The Artemis File
George Ambrose Wiggins was a tall, stick-insect of a man, as high as a hop pole and as thin as a rake, the only concession to his otherwise lean and angular frame being the large, round spectacles that perched on the end of his nose; two bright and polished circles on either side of his face, like a pair of luminous headlamps on a vintage Bentley.
By his own admission, George was a creature of habit, and tonight was no exception. Every other Thursday was when Margaret went to her book club; a regular get-together with a few girlfriends to share a couple of bottles of wine, catch up on the latest gossip and discuss books that she hadn’t read. George used to worry that they’d catch her out but of course they hadn’t read them either. Still, whether they were pretending or not the arrangement suited George fine. It gave him the opportunity to drop into The Red Lion on the way home from work, have a bit of banter with Ron the landlord and enjoy a couple of pints of real ale before wandering home to a microwave meal and some undisturbed time in front of the telly. A bit of peace and quiet before Margaret came rushing through the door, all flushed and talkative from the evening’s entertainment.
The Red Lion was something of an old fashioned establishment, in fact in George’s opinion it was the only proper pub left in Tenterden which hadn’t been turned into a trendy wine bar or even worse, some kind of child-friendly, food-hugging monstrosity. All the other so-called watering holes were full of under-aged kids swigging tasteless, expensive lager out of designer bottles, or else they were soulless, half-empty bistros frequented by tired, aspiring families who thought that the height of fine dining was eating some sort of pre-prepared meal cooked in a box. Still, thank God for the Red Lion, thought George as he slurped the top off his pint of bitter. He nodded to a couple of locals who had congregated at the end of the bar and then wandered over to his usual seat, crossing his daddy longlegs into a comfortable position before settling himself into a pint of Harvey’s and the evening paper. Satisfied that here at least the world was still as it should be he munched his way through a packet of crisps, swilled a mouthful of beer around his gums and then spent the next five minutes sucking his teeth as he read the day’s news, completely oblivious to the comings and goings on around him.
It didn’t take long for the pub to fill up, Thursday being a popular night for people to get a head start on the weekend. Within minutes a seemingly endless procession of customers had come through the door, most of them in twos or threes, all looking forward to a well-deserved drink and a good night out. The bar was soon packed with a loud and lively crowd, creating a real buzz about the place. Tenterden might have been a small, traditional market town but The Red Lion was definitely the place to be on a Thursday evening.
‘You alright George?’ asked Ron, as he walked past, clearing up the empty glasses and straightening a few chairs. ‘How’s life in the fast lane then?’
George looked up and gave him a half-hearted smile. Ron Stebbings always had been a sarcastic bugger. ‘Not bad,’ he replied. ‘You know, scratching a living.’
Ron shrugged and wandered back behind the bar. He’d known George for four or five years now but wasn’t exactly sure what he did for a living. He knew that he worked in London somewhere but beyond that he hadn’t got a clue. Not a high paid city slicker, that was for sure. George was much too ordinary for all that financial services malarkey. Maybe he works in a post room somewhere, thought Ron before turning his attention to the crowd of locals who were waiting patiently to buy another round.
George went back to his paper and immersed himself in the evening news. It was always quality time as far as he was concerned. A precious moment of rest and relaxation in an otherwise hectic week. A chance to slowly unwind after all the machinations of commuting up and down to London every day. He was still engrossed in the paper, still enjoying his slow, leisurely pint when he became aware of a sudden movement in the chair opposite, the furniture clattering with the impact of someone sitting down hurriedly and then a distinctive waft of perfume floating across the table towards him. He looked up startled, wondering what the hell was going on.
‘Oh my God, I think he’s coming in. Do something, quick!’
George looked at the woman in complete bewilderment and not without some annoyance. The last thing he wanted was to be interrupted by some excitable female. She, on the other hand was still talking but wasn’t looking at George at all, her gaze fixed firmly over his shoulder towards the front door and on someone about to walk in.
‘Oh for God’s sake, I don’t believe it! He looks like Toad of Toad Hall!’
