Jane was sure she knew Charlie and that she knew him well. After all, she and he had been friends on Facebook for several months now. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg's ingenuity and generosity, they'd been able to chat and discourse for hours on end without once having actually met one another. And tonight was the evening when, at long last, Jane would actually meet Charlie in the flesh.
Jane was also sure she knew what Charlie looked like. She viewed his profile picture every time she visited Facebook where the privilege of bona fide friendship allowed her to browse through his photos and, indeed, those of his several hundred other Facebook friends. Charlie was a man (of this Jane was sure) about the same age as her with much the same interests, political and religious views, and taste in music and films. He was most often photographed alone or with his dog, Chester, but there were just a few photographs of him with his elderly parents (he was the happy outcome of a late romance) and his somewhat overweight younger sister, Kate.
Jane never questioned why the pictures all showed Charlie sat down and only the left side of his face. But if she didn't, what of it? Jane was also careful to post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or anywhere else she frequented only those photos that showed her to her best advantage. Not that Jane had anything to hide, of course, but she was past that age when most women who'd wanted to settle down had already done so, and, although she wasn't fat exactly, she was no longer as slim as she'd like to be. And Charlie was clearly also someone for whom much of life had somehow passed him by, but not so much that he'd never been to a party, never got drunk or had never got kissed. And just as Jane had her real-life friends, Jacquie and Karen most notably, so Charlie had his, even though he seemed to spend more time with his family than Jane ever did hers.
They both avidly followed Game of Thrones and House of Cards, guiltily admitted to watching Strictly Come Dancing and Britain's Got Talent, both bought records by Gregory Porter, Adele and, more surprisingly, James Blake. They both weren't sure who they'd ever vote for in an election, preferred pizzas to pasta, beef to chicken and neither of them much liked Marmite.
Surely things could only go well for them.
Jane arrived at the Starbucks where she and Charlie had decided to meet: it was one that stayed open late, was neither very crowded nor desolately empty. She knew she'd arrived too early, but it wasn't as if there was anything more important to delay her. And, in any case, given the dreadful traffic congestion, she didn't want to risk being late. She bought her Café Latte Grande from the barista and sat by the window where she could watch people come and go, while nibbling on a chocolate brownie whose calories were doing her absolutely no good at all.
But it was while she was distracted when rummaging in her handbag for a tissue to wipe her glasses that she was greeted by Charlie.
"Good evening," he said, in a voice that was pitched slightly higher and more hesitantly than she'd imagined. "I think it might be me that you're waiting for." When there was hesitation, he added: "You are Jane, aren't you? Jane Osbourne."
"And you must be Charlie," said Jane automatically, proffering a limp hand towards him. "I'm pleased to finally meet you."
"Likewise, Jane," said Charlie. "May I sit down?"
"Of course," said Jane, who with the pleasantries concluded could now assess Charlie Kingswood in the flesh for the first time.
And what a shock and disappointment it was!
It wasn't that Charlie dressed badly or was poorly groomed. His hair had been cut recently, his smart casual clothes wouldn't look out of place in a West End theatre, and there were many of those little tell-tale signs to show that Charlie took care of his appearance: his nails were neatly cut, he wore cuff-links and his jacket hung well on his shoulders. Even his shoes—smart brown brogues with a shine on them—indicated to Jane that, despite everything, Charlie knew what it meant to dress well.
But none of that could compensate for the fact that Charlie was not only shorter than Jane was expecting—only just five feet tall—but half of his face (the half never displayed in his Facebook photos) was smudged by a huge birthmark. No way could Jane look at Charlie without being uncomfortably aware of the purplish, brownish excrescence that spread from his chin over his cheek, around his eye and across his brow where it tried to hide under his otherwise neat and tidy hair.
This wasn't what Jane had been hoping for. Nor was she expert in hiding what she really thought.
"Would you like another coffee, Jane?" Charlie asked.
This was an occasion when Jane could have made her excuses and left. It wouldn't be a kind thing to do, of course. In fact, after all those months of Facebook friendship, it would be downright rude and would forever burden Jane's conscience. But it was still perhaps the best thing to do.
"Er, yes," said Jane. "Perhaps not a coffee, though. Too much caffeine, you know..."
"I remember what you said you liked," said Charlie considerately. "It's on your Facebook page. A White Cranberry juice."
