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Best Served Cold
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Author:

Genre:

Cert:
Ken Orford

Modern Fiction

PG



“Madam Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, fellow educationalists.”

Stephen looked out to his audience. Not a bad turnout for day one of a three day conference.  He knew almost two hundred pairs of eyes were looking at him, their owners hanging on his every word – waiting for him to say something they could praise or something they could jump on, and argue about.

“You don’t need me to tell you that bullying takes many forms, and has become part of our everyday lives – and not only in our schools.”

He was off, supremely confident in what he had to say, delivering it with both confidence and style. From the first ten seconds he knew he had them in the palm of his hand.

“I can vividly remember during my second year at secondary school …”

The fact he spoke from personal experience was one of the things that made Stephen such a compelling speaker. He was so familiar with his topic that he was on autopilot as he spoke. He moved from the rostrum, a caged lion prowling the cage that was the small stage, unable to stop his arms waving, fists clenching and his flashing blue eyes pinning his audience to their seats.

Ah, there’s Ted and Freddy from the DfES, and another couple of familiar faces that’ll be propping up the bar tonight. Could be quite a good night…

“…but whilst the kind of direct bullying we are all familiar with potentially leads to physical scars, the psychological scars of indirect bullying can be much more damaging in the long term. These scars are typically ….”

Before he moved on to the heart of his talk – Cyber Bullying, he wanted his audience to examine themselves, to think about the times when they had been involved in indirect, social aggression bullying. At some time almost everyone has been part of a gang or group that had criticised, picked on or gossiped about someone to the point where that individual had become socially isolated. In other words, bullied.

Stephen was speaking more slowly now, a little more than a whisper, forcing his audience to concentrate; to look at him – to watch his lips. As he spoke his eyes could see the realisation in many of the people watching him. He could see them starting to squirm on their seats, understanding that they had at sometime, in one way or another, been involved in bullying.

As his eyes had roamed the room they had been momentarily dragged back, doing a double take.

Wow, who the hell is she?

Whilst he would never know everyone at these conferences, there is a certain hard core of regulars. She wasn’t one of them. As he took a breath between sentences, his mind absorbed and stored the image. Short, blonde, immaculately styled hair. Gold and was that glint diamond? earrings with what looked like a matching necklace. White silk blouse unbuttoned just enough to show she was sexy and confident – but was definitely not a tart. Peach coloured summer two piece business suit – expensive, tailored, perfect for her colouring. From his vantage point on the low stage, the skirt showed a hint of thigh. Enough to raise the age old question in any man’s thoughts – stockings?

“ … is really no different to indirect bullying. It just gives bullies an extra, and an all pervasive, set of tools to enhance the misery ….”

Stephen was approaching the climax of his talk. The whole timbre of his voice was evangelical. Exhorting his acolytes to examine themselves, make sure they avoided hurting others, no matter how innocent it may seem. But more, encouraging them to be vigilant and to use the tools and techniques he’d mentioned to help remove bullying from our educational establishments and the workplace.

“… So, there you have it. Thank you for your attention, I hope it was an hour of your time well invested, and that you’ll put into practice some of the techniques we’ve discussed to make our schools happier environments – for us all. Thank you.”

The applause was louder and more enthusiastic than most at such conferences. Stephen acknowledged it with polite nods, but stood that bit taller on the stage, with a little boy grin. The chairman officially thanked him, referred to a couple of key points, asked Stephen a pre agreed question to get things going, and then threw the discussion open.

It was lively and the audience’s attention stayed focussed throughout. As did Stephen’s attention – on the woman in the peach suit. He was almost having to force himself not to make eye contact. Whenever he did, her shining eyes and glossy lips (not bright and red, but soft and perfectly matched to her outfit), were smiling back at him.

During the coffee break Stephen found himself surrounded by people who had wanted to ask him a question, or get his advice on a particular situation, but had either been too shy or not had the opportunity to do it in the Q and A session. All the time he was answering questions and listening, he was aware that his eyes had minds of their own, as they scanned the room for a peach coloured business suit. If she was around, she was nowhere near him.

