In Search Of Something

The long walk to this bar had been about hope. Not that a few drinks could flush down the dysphoria, but they could proffer her a getaway from it. She’d peered hard at everything on the way as if trying to make notes for a memoir. It wasn’t just “milling about in the streets of London” this time. She’d noticed the blue scaffolding covers fluttering against the wind, the tall man leaning against a closed shutter — one could’ve easily overlooked him —, a dimly-lit hat shop where a man was slumping forward over the counter, the dark sky, and the smudged ink marks on the side of her palm.

She lowered herself on a corner seat away from the buzz. Wearing a short dress in sapphire blue inside a camel tone topcoat, she’d dressed up with an intent to catch a few glances from men at the bar. But the moment she’d stepped in, the loud music fused with the chatters had thrown her off. She was relieved to find a spot that only the kitchen staff or the loo-goers could notice. She ordered a vodka.

Her eyes were regular brown, but they led to a perfect celestial nose. She was complimented for it about a week ago at an art exhibition. Later that night, she wished that the compliment had come from a man instead of a woman. She fantasized about making an “instant connect” with a male artist, who would ask her to come and see his other works lying at his house. She would follow. There, after giving a once-over to all his paintings, she’d be thrown onto his bed. She imagined her brown barnet bouncing while riding him until he painted her white from the inside. Florence was thinking all of this at around 3 a.m., lying next to her husband, Daniel.

After a couple of drinks, she was ready for the glances and the attention. She adjusted herself in a way so that her shapely legs would face the bar counter; they were now spotlighted by a beam of light coming from the porthole on the kitchen door. A man who was leaving from his seat at the bar caught sight of her and immediately returned to his seat, deciding he needed another drink. He swiveled in his stool a couple of times to steal a peek at her but nothing more. She never caught him looking at her. After some time, a man with hippyesque hair — chin-length and brown — smiled at her while walking toward the restroom. Sitting with her chin propped over a fist, she returned a forced smile. He seems like a creep. No class whatsoever. Florence had always desired the most exquisite of hobbies, friends, and lovers, but in most cases, she ended up settling for what life offered.

Daniel had been her friend at first. She had been grieving a devastating breakup when he’d decided to propose to her. He was supportive, caring and “understood” what Florence was made of. Eventually, she fell in love with him for all this.

Thirty-five minutes and three drinks later, she, feeling light, was thinking about returning home. Just then the hippy-haired guy returned and slowed down near her table. She straightened up and swallowed hard before him turning around and saying, “Hi, Miss.” She waved back at him. He had baby-blue eyes and was sporting a dark stubble, denim jacket, and khaki pants.

“Do you have company, or can I sit here while I catch my breath?”

“Sure, please.”

“Thank you very much, Miss …?”

“Florence.”

“Florence … that’s a beautiful name.”

“Thank you. It’s kind of you to say that.”

“Well, my name is Wilbert. Very nice to meet you.”

“Same here, Wilbert.”

His hand felt rough, but she liked how easily it enveloped her small fingers. A waiter accidentally dropped a tray, turning all the heads toward the clattering of forks and spoons. The chattering returned after a three-second silence, like an ascending section of orchestral music.

“It’s sad to see that the only way people would notice a male server is when he makes a boob,” he joked.

“Yeah. What an embarrassing way to take the spotlight.” They both laughed.

“Did you eat anything yet, or today’s just vodka day?”

“No … I’m not hungry yet. I like this place, so I just come here sometimes to wind down with a drink or two.”

“Okay. Well, I have no clue about this place. Here just for the night.”

“You don’t live in London?”

“No, I’m from Bampton. I’m taking a group from here tomorrow morning for sightseeing.”

“Oh, so you’re a tour guide?”

“On your left, you’ll see the historical spot where Steve, the waiter, put on a splendid show of the dancing forks and spoons,” he announced.

Florence burst into a huge guffaw. She hadn’t laughed like this in what seemed like an eon. They went for another round of drinks.

“So, Florence, do you come here often?”

“Yeah, sometimes.”

“Always alone?”

“Not always. I mostly come here with my hus … friend. My friend. She was busy with work, so I thought, why not go alone?”

“Yes, absolutely. You enjoy that sometimes — just being with yourself. And anyway, I wouldn’t have dared to approach you if you had company.”

“Right. So, what made you do it?”

“Umm … I felt you were secretly hoping that I come and talk to you when we’d exchanged smiles earlier. I gave it a careful thought in the toilet, and then decided, to grant your wish.”

“Yeah, totally. I was praying and all that, God, please bring to my table this man that I desire.”

More people had come in. Jackets and overcoats now hung over the backrests as if earmarking the chairs. A standee was holding her ale close to her chest the way one holds the memories of their past lover. Through all the redness of the mood lighting, Florence peered at the chalked menu above the bar. She admired how the “B” in “LAMB” was styled with swirls. It had gotten too noisy inside, so they decided to leave and go for a walk.

