All the fours, forty-four, as the Bingo callers say, or should that be shout. That was my age when my life was turned upside down. My wife of fifteen years suddenly decided that the grass was greener elsewhere, younger too. She'd been a few months short of forty, an age she refused to acknowledge was approaching, when she left me for her secretary, a young man named Stephen. I always thought it was supposed to be the husband who run off with his secretary.
Kids were her excuse. We both wanted them, but it just didn't happen. The practise was good, especially early on, but she just didn't catch. I'd had mumps as a teenager and I'd heard that it can lead to infertility, so I guessed it was down to me. Jacqui, my wife, always blamed me.
The first few months, as we divided everything, were strained, full of paperwork and sympathy. The latter was mostly of the half-hearted kind, readily offered, but rarely actually felt. My family, that is parents and elder brother, were genuinely sympathetic and very surprised. They'd thought I had an ideal marriage. I hadn't thought it was ideal, though I did believe it to be good.
As the end of the year, actually the millennium, approached, I'd recovered pretty well and was getting on with my life. Fortunately, I'd managed to dodge all the women those so called friends had tried to introduce me to. My brother laughed when I told him about it.
"Better find one of your own soon, else it's just a matter of time."
"Cheers Brian!" I'd responded.
All this went through my mind as I waited at the reception of my local council. It did little to improve the already poor mood I'd been in since Monday, when I'd received a visitor from a debt collection agency, chasing my wife. It took a long and very loud discussion before he accepted that I no longer had a wife. He insisted on entering the house to check. I was equally insistent that he didn't. It didn't help that I had no idea of Jacqui's new address. Eventually, he'd given up, though I'm certain he still didn't believe me. I'd had numerous telephone calls in the three days since, threatening me with all sorts of court actions.
I was a freelance photographer, specialising in architectural and urban shots. That was why I was queuing, a councillor had seen my work and wished to discuss a commission. It would be much needed work as I'd let the business slip somewhat over the year.
(Below are a few of the shots in question)
"Can I help?" A pretty voice asked, snapping me out of my reverie, the previous visitor having disappeared...
"I'm here to see Councillor King, ' I told the young lady.
"Do you have an appointment?"
"Yes. John Cooper." I stated, handing a business card to her as confirmation.
Our fingers touched as the card was exchanged and I felt an extraordinary buzz, almost an electric shock. I instantly put it down to static, but paid a lot closer attention to the young woman as she phoned through to, what I presumed was, the Councillor's office.
She wore her dark hair straight and long, and had incredible blue eyes. She was slim with smallish breasts, or at least as far as I could tell, given that she was sitting behind an imposing counter. Her lips, highlighted in dark pink, wore a smile, though sadly, only one of politeness.
"I'm sorry, Councillor King is out at the moment."
I could tell by the phone conversation that this was a blatant lie and was just about to say so when she spoke again.
"He says he will be in touch, to make another appointment." She said sweetly, not realising that she had just contradicted herself.
"If he's not in, how can he say he'll be in touch?' I asked, rather nastily. I hated these elected officials, who believe they are so much better than the rest of us. He had made the appointment, to suit him; now he couldn't even be bothered, and if he couldn't, why should I?
I smiled inwardly as I saw the look of discomfort appear. I could almost see her mind working, trying to find a suitable excuse.
She tried. "It was his secretary, she told me he'd left word to that effect."
"Bullshit!" I said angrily. "He can't be arsed to keep his appointments and expects others to clear up his mess. Well he can stick his appointment where the sun don't shine."
She was a little shocked by my outburst, but it only took a few seconds before she was reaching for the phone again.
"Don't bother with security. I'm leaving this pit of vipers." I snarled before walking out.
Once outside, a few deep breathes calmed me down. Almost immediately, I regretted my outburst. I wasn't usually quite that bad, but I'd refused a small commission to attend this meeting. My remorse was not over what I'd said, but more of how I'd expressed it to the young woman, who was only doing her job.
