By Don Hunter
The girl in the headscarf looked as out of place in the Jobcentre as a sunflower in a skip.
Her hijab was navy with white polka dots and her yellow blouse failed to conceal a black bra, but wasn’t really trying. Her cream trousers were of some luxurious fabric I was sure would darken with a brush of the palm. In my checked shirt and chinos, I didn't fit in either.
Having been unemployed for six months, I had received a letter about a Getting Ready For Work course. Attendees would identify their key strengths, develop an elevator pitch and build their personal brand. Non-attendees would lose their benefits.
The building was a squat grey concrete block, all straight lines and sharp angles.
Ten of us were ushered into a stuffy classroom with a view of an empty playground and I bagged the desk in front of the girl, taking a mental snapshot as I passed her a CV tips handout. Her skin was the colour of tea, with foundation slathered on her acne-scarred cheeks to make them palatable, like hummus on pitta bread. Big, almost black eyes and full red lips accompanied large white teeth. What I couldn’t see was her hair - long and glossy, or a pixie cut?
At lunchtime, the ten of us went across the road to Bev’s Café. I asked whether I could join her at a white table with wet spiral smears and she pushed out a chair with a pointed black shoe.
“Nice place.” I indicated the centrepiece of the table, a bottle of Dettol spray.
She smiled and I stared at her mouth. If I kissed her, she wouldn’t nod her head or turn it to the side so my lips landed off target, like my wife did.
No-one else in the cafe was talking, and I sensed they were watching us. I had forgotten that feeling.
Aaliyah had been out of work for a year. She was from Stanmore, a prosperous suburb too far out and pricey for young people to settle in, and probably lived with her parents.
“If everyone else were unemployed, it would be ok,” I said, once we had bitten into our stale baguettes. “I hate being the odd one out.”
She looked incredulous. “You think you’re stigmatised?.”
I shrugged. “Headhunters have said I’d find things easier if I were a woman.”
“Not having much luck, then?”
For a moment, I thought she meant with her. “Well, I’m here, aren’t I? Online application forms are all: ’Current job title. Name of employer.’ If I had a job, I wouldn’t be applying for your poxy little one.”
Her brow furrowed, and I made a mental note to use slang people of her generation would understand, not giveaway words such as “poxy”.
She pushed her paper plate away.
“Time to go.”
On the last day of the course, I suggested forming a WhatsApp group and collected phone numbers in non-random order. On my way out of the building, I sent a message wishing everyone the best of luck in finding a job.
On the bus home, my phone pinged.
"Well done you, starting a support group. It’s Aaliyah, btw.”
The message was accompanied by a photo of her pouting and sucking in her cheeks under a pair of shades.
"I meant to say goodbye but couldn't find you," I wrote, having checked the message would go only to her.
Her phone number appeared, then “typing” and the three dots dancing in turn.
I felt like dancing too. My mind tried to tell me this was friendly chit-chat with a new acquaintance; my body didn’t do self-delusion.
"Sorry,” she wrote. “Had to catch a train."
That seemed pretty final to me, but I wasn’t going to let this conversation die simply because there was nothing to say.
I wrote: "If you fancy a coffee next time you are in town let me know."
You didn't ask people out these days. That much I had learned from eavesdropping on Generation Zeds in my old office. You had coffees. Or you arranged a time to go round to someone's house on an app and they took you straight up to their room.
Another reason you didn’t ask people out these days was because you were married.
I opened the front door of my house.
“Your dinner’s in the fridge. We’ve already eaten,” Katie called from the living room.
I went into the kitchen and opened the Tupperware box. Fish fingers and fusilli pesto. Aaliyah was typing again. My breath came out in a series of shudders.
"I love coffee!" This was followed by a trio of hearts.
"I know a place that serves fantastic flat whites,” I wrote.
If I could forgive the photo, I could forgive the exclamation marks.
The screen was oily, as were my fingers. I had eaten the meal cold out of the box.
We didn’t get round to it in time. Lockdown came along and there seemed no point mentioning the coffee anymore. If Aaliyah decided not to pursue it once restrictions were eased, fine. Better than fine: a lucky escape. I’d been stupid to suggest it.
Every few days, we would send each other messages starting "How r u". Far from minding the banality of the messages, I preferred them that way. Sometimes I worried that Aaliyah would say something risqué, then felt disappointed when she didn't.
Checking WhatsApp became a hobby. I would be bored of an evening - in the living room, me on one chair, Katie and my daughter Ronnie together on the sofa, all of us parallel playing on our screens - and would wonder what Aaliyah was up to. A few seconds later, I had written “how r u,” saw “typing...” and was jittery all over, like a rat in a cage pressing a lever for a sugar lump.
Occasionally. I thought about changing the question from "How are you doing?" to "What are you doing?” However, that sounded accusatory, as if I thought she were stalking me. Or as if I were stalking her. Which, of course, I was, online, late at night when Katie had gone to bed.
