The Next Move

She slipped him her telephone number in a totally discreet way, quite unseen by anybody else. Engineered so cleverly, right under the noses of everybody else in that room, nobody had the slightest inkling of what had really taken place.

It spoke unquestionably of premeditation. He could imagine her carefully tearing the square corner off the sheet of paper, writing her number on it and then folding it once and again. Yet where had she concealed this, ready to join the envelope she handed to him, in full view of anybody who happened to notice the movement? The n he remembered she had reached into her handbag for the envelope, so it must have been positioned in readiness there, in preparation for the two to be picked up and passed over as one.

The re was nothing to distinguish the blue Gift Aid envelope which she handed him from any other and it was an entirely natural thing for her to do. He was Treasurer of the Charity and it was his responsibility at these functions to receive the envelopes containing donations from those who had attended to enjoy food and wine and the post-dinner guest speaker. True, a basket was always passed around between the tables for people, whilst dining, to place their envelopes in, each completed - with the pen helpfully provided - with name, address and date and then sealed, their donations lying within, seen only by the Treasurer and his assistant when they together subsequently opened the envelopes. However, there were always one or two individuals who had not been attentive whilst the basket was in transit and who afterwards handed their envelopes directly to the Treasurer. The re were even those with their own supply of envelopes who completed, filled and sealed them beforehand and brought them along to the function. Thus, the sight of a lady reaching into her handbag for a Gift Aid envelope and handing this to the Treasurer was not unusual. She had clearly worked all this out when plotting her enticement.

How had he reacted? Exactly as she hoped he would. The envelope and folded paper had been placed into his hand and he had received it entirely as he ordinarily would. The re was no start, no second look, no puzzled expression, no immediate inspection of what the extra note was which he had been given, thus drawing unwanted attention to it.  Anybody viewing the transaction would have seen it as entirely unremarkable. 

Beneath the surface, though, his heart had missed a beat. He recognised that he must master all his inner resources to remain absolutely calm, to appear unmoved, to react normally. If he had hesitated for a second, the chances are that he would have slipped up, even if only in the timbre of his voice by saying “thank you” in a way entirely unexpected in that environment. Because he knew, as soon as he caught a glimpse of it, exactly what was written on that piece of paper and he knew, too, that he had immediately to continue its concealment from everybody else’s view. 

So his brain super-rapidly concentrated on the practicalities. The re was a very real danger that if he simply placed the envelope in his pocket or in the basket, the piece would flutter down to the floor. That would have aroused suspicion – somebody would be bound to see both the secret paper and the necessary movement to retrieve it. Accordingly, he contrived somehow to slide his thumb over the paper, thereby not only rendering it almost invisible but allowing him to grasp both it and the envelope firmly together. He placed both unostentatiously in his pocket and looked into her face, expecting to see some minute sign of animation there, the merest nod of the head or twitch of the lip as if to say “I’ve passed you my number, as promised”. Yet her features were placid and unmoved and she was already beginning a conversation about something quite neutral, perhaps to ensure that he would say nothing to betray the clandestine act.

This is marvellous, he thought. Our thoughts are chiming together precisely and those thoughts are, first and foremost, discretion.

Now, however, his once again beating heart was beginning to beat faster as he realised that this was the first move, the opening gambit, of a potentially glorious encounter which, she had now clearly signalled, had the potential to be played to the full. 

Was it actually the first move, though? This sleight of hand had not arisen completely out of the blue, he had to admit that. Just how their previous amicable conversations had initially taken on an extra dimension he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t recall the first time he had said anything which might be considered particularly overt, or used specific words to convey his inner thoughts but a woman can pick up on the hidden things: the inflexions, the body language, the subtle nuances of voice or look or posture. He had always tried to act normally in her presence but realised that, over time, he must have begun to give away his deepest desires.

His mind went back over their previous discussion - after the last such dinner event - and he could recall the casual, almost throw-away reference by her to his coming round to her home sometime. “You might be out”, he had replied. “I would hate to be disappointed”. Her response, given in a calm, unruffled manner had been “Just phone me up first so I know you are coming”. It was as he had responded “I don’t know your number” and she had answered “Let me write it down for you” that somebody had interrupted their little bubble and dragged him away to sort out the urgent needs of the speaker. The y never had the chance to complete that conversation but now, at the first opportunity since then, she was following it up and laying out the invitation to her telephone, her home and, it seemed, to everything else.

