She was beautiful, by any standard. Tall, at five foot nine, slim, and perfectly proportioned, though too curvy for the catwalk. She might have, given the opportunity, done well as a glamour model. Her face might have appeared on the cover of Vogue. She kissed her sister, who was holding her little boy, and who looked like her, but softer, somehow.
“I wish you didn’t have to do this,” her sister said quietly. “I’d do my share...”
“I know. But it’s bad enough one of us has to. Sophie, you’re too gentle. You’d be hurt.”
“Oh, Tam...” But the older girl kissed her again, kissed the little boy, and left.
Peter Saunders wandered restlessly round his house. The departure of his wife after they both acknowledged that their marriage had become an empty shell had left him at a loss. Work was okay – fine, even – it was only times such as now when there was nothing to distract him, that he was lonely. Yes, he realised. Lonely. Nothing on t/v that he wanted to watch. Nor was there anything to tempt his interest among the programmes he’d recorded. He’d prepared, and made a desultory attempt to eat, a meal. At length, he made his way to the front door, put on outdoor shoes and a jacket and walked into town.
The pub wasn’t the sort he’d usually patronise, but it wasn’t noisy despite the t/v screens showing a game of football (that’s soccer to you Americans). The sound was low, though, and he decided he could tolerate it. He ordered a pint of ale, the product of a local microbrewery, and took it to sit, alone, at an empty table.
“Hello,” a mellow alto voice caused him to turn from his circular thoughts, and he looked over his glass at a beautiful young woman who he thought ought to be gracing the pages of a glamour magazine, or the television.
“Hello,” he responded, quizzically.
“You look lonely,” she went on. “Like some company?”
“Um...” it took a few seconds, but he thought, ‘why not?’ “Feel free,” he said.
“What do you do?”
“Me? I’m a senior systems analyst for xyz.com.” He mentioned a well-known software developer. “How about you?”
“Oh, I’m a working girl.”
Perhaps the simplest description of Peter was that he was naive. “Um ... at what?”
She sighed. This was looking like a waste of her time. “A pros-ti-tute. Lady of the night.”
“I was hoping you might be interested.”
He nodded in understanding and thought for a moment. “I’m not looking for sex, but I’d welcome your company for a bit.”
She took a deep breath, hesitating. “I ought to be looking for a customer, really.”
On impulse, he reached for his wallet, and got out two twenty-pound notes, and a fiver. “Get yourself a drink and sit with me for a bit.”
She did as she was told and came back with a weak vodka and lemonade.
“Tell me,” he said, “I’m interested – I’ve never met one of your profession. Do you kiss your customers?”
She shook her head. “No. I ... we ... have to be ... detached, I suppose. Besides, a lot of men wouldn’t want to kiss a mouth which had had other men’s cocks in.”
“I suppose not,” he said in comprehension. “I don’t know that I would, actually. It’s just ... well.” He stopped, fumbling for the right words. “My wife and I, we just separated. Nobody’s fault, at least I don’t think so, we just agreed we couldn’t live with each other. But the thing is, the reason I’m here, well, I discovered I’m lonely. I thought for a moment it might be worth paying you to, um, spend the evening with me from time to time.”
“Surely it wouldn’t be difficult for you to find a woman who’d like to do that? Without wanting to be paid, that is?”
He sighed. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not very good like that – socially, I mean.”
“That’s weird,” she smiled, shaking her head. “You’re talking to me.”
“Yeah. I suppose I am. Let me turn the question back on you. Why on earth is a beautiful young woman, who seems intelligent, selling her body?”
She shrugged. “You really want to know?” He nodded. “It’s the only way I can earn enough money quickly enough to pay my way. I ... have responsibilities, and the rent is expensive. I usually manage to earn at least a couple of hundred, sometimes four or five. But sometimes, when the weather is bad, no-one’s interested and I might go almost a week without any takers.” She spoke without any self-pity, just in a matter-of-fact way, and he took it like that. He looked at her, evaluating. If she was wearing make-up, it was very carefully and artistically applied; she just looked naturally ... gorgeous. Her hair, while straight and brown, was glossy with health and framed her oval face perfectly. She wore a jacket, but it was open and the blouse underneath had several buttons undone, revealing creamy skin and a modest cleavage.
“You’re gorgeous,” he sighed.
“But you’re not interested,” she said, flatly.
“Not in sex with no connection.”
She nodded, smiling sadly, and they went on to talk about the things that interested them finding a remarkable commonality. At length – she’d spent over an hour with him, enjoying the conversation – she stood. “I need to get to work, Peter. It’s been lovely talking to you.”