As the second session was about to start, the delegates filed their way back to the main conference room, Stephen hung back a little whilst his eyes darted around the crowd to see where she was. With just a handful of people left he was just about to enter the room when she hurried in through one of the other doors. Stephen held the door open, and she flashed him that smile – that smile that had almost stopped him in his tracks in his talk. She nodded a “thank you” and went in to take her place. Stephen had tried to look at her name badge, but was so self conscious about not wanting to seem to be staring at her breasts that all he’d managed to do was to get the vague shape of the letters and words - a short first name: Ann or Pam? And the surname looked like Pinch.

Stephen sat himself down in a vacant seat near the back. He was leafing through the Conference pack, half paying attention to the next speaker who was talking about bullying with specific reference to special needs children.

Ah, that’s what I was looking for!

He slowly worked his way down the delegate sheet, ignoring the men and discarding the women whose names didn’t fit.

Bingo! Ann Finch – Education Consultant. Finch! Now there’s a nasty coincidence.

With an ironic shake of the head, Stephen whipped out his iPhone. Google – and there she was at the foot of the first page. Stephen hit the link and scanned. Psychology degree, short teaching career, went to do a Masters in Education, stayed on at the University to do a Ph.D.

Bright girl then – but her eyes had shown that. While he was online Stephen checked his e-mails. Work, work, work – Christ I need to get a social life. It had been how many months? since he and Laura had parted their ways. Well, it had all just spiralled to nothing really. Both had agreed it had been good, and fun, but just not going anywhere. He had seen her a couple of times since – they’d even had a very memorable roll in the sack – but it was over. They both knew it, and had no regrets.

Lunch came and went. Stephen had kept a look out for the peach suit with the flashing smile, but Ann was nowhere to be seen. The afternoon saw several workshop sessions, and she was obviously in different breakout groups to those that Stephen was in. At the end of the day’s scheduled events Stephen went to his room, and decided on a session in the gym before dinner.

He completed is usual warm up on the bike and did his ten minutes on the rowing machine before moving on to the treadmill. The hotel’s gym wasn’t too bad, and as Stephen passed five kilometres of a 10k run, he looked up at the big window overlooking the typically small hotel pool. She looked jaw droppingly stunning, so much so that Stephen stumbled on the treadmill, and very nearly lost it. He heard sniggering from the next treadmill and looked over.

“Yeah, she’s bloody gorgeous, isn’t she?”

Stephen grunted some vaguely agreeing response. His co-runner continued:

“I thought she looked good in that outfit today, but seeing her in a bikini! Bloody Hell!”

Stephen couldn’t help but agree. He decided that he’d give the weights a miss, and after he’d done the next 5k, he would instead go for a swim. As he beat out the kilometres, he watched as Ann ticked off lengths of the pool with a degree of ease that would have impressed Mark Spitz. At last the machine beeped, and he slowed down – not a bad time, but he wouldn’t be troubling any elite athletes. He changed into his swimming gear, showered off the sweat and tried to look casual as he entered the pool area. The surface of the pool was a sheet of smooth glass. There were no swimmers to disturb its surface – especially no swimmers of the blonde, bikini clad variety. Bugger, why did I bother with that last 5k? Stephen almost reluctantly disturbed the sleeping pool and did a few lethargic lengths before getting out – still mad at himself for missing an opportunity.

Stephen was late down to dinner. He glanced round the bar – the DfES crowd were nowhere to be seen, but neither was Ann. He walked into the restaurant and looked round – a few groups he recognised, but no-one he knew that well. Ah well, looks like you’re dining alone. He told waitress there would be just him, and she found him a table by the window.

“I hope you’re going to eat properly after all that running today.”

