In a windowless florescent-bright room she was young and beautiful whereas he wasn’t. In fact she was thirty years young and he was fifty years old. Why though, did he feel she was looking at him in that way? Because that was his wont. He was supposed to be looking not for sex but for talent to augment the department he headed in his opinion quite immaculately and on an impressively upward professional spiral. Sex, if any, would always be a bonus. It was a business conference over two days, designed to launch a new product and to be informal, fun, inspiring, and all of the above boxes were being ticked. Not that he was a man fond of ticking boxes, or in fact that very phrase. He was not modern in his approach, nor was he old-school, he was just plain excellent, as excellent as the contribution the young woman was making to the morning’s session. So much so that he would have to compliment her during lunch.
“I really want to work for this company,” she said, over a plate of chips and nothing else because, she declared, she needed the carbs. “It’s been my ambition to work for this company for so many years. I’ve followed your career, read your papers, attended your lectures, and always been inspired.”
“How many years exactly?” he asked, impressed.
“Ten. Or more,” she confirmed, “To be honest I can’t be exact. Would that matter?”
“No,” he assured, “I’d rather you be honest than exact.”
She smiled and he smiled back and something strange happened. Strange, surprising and certainly unexpected. She reached over her plate and touched his hand and said, “I really like the way you dress.”
“The way I dress?”
For some reason he expected another line, a qualification or disclaimer, something like “… for a man of your age.” But this was neither in the offing nor apparently in her mind. The compliment was honest and genuine, so much so that he now knew with absolute certainty that later that night, they might possibly be sleeping together maybe…….
“I couldn’t concentrate this afternoon,” he said, as she sipped wine over dinner in the hotel his employers had booked for him.
“Because I was thinking about what you said. About the way I dress, and it being cool.”
“I meant it.”
“Thanks. It’s true I make the effort.”
“Hope it didn’t weird you out?”
He was aware of, but never used that phrase, and went with it. “Not at all. I took it to be very genuine and not designed to curry favour-”
“I never have curry with chips.”
He laughed at that, and so did she, as she went on… “So you want us to be honest?”
“I agree your performance wasn’t brilliant this afternoon. Your delivery lacked focus.”
“I was distracted. Which rarely happens.”
“It was me, wasn’t it? You were thinking about how I looked naked and I was thinking the same about you. You knew I was making a worthy contribution to the session and I knew that too, like I knew you were impressed. And I know I’ll be good for the company and you know that too. You knew we’d be sleeping together tonight and so did I.”
It was a long speech that made him speechless. Not because he was uncomfortable with what she was saying, quite the opposite, but because it was so forthright, confident and surprising given his rank and hers and his age and hers.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said, before another sip and apparently reading his mind through refraction in her glass. “How old you are.”
“Good,” he said.
“So I’ll go on.”
“My thoughts of the day. If you don’t mind.”
“I don’t mind at all,” he promised, beginning to feel a familiar excitement down there.
“Sleeping together, incidentally, was a euphemism, because we’d be fucking not sleeping. We’d be in this hotel on expenses having wine with our dinner, before going up to your room and falling to the bed, tearing off our clothes and five-star fucking. How does that sound?”
“Amazing,” he said, “Miraculous, actually.”
“I know. Because I know everything about you.”
“The whole story.”
“So how does it go?”
“In a nutshell: [In the year of 68 there was a boy born and named Simon, after Simon Templar. His upbringing was happy if unremarkable. He had two brothers, no sisters, which saddened his mother at times because she would’ve liked a girl to balance things up in the nest. In later life he’d wish the same – if only he’d had a sister, he maintained, he’d be better with women. Because in later life he was a philanderer and serial heart and marriage-breaker. His first marriage to Alison, which yielded all five of his kids, now fledged, ended when she found a note from his lover, whose name was Katie. No mobile phones in those days – incriminating evidence was found in pocketed handwritten receipts and love-letters at the bottom of the drawer containing his work papers, the kind of work papers his wife – in his confident opinion – would never be interested in. His second marriage ended in tragedy when his wife Trudy died in a car-crash, made all the more tragic because she was fleeing the house in rage after discovering another of his long line of infidelities. Simon would of course feel guilty about this, and of course still does. Not least because the post-mortem revealed she was pregnant. His third and current wife, Caroline, whom he married because he needed her more than loved her and she needed him less than the Church, will inevitably leave him also]. “Am I right, Simon?”
