for a month, now,” I explained, “I got a week’s free trial as an introductory offer, enjoyed focussing my anger on the machinery and punchbag down there so much that I signed on for six months about three weeks ago. I still haven’t got any abs to speak of yet, though!” I grinned stupidly.

Oh dear, I thought. When I’m nervous a talk a lot of rubbish. Stick around, you’ll get used to me.

We both sat down, holding hands across the table. Damn, I thought as I inadvertently ran my thumb over her diamond ring, it was absolutely huge. It made the yellow-tinged diamond-chip ring I had bought for her, and lost a fortune over when I sold it back to the jewellers, look absolutely pathetic on comparison. I moved my thumb away and stroked the knuckles of her index and middle fingers instead.

“Anyway,” I added as brightly as my tortured ego could manage, maintaining my first smile today since dropping Nat off at the play school and greeting my fellow friendly house-fraus, “What happened to you? You must have lost fifty pounds since I saw you last, you look absolutely amazing and … no wonder I never recognised you … you are no longer blond!”

She laughed. “I only looked blond, thanks to bleach, back then. I have light mousey brown hair and I now prefer this dark redhead look. I changed it and joined a gym, funnily enough, just after you bloody well dumped me.”

“I never dumped you,” I protested, “You dumped me after I asked you to marry me.”

I remembered it only too clearly, I’d had nightmares about it for years afterwards. Five years and two bloody months together and she turned me down flat and admitted wanting to see other men. … Men, not Another Man or just Somebody Else, but Men, plural.

God! I am so pathetic! Always in love with the wrong bloody woman at the wrong bloody time. No, make that every bloody woman I’ve ever loved, every bloody time!

We let go of each other’s hands and returned to glaring at one another again. I think we both clenched fists. I know I did. I couldn’t see her hands, I was rigidly maintaining eye contact, like I imagined I would when faced with a rearing, spitting cobra.

“I never dumped you,” she insisted, then continued, in a more considered tone of voice. “I just said that we should see other people before we got married, and then I never saw you again … until now.”

Her steely grey-blue eyes blazed as she spat those last few words back at me. Her new hair colour suited her, she was certainly fiery and I was clearly not in her good books, probably never had been. To be honest, I didn’t have any positive entry in anyone’s book right now. Only my kids loved me and they weren’t even my kids, I had recently discovered.

Hang on a minute, it occurred to me, she’s actually trying to wriggle out of dumping me, to justify her cruel actions all those years ago. Does she still think I’m a bloody wimp? Well she’s picked the wrong sodding day for that!

“No, that’s not right,” I asserted, firmly, struggling to keep my temper and my voice at an even level while I explained the situation we had been in half a bloody lifetime ago, “When you turned down my marriage proposal it was because you said you weren’t sure if I was ‘the one’ …”.

Yes, I did gesture little bunny ears with the index and middle fingers of both hands as I said it. I couldn’t help myself, alright?

I continued “… and you said you wanted to try other partners to see if you could find him. It clearly wasn’t me because you said, while I was still on my bended bloody knee in front of everyone in that swanky restaurant staring at us, that you ‘would know him when you found him’ …”

Bunny ears again, I’m so pathologically predictable.

“… We had shared a flat for five years and nearly two months for Christ’s sake so I was clearly not ‘the one’, was I? I loved you enough to commit my life to you and then you basically admitted that you never really loved me at all. I wasted those five years and more. Well, I hope you finally found ‘the one’ in the end.”

I even surprised myself that I got all that out without interruption from her. I think Lesley was stunned. It took a long moment of staring at me round-eyed, her lips attempting to form a circle while preventing her jaw hitting the table, before she replied, quite quietly.

“Yes, I think I did, eventually. Did you?”

“Not really. I settled.” I was still seething.

“But you are wrong, so wrong Alan, I did love you, I was just mixed up and confused back then. I was thinking about you all the time at work the next day and when I got home desperate to see you so we could make up, you had moved out, leaving your empty drawers open, and disappeared. I was devastated, I was going to ask you to ask me again to marry you but you had vanished. And I never saw or heard from you again. Who does that after five years and two months together? Where did you go?”

