“Chance Encounter”, A short story

The afternoon rush hour jammed the exit roads, particularly those to the beach.  Nearly everyone was heading for relief from the heat wave, now in its tenth consecutive day.  What had started out a novelty was now just tiresome, with no forecast respite.

A light breeze tried to fan away the afternoon heat, but it had little impact.  The temperature was still hovering in the high 30’s when Bill left the office at 6:30 that evening.

On the road it was little better, and hotter in the car than out.  There was no point running the air conditioner in those conditions, as both he and many others had discovered.  The stop-start traffic made it worse, and people who had already suffered enough were close to breaking point.

Once again, the traffic stopped, and tempers frayed to the point of blowing horns and yelling forlorn abuse at some unseen driver or cause.  It was a no-win situation, and to Bill, a waste of time and energy.  His time and energy, he thought, was best directed at analysis.  Yet how different had the afternoon been to what was currently happening?

In charge of the Customer Service centre for the area’s electricity supplier, it had been difficult to say the least.  That afternoon had seen the highest consumption of electricity since the heat wave began, since time immemorial for that matter, and had started to affect the functionality of the grid, with the first failures occurring. 

It had been predicted, but was not expected quite this early, and as parts of the city were beginning to feel the effect of temporary blackouts, his, and his staff’s work had begun to receive the full effect of the community’s contempt and hatred. 

The traffic disaster was not a patch on the abuse both he and members of his staff had received that afternoon, and he instinctively knew it was not going to improve.

Normally he would stay on and help the incoming supervisor.  This time, someone else could handle the problems.  Doing the usual Friday afternoon desk clean up, he’d found the invitation to Wally’s stag party and as best man, he was obligated to go.  One of the other and more compelling reasons was to see which of his colleagues would make a fool of themselves.

It didn’t take long to get home and change into what he considered proper party attire.  He smiled at the thought of being an anachronism from a bygone age, and of what others thought of him.  He was too old to change.

Before leaving, he lingered over several glasses of champagne, and strawberries, trying to get into the mood.  At the same time, he surveyed the ravages of middle management pressures.  Just a year in the job had aged him five, and a tinges of grey beginning to appear at the sides.

A wave of tiredness came over him.  The thought of staying home and immersing himself in classical music and another bottle of champagne crossed his mind, but he said he would go.  Wally was one of the few he could call a true friend.  He would go, but not stay long.

As usual, he was late.

Groups had spilled out onto the front veranda, and onto the front lawn.  He knew most of the partygoers by sight, if not by name.  Acquaintances, not friends.  Not the sort of people he usually mingled with.  He exchanged greetings, accepted drinks, and tried to maintain appearances.

It didn’t take long to realise it was a mistake.  The carnival atmosphere and good cheer all around him made him feel melancholier, as a wave of loneliness closed around him like the night air.

He knew only too well what the problem was but had no idea how to deal with it.  Neither his upbringing, nor experience was of any use.  It would require outside help; the sort Wally had already offered.  Just when would he do something about it, if at all?  If the truth were known, Bill was too frightened of the consequences, of getting hurt.  Perhaps a few more drinks…

Making his way through the crowded rooms towards the back of the house, he felt the deadening effect of the alcohol beginning to fight off the empty feeling within.

He made desultory conversation with a secretary he knew was high on the dating list for most junior executives, deriving some pleasure in the thought she talked to him, then to another young lady who worked his shift, whom he thought both intelligent and charming, and whose behaviour didn’t shatter his assumptions as some others had.

As the night wore on. it became evident few had noticed his arrival, even fewer his sudden disappearance to the back veranda, overlooking the ocean.  He had seen Wally on one occasion when he was trying to drink about 10 gallons of beer in one attempt and thought it wise not to interrupt.

It was, he thought, all part of the game, to drink so much he would forget how it was when he was single, though Bill doubted he could do it in a single night.  Bill could hardly wait till the wedding the next afternoon.

