No 9 DREAM
He saw a ghost today, oh boy. He’d stopped at the pedestrian crossing at the bottom of Stubbins Lane where it joins Rochdale Road. A slim woman walked across, and half turned to the car as if to acknowledge him. He flipped. By the time she had continued to the other side his head had flooded and he stared at her disappearing back before she took the next side street. He’d know that walk anywhere, that profile, the half smile. He didn’t notice that the lights had changed. Someone peeped breaking his reverie. Self consciously he crashed the gears and drove on towards Cheetham with one side of his brain screaming “turn back”. The other said “don’t be stupid”, she’d be sixty now”. That girl couldn’t have been more than thirty.
On Cheetham High Street he stopped at The Craven Heifer. Not a place he usually drank in. It wasn’t the drink he needed. Sitting with a Guinness he wrote a note to himself and tried to get things in order. She had had a pale moon face framed by straight blonde hair and fringe, very late sixties, and strong honest blue eyes. His first impression on meeting her?
Friendly, warm, polite, yet direct. She had something of a Lancashire accent, but the edges had been sanded. Of course she could lay it on when she wanted. He hadn’t taken her for an exhibitionist on first impressions but she could be crackers even without a drink.
He supposed that was the real attraction, her northern-ness. Her northern-ness and her lack of inhibition. Bath wasn’t a place he took to readily, beautiful as it was. They compared cultural notes over a pint in the Avon Arms; in those days having a liquid lunch was as natural as breathing. You know there’s no room to swing the proverbial cat there and they squeezed onto one bench seat, the man opposite grudgingly shuffling his early edition of the Gazette to give them room to put their drinks down. He remembered she insisted on buying him one back. Funny how little things like that matter when you’re trying to size someone up.
He wasn’t very confident with women generally, talking work or personal history but without any intimate detail. She boosted his ego. She was a good looking woman to be seen with and she asked for his advice on everything from whether she should complain to her boss about the sexist comments of her co-workers, to whether he felt she was morally reprehensible for “seeing” three men at the same time, two of whom were married. He rather understood the sexist comments; they were forefront in his mind. She appeared to have beautiful breasts and her tendency to go bra-less made it difficult not to imagine her naked.
Sometimes he pinched himself and thought “why me?” Had she really given up her other dalliances or was she just saving his feelings? He’d wait for her after work, or at lunch time, parked as unobtrusively as possible at the furthest end of the car park from the Institute’s main entrance. He would watch her in the mirror, walking towards the car as if on a film set. With her hair up, her designer glasses, a pencil skirt, low heels, she looked a dream. He told her it would all end in tears. He didn’t realise they would be his.
That Christmas she invited him to the Institute party. He had thrown caution to the wind. He didn’t care who saw them together. Of course he did really. He generally made sure their trysts were well away from prying eyes. What a fool he was. And of course he was agonising over the sex. She was getting impatient, not angry, but intrigued. Quite understanding in fact. Maybe it was part of his charm. “Scruples ...or guilt?” he thought taking a drink from his Guinness “in 1973? What a dinosaur”.
He remembered he had created an excuse to stay in the city overnight knowing that he was going to sleep at her flat. He picked her up from the Institute and they went for a drink in town before he drove her to her shared flat on the outskirts. Her flat mate was inquisitive and kept him occupied while she had a bath and got changed. He hadn’t expected that. His fantasies had run to sitting on the bath edge while she soaped herself, before he towelled her back. He could almost hear the flat mate thinking “what’s she doing with this berk?” What she was probably thinking was, “you poor sap, you don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for.”
The Institute’s Christmas Party was formulaic. Turkey dinner, followed by disco. Perhaps it wasn’t called disco then, it was a bit before Saturday Night Fever. Plenty of Motown, plenty of alcohol. The combination never failed to move him. He had been a regular at the Wigan Casino after all. Of course she looked stunning; classy and stunning. He felt a bit grubby. He’d had the same suit and shirt on all day. She certainly caught the eye. A number of her male colleagues sidled over to ask her to dance. Did he mind? Yes and no. She introduced him to her boss, a rangy woman of about fifty who talked work and politics, while fiddling with a pearl necklace, obviously wishing she was somewhere else.
By the end of the night he couldn’t keep his hands off her. They spent the last few dances pressed to each other, groin to groin. His mind was racing. Should he have bought some condoms? He was twenty six for God’s sake and still couldn’t bring himself to ask for them over Boots’ counter. They took a taxi back. She unzipped his fly. OK, the cabbie probably couldn’t see. Then she bent over. He looked out of the window as if nothing was happening. He was terrified he would come over the seat, over his trousers, over her hair. But he was also in need of a pee and his initial erection soon subsided. She sat up and left him to pop it back.
It should have been perfection. All his fantasies rolled into one. They writhed naked in her single bed. It was a bad moment to throw up. He always made the mistake of switching to whisky on a big night out. It never really worked after six pints of bitter. She was quite reassuring, rolling up the sheets to soak in the bath as if it was something that happened every day. Of course he was mortified. That was the Friday night. He went back on Monday morning knowing she was off work and she generously went through the motions again. He remembered buying Walls and Bridges on the way home and some small presents for the children. They had a quiet family Christmas, staying with relatives in their native town, going to watch Rovers, drinking with his in-laws.
His Guinness was finished. He got up to leave. Naturally he went for a pee before leaving. It’s what you do at his age. Better safe than sorry. He came out. Walking up the steps directly in front of him was the young woman he had seen at the crossing. He flushed, his pulse quickened, he thought he might faint. She smiled and walked past him. She was probably thirty. She had the same moon face and long straight hair. Perhaps her niece. People share family traits. He stopped, turned and almost followed his instinct to call out. He paused and watched her walk over to a seat in the corner where a middle-aged man sat in front of two drinks. They embraced, and for an encore kissed, before she curled up next to him. He turned and walked down the steps into the car park. He didn’t really know why he was moved. He climbed into the car, pulled out a cigarette and put the radio on. No 9 Dream was playing.