“It didn’t sound to me like you were mixed up or confused, I snapped back, still full of anger. “You very clearly said ‘no’, and then went on and on about wanting to see other people. You explained how you were a virgin when we met and therefore you felt you needed to check out other men.”

“I didn’t use those exact-”

I interjected, in full flow, “You mentioned getting more experience, probably to check if I was up to the bloody mark or something. You actually said you had been thinking about it for some time and hadn’t found the right time to bring it up. Until that bloody night in the restaurant when I was on my bended knee offering you a ring that cost the best part of a month’s wages, that is.”

“Well, being asked to make a decision about my future at that moment, when I had been seriously thinking about our relationship for a couple of months. At that moment it certainly had the effect of concentrating my mind.” She looked away at her hands, breaking eye contact with me for a moment. She looked up again. “On our fifth anniversary of being together I thought you were going to pop the question then-”

“I couldn’t,” I interrupted.

“Let me finish,” Lesley bounced back. “I expected it and was going to say yes. But you never did. We went out for the whole day, to the zoo, with a picnic. We cuddled on the grass on that blanket and held hands all day long. We made love as soon as we got back. We didn’t even make it to the bedroom, the floor of the landing was as far as we got, our clothes scattered all over the hall and stairs. We made love twice more once we got to the bed and again Sunday morning. It was a wonderful day and night and you never bloody asked me to marry you, you bastard!”

“I was still saving up for the ring,” I pleaded in mitigation, “It cost me an arm and a leg. I couldn’t get any more credit as I was maxed out and it took me four months before I had enough money together, which was twice as long as I hoped it would take. I even got your sister to find out your ring size so it would fit. I couldn’t ask you to marry me without the ring, could I?”

“What a mess,” she said, reaching out and holding my hands again. “I was broken-hearted when you left. I took the morning off work a couple of days later and went to where you worked.”

“I wasn’t there any more.”

“I know. They said you left the day before and didn’t leave any notice or forwarding address or anything. Your P45 turned up in the post about six weeks later. I tried your mum that first evening but she wouldn’t speak to me, called me a heartless bitch and said I’d broken your heart and you’d moved away.”

The lift dinged and I looked past Lesley but it was only a couple of strangers and a teenage girl wearing garish stripy tights. I thought about looking at the laptop again to see if they were finished, or in the shower, or still … well, still bloody well at it, but I couldn’t bring myself to, even if Lesley hadn’t been there. Some images were burned forever into my skull and I didn’t want to reinforce any one of them. The solicitor could access the feed that the private investigator had installed and she was getting paid well to deal with it. I just wanted it all over and done with. Lesley was a complication I could have done without.

A waitress, who appeared to have been hovering, considering the interchange between the pair of us, saw me look up and took a hesitant step towards me. She was quite pretty, I noticed, perhaps it was a sign I was getting over Natalie already. Fat chance of that in a hurry. I nodded to her and lifted my empty cup, the waitress came over.

The single word “Rosamund” announced her name plate. A pretty name for a pretty girl, I thought, it fitted the classy hotel somehow, which my wife and her lover upstairs certainly didn’t.

“Would you like a coffee, Lesley?” I asked, “It’s very good, here.”

“Yes, please, that’s what I came over here for, actually.” She turned to the waitress and smiled. “Large latte, please.”

“I’ll have another large black filter, thank you,” I ordered, attempting a wan smile. Rosamund smiled at me in return and glided away with my empty cup. I made a mental note to leave her a tip.

“Scotland,” I said.

“Scotland?”

“Edinburgh for a month, then eighteen months in Glasgow, then onto London for a couple or three years, coming home here about 15 years ago. The answer to your question ‘Where did you go?'”

“I followed you to Edinburgh after your P45 turned up. Firstly, I went back to your company based here and spoke to your mate, the other copy writer in your office, Peter or Paul or something?”

“Paul Metcalfe, that pussy hound, he was never a friend of mine.”

“No, he wasn’t!” Lesley snorted, “He made me go out with him twice before he would give me any info.”

“Bastard!” I snarled, even after twenty years, it still rankled.