He stood, too, and pulled out his wallet. She thought for a moment he was going to offer her more money, but instead he handed her a card.
“One day, you may want to think about a different way of doing things, Beauty. If you need help, somewhere to stay, perhaps, advice, whatever ... please, give me a call.”
She took the card, blushing slightly, and smiled. “Thank you.”
Tamara Collins returned to the flat where her sister and little boy were sleeping. Four hundred and forty pounds. She thought about the man – she thought he was just a few years older than herself – who had given her the forty, without any expectation of ‘favours’, beyond company and conversation. Most of the money – and his card – went into their ‘safe place’. She then went to shower, very thoroughly, before falling into bed.
She slept heavily and not really long enough, woken by her sister. “Sorry, Tam. I need to go. Ben’s had his breakfast.”
She yawned. “Okay, Soph. I got it.” She sat up and swung her legs out of bed, knowing that if she lay there she’d go back to sleep. Her sister kissed her cheek.
“I’ll be back about four, I expect.”
Tamara ate a token breakfast before dressing for the outdoors and taking her son to the park to play.
Peter Saunders found himself thinking, off and on, about the girl/woman he’d encountered. Perhaps there really was someone compatible out there? But the summer passed and the thoughts of Tamara – Beauty – faded.
It was a miserable autumn. Perpetually overcast sky, drizzle interspersed by heavier rain. The leaves fell to collect in slimy, soggy, slippery layers on the paths. Tamara wasn’t getting many customers despite her beauty and personality.
Her sister went to their ‘safe place’ to get money to pay the rent, and noticed the card tucked among their diminishing stock of cash.
“Tam, who is Peter Saunders?” She was examining the card minutely. “Senior systems analyst for xyz.com?”
Tamara had buried her memory of that pleasant interlude, but managed to retrieve it. “Oh, just a man I met in the Minerva Tavern one night. Couple of months ago, it’d be. I thought he might be a customer, but he just wanted company.”
“So why’ve you got his card, then?”
“Oh, he seemed to think he could help me find a better way of living.”
“Tam, we’ve barely got enough to pay the rent this month, and things don’t look like they’re improving for a while.”
“Xyz.com. Peter Saunders speaking. How may I help you?”
A delicious, immediately recognisable voice. “Mister Saunders, this is Tamara. I don’t know if you remember me...”
“I could never forget you, Beauty.”
He heard a gasp before a longish pause. “Mister Saunders, you said you might be able to help me...”
“If I can, I will, Beauty. Look, I’m just in the middle of something right now, and I think our conversation would be better in private. I’ll tell you what. Come to mine this evening – I’ll pay for your time – and we’ll have a chat.” He gave his address. “Come about seven. Have some supper with me.”
“Okay. Thanks. I mean, really, thanks.”
“No, Tam. Not the mini. From what you’ve said, a dress is appropriate. The A-line. And not those spikes. And wipe off that make-up – I don’t think he wants that at all. I’ll call a taxi; you don’t want to turn up bedraggled and it’s too far to walk in this.”
Peter answered the door-bell. Over her shoulder he saw the taxi pulling away and cursed inwardly – he really should have offered to collect her. But then he turned his attention to his guest and his heart lurched. He hadn’t forgotten her, but the impact of her beauty had faded. One look brought it back with a bang.
“Hello, Beauty! Come in. It’s good to see you again. I hope you don’t mind sitting with me in the kitchen while I cook?”
Her heart lifted as she saw him. So ordinary, but yet so right. She stepped in and pecked him on the cheek. “Thank you for inviting me.” She stepped past him as he shut the door behind her, and slipped her coat of her shoulders. He took it from her and hung it on an empty peg.
“Oh,” he said, reaching in a pocket. “Let’s get this out of the way.” and handed her a wad of bank-notes, which she tucked away in her purse. “Come this way.”
It was quite a large and quite well equipped kitchen, with a table in the middle and a couple of straight-backed chairs,
“If you don’t mind,” he said, crossing to a work-top, “we’ll eat in here.” He pulled the cork of a bottle of vin rouge and placed it on the table before returning to the work-top. Prepared vegetables were dropped into boiling water and a pot on the hob stirred. They chatted easily about inconsequentialities and, being English, turned quickly to the weather.
“That’s part of my difficulty,” she told him, just as he delivered a hot plate to the mat in front of her, a grilled trout sizzling on it. Broccoli, carrots, lightly spiced potato wedges and a lemony herb sauce followed, and he filled her wine-glass. She bowed her head and murmured something, noticing as she looked up that he was doing the same.
The food was good, and clearly Peter preferred to eat without conversation. She savoured her meal, wondering how to explain her problems.
