Flash of lilac through the half-light of the arched doorway. Tilt of her chin, the swish and bluster of her entrance. Mark’s back at St Andrew’s, enduring detention by rain-streaked windows. Penelope squeezing in beside him on a slipstream of attitude, ragged lilac scarf streak of cheer across drab evening; sweet citrus scent, fresh curves, feline glance shooting hot flushes upwards from his neck.
‘Are you going to offer me a seat?’ ‘Penelope. Sorry, off in my own world.’ ‘Simone, Mark. My name is Simone.’ ‘What? Of course, Simone. What did I say?’
‘You said Penelope. Thought the least I could expect is that you’d know my name after eight months.’
‘Sorry babe, don’t know what I was thinking.’ ‘Who’s Penelope?’
‘Penelope. Who is Penelope?’
‘I don’t know any Penelope. Must have heard the name somewhere…’ ‘Why are you blushing?’
‘I’m not blushing.’
‘Yes you are; bright red.’
‘I am now, because you said I was blushing.’ Mark stands, reaching into right-hand pocket. ‘Want a drink?’
Simone stares for a moment, milking the last of the interrogation. She sheds a damp cream Macintosh and throws it over the back of a chair. Scarf a sleek guppy’s tail over right shoulder, lips and eyelids tinted to match, black pencil lines and long lashes stark against alabaster skin stretched taut across sharp cheekbones by her grimace.
‘Yeah go on, I need one after the day I’ve had.’ ‘Gin and tonic?’
‘Have you ever known me to drink anything else?’ ‘Just being polite.’
‘I’m just thankful you remembered.’
Amber spotlight pierces the soft cotton of her blouse to accentuate the delicate mound of her left breast. A young man ogles from a high-stool perch, licking froth from lips. Grey suit skewed on simian frame, tight across shoulders with cuffs a third of the way up long sinewy forearms. He turns a dented face to Mark as the barman places a Guinness on the counter beside the gin and tonic.
‘You alright, Mate?’ ‘Alright. You?’
‘Couldn’t be better, Mate.’ He nods towards Simone. ‘Fit bird your missus.’
‘Yes, she’s very attractive.’ ‘Married?’
‘Not yet, no.’
‘So you’re engaged then?’ ‘I don’t know if …’
‘Cause I don’t see no stone.’ ‘No, well …’
‘Not too happy with you, Mate.’
‘Actually, we’re very happy, couldn’t be happier if you must know.’ ‘Don’t mean no offence, Mate, just making conversation.’
Mark picks up the drinks and turns from the bar. ‘Well, if you’ll excuse me.’
Mark places the drinks in front of Simone. He drags his chair around and sits to obstruct the view.
‘Tough day?’ ‘Don’t talk to me.’ ‘Adam?’
‘The man hasn’t a clue. I mean what is it about managers?’
It’s not just the scarf. Those olive-green eyes, and her face, is it the make-up? Not only; the oval shape, the pert nose, in a certain light she could pass. How had he not noticed before?
‘Are you even listening to me?’ ‘Of course I’m listening.’
‘Look like you’re off in your own world.’
‘Not at all, just thinking how you’re wasting your talent with that crew. Adam’s never going to take you seriously.’
‘I know. Can you believe he said that?’ ‘The man hasn’t a clue.’
‘It’s insulting that’s what it is, being objectified in that way.’
A waifish flame-haired woman in egg-yolk dungarees wrestles a house burger in an alcove behind Simone. She catches Mark’s eye with mouth at reptilian stretch. Sauce-soaked burger tongue pokes through bread lips as she bites, spurting mayo over her fries.
‘Where did you go to school?’ ‘What, as in secondary school?’ ‘Yes.’
‘Why do you want to know?’ ‘Just curious.’
‘Ealing Comprehensive.’ ‘All Girls?’
‘What was it like?’
‘I don’t know. Like any other school I suppose.’ ‘The uniform. What was the uniform like?
‘Navy skirt – pleated – white blouse, red tie, blazer. Why?’ ‘No reason?’
‘There’s always a reason.’
‘Just thinking maybe we could spice up our love life a little.’ ‘I wasn’t aware it needed spicing up.’
‘It doesn’t. You know what I mean. Try something different.’ ‘I told you before, I’m not doing that. It’s disgusting.’
‘Not that. I was thinking more of, you know, a little role play.’ ‘Role play?’