“I always wonder how people can wait in such long queues just to get inside.”

“I think it’s not too big of a deal when the place brings you joy.”

“That’s there, but I’d rather hustle like this to go somewhere that’s close to nature.”

“Is it? You love the outdoors?”

“Part of the job. I have to vividly describe the sights while on tour. You eventually begin to observe and appreciate the beauty of it all.”

“Right. So why don’t you show me around London, your way?”

“Sure, mam. Buckle up!”

Florence remembered the night she’d gone for a walk with Daniel last summer; he had insisted on it. She was holding lilies in one hand and his arm with the other. The sky was cloudy and had a reddish glow. She was smiling at the calmness of the night, but it was too calm for her. He gently unfolded his arm and let her hand fall into his, then kissed it. He was grateful for her presence in his life. She blushed for a moment, and then quickly looked away to stare at a dress on display at Marks & Spencer.

“On your right, you’ll see the kids’ paradise, M & M’s World Store. It hosts kids and even grown-up women throughout the day. Up ahead is Burberry, a husband’s devoted pocket-burner. Its perfectly lithe mannequins posing inside the illuminated and porticoed splendor can enchant any lady in their proximity.”

“That’s a good one.”

“Thank you, my lady. This is what I like about London — it comes so alive at night. No doubt Bampton is a dream of a place with its quaint cottages and a singing brook. But the people, are, here.”

“I don’t know … it somehow sounds familiar. Bampton. I think I know it from somewhere.”

“Downtime Abbey? … Hugh Bonneville?”

“Oh, yes. That’s where they shot the series, right?”

“Yes.”

“I absolutely love the whole vibe of those stone cottages and, as you mentioned, the streams; always wanted to enjoy a warm drink in one of those old, cozy tea shops.”

“So you’ve been to my place, is it?”

“No, and I think it’s too early for me to go to your place. We’ve met just now.”

“Of course, my lady. I’ll be mindful of that before I ask you to come over.”

“Very well, gentleman. By the way, where are you staying tonight?”

“I usually lodge at a guesthouse in Sutton.”

“Right.”

She wanted to go back to his place with him. Going back to Daniel meant going back to love and safety. She didn’t want love, at least not the kind that he offered — unconditional. During her MFA days, she dated an Italian guy who also was studying creative writing at the University of Roehampton. He had beady, hazel-green eyes. They’d go out for the longest evening walks — over eight miles between Holybourne Avenue and London Bridge. They’d make love at the docks near the Thames. They’d do it everywhere; two writers penning precious memories to look back at when the trivialities of a mundane life wear them out. Florence still misses him. She found out that he’ll be coming to teach at Roehampton next fall.

“And, what about you? You live here with your family?”

“Yes, with my brothers.”

“Oh … okay. I hope they won’t mind if we go for a long walk, maybe toward the river?”

“Sure.”

She was already hoping that they’d go near the river. They crossed the Tower of London. The light coming from its windows and landscaped garden were all the light on this moonless night. Her heels clacking across the cobblestones sounded like hoofs. A man wearing a red T-shirt came jogging toward them; for a moment she thought it was Daniel. He would’ve gotten home by now, would’ve missed me at the dinner table. He had missed her at multiple dinners, many movies and cruises, even though she was there, physically, on most of the occasions. Just like she’d missed her father at many dinners as a child, and at her Peter Pan play where she portrayed Tinker Bell, and at her convocation; he wasn’t physically present on any of these occasions.

She fixed for Daniel his favorite Beef Panini before calling him at work and lying about going out with her friend Aria for dinner. He too cooks for her sometimes.

Her heart fluttered at the sight of the docks at St. Katharine’s Way. They stopped at a spot overlooking the Disney-like-blue reflections in the river from lights at London Bridge. Moored boats and ferries were inviting you to “Discover London from River”. The river was flowing placidly, unlike the blood that was flooding her limbs. Wilbert slumped forward and rested his elbows over the parapet. Florence followed.

“Do you think people come here just to relish the silence, or that they’re also looking for some assurance?” she asked him.

“Assurance?”

“Yeah, that everything will turn out just fine in the end.”

“Maybe. Chaos never lets your mind take a break; you’re always in the yesterday or the tomorrow. So, yeah, maybe.”

“Hmm …. And I also think that it’s a good place for crying. No threat of being pepped out of your gloom by an optimist nearby.”

“Have you seen anyone crying here?”

“Umm … not that I remember, but I’ve seen couples making out here.”

“Are you suggesting something, Florence?”

“No … I said, ‘couples’ not ‘strangers’.”

“But we are a couple: Couple of ‘newly-mets’ in this beautiful English city that’ll soon slip into a deep slumber.”

“Aww, it’s so comforting to hear the word ‘slumber’ at this hour.”

“Well, there’s another comforting thing to do at this hour.”

Wilbert leaned close to her. She followed.

THE END

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