Weekend Fiction: Love’s Executioner Revisited

Not for many years had anyone fallen for her so hard. Even going back to when she was a teenager. It was a Monday in late January, the temperature had risen but sheets of rain swept in once again. Leah had said goodbye to her work colleague Bartley, waving to him from the bus outside Somerset House. Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept was making the winter journeys infinitely more bearable (she’d first been lent one of his books during the many months of group work all those years ago). Of course she knew the story well, being a compulsive re-reader of her favourite authors.

He was so open, freely disclosing several alluring facts. That he was vegan and training to be a therapist, that it was rare for him not to cycle home. But today, the weather – the weather! Just like Yalom, she said, the therapy, not the cycling. Of course, Yalom, he was a big fan of the case studies! She asked about hobbies. Well, he’d always loved photography. She told him about this collection of Polaroid images – a beautiful coffee table book she owned; he would love it, she said – when was his birthday, she might even buy it for him? He smiled at this, that smile! March, he told her, but only when she pressed him a second time. He was probably just a few years older than her. A small age gap was not a problem in her opinion. He had that kind of face, that unassuming confidence, which made it impossible not to like him.

“This is me,” he said, getting up at Finsbury Park station.

“But wait,” she said. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Neil.”

“It was like he was saying, let me kneel before you,” Leah told Bartley on the phone that night. “It’s been a while since I felt a connection like this.”

“So why didn’t he ask for your number, girl?” Bartley asked.

“Maybe he was struggling with powerful feelings.”

“Sounds a tad optimistic. But maybe.”

“Men operate in strange ways.”

“Don’t they just!” Bartley cackled.

“But how should I contact him to let him know his feelings are okay?”

“No worries on that score. When it comes to obsessively hunting people down, you’re stalking to the right man! Ba-boom – chh!”

In the cafe the next day, Bartley is pondering a second almond croissant.

“I really wouldn’t,” Leah advises. “You’re becoming so red, and so fat, I instinctively stick my arm out these days when I see you approaching.”

“Ooh, you can ring my bell anytime, baby!”

“Seriously, at your age? How old are you again?”

“Almost thirty.”

“My God, positively ancient!”

They resume sifting the evidence that will surely lead to the mysterious Neil. For some months Bartley’s pet project had been to find a man for his favourite hetero. Leah’s phone call to say she’d met someone who really liked her had been immensely promising. That she had no way of contacting him, slightly less so.

“So what have we got?” Bartley says.

“He’s called Neil, he’s got short hair and glasses and a twinkly smile.”

“But you had ‘this amazing conversation’. You must have discovered something else!”

“He lives in Finsbury Park.”

“Better! And?”

“He has a dog called George.”

Bartley rolls his eyes. Then the breakthrough comes! Leah remembers that Neil was coming from his therapy course. He’d boarded the No. 4 near Angel. Tablets are whipped out, searches made. The Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education! 2-18 Britannia Row. He has to be studying there! Look on the map, for the love of Mike. Chance would be a fine thing! Bartley smiles.

“So what next?” Leah asks.

“I telephone the college, my passion fruit.”

“Yes? And?”

G’day, mate, I’ve not seen my cousin Neil in fifteen years. I’m over from down-under –”

“Bartley, that accent is terrible!”

But I happen to know he’s studying at your institute –”

“How would you know that?”

“Point taken... Top of the morning! I’m winding up my client’s estate and have a large inheritance for a certain chappie by the name of Neil... Sounds like a scam, I know.”

“Just a bit!”

Hello Lovely, Beaumont Frasier here. I rather need to interview all of your students for my latest bean-flicking novel –”

The next day, Bartley has booked a meeting room in order to report back (“the office is just too full of tea spillers, darling!”). He’d taken the honest approach and the arts therapy receptionist was more than helpful. He’d simply told her that his friend had met a student on a bus and wanted to make contact. Having been through the details, he asked her why she’d want to stand in the way of true love?

“You didn’t!”

“It worked! She sent an email and he replied almost immediately!”

“And?”

“I’m struggling to see the positive in this, sweetie. And I’m quoting directly. ‘Mr Armstrong said he’d rather I didn’t pass on his contact details.’

“Well, she put him in an awkward position.”

“Even so.”

“Read the sub-text – ‘he’d rather’!”

“Hmmm....”

“Did you say, Mr Armstrong?”

“Yes! Neil Armstrong, how fabulous is that?”

Twenty seven minutes on social media follows and yields a Facebook page.

“Very nice! Very twinkly, as you say!”

“I told you!”

“He supports Trans Rights! Are you sure he’s not an iron closet?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“He looks a big old gayer to me! But just in case you haven’t picked up the wrong signals, friend request him, be my guest...”

