29 - Under the Clock
It is quite a long walk to Wood Green Tube Station from where Larry lives but that is what people who live in London do isn’t it? they walk, up to a point, then they get a cab or a bus or a Boris Bike. For Larry the thirty minutes did not seem too bad today mainly because it was dry. When it was wet the walk could be purgatory even with an umbrella. The driving rain, if it is driving, soaks his trousers and the drips from the umbrella get down his neck as he moves it to avoid poking people if the street is busy. But it is all worth the effort if you are going on a first date and are excited, nervous even.
And Larry was nervous. He is always nervous around women. There is no real reason, he just can find them intimidating sometimes, at first mostly. He is reserved, shy maybe, afraid of upsetting or saying the wrong thing or just simply making a hash of the whole date. It is not an acute affliction but bad enough to make the first date approach something of a challenge. Initial contact was always difficult he found and cutting a phone conversation short was not unheard of if a state of panic arises which it does occasionally.
That is why he prefers the lonely hearts column in the paper. It is impersonal, the box number arrangement. The paper sitting on his kitchen table with a red circle around, “young lady 31 seeks… etc, etc,” Contact had been made and the date, time and meeting place set. Six thirty pm, under the clock on Waterloo Station - that location where the ground below is worn by the shoes of a million dates. And wear a red tie. She will wear a red scarf and her name is Lucy. Not much more than that had been given. She knows he is Larry. They supposedly have similar tastes and aspirations. Lucy knows Larry is an app designer so assumes he is quite bright. Larry knows Lucy works in advertising so assumes she is arty and hopefully vibrant.
So he is walking to the tube station. It is warm so he is wearing dark grey chinos and a pale, pastel green tee shirt. Grey jacket over his shoulder held by his finger through the hanging loop. The underground escalator is packed but he stands on the right, there is plenty of time so no need to join the walking down types. He always allows plenty of time for anything really. Why wait at home and risk being late due to a disaster or a missed bus because it is full or there is no taxi in sight. Might as well wait at the destination even if ridiculously early, at least he is not late and after all waiting is just waiting no matter where you are. Best example of his philosophy is at the doctors. If he is five minutes late for a nine o’clock appointment he will not see the doctor because his appointment has lapsed but the doctor is happy to keep him waiting until nine thirty if necessary if they are behind and if they are ahead they will see him at eight fifty five but the receptionist will moan if he is not there until exactly nine o’clock. “Arrive earlier can you please,” the officious receptionist with the monotone voice says, “if the doctor is ahead you can be seen early.” So Larry gets to the doctors at eight forty five and takes a good book as the doctor is only ahead once every three years and the rest of the time he is behind by up to thirty minutes.
The station is busy but the trains come quickly, the sudden whoosh of air the signal and then the glowing lights and rattling and clattering as it pulls up to the platform. The doors thump open with a hiss as if driven by steam. After an orderly pushing and shoving the doors close in that steamy manner. There are seats but Larry chooses to stand by the door and puts his jacket on. It is easier to manage in a squash.
He casually checks his watch for the fifth time, a 1950’s Patek Phillip gold number he inherited from his grandfather which reminds him of the great old gentleman everytime he looks at it. He was such a character, his grandfather. A silent hero but Larry knew the stories from his father who had prised them out during drinking sessions, an air force hero, with medals and many secrets that Larry, observing his Grandfather’s wishes, kept to himself. He had lived every minute of his ninety eight years Larry was sure of that.
The mid-aged man opposite Larry is looking a bit saturnine obviously in the dumps with a face like thunder. He is beating himself up inside, Larry can see that. An argument that has been left in haste maybe, “I’m off if you can’t be reasonable,” had been shouted or something along those lines and now being regretted. The man taps a message on his phone although he knows it will not be sent until he gets above ground but Larry assumes that the doing of it is making him feel better as he is calming down. It reminds Larry of his last girlfriend who shouted at him and stormed out of the restaurant when he did not support her verbally lashing the waiter because her arrabiata pasta was too spicy and he had impulsively said, “It’s supposed to be that hot.” She did not reply to his text.
