Tuesday, August 4

Chapter 3

I spend about ten days a month working overseas, photographing newly-built properties. I shoot those ‘lifestyle’ shots that you see in the property brochures – glamorous-looking couples lounging around in their perfect apartments. The beautiful furniture is there for half a day, the glamorous couples about half an hour. After that, the properties are sold to retired bank managers whose taste in interior décor is on a par with their wives’ taste in fashion and coiffure.

There may be worse clients than property developers, just as there may be worse dinner party guests than a couple who have just done their own conveyancing, but in neither case would I be overly keen to have the possibility demonstrated.

Property developers like to get value from their suppliers, so a typical trip involves shooting around 15 properties in five locations spread across three countries. Schedules are drawn up without thought being given to such niceties as eating and sleeping, and the show apartments always seem to be on the top floor of apartment blocks which are scheduled to have power hooked-up to both elevators and air-conditioning systems a few days after the shoot.

Models are booked through local agencies selected by the client. In selecting a suitable agency, a typical commercial client will consider such factors as the number of models on their books, their tearsheets (the publications in which they have been featured), their reputation for reliability, their client list and their fees. A typical property developer will dispense with the first four criteria.

Did I mention that there are some projects I do to pay the mortgage?

*****

I do at least get to fly business class. The combination of changeable schedules and all the gear I have to carry means it’s actually cheaper than flying economy given the extra charges I’d end up paying for flight changes and excess baggage.

The less-crowded airline lounges still have something of the feeling of olde-world flying about them. They always feel like the sort of place you could meet someone, everyone having nothing to do but wait, and to avail themselves of the free bar. The reality, of course, is that most of the transient residents spend their entire time on the phone, and I spend most of my time with my head buried in my laptop trying to get the last location’s photos Photoshopped before I arrive at the next. And even if you did get chatting to someone interesting, the chances are high that you’d live in different countries.

But just occasionally …

The BA lounge at Barcelona is large, light and airy. When BA announced a delay to the Heathrow flight due to (what else?) air traffic control problems over London, you could tell who else was on the flight by the ritualistic tutting, muttering of ‘Typical!’ and that strange half-smile half-grimace expression that is the required British response to such announcements. Two of us also took it as our cue to return to the bar for a top-up.

My fellow pragmatist was an attractive Japanese-looking woman with long, fine, black hair. I’d noticed her earlier, not just because she was attractive, but because she stood out from the sea of black and grey suits by wearing a flowing green skirt with orange blouse and green scarf. On some people, it might have looked out of place in a business setting; on her, it looked elegant and confident.

One of the benefits of adversity, even of the being-forced-to-drink-more-wine-in-a-lounge-for-an-extra-30-minutes variety, is that it becomes socially acceptable to engage complete strangers in conversation. I took advantage of the opportunity to say hello.

Given my self-confessed ineptitude at casual pick-up lines, I decided not to be too ambitious.

“I guess there are worse ways to be delayed.”

She smiled. “Yes.”

Ok, so it wasn’t the most effusive of responses, but her accent was English, and her smile seemed just a touch warmer than a polite smile - and anyway I needed the practice, so I ventured on.

“Is London your final destination?”

“It is. And you?”

“For me too. Business trip?”

“Yes.”

“What do you do?”

I hate the question, but I’m English: I have no idea how to relate to someone until I know their occupation.

“I’m a buyer for a department store, here looking at some new ranges of women’s clothing.”

I decided to skip the obvious line about shopping for a living, but the effort was such that I actually said: “Ah, you must spend half your life travelling.”

Ouch. I always respond to that one myself with a slightly strained smile, and here I am inflicting it on someone. But she didn’t seem to mind.

“Probably more than half.”

“Care to pass the time chatting?”

“Sure.”

“Sorry, I should have introduced myself: I’m Stephen.”

“Sumi.”

I at least managed to resist telling her it was a lovely name. I got my bag from next to my seat and wheeled it over to hers.

You know those times when you get on so well with someone that half an hour whizzes by in an instant but you can’t remember afterwards what it was you talked about? I genuinely thought we’d been chatting for about five minutes when the flight was called and I looked at my watch to see it had in fact been forty.

“Where are you sitting?” I asked.