George twisted around and raised an eyebrow as he looked at the man coming through the door. Whoever he was he certainly did look a bit like Toad of Toad Hall. The guy must have been about forty-five, maybe pushing fifty years of age and the combination of an over-elaborate moustache, a loud and flamboyant bow-tie and a large-checked waistcoat stretched tight over a round and portly frame gave him a rather pompous appearance, all of it embellished by a large pink carnation proudly displayed in his lapel button-hole.
Suddenly the penny dropped. ‘Blind date?’ asked George, turning back to look at his uninvited guest.
The woman ignored him for a second, her attention still fixed on the man who was now standing at the bar, checking out the room, trying to find the person he had arranged to meet. She turned and looked at George properly for the first time and then nodded, rather sheepishly. ‘Internet. Monamour dot com.’
George pulled a face, not sure what to think about that. He didn’t know much about Internet dating but assumed it could all be a bit sleazy and not without some risk. ‘Don’t you have to post photos of yourself?’ he asked, ‘so you know what each other looks like?’
‘I don’t think his photo was taken very recently,’ replied the woman with a rueful smile. ‘Mind you, luckily for me neither was mine. Hopefully he won’t recognise me.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure about that,’ said George, ‘I think he’s coming over...’
The woman looked up in panic, just in time to see Mr. Toad wandering slowly through the bar, clutching what looked like a double whisky and surveying the crowd of customers, hoping to spot his intended victim.
‘Oh my God!’ she whispered, leaning across the table as if George was now her new-found confidant. ‘He looks even worse close up. Quick, do something. Talk to me.’
‘Talk to you? What about?’ asked George indignantly, still wishing that the wretched woman would just go away.
‘I don’t know...anything. Just act like we’re a normal couple and start talking for God’s sake!’ And with that she leant forward again and took hold of his hand, as though they were two lovers having an intimate conversation.
George shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was as much as he could do not to pull his arm away. It was years since he’d held a woman’s hand. Not even Margaret’s. It didn’t seem right. And it certainly didn’t feel right. He looked up briefly, just in time to catch a glimpse of Mr. Toad who was now approaching and staring at their table, probably trying to work out whether the woman was his blind date or not.
‘Okay,’ said George, unable to disguise the irritation in his voice, ‘how about the offside rule. What’s your view on that?’
The woman looked at him with incredulity. ‘The offside rule? I’m a damsel in distress and you want to talk about football?!!’
‘It’s a very important subject,’ replied George stubbornly, ‘at least it is to most of the people in here…’
‘Most people in here being men, you mean?’ interrupted the woman, annoyed at George’s tone.
‘That’s not what I said.’
‘It’s what you implied.’
‘It’s just a bit complicated.’
‘Offside. In my experience…’
‘Oh, spare me the patronising explanation, please!’
‘There you are,’ said George, a glint of mischievousness in his eye, ‘we’ve only just met and we’re arguing already. What could be more normal than that?’
The woman looked at him for a second and then smiled, suddenly realising that Mr. Toad had walked right past them, no doubt concluding that they were just another couple having a matrimonial row.
‘I think he’s gone now,’ said George, checking over his shoulder just to make sure.
The woman smiled at him again and said nothing, the silence suddenly making George feel slightly awkward.
‘Do you think I could have my hand back?’ he asked, tugging gently to separate them.
‘Oh, sorry.’ The woman let go and withdrew her arm slowly, still staring intently at George across the table. ‘I’m Laura, by the way.’
‘George,’ said George, not sure what else to say.
‘Well, pleased to meet you George. And thank you, you’ve been very gallant. I owe you a drink.’ Her handbag suddenly appeared from nowhere and within seconds a £20 note had been flourished. ‘What’s your poison George?’
George shifted uncomfortably again. Helping out a damsel in distress was one thing but having a quiet cosy drink with a woman he’d never met before was another thing altogether. How on earth was he going to explain that to Margaret?
‘I’m fine,’ he said, picking up his glass and draining the last dregs of his pint of bitter. ‘Anyway, time I was going.’
‘Nonsense,’ replied Laura, giving him a firm but appreciative smile. ‘It’s the least I can do. Besides, we haven’t discussed the offside rule yet, have we?’
‘Another time, perhaps,’ said George. ‘Like I said, it’s a bit complicated.’