Stephen looked up from the menu to see those eyes smiling at him as they seemed to have done all day. Before he could respond, she gestured to the chair opposite:

“May I?”

Stephen stood up and said that of course she could join him. He smiled at her:

“I think I’m not the only one who’s worked up an appetite. You pounded out a fair few lengths in the pool.”

“Hmm, anyone would think we’ve been spying on each other.”

Her eyes and smile were saying “Yes, I know you’ve been looking for me all day”. God, are women really that good at reading us or are we just crap at hiding it? Or maybe she’s saying that because she knows that every man at the conference had noticed her. Whatever, the game’s up!

As she sat down, he looked at her. She was obviously one of those people that would look great dressed in a sack tied with string. Her third outfit of the day (if you could call that bikini an outfit) was a plain white shirt and jeans that had been sprayed on. She wore the same gold and diamond earrings and necklace that she’d worn earlier. But Stephen’s heart sank when he noticed the other items of jewellery – a simple solitary diamond engagement ring and equally simple gold band. So, she’s married. It wouldn’t be the first married woman you’ve shared a bed with. But Stephen knew that downstream was all complications, guilt and heavy decisions.

They talked fitness, swimming, gym and dancing.

“Though I don’t get much opportunity for that these days”, she said, with a rather sad, faraway look in her eyes. When Stephen asked why, she just shrugged.

“I bet that’s because your husband keeps you tied up at home. I know I would.”

She smiled a forced, weak smile:

“Something like that.”

Ouch! That’s a pretty raw nerve you just hit, dude! Stephen changed the subject.

They ordered their food and ate as they talked about Stephen’s presentation that morning. She had clearly thought about it a lot. Her sharp brain posed Stephen some deep questions and challenged some of the things he’d said. Christ! Beauty and brains – this is one hell of a woman!

“So come on, enough work – tell me about Mrs Ann Finch.”

She giggled:

“God, you’re good. A natural at putting people at ease, you know. You’re a great listener and so easy to talk to.”

Stephen smiled and shrugged like a naughty little boy.

“See what I mean?” Ann shook her head, and started to talk about school, university, teaching, her love of physical sports, her post grad work. She talked about meeting her husband – he’d come into school to teach the kids rugby. Stephen felt his throat dry, and his stomach tighten. No, it can’t be…Finch AND rugby. Oh my God!

Stephen took a deep breath and in as matter-of-fact a manner as he was able to muster through his dry mouth, and with his heart pounding, he asked:

“So, where was the school which you taught at when you met?”

“Oh David was a community coach at the local rugby club – the school was ...”

Stephen hardly heard the end of the sentence. As soon as she said “David” he knew. He knew where the school would be. The last piece of the jigsaw fell in. David Finch. David Fucking Finch.


He made a rather hurried grab for his wine and took rather too big a swig. He coughed.

“Are you okay?”

“Sorry, just went down the wrong way.” It was his turn to raise a weak smile.

She reached across and touched his hand, concern replacing the smile in her eyes.

As he reassured her that he was fine, he turned his hand over and held her slender, elegant, immaculately manicured fingers in his. She didn’t try to pull her hand away, and her eyes returned to their twinkling, smiling best. It was at that point he knew they would sleep together – if not tonight, then sometime. He knew it, she knew it.

He looked at her. Bright. Very bright. Beautiful. Stunningly beautiful. How could the bastard that tormented me through my teenage years have persuaded her to marry him?

Stephen wanted to understand the relationship between Ann and “that bastard” for two reasons. He wanted Ann, but he knew that to do that he’d have to get any guilt associated with cheating on David out of her mind. To do that he’d need to understand their relationship. But he also wanted to know how he’d done it. This woman was far from stupid, so how had he conned her? And did he bully her? Once a bully …

They kept holding each other’s hands as they talked. Stephen gently stroking and caressing hers like it was made of some precious, delicate porcelain. They laughed together, they were serious together, they argued and they agreed. And they were growing closer with every sentence they spoke. Then, as Stephen brought her hand to his lips and gently blew on it and kissed it, he heard an “Ahem” from across the room. They both looked round; the restaurant was empty, the tables set for breakfast. They had been so engrossed in each other they hadn’t noticed everyone had left ages ago.

