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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

The Ladies' Man
by Thomas Baines

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"Good God! Look who it is."

Colin was somewhat startled by Sidney Fuller's sudden exclamation. Then after looking around he asked in a puzzled way, "Where, Sidney? Where?"

The main concourse of the railway station was busy. People were all over the place - sitting, standing, but mainly walking to and from the long row of ticket collector's barriers.

"Over there! Standing with that woman in the green coat, next to the newspaper stand."

Colin gave a condescending look through the bar room's window in the direction of the stand. He didn't recognise the man. As a matter of fact, he wasn't particularly interested. All he wanted to do was to get on the train and go home, but it wasn't due for another half an hour. Quite frankly, he found Sidney to be a pain in the neck, especially after spending most of the day with him at a contract meeting. Sidney was his office superior, and when he had suggested that they went and stood at the bar for a drink whilst waiting for the train, Colin couldn't very well refuse. Actually, Sidney may have sounded as if he was asking a colleague if he wanted to do something, but as Colin knew only too well it was his way of issuing a command.

"It's that fellow, Cobley! You remember, Wintergreen's son-in-law. The one who ran off with -" Sidney broke off. But with the suspicion of a smirk, quickly added, "Oh! I'm sorry, I'd quite forgotten she was your fiancée."

Colin let out an involuntary gasp as he felt a sudden surge of emotion as Bridget immediately came to his mind. He looked again, thinking, Could it really be that bastard Cobley? The one who ran off with Bridget all those years ago? Nobody had had the faintest inkling about what had been going on between him and her. Then on that fateful morning he overheard somebody say, "Have you heard? Wintergreen's secretary has run off with Frank Cobley!" The man had said it with great relish - and that man had been Sidney.

"Come on, get your glasses on then you'll see it's him," said Sidney, trying to hide the fact that he was enjoying Colin's discomfiture. "You should wear them all the time, after all, you're too old to be vain."

"I'm hardly older than you!" retorted Colin as he fumbled in his jacket's inside pocket - his raincoat being somewhat of a hindrance.

"Of course, but I don't need to wear glasses," was Sidney's smug observation as he watched him. "Heaven knows why you brought that raincoat, I told you it wasn't going to rain." Frank and Bridget! What a scandal, Sidney thought. The boss's secretary having it off with his son-in-law. Mind you, what she ever saw in old Colin, I'll never know. He's always been such a -

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by Colin exclaiming, "Y-Yes it is him! He hasn't changed much. He's still got that conceited look."

"What do you think about the woman?" asked Sidney with a knowing grin.

"Oh, my goodness! It's her. It's Bridget!" exclaimed a shocked Colin. "I-I didn't recognize her at first, she's changed a lot."

Sidney tried to conceal the fact that he was rather enjoying it all as he said, "I wasn't sure if it was her, she's put on so much weight, don't you think?" It wasn't that he actually disliked Colin - no, it was just that he liked to witness other people being disturbed and embarrassed.

Colin was obviously affected, he exclaiming, "What she ever saw in him, I'll never know. He's such a loud-mouthed bastard, who was -"

"Now, now," interrupted Sidney, "It's not like you to go on like that. You should know that those nice types usually go for that kind of man - and cheeky blokes like me!"

Colin bethought himself then spluttered, "I-I don't want you to think that I still have any feelings towards her. I'd more or less forgotten all about her. It-It's just that suddenly seeing her again brought it all back to me."

"That's right, Colin. What's past is past. Remember, you're a married man with a teen-aged family now - what would Barbara say if she knew?"

"Yes, you're quite right, Sidney - let's drink up and go."

"Hold on! Not so quick. There's over half hour before the train goes, and I want at least one more pint. Anyhow, it's your turn to get them in." Sidney was quite determined, not only for his drink, but perhaps there might be some interesting developments.

Colin had turned away and was just trying to attract the barman's attention, when Sidney startled him, saying, "I say! I think they're coming in here." There was an undisguised tinge of excitement in his voice.

Colin quickly looked round with nervous anticipation. He was right - they were walking towards the bar room's entrance door.

On entering the room they made their way to an empty table on the far side of the bar. The place was rather crowded, therefore they hadn't seen Colin and Sidney. This gave Colin a sense of relief - but this was soon to be dispelled. Through a gap in the crowd Sidney suddenly saw Cobley now standing at the bar trying to attract the barman's attention. Then with a cheeky smile on his face, Sidney took a couple of sideways steps in order that Cobley could clearly see him, immediately shouting, "Frank! Frank Cobley!"