I guess some things you never get over. Did he succeed with Lesley? Did I really want to know? Yes, bugger it, I did. But I would never ask. No definitely never ask. Never in a million … Lesley interrupted my thoughts.

“Yes, he was a right bastard, he kept trying to get into my knickers….” Lesley hesitated and then she smiled as if recalling some magical memory.

Bugger, bugger, bugger, did he? Did that smarmy shitface bastard nail my girl, all right my ex-girl who I still cared so bloody much about that it hurt. My thoughts screamed in my head while I did everything I could to keep my poker face on. Lesley didn’t seem to notice, she just kept rabbeting on.

“I had to knee him in the bollocks in that wine bar that used to be in Church Lane, that’s now the specialist pork butchers. Lovely sausages they do in there. Then he told me you had gone to their Edinburgh office to work off your notice.”

Yes! Re-bloody-sult! Arsehole gets his knackers crushed, good old Lesley, never been more proud of her.

OK, even if she never physically kicked me in the balls, there with my knee resting on the ground and my legs spread apart in that restaurant, it had always felt that she had. I still had the bruises, at least Paul’s pain was over in a matter of minutes, I was still walking funny twenty years on. I had even hated Lesley for a while. Would you believe it? There, the love of my life and I think for a few short moments in time I actually stopped loving her and went the other way?

Lesley still kept talking over my stumbling thoughts. Do all women’s mouths come fitted with Duracells, or only the ones I know?

“By the time I got to Edinburgh they repeated the story that you were only there working out your month’s notice and then you were off. I had a long talk with Justine. I think she fancied you so I suppose she opened up to me to find out from me more about your story. She said that nobody could get through to you in that month, even though they tried everything to get you to stay, and then you were gone. She had kept some of your best slogans and advertisement blurbs. She showed me them, stuck in a scrapbook.”

“Nice lass, Justine, talented graphic artist,” I recalled.

“Justine thought you were special, definitely very special. Disappointed that you were completely impervious to her obvious charms. Well, charming if you don’t mind big chested girls who talk with a funny accent. Then your trail went cold. I tried your professional organisation, but they were prevented from giving me any info. I even tried your mum again but she still refused to speak to me. What happened to you Alan?”

“I drifted around, worked as hard as I could, still trying to get my stuff published. Worked freelance for a couple of ad agencies in Glasgow, then London. Did some checking copy work for magazine and book publishers for a while and then came home, got married, had a bunch of kids and here I am.”

“Wow!” she said, “that was a quick round up of your life!”

Nothing much to say, on my part. I was still looking up at the banks of lift doors, waiting for my wife and her significant other. So Lesley started up talking again to fill the silence.

“So, I’ve already told you that I went out dating after about six weeks, but that was only to try and track you down, not try other men, you know? And I know you fended off the black-haired, green-eyed top-heavy beauty that was Justine,” she said, coyly, “How long was it before you went out dating again?”

Damn! What was she trying to do to me? Is she trying to crush me every time she sees me? I sighed audibly, my shoulders sank. I suddenly realised I had been trying to maintain a pose of shoulders back, chest out, stomach in. Why? I wasn’t interested in attracting Lesley; twice bitten and all that. She certainly wasn’t interested in me. So why do we males adopt poses like that?

I haven’t seen this woman in twenty years. Once the girl of my dreams, she virtually squeezed every breath of life out of me. Not content with that, she wanted to heel me under the earth, to erase my very existence, to snuff out my actual essence. What the hell did I ever do to her other than worship the very ground she walked on?

“Thirty-nine months.” I said very quietly.

“What?” Lesley leaned forward, conspiratorially.

I replied, “Three years, three months and about ten days or so.”

That shut her up. At bloody last, fifteen-forty new balls please, I stopped the rot in my service game. Studying her face, she looked amazing, she was never 45 years old, she must bathe her skin in virgin ice crystals flown in daily from Mont Blanc; she was eleven out of ten, off the scale, simply beautiful. I could sense some cogs moving somewhere in her head, though.

“Before dating or before sex?”

“Both, same night,” I said, “Well, after midnight actually, the second one of the two.”

