The following is a preview of Just One Time, which is out on December 7th.
Part One: Flirtation
I was worried I’d be late. It was almost half-past six and the traffic on Finchley Road was crawling. The show was due to start at half seven. Parking would be difficult, I was certain, and struggling to find a spot was all I could think about. I wasn’t sure that I’d make it, and then all the fuss I’d made about being able to see the play, even when deep down I knew my wife didn’t want me to go, would have been for nothing. As I sat there staring at a red light in the distance, people streamed by, on foot a more effective mode of transport than by car. Staring at them calmed me. The frustration I felt was joined by guilt; I’d acted irrationally. I’d been a jerk. I’d kept my cool for so long and today I’d blown it. My phone was on my lap and I stared down at the screen, glancing at the text message I sent my wife twenty minutes ago, and then her almost instant response. Me: You couldn’t speed up. I’m stuck in fucking traffic and I might miss it. Her: Sorry, but there’s more to life than a bloody play. YOU HAVE A FAMILY, REMEMBER! I hadn’t shown her my anger or frustration in almost two years; I’d been desperate to keep it hidden even when sometimes I wanted to scream the most vulgar words at her. And now I’d done it: I’d let my emotion, caused by something stupid and unreasonable, overcome me and I’d lashed out at her. Lashed out because she hadn’t arrived home at the time we’d agreed. Lashed out because I’d cancelled a viewing at a property in Bell Row, a property I believed I’d be able to sell easily, making a huge commission. Lashed out because when my wife arrived home, she wasn’t ready to grab our daughter, Maddie, from my arms so that I could charge out of there as if going over the top. Lashed out, so selfishly. I’d behaved like an inconsiderate bastard and I deserved any anger I received in return. When I arrived in the West End, I managed to find a parking space in Monmouth Street a few moments before twenty past seven. I was surprised and relieved. Determined to send an apology message to my wife the moment I landed in my seat in the theatre, I leapt out of the car. I ran towards Shaftesbury Avenue, my heart quickly feeling like it was going to force its way out of my chest. Sweat covered my body by the time I reached the theatre. I lunged through the already-open door, entering the foyer with just minutes to spare. I showed my ticket to an usher and raced down the stairs to the stalls, mindful of the squeeze in my bladder that was urging me to use the toilet, but I was afraid the show would begin, so I decided to ignore it, determined to suck it in until the interval. I didn’t bother showing my ticket to the usher at the entrance to the auditorium, just rushed past him. I planted myself in the seat, seventh row, number twenty-three, and breathed a sigh of relief, the first easy breath I’d released in what felt like an inordinate length of time. The three-minute warning sounded. Then, realising I was safely in the theatre, feeling shitty hit me harder, so I pulled out my phone and quickly keyed in an apology: Sorry I was a scumbag. I shouldn’t have. I AM so sorry. Am here now and all ok. Flowers: I’d buy some for her on the way home. Flipping the phone closed, I placed it on my lap and sat in silence, looking around. The six rows in front of me were quite full. Heads were close together, conversations flowing. To my left was a woman whose features I would have paid more attention to if I hadn’t felt so guilty. She was pretty, not made up, but very pretty. Beyond where she was sitting, most of the row was full. The two seats to my right, which were at the end of the row, were empty, but then two men, one young, the other much older, arrived and sat down. Behind me, the theatre was only about half full. The two-minute warning rang. Two women appeared at the end of the row and asked the men next to me to make space so that they could pass. In turn, I stood up, as did the pretty woman to my left. Yes, she was very attractive and with a gorgeous figure, too. The two women squeezed by and, like a row of dominoes, we sat down again. The one-minute warning encouraged a heightened buzz in the audience’s murmurs, excitement for the play’s start filling the air. I placed my hands on my lap, awaiting the play’s start. Then it must have been a memory muscle that struck me: the sensation of feeling empty space, touching material, my legs and nothing else. My whole body sprang to attention, my pulse increased, my breath became