Friday, 6 April 2012

The Plan Unfolds

“Oooh! You're there already?” Jenny sounded shocked. Obviously, my earlier text had not been noticed.

“Yeah, I got an earlier connection,” I said, thinking that there was, surely, no big problem. I knew Jenny's flat was only a few minutes walk away. Unfortunately, after fifteen years, I couldn't quite remember where.

“I'm not quite ready yet,” Jenny continued. “Emm … why don't you go to a pub and I'll meet you there in a bit?”

Eh? What the hell was that all about? Why didn't she simply direct me to her place? But, there was nothing to do but play it cool for now.

“Sure,” I said, “The George isn't far from here, is it?”

“Yes, not far. Remember we used to go there all the time?”

I did indeed. Back in the day, The George had been a traditional old South London boozer, and their lunchtime roast, topped with a few relaxing beers, had been a splendid way to spend a Sunday afternoon. I used to read Jenny amusing stories from the Sunday papers, and enjoyed the novelty of being out in public with an actual girlfriend, just like a normal person.

“Ok, I'll see you there later.” I hung up my phone and took a proper look around, trying to get my bearings.

It was no good. The station exit led to a typical close-packed London street, and I had no way of orientating myself, despite knowing that The George could not be more than ten minutes walk away. I was, in the end, forced to submit to that ultimate male humiliation: I asked a passer-by for directions.

Had I come to the right place? The exterior was vaguely familiar, but, once inside, there was nothing about The George to evoke any of my fifteen year-old memories. Stepping inside that pub used to be like slipping on a worn and comfortable pair of shoes, but now it was more like entering an operating theatre. The harsh lighting and reflective chrome seemed almost designed to set you on edge. But I knew a cure for that.

“Pint of Budvar, please,” I told the barman. Change can be good. The on-draught Czech Budweiser was certainly an improvement over the vile Hofmeister of yesteryear. I took my place at one of the stunted little tables and waited for Jenny to appear.

My first impression was that she did not disappoint. Jenny wore a snakeskin-patterned black leather jacket, black jeans and a rhinestone-encrusted t-shirt. The blonde bob was glossy and immaculate; a small black handbag, multiple silver bangles and a crucifix necklace completed the ensemble. Not many women fifteen years younger could get away with the rock chick look, but Jenny most definitely still had it.

We kissed (on the cheek, of course), and I got her a drink from the bar. Dry white wine, as ever – and she was getting a large one whether she wanted it or not. And another large one later that evening, I was certainly hoping.

“Ahh, it's lovely to see you,” Jenny cooed, “So nice of you to make the effort to come down”.

“My pleasure,” I countered, “Especially as I get to see you looking this amazing. Love that jacket.”

“It's a favourite of mine, too,” she said, and reached out to squeeze my hand, “Whatever happened to that red leather jacket of yours? Have you still got it?”

I liked to think I still “had it”, but the red leather was of course long gone. I didn't even wear my black one much any more, since Charlotte's sad admonition about “old men in leather jackets” had involved her shaking her head with despair. Truth be told, I did find it difficult to dress with a dignity becoming my age nowadays, in anything less formal than a suit.

But, the hand-squeezing was most definitely a good sign. Now, do we finish this drink quickly, and get back to her place with enough time for a quickie before dinner?

“No, I think I gave to charity ages ago,” I continued, “This place has certainly changed. I was wondering for a while if I'd come to the right pub.”

“It's a lot different round here now,” said Jenny, “All gone a bit upmarket. Much nicer than it was, really”.

“Yes,” I said, “I'm hoping this Thai restaurant I've booked for later is good – the reviews all seemed very positive. It's pretty close to yours, isn't it? I must admit I can't really remember the geography around here at all.”

“Oh, it's just across the road. And it's very nice – I haven't been for ages, but I'm really looking forward to it.”

And then came the plan. Her plan, that was, not mine. Jenny gestured to the overnight bag which lay at my feet. “What we'll do,” she said, “is have this drink and then we'll go to Sarah's place so you can leave your bag. Pugsly's there, so you can get to say hello! He's so excited - just dying to meet you. Sarah's got a pug, too, you know – she often looks after Pugsly for me when I go out.”