They headed out of the restaurant towards the lifts arm in arm; like lovers who’d known each other for months. Stephen asked if she’d like another drink, saying he had a very nice mini bar in his room. She stopped and turned to face him, and took both his hands in hers:

“You’ve no idea how much I’d like that, but I…I just can’t. I’m sorry.”

The lift “dinged” and took away whatever Stephen’s response was going to be. They got in – he pressed 10, she pressed 6. The doors closed and he pulled her gently into his arms, brushed his lips against hers and the kiss was everything he knew it would be. As the lift came to a halt, she broke away from him and grinned. Stephen stuck his foot in the door to stop it from closing.

“Breakfast at eight?”

She lowered her eyes, then locked her eyes on his and smiled:

“What do you think?” Then she quickly stood on her toes and kissed his cheek.

“That’s to say thank you for a wonderful evening,” and she turned and left, leaving the lingering smell of her perfume swimming in Stephen’s head.

Stephen was down at breakfast at eight on the dot. He spotted her at a small table by the window. As he walked towards her, he decided she was even more gorgeous than he’d thought the previous day. She was wearing a pink blouse and blue trousers – obviously the bottom half of a business suit. She spotted him a few yards off, flashed her Blackpool illuminations smile, stood up and kissed him on the cheek:

“Good morning, Doctor Barnes!”

Her perfume filled his head as he responded with a “Good morning Doctor Finch.”

He sat down, instinctively reaching for her hand across the table:

“Looks like we’re continuing where we left off!”

He nodded agreement, and smiled at her. Breakfast flew by in easy conversation and smiles. As they were leaving he casually suggested that instead of eating in the hotel tonight, why didn’t they go out.

For a few seconds that slightly haunted, wistful look returned:

“I’d love to, but I’m sorry I can’t. I’m leaving at lunchtime today – I have to get back I’m afraid.”

The bottom fell out of Stephen’s world.

“B..But you can’t go!”

“Sorry, but I really do have to leave.”

He grabbed her hand and turned her to face him, but when he saw the look in her eyes what he was going to say went out of his head. He just looked back at her and nodded.

Stephen couldn’t concentrate at all in the first session – he just kept thinking about the previous evening. At the coffee break he was ambushed by a group who wanted to discuss his presentation, and Ann was nowhere to be seen. As with the previous day, she came in as the break ended, putting her mobile phone away as she hurried to take her place.

The final session before the lunch break was a panel discussion. Stephen was up front, on the panel. As the questions were asked, one or other of the panel members would answer. All the time it wasn’t him, Stephen’s eyes were drawn to Ann, who he invariably found was looking back at him. Those eyes, that smile made his stomach ache.

“… so what do you think about that then Stephen?”

“Oh er, sorry, can you repeat that? I was a little distracted still thinking about the previous question.”

He caught Ann giggling out of the corner of his eye and damn near missed the question a second time. In the end he made a spectacular recovery and was back on form.

As the session closed he was again surrounded by people wanting to discuss some of the points with him. What’s the bloody matter with these people? There’s free food here, why don’t they want to eat? In truth, he didn’t want to eat. He just wanted to say goodbye to Ann.

After excusing himself, he made his escape. He glanced round the dining room. No, not here! He skipped down the stairs to the lobby, just in time to see the wheels of a small overnight case, being pulled by that blue business suit, disappearing through the front door. He got to her as she was opening the taxi door.

“Not going to say goodbye?”

“You were surrounded, and I have a train that won’t wait for me.”

“Can I see you again?”

She looked at him, and her head tilted to one side, and the smile was a Spring morning:

“You’ve no idea how much I’d like to.” Then that haunted look came back, and she looked at her shoes, “But I really can’t.”