“He’s fighting his real feelings, we don’t know why. You make the request. Arrange to meet him. And I’ll turn up in tow – it will be a lovely surprise.”

In the event, Neil does not respond to Bartley’s friend request. The final nail in the coffin, he suggests sadly.

“Unless I bump into him on a bus after his course.”

“He usually cycles.”

This prompts a moment’s despondency for Leah. Before she hits on a brilliant idea.

Monday evening finds them waiting in the narrow street outside the London Art House.

“I’m really not sure about this,” Bartley says.

“To quote a recent Nobel prize winner, you balance on that bicycle just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence!”

“That’s him!” Leah says, retreating behind a black drain pipe at the corner of a building opposite. Bartley squints at the lean man mounting his bicycle.

“My gaydar’s bleeping like a metal detector!”

“Wishful thinking,” Leah hisses, as Bartley trundles precariously after Neil who’s already travelling at some pace. At least he’ll have no problem maintaining a safe distance.

Twenty minutes later, her mobile rings.

“I’m in the Whittington and the cardiologist says it’s fifty fifty.”

“LOL! How did it go?”

“Terraced house, three floors, teal front door, faux pillars – passable, but not a palace.”

“You’re a diamond! – what’s the address?”

She hand delivers a note that evening. Playing it cool. No declarations of undying love – a simple note to say she’ll deliver his birthday present the next evening. She says she knows it’s a month early, but who can blame her for being organised?

The partially hidden doorbell is on the right hand side. And in keeping with his desire to play hard to get, his name has almost faded away completely. An older man in dungarees answers. A significantly older man.

“You must be Leah,” he says, not unpleasantly.

*  *  *

“You must be Leah,” Edward says, attempting to strike a tone both bright and neutral.

He’d very much hoped she wouldn’t show. Being against the clock on this latest commission, an additional hour would have been a bonus. His best chance is to see her off quickly, doing what needs to be done first of course. The news that Neil is out and won’t be returning until late does not phase her.

It’s okay she says, she can come back in an hour or two.

Neil’s description of her hair was no exaggeration. It had almost made him laugh, he’d said, when he got on the bus. Edward had reminded Neil that his hair was also purple when they’d met. That was different, Neil said.

“He’s going to be really late,” Edward says.

Leah stares at him fixedly.

“You won’t see him tonight,” he continues. “But if you want to drop anything off –”

Embarrassingly, she has started to cry. When was the last time he dealt with young female tears? The volume alone dictates a change in tactics.

“You’d better come in. I’ll make a cup of tea. And explain the set-up.”

She nods, follows him inside. He leaves her in the lounge and fills the kettle.

The guy phoning the college had been weird enough. You did the right thing with that email, he’d told Neil. They’d joked about his bit on the side, his “bus pass” Neil had quipped. Naturally, they’d assumed that she’d been put off. Then the random friend request came, the same male friend (obviously), who’d then followed him home on a bicycle. And now this! Why on earth had he suggested that Neil go out with friends? Why was he so bloody nice?

She’s standing by the door looking at books when he returns with the tray. She blows her nose on the remnant of a tissue.

“It’s very kind of you to have bought Neil a gift.”

He passes her the steaming mug and she sits on the chair closest to the fireplace. He offers a chocolate biscuit. She detests chocolate biscuits, she tells him.

“I understand you met Neil on a bus,” he says, still standing.

“The number four,” she replies, as though his failure to mention this detail was a serious omission.

“He told me all about it.”

She nods and smiles, pleased to have been the subject of their conversation. At least she’s stopped crying. Her hold-all bag is large. Hopefully the poor girl hasn’t spent a fortune on the present.

“You were going to explain the set up?”

Direct! That’s good – makes things so much easier.

“Sure. Follow me. It’s pretty simple really.”

They go upstairs and Edward turns the bedroom light on. They love this new bed, he tells her. He got it last year for his fortieth. She seems to bristle but doesn’t respond.

“We sleep on it. Me and Neil. We’re partners. Lovers if you prefer.”

She nods and heads back downstairs. He’d hoped that this information alone would be enough to trigger a swift exit, but she’s back on the blue chair, scanning book titles, or checking out their photos perhaps, when he rejoins her in the lounge.

“I’ll be honest,” she says, “and it may be difficult for you to hear this. With this cosy set up you have.”

He’s starting to feel irritated.

“Neil’s quite obviously been biding his time. Waiting for the right person. This is all very nice – and plausible,” she gestures vaguely towards the piano. “And it must all be very flattering for you, of course.”

A feeling of dread is spreading in the pit of his stomach. He speaks slowly, making sure she catches every word.