“Wow! I was going to boast how long I waited, but I don’t think I will now.”

“That’s just acting like kids isn’t it? Like I showed you mine, you should at least flash me yours.” It didn’t look like she was going to answer. Ice Queen, I was right about the Mont Blanc ice, only she sat on a block of it rather than splash it on her physog.

“OK, then, another tack, when did you start seeing your husband?” Gotcha!

“Oh, do we have to do this?” she whined, “We are too old and there’s been too much water under the bridge for all this. Can’t we just kiss cheeks and make out that we are old friends again and part on good terms, probably never to see each other ever again?”

“Wriggle, wriggle, wriggle. You prevaricated in the restaurant twenty years ago, you are hedging your response in this coffee shop now. When we meet again, as two old pensioners, can we meet up in the launderette so I can at least sort out my week’s washing while you prance round the mulberry bush one more time?”

“Alright, alright. I’ll tell you.” Lesley looked upwards, either for inspiration, or divine intervention. “Give me strength.”

She looked at me directly, her eyes seemed softer, even prettier than they ever had.

“I thought you’d be back next day,” she said softly, “Then after the weekend maybe, almost certainly a week later. No-one was admitting they knew where you were. I realised that our friends were my friends, you didn’t seem to have any of your own that I was aware of. It appeared as though your whole world was … me. I never realised how much I had hurt you, hurt us, killed our relationship.”

She grabbed my right hand in both of hers and squeezed, as hard as Natalie had when David was born. A single tear formed in each eye and slowly rolled down her cheeks. I lifted my left hand and cupped her right cheek, which was soft as a child’s and smooth as alabaster, wiping the tear away with my thumb. Then I wiped her left cheek with a gentle upward stroke of the back of my hand. She smiled sweetly and continued.

“So I gave it a month, that was long enough to pay me back for my treatment of you, wasn’t it? But no show. Then four months and your birthday, I sent you a card and a long letter and some flowers to your Mum’s address. Then I sent Christmas cards to you both. You didn’t send me one, nor did your mother, nor would she answer the phone and slammed the door in my face when I went round at New Year. Valentines Day I sent another card, then it was our sixth anniversary, ten months without seeing or hearing from you. Finally, it was a year since you walked out and I didn’t have any hope left. I lost a lot of weight. It was summer and I lost the house, too. I couldn’t keep up the payments on my own and I’d run out of savings. I sold the house and sent your mum a cheque for your half. God! Did you get it? I know it was cashed -”

“Yes, I got it. Mum did keep your cards and mail for me, I picked them up that summer passing through. I used the sixty-five thousand, along with my savings to put a deposit on my house. So, when did Mr Two-Carat come along?” I pointed to her lovely blue white diamond.

“About fourteen and a half months after you left, other than a new wardrobe I had blown the rest of the house money on a flat share with a couple of friends. Alison, who you don’t know, and my very best friend Lucy, who you probably do remember.”

“I remember Luce,” I smiled. “She made the wearing of blue jeans and knotted tee-shirts an art form. Whatever happened to her?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“No?”

“Don’t go there.”

“What if I wanted to? What if I was a free agent, for example?” I grinned mischievously, “Just supposing.”

Lesley sighed. “Four children, four different fathers, none of whom pay support and …” she paused, “… The only way she can get through doors is like a crab would.”

She looked at me with her mouth set and tilted her head to one side as if to say I told you that you wouldn’t want to know but you wouldn’t take no for an answer, happy now?

Well, Lesley didn’t know how my own situation was about to go tits-up, so I was keeping my options open. Lucy, now, you never know she might be as desperate I was about to become.

“So you were sharing a flat with Luce and Alison, what then?”

“What then? Luce was temping as a receptionist and her office were having a picnic for staff and families. Luce dragged me along as a guest. I met Hubby there and we sort off … clicked.”

“So, date followed and then sex?”

“No, sex first, date later.” Lesley actually blushed. “In fact, we hardly dated at all, just met for sex, great sex and lots of it. We were both so busy with work that we mainly just met for sex. I know that sounds really bad but I hadn’t had any in a long time. Fifteen months was fifteen cycles when I was at my most fertile and I wasn’t having what I really missed. You were gone for good. I was horny and he was devastatingly handsome, still is, and dynamite in the bedroom, still … much too much information.”