Then in an echo of the previous evening, she went up on her toes and kissed him on the cheek and turned to get into the taxi. Stephen never acted on impulse, but there’s a first time for everything. He grabbed her arm and pulled her towards him. Their lips met; he felt her body tense, and he thought she was going to pull away from him. A moment later her entire body relaxed into the kiss. After half a lifetime she broke away from him, touched his cheek, and without saying a word, climbed into the cab. Stephen watched it disappear towards Euston. His mouth was dry, and the emptiness inside was a cavern.

xxx

Every time Stephen checked his e-mail in the days after the conference, he hoped he would find a note from Ann. Nothing. Of course he could have e-mailed her (he had acquired her e-mail address from the conference organisers), but no, the contact had to come from her. Then, a couple of weeks later, he was putting together a presentation when Outlook pinged, and the box on the bottom left of his screen told him he had an email from “Finch, Ann”. Stephen read it three times, each time increasing his confusion.

What the hell is this about? She said how much she’d enjoyed his talk, and meeting him. She asked him about something they’d discussed at length, and they’d agreed on. She said she very much hoped she’d get to hear him speak again soon. The whole thing was odd – friendly, but formal. She knew he’d remember the conversation, they’d even laughed about it over breakfast. This is a code, she’s just saying “Hi, and I haven’t forgotten you”. It all added fuel to Stephen’s suspicions about Ann and David Fucking Finch.

Twenty-four hours later, almost to the minute, another e-mail arrived. Stephen almost ignored it. Almost ignored the mail that would change his life. It wasn’t from Ann, but someone whose name he didn’t recognise, which was why he’d almost ignored it. But the thing that had reprieved the e-mail from the ignominy of his “Deleted Items” folder was the title: Reminder: Class of ’92 Reunion.

He vaguely recalled an e-mail arriving several weeks ago, but at that time he had no desire whatsoever to go back to meet his GCSE classmates. But now… now there was a very good reason to go. Revenge. He was going to go! He was sure David Fucking Finch would be there showing off his gorgeous, long-suffering wife. And he, Stephen, was going to go and take his wife from right under his nose. That kiss had not been faked. He knew she had feelings for him. And the coded e-mail just proved it.

Stephen read the mail, just a few days off. In a few days he would change everything. Revenge. Payback for years of being down-trodden.

xxx

Stephen was deliberately late arriving. He didn’t want to be hanging around waiting for Ann (and David Fucking Finch) to arrive. He wanted them to be there. His senses were bombarded with noise from the dancefloor, and smells of perfume and aftershave (some cheap, some very expensive). As for his eyes, well his former classmates had all changed, some recognisable and some definitely not!

Tension grabbed his chest in an ever tightening fist, his mouth was dry. Come on! For the past ten years you’ve been preaching about standing up to bullies. Now it’s your turn it’s not so easy is it? Get a bloody grip! He scanned the room for her face – too many people!

“Hey, Steve isn’t it?”

“Hi, yeah. Err … sorry …”

“It’s Alan, remember? Didn’t have a beard when I was sixteen! Great to see you!” And Alan wandered off to surprise someone else.

Stephen looked at the people dancing. No, not there. Then the groups clustered round the bar area. Nope. Not near the food either. He knew it was her although she had her back to him. The group of half a dozen were sitting round a table. Stephen took a deep breath, exhaled, and set off to cover the few metres to meet his nemesis.

David FF was sitting opposite his wife, facing Stephen. He looked up as Stephen approached. A smile, or was it a sneer.

“Hello everyone! Remember me?”

Ann’s head jerked round as if someone had yanked a string. Her mouth was an oval. The two other men seated, stood up to shake Stephen’s hand. Fucking David Fucking Finch didn’t move. Ignorant bastard! Stephen looked into his eyes, and held out his hand.

“Hello David. I …” and then he saw the wheels, and stopped.