Frank turned, and once he had recognized Sidney, gave a friendly wave.

"Come and join us!" shouted Sidney. "And bring Bridget across!"

Cobley paused, and then gave hesitant nods of acceptance - he hadn't seen Colin.

Colin was horrified at Sidney's invitation. He wanted to walk away before they arrived, but realized that that would only worsen Sidney's tale of the happenings to the people back at the office. Bridget, and that skunk Cobley! He thought he was over that, but seeing them again revived bitter memories. Now due to that mischievous devil, Sidney, it looked as though he would have to meet them again. He would therefore try to appear as though it didn't matter any more. In any event, they wouldn't want the matter raised any more than he did. Was it over twenty years ago since it happened? He had not seen her since. The shock of it, together with the resultant sensationalism, had had a devastating effect on him that was only curtailed when he eventually started going out with Barbara. The fact that they hadn't made love seemed to make it appear even worse. Not that he hadn't wanted to, but he had respected Bridget's wishes on that matter and agreed that they should wait until they were married.

After all, her wishes were in keeping with those of a good and respectable young woman - What a bloody good actress she had been!

Sidney made some jovial comment about his invitation to Cobley. But Colin neither heard nor cared what he said - he was too busy preparing himself for the ordeal to come.

Shortly afterwards through a gap in the crowd, Colin saw Cobley arrive at the table with their drinks and then speak to Bridget. It was apparent from her reactions that she did not want them to accept Sidney's invitation. After what appeared to be a few firm words from him, she gave a reluctant nod. Then they, carrying their drinks, made their way across the room.

As they approached, Sidney stepped back, and with a welcoming smile, said, "Hello, Bridget, how are you?"

Her face was red as she replied, "H-Hello, Sidney. I'm all right, thank yo- " She looked shocked and was struck with a temporary dumbness when suddenly aware of Colin standing there. Cobley appeared equally disturbed when he too saw him.

As all three stared at him, Colin, looking deeply embarrassed, managed to stammer, "H-Hello, Bridget. I-I didn't expect to see you here."

There followed a tense silence during which three of those present looked distinctly uncomfortable, each not knowing what to say - whilst the other one was doing his best to try and the hide fact that he was relishing the situation.

It was Cobley who finally disturbed the silence, "Hello, Colin - long time no see!"

Colin was just about to say something, when Bridget found her voice, saying in a subdued manner, "Hello, Colin. It's been so long since I last saw you."

Sidney decided to liven up matters, saying, "Well, how solemn everybody is! I know a way to stop that drink up, I'll get a round in. The same again for everybody, I suppose?" Nobody answered, their acceptance being signified by the nodding of heads.

As Sidney was trying to attract the barman's attention, Cobley, looking a little uneasy, said to Colin, "Em, I suppose you're still at the old firm."

"Yes," replied Colin, "we're up here for a meeting." He felt relieved that at last they had a talking point.

"Are-Are you still in Accounts?" asked Bridget in a quiet voice.

"No, I'm now in Contracts. I've been in there near - "

"And guess who's his departmental head?" interrupted Sidney in a bumptious voice.

"Surely, not you, Sidney?" responded Cobley in a light-hearted way.

"Who else?" retorted Sidney. This brought a smile to everyone's face - the tension had been relieved.

The barman, in response to Sidney's efforts for his attention, shouted across that he would come shortly to take his order.

Their conversations then carried on with a greater degree of normality. Cobley was now an Insurance Agent and Bridget was in charge of a typing pool at a large engineering firm. They were married but had no children. Sidney and Colin told about their respective families. Colin had married Barbara, from Bournemouth, and they had two children. Bridget was interested to hear that Sidney had married Irene Cheetham, for she had worked in the next office to her at the firm and they had been friends. Sidney and Irene had three children.

Colin didn't say a lot. It wasn't only due to the circumstances, but because the conversation was monopolised by Sidney, and to a slightly lesser extent by Cobley - both were extroverts with free tongues. Bridget was relatively quiet, giving the impression that she was listening to the main talkers with polite interest. Colin was conscious that she kept returning his secretive glances.