He looked back momentarily at the apparent abandon of the other guests, hearing the muted murmur of endless conversations, and loud music.  Everyone was having a good time, as it should be.

The gentle, soothing, lapping of the tide on the beach beckoned him.  He put his empty glass on a ledge and went quietly down the stairs onto the sand.  A refreshing, cool breeze rolled in with the tide, immediately improving his mood.

At the water’s edge, he paused momentarily to soak in the calming atmosphere, then put his hands in his pockets and headed for the pier.  A leisurely stroll there and back would be sufficient break to enable him to endure the rest of the evening.  Yes, he would stay, if only to see that Wally didn’t overindulge.  After all, some duties did fall on the incumbent best man.

Occasionally he kicked the sand with the toe of his shoe, once for a thoroughly detestable human relations consultant, and another for a particularly annoying assistant.  It scuffed the high polish, but he didn’t care.  This was a time where near impeccable would be good enough.

He was alone, and in more ways than one, he thought, but it was more by design than by accident.  He had recently been involved in a relationship that was doomed before it began.  Work had always pushed that side of his life into second place because he let it.

Now, having thought about it rationally for the first time, he realised it was time to place less importance on work, and more to giving any sort of relationship a chance.

Wally had offered to find him someone, but knowing Wally as he did, Bill had declined.  Of course, to Wally ‘no’ really meant go ahead anyway.  While at the party, he had surveyed those he thought Wally might have invited as potential matches, some voluptuous, some half-naked, some painted, some all three.

There was no doubting their intent, and he had seen the same in the singles bars when on the town with Wally when they had nothing better to do with a Friday night.  Yet, none of those he’d seen, then or now, matched his criteria.  Were his standards set too high?  Wally never said it, but the fact he didn’t said more than if he had said it out loud.

Bill sighed.  Perhaps he was too set in his ways and unable to change.

Adjoining the pier was the old amusement centre, burnt down several years before.  It was the reason for the closing of the beach, and its recent exclusivity to those nearby backing onto the beach.  All that remained was the scorched concrete floor and parts of the walls.  It was these remains he had just gone under.

Beneath them, the sounds of the sea and the night were more pronounced, creating an eerie, sinister feeling.  The smell of the burnt timber still hung in the air, despite the intervening years.

“Hi!”  A feminine voice came out from the shadows, behind one of the pylons nearby.

He started violently, not expecting anyone else.  It took a moment to collect his thoughts, then turn to see who she was. 

“Oh,” was all he could say to the now visible girl’s outline etched against the distant city lights.

Both came out the other side together into the half-light, leaving the gloom behind.  She began, “I hope I didn’t scare you back there?”

“Only half to death.”  He brushed the non-existent wrinkles out of his dinner suit, more a reflex action, then put his hands back in his pockets, composure regained.

“I’m awfully sorry.  I didn’t mean to.”

He was a little angry, and turning to her, said quietly, “Then what was….” He stopped suddenly, surprised at what he saw.  Tall, well proportioned, dressed in expensive eveningwear, much the same as he was.  He instantly realised she could almost pass as an exact replica of Venus except for the untidyish, waist length hair.

“I don’t know.  I guess I wanted to talk to someone, you were handy, so I just said ‘hi’.”  Her tone was apprehensive, with a slight tremor in it. 

She smiled nervously, yet in a way, he noticed it totally changed her appearance, and his heart missed a beat.

“Oh,” he said again, subconsciously feeling she had put him in his place.  He shook his head and looked again, disbelieving what he saw.

“I hope you don’t mind?”

“Don’t mind what?”  He’d lost track of the conversation, and realised he was quickly moving towards looking and sounding like a gibbering idiot.  It was, he realised, just like every other time when faced with a beautiful woman.

“Me talking to you.”

He took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.  He could feel a runnel of sweat slide down the side of his face, “No.  Not really.  It’s just the diversion I need”.  He looked at the sand, the sea, then her.  “I have a feeling I’ve seen you before.” 

He moved on, and so did she, both in unison.