His thoughts were coming quickly now as, just as happened the last time they were conversing together, other people were stepping forward to engage in discussion with him. In those last seconds of the two of them being tête-à-tête, he wanted to be absolutely sure she knew that he appreciated something extra had been placed in his hand that evening; that her action had not gone unnoticed by him.  He couldn’t openly refer to it, for others were now within earshot, so he gave a rapid dart of his eyes down towards his pocket and an imperceptible, except to her, tiny nod of his head. The n the group closed in and the conversation encompassed everybody.

He didn’t have another opportunity to be alone with her that evening but later, when general goodbyes had been said to all and sundry and the chores were finished and the lights in the hall had been switched off and the door locked, he had time to think. 

Stepping out into the chilly night air seemed suddenly to clear his brain and he realised, perhaps for the very first time, that he was up against a problem. As he walked slowly home that problem seemed to increase in enormity. Quite simply, once he crossed the line he would be potentially doomed. The slightest hint, the merest suspicion (like, for example, a lingering whiff in his clothes of her perfume), the tiniest clue or something said by her or by anybody else - even as an aside - and everything he had would collapse completely.

She had clearly demonstrated discretion so far but, with a rare revelation of foresight, he guessed that things could change at some point in the future. What if, he thought, he were to turn round after a while and say, effectively, “That’s it, no more”. She might think “Well if I can’t have him any more I’ll make sure nobody does”. She would only need to say one word or drop one hint and he would be finished. The thought of being in that position, frankly, frightened him. For he knew that there would be no benefit of the doubt offered, no consideration of it being thought merely an aberration, no moving on.

To him the whole tantalising enterprise, which until an hour before had appeared so alluring, now appeared as being far too risky, too close to home and with too much riding on it. Had he just been fantasising? Is that all his thinking, his dreaming, his subconscious Socratic verbalising were destined to become – mere unfulfilled fantasies? Even if they did become real, he would have to live with the guilt of deception. 

That was, perhaps, the biggest issue about turning such fantasies into reality – he would need to lie, to cheat, to pretend, to scheme. He would need to cover each track, every turn, invent watertight alibis, be always looking over his shoulder, always anticipating. He was getting too long in the tooth for that. He knew, somewhere along the way, there would be a slip up. He would forget something or not foresee something, or somebody else would put two and two together. He could anticipate that very quickly the whole situation would spiral out of his control, out of their control; that the whole fragile house of cards would come tumbling down.

How he wished he could be somebody different. Somebody whose heart didn’t rule his head.

He clung to the words he first heard years ago in “Say Hello Wave Goodbye”, a song by the group “Soft Cell”: “A nice little housewife, who’ll give me a steady life and won't keep going off the rails”. That is exactly what he had. Was he really prepared to sacrifice everything? Could he stay on the rails too?

The n came to him a picture of her, perhaps waiting by her telephone, willing it to ring, or staring at her mobile phone, knowing that any minute he must open that paper and call. Now his half-formed feelings of guilt at the prospect of being with her took on a new turn: guilt at letting her down. She had invested in that subtle bit of planning to signal privately to him that she was willing and now it was time to realise that investment. The ball was manifestly in his court. He had to make the next move. He saw that now.

The re and then the turmoil in his head subsided and he determined to see it through, at whatever cost. He simply could not ignore such an invitation, one which might never come his way again. 

Realising he was nearly home - there, a few yards ahead of him, was the turning into his street - he abruptly stopped under a convenient lamp post. Whipping out his mobile phone he reached down into his other pocket and retrieved the secret paper, nestling there amongst all the blue envelopes which he had gathered together. Trembling slightly and with a dry mouth, preparing to touch in the number, he flicked open the folds on the paper.  

Written on it in a tiny, neat hand was this: “So embarrassing – I only had a £5 note on me for the Gift Aid envelope. Will pay extra next month. Sorry”.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire February 2016