“Vee” – new short story

London wore its mask of snow, the coldest week on record. Park Lane pushed on; a necklace of hotels running to nothing in the swirl of frost.

“Vee… darling”, kisses all round from a flamboyant middle-aged man, who walked as if on stage. “You look divine, how are you?”

Vee did look good, and she knew it. Now in her 60th year she even let a few grey hairs show; they glistened, hinting at her maturity.

“Aging gracefully”, she replied, her hand on his forearm. The tight skin of her knuckles showing the age that make-up couldn’t hide.

The final guests arrived as the lights dimmed. Aged pop stars and TV nobodies would entertain, all in the name of charity. Nights like this were important. People knew Vee and what she represented – the Italian fashionista who would speak her mind whist looking flawless. It was all about reputation. She adjusted her diamond necklace and ran a hand across her dress.

The final note of a reality Z-lister’s forgettable ballad faded and the lights came up for the break. People shuffled in their seats and conversation swelled. An old man talked at an escort while a teenager with aggressive hair strained to take a picture of himself – what was Vee’s world coming to? Where was the class and glamour she stood for?

But wait? Who was that?

Her eyes were drawn to a table across the room. The oyster of her memory opened to a pearl she had not allowed herself to wear for thirty years. It couldn’t be him, could it?

Andre – charismatic, wealthy, tanned, graceful. They had met in Paris. One of those hot, sweet Parisian evenings. Vee had been there all summer – the clubs, the bars, the jazz – most of all the jazz. In the shadow of Notre Dame, her favourite place; a small upstairs bar where the music was hot and the drinks were cold and strong. He just sat down and put his drink next to hers…

He did something in business investment – she never really knew what – except it involved travelling the world and spending money. Every week: a new city, a new way of life – for two years she went with him. Oysters in New Orleans, caviar is Moscow, mojitos in Havana. All until Las Vegas – Las Vegas ruined everything.

He was meeting a business contact – they were going to make a lot of money. Afterwards they would meet in a bar and see how the dice rolled.

She’d had a few cosmopolitans by the time she saw first-light flurry on the horizon. Where was Andre? He must have been delayed at the meeting, or possibly he’d gone for corporate drinks somewhere. Maybe, like before, he would turn up money-drunk and moaning about the poor taste of his clients.

But he never came.

She went back to their hotel room and waited, and then slept. He never came.

The following two days passed in a smudge of questions. The police were interested at first, but that faded – another tourist, what difference did it make? He had just disappeared. So, she looked herself, anywhere he would want to go. She lost count of how many places she’d looked and how long it took her. Hundreds. Years.

Even now, when a man like him walked by, the question would spark in her mind. The memories would ignite and burn like molten iron.

Sunlight ran across her skin with the thought. It couldn’t be him, could it? What could she do? She couldn’t just get up and talk to him, the interval was almost over. Appearances must be maintained. She would wait, they would talk over drinks in the bar afterwards.

The final note echoed into silence; polite applause rippled. Vee looked towards Andre; it had to be him, she was sure of it. The height, build, mannerisms, the now grey-flecked hair still perfectly preened. She looked towards where he had been sitting, it had to be him.

Where was he?

An empty chair pushed to one side at the far table – he was gone.

He must have left during the last couple of minutes. Scanning the room, she saw him walking towards the exit.

At the door, out of sight, she ran. Hard shoes on soft carpet. She ran as fast as her heels would allow her. Reaching the hotel’s bloated foyer, she saw him ahead, getting into a waiting car. Only metres from her. It was him. It was him!

Reputation, identity, pride dropped like jewels in a famine.

“Stop!” She shouted. “Wait!”

The car slid off into London’s winter traffic. The city pushed on, but the weather was easing. For a time, during the evening, a warm breeze had passed like a memory and the diamonds of snow were melting.

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