“Staring at you from the pages of magazines?”

“I guess so.  What did you do?  Rob a bank?  Divorce a Prince, or millionaire?”

“As if.  Nothing quite as exotic, or exciting, I’m afraid.  Just draped in clothes or plastered in make-up.  Boring huh?”

“No.  Not really.”

“You’re a bit hard up for new lines?”

He shrugged.  It was difficult talking to this woman, and, lacking in confidence, he was starting to feel a little embarrassed.

She changed the subject.  “Do you live here?”

“No….”

“Don’t say it, not really!” she interrupted.

He sighed, trying to regain composure.  “OK.  I was at a party.”

“Aha.  Now we’re getting somewhere.”  Then she gave him a curious look.  “Was?”  Then, after he didn’t answer, “How come you’re not with the others, having a good time?”

“Perhaps I’m not cut out to ‘have a good time’.  Actually, I thought I’d take a time out from the frenetic pace and get some fresh air.”

“And now the fresh air had lost its appeal?”

“I didn’t say that.”  Did that come out sounding flustered?  It was how he felt inside.  He was going to have to try harder if he was to keep her interest.  “It’s beginning to get interesting.  And I still can’t place where I’ve seen you before.”  He shook his head.  “No matter.  What brings you here?”

“Someone told me about this place a long time ago.  I thought I’d come and check it out.”

He turned and headed back, deciding the diversion had exceeded the time limit he’d set, and it had now become an elongated absence.  She did the same.

“And what do you think?” he asked.

“About what?”

This conversation would sound very strange if anyone else was nearby listening to them.  Luckily, there wasn’t.  “This place.”

“Very peaceful, secluded, interesting, as you said.”

“Interesting in what way?”  Damn, had he asked that already?

“Well …”  She shrugged, then asked, “Do you always walk around with your hands in your pockets?”

Simple answer, yes.  “Can’t think of where else to put them.” 

What did it have to do with her anyway?  And, in that instant, he realised that it he who was the problem here, not her.

“What if you were to hold a girl’s hand?”

“I don’t know of any who would want me to.”

“Would you like to hold mine?”

“Why?  Is it going to run away?”

She smiled.  “More than likely.”

He stopped.  She stopped.  He surveyed her with a critical eye.

“Aha.  The eye that asks, ‘Who is the disreputable and outrageous person who dares to ask such a thing?’

He smiled and took her hand in his.  It was soft and warm, and sent a slight tingle up his spine.

“I talk too much. Don’t I?” she asked suddenly, after they started walking again.

“No.”

She sighed.  “Here we go again.”

On the other side of the pier there was an old car park, no longer used.  Along the beach front was a long, low stone wall, and they headed towards it.  Once there, they sat down to watch darkness finally settle in, the last of the sun’s rays melting in a glorious display of reds, oranges, and yellows.

Without speaking, they were content to listen to the waves, feel the cooling breeze, and watch the sea glisten in the moonlight. 

Nothing happened for an indeterminable length of time, during which he nearly forgot she was there.  He suddenly snapped out of it when he heard a match rasping.

He turned to see her trying to light a cigarette, but her hand was shaking so much, the match went out.  She tried again, but the same thing happened.  She savagely threw the cigarette away and pounded her hand on the cement as though it was something she hated.

He took a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his coat pocket and offered her one.

“No.  It’s reason enough to try to give it up,” she said quietly.

He returned the items to his pocket and took her hand in his, looked carefully at it, then kissed it.  “Trying to dent cement is not wise unless you are superman or Supergirl.  I know.  I tried once and broke three fingers.  Fortunately, nothing is broken.”

She moved closer.  “Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Making me feel silly.”

“But … I didn’t mean to … I mean …”

She leaned towards him and kissed his lips.  “Hush.”

He held her hand up and looked at it, rather than her, trying to get a grip on his emotions, and saying, a good dead steadier than he felt, “I need a third hand.  Do you think I could have it?”

“With pleasure.  It’s apparently no good to me anymore.”