Having unravelled his tale and left her remaining morsels of steak and his to go cold, she penetrated him with a look. Her eyes were blue as jewels, one of which sometimes obscured by the asymmetric fringe she coiled seductively behind her left ear pierced with diamond stud.
“Am I right?” she repeated.
“In a nutshell?”
“Mmm,” he admitted, not thinking for one moment that he should ask how she knew all this. He was thinking other matters. “Just one thing. Why will Caroline leave me?”
“You’ve been up to your old tricks.”
“I’ve been faithful to her,” he said, before adding “Mostly.”
“She knows that.”
“But how? I’ve been very careful.”
“Which is interesting. The wife you’ve least cared about is the one you’ve most wanted to protect. You know why? A man in his fifties, done well for himself, owes not a penny, not even a mortgage, kids no longer dependent, nice car, risen to senior management level, company so fond of him they pay for swanky hotels like this… Looking to retire gracelessly and keep Caroline quiet with a nice church, a nice suburban garden with perennial flowers and caravan holiday in Cornwall. All nice and cosy. So why wouldn’t he be careful when he does what he’s about to do tonight?”
“You’re right,” he said.
“I’m never wrong.”
“Except you are.” She cocked her head to one side at this, again wrapping the fallen fringe ear-wards. “My first wife was not, in fact, called Alison, the lover was not, in fact, called Katie. My second wife was not, in fact, called Trudy who didn’t die in a car accident, and Caroline is, in fact, called Carol.”
“Artistic licence,” she said, and they both laughed before she went on, “You said in the conference you’d been married three times et cetera. You like to personalise the content where necessary, make the whole thing more human. I was just plugging the gaps in your story.”
Just then, another voice entered the equation; the waiter asking if they’d finished.
“Yes thank you,” they said, and Simon confirmed that they’d neither of them be requiring pudding and that the tab should be put on Room 968.
When the waiter had taken their plates, she remarked on the room number, saying it was lucky because the digits amounted to twenty-three, the date on which she was born, and that the number twenty-three had many more significances though she wouldn’t elaborate. Another time perhaps.
“Another time,” he agreed, enjoying the promised pudding of another time in her company.
“So?” she said.
“So,” he said, “I’d very much like it if you’d join me in 968.”
“OK,” she said.
“But first,” he said, “Can I ask your name? Only at the conference you didn’t wear your badge.”
“I’m such a maverick,” she teased, “hope that doesn’t give me a black mark in terms of my joining the company?”
“I like a maverick,” he said promptly, “The company needs more mavericks.”
“It’s Keeley,” she said, and without further ado she stood and expected him to do the same…
Room 968 was penthouse, with a private balcony monitoring the starry blackness of London. On it, they sipped the wine he’d carelessly plucked from the daylight robbery mini-bar. She loved the view, she said, confessing she’d never stayed in such a salubrious place before, and found the room to be sparsely-tasteful in neutral colours. She’d tried all the lights which always baffled Simon with their arbitrariness. She’d explored the bathroom with its bath, shower, bidet and sauna. And finally, she’d sampled the bed for firmness and approved.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked, meeting the London Eye instead of her own.
“If you are,” whispered Keeley, reassuring that if he was nervous then it was fine because she was too, but wouldn’t be adding that she doesn’t normally do this kind of thing because that would be predictable and as a maverick she was anything but. “But first, take a shower, relax, I’ll be waiting.”
He would’ve protested, saying he’d rather just get on with things, but she’d already pecked his lips, a gesture designed to stop them speaking rather than to whet their appetite. So Simon, chastened, did as he was asked. The shower was warm, welcome and indeed relaxing. He could hear music through the water and smiled to himself, knowing she’d helped herself to the sound system. She’d be on the bed now, waiting, perhaps in her underwear. He wrapped a towel around him, checking in the mirror his paunch, which wasn’t too bad and anyway he could breathe in, hastily combed his thinning hair, kicked on the slippers bearing the hotel logo and padded into the bedroom to join her on the bed.