Sumi checked her boarding-pass: “3F.”

“I’m 1C – we’ll see what we can sort out when everyone is on board.”

We were both taking it as read that we wanted to sit together to continue chatting. We walked to the gate together, went on board and had one of those tiny little moments.

I should explain. I grew up in quite an old-fashioned family, with a father who was, well, sexist isn’t really the right word. It wasn’t that he believed women to be capable of any less than men, but it was simply natural to him that men opened doors for women, carried their cases, held their chairs for them and so forth. The women in my family expected this, and so it never occurred to me that there was anything noteworthy about it; it was just the way of the world.

This was all fine until I hit my early teens. This was the time at which feminism reached the height of its aggressive phase, and suddenly a simple things like opening a door for a woman was considered sexist and patronising. At that age, this was all rather bewildering, and for quite some time I struggled with the conflicting messages I was getting from my upbringing and what had become quite a different world.

It made dating particularly challenging, as one never knew whether such gestures would be seen as charming or insulting. It was a confusing time.

Eventually, of course, things settled down, and my experience today is that most women enjoy a little old-world courtesy. But to this day, there is still a slight hesitancy about it for me.

Anyway, the tiny moment. I placed my bag on my seat and walked back with her. I just assumed she knew I would follow her to lift her bag into the overhead locker, and she did. She put it down on the floor and turned to smile and say “Thank you.” It was nothing much, but it just felt good that we were on the same wavelength.

The moment was only slightly tainted by the stern-looking 50-something guy behind me tutting as I apologetically turned around to walk back against the flow of passengers to return to my seat.

The cabin attendant closed the door, and I stood up to look back at Sumi’s row. Luck was on our side: there was no-one sitting next to her, allowing us to avoid one of those ‘Would you mind awfully?’ shuffles.

There are some people you just feel immediately comfortable with, and end up revealing quite intimate things about oneself. No, not those kind of things, but stuff like the kind of childhoods we had, those silly little thoughts we have and usually only share with one or two close friends, that sort of thing.

Flying into Heathrow in the early evening virtually guarantees a scenic, if repetitive, aerial tour of Biggin Hill (I have spent so long in Heathrow holding patterns over the years that I can now recognise each of the four main ones by sight), and for once I was welcoming the delay. But you can’t even rely on Air Traffic Controllers for consistent delays, it seems: we had a straight-in approach.

We continued chatting as we walked back through passport control, baggage hall and into Arrivals. She was being met by a company car and I had to retrieve mine from the business car-park. I gave her my card, she gave me her mobile number, we arranged that I’d call her the following day to agree a date for dinner and said our farewells.

I have never understood the concept of love at first site (lust yes, love no), but I was, at least, rather taken with her.

It was as I turned out of the car-park the wrong way and almost drove into a BAA minibus that I decided I’d better temporarily put Sumi from my mind and concentrate on my driving.

*****

“Am I a bit old for a silly crush on a woman I’ve just met?” I asked Helen in a phone call made almost as soon as I made it safely home.

It’s one of the great things about a good friend – you can skip the ‘Hello, it’s me’ and ‘How are you?’ formalities.

“Is this one post-menopausal?” she asked. She’s such an old romantic.

I filled her in on the details.

“Stephen, you don’t do silly crushes. You’re a pragmatist, not a romantic.”

“The two are not mutually incompatible.”

“You can be a pragmatist and have a loving relationship, but you can’t be a pragmatist and a romantic – they are fundamentally different mindsets. May I remind you of your view on the nature of lifelong relationships? That is not, I would most respectfully suggest, a romantic one.”

“I disagree. Pragmatism is an attitude, romance is a process – it’s something you create in a relationship.”

“Buying flowers?”

“Buying flowers for a first date isn’t romantic, it’s more .. well, traditional. Buying flowers after 20 years of marriage for no particular reason, that’s romantic.”

“And believing the 20-year-marriage couple are probably only staying together from laziness is the view of a romantic?”

I decided I needed to come up with a better pitch for that one.

“Ok. There is no such thing as a perfect person, and thus all relationships involve compromise. Fair?”

“I’m listening.”

“Even the most devoted couple can still find themselves wishing their partner were different in at least some minor respect or other. True?”