I wonder what she's thinking? he thought. I bet she thinks I've aged a lot. Mind you, the years haven't been all that kind to her. Sidney was right, she has put on a lot of weight and certainly lost her looks. She looks as though she's had a tough time - though that's hardly surprising, being married to him can't be a picnic. She's lost all the glamour she once ha- He suddenly stopped - realising that he was just looking for reasons to not be attracted to her. No matter what the years and circumstances had done to her, she was basically the same woman he had been hopelessly in love with, and the same thrill was there every time he looked at her. What she had done to him was cruel and unforgivable. But nevertheless, if circumstances were different he knew that he would have no hesitation in asking her to be his loved one once again. He then looked at Cobley. How he hated that man for what he had done to him. There he was, drinking away, laughing and joking with Sidney as though nothing had ever happened. He, like many of his type, had retained his good looks. Damn the man!

The following series of brief conversations could be classed as being convivial, with no specific mention made of serious past happenings. That is, until Sidney put his oar in, saying in a provocative way to Bridget, "I bet you have to keep your eye on our Frank - he still looks a ladies man!"

As the others looked somewhat shocked, Sidney, with a knowing smile, appeared to try to justify what he had just said. "Well, he always had an eye for the ladies - didn't he, Colin?"

Colin's reaction was positive and immediate as he retorted in a firm voice, "Drop dead, Sidney!"

Bridget's face went scarlet, she staring at the floor in embarrassment.

Sidney appeared to be very surprised at Colin's response, saying in a hurt manner, "Wh-What have I said to deserve that?"

Bridget suddenly looked up at him, and with her face contorted with rage, shouted, "You know damn well what it's all about! What are you up to, Sidney?"

Sidney pretended to look puzzled and shocked. Then, as though a sudden realisation had descended upon him, exclaimed, "Oh, that! Em, I seem to have committed a faux pas. Please forgive me?"

There followed a short pregnant silence as Sidney smilingly looked from face to face, waiting for some form of reaction.

Suddenly, Cobley burst out laughing - which subsided as he exclaimed, "You old devil, Sidney! You old devil! You haven't changed one little bit."

With Bridget and Colin as shocked and dumbstruck spectators, Sidney gave a little smile then said to Cobley, "Well, it's no good beating about the bush, is it? We all know what happened, and we've been standing here carefully avoiding the matter. I believe that things should come out into the open - that's the way to clear up any misunderstandings. After all, it's over twenty years since you and Bridget surprised us all."

Cobley smiled as he nodded in agreement, then said, "You're quite right, Sidney. I'm glad you mentioned it. I've been tempted to say something about it, but felt too embarrassed."

"You - embarrassed?" exclaimed Bridget in sudden fit of anger as she glared at him.

"Y-Yes, I was - after all, it's a very delicate matter," he replied in a hurt way. Then looking at a bewildered-looking Colin, he continued, "It's all history now, and I hope you've got over it after all this time." Then extending his hand, he added, "Come on, let's shake hands and be good friends again."

Colin stared at the inviting hand for a few seconds. His look of bewilderment changed to one of anger as he shouted in a bitter voice, "Get stuffed, Frank!" Then, turning to Sidney, he exclaimed, "I'm going for the train - and if you know what's good for you, make damn sure that you choose another carriage to mine!"

The other three were temporarily stunned by his outburst.

As he turned and was about to walk away he paused and looked at Bridget, then said in a kind way, "I'm sorry about what's happened here. I'm glad to have met you again. Goodbye."

"Just a minute!" yelled Cobley in an angry voice. "Nobody tells me to get stuffed!"

"Well, I just did!" was Colin's retort. "What are you going to do about it?"

"I'll show you!" shouted Cobley as he lunged forward at Colin.

Colin was ready for him, but before the two of them could grapple with each other, Sidney forced himself between them, shouting, "This is stupid! What good will it do?" The pair of them hesitated then backed away.

Bridget, obviously very upset, started sobbing.

Immediately, Colin's belligerency disappeared, and turning towards her he said in a comforting voice, "I'm sorry, Bridget. I didn't mean to upset you."

"Don't worry about her," exclaimed Cobley in a loud voice. "She cries over the least bloody thing. What you want to -"

He was interrupted by the barman, who, in a very firm voice shouted across to them, "Look! If there's any more of this I'll get the police. Now drink up, and get out of here."

There followed a deathly silence - everybody else in the room had heard the goings-on, and was staring at the culprits.

It was Sidney who spoke first - he looked in the barman's direction and said, "It was just a little tiff, everything will be all right now." Then looking at the two of them, he said, "Come on, shake hands and make up. There's nothing to be gained by fighting."

Colin gave him a sullen look and was just about to refuse, when he noticed Bridget, whose tearful expression seemed to be pleading with him.