‘Well, I agree, it is now but it didn’t used to be. A few years ago it was much more straightforward. You were offside simply because you were in front of the ball and nearer the other side’s goal line than the second-to-last defender when the ball was passed to you. Unless of course you were in your own half, or if the ball was played from a throw in or a corner kick. But now they’ve introduced all this nonsense about being in an offside position but not interfering with play. No wonder the referees are confused. Not only have they got to make on-the-spot decisions about whether someone is level or not, they’ve now got to decide whether other players are interfering with play. It’s a complete nonsense.’
George looked at Laura in stunned amazement, his jaw literally open in disbelief.
‘What do you think George? Do you think it’s a backward step?’
‘I…er…um…definitely think it’s a backward step,’ replied George, somehow finding his composure. He was also looking at Laura properly for the first time that evening and to his surprise, starting to change his mind about her. The rather excitable, annoying female had suddenly turned into a very self-assured woman and one that he now realised was extremely attractive. She must have been about ten years younger than him, about mid-forties he thought to himself, and when she smiled, he noticed how the small laughter lines around her eyes somehow lit up her face and made her look all the more striking. She had blonde, shoulder length hair which had been cut into a casual, fashionable style and was wearing a tight, grey top and smart black trousers, both of which showed off her figure and made her look a lot younger. George hadn’t taken so much notice of a woman in years. In fact he couldn’t remember the last time he had done that but there was no disputing the fact; she looked absolutely stunning. And then there was the perfume. He didn’t normally like women’s fragrance; too many years sitting next to early morning commuters drenched in overpowering smells had made him almost allergic to the stuff but this one was completely different. Elegant, subtle, evocative.
‘You have a very good knowledge of football,’ he said, trying to think of something to say.
‘I get it from my father. He really loved his football.’
‘Well, it’s certainly rubbed off.’
‘I used to go to Highbury with him as a child. He was an avid Arsenal supporter.’
‘Arsenal? I thought you said he loved his football?’
Laura grinned, the banter between rival supporters quickly established. ‘Come on George, join me in a drink won’t you? I was all set for a night out. I can hardly go home now, it’s only eight o’clock. How about one for the road?’
George looked at his watch, thought better of it for a couple of seconds and then gave her a sympathetic smile. ‘Go on then, I’ll have a pint of Harvey’s’
In the end Laura paid but George went up to the bar to get the drinks. Mr. Toad was still standing at the bar, still checking his watch periodically but increasingly looking like a man who had been stood up and was now drowning his sorrows. By eight-thirty George’s “one for the road” had turned into two, and the guy at the bar had disappeared, presumably having given up on his blind date. By nine o’clock George and Laura were finishing their third drink, contemplating a fourth and getting on like a house on fire, in fact engrossed in each other’s company like a couple of long lost friends. It was eventually nine-thirty by the time they left, George ignoring the less than subtle winks and innuendos from Ron and a few locals as he and Laura stepped out into the warm summer’s evening.
‘Sorry about that,’ said George, buttoning up his jacket and feeling the need to apologise for the behaviour of his fellow drinkers. ‘Some people have one track minds.’
‘Don’t apologise George. I thought it was quite funny actually. Anyway, it was really good to meet you. Thank you again for coming to my rescue.’
George hesitated, uncertain about how to say goodbye. Eventually he pushed his arm forward having decided that a formal handshake was the proper and gentlemanly thing to do. ‘Not at all,’ he replied, ‘it was very good to meet you too.’
Laura couldn’t help smiling at how old fashioned he was but the pair of them shook hands and then stood there in silence for a couple of seconds, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
‘How are you getting home?’ asked George rather awkwardly, trying his hardest not to sound as if he was offering her a lift. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get home himself but driving a car after four pints of bitter was not an option.
‘Oh, I can walk,’ replied Laura, nodding in the general direction towards the end of the High Street. ‘It’s a nice evening and it’s not far.’
George frowned. Tenterden was one of the safest places he knew but it was getting late. He didn’t know how long it would take Laura to walk home and she seemed the sort of person who could probably look after herself but all the same, it didn’t seem right to let a woman walk home alone in the dark.
