They were in one of those limp little catalogues that plop through your letter-box on a Monday morning. “Cosy” – a word that nobody under forty-five can think without a flinch. But my feet were so very, very cold that I did think it, and sent for a pair of sheepskin-lined ankle boots.
I worked as a secretary for Messrs Gimp, Stanley & Co, an interesting, eccentric and notoriously parsimonious firm of solicitors. We rented half an eighteenth century building just off the High Street in a road stuffed with solicitors. The other half was taken by our rivals, Messrs Mafford Speers. Maffords were more corporate and less colourful than Gimps. They didn’t like their staff any more, but did see the benefit of central heating.
Equity partners lived on the ground floor, nearest our esteemed and much fawned-over clients. Salaried had offices on the floor above and everyone else, including me, was banished to the floor above that. The higher the floor, the shabbier and colder it got. Whatever the weather, we weren’t permitted to approach the gas fires until November. When November did finally arrive we brought in boxes of cooks’ matches – the ones with the extra-long stems. Failing cooks’ matches we would tape an ordinary match to the end of a metal letter-opener and lean as far back as possible before striking it and turning the gas on full.
The sash windows had been there since the building was new, in 1721. They rattled whenever it was windy. I typed stiff-fingered in a swirling draught, wearing the standard cheap office suit with hand-knitted fingerless gloves. I’d wind a pink woollen scarf tied around my ankles, and sometimes forget to unwind it when I stood up.
The ankle-boots drew disapproving glances from the Partners but they didn’t remark, and I wasn’t that bothered, being next on their list for constructive dismissal. People like me, with a surfeit of inspiration and a deficit in concentration, never tend to last long in offices.
It was winter when I caught sight of him. I was on my lunch break and, of course, wearing the old lady ankle boots with cosy sheepskin lining. There was a long queue in the Post Office and I joined it. My hair was a mess; I felt a bit pasty, with the beginnings of a spot on my forehead. The menopause plays havoc.
He was up the front by the Wait Here sign, next in line for a cashier. He should have been in Scotland, in a sizeable cottage, with small potted trees on either side of the door. Yet here he inexplicably was. Until that moment I had never given much thought to the expression “rooted to the spot”. The queue was closing up and I suppose I was shuffling along with it, but to all intents and purposes, I was rooted. That dear, familiar face, that that bony brow; that strange, masculine-yet-feminine shape that he unfortunately still was. Thirteen years had passed but he genuinely didn’t look any older; neatly turned-out, as always; mid-length camel coat and one of those expensive roll-neck sweaters in pastel blue.
I used to wonder if he was gay, half gay or potentially gay but he proved to be a lusty lover. He told me he had read books on technique – how to caress a woman with only his eyes, how to put her in the mood for love before ever laying hands on her.
He played the church organ, which in retrospect seems quite amusing. He had his piano delivered when we moved into the maisonette. On summer afternoons he would play Yesterday with the windows flung wide open to admit the salt breeze, and local children would drape themselves over the area gates, open-mouthed, to listen. He was good with children. He didn’t want his little girl to be upset by meeting me, so when she came over I would go out. I came to loathe her without ever having met her. Occasionally I had to disappear for a whole weekend.
He introduced me to leisurely breakfasts in the window-seat, with buttered toast, marmalade and the papers. He taught me to cook, a bit, with garlic even. He introduced me to Vivaldi, and Enya, but wasn’t at all keen a cat despite my wheedling: only later did it occur to me why.
Thirteen years since last I saw him; innumerable icy years to come – who knows what the final total will be – during which I will not to set eyes on him again. I should have tapped him on the shoulder, said something or anything to bank a fresh memory of his face that might tide me over. But those old-lady ankle-boots had glued me to the floor and struck me dumb.
He passed quite close to me on the way out. I looked away, sideways. Though my heart was beating like a thing possessed, as it had once been possessed, though I could barely breathe and tears welled up in eyes, I kept on shuffling forwards in my old lady ankle boots. I pictured him, out of the door, off down the street, off down another street, and then another; finding that expensive car in the car park and driving away. Back to Scotland, or wherever it was he now resided.
He told me once that God would always save him a parking space, in any city. God would reward all those who had faith in Him.