In the end Gerry has to send him the money. She has no choice but to do it from a Western Union, a place that puts the fear of god into Gerry, with its metal grille inside and only a small cut out for the teller. When Betty—queen of the Kirkintilloch food bank ladies—finds out, she´s merciless.
“So when´s he coming then? The Nigerian Prince.” Betty needles, coming close enough for Gerry to count the dog hairs on her cardigan.
“He´s not Nigerian,” Gerry says “for starters.”
Gerry chucks a plastic-wrapped lettuce into the bag she´s been filling. There´s pasta, rice, jam, biscuits, flour and tomato sauce in there. That will do. She puts the bag aside, in the crate with the others from which it will be collected when the food bank opens; this place with its perpetual smell of stale bread and instant coffee. Gerry´s been helping out there ever since she retired. It´s a way to pass a couple of hours, have a chinwag and a cup of tea.
“He´s from Guinea. Not Nigeria.” She tells Betty, as if she hasn´t told her a million times already “and his name´s Prince. He´s not a prince. It´s just his name.”
She can see Betty´s mouth twitch and Sharon´s trying not to laugh too. It´s a waste of time trying to convince these two. They´ve been winding Gerry up for months, but the tone´s become more acerbic now that he´s really coming. Well. Says he´s coming. They still don´t really believe her and there are moments when Gerry too has her doubts, hard pangs, like sciatica pain.
“I´m done with this lot,” she says nodding at the filled crate of bags. She puts her mug in the sink and checks her watch “I need to be catching the bus to the airport now.” She can hear someone snigger quietly.
She takes her handbag off the hook by the door. It´s a new one she picked up at the charity shop. It has a gold clasp, which looks like that designer thing with the snake-haired head. It was only a fiver so it´s probably fake but Gerry likes it. She even likes that it´s a bit flashy. She got a lot of stuff from the charity shop recently—high-heeled shoes, a pencil skirt, a red coat to go with her newly red hair, a perfume her son John dubbed “eau de tart”—and even though she doesn´t want to admit it to herself, it´s because Prince is coming. Well. Says he´s coming.
At the bus stop, Gerry hides in the shelter to light a cigarette. She messages her oldest—and least skeptical—daughter, Jess. Just for a bit of moral support. Then she waits, watching the rain fall from the gunmetal sky in great big sheets. It all feels so fragile. Until now this relationship has just been typed words on a screen. It´s hard not to let Betty and Sharon and everyone else get to her. She knows what they´re thinking because she´s thinking it too: What´s she doing with a man off the internet who´s half her age?
They´ve been talking for months. Prince has given her a window into a different world. He works in the market “I sell fresh fruit” he said, “pineapples, mangoes, limes and coconuts.” He was quite proud, Gerry could see that even on the grainy video chat.
“One day I want to have my own stall” he said.
When Gerry told him that they have market stalls in Glasgow too, fruit stalls even, his face lit up. It made him happy.
“I can do that” he said and from then on, whenever they made plans, he mentioned the fruit stall “We will have our own. Right in the Glasgow town square. We will be rich.”
Gerry didn´t have the heart to tell him that it doesn´t work like that here. There´s a lot he doesn´t know yet, being young. She never sent him any money, not for a market stall and not for him, even though she could see in his photos that he was living in a bit of a hovel. She didn´t send him money because she wasn´t born yesterday. But when it came to buying him a flight, she had no choice. He hasn´t got that kind of cash and Gerry couldn´t book it for him. She´s never booked a flight in her life and she hasn´t got a credit card. The furthest she´s ever been is Skegness.
The new pencil skirt has a scratchy label next to the zip. Gerry keeps the cigarette in her mouth and tries to move the label without looking like she´s scratching her bum. She hasn´t heard from Prince since yesterday. It´s to be expected when he´s on a plane of course, but Gerry can´t stop wondering. The worry and the excitement are giving her a funny stomach.
Butterflies, she thinks. The new clothes, his first visit, it´s all made her feel young again, but after even half a day in those heels her feet hurt in a way they didn´t used to. She used to go dancing in heels like this and not take them off until the wee hours. No chance of that now.
The bus arrives, splashing water up on the pavement. Gerry feels her heart rising into her throat. She´s so close now. Her stomach does another somersault. Once on, she puts her feet under the bus seat and gently eases off her shoes, so no one will notice. It´s bliss. She rubs her feet against each other. She can feel the little ankle bracelet. She picked that one up too, in a moment of madness and once she´d put it on she didn´t want to take it off again. It felt so illicit, so sexy. Graham would have gone mad for it, back in the day. Graham. It still stings a bit. Not as much as it used to. That´s got to be a good thing and it´s thanks to Prince. When Graham ran off with that young lassie from the bookies Gerry thought it was going to kill her. She couldn´t eat for a week. But that´s all in the past now, because for the last few months everything´s been different for Gerry. Her quiet life, the life of the retiree, the divorced mother whose kids have flown the nest, that life has been lit up like a sparkler.