short and sharp. My phone. It wasn’t on my lap any more. The play was about to start. The theatre was poorly illuminated. Its genre was horror; lighting was key to establishing the right mood. How long did I have to find my phone? Not long, not long at all. I bent forwards and tried to locate it on the floor, hoping it would be by my feet. It must have fallen off my lap when I stood up, I thought. But all my hand felt was worn carpet. I had to get down there; that was the only way. So I stood up and got onto my knees. I felt around, lowered my head so that it pressed against the seat, and searched blindly. Still couldn’t feel anything. No phone, with the play about to start, I was really perspiring now. Sweat covered my forehead. The wetness under my arms, which had begun to dry after my mad dash to the theatre, now seeped through my shirt. The shirt stuck to my back. I felt eyes on me, even though I couldn’t see anyone, not the people next to me, nor those in front and behind. God, I was embarrassed. ‘Are you okay?’ I heard a voice. Female. Close. I looked up and saw her looking down at me. She was in shadow, but I could make out her cheekbones, dark eyes and long blonde hair. ‘Are you okay?’ she repeated to my mute face, as I stared. ‘I’ve dropped my phone,’ I told her, awakening. ‘I can’t find the bloody thing.’ She seemed to smile and her dark eyes alighted. ‘Do you want me to phone it?’ She held up her own phone and wagged it like a dog its tail. My instinct, which took over and didn’t give me time to think until after I’d responded, was to say yes. Give a stranger my phone number? only came after. It wasn’t until I was saying the numbers of my phone number aloud that that thought entered my mind. And then, as quickly as the thought came into my head, it left, and I realised, disappointed, that the phone was on silent – I’d put it on mute in the morning because of viewings; I couldn’t be interrupted when I was with potential customers. So calling it now was futile. But then I thought if I scanned the floor I might be able to see the screen light up while she rang it, so there was hope. ‘It’s ringing,’ she said. She remained calm through my panic. I nodded and went back to search level, scanning the areas in front of my seat, to each side and behind me. Shaking my head but not getting up, I said, ‘I can’t see anything. And it’s on silent.’ Sweat dripped from my nose and onto the carpet. I felt humiliated. ‘I’ll try again,’ she said, adding, ‘and maybe you’ll be able to see the light.’ A pause, then, ‘Ringing again.’ Still nothing, even though I sunk so low that I was practically part of the ground itself. As I lifted my head, an usher appeared at the end of the row. ‘Do you have a torch?’ I said to the gormless, bug-eyed sixteen-year-old who merely stood there gawking at me. ‘I’ll check,’ was his response and he made his way towards a colleague. ‘Here,’ an unfamiliar male voice said. I looked to my right, to the seat behind mine. A man was holding out an iPhone. ‘Use this.’ The rear part of his phone was all lit up: a torch. ‘Thanks,’ I said, taking it and dropping back to my knees. It took only a second to find my phone thanks to the torch. It was under the seat directly in front of me, partly shielded by one of the chair stumps. I scooped it up, stood up, wiped the dripping sweat from my forehead, and handed back the iPhone. ‘Thanks so much,’ I said to its owner, my forehead wrinkled, my eyebrows lifting in relief. The man nodded as he took back the phone. ‘Thank you,’ I repeated, exhaling so loudly that I might have made an official announcement. The usher saw I had my phone back, retreated and signalled to someone that the show could begin. I sat down again. I looked straight ahead but felt dozens of eyes on me. Instantly, I murmured, ‘Bloody hell.’ I turned to my left and met her eyes, deep eyes, pretty, smiling eyes. ‘Thank you for trying to help,’ I said, offering a smile of relief. ‘No problem,’ she said. She smiled in return as the lights dimmed and gave me a curious look. The audience settled down, quiet overcame the auditorium, and spooky music erupted from the sound system. The theatre was pitch-black, the music was loud, and getting louder, a thumping, rhythmic sound, the kind to make the hairs on the back of your arms stand on end, lots of drums and strings. And I felt my personal space become less so, surprisingly not because of the increasing darkness, nor because of the atmospheric theatrics. No. Because of her. ‘Enjoy,’ she whispered into my ear, so close I could feel her breath against my cheek.