"All right," he said as he held out his hand, "I apologise."

Cobley still looked angry, but on looking around, seemed to relax. And after giving a great sigh of resignation, reluctantly said, "Very well, then."

They exchanged a quick handshake. At once normality appeared to return in the room, and along with it came the usual background buzz of conversations.

Both Colin and Cobley looked uncomfortable as Sidney said, "That's better. Perhaps the best thing would be if we all drank up and got on our way." But being Sidney, he couldn't just leave it at that. He carried on with, "After all, I don't know what all the fuss was about - it happened so long ago. However, I must say that I'm surprised at your attitude, Colin."

That stirred Cobley into saying, "Sidney's right - anybody would think that you still had a crush on Bridget!"

Bridget and Colin immediately looked at the floor, each being very embarrassed and not daring to look at each other.

"Look!" exclaimed Sidney, trying to make light of the matter. "They're both blushing!"

The effect on Cobley was very marked, in that he suddenly started laughing and then remarked in an apparently light-hearted way, "I'd better watch it - he might try to take her away from me!" However, his laughter ceased immediately he saw the angry look on Colin's face.

Sidney then crowned it all by trying to be clever, saying, "I don't think there's much danger of that, is there? After all, you're hardly a ladies' man, are you, Colin? I say let's forget all about it - you wouldn't catch me getting worked up about a thing like that, especially after all this time."

Colin was trying to contain his built-up anger, and was about to say something when he was beaten to it by Bridget, who had heard enough and therefore decided to have her say. "No, Colin is not a ladies' man! But on the contrary, dear Frank is a very experienced one. As a matter of fact, he occasionally still tries his hand at it. His trouble is that it's no longer a secret once he gets drunk, which is fairly often." She ignored Frank's attempt to silence her with an icy stare, then carried on, "Then he tells me all about his latest conquest, and can't stop reminiscing about other women he's had - he even did that on our wedding night. You should have heard him going on about some of the women he's had, including those who worked at the firm - your firm!" Then giving Sidney a belligerent look she exclaimed, "You say you wouldn't get worked up about a thing like that - well, here's our chance to test you. He had Irene! Yes - your Irene! On more than one occasion!"

Sidney looked devastated, the colour draining from his face - which then contorted into a look of intense hatred. He quickly turned and faced a suddenly uneasy-looking Cobley, and was just about to rush at him when was he grabbed by Colin. Who, as he struggled to hold him back close to him, yelled at Cobley, "If you know what's good for you, you'll get out of here as fast as you can. I don't know for how long I can hold him!"

"Come on, Bridget!" yelled Cobley as he made for the door.

"No!" she shouted.

"You better had!" shouted Colin, holding on to a ferocious Sidney. "There's no telling what he may do if he gets near to either of you!"

She hesitated and, ignoring the staring people all around her, quickly said in a tense voice, "I'm sorry, Colin. I'm sorry about everything."

"That's all right," Colin managed to utter as he still struggled with Sidney, "Don't worry about it - you've got enough to worry about living with a bastard like that. Now go!"

She nodded, said goodbye, and then made a hasty exit after Cobley.

Then, looking around, Colin shouted, "Come and help me, somebody!"

A few minutes later, a now subdued Sidney sat with Colin at a table near the bar. He had not spoken a word since Colin and two helpers had got him there, but just sat staring wide-eyed at the floor. The only movements he made were caused by uncontrollable and spasmodic trembling. At last some semblance of normality appeared to be returning as he took a drink from the glass the barman had just brought him.

Colin then waited a few moments before saying to him in a kindly way, "Are you feeling all right now, Sidney?"

Sidney merely nodded his head a couple of times. And as Colin was about to suggest that they should be thinking of going on their way, he mumbled something.

"What did you say?" asked Colin.

He mumbled again, but this time Colin clearly heard what he said and was perturbed by it.

"Say that again," he exclaimed in an incredulous voice.

Sidney, now looking gaunt, repeated in a low voice, "She always denied it, but I never believed her - I always thought he'd had her."

"You mean that you did all that so you could find out?"

"Yes - well, I was hoping it would lead to it. And n-now I know for certain," was Sidney's emotional reply.

He then bent forward and put his head into his hands, bursting into tears. As Colin leant across to console him, he was murmuring bitterly in a distressed way, "The ladies man - the bloody ladies' man! The ladies' man - the bl-bloody l-ladies' man!"

He was then completely overcome as tears flooded down his face.

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