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Fiction #215
(published February 24, 2005)
The Girl
by Rachel Lawrence
It had been a chance meeting — a threateningly boring afternoon in the bar — when she wandered in, looking slightly vague. Francis permitted himself a smile, a nod at her appearance. There was something different about this girl and her naturally curly hair — the fit of clothes that were so understated as to be invisible.

"We won't be open until ten." He told her regretfully, watching as she irritably buttoned her jacket."

"I'm sorry." She muttered. She took a laboured breath and stared up at him. "I must have come to the wrong place. I was supposed to be meeting someone."

Francis shrugged. "Come back at ten."

The girl hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then reluctantly turned and walked out.

His eyes remained fixed on her. She didn't set off right away, as he expected, but stood shivering in the frame of the window, persistently checking the time by the clock in the high street. It made Francis uncomfortable to see her expectation fade. She didn't look like the kind of girl who should be kept waiting.

He let her pace the street once more, confirm the time and the name of the bar, and resume her position before the window. And only when she transferred her gaze to Francis did he make for the door to let her back in. She followed him gladly.

"Can I get you a drink?" He offered, unwilling to guess at what she would order. He had work to do— this wasn't what his afternoons were for.

"I wouldn't want to get you in trouble— "

"It's alright. I own this place."

The girl's skin was flushed with the cold. She removed her coat and scarf and sat down. "I'll have a coffee, then."

For a moment Francis regretted inviting her in. She was no more attractive than any of the girls who frequented the bar, and everything about her manner suggested independence and defiance: he did not feel fit for the effort it would take to keep up a conversation. His former curiosity gave way somewhat to irritation of her indifference to him.

"It was my brother who arranged to meet here." She admitted after a while. "He's always late. Or gets the date wrong."

Francis made the coffee and set it down at her table. "What's your name?" He asked. He liked the way she spoke; so clear and precise.

"Rachel."

"Francis."

She warmed her hands by the heat of the coffee cup. "And you own the bar? That's rather impressive."

Francis sat down opposite her. "What do you do?"

"Well. . . I'm a writer, trying to be anyway. I always feel like a fraud when I come into the city and see people who are really making a success of things." She leant towards him a little. "I work for a regional courier magazine."

"I didn't think you were from around here."

She laughed. "Is it that obvious?"

"I guess. It doesn't matter though, does it?"

"The editor who interviewed me today seemed to think so. I wasn't what they were looking for, apparently." She sounded resigned, almost amused.

"They must be blind."

She moaned at him, "I should never have come here."

"I thought you were meeting someone..."

She laughed again. "I meant London. I should never have come to London."

Francis stood up and headed towards the bar. He needed a drink. He needed a cigarette too, but, for some reason, he didn't want the girl to know he smoked. She was too good for it, for bad habits and the indiscipline of clinging to them. Her clothes were not designed to carry the stale smoke of those more imprudent than she. He poured a long shot of vodka, drank it, and poured two more, taking them both with him to the table. He placed the glass in front of her and watched it rattle on the polished surface, unable but to hover at her side — taking pleasure in her careful movements: the way she touched her face — the dry skin of her lips — with the tips of her fingers, smoothed down her hair, and replaced her hands in her lap. "I don't drink" She said as he sat opposite her.

Francis scowled. His presumptions influenced the way he responded: "I should have realised that."

"Why would you? It's for personal reasons. Not because I'm disinclined to."

It occurred to Francis that this girl may be younger than he first imagined. She was short and slim, there was definitely uncertainty to her demeanour — he had noticed it as she'd paced the high street and checked the clock. He asked: "How old are you?"

"Twenty— three. I know, it's terrible isn't it! People always say I look younger — and, believe me, that's no less of a compliment when I tell them my career is failing me, or that I am the only girl in my family not to be engaged."

"What do you mean?"

"People assume, because I look young, that I have plenty of motivation left. But it's not true."

"You have to keep at it." Francis heard himself speak, his optimism like mockery. He could remember being turned away from interviews disappointed in the long years before he was able to settle into his own line. He too had needed assurance that there was plenty of space to build up the life he'd naively expected to be living by the age of twenty— five. But things had changed, and his confidence was such that he could patronise her for being less fortunate. "Things will work out." Somewhat uncharacteristically, there was shame to his platitude. He imagined the girl heard it in his voice.

She raised her eyebrows. "Perhaps you could come home with me and explain that to my father."

"And where is home, exactly?"

"A million miles from here."

"I felt the same way when I first came to London. But that was how I wanted it."

"Oh, I see. You were running."

"I wasn't running. I just wasn't standing still anymore."

She smiled. "Isn't that the same thing?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"Well, how often do you go home?"

"Never." He conceded, pausing to witness her satisfaction. "But I'm happy here. And my family are happy for me — from a safe distance. They don't want to hear me boast about what I have achieved. I swear, my father enjoyed my company more when he had something to reproach me for."

"I can understand that." The girl sipped her coffee. Her grip was unsteady. She gazed thoughtfully at the glass of vodka beside her, handled it with the same light touch as she had her face, and pushed it towards Francis, who drank it quickly. She seemed relived.

Francis did eventually light a cigarette. It was a routine hard to break. And although the girl refused to join him, she toyed distractedly with the packet as she talked about her work and her friends. He listened, trying to identify with her, when he knew so little about what she valued. Her apparel, although well intended, was not expensive — the shoes were imitation. And her hair clearly had not been cut for several months. But she was beautiful and her words were important. Francis realised that he had not had a proper conversation with anyone for a long while. He missed his sister, and resolved to call her as soon as he had the chance.

"I spend so long trying to find new ways of saying the same thing. I don't know what would happen if I had an idea of my own. No, I think you've got it made here." She smiled. "I suppose going out and getting drunk never loses its appeal for some people."

"Which is alright by me." Francis laughed deeply, feeling a little stupid in her presence, wishing there was more to him than energy and an easily roused sense of excitement. There was a silence, that seemed to drag on, and only conclude when the door opened and in walked a tall gentleman, as contradictory in gait to the girl as was possible. He made none of the same effort with his manners or first impressions — her irritable fidgeting had been endearing.

"David — where have you been?" The girl rounded on her brother, suddenly furious.

"I'm sorry. . . "

"That's not good enough! What's the matter with you? I've been waiting here for absolutely ages."

The man raised his palms, a grin across his face. "Alright, Rachel, I said I'm sorry. What could I do — I was unavoidably detained?" He shifted his attention to Francis. "Hi." He offered his hand.

Francis complied and stepped away.

"Thanks for letting her in. I didn't realise the bar would be shut. I don't usually come down this way."

Francis once again felt dislike for the tall man, as he had done previously through the girl's theatrical description of him, one that was no less relevant in his presence.

The girl sighed. She looked up at Francis, hesitated, opened her mouth to speak, and then reluctantly turned and followed her brother out.

As before, he let her leave — and with genuine regret he called, "Come back at ten..." But she was long gone.

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