“I’m still listening.”

Helen is a hard sell.

“So it’s all a matter of degree. We look for some percentage match. If the big stuff is right, we decide the small stuff doesn’t matter. Otherwise we’d all be living alone while we waited for the fictitious perfect person to wander into our lives. The one who is telepathic and whose sole aim in life is to make us happy.”

There was a brief silence at the other end, and I could picture an amused look on her face.

“What?”

“Stephen, it’s not that anything you’re saying is unreasonable. I don’t disagree with any of it.”

“So then why the ‘Aww, sweet’ attitude?”

“Because it’s not what you think that’s unromantic, it’s how you think. You have an almost mathematical view of relationships. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably entirely sensible – it’s just not an approach that can be considered romantic.”

Hmmm.

“Well, anyway, I appear to have a most unmathematical crush.”

“And yet you phoned me to analyse it rather than phoning her.”

“She might not even be home yet.”

“You have her mobile number, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“So call her.”

“It’s too early to call. I arranged to call her tomorrow.”

“See? Mathematical.”

*****

“It’s Stephen.”

She laughed: “I had a feeling you wouldn’t wait until tomorrow.”

I felt it best not to mention the circumstances behind this decision.

“Are you home?”

“Yes, just settled in with a large cup of lemon tea.”

“As in … real tea, or herbal?” I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice.

“Real tea.”

“Oh good. I have a bit of a thing about that.”

“About tea?”

“Yes, tea is very important. I’m on a one-man mission to inform the world that tea, by definition, is made from the leaves of tea plants. Herbal infusions are not tea. I shall not rest until the phrase ‘herb tea’ is forever eradicated from our language.”

“I do like a man with a clear mission in life.”

Some conversations are interesting to relate later to others. Other conversations, however enjoyable they might have been at the time to the parties involved, do not entirely meet the exacting standards for third-party entertainment.

Suffice it to say we discussed, among other things, the worst karaoke evenings we’d endured, the etymology of karaoke (‘empty orchestra’), the bizarreness of the cult of celebrity, the weirdest journeys we’d ever made, the differences between male & female perspectives on a range of different cars, great books that had been turned into terrible films, the utter unacceptability of doing a remake of The Italian Job, her love of Asiatic lilies, the- well, actually, I don’t suppose the list of topics is any more interesting to relate than the conversation itself, but we talked so effortlessly and enjoyably, there was almost a dreamlike quality to it. Three hours passed and we arranged to meet for dinner on in two days’ time.

*****

It was a Thursday night. I’d booked a table at the Butlers Wharf Chop House for 7.30pm, and we’d arranged to meet outside Tower Hill tube at 7pm, leaving time for a leisurely walk across Tower Bridge and a drink in the bar. I’d called in at a florist to buy an Asiatic lily, and had asked the restaurant to have an empty vase on the table for it. Helen would no doubt consider it mathematical romanticism.

I got there 10 minutes early and sat on the wall by the steps, being entertained by the guide for a walking tour that started there. Londoners are probably the least-informed people in the world when it comes to our home town because we never do things like go on walking tours. I learned of the Tower’s multiple roles over the centuries: fortress, palace, prison, execution spot, armoury, treasury, zoo, mint, public records office, observatory and, of course, home of the Crown Jewels – the latter since 1303, apparently. I felt well-equipped for a pub quiz.

By 7pm, the walking tour had departed and there was no sign of Sumi, but I had a vague recollection that the punctuality rules for dating were that the boy had to be there on time and the girl could be 10 minutes late.

By 7.20pm, there was still no sign of her, and I began to wonder whether there had been a mix-up over the time or place. I called her mobile, which went straight to voicemail, suggesting she was on the tube.

7.30pm arrived, and Sumi hadn’t. I called her mobile again. It rang once, then diverted to her voicemail. Odd. I sent a text asking if all was ok, then called the restaurant to let them know my companion was delayed and to ask whether we could make the table 8pm; that was fine.

The text tone sounded while I was on the phone. It was Sumi. A very strange message: ‘Sorry! I don’t know whether I can do this. I got off the tube early and am sitting crying. Sorry.’