“You’ve had one conversation with him. A single conversation. On a bus! And you’re the wrong sex for him.”

“This isn’t about numbers, or what sex I am. I’m talking about a real connection. About love! Not a life purchased in a gay catalogue.”

“Leah, listen. I’m sorry, but you mean nothing to Neil. He’s told me as much. Nothing!”

“Don’t try playing Love’s Executioner with me! I know exactly what you’re up to.”

“He was wary about you from the word go.”

“He would tell you that. He wouldn’t want to rock the boat. Not till he’s ready to move out. But you can tell him, I’m all set. I’ve cleared a wardrobe for him. And the cupboard under the stairs will be his dark room.”

“He is not moving in with you!” He can’t believe they’re even having this conversation.

She’s fiddling with her bag now. What on earth has she got in there?

“I went to the Southbank for his present, you know.” Spoken as if this makes all the difference.

“Leave it with me. I’ll make sure he gets it.”

She shakes her head slowly. She might be practising clear deliberate body language for a stubborn child.

You do know it would be unlawful to detain him against his will, she says – in the manner of a kindly lawyer offering her client some practical advice.

He decides it’s best to stop dealing with the specifics.

“Look, finish your tea, that’s fine. But I’ve got work. You’ll have to leave very soon.”

“I’m not leaving until I’ve spoken with him. I’ve got nothing against you but I’d suggest that you don’t stand in my way.”

“I don’t particularly want to call for help, but –”

She interrupts to tell him about this scene in A Heart in Winter. Emanuelle Beart talking to Daniel Auteuil, very brief – in a cafe. “And you know how they both feel. You know! Even though hardly anything is said.”

“Look, I know how he feels about me. Because he’s told me.”

“You’re a scheming opportunist, preying on his inexperience. What’s the age gap for crying out loud? It’s verging on the illegal!”

“You don’t know anything about us. Now please leave.”

She withdraws a green plastic fuel can from her bag, and in seconds has leaked a dark line across the wooden floor.

“What the fuck! –”

Don’t get any closer, she says, flicking and reflicking a purple lighter. And then she douses her own head and face. She’s done this before, she says. She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s been inside, she says, in a Young Offenders Institution. Going back a while, but an arsonist never forgets.

He remembers this thing he read. About calling emergency services and staying silent. Providing you dial 55, they’ll come and find you. But she’s staring at him, unblinking, like a gecko, petrol still dripping from her hair to the floor. They’re standing still, silent – and it’s going on forever.

“You’re wrong you know,” he says.

“About what?”

“He’s going to be forty one. He’s older than me.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“He has a young face. The gift of youth.”

“You’re talking bullshit. It’s offensive!”

“Forty one on 16th March. Forty one.”

She has suddenly become silent.

“I’ll get his birth certificate if you don’t believe me. Would you like to see it? It’s just upstairs. I can get it.”

He might as well, she says, as she doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. Don’t do anything rash, he says. He returns a couple of minutes later. She’s standing, still holding the can of petrol. He couldn’t find the birth certificate, he tells her, not in the shoebox of documents. Not so quickly. She turns to him in triumph.

“But I’ve got his passport,” Edward says.

She puts the can on the floor, leafs through it, paying special attention to the page with Neil’s photo and date of birth.

“You’re welcome to him,” she says, tossing it in his general direction. Edward drops the passport.

“He misled me,” she says. “Deliberately. That fake smile – the ridiculous chat up lines about dogs, and photography! He led me on. Like I’d want to go out with anyone born in 1976! The stupid bastard.”

She picks up the can, puts it in her bag and zips it up carefully.

“You can tell him I detest him.”

“I will,” Edward says.

And, without another word, Leah makes her way to the front door.

*  *  *

“She was a proper nut job. A proper nut job,” Edward says. He’d still been washing the floor when Neil sailed breezily through the front door. He’s surprised he can tell the story so calmly. With a hint of humour even.

“My God, Edward – I’m so sorry,” Neil says.

“Do you think I should call the police?”

“You’ve just washed away the evidence! How on earth did you get her to leave?”

“She went off you just like that! She detests you, in fact. I promised to tell you that.”

“So what happened?”

“I mentioned how old you were going to be. She was appalled at how you’d misled her.”

“How I’d misled her?” Neil starts to laugh.

“As soon as she knew your date of birth, she couldn’t leave fast enough. Out the door!”

Edward shakes his head, still going through it in his mind.

“Well, thank God for that,” Neil says. “Where would we be without a healthy slice of good old fashioned ageism?”

“I agree,” Edward replies. “Now give us an early birthday kiss, you old codger!”

 

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