“Hi Steve. I’m really glad you’ve come. I know you know Ann.” He laughed, a genuine laugh of amusement, not a sneer. “Though I can see she had no idea we knew each other.”

Stephen knew his face must look a bit like Ann’s had a few minutes ago. He was, for the first time in many years, absolutely speechless.

“Come on, Steve, or is it Stephen now? Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

Ann got up, but David shook his head:

“It’s okay, Stephen can push me through the crowd. One advantage of being disabled – people do tend to avoid you.”

Stephen didn’t need to push, David’s upper body was probably a match for anyone else’s there that night, and he handled the wheelchair with ease. They got their drinks but instead of going back to the table, David headed outside:

“We need to talk.”

The cool air, mixed in with the smell of smoke from the outcast group of smokers, helped Stephen to round up his  stampeding thoughts. First things first:

“So, what happened?”

“Rugby scrum collapsed. Everything, and I mean everything, below the waist…” David shook his head. “Gone. Dead. Nothing!”

Stephen shook his head. The number of times he had wished for something like this to happen, and now here it was …

“Christ, sorry…”

“Don’t be. Shit happens. But it’s me that should apologise to you. I wish I’d been man enough to do it years ago when I realised what a complete bastard, a real shit, I’d been to you – and some others, but you were the easiest target. And I am truly sorry. At first I thought this was a judgement on me for not seeking you out to apologise.”

“We all do stuff we regret.”

“For fuck’s sake Steve. I was a complete arsehole. At least give me the satisfaction of hating me a bit!”

Stephen laughed, and nodded:

“Yep. Yes you were. And I hated you more than you can imagine.”

“Thanks for that.” David held out his hand and Stephen couldn’t quite believe the warmth he felt as he took it and shook the hand of his tormentor.

“There’s something else though – Ann”

Stephen sat down on the low wall that surrounded the car park. Their eyes were now level:

“Nothing happened. We met, got on well together.” A shrug. “End of.”

“She really likes you, you know. She’s probably mentioned you a hundred times in the last three weeks. Must admit I was stunned when I realised who the ‘Stephen’ was.”

“David, nothing happened.”

“Oh I know that. She is wonderful and I don’t deserve her. She’d never, ever do anything to hurt me. But I know her well enough to know that she really likes you and …”

“Hi. What’s going on?”

Both men had been so absorbed by the conversation they hadn’t noticed Ann come out. David held out his hand and she took it.

“Good timing, babe. Steve, sorry – Stephen and I were just talking about you. I was just about to ask him to do me a favour, so to speak. And as it involves you, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here.”

Oh my God! I know what he’s going to say! Oh Christ!

David looked into his wife’s eyes:

“I know you love me. I know you would never do anything to hurt me. But I know too that you’re a young woman. A woman with … how do you say it politely? A woman with needs that this useless husband can’t fulfil.”

“David….” Ann cut in, but David held up is hand and kept going.

“I’ve really been thinking hard about this since you came back from the Conference and mentioned my old schoolmate here. I know you like Stephen and I know that you would never be unfaithful. It’s just not in your nature. But you aren’t being unfaithful if it’s with my permission, and I know about it.”

Ann shook her head. Stephen looked at his nemesis. Talk about heaping coals of fire on your enemy’s head. Ann and Stephen looked at each other. For the second time in a short space of time, he was speechless.

“Look you two. I’m not assuming you’re going to jump into bed tonight. But if you want to, that’s cool. Just don’t be afraid of seeing each other, and letting whatever happens happen.”

Stephen spoke first.

“I, I just don’t know what to say.”

“I know you like each other. Just get to know each other and, you know, if in two years she wants you rather than me, then hey, that’s life. Like I said, shit happens. There’s more than just MY happiness at stake here. There’s Ann’s and yours. And I gave you seven years of absolute hell.”

David shrugged and smiled:

“Payback time.”


© Ken Orford, 2010






© CoolShortStories.com, 2010