But she wasn’t on the bed, waiting, in her underwear. She was gone, along with his wallet. Of course he quickly realised he’d been taken for the fool he was. How could he be so stupid, so naive? What kind of man could be taken in, delude himself that he’d be attractive to a beautiful blonde some twenty years younger? The kind of man he was. After some seconds angrily taking stock of everything lost, and pondering the dangerous folly of drawing attention, he phoned reception to tell them he’d been robbed. But of course it was too late, the girl had gone, and of course the hotel’s CCTV had temporarily blipped.
Simon didn’t for a moment think he’d sleep that night, and didn’t for a moment believe the girl would be in attendance at the conference next day – a surreptitious glance at the list of attendees bore proof – nobody called Keeley. And not for a second could he concentrate on the sessions to follow, which seemed to drag far longer than the scheduled six hours and seemed to steal his focus entirely, a fact which didn’t escape his boss who’d dropped in for the afternoon. But that would be another story, the story about his awkward meeting with his boss next day and his gradual decline in the company pecking-order and eventual redundancy…
Driving home, Simon worried. What could he tell Carol about his wallet? He’d cancelled his cards as a matter of course of course, that was easy, but he knew he’d have to lie to Carol that he’d lost his wallet in the hotel bar – a lie not far from the truth.
As he parked his Volvo in the drive of his modest rural semi, with Carol’s immaculate bed of perennials jiving colourfully in the wind, that was what he decided – he’d lost his wallet in the hotel bar while having drinks with his boss, and he didn’t want to talk too much about the conference because he was tired and needed an early night because, genuinely, he had a meeting with his boss first thing. And he’d never so much as look at another woman again, young or otherwise. He loved Carol and their beautiful house she constantly kept clean and tidy, and her wordsearch puzzles and Delia cookbooks and her garden and her simple tales of life with the congregation and the fact she rarely bothered him in the sex department…
“Hello Carol,” he cheered, as he entered the hall, threw his keys on the console table and shrugged out of his coat, inhaling the smell of a baking pie.
“Hello,” returned a voice, which he’d later reflect was a little flatter than usual, just as he’d later reflect that the aroma of cooking was mixed with a faint scent vaguely familiar but he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Carol was in the sitting room, where she’d normally rise to give him a kiss but this time didn’t. “How was the conference?” she asked.
“Very good,” he said, “I’m very tired though. Afraid I’ve had a bit of a mishap.”
“You mean this,” she said, holding aloft his wallet. Before he could feign surprise, or ask how on earth that got here, she added “A young lady called Keeley brought it round. She said she found it in the hotel bar and hoped I didn’t mind but she opened it to find an address. I said of course I didn’t mind and it was very kind of her to go to the trouble.”
“Absolutely!” he managed, suppressing his growing suspicion.
“Dinner’s in the oven,” she said, rising from the sofa.
“You going out?”
“Church meeting,” she said. “It’s steak pie – I hope the hotel haven’t been feeding you too much steak?”
With creeping unease, he watched her head for the door, where she paused, and without turning said, “I know you’re lying.”
“I’ve seen the letters in your work drawer, the cards, the receipts. I’ve even seen the texts on your phone. You’ve been lying to me for a very long time. So we at the church wondered how you’d like it.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Very beautiful girl, Keeley, isn’t she?” she said, now turning. “Also a very talented member of the Church Players. Wants to make a career of it, I think she stands a chance, don’t you? Would you say it was a brilliant performance?”
“We laughed so much. About you and your clothes and your farcical attempt at looking young. Breathing in that pot-belly of yours. The way you comb what little bit of hair you have left, and yes even take to dyeing it for heaven’s sake! You fool!”
“Alright we need to sit down and talk.”
“You’ve gone very pale, is everything alright? Perhaps talking’s too much, you need a good sleep after your pie. I’ve made up the bed in the spare room. Just tonight. Tomorrow we’ll talk about you leaving.”
And with those words final and unchallenged by a man on rung one of a horrible downward spiral, she calmly closed the door behind her.