Wrongheaded views won ample support on the internet, but I found it hard to find anyone recommending an affair. A Reddit post warned that an adulterer who got caught would never have any non-awkward interaction with their other half again, and would see their children only every second weekend, if that.
That gave me pause. Then I went on WhatsApp and saw Aaliyah was online. It was after 11pm. I wasn’t sure what Katie would make of me being downstairs on my iPad in the dark at that time, wearing only my boxers. Actually, I was pretty sure.
"Any progress on the job front?" I wrote.
My body tingled as I awaited the answer. The dancing dots now looked like bouncing bombs.
“Had a few interviews,” she wrote. “I didn't like them and vice versa."
I didn’t know what to say in these situations. When I was single, texting didn't exist.
We always found something to talk about, though, even if it was just about how we were really tired and had to go to bed. I recommended books about how to keep her spirits up or websites with common interview questions.
I wrote with my wife in mind. Sending messages at night was unwise, but some things couldn’t wait, such as: “Hope yr interview goes well tmrw”. I couldn’t reconcile myself to the abbreviations of such messages, but writing things out in full looked ridiculous and old.
When I finally went to bed, I heard from Katie’s breathing that she was awake and reached towards her like someone about to stroke a tarantula. Her groans were those of discouragement, not anticipation.
It wouldn’t be true to say that no-one had flirted with me in 20 years, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had winked in the mirror, the phrase “somebody fancies me!” reverberating in my brain.
It was a shame that the only thing I could do about it was send messages on my phone. Aaliyah asked to catch up on Zoom once, but it was too risky with the family around. A videoconference call outside would have looked shifty.
I hadn’t heard from Aaliyah for months, and had almost given up on her. Then one day she wrote: "Now that lockdown’s over, if you still fancy that coffee, I could probably do one evening next week."
Being a man, I didn’t play hard to get. Instead, l wrote: "How about Monday?"
I had an alibi for Mondays. A pub in Muswell Hill had a weekly cheap curry evening at which my mate Jamie and I had a couple of pints apiece and took turns ranting.
Aaliyah didn't drink and Katie's friends might see us, so we arranged to meet at a Pret in town instead. Ideally, I would have met her at lunchtime. She wouldn’t try to kiss me, which might be seen or leave traces, or take a joint selfie Katie might spot online.
However, I had managed to secure a month of temping work and I’d waste my entire lunch hour travelling to and from her office in Paddington. So we would have an evening coffee. To me, this made about as much sense to me as a beer at breakfast.
It also meant I’d have to lie to Katie about why I’d be home late.
A sick child was being resuscitated on Holby City, and my wife was so engrossed she was practically toppling off the sofa, when I said: “I’m out on Monday.”
Katie’s head began to turn towards me, then reverted towards the screen.
“Yeah. I’m having drinks with some people from work.”
She nodded, then turned the volume up.
As the heartbeat of the little girl on screen returned to normal, along with my own, I wanted to ask: “Don’t you care who I’m seeing? What does that say about us?”
She had to take some responsibility.
Aaliyah looked smaller than I remembered outside the Pret in Marylebone. Her baggy white Mickey Mouse jumper seemed deliberately childish and unsexy. Even her white hijab was disappointingly functional.
All those fantasies in which we found a hotel - a cinema - a park – a toilet - I could attribute only to a poor memory.
The wrong Aaliyah had come: the real one.
We didn't kiss or shake hands, just smiled within reach of each other.
"Let’s go to the station," she said. “Pret closes soon.”
The Marylebone concourse looked dark and old and bereft of good options. "Patisserie Valerie or Starbucks?" she said.
"I don't mind." Then I remembered men were supposed to be decisive. I opened my mouth but she got there first.
“Inside or outside?” she said, as we approached Starbucks.
"Let’s go inside."
We would be less visible.
We sat at a round brown table. I took the rickety chair and let Aaliyah have the banquette.
Once we had agreed how relieved we were that lockdown was over, I realised there was nothing further to say. She didn't, and gave me a real-time account of her day. She had secured a permanent job and the marketing team knew nothing about marketing.
One thing she said interested me: "My husband runs a jewellery business. On my CV I said I was a director of that."
She had mentioned this business before, but last time I was pretty sure the proprietor had been her brother-in-law. Aaliyah gabbled the new information, so I couldn't be certain I had heard her correctly. I didn't feel I could query it, either. (“I’m sorry, did you say: ‘My husband’?”) It would make too big a thing of it.
Then she looked at her watch and said it was time to go.
We walked around the station together and I scanned the crowd for familiar faces. She pointed out the entrance to the Underground.
To think I had worried about the evening ending in a snog.
We didn’t meet up again. What was the point? A coffee was just a coffee. The messages petered out.