I had absolutely no idea of what to make of it. I tried calling her, and it went straight to voicemail. Communicating via text is less than ideal when one has no idea what is going on. I sent a reply: ‘Sumi, whatever it is, just talk to me. No need to go to dinner if you don’t want to. Answer the phone, ok?’.

Twenty minutes passed. I phoned the restaurant to let them know there was a problem and I’d have to let the table go and then call them again if my companion made it. I tried Sumi again; voicemail.

I felt concerned for Sumi, but also annoyed at being left in the dark like this, then guilty at feeling annoyed when she was clearly in distress about something.

At 8pm, I tried again. Still voicemail. Concern and irritation doing battle. I didn’t want to abandon her, wherever she might be, but I couldn’t do anything to help if she wouldn’t even answer the phone, and there is a limit to how long one can hang around outside a tube station clutching a flower.

It was another unworthy thought, but there is nothing in the world that signals ‘Stood up’ so clearly as a man hanging around outside a tube station for an hour with a flower in his hand. I focused on trying to portray via my body language that I’d only just that minute got there and was, in any case, early.

When I concluded that fidgeting wasn’t helping, I decided to go for a walk along the river. I texted her to let her know, and that she could call me when she was ready to. I set off towards Tower Bridge.

I tried to formulate theories. Was there something about me she didn’t like? That wouldn’t explain the tears. Was she in a relationship and intending to have an affair with me, then had second thoughts? That might explain the tears, but she’d told me she wasn’t seeing anyone special, and we’d had a three-hour chat when she got home that would hardly have been practical with a partner lurking in the background. And in any case, she'd said she wasn't involved, and I believed her.

My theories grew increasingly elaborate and bizarre. She had six months to live, didn’t want to spend it alone but didn’t want to hurt anyone by starting a new relationship. She was a secret agent who didn’t want to drag anyone into her dark and dangerous world. She was a serial killer who picked up men in airport lounges and- Ok, I didn’t quite know how to finish that particular theory.

Walking across Tower Bridge with my flower in hand, it was a bit like a movie scene where the guy has just broken-up with the girl and every other person who passes him is part of a couple clearly head over heels in love. I decided it was time to ditch the flower: I left it on the handrail of the bridge. Perhaps someone else would have an unexpected romantic moment by spotting it and handing it to their partner with a flourish. Or perhaps it would spark a terrorist alert as a suspicious spores-dispersal device – who knows, these days.

By 8.30pm, I had walked the path between Tower Bridge and London Bridge twice. I’d decided to give Sumi some space by not calling or texting her again, but I really couldn’t hang around all night. Whatever was going on, her behaviour was at least thoughtless. I decided to walk back to Tower Hill, try calling one last time and then, if I still couldn’t reach her, text her to say I was going home and she could call me if she wanted to.

Voicemail again. I tapped out the text: ‘Sumi, going home now, hope you’re ok, call me if you want to talk’.

It was a strange feeling returning home at 9pm, having spent two hours doing nothing but wait and wonder. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to be concerned or pissed off, couldn’t find a way to do both simultaneously, so compromised by alternating between the two at about five minute intervals. There was a sort of rhythm to it: the more concerned I felt, the more I felt she should realise I’d be worrying about her, and how thoughtless it was of her to leave me feeling that way; the more irritated I felt at her showing such disregard for my feelings, the more guilty I felt at such selfishness when she was so upset, diffusing my anger and replacing it with compassion.

*****

By the time I got home, I’d managed to persuade myself that there was not much point feeling anything at all about it until we’d managed to speak and I’d found out what was going on. I switched on my laptop and downloaded my mail. One mail jumped out at me:

From Sumi Yoshida, Subject: So sorry

I was momentarily confused, as I hadn’t recalled giving her my email address, then remembered I’d given her my business card.

Stephen,

I’m so sorry. You must think terribly of me. If you don’t want to see or speak to me again, I will understand.

Since my last relationship ended badly, I have been closed to the possibility of another. That must have been somehow obvious in my manner, as it has been some time since anyone has even asked me for a drink. The few who have, I have always said no.

You were so unexpected. We got on so well that I didn’t even hesitate to give you my number, and that phone call made it natural that I would have dinner with you.