The fish was followed by a cheese-board and biscuits. Chocolate cake was offered and declined with a smile, the remains of the bottle of wine consumed, and they took mugs of tea to the lounge.
“D’you want to tell me about it, Beauty?”
She considered distracting him by asking why he called her Beauty, but decided that would be dishonest. She cleared her throat. “I suppose I’d better start from the beginning.”
“Always a sensible thing,” he agreed.
“A couple of years ago, my parents died in a pile-up on the motorway. That left me and Sophie, my sister living in their flat, which is nice, but rented. Dad had some insurance, but not much. I was in College and Sophie in her final ‘A’ level year in the sixth form. She had a pretty sure place in a computer studies programme at Uni. I was in Fine Arts. Well, we muddled along, and I started dating a young man from out of town. He was in his final year, and would be going in to the family business. We got on well enough, and I thought ... he implied ... that we’d be married when he graduated. I suppose I was careless, and Benjamin was the result. Not that I regret having him, you understand. But Jeremy – that was his name – graduated and took off to where-ever and left me ... well pregnant at that point. When Ben was born, I felt I was out of options. There was rent to pay, which kept on going up. The bit of money from Dad drained away. I couldn’t keep up with studies and what do you do with a degree in Fine Arts when you’ve got a baby to consider and a sister to support?” She paused, then and smiled at him.
“I’ve never been in that sort of situation,” he prompted, “so I can’t judge.”
“Anyway,” she went on. “I was already, well, used goods, with a baby to prove it. I suppose I could have pursued his dad, but, frankly, the way he behaved knowing I was pregnant, I reckoned I was better off without him. So I got a prescription for the pill, just in case, and a generous supply of condoms. Sophie got some bursaries and is doing well at Uni. Between us, we look after Ben. I earned enough until recently to cover our expenses and even to put a little away, but the weather recently has discouraged customers. We’re not quite at rock bottom, but not far off and Sophie has been trying to get me to give up, um, selling myself. She was the one who found your card and pressed me to see if, well, if you could maybe think of something to help.”
He was silent for several minutes, frowning, and her heart sank with each moment that passed. But then he spoke. “Let me get this right,” he began, “Your main expense is the rent on your flat?”
“That, and Sophie’s tuition.”
“Okay. But while your determination to avoid debt is admirable, your sister can get student loans and with a computer science degree she should be able to pay them off quickly. Actually, I can probably get her a place as an intern for the summer, but that’s a way off.” He hesitated, then, but went on. “You could save on your rent if you moved in here. I’ve got two empty bedrooms. I mean, completely empty – I’ve never got round to replacing the furniture Chelsey took with her when she left.”
Tamara saw at once that what he was offering would solve a lot of problems. But... “What, what do you expect? From us?” As she said it she realised that it was a silly question. If he was expecting sex, that was something she was used to providing anyway. And she was sure that was not in his mind.
“Company,” he replied simply. “If you feel you need to do more, housekeeping, cooking, laundry. But you’ll be guests. Friends, I hope. Not servants. Just one thing, though, Beauty. No more selling your body. Absolutely not.”
Tamara was pensive and was looking at her hands.
“Beauty? Do you like what you do? Do you want to continue?”
She looked up, meeting his eyes. “No. I hate it. But ... I don’t know who I am if I stop.”
“You are Ben’s mother. You are Sophie’s sister. And, I hope, you will be my friend.”
“Okay. Thank you. I need to talk to Sophie about this, but ... thank you.” She paused, then went on, “May I stay here tonight? I’ll need to leave fairly early to get home for Sophie to go out.”
“Surely! I’d offer to run you home, but I don’t drive in the city if I can avoid it. I’ll pay for a taxi, though.”
“And ... may I sleep in your bed? Not for sex, but for company?”
“Well? Tell all, Sis!”
“Well ... How would you feel about moving to a three-bedroom house, with a garden? A kitchen to die for? A mile from Uni?”
“What’s the catch?”
“I have to stop working the streets.”
“Is that all? That sounds like a wonderful idea!”
“Student loans? To pay for your course?”
“To get you off the streets, absolutely! What about you?”
Tamara shrugged. “I’ll sign on. Probably get a job now. Minimum wage won’t matter without having to find the rent for this place. I do feel a bit bad, leaving here. But it’s not as though Mum and Dad owned it – it’s hardly an ancestral home of the Collins!”
“This is living with him? That systems analyst chap? Who you liked? Who you met in the Minerva Tavern?”
“You going to sleep with him?”
“No, that’s not part of the arrangement. Not that I’d mind in the least.”
“So ... what’s next?”