One evening, as we were having dinner at home, my daughter Ronnie stood up and picked my phone up from the kitchen worktop. I had lapsed into the habit of leaving it there.
“You may get down.”
“Did you get my message?” she said.
My daughter had set up a family WhatsApp group, on which Katie and Ronnie exchanged furry pet photos. I would have exited it, but membership seemed to be compulsory.
I crooked my finger at her.
“It was a meme,” she said. “About annoying parents.”
“How to annoy them? Or how they’re annoying?”
“The second one.”
She read on. From the holly green at the top, I could tell she was on WhatsApp and rolled my eyes at Katie. “Can you give me my phone please? It’s an invasion of privacy.”
Ronnie was always banging on about privacy.
“Who’s Aaliyah? She’s sent you loads of messages.”
“Just a girl.” I kept my eyes on the tablecloth and its pictures of safari animals.
“I hope you don’t think I’m just a girl,” my daughter said.
“No.” I did: Ronnie was 13. “She’s not really a girl, anyway.”
Katie laid her knife and fork on the tablecloth in turn.
“Is she young?”
“No.” I hazarded an upward glance and glimpsed my wife’s chin in her palms, as if she were still watching Holby. “Not really.” The silences were like hyenas surrounding an ageing lion: retreating for a few seconds, then closing in again. “Thirty, I’d say.”
I swallowed a forkful of mashed potato so fast I thought I was going to vomit.
“I call that young. How do you two know each other?”
Her voice was flat, as if all emotion had been cut off.
“From the course.” My face was heating up. Why couldn't someone change the subject? “She was just asking how I was doing.”
“Yeah.” I laughed: a one-note noise from the back of my throat. “I guess she was kind of stalking me.”
“Stalking you?” Katie raised her black eyebrows. “So you blocked her, right?”
I chewed my lip. “No.” Ronnie was still on my phone, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore. “No, I didn’t.”
“Oh. You didn’t reply, though.”
I opened my mouth a couple of times before speaking. “I did, sometimes.”
Ronnie held the phone up close. “She says: ‘It was great to see you the other week. Let me know when you are next in this part of town.’”
“‘The other week’?” Katie moved next to Ronnie, heels clacking on the floorboards. “The course was over a year ago.”
“I...” My mind was all fogged up. “I just bumped into her.”
Katie seized her hips as if placing them under arrest.
“What were you doing there?”
“Seeing a contact.”
“He’s - he’s a contact.”
I stood up and went over to them. Ronnie turned away and hunched over my Samsung.
“Where does he work?” Katie said.
“I don’t know, all right? He said let’s meet in Marylebone so we met up in Marylebone.”
We peered into each other’s eyes. We hadn’t done that since I don’t know when. I had almost forgotten that her eyes had a grey band around the perimeter of the blue.
“Is she pretty? Ali-whatever. Is she pretty?” Katie stuck out her chin and her eyes became hooded. She drew her head back as well.
“Um,” I tried to concentrate on Aaliyah’s acne scars in the image that came to mind. Even now, stirrings arose. “Not really.”
“Right.” One of Katie’s fingers strayed up to her lips and rubbed them. “Ronnie, pass me the phone.”
She handed it to her mother and Katie glanced it for a second. “Just as I thought: gorgeous.”
‘I wouldn't say that.”
“How would you put it, then?”
Even Ronnie was staring at me now.
“I, er, can’t say I’ve ever thought about it.”
Katie smiled. “Think about it now.”
“She’s,” I paused, “all right, I suppose.”
“All right,” she said. “What do you think, Ronnie?”
My daughter grabbed the phone. “Looks pretty to me.”
I stared down at the photo. Why did Aaliyah have to be so photogenic? I suppose she wouldn’t have been on my phone if she weren’t.
“The headscarf gives her an air of mystery,” Katie said. “She must seem very exotic, compared to me.”
“You’re exotic,” I said.
She snorted. “I’m about as exotic as a ham sandwich.”
I sat down at the table again. “I’m not even going to see her again.”
“Because of this conversation?”
“No.” I couldn’t think of another reason I could cite.
Katie went to the cupboard, took out a pint glass and filled it up with water at the sink.
“What are you doing?” I said.
She dropped the phone in the water. It landed with a splosh and a tink and the top leaned against one side. Katie held the glass up to the light.
“What have you done?”
“I can’t have you chatting away to some slut you met on a course.”
“How are headhunters supposed to contact me?”
I held my hand out. After a pause, she passed me the glass. I took the phone out of the water, but the screen remained black no matter how often I tried to switch it on. “Now I’ll have to buy a new phone and send them all a new number.”
Katie looked at me blankly for a moment.
“You won’t send the new number to her, will you?” she said.
I shook my head. “If you’re going to do that,” I nodded at the glass, “there doesn't seem much point.”