The damned Mont Blanc ice she was sitting on must have run down the drain, her face was so red. Damn, why is it that women look even sexier when they are embarrassed and losing a little control over their emotions than when they are playing ice cool and are holding everything together? Or is it just me that feels that way?

“Was he your only other lover?” I blurted out without thinking.

Why do I torture myself even asking? No, impossible, every man in this room, everyone who has walked past us has almost walked into something because they were looking at Lesley. Health and Safety should make her carry around a fluorescent warning sign. She can’t have restricted herself to just two lovers, especially after dumping me so she could play the field, surely.

She nodded.

Damn again. I know that women can’t be trusted, ever, from bitter bloody experience … but I believed her. It really didn’t make me feel any better, knowing she was married to mister bloody perfect lover.

“So,” Lesley resumed, “What have you been doing with yourself lately?”

I smiled. So much to say and so much not to say. She didn’t say “since”, so I guessed I could limit myself to a quick sketch, leaving out all the important details. Or I could throw it all back at her, of course.

“Well, as I’ve got in the coffees, perhaps you could give me an update first.”

She regarded me, trying to read what I was thinking, or hiding. Why I was playing with her? A slow enigmatic smile formed on her full red lips. She was made up to perfection, not heavily so, but enough to darken and perhaps lengthen her eyelashes from the light brown natural that I remembered, her lips glossy red, her cheeks smooth and matt, no doubt from some subtle proprietary foundation preparation. Her dark red hair full and thick, brushed away from her open forehead and tied in a neat bun at the back of her head, a few stray hairs like delicate whispers softening her delicious outline. She looked stunning.

“I’m an investment broker, advising on life insurance, ISAs, income tax and investment portfolios. I cover this immediate area for the Lotto. I’ve just met a lovely old couple here in their hotel suite this morning who have won the jackpot and I left some proposals for them to consider.” Lesley paused, with a smile on her face recalling the recent meeting, no doubt.

“Go on,” I encouraged.

“I live over by West Park,” her voice lifting as if questioning whether I was aware of the exclusive executive-type homes in that area. I was, it was a long way from where I live. “We have one girl, Belinda, who is at college studying catering, she wants to be a pastry chef, perhaps own her own shop. Either that or do three-day eventing.” She smiled, at the recollection of her daughter.

I imagined what Belinda was like. She could have been our daughter in another life, as beautiful as Lesley is, I’m sure. As she must’ve been at least 18 to be in college, it seemed that Lesley didn’t wait long to set about finding ‘the one’, it took me three years before I even started dating anyone, by then Lesley was the mother of a toddler.

Still bearing that sweet smile on her lovely face, Lesley softly asked “What about you?”

I think I snorted, unintentionally. That wasn’t a good start. Why should I resent her perfect life, fulfilling well-paid job, great home, probably driving around in a top of the range BMW or Lexus, stunning ambitious daughter, lucky bloody lucky husband and looking sensational herself to boot. It wasn’t fair,was it?

But nobody ever promised me fairness, Lesley never promised me anything, I clearly took her for granted, so whatever happened to end our relationship was my fault. She was perfect and I’m not just saying that, she was and I had always thought so. Perhaps too perfect for little old imperfect me. The fact that I was only a stopgap in her life wasn’t really her fault. I had five years and two months with her. They were among the best 62 months of my life and I should be grateful and thank her for them, they were more than I deserved. Only the time spent with my … the children of my marriage … came anywhere near.

Accentuate the positive, I thought, this was a day for me to be assertive and the day I finally took my destiny into my own hands. So I forced my lips into the biggest smile I could muster and gave her the saccharine version of my life.

“Actually, I have a great life,” I said, “And it is getting even better after today.”

I paused for a moment as the smiling Rosamund approached with a tray containing our coffees. I helped her unload them and thanked and sent her cheerfully on her way. The back view of the departing waitress was just as good as the front and my gaze lingered. Lesley regarded me with a quizzical look. I chuckled, I couldn’t help it. I had decided I was quite happy at that very moment. For some reason a veil of misery had lifted and I felt good. OK, it looked like I was going to have to elaborate somewhat on the artificially sweetened tale I had been going to weave.