‘Actually, I need to get a cab,’ he said. ‘I live about a mile away. Why don’t I drop you off on the way?’
It took them about five minutes to find a taxi and then only another few minutes to get to Laura’s home, a smart, semi-detached property on a small modern development on the outskirts of town. George was quite relieved that the journey didn’t take long. Although it had been his idea and he had been quite insistent that Laura shouldn’t walk home on her own, for some reason he felt strangely uncomfortable sitting side-by-side with her in the back of the cab, as if it were somehow more intimate than spending a couple of hours drinking with her in the pub. Stupid really, he thought to himself. Nevertheless he let out a sigh of relief as the taxi pulled up outside her house.
`Here we are,’ announced the driver, keeping the engine running but looking in the rear view mirror to check that he’d got the right address. ‘Number 14. Is this it?’
George nodded and then waited for Laura to open the door and get out. He was all ready to give her a friendly wave, expecting her to shut the door and disappear when suddenly she leant back into the car.
‘Please don’t take this the wrong way George,’ she said, sounding slightly apprehensive, ‘but would you like to come in for a coffee?’
George shifted uneasily, not for the first time that evening. ‘I’m not sure that would be a very good idea…’
‘Oh, come on George, I’m not going to bite. It’s just a cup of coffee.’
‘No honestly, I really ought to be going.’
‘But why? Where are you rushing off to?’
‘Well, home obviously…’
‘But it’s not even ten o’clock. You said you wife doesn’t get in until about eleven.’
George looked at his watch. Laura was right. It wasn’t yet ten o’clock and Margaret wouldn’t be home for at least another hour. The offer was certainly tempting. A bit of company and some interesting conversation would be a welcome change, much better than sitting on his own in front of the telly which is what he normally did when Margaret was out. He could do that any other night of the week. And a strong cup of coffee sounded like a good idea, particularly after four pints of bitter. Then again, what on earth would Margaret say? He could just about explain why he’d stayed in the pub and had a few drinks but going back to her house for a cup of coffee was completely different. No, the sensible thing would be to go home and then everything could get back to normal as soon as possible. He looked at Laura again, still leaning into the car, waiting expectantly for his answer. Still, on the other hand, it’s just a cup of coffee. What could be the harm in that?
‘What we doing then mate?’ asked the taxi driver, still looking in the rear view mirror and getting impatient with all the dithering. ‘Are we going onto the next address or what?’
For some reason the interruption helped George make up his mind. ‘No, I’m getting out here,’ he said, getting out his wallet and giving the guy a £10 note. ‘Keep the change.’
The driver muttered something under his breath and then did a u-turn and sped off, not waiting to watch George and Laura walk up the garden path. Laura opened the front door and led George into a sitting room, while she disappeared into the kitchen.
‘Make yourself at home George. I’m just going to put the kettle on. Tea or Coffee?’
‘Coffee please,’ shouted George. ‘White, no sugar.’
He could hear Laura busying herself in the kitchen so settled himself into an armchair which was positioned to one side of a small fireplace, opposite a small two-seater settee. He looked around the room for a moment and admired the décor, particularly the combination of soft furnishings and subdued lighting which gave it a cosy, homely feel.
After a couple of minutes Laura appeared carrying a large tray and two mugs of coffee. ‘There you go George,’ she said, leaning forward and lowering the tray to his height, ‘that’s yours on the left.’
George looked up and carefully took the mug, making sure that he didn’t spill any. He couldn’t help notice that the effect of Laura leaning over him in her tight grey top left little to the imagination.
‘I’m just going upstairs to use the bathroom,’ she announced, putting her own coffee on a small side table. ‘I’ll be back in a minute.’
‘Righty ho.’ replied George, holding his mug in both hands and gently blowing across the surface. Too many glasses of wine probably.
A minute or so later, he heard her come back downstairs and turned to look at her as she came through the door. It wasn’t what he was expecting. In fact it was the last thing he was expecting. She was still wearing the same high-heeled stilettos but instead of the grey top and the smart black trousers she was now wrapped up in a white fluffy dressing gown.