I was carried away in the feeling. I didn’t think. It was only when I was on my way to meet you, on the tube, that suddenly it felt like such a big thing. I am so used to being in my own little world that I was not sure I wanted to leave it. And I felt that, with you, I might.

And my second thought was what if I do want to leave it with you, but you don’t want to see me again?

I didn’t know which was worse, and the next thing I knew, I was in tears. I just had to get off the tube and walk. I don’t even know where I walked to. When you called, I had to divert the call because I couldn’t talk. I just sent the text and switched off my phone. I didn’t even think about what it must be like for you.

I’m so, so sorry.

Sumi

My earlier torn feelings now felt like a mere dress rehearsal for what I felt at that moment. How could I read that and still feel annoyed? It was impossible not to feel compassion for her.

It was also impossible to avoid hearing the faint sound of alarm bells. I mean, yes, we had got on really well. Incredibly well, in fact. But, looked at objectively, we’d had one enjoyable conversation during an otherwise boring journey, and one enjoyable phone call. Such an extreme reaction was surely out of proportion?

Hmmm. Perhaps Helen was right about my mathematical perspective. But most people, well, most men, at least, would agree there was at least a faint feeling of bunny-boiling about it.

Half of me wanted to reach out to her, and half of me wanted to run away. Both halves agreed that it was time for a glass of wine.

Wine in hand, I distracted myself by dealing with the other emails before returning to stare once again at Sumi’s mail.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I did at least know that I didn’t want her to go to bed without a reply.

Sumi,

Thanks for explaining. Let’s talk tomorrow?

Stephen

It allowed me to sleep on it.

Friday morning. I had lots of photo-processing to get through, so dived straight into that. At lunchtime, I checked my email. She had replied at 1am.

Stephen,

I’m glad you’re still speaking to me. Yes, I’d like to talk.

Sorry again.

Sumi


I was out with friends that evening, so suggested I call her on Saturday morning. She replied a short time later to say that was good for her.

*****

Saturday morning. I still wasn’t quite sure how I felt, but talking to her was going to be the best way to find out. Lines from a Harry Chapin song ran through my mind:

We talked ‘cos talking tells you things
‘Bout what you really are thinking about
But sometimes you can’t find what you’re feeling
‘Til all the words run out


“Hi.”

I caught myself. I always greet friends by name, it’s always ‘Hi whoever’, never just ‘Hi’. Just ‘Hi’ means I’m annoyed.

“Hi Stephen.”

I wasn’t quite sure what to say next. I hadn’t formulated a plan for this call.

“Are you ok?”

Well, better than nothing, I guess.

“Yes. Well, I still feel terrible at standing you up like that. It really wasn’t my intention, I just wasn’t thinking straight.”

“It’s ok. I understand.”

Did I?

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give me a second chance?”

It was obvious she was going to ask that question, but I honestly hadn’t known how I was going to answer it.

“Of course.”

I blinked. I’d said that before I’d even had the chance to consider the question.

“You will? Really?”

I couldn’t exactly change my mind at that point, and anyway, I found I didn’t want to.

“Really.”

“I don’t suppose you’re free this afternoon? I know it’s short notice, well, no notice, but I want to put things right as soon as I can?”

I was. I always try to keep a day free when I get back from a trip as I’m often too exhausted to do anything but read and laze.

“That would be perfect. 3pm?”

Who the hell was that man who kept answering on my behalf?

“When was the last time you went to the Tower of London?”

I thought. “When I was about seven, I think.”

“Shall we go?”

“Why not? Ok, I’ll meet you at Tower Hill at 3pm.”

Arranging to meet at the same place didn’t feel ideal, but we were committed now.

*****

There was an unpleasant feeling of deja-vu as I emerged from the tube a few minutes early. I had thought that, if she were truly remorseful, she would have been there half an hour early just to be safe, but no, there was no sign of her. At least this time I was free of flora.

Three o’clock arrived. And departed. I wasn’t impressed.

Five past.

I decided this time she was getting ten minutes and that was it.

It was a beautiful day. Clear blue skies, warm, just about perfect. Aside from the fact that I was spending it once again hanging around the same damn tube station.

Eight minutes past. No text. No call. Two more minutes, then I was gone.