At Kings Cross a harried young lady gets on with a light weight, fold up pushchair, folded up, and two kids one maybe three and one perhaps five. There are now no seats, well only one or two single ones and they stand near him swaying, the kids dutifully hanging onto their mum who is gripping the stanchion. Larry is holding the roof bar. The lady is struggling with the swaying which has always been a mystery to Larry, why the trains sway so much. They seem to go fast but actually do not, about twenty miles an hour average he thinks, just all those bends shove people about. The older child loses his grip on his mother’s coat and starts to stumble but grabs Larry’s trouser leg. Larry instinctively clutches the boy and his mother looks at him silently berating herself. Larry holds him tightly and passes him to his mother who puts her arm around him hugging him and looks at Larry and mouths a thank you. Then quickly looks away seemingly preoccupied with the children but maybe perceiving she is being a nuisance. Two men about thirty or so, Larry’s age maybe, have been watching and stand and offer their seats and the two kids sit down with their mother standing in front holding a hanging strap.
A good looking, blonde haired girl walks down the train and sits in the seat next to the glass partition by the door on the opposite side to Larry. As she sits down she looks up, catches Larry’s eye and smiles. Larry smiles back although with a lot of reluctance and slight blushing then looks at his feet. Then he looks up and she is still looking at him laughing a bit which makes Larry even more embarrassed and he looks at his feet for a while longer. He looks up again, not at her but down to the opposite end of the carriage, not too straight though so he can surreptitiously see her in his peripheral vision. She is not looking at him but is staring at the long map of the tube line on the curving bit of ceiling, her lips moving silently counting. She has made this trip many times but still counts the few stops to Leicester Square. She is maybe paranoid about missing a stop having done it before and hating the hassle. Her concentration, poise and ever so slight smile crease at the side of her mouth, her hands casually folded on her lap with her grey handbag drooping from her wrist add so much charm and character for Larry that his heart is moved to skip a beat. There is more here than he has ever experienced before, he knows it. She is just simply so delightful. He could look at that pose for the rest of his life and end up crying with joy.
But he cannot dally. He is first off the train at Leicester Square where he changes to the Northern Line for Waterloo. This train is not so busy and he sits in a row with no other takers. He does not notice the blonde girl get on through another door down from where he is looking out the window at the posters wondering what it would be like to be a poster man with all that slicked back hair and those shiny white teeth.
“Hi,” she says with a bubbly little titter as she sits down next to him. She is wearing a long pale blue jacket, open, displaying a sort of frilly cream blouse and grey skirt. The handbag still hanging from her wrist.
“Hi,” is about all he can respond with but then looks at her and sees an angel surrounded in the glow of the lighting against the dark of the tunnel. His imagination is going wild and his inhibitions drop like a stone. “Hi, I’ve seen some pictures before that have taken my breath away but the one I looked at on the last train, when I first saw you, when you were looking at the map stopped my breathing forever.”
“Wow, nobody has said such nice words to me before. I watched you with that lady and the two kids, I was standing down the other end. You were so natural, so kind, the mother was embarrassed but you made her feel comfortable. You seemed very unsure when I smiled at you.”
“I get embarrassed with women. I don’t really know why, but I do. It holds me back but you make me feel so comfortable already. Can I see you again sometime? I can’t now I’m already meeting someone.”
“I’d like that very much. What’s your phone number? I’ll send you a text.”
They both get off at Waterloo. “I’ll send you a text,” she shouts over her shoulder as she rushes off into the crowd. Larry, regretting that he did not get her name, watches her meander her way through the throng walking quickly. He catches glimpses of her jacket as he steps onto the escalator. It stood out amongst all those dark sombre business suits that monopolise the station at that time of day. She alights at the top and is lost in the mass of scurrying people, moving in all directions, all in unison, an almost natural flow of bodies so closely packed but somehow always missing each other.
Then he is into the natural light of the main concourse weaving through the crowds heading towards the clock. Groups standing still watching the timetable platform boards creating static obstacles, small dams in the sea of humanity compressing the flow around their fringes. He stops at “Just Ties” to pick up a bright red tie which he knots loosely around his neck over his pale tee shirt then stands immediately beneath the clock, waiting. He checks the time, twenty minutes to wait but that was expected of course. After thirty minutes he is getting bored and tired of standing in one place starting to feel conspicuous thinking she is not going to show.
His phone beeps and buzzes. “Hi there, it's me from the train. Fancy a drink?” Is the text message.
“Could do, my date has not shown up. When?” He types.
“How about now? By the way you look ridiculous in that red tie.” With a smiley face.
“Ok, where are you?”
Larry turns and sees the blue jacket and blonde hair about twenty feet away walking slowly towards him.
“Hi, I’m Lucy.” she says taking a red scarf out of her handbag.
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