George looked at her and opened his mouth several times, as if he was going to say something, but nothing came out, his brain suddenly not connected to his mouth anymore.
Laura stood motionless in the doorway for a moment, watching the impact of her entrance on George’s equilibrium. George meanwhile was still frozen in the chair, clutching the arms as if he were about to fall out and still trying desperately to think of something to say. Eventually she walked into the room and then slowly leant over him again, just as she had done with the tray of coffees. Her bottom lip pouted with pretend guilt. ‘I’m sorry George, I’ve a confession to make. I got you here under false pretences.’
‘Really?’ George pushed himself back into the chair, trying to get some space between them but it was no use. The further he retreated the more she moved forward. All he could see was the top of her breasts, nestled gently inside the soft white dressing gown as she leant further and further over him.
Laura pouted again. ‘Come on George, I’m sure it wasn’t just a cup of coffee that you came back for.’
George squirmed again, trying his hardest not to look anywhere that he shouldn’t. ‘I’m sorry if I gave you the wrong idea Laura, I really didn’t mean to ….’
‘What’s the matter George, don’t you fancy me?’
‘It’s not that, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting…’
‘Because I definitely fancy you George.’
‘Can’t you tell George?’
‘Well, it’s just I’m not very used to…’
‘Can you tell now George?’ she purred. And in the same breath, she suddenly undid the cord which had been tied around her waist and the dressing gown fell open, her smooth and naked body now leaning over him in all its wonderful glory.
George practically fainted on the spot. He tried to gulp as much fresh air as he could swallow and then actually shut his eyes for a second, hoping that it would all go away.
‘Nothing to say George?’
‘I…er…I’m…just not sure what…’
George’s wittering was suddenly silenced by Laura kissing him passionately on the lips, her tongue darting into his mouth and across his teeth. Within an instant, the pheromones kicked in and his heart started pumping for all it was worth, just as the room started to spin.
After what seemed like an eternity he somehow managed to push her gently away. ‘I…I think I need to use the bathroom as well,’ he stammered, trying to ease himself out of the chair.
Laura smiled and took a couple of steps backwards, giving him just enough room to get out of the chair and escape. George practically ran up the stairs, found the bathroom at the top of the landing and quickly locked the door behind him. It took him a couple of seconds to fumble around and find the light switch, and then he sat on the toilet seat and put his head in his hands. What a bloody mess. What the hell was all that about? And how on earth was he going to explain this to Margaret!!!?
He sat still for a few moments, trying to think through his options and work out what he should do next. Then he looked up and noticed a reflection of himself in a mirror which was on the wall, just above the wash basin. Because he was still sitting on the toilet he could only see the top half of his head, which was shining brightly under the glare of the bathroom spotlights. He rubbed his hand over the bald egg-shaped scalp, a familiar action which always made the few remaining wisps of hair stand up to attention and made him look all the more comical. He couldn’t understand how someone like Laura could possibly fancy an old duffer like him. He smiled quizzically to himself. But then again, maybe he should stop worrying and just let events take their course. See it as an opportunity rather than a problem. After all, it was hardly likely to be an opportunity that would ever come his way again.
George stood up and looked at himself in the mirror properly, smoothing down what little hair he had left and re-tucking his shirt into his trousers. Maybe he wasn’t such an old duffer. Suddenly he spotted a bottle of perfume which was on a narrow shelf in front of him. He picked it up and out of curiosity squirted a small amount into the air. The effect was instant. It was definitely the same one. Evocative, seductive, haunting. He looked at the bottle again, an expensive piece of sculptured glass with the word “Serendipity” engraved across the front in stylish, flamboyant letters. That’s funny, he thought, that was the answer to one of the clues in the crossword this morning. It must be a portent.
Downstairs, Laura was standing by the sitting room door keeping one eye on the landing to make sure that George was still safely locked up in the bathroom. She pressed the call button on the mobile phone, knowing it would be answered within seconds.
Less than a mile away, the guy with the over-elaborate moustache, the loud and flamboyant bow-tie and the large-checked waistcoat was waiting patiently on a barstool. He took the call as soon as it rang. ‘How’s it going?’
‘He’s ready. Hook, line and sinker…’