Glancing up from swiping bottles and boxes across the scanner, Katie hardly recognised Sean in his chic Italian jacket and chinos. She half wondered if the fatigue of the late-night cashier shift, as well as the monotony of the job, was making her mind play tricks on her. He looked flustered at first, but then grinned at her before dashing back across the store in pursuit of a little boy. She paused mid beep; it was Sean in the flesh. Watching him give chase, Katie leaned back on the swivel seat and thought back to her French evening class last autumn.
As soon as she'd entered the classroom she'd wanted to turn straight around and leave. There was the imposing teacher with her scraped back hair, pince-nez of all things perched on the end of her nose. She was chalking up tables of regular and irregular verbs on the board and Katie felt like she was sixteen again, walking into an unannounced test at school: horribly unprepared. She pulled out her course enrolment papers and checked the course title: Beginner’s French. She was expecting greetings, goodbyes, perhaps a bit of vocab for family and friends; she hadn’t joined up for a drilling in verb conjugations.
She had taken the only seat available and busied herself, slowly and methodically taking each pencil and pen out of her case, laying it before her on the desk: a time-wasting ploy designed to delay the dreaded moment when the teacher might ask her a question. She thought she sensed the person at the next table watching her with interest, but hell would freeze over before she looked up and risked a question on grammar. It was only when every pencil was placed and the teacher’s back was turned that she glanced up. Her neighbour immediately caught her eye. Even with his head down, bent studiously over his exercise book, he was an arresting sight: a strong jaw, even stronger cheekbones; his pen looked like it had taken the place of a Gauloises, hanging seductively from his parted red lips. Suddenly he looked up from his page, straight at her; taking out his pen, his mouth curled into a smile. He picked up the corner of his book and angled it in her direction; she saw what he’d written on the left-hand page: “Aide- moi! Help me!” underlined for emphasis. She suppressed a giggle, feeling like a naughty teenager again, up to things behind the teacher’s turned back. Then he lifted the book a little more and a sketch of the teacher came into view. It was more caricature really: old-fashioned glasses enlarged to ridiculous proportions; bulbous bug- like eyes bulging from beneath the lenses. At the top he’d written a title: Madame Horreur. She couldn’t help it; the laugh she’d tried to deflate came ballooning up and escaped- noisily. The teacher looked like she’d hurl the chalk, scolding her in rapid French. She had blushed furiously but only partly due to shame.
Looking at him now, chasing the little boy down the fruit and veg aisle, she wondered what on earth she’d say to him when he finally caught the run-away and returned to his groceries- and her. The toddler was as quick and bendy as a jack-in-a-box; every time Sean’s arm came out to grab him, he nimbly sprang to the other side of the aisle. Watching Sean’s desperate attempts was better than a coffee break any day. Except, just at that moment, a shelf stacker appeared; the escapee charged straight into her stomach, ending his sprint to freedom. Katie returned to scanning his groceries: pesto, mozzarella, tomatoes, fresh basil and four bottles of (cheap) red wine. Swipe and beep, swipe and beep; the movement was so automatic it was easy to drift back to that night class once again.
She had tried to get back into the teacher’s good books, applying herself to the table of verbs, diligently looking up the irregular forms in her coursebook. It was a hot night for September and her neighbouring cartoonist had taken off his old leather jacket and had hung it casually across the back of his chair. The scent of his aftershave drifted over and she found herself wondering if it was an expensive French kind; the scent was so heady and deep, she found it hard to focus on the right endings. Only an arm’s length away, she sensed his bare forearm brushing the page up and down as he worked. The urge to look at what he was doing was nearly irresistible -what was Madame Horreur up to now in his sketch? Halfway through the lesson, she saw a flutter of white out of the corner of her eye and glanced across instinctively. With bold inked capitals he’d written:
Je suis Sean. Allez tu café avec moi?
This time there was no sense of a joke as he looked earnestly at her, waiting for a reply. She wasn’t as brave as him; she didn’t dare write her answer, just in case Madame Horreur stalked by, so she just mouthed it silently: Oui!
Saying yes to the coffee made her feel like someone else agreeing to the impromptu date: a far more exciting person. This other person laughed conspiratorially, breathed in manly aftershave and murmured oui in husky tones.
After the class they went to a little café across the road from the night school. It was the only place still open as it was hardly a trendy part of town. More caff than café, it was far from a romantic setting with its ugly green PVC covers fixed to each table; plastic flowers thick with grease in unwashed vases. Still, she had a date: her first in three months since the disastrous split with Matt. And, as she held the laminated menu, eyeing him over the top, she thought he was by far a tastier dish than anything on the carte du jour. He reminded her of those brooding film stars from the 50s. She had had her fill of those old romantic movies these last weeks, crying her way through the end of August while everyone else was out enjoying the summer, wishing she had rooted like Audrey Hepburn for a gentleman beau rather than Matt, the two-timing rat.
When the waitress came to take their order, he slipped easily into a smattering of French.
“And Mademoiselle Katie, what will it be? Café au lait? Une Tasse de Thé?”
