There was a rush of summer air as the new arrival breezed in. I turned to look at her, and my low, vinyl covered chair, designed by a man with no knees, squeaked in protest.
"Natasha Gresham for an interview with Mr. Connor", she announced to the pretty receptionist, who looked with consternation at the attractive job applicant as if her ace had been surprisingly trumped. I studied Miss Gresham and cursed inwardly. Trim figure. Elegant features. Full of confidence, and used to getting her own way. Perhaps a year older than me - say twenty three or four. By the time she drifted over and sat down opposite me in a cloud of Opium, I knew everything about her. Stuck up. Pushy. Rich daddy. And didn't deserve this job as much as me.
I put on my serious face, looked up and nodded, to let her know that this interview wasn't going to be the pushover she was expecting. To my surprise she smiled at me, and in a few seconds the whole scenario rushed through my head. The hesitant opening words. The tentative first kiss. The opening night of passion. They've got a lot to answer for these girls who smile at you in reception. I smiled back shortly, then furrowed my brow to indicate how interesting I was finding 'The Rosster', the J.J. Ross company magazine, which was singing the praises of some of its more successful money lenders, and proudly announcing details of the latest company initiative 'CHEERS' (Customer Happiness Ensures Excellent ResultS), with a picture of some vampire smiles wearing suits. It's your magazine. Let us know if you want to get something off your chest. I wasn't sure that I could go through with this. As my eyes flitted over unseen words, I knew that Natasha Gresham had disturbed me.
A few minutes later I detected the arrival of George Connor. Brown-suited, short, stout, balding and middle-aged. Apart from that, rather unattractive. He looked at me and announced my name with a question mark.
There was a silence as I made an undignified climb out of the engulfing folds of my comedy chair. "Pleased to meet you", said George unconvincingly, extending his hand. I made the fourth handshake of my life with some embarrassment, and was worryingly aware of the lack of confidence and firmness recommended in 'Interview Techniques and Tips'.
But I needn't have worried. George wasn't noticing handshakes; he was turning to Miss Gresham with an ingratiating smile and I couldn't really blame him.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. I'll be with you in a few minutes", he said to her. She treated him to the dazzling smile as well, dashing my hopes that I had been singled out for such treatment, and I felt my heart sink as I followed him into a windowless room.
A little over an hour later I entered 'The Café Citrus'. This was the sort of place that Sophie liked, and I had to admit that the black and white Doisneau prints gave the place a bit of class. I smiled in response to her theatrical wave across the sparsely populated tables, and threaded my way towards her.
Today she was dressed in a tight black sweater, a shortish black skirt, which she self-consciously smoothed down as she smiled a greeting, and knee-high black boots with sensible heels. This was her usual attire, adopted quite recently after reading more Camus and Sartre than was good for her. She felt herself to be a budding existentialist, and had chosen this Parisian pastiche restaurant as her natural milieu. To carry the thing off, she needed to look pale and svelte, like some gamin heroine of an arty French film, but her ample bosom and healthy complexion left her forever unconvincing. It did not seem possible to be a bit overweight and an existentialist. One or the other it seemed, but not both.
"How did it go?" she asked as I dragged a wrought iron chair away from the glass-topped table and made to sit down.
"All right I suppose."
Sophie tutted, and flicked her black hair back over her shoulder. She leant her head on a bridge made by her two hands, and gave me the exasperated look of a mother indulging a wayward child. "What do you mean all right? Guy, you're hopeless. What is the place like? How did the interview go? Do you think they will take you on?" She looked at me with wide eyes and nodded encouragingly awaiting my response.
I shrugged. "Yes, I suppose so. It seemed to go ok."
And it was true. George had left me with the impression that the job was as good as mine.
Sophie smiled. "Good. So something else to celebrate next week then."
"Something else?" I said carefully, hedging my bets.
She sighed. "You remember. It's our anniversary. Two years since we met."
"Of course. We must do something."
"I've booked dinner here. Is that ok?"
"Fine. Sorry, I would have done it myself?"
"I know. Still, you had a lot on your mind. This is a big step for you. Time for you to make your mark."
Is that what I would be doing? Making my mark? I couldn't imagine it somehow.
"You're wasted where you are", she went on, an assertion for which she had no evidence whatsoever. "I think this new place will be the making of you."
"Well, I haven't actually got the job yet?". I wasn't sure that I wanted to be made something of either.
"But you will. I know you will." She smiled at me, and I smiled back, touched by her unjustified confidence in me, and relieved that I had got away with the lapse about the anniversary. Sophie was determined to be in a good mood in case she needed to cheer me up after the interview. The fact that it had apparently gone well put her in even better spirits, so my minor lapse would probably go unpunished provided I made no further blunders.
She now looked at me more seriously over her coffee cup. "Do you remember Alice?"
Alice? Alice? I had a vague recollection of a severe looking girl in navy blue, with a neat face and immaculate hair band. Worked in an art gallery. That was her.
"Of course I do. How is she?"
"She's engaged. To Rupert. You know, the guy with Dunhill's?"
"Oh yes." Ghastly, ghastly man.
"Isn't it super? We are invited to the wedding. In the summer."
I nodded. "Big do?"
Her eyes widened. "You are joking, Guy. They've hired the Rothermere Hotel, with a marquee and string quartet and everything. It will be out of this world."
There was a pause. "And Chloe and Bas are getting serious. Chloe thinks they might be engaged too this year."
Oh God. I quite liked Chloe. Bas was all right too. People started off in perfectly reasonable relationships, having a few laughs, being good company, but before long up popped that awful word. Serious. Girls would ask their friends in hushed tones if the relationship was getting 'serious', and they would be greeted either with stony, tight lipped silence, portending the end of a beautiful friendship, or a coy, slightly embarrassed smile and a little giggle. Their friend's partner would take on a rather pathetic look and shrug his shoulders as if to say it was nothing to do with him, and you might as well go out and buy the toaster.
I didn't want to get serious. Ever. I wanted to be frivolous and light-hearted and foolish and silly. I wanted a girl I could have a laugh with. Then I looked up at Sophie's earnest face, and some of my earlier feeling of well-being began to evaporate. There was no doubt about it. Sophie wanted to get serious all right.
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