“I ring him up and say ‘yes please’. Then at the weekend we get a van and shift our furniture to his house. I’ll give notice on the lease.”
The move was effected at the weekend with some help from Sophie’s classmates. Some furniture had to go into storage. Some books and knick-knacks, mostly from their parents, went to charity shops. More, which they really didn’t want to part with, but which they didn’t quite have a place for right then, stayed in boxes in corners of their bedrooms. After some discussion, Ben had the smaller room and Sophie and Tamara shared the double bed in the larger.
It took a few weeks, but they settled into a comfortable routine with Sophie out much of the day at Uni, and Tamara occupying herself with her son and housework. They were all content, especially Ben who had much more of his mother than he was used to.
True to his nature, Peter appreciated having the two young women in the house. He even enjoyed Ben’s antics and was happy to accompany the girls when they took the little boy to a playground. With interests in common, there was no argument about what to watch on t/v, and Peter was happy to eat whatever appeared on the table when he got home.
Tamara got some unemployment money - ‘job-seekers allowance’ or whatever it was being called now – and was looking for some part-time work. The problem being caring for Ben. It was so good being around for him and not having to worry any more.
They might have continued like that indefinitely, but Sophie became very interested in Peter. He was unlike the students she spent much of her time with – more mature, quieter, more considerate. She began to loosen up around him, wandering around (especially in the morning) in nightwear that left little to the imagination and, from time to time moving close to him as they passed so her breasts brushed his arm. Part of the interest was his knowledge of computer systems, though truth to tell, she was very good in her own right and her course had little to do with his work.
In fact, they’d celebrated Christmas – Peter found he enjoyed himself more in that season than he could remember since boyhood – and were well into spring before Sophie noticed how quiet her sister had become.
“Something the matter, Tam?”
She shrugged. Sophie was reminded of one of those cartoons of Eeyore, being gloomy.
“Come on, Tam. What’s the trouble?”
Tamara sighed. “I shouldn’t be upset,” she murmured. “I should be happy for you.”
“Whatever do you mean?”
Tamara said just one word. “Peter.”
“Peter?” Sophie looked at her sister in puzzlement. “I’m just teasing him a little. He’s lovely, but he’s too old for me.”
“That’s not fair on him!”
“Well, you could have him, if you wanted.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t want me.”
“Don’t be daft! I’ve watched the way he looks at you. If you’re in the room he hardly looks at me at all.”
“I know he thinks I’m good looking, but with my history he’s never going to take me seriously.”
Sophie took a deep breath to refute that, but changed her mind. Instead, she took an opportunity one lunch-time to try to ‘accidentally’ meet Peter at a café near his work.
Peter was uncomfortable. Sophie’s teasing had had an effect. But there was no way he could escape her without being rude. They got their meals and sat at a table for two.
Sophie got right down to her point. “Peter, I’m sorry I’ve been teasing you.”
“No, it isn’t. But thank you. Peter, I think you like my sister. I think you like her a lot.”
“I do.” He hesitated, but took a deep breath and went on, “I love her.”
“She loves you, too.”
“Really? I didn’t want her to think I expected anything from her, you know, for helping...”
“She doesn’t think she deserves you. Or any good man, come to that. She thinks she’s soiled goods.”
He looked at her, unbelieving. As he did, he thought about the two young women. Sophie was pretty. He knew, from her teasing, that she had a good body, but she was, somehow, much younger, somehow less... something, than her sister. Sophie was pretty. Tamara was beautiful, in a timeless way. She would be beautiful even when she was eighty years old and wrinkled. He knew that he would never be bored with her, and was pretty sure that she would be honest and loyal.
“That’s ... that’s stupid!”
“I know. But if you’re interested, you have to make the move. She won’t.”
They addressed themselves to finishing their meals and parted. Before they separated, though, Peter said, “Thanks, Sophie. I’m glad we had this chat.”
As it happened, Peter had to go out of town for several days, so had no opportunity to follow up on Sophie’s revelation. But in his hotel room he did surf the net for something to do which might tempt Tamara, his ‘Beauty’. That is, the Beauty he wanted to be his.
Back home Friday evening after enjoying Tamara’s lasagne, he stopped her from clearing the table. “Can we have a word, Beauty?”
Sophie piped up. “I’ll clear up, Tam, and put Ben to bed. You go on.”
Peter ushered her into his ‘office’. She looked worried. “Is everything okay?”
“Sit! Everything’s fine. I just want to ask you something.”
“Oh?” She was still apprehensive, but sat, nervously, perched on the edge of the chair in front of the desk while he pulled his office chair round to sit next to her.