“Why?”

“Shakes too much.”

“Perhaps I could use it to massage my face.”  He gently moved her hand down the side of his face and again felt a tingle up his spine.  Again, he kissed it gently where she had hit it, not knowing why, just that it seemed like the right thing to do.

“Perhaps not.  Seems to me you have a case of bad nerves.  These are familiar symptoms.  You need a rest, perhaps a holiday, and complete relaxation.  That will be a five-dollar consultation fee.”

She smiled.  “Will you stop it.”

“Why?  It makes you smile.”

“Your right, of course.  I need a rest.  The last six months have been horrible, working day and night, and a failed relationship on top of it.”  She sighed.  “I feel sleepy.”  She leaned against him, putting her arms around him for balance.

“Hey, no.  You can’t do that.”  He fended her off gently.  “I’ve got a party to get back to, and by now I think I should be missed.  God knows what Wally will think.”

He stood and she rolled sideways.  “Oh, come on.”  He looked up towards the sky.  “Why did you make some women like this for,” he muttered.  Then he put his arms around her and lifted her to her feet.  She leaned back against him and he could feel how warm and soft she was.  It was a battle just to make sure he kept his hands in the right places, and she wasn’t making it easy for him.

He held her up then moved around to the front and caught her just as she began to fall forward.  It was exasperating, and yet amusing.  He let her go and she began to fall down, so he caught her again.

She was smiling.

“Beware the smile on the face of the tiger,” he muttered.  His face was level with hers and just then an idea came to him.  He kissed her forehead, nose, chin, then finally her lips, and she came to life.

It was just what she was hoping would happen.  Instead of surprising her, she surprised him by responding in kind; leaving him with a feeling he’d never experienced before.  And a heart rate that was off the chart.

“Now, if only you’d tried that earlier,” she said.

He looked her straight in the eye.  “Just who are you?”

“Me.”

“Does ‘me’ have a name?”

“Do you want ‘me’ to have name?”

“Yes.”

“Claire.”

“Then you may call me Bill.  Do you often pick up strange lonely men on secluded beaches?”

“No.”

“Infuse life into otherwise dead souls?”

“No.”

“Just happened to be the one thing I needed right now?”

She smiled; a smile that made his heart do double somersaults.

“Perhaps a yes.”

“Can I see you again?  I have to see you again.”

“Have to?”

“Like to, then.”

“Perhaps.”

“When?”

“Soon, perhaps sooner than you think.  Do you have to go back?”

“Yes.  If I don’t, Wally will be mad at me.”  He pulled out a notebook and pencil he always carried with him.  “Where do you live?”

She told him.

“If I come by Sunday may I take you out, a drive, somewhere up the coast.  Fresh sea air, total relaxation.”

“Part of the therapy I’m paying five dollars for?”

He brushed a few strands of hair out of her eyes, feeling her warm soft skin under his hand, then kissed her.  “Until the next time.” 

She smiled again. “Until the next time.”

He turned and headed back to the party, not looking back.

No one noticed his absence; despite the fact over an hour had lapsed.  He resumed his place on the veranda, new drink in hand looking vacantly towards the pier, wondering if he would see her again, if she were just a figment of his imagination.  It was just too good to be true.

“Ah, Bill.  I thought I would find you here.  Thinking about a walk.  No, I see you’ve already been.”  Wally sounded sober and looked it.  Perhaps this was all just a dream.

He looked down.  His shoes still had sand on them.  He looked at Wally and smiled.  “Fresh air.  Contemplating the human condition.  You know what I’m like at parties.”

“Better than you think.  What did you think of her?”

“Her?”

“The so-called blind date.  I didn’t think a formal introduction would work.”

Bill shrugged.  “Very nice, but a little…”

Wally smiled the same unique smile of hers.

“Your sister?”

Wally nodded.  “Take exceptionally good care of her my friend.  She’s very vulnerable at the moment, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to look after her.”  He held up his glass.  “Cheers.”

© Charles Heath 2020

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