“A flat white please,” she said, looking at the waitress somewhat awkwardly. When the waitress had gone, but not before giving Sean a rather pointed look which Katie couldn’t work out, he turned the conversation to the French class and her reason for joining. She wanted to appear nonchalant and cool, sophisticated even, but somehow all the sorry business of the split with Matt came pouring out. Sean was easy to confide in, listening with his long-tanned fingers cupping his strong jaw.
“Matt- my ex- was a complete rat. He’d two-timed me a hundred times before I cottoned on. I swear he belongs in a sewer not a house!” She laughed awkwardly, but Sean nodded reassuringly.
“After I dumped him, I only moped about; I must have spent every evening glued to all the Audrey Hepburn movies on Netflix, working my way through boxes of tissues. If the night school prospectus hadn’t landed on my doormat, I’d still be on my sofa and not here!”
“Ah Audrey,” he breathed into his coffee, sending plumes of steam up into the air and Katie felt little pricks of moisture gloss her cheeks. “The ultimate romantic heroine. But something about you reminds me of her: your thick dark hair, long white neck.” And as he spoke, his eyes dipped to her throat and she felt a blush begin there, creeping up to her cheeks. Hurriedly, she brought her cup to her lips to hide it.
“She had such poise, and grace.” More steam clouds as he blew on his coffee again. “But she knew how to have fun too.” He looked at her meaningfully, before continuing. “Her little black dress was ever ready to run off with the leading man: whizz around Paris, jump onto vespas in Rome.”
She watched him swirl his spoon in his coffee, round and round it went and she felt quite mesmerized. Watching him, remembering the films, she could almost picture herself as the leading lady, sipping drinks, causing hearts to fall.
“They say every woman has a little black dress. I’m sure yours is long overdue an outing. Do you live nearby? We could pop back, you change and we could re-create Paris when it Sizzles right here in belle London.”
He seemed to read her mind; glancing at his watch, he quickly said “the trains are still running, last one goes in just under half an hour. Is your place nearby? If we dash we should just make it.”
Maybe it was his asking twice where she lived, or perhaps it was his odd certainty that the train would be departing soon and they must hurry; whatever it was, it pulled the brakes on her racing pulse. No, she couldn’t: she had to go to work early the next day. No, she was sorry but next week would be much better; she would make sure she got out early from work and that her little black Hepburn dress was ready to go. After cajoling for five minutes he caved in, agreeing that after next week’s class would also be fine. As she paid for her coffee, she couldn’t help but think the waitress gave her a comradely smile, but perhaps it was just the tip she’d left on the table.
Sean had seen her to the corner, calling out “Au revoir” as she had hurried back to her flat. Her trainers had sped along the pavement, in time with her speeding heart. When she had turned the key in her lock, and then leaned on the shut door, she realised she was panting with relief, not excitement.
Now as he walked back towards her till, illuminated by the supermarket’s bright neon lights, she realised it was only the second time she had ever seen him: he had never shown up to the next French class, let alone the postponed date: the little black dress has stayed on its hanger. She had spent every class staring at his empty desk and wondering what had happened to him. Now she had the answer in the form of his son, trotting meekly beside him, race lost. Sean reached her till; she had long finished scanning his few items. Staring up at him from her seat, she half expected to see a tail sneak from his chinos; sharp teeth to peek from his mouth. She thought nothing good had come out of her time with Matt, but now she saw that wasn’t quite true: she obviously knew a cheat when she saw one.
“Daddy” lisped the little Sean in miniature, “Home. Mummy!”
“Yes, yes, I’ll take you to mummy’s soon,” Sean said under his breath, pushing the boy along, then hurriedly stuffing the shopping into his bag.
“Hi Sean,” she said calmly, “was it the French grammar or Madame Horreur you couldn’t face anymore? Twenty-two pounds eighty pence please. Cash or card?”
“Er, yes. No. I mean other things came along. Cash.” He ripped his wallet from his pocket and coins came tumbling out, rolling and rattling along the checkout belt. The little boy gleefully tried to scoop them up as they spun, but they were too quick for his small fingers. Sean seemed as upset as his money and it was left for Katie to pick out the required amount.
“Do you have a twenty-pound note?” And as she watched him flapping at his wallet once more, she knew what he meant by other things coming along: nights minding the baby; nights chasing other easy catches with broken hearts like hers had been.
Eventually he found the note and snatched up his bag of shopping.
“I’m starting Italian next week, beginner’s Italian; I hope to get along better with that.”
She could just picture him walking in with his chinos, the sketch of the Italian teacher, the carefully composed note: “vuoi un caffè con me?” and the young girl would blush, and say yes. Once again, he’d stroll into the caff opposite with its green table covers and the waitress who’d seen it all before.
“Yes, so Au Revoir, Mademoiselle, Mademoiselle…?”
“Katie, just Katie.”
He was just walking through the automatic doors when she couldn’t resist calling out: “And Sean, every little black dress is different you know; just like the women who wear them.”
For a moment, she saw his confused look and then the doors slid shut behind him.