'Oh well, might as well do some shopping whilst I'm in town.' I thought, as I walked away from the Civic Offices.
I was typical male, in that I hated shopping; so it was with relief when I'd done the necessary. I decided to treat myself to one of the all-day breakfasts on offer at the market's café. After a few moments browsing the menu, on the blackboard, behind the counter, I went for the Mega. This was bacon, sausage, eggs, black pudding, beans and mushrooms, served with toast and a large cup of tea. It might as well have been called a walking heart-attack, but I usually ate healthily enough, and I was only a couple of pounds over my ideal weight.
I was halfway through when I noticed a pretty woman enter the café. It took hardly a moment to recognise the Council receptionist, who I'd been rather abrupt to, at the very least. I swiftly looked back down at my plate, hoping that she didn't notice or recognise me. I then forced myself to look in the opposite direction, which meant looking out of the window.
The first thing that caught me eye was a plastic bucket, filled with bunches of flowers, and please don't expect me to tell you what they were, other than they were red and white, the colours of Stoke City FC, and therefore a very popular colour combination.
Remembering that electric touch and still feeling slightly guilty, on impulse, I ran, or at least walked very quickly, across the street and purchased the first bunch I picked up. I headed back equally rapidly. I still don't know whether the speed was down to the fear of changing my mind, or, the fear that the waitress might clear away my half-eaten breakfast.
The latter was not the case, as she was clearly busy. I was going to say fortunately busy, but I realised that if I was to give the flowers to the receptionist, then an empty café would have been preferable.
Just after I re-entered, I noticed that the receptionist was heading towards a table with a cuppa. (In many British cafés it is common to order at the counter before taking your seat to await your meal)
"I'm sorry for being such an obnoxious jerk." I told her, holding out the flowers, as she was looking for somewhere to sit.
I was pleased to see those incredible eyes light up as she saw the flowers. Not too surprisingly, once she realised who was offering them, it rapidly disappeared.
"Yes, you were." She stated, sternly.
I had been, but even allowing for that, I was surprised at her acid reaction. That shock must have been pretty obvious, as she suddenly burst out laughing.
"Sorry about that," she said with a grin. "You weren't really that bad, especially in the circumstances. The minor gods; you know them as councillors; are like that, with your Mr. King by far the worst."
I smiled, then realising I was still holding the flowers, said. "Will you accept these as part of my apology, and please join me at my table."
A brief hesitation was followed by another smile, along with a nod of agreement.
"So, who were the flowers originally for?" She asked as soon as we'd sat down. "They're lovely, but I don't want to rob your wife?"
I could clearly hear the question. "No wife, at least not any longer. Seriously, they were bought just for you."
Oddly, this seemed to worry her.
"You aren't following me?"
I pointed at my still half-eaten meal. "Nope! I saw you come in, remembered behaving like a pratt, so rushed across the road." I said, smiling, whilst also nodding in the direction of the bucket of flowers.
She relaxed. "Got me worried there, at least for a moment, thought you might have been one of those stalkers you're always reading about."
"By the way, I'm John, John Cooper." I said, offering my hand across the table.
Taking it, she replied. "Lyn."
I thought it was deliberate, not giving me her full name, and after just a few seconds thought, understood why she was reluctant to give it to a stranger. I also thought that her action and my understanding were a sad, but accurate, indictment of our society.
We talked about her work, and how she rarely slipped up like she had done with me. She actually found that amusing, but complained about how all the receptionists were put in awkward situations by others, usually, but not limited to, councillors. She accepted that dealing with the public could be stressful enough, without councillors making it worse.