“Lesley, you find my life in a state of flux. Everything changes today. This sad, pathetic, bald, overweight nobody has been pushed around for over twenty-five years. Sorry, sweetheart,” I said as I held and squeezed one of her hands, “I include you a little unfairly in my life of subservience. Today, my marriage of twelve years is finally over, although I now know it never really got off the starting blocks in the first place. I was duped. I have no career, other than writing a few short romance stories for a woman’s magazine for pocket change. I am a house husband caring for my three children.”

I paused, gathering my thoughts, how much to say, what to leave out? After all, I’ll never see Lesley again, would I?

“Go on,” urged Lesley, “You used to write all the time all those years ago and couldn’t get published, other than advertising copy fore the ad agency. You are the most loving and sensitive man I have ever known, and I can see you as being a great father. Please continue, honey.”

“My children, who I adore, are my life. David and Lisa, are at school, and little Nathaniel, Nat, was at play school this morning where I dropped him off but has been collected by my mother an hour or so ago. The older two kids are walking around to Granny’s after school for tea and I will meet them there and tell them that their mummy isn’t coming home.”

Lesley sat stunned. I continued my tale of woe.

“All her stuff is in black rubbish sacks in the garage and all the locks were changed this morning.” I took a deep breath. “About three weeks ago I found out that my children are not my children, the DNA clinic says that I have worse than a million-to-one chance of being the father.”

“Oh, Alan, I’m so sorry. Is there a chance the clinic mixed up your sample with someone else? Isn’t it worth doing again?”

“No chance,” I said sadly, “With Mum’s blessing I sent her sample along with mine and the kids. There were two samples for each so they keep one as a back up. The results confirmed that Mum and I are closely related but with next to no chance that her grandchildren are even remotely related to her. Never mind the results, they are still my kids, I just wanted to check to discover the extent of my wife’s duplicity. I may not be their biological father but I’m 100% their Dad and always will be. There’s no way their sperm donor will ever get his hands on them.”

By now I felt myself getting a bit loud. Rosamund was giving me a funny look from her station at the counter. Even Lesley looked sad and concerned, now holding onto both my hands with both of hers.

Of course they were my kids, I reasoned as I calmed down. I had stayed at home with them, fed, changed and bathed them. I had nursed them through their illnesses, taken them for their shots, their first steps, first words, first day at nursery, school, secondary school, all of their plays, activities, homework. They had my speech patterns, my mannerisms, my family values. They did not have those of the gutter like their real mother and biological father.

“The children almost certainly share the same father, which means that my wife has been sleeping with the same lover for twelve years, at least as long as I have been married. Well, she’s welcome to him. I wash my hands of both of them.”

“I am so sorry, I wish I could stay but I’ve got to go, Alan, I have another appointment down town and I’m running late. Come here, Alan, please honey.”

Lesley stood up and pulled me towards her, we put our arms around each other like two old ex-lovers, one to comfort the other on the occasion of some great loss. I buried my face in her sweet-smelling hair. I think, I know, I cried silent tears, selfish tears.

I heard the lift ding. We both did. At the same time we turned towards the sound.

The lift doors opened and several people walked out. An elderly smiling couple emerged first, holding hands, wreathed in smiles, looking around to get their bearings. They saw Lesley and I as we embraced and they waved at us cheerily. Lesley waved back automatically.

Then a couple of businessmen came out behind them, wearing name badges for some conference, carrying a few pamphlets, deep in conversation, almost running into the back of the elderly couple.

The lift ejected the last two occupants, a man and a woman, holding hands and carrying small overnight bags. They made a beautiful couple, he was tall and tanned, blond-haired, freshly shaved, devastatingly handsome and wearing what was obviously an expensive hand-made suit. He looked old money, established classy wealth. She was a little shorter, slim built, brunette, similarly power-dressed, but haughty, driven, ambitious, controlling, certainly beautiful, glowing even.