The rain lashes at the bus windows and they steam up on the inside; a veil of moisture Gerry can´t resist breaking, using the tip of her little finger to make peepholes. The moisture melts away at the slightest touch, like a dream on waking. Is Prince looking out of a window too? A plane window? Is he looking at Glasgow from above and wondering where all the colours are?
When they reach the airport Gerry slips her shoes back on and gets off the bus. The rain is coming down so hard now it looks like string curtains. Still, each drop creates a little circle on the waterlogged asphalt. She sprints across the road, the collar of her red coat turned up, her heels punctuating the water and creating ripples. The water splashes up her legs. Passengers are dragging their suitcases through the puddles, making waves. The rain should annoy her, but today it feels refreshing. I´ll be puddle jumping next, she thinks. Inside the terminal she gets out her new compact. Her hair is a stringy mess and she can feel that her cheeks are flushed. Her eyeshadow has crept into the crow´s feet and she uses a tissue to dab it away.
She checks the time: four o`clock. He should be landing about now. This is the time she normally gets home, clicks on the kettle, takes Benji the blind bunny—a remnant of her child-rearing days—out of his cage and turns on the radio. She´ll have a cup of tea at the kitchen table, the crossword in front of her, Benji gingerly hopping around her chair.
Here she´s surrounded by people, young and old, weird and normal, alone or in big family groups; people from all over. It´s confusing, those big screens showing all the flights, all the exotic places. She finds where she´s supposed to be and there´s more people there; black people mostly, lots of children, but also cab drivers holding up signs and a single white woman holding a yellow rose. Gerry eyes her subtly and wonders what her story is. There´s a stream of passengers coming out of the baggage area, sometimes just a trickle, sometimes a whole wave.
And then, suddenly, he´s there, carrying a huge teddy bear with a red heart on its tummy and dragging a dusty suitcase behind him. For a second her heart stops and her throat closes and then she laughs because of the sheer stupid size of the teddy bear and because he´s actually here.
He smiles and runs over to her and she´s still laughing and then they hug for a really long time. It´s him. And he´s here. He smells nice and citrussy. He looks a bit chubbier than he did in his photos, his face softer, a small belly protruding over his jeans. Gerry keeps touching his arm as if to check that he´s real.
“Is it winter here?” he asks jokingly while they run to the bus, Gerry´s coat held high to protect both their heads from the rain and Gerry laughs and says “It might as well be.”
She can´t stop smiling all the way home, her hand cupped in his, resting on his thigh. She notices the brown spots on the back of her hand more now, they seem darker. I´m like an overripe banana, she thinks and finds the thought amusing.
When she puts the key in the lock, she takes a deep breath. It feels momentous, Prince stepping over the threshold. His suitcase catches on the doormat. He looks around.
“It´s a big house” he says “for just you.”
Gerry shrugs “John—my son—only moved out a couple of years ago and before that my two girls were living here too. And, you know, my ex-husband.”
Prince nods. She takes him through to the kitchen. He sits the giant teddy bear on the kitchen table.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” she says. She´s even filled up the fruit bowl. There are apples, a couple of still green pears and grapes with that mildewed look from the chemicals they spray on them. Seeing it now, with his eyes, it looks pathetic.
“I would love some tea,” he says and she´s grateful because it gives her something to do.
“My children will be over shortly” she says “They want to meet you.”
He smiles “Good,” he says. “It is very quiet, this house.”
“Yes” she says and the house suddenly feels empty like a cored apple. They wait in silence for the kettle to boil, listening to the little cracking sounds as it heats up. Gerry gets out her cigarettes and is about to light one when the sight of Prince´s face stops her.
“You smoke?” he says “In the house?”
Gerry lowers the lighter. She feels herself blush.
“I´ll take it outside” she says and opens the back door.
When the doorbell rings and Jess arrives, Prince is sitting on the sofa drinking his tea (two sugars, please). Jess beams at Gerry, says “Eek” and pinches her arm and Gerry knows that she´s happy for her. Jess, once the rebellious one, with her nose ring and dreads, is now the one Gerry feels closest too. It´s not long before John and Ada arrive and Ada has brought her partner Phillys and Phillys’ daughter Kitty. Gerry finds herself in the kitchen, making tea and toast and putting biscuits out on plates while everyone is chatting. From the kitchen she can hear Prince laughing. His laugh is like John´s, full of life, brimming with confidence and laced with the self-righteousness of youth. You can hear the determination to wrestle the world for his share. She wonders if Prince will judge her as harshly as John does. How will he see her life, its smallness, her modesty? What will he think of the crimped folds of her stomach, soft and loose as a net curtain?