She was also fascinated about my work. She told me that she easily understood how wedding and portrait photographers made a living, but struggled with my line. I had to admit that whereas I usually made a steady, if unspectacular, living, I'd recently been struggling. Lyn was easy to talk to, she smiled a lot and seemed genuinely interested in what I was saying. I soon found myself telling her about my wife. As with most people who heard the story, Lyn couldn't help but laugh when I mentioned running off with her secretary. Unlike some, she did curb it quickly and apologise. I told her that I understood the humour in the situation, even if I looked the idiot.
Lyn's meal was served, a bacon and egg oatcake, and we both ate between bouts of words. For the first time since my wife left, I found myself intrigued by a woman. It was a pity that she wasn't a bit older, or better still, I was a bit younger.
She did manage to shock me when she mentioned a daughter at school.
"Seems like I was totally wrong about your age, Lyn." I told her.
"Not necessarily." She laughed.
"Well, I put you around twenty two, twenty three, but you say your daughter is already nine..."
Another laugh. "Thank you, I'm actually twenty five. Sarah was the result of an affair with a married man, who, on hearing the news of my pregnancy, promptly disappeared, and before you ask, I didn't know he was married at the time. I was naive. Like most kids that age, I thought I knew everything. Still I wouldn't swap her for the world. How about you? Any kids?"
"No. I normally say 'sadly', but given the split and my wife's reasoning behind it, it is probably for the better.' I answered, and then had to explain my wife's perceived need for children.
She expressed her sympathy, before telling me that for her daughter, it was the other way around, at least as far as a father was concerned. She mentioned her previous boyfriend, which had been over a year ago. He had apparently idolised little Sarah, and the feelings were reciprocal too. She laughing said that sometimes it was Lyn that felt the odd one out. She also told me how upset her daughter was when the relationship ended. I asked how, to be told that Lyn considered it her own fault. There just seemed something about David that pushed all the wrong buttons at times. He was a nice enough bloke, yet something hadn't clicked, as hard as she'd tried. She'd eventually worked out that she was trying to make it work for Sarah, and not as she should have done, for herself.
Lyn looked at her watch before jumping up, almost startled. "Is that the time? I'd better be going. I have to pick my daughter up soon."
I glanced at my own watch, surprised to see that we had been talking for well over an hour.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed myself, most unexpectedly too. I have to ask if I can see you again." I told her, as I watched her putting her coat on.
She smiled, something that already captivated me. "Why do you sound so apologetic about it. Am I that bad?"
"Not at all..." I rushed, before seeing that she was grinning. "It's just that you are so much younger. After looking and talking to you, I can think of numerous reasons to want to see you again. It's just that I can't think of one why you would want to see me." The last few words were almost stuttered, so full of self doubt I was.
"Forty four, you said?"
"Eighteen years difference. It is a lot, and certainly something to think about. But, I have really enjoyed the last hour or so too." She said before pausing to think. "Okay! I'm prepared to see how it goes."
I beamed, and grinning inanely, almost shouted. "Yes!!"
That made her laugh. "I don't think I've ever had that good a reaction at agreeing a date. Now, when and with?"
"Tonight? " I suggested, hopefully.
"Can't guarantee a babysitter. How about tomorrow?"
"Fine. Anywhere specific?"
"Not really, how about you?"
"Nowhere in mind, but I would prefer somewhere quiet, where we can talk."
Lyn laughed. "Quiet? Is that a sign of getting old?"
"Must be." I nodded. "I wasn't like that when I was younger."
"Damn!" Lyn moaned.
"I now prefer quiet too." She complained. "I'm too young to be old."
She giggled slightly when she realised just what she'd said. "You know what I mean."
I nodded with a grin.
"Do you want my number? In case you change your mind."
She smiled warmly. "I won't change my mind, but I'll take it anyway, as when you've got a kid, plans are never quite solid."
"So I believe." I responded and gave her my home and mobile numbers.
"Posh aye? I can't justify the expense of a mobile."
"Essential for business, and the business pays the bill too."
"You need a receptionist?" She laughed.
I shook my head. "Hardly earning me a wage, never mind anyone else."