I debated whether I was going to call her or just leave. It would feel terribly rude to leave after only ten minutes, but it wasn’t ten minutes: it was two hours, one wasted evening and ten minutes.

But it wasn’t me, just walking away like that, so I decided I would call.

Ten minutes. I called. It rang for a time then went to voicemail. I tried to keep my tone neutral, but made no attempt to avoid terseness. “Sumi, it’s ten past three, you’re not here so I’m leaving.” I hit disconnect.

Damn.

Some friends lived about ten minutes’ walk from here, so I gave them a call on the off-chance they were in, but they weren’t. Now what?

Well, the plan had been to visit the Tower, and while I wasn’t entirely in the mood, I was even less inclined to just go home after another wasted journey. I fought my way through the throngs of tourists as I walked through the underpass and round to the ticket booths. Massive queues and crowds. I’d spotted a tourist shop by the tube that sold tickets, so I walked back there to buy one (probably at a premium, I didn’t care) then lasered my way through the crowds and in through the main gate.

As I wandered round the Tower, I tried to decide what my response would be when she called. I realised that one of the most annoying feelings in the world is not knowing what to feel. I mean, by rights I am entitled to feel roundly pissed-off as I’ve been stood-up twice. But there is always a chance that she’s laying under a bus somewhere. Or she set off two hours early only to have some Clockwise-style fate befall her.

Ok, if she called from the tube in ten minutes and had a really good reason, I’d meet her; if she called in 30 mins with a lousy excuse, we’d be done. Hmm. Seemed Helen might be on to something with that mathematical business.

She didn’t call at all.

I’ve always admired those people who can completely put something from their mind; they would simply shake it off and immerse themselves in the Tower. I tried my best, but it really wasn’t working. By the time I set off home, I was fuming. No email, however heart-rending, was going to work this time.

*****

It was another email.

Stephen,

I can’t believe I blew it. You gave me a second chance I didn’t deserve, and I blew it.

I left my mobile at home. I was in such a rush to get there early. It was only when I got there that I realised. Your number was, of course, in my mobile.

I figured I’d spot you, but it was so crowded. I went back and forth between the ticket booth queues, to the entrance, the gate by the road, the path from the underpass, everywhere I could think of, but there were just so many people. I waited there until after four, and by that time felt sure you would have given up on me.

I got your voicemail when I got home, and wanted to call but you sounded so … final … in your message that I knew that was it.

I’m sorry. I know there’s no chance now, but I really am sorry.

Sumi


Fuck. I was sure I’d said Tower Hill rather than the Tower. If she’d thought we were meeting at the Tower itself, she would surely have asked where exactly. Though with mobiles, it’s not really an issue. If you remember to take the bloody thing with you. Damn her.

Now what? I mean, we’ve all left our mobiles at home sometime or other, and it’s usually on a day when it’s guaranteed to cause maximum hassle (the last time I did it, my car broke down in the middle of nowhere and it took me 15 minutes to flag someone down to borrow their phone). But surely nobody in their right mind agrees to a third meeting after they’ve been let down twice?

I debated the matter with myself. Looked at objectively, she’s failed to show twice, and therefore is hopelessly unreliable and absolutely doesn’t deserve a third chance. Looked at subjectively, her first reason was .. well, a bit odd, but otherwise hard to fault, and her second reason was just one of those unfortunate things. And we had got on really well.

I read some excellent advice about decision-making many years ago: the trivial stuff, you examine the pros & cons and reach a conclusion; the important stuff, you let your gut decide. My head was quite clearly saying no, but my gut was, to my surprise, saying yes.

Ok. But I was not risking the slightest chance of hanging around like a stray dog a third time. As I didn’t entirely trust myself to be sufficiently stern on the phone, I responded in kind: by email.

Sumi,

I’ve been debating with myself, and it seems my head lost. So, let’s try one last time.

However, my head did succeed in imposing conditions, so here’s what I’m offering. I will tell you where I am going to be and at what time. You can be there or not. If you’re not, I won’t even wait one minute, I’ll just go home, delete your details from my phone and we’ll be done.

