First Date (273 words)​

They met at the vernissage of an art installation called “Mirrors in Scarlet”. Supposedly “a three dimensional critique on the use of reflection in The Scarlet Letter”, Dave thought it was actually just a load of bollocks. Red lights, scarlet ribbons dancing in currents of air (produced by two large men dressed as Pilgrim women each pumping a pair of massive bellows), mirrors of various sizes, and shitty atmospherique music, did not make what he considered to be art. There were, of course, the requisite number of beard-stroking hipster types, nodding appreciatively, as they quaffed the free champagne. And some dreary bloke (presumably the “artist”) wanking on about imagery, symbolism and other bullshit to a crowd of sycophantic hangers-on.

He watched Diane as she contemplated the scene. He couldn’t read her expression: did she actually like this crap? It had been her who had suggested meeting here for their first date: her friend had given her tickets. Dave hoped her friend wasn’t the dreary bloke or one of his simpering groupies. He really liked Diane: online chats, and the five minutes they had spent chatting outside, had shown she was funny, intelligent and cute. But he was fairly sure he would end up insulting someone if they didn’t leave soon.

Diane mouthed something. Dave raised an eyebrow, not quite sure if he’d understood. She moved close to him, and whispered in his ear.

“Let’s go to the pub,” she said, her breath tickling his lobe. “Before I end up punching one of these arseholes.”

Dave smiled, and they linked arms as they left the room. They were going to get on just fine.

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A Good Start

“Three rows from the back,” he said, as he struggled to get his coat off. “Just like the first time.” His wife, on the seat next to him, offered nothing in return. He was, however, rewarded by a brief, but curious, stare from the young mother two rows in front, as she lifted her son onto her lap.

Remembering the bus journey of more than fifty years past, he smiled. February 14th 1958: Valentine’s Day, the day following their wedding, and the first day of their honeymoon.

His mother was unhappy with their wedding date. “Thirteenth,” she had sniffed, shaking her head, as he stood before her, two months earlier, delivering a reassuring squeeze to the hand of his bride to be, who squirmed uncomfortably under the weight of his mothers frown. “Unlucky date,” and then, with an uncommon display of optimism, “could be worse, I suppose. At least it’s not a Friday.”

The feelings of excitement and anticipation, of their first journey together as man and wife, had been viciously crushed on arrival. Humpbuckle-on-sea was an old fashioned place, even then. Grey and listless: even the sea crawled up the pebbled beach, reluctant, bored, until it could bear it no longer and ran back down the shore laughing and free.

Mrs B’s B&B was one of many drab sea-front guesthouses. From the outside it appeared merely neglected and uncared for, while internal inspection revealed years of systematic abuse. It smelt of boiled cabbage, damp towels and cheap aftershave. The latter – they discovered at breakfast the next morning – radiated from Mrs B’s twenty year old son, a pimply but likable youth, who flaunted a ready wit and an Elvis-style quiff, greased with oil liberated from the deep-fat fryer in Chippy’s Chip Shop on the pier, where he could be found serving up one-liners and fish suppers, every Friday and alternate Wednesdays.

Mrs B had greeted the newly-weds with a brisk nod of her head and a meagre smile. She resembled a particularly unhappy bulldog.  Their wedding certificate was examined with a suspicious eye, while she barked the rules of the house at them.

She led them up two flights of creaking stairs, only to abandon them in a ghastly twin room, decorated with a fading painting depicting the crucifixion of Christ, two moth-eaten bedspreads (chosen with an expert eye, so as to clash spectacularly with the peeling floral wallpaper), and a spider called Boris, who lived adjacent to the damp patch in the shadowy corner above the cracked sink. The plumbing hummed when the sink was in use, and thumped alarmingly whenever the toilet – a long, cold walk to the far end of the corridor – was flushed.

Lowering their suitcase onto the threadbare carpet, he joined his wife, where she sat on the bed nearest the window, and took her hand. When she turned to him, he looked deep into her eyes, and was surprised to see laughter, where he had expected to see tears.

The ability to find amusement in that which would make others cry characterised their relationship, setting the tone of the marriage. It was what he loved about her most.

The bus pulled in to the bus station, and he waited patiently for the few remaining passengers to get off; the young mother, her son asleep in her arms; a young girl, no more than eight, mobile phone clamped to her ear, gum chewed loudly; a serious looking young man, bag clutched to his chest. He watched them all file off the bus, before rising unsteadily, painfully, to his feet.

They returned to this seaside resort every year, grumbling whenever it threatened to succumb to the pressure of modernisation, although it never yielded. They would sit on the same bench at the end of the pier. They could still just make out their initials, carved on that initial trip and now worn by weather, time and the friction of other people’s buttocks. Sometimes they would throw chips to the gulls that swooped around them, shouting their insults into the wind. But mostly they would sit, and find humour in each other and the world around them.

A smile on his lips, he gently lifted the urn from the seat beside him. He nodded a thank you to the bus driver as he climbed down the steps. He let his tired feet take them both to the pier for their final journey together.

***

Written by Bruce Arbuckle (January 2010)

This story was entered into a short story competition on thenovellette.com in 2010

All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.