So, that was the game. Clearly designed to ensure that I didn't get be in private with Jenny at her place. But, no reason to be despondent – perhaps it was a sign that Jenny didn't trust herself not to tear my clothes off if we found ourselves alone. After all, she had always been rather keen in the past. Later tonight, after a romantic meal, plenty more wine, and some flirtatious chat, I would surely be walking her back to her place. And it would only be natural to be invited in for coffee …

We finished our drinks and headed for Sarah's house - “just around the corner” I had been assured. Jenny set off at dramatic pace, despite her silver high-heels. Hoisting my bag upon my shoulder, I was forced to lengthen my stride to keep up

The walk did nothing to improve my sense of orientation. I remembered that Jenny's flat was located directly on the main road which led to central London, but where that was in relation to the maze of side-streets we were navigating I could not tell. Judging by how far we were walking, this friend Sarah seemed to live somewhere near Brighton.

“Here we are,” said Jenny at last, as we entered a small cul-de-sac lined with impressive three-story town-houses. Who was this Sarah, I wondered, who could afford one of these? At an absolute minimum, these were all £750K homes – far beyond anything to which I could ever aspire these days.
Jenny rang the bell, setting off an insane cacophony of high-pitched barking, but no sign of anyone coming to answer the door.

“It's very good of your friend to put me up,” I said, “She, er, does know we're coming, doesn't she?”

“Oh, yes,” said Jenny, “Sarah's just a little slow, sometimes”.

Eventually, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of someone coming towards the door. Someone who was trying most ineffectually to calm the frantic yapping of the dogs within.

“Hush, now, Pugsly … Hush, Albert …“

“Yap! Yip! Yip! Yip! Yap! Yip! Yap!”

It was the sound of someone trying to persuade the sea tide to stop coming in. The door opened, and the canine frenzy reached new heights. Sarah barely managed “Hello” before she felt she had to turn around and admonish them some more.

“Pugsly!” called Jenny, with all the delight of a returning mother, “How's my little man?”

And then the yapping stopped, as Pugsly recognised his mistress and scampered towards her, wimpering with sheer unalloyed joy.

There's something inherently comic about pugs, with their little squashed faces and stumpy legs, and an expression that can be reminiscent of Winston Churchill. Pugsly was jet black, but with an expression that put me more in mind of another historical figure – in this case, Aleister Crowley. He reared up on his hind legs in front of his mistress, revealing an obscenely pink and unbelievably large penis, running almost the full length of his chunky little body. Jenny appeared not to notice this abomination, and cooed away at the ugly little dog as though he were a long-lost child.

The other pug, smaller and brindle-coloured, and whose name I had heard was Albert, had lost his boldness now that the door was open, and was hanging back in the hall with Sarah. Like Jenny, Sarah was engaged in an intense baby-talk calming session with the beast, and for neither woman did the the wider world seem to exist at all.

I stood back for a while, clutching my bag, and feeling distinctly awkward and out of place. Should I just turn round and walk back to the station now? Would anyone have even noticed?

Eventually, Albert seemed to have been placated and Sarah was able to come to the door once more. “Hello,” she said again, looking in my direction with a polite smile. I was able to tell that she walked with a slight limp.

Sarah was one of those women who could be any age between thirty-five and seventy. It was difficult to believe that she had ever been really young, and also difficult to believe that any man had ever found her desirable. Her auburn hair was cut sensible-short, and she wore an indeterminately blue/green jogging suit that mercifully hid her shapeless form. A pair of glasses on a string around her neck completed the picture. Was she even the same species as someone like Charlotte or Louise?

“Hi there,” I said, “I'm Ben, Jenny's … friend.” Just what the hell was I exactly? What had Jenny told her about me? “Friend” was about the best I could come up with.

“Oh, yes, Sarah, this is Ben, who I told you about.” Jenny had snapped out of her love-fest with Pugsly. Unfortunately, so had he, and the little dog began a sustained low growl as he became aware of my presence.

“Hush, Pugsly,” Jenny scolded, completely without effect. “Shall we all go in?”