So. Thursday afternoon, I have a corporate shoot with a CEO in Broadgate at 4.15pm. The shoot won’t take more than a few mins, so by the time I’m packed up and out of there, it will be 4.30pm. I’ll meet you by the huge metal sculpture outside the Broadgate Circle entrance to Liverpool Street (this is the one with the sunglasses shop at the end). It’s at the bottom of the steps below the junction of Eldon Street with Blomfield Street.


I thought I’d better be 100% clear! I continued:

I know it’s still in the working day, but I’m sorry, I’m not willing to wait around so that’s the best I can offer.

I apologise for being so hard about this, but I think you can probably understand where I’m coming from after two failed attempts?

You don’t even have to let me know whether you will be there: if you are, you are, if not, well, no harm done.

Stephen


I clicked Send before I could change my mind and water it down. She replied almost immediately:

Stephen,
Thank you! I don’t deserve it. I will be there. Definitely.
Sumi


*****

CEO headshots are worse than weddings. The whole point of being a CEO, I suppose, is that you can delegate the boring stuff to underlings, but posing for their photo is one task they can’t delegate. You typically get a 5-minute slot, usually booked several weeks in advance. They walk in, expect you to take the photo within 30 seconds, are bored within two minutes and have left the room within five. You don’t get any second chances, so everything has to be perfect.

I don’t leave anything to chance. I arrange with their PA to have the use of the boardroom for an hour prior to the shoot. I identify two places in the room that will work (usually one spot at either end of the table) and set up two identical lighting systems. I have two identical camera bodies with two identical lenses. I agree with the PA that one of the CEO’s support staff will be available 40 minutes prior to the shoot so that I can use them for the test-shots, testing both cameras and both sets of lighting. I also agree that the marketing or PR exec will be present to preview the test-shots on my laptop to ensure that they are happy with the result. Then as soon as the CEO arrives, it’s just a question of sitting them in one of the two spots, suggesting a few poses and pressing the button. So far, I’ve never needed any of the backups, but you can guarantee that something would fail the moment I got complacent about it.

At 3.30pm, I was all set up and waiting for the assistant to arrive for the test-shots when my mobile warbled: a text message. Sumi. She was taking no chances and was already there. Great. I switched off my phone (you definitely don’t want any interruptions during a shoot).

4.15pm on the dot, the door opened and the CEO walked in. She was unusually chatty and cooperative. I generally have five suggested poses and am happy if they will do two of them; this one did all five. By 4.19pm, we were done. Everyone was pleased. I promised them they’d have the finished photo by lunchtime tomorrow.

I packed up my kit, said my goodbyes and walked the few hundred metres to Richard Serra's dramatic sculpture, Fulcrum. I checked my watch as I got there: 4.29pm. There was no sign of Sumi as I walked down the steps. I walked all around the sculpture. Nothing. I checked the steps all around it. No. I even walked inside the sculpture – she wasn’t there either.

It was 4.30pm. I circled around the sculpture once more, checked the steps again, checked the balcony above: she was definitely not there.

That was it. I didn’t care what had happened that time, I was not waiting around a third time. We were officially done.

It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered my mobile was still switched off. I had a momentary pang of guilt, then decided it made no difference: the deal was very clear, she had to be there at 4.30pm on the dot, and she wasn’t.

As I switched it on, I got a text and a voicemail alert. The text was from Sumi, and timed at 4.20pm:

Just need some tissues! Sniffling here. Back in 5 mins.

There were two voicemails, both from Sumi. The first:

Sorry, stuck in a stupidly long queue in Smiths, but just 30 seconds away! Meet me here if I’m not at the statue?

The second:

I guess not.

Then I did feel guilty. But still, the deal was the deal, and she hadn't been there.

*****

Helen had become my co-conspirator. Actually, being happily-married, I think she was getting a vicarious thrill from my dating adventures.

“Am I crazy for not even waiting five minutes?” I asked her. “What if we were perfect for each other?”

Helen has a surprisingly black-and-white view of the world, for a woman. “She’s a flake. Maybe a delightful one, but a flake all the same. You and a flake just wouldn’t work.”

It was hard to disagree. To me, a promise is a promise, even a trivial one. If I say I’ll do something, I do it, and I expect the same of those around me. It’s perhaps a weakness to set so much store by things that don’t matter so much, but I can’t help it – it’s the way I was raised.