‘With your uniform.’
‘My uniform? What are you, a paedophile?
‘Of course not, schoolgirls can be eighteen you know?
‘Schoolgirls can be eighteen, Mark, but I’m thirty-one in case you haven’t noticed. And you’re thirty-seven.’
‘It’s only a bit of fun.’
‘It’s bloody perverse, that’s what it is.’ ‘You’d still pass for eighteen.’
Simone swells slightly and flicks hair from her forehead. She looks over her glass at Mark.
‘That’s not the point. It would be weird.’ ‘What’s weird? We’re consenting adults.’ ‘Let’s just drop it, okay.’
‘I need another drink. You want a pint?’ ‘Please.’
Simone scrolls as she waits. The suited man leans towards her and speaks. She turns, finger poised on screen. He stands to shake her hand, forcing her to disregard the phone, then sits back down and passes a comment. She giggles, leaning in with a retort as the drinks arrive. A pyroclastic guffaw cuts through the bustle like the deep urgent woofs of a startled Labrador. The man retrieves his wallet from the bar, extracts a card and hands it to her. She places it on her phone, puts both into her handbag, adds tonic to her gin and grabs both glasses, flashing a smile as she turns from the bar. It still plays on her lips as she places drinks on coasters and sits.
‘What did he say?’ ‘Who.’
‘The gorilla at the bar.’ ‘Stewart. He’s nice.’ ‘Stewart?’
‘He’s a fashion consultant.’ ‘Fashion consultant?’
‘You just going to repeat everything I say?’ ‘No, it’s just that…’
‘He looks more defendant than consultant.’ ‘He thinks I look younger too.’
‘Of course he does…’
She leans across the table and kisses him on the lips, lingering eye to eye with hand cupped around his neck.
‘Is my little baby jealous of the strange man at the bar?’ ‘Why would I be jealous?’
Moist juniper lips, waft of dried raindrops, black strands clinging to the white of her neck like beached elvers. Mark draws her to him, teasing and probing until she commits to the kiss. Three striped shirts with beer bellies enter on a cool tobacco breeze.
‘Oy, get a room why don’t ya?’
The men snigger as they pass. Simone picks up her drink and swirls the ice with her finger.
‘You really think I’d pass for eighteen?’ ‘Told you I did.’
‘So you agree with Stewart?’
The crease of a smirk spreads into her left cheek. Mark wipes his lips with the back of his hand and places the pint to one side of its coaster.
‘On this single occasion, I agree with Stewart, or to be precise, Stewart agrees with me.’ ‘Stewart agrees with you?’
‘Let’s just say, to avoid any argument, that on the subject of your youthful looks and all round hotness, Stewart and I are in complete agreement.’
She leans to him, nestling into his shoulder. ‘You’re a clown, Mark Jones, you know that.’ ‘A really sexy, very masculine kind of clown?’ ‘Just a clown.’
She kisses him. ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ ‘You’ll do it?’
‘The schoolgirl thing, I’ll do it. It might be fun.’ ‘Really? Tonight?’
‘I don’t have my uniform at the flat. I’m home Friday, how about the weekend?’
He kisses her earlobe, moving hair back with his breath as he works in behind, feeling the tight quiver of her leg beneath his hand as he whispers.
Mark attempts to mop the blinding sting with his shirt sleeve. A wisp of a barman appears and hands him a dry cloth. The barman moves Mark’s pint to an adjacent table, picks up the empty lilac-smudged Slim-Jim, whips out a second cloth, and wipes in a furious counter-clockwise motion, flicking nuggets of ice onto the carpet. He returns Mark’s pint, placing it on a fresh coaster. He watches Mark dab around his neck and inside the front of his soaked shirt.
‘Women eh.’ ‘Yeah…’
‘Can’t live with them, can’t live with them.’ ‘It’s not easy.’
‘Finished with the rag?’
A futile rub to his crotch and Mark hands the cloth over. The barman tucks it into the belt of his apron and lopes back towards the bar. The three striped shirts laugh and point, hunched into one another, midriffs quivering. The flame-haired woman in egg-yolk dungarees leans back into her alcove, pouring salt onto a ketchup splotch on her chest. Other customers feign interest in conversations or newspapers as he scans the room. A barely-touched pint of lager glows from where Stuart had been. The barman grabs it as he passes and empties it into the sink. A striped shirt trundles to the counter.