They had eyes only for each other and as they stepped out of the lift they kissed passionately and moved away in opposite directions, holding onto outstretched hands as long as possible, still maintaining smiling eye contact, no doubt each thinking “until we meet again soon, sweetheart”.

I released Lesley, stepped around the thick buttoned leather chair and strode powerfully towards the lift. I called over my shoulder, “Look after my laptop, please Lesley, I’ll be back in a jiff.”

I nodded and smiled at the nice old couple as I passed them, although my smile may have been a little on the grim side. The businessmen saw me approach and separated to let me barge through between them. And there they were, the couple, oblivious to everything but themselves, fingertips touching in parting.

“Natalie!” I said sharply, like addressing a naughty child. She looked up, somewhat shocked to see me.

“Alan? What-”

I looked away and focussed my attention on him.

“Old Man, this isn’t what it looks-” started her lover but I stopped him with my right fist on the point of his nose.

Those punchbag sessions down the school gym paid off as he went down like a sack of spuds, blood spouting from his imploding nose, splashing both Natalie and me. Natalie screamed, piercing, short and sharp.

“Honey?!” came a strangled shout from behind me.

I turned and faced Lesley, her handbag over one shoulder, her briefcase in one hand and my laptop clutched in the other. Her face was grim-set, disapproving. Perhaps she hated violence, she wouldn’t hurt a fly, I remembered; Lesley only ever hurt me.

A groan from behind alerted me to the fact that lover-boy was getting up. I turned, bringing my fists up into the defensive position as my coach had taught me so recently. He had assured me that I would never be a contender, but he taught me both how to punch and how to take a good licking. Just get a good one or two punches in, he had said sagely, and remember them while you recover from the beating you are going to get. Alan, you are a writer not a fighter. Damn, I wasn’t even a better lover than a fighter.

His handsome face didn’t look as pretty any more, his blood splattered lips twisted into a hideous scowl. He was taller, heavier and had a longer reach than me, but I had taken a few punches in the last month and was prepared to give as good as I got. I considered my beating would be cathartic. He held his fists up too, comfortably, moving his feet well as he circled me, our eyes focussed warily on each other. Damn, he was probably coached at public school and may have kept up practicing since.

“Roger!” the shout came from nowhere and took his attention away from me just for a moment. He looked to his right, then a flash of silver hit him hard in the face. This time he went down for the count.

I turned to face Lesley. She held up my mangled laptop.

“Sorry, I’m right-handed,” she said by way of apology.

“Nothing that can’t be replaced.” I shrugged as I relieved her of the wreckage.

“I’ll call my next appointment and reschedule for the morning.” She hauled out her phone. “Your Mum still serve up fish fingers and alphabet spaghetti for the kid’s tea?”

“Almost every time,” I said, “Perfect comfort food.”

“I haven’t had a fish finger sarnie with ketchup for years. Does she … you think … keep a large stock in the fridge?”

“There’s an Iceland on the way to the multi-storey. Better to be safe than sorry.”

“Great.” She found the entry she sought in the phone directory and launched the number.

“Don’t make that appointment too early in the morning,” I said.

“Mr Jones? Lesley. Something’s come up, sorry. Same time tomorrow afternoon? Great. See you then. Bye!”

She put the phone away and looked at me with those soft grey-blue eyes again.

“Introductions are in order, I think,” she said. “Meet Hubby, otherwise known as Roger, my husband, soon to be ex-husband. Roger? Oh, he’s still out for the count. Perhaps, Alan, you can recommend a good solicitor?”

“I have her card somewhere,” I said. “I look it out later.”

“Thanks,” she smiled.

“So, he wasn’t ‘the one’, then?” I ventured as I held out the crook of my arm for her. “Still looking?”

“He wasn’t ‘the one’. Not for a millisecond, never in a million years. I settled,” she said as she tucked her slim elegant arm in mine and we moved towards the exit. I took out ten, no made it fifteen, and handed it to the hovering open-mouthed Rosamund.

“Am I still looking?” Lesley continued, “I’ve never stopped … for twenty years I’ve tried to find ‘the one’ … again.”

The end.

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