“You know,” I said, “it’s astonishing the tiny things that might stand between one life path and another. A queue in a newsagents. Maybe we would have been great, and this would be that funny story we’d still be telling in ten years’ time.”

“True,” Helen replied, “but it’s equally likely that wasting time with a flake for a few weeks would have you miss out on hooking up with your future partner. You can’t second-guess yourself all the time, you can only make your decisions as best you can. Some will be right, some will be wrong, one or two will be disastrous, but that doesn’t change no matter whether you choose path A or B. Sheldon Kopp.”

‘Sheldon Kopp’ was shorthand for what Helen knew to be my favourite quotation. Well, ‘favourite’ isn’t quite right, as it is a rather bleak quote in some ways, but it is a quote which I feel very succinctly summarises the nature of life:

I do not mean to imply by this that a man can determine just what his world or his life will be like. A man, after all, is only a man. He stands somewhere between absolute freedom on the one hand, and total helplessness on the other. All of his important decisions must be made on the basis of insufficient data. It is enough if a man accepts his freedom, takes his best shot, does what he can, faces the consequences of his acts, and makes no excuses. It may not be fair that a man gets to have total responsibility for his own life without total control over it, but it seems to me that for good or for bad, that's just the way it is.

It felt particularly poignant at that moment.

16 comments:

  1. I believe that things which are doomed from the start never have a future. There is no foundation, no history, which makes every event crucial. Sometimes I hate this, because I easily mess things up at the start, and since that makes guys run away, they never get a chance to see all the other aspects of my personality. But you gave her another chance, and that is what counts. And that, however sad, gave me just a spark of hope on this otherwise gloomy Friday night.

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  2. It's interesting, the things that matter to different people in terms of first impressions. Being nervous, for example, wouldn't matter to me at all; being late would. To someone else, it might be the opposite.

    What matters to you?

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  3. Hello, I just stopped by and wanted to leave a comment to say how much I've enjoyed reading your posts. I've learnt so much today ! Your photographs are beautiful and I've had such fun looking around your website.

    Thank you for sharing your writing and your thoughts and best wishes !

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  4. Thanks, Elise, for your kind comments

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  5. Am I the only one who thinks Stephen is a loser for letting her go like that? He should have waited...she made an emotional mistake the first time but a genuine one the second time... he didn't have to be so hard on her!

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  6. It's an open question in the book: we simply don't know, can't know, whether it was the right or wrong decision. Yet we all have to make those decisions anyway ...

    ***

    “You know,” I said, “it’s astonishing the tiny things that might stand between one life path and another. A queue in a newsagents. Maybe we would have been great, and this would be that funny story we’d still be telling in ten years’ time.”

    “True,” Helen replied, “but it’s equally likely that wasting time with a flake for a few weeks would have you miss out on hooking up with your future partner. You can’t second guess yourself all the time, you can only make your decisions as best you can. Some will be right, some will be wrong, one or two will be disastrous, but that doesn’t change no matter whether you choose path A or B. Sheldon Kopp.”

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  7. Surely at this stage in the book, Stephen needs to be bit of a loser. We've got at least another chapters to go, and he's got to change, so having some glaring weaknesses/hidebound views is pretty important.

    Nice writing, Ben. Very compelling.

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  8. Thanks, Nicholas.

    Yes, the novel is a maturation story as well as a romance. Stephen learns a lot a long the way ...

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  9. Very nice writing, the story was poignant and had me from the start. :)

    Just discovered your blog and am catching up!!

    Be sure to pop by, leave a note, and follow.

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  10. Thanks, Laila. Will look forward to reading yours.

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  11. This was absolutely fantastic.. I spent a better part of the last hour at work reading this.. truly truly amazing.. when's the next chapter coming out?

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  12. I have just started reading your blog...Great read! Great to see things from a guy’s point of view. Will you be continuing...?

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  13. Thanks - glad you enjoyed. I'm currently editing the book ready to send to agents/publishers. I'll most likely post the revised chapters 1-3 here, but probably not post more online.

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  14. My pleasure to come across your blog and read it, keep posting.

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  15. Nice story! Stephen should have waited though...

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  16. Thanks, TL. I guess he'll never know!

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