John (one sugar, peanut butter toast, please) comes in and asks where his old Xbox is and it isn´t long before him and Prince are on the rug in front of the TV playing Fifa, while Ada (no sugar, lots of milk, please) plays with Kitty (hot chocolate and biscuit, please) and the huge teddy. Phillys (maybe a dram to go in my coffee?) tells Gerry about her new responsibilities as assistant social media manager, a job title Gerry can´t make sense of. Across the room, Benji sits in his cage. He´d be long out by now, his hind legs stretched out on the rug or the sofa. But Kitty will squeeze him too hard because she´s little and Benji is too old for that. The clock on the bookshelf says it´s six-thirty. By now Gerry would be putting her pyjamas on and preparing the TV tray: a grilled cheese toastie with pickles and a glass of white. Feet in comfy socks, a blanket with Benji on it next to her. The remote control on the other side.
When Phyllis has finished talking, she asks everyone if they want to order pizza and yes, they do. Prince is keeping half an eye on the footballers on screen while he requests extra onions. Gerry doesn´t want any, she doesn´t like pizza, the toppings always slide off so it´s hard to eat without making a mess and anyway she feels a headache coming on.
It´s eight by the time everyone´s sated. The kids are gathering up their stuff, making to leave. Prince hugs John, they´re already great friends, Gerry can see that.
“I´ll help you clear up” Jess says after everyone else has left.
Gerry shows Prince upstairs “You´ll be wanting a shower, I´m sure” she says and shows him the neat stack of fresh towels she´s put out for him. She´s put the good sheets on their bed in the master bedroom, the peach satin ones. He smiles and puts an arm around her waist. It feels good. Gerry can feel the butterflies in her stomach again, a whole rush of them, like startled birds.
“I´ll be up in a bit” she says and they smile at each other.
“I still can´t believe you´re here,” she tells him.
Jess is in the kitchen, washing up. Gerry opens the back door and waves the packet of cigarettes at Jess.
“You smoke outside now?” Jess asks and they both light up in the garden. The rain has stopped but the shrubs are dripping with wetness.
“He seems nice.” Jess says after a pause “You know—genuine.”
“Yes” Gerry smiles at the ground “aren´t I lucky?’
They smoke for a bit in silence. Right now, Gerry thinks, I would have my feet up on the sofa stroking Benji on my lap while he dozes off, making tiny, squeaky rabbit noises every now and then. Strictly´s on tonight. I´d be watching that. I wonder what I´m missing, she thinks, I wonder who´s winning tonight.
“Is everything alright?” Jess says “You´ve been very quiet.”
“I´m fine” Gerry says “There´s just a lot going on all of a sudden.”
“Just remember:” Jess says and exhales smoke. “You do you.”
“Mmh” Gerry says and grinds her cigarette butt into the ashtray. She has no idea what Jess means.
When Jess leaves, Gerry goes upstairs where Prince is pottering about in a bathrobe, unpacking and humming to himself. There´s a towel on the bed, cast off, like a dropped banana skin. Gerry touches it; it carries the imprint of his nakedness, giving her a little thrill. But the towel is wet. She lifts it. The duvet underneath is damp, the satin cover the colour of a bruise. Gerry picks the towel up with a sigh. She takes it to the bathroom and hangs it up. I folded that nicely, she thinks, I made the effort. And then she catches sight of something else. The shower tiles, the ones that are still wet, have little hairs stuck to them. She thinks, there will be more hair in the plughole. And then, just as she´s leaving the bathroom, she catches sight of him. He´s in the bed, sitting up, the peach sheets up to his navel. He´s holding the little porcelain Hummel girl from her bedside table in his big hands, turning it over, looking at it. Graham gave that to her for her fiftieth. “The Berry Picker” it´s called, a pigtailed little girl in a Dirndl holding a basket of berries, her mouth a tiny red “o”, her eyes blank. Even though Gerry can´t see Prince´s face she feels a deep embarrassment. She´s kept that silly trinket on her bedside table for a decade; senile sentimentality, it seems to her now. A pang of guilt follows that thought, as if she´d betrayed someone. The little berry picker perhaps, or Graham. The feeling begins to spiral like the swirl above a drain, faster and faster, down into a pit of shame. That porcelain figure suddenly seems to terribly fragile, in his hands. How quickly a precious thing can be spoiled or broken. Gerry´s heart beats faster and she knows. She can´t do this. Not again. No more lovers or husbands or children. Not in this house. There´s only room for her and Benji now. Prince lowers the berry picker and looks up and when he catches sight of her, he pats the peach satin pillow next to him.
Anne Dorrian grew up in Oxford, England and now lives in Germany. Her short stories have been published in print and online with Fairlight Books, The Pigeon Review, Twelve House Books, Fiction on the Web and others. She is currently working on a novel