"Ermm ... Yes, that's it. That's exactly what I'd like."
And as Charlie walked off to the counter, to wait in queue behind a hassled mother and her unruly child, Jane deliberated the options open to her. She couldn't just walk off while Charlie was buying her a drink and then block him from her Facebook page. There were many girls who'd probably do that, but Jane wasn't one of them. But diplomacy and tact were not skills that Jane had acquired to the extent that this was a situation she could easily wriggle out of. How do you tell someone that, well, what you wanted in a man was someone, you know, a bit taller and, let's be frank, not so horribly disfigured?
But then, Jane reminded herself, Charlie was a Facebook friend. It wasn't as if they'd met through a Dating website (especially not one of those that promised innumerable available men, but provided instead only those interested in the tiny minority of signed-up women who were under twenty-five). It was friendship that Facebook promised. Nothing more (although that had always seemed a possibility). Couldn't Jane be satisfied with just that? But, at the moment, her aversion to Charlie's regrettable disfigurement made even that rather unlikely.
Charlie returned with a Grande Filter Coffee (Fairtrade, of course) for himself and a glass and a plastic bottle of White Cranberry juice for Jane. He sat down opposite Jane and gingerly sipped from his still-too-hot cup of coffee while regarding her with evident apprehension. How should their conversation proceed? After all their long Facebook chats would it make sense just to make the kind of embarrassing small talk that had blighted the few dates Jane had arranged online? But, thankfully, Charlie circumvented a bland conversation about the weather or the traffic or the quality of Starbucks' coffee by launching into a subject of much more interest to Jane.
"Did you see that idiot on The Apprentice last night? What do you think he was on?"
"Which one?" asked Jane, who tried hard to address the unblemished half of Charlie's face and ignore his small stature. "The Greek guy with the MBA or the woman with the prominent chest?"
"Both, I suppose," said Charlie. "But especially the Greek guy. What was he on? Did he have no idea what a pillock he was making of himself?"
As they chatted with one another, Jane's thoughts moved away from her original intention to make a polite farewell after just one drink with a vague excuse and an unfulfilled promise to stay in touch towards a more complete engagement with the lives of reality television personalities and minor celebrities whose lives she followed (despite herself) and about which she paid more attention in the newspapers and magazines than she ever did to economic statistics and politics. Charlie and she shared the same passion in following the lives of other people and the more ordinary and fallible the better. And if these were actors who'd appeared in Game of Thrones or Coronation Street then so much more satisfying: to know the personalities not only as they pretended to be but as they really were (even if so many soap stars were uncovered as paedophiles, adulterers and alcoholics).
In fact, Jane's conversation was going so well that she'd finished her White Cranberry juice and Charlie his Fairtrade coffee and continued nattering about the ins and outs of the minor celebrities on not just The Apprentice, but also The Voice, Poldark and even Wolf Hall.
"I watched a couple of episodes but I couldn't get into it," confessed Charlie.
"I couldn't tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys," admitted Jane.
"You just like your historical heroes to be handsome and brooding like Ross Poldark," Charlie teased her.
This was true but the comment served to remind Jane that the man sitting opposite was anything but handsome or brooding. This was a man who if he'd appeared in a period drama, would be more likely to play Joseph Merrick or Richard Harrow. Now the thought was in her mind, Jane didn't know how to dismiss it especially as the two of them were staring at empty cups in a now mostly empty Starbucks with the streets outside lit only by car headlights and eco-friendly street lamps.
"I know a nice little pub just round the corner," said Charlie, who must have sensed that Jane's thoughts were elsewhere. "It's usually crowded at lunch-time, but it should be fairly empty by now. Would you like a drink? I know you like a sweet white wine."
This was another opportunity for Jane. There was a bus to catch. She didn't want to be out late. She was recovering from a bad cold. There were so many excuses: she just had to think of the best one to employ.
Instead, she said: "Oh, alright then. But just the one. I don't want a headache in the morning."
"Me, neither. I'm not much of a drinker. I like the odd pint of beer, but I don't know a lager from a bitter. Or a Schnapps from a Pils."
"I hope they sell crisps as well. Or nuts."
"I'm sure they do. In fact, I think the New Inn does a very nice pie and chips, though I don't know what they do at this time of night."