Strange Encounter by Christopher Brunt

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not normal and, yes, it’s not at all orthodox, but ultimately how much stock are we supposed to invest in orthodoxy? I will ask you to remember that my method did work, at least initially, and so there has to be some merit in that. You can’t blame me for all the rest of it.

No, let me begin somewhere towards the beginning. What I really wanted to say was that I wouldn’t normally have done a thing like this; yes, you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I’m sure you’re obliging enough to take me at my word. Actually, I won’t expect anything less of you. The truth is, I’m a normal person, normal in all the usual ways. I live a straightforward, typical lifestyle and function with all the regular desires. My name is Noel and I’m a thirty-six year old male. What else should I tell you? More? I’m not sure it’s necessary to go into the whole thing: my likes and dislikes, my sexual preferences and my eating habits. Let’s just pretend that we’ve known each other for some time now and that we’re the best of friends, you shouldn’t find it too difficult. I forgot to mention, I’m a very likeable person.

You’ll no doubt have noted the limp-wristed cinematic pun with regards to the title? I noticed it too, but I didn’t remove it. I kept it in so you would see how silly I can be. I put it down to my less refined impulses, but the less said about those the better.

I met Julie Sanderson at a coffee shop. There’s nothing remarkable or strange about that, of course; people meet all the time while drinking coffee. In fact, if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say coffee is the drink most frequently drunk when people make new acquaintances. I don’t know of any statistics to back this assumption up with, and I may have failed to consider one or two other beverages that could just as easily fit into that category; also, I’m not renowned for my guessing work, so let’s just move on from this topic altogether.

If you’re the type of person who insists upon being pedantically accurate about every little detail, then I should tell you that we didn’t actually meet at all on that first occasion in the coffee shop. Instead, I took the liberty of listening in on a conversation Julie was having with someone else. I still count it as our first meeting. I was seated alone next to her table and I found myself listening to her voice. Julie has one of the most wonderful voices in the world. It’s a sort of chesty-voice, the type that originates at the back of the throat and lingers in the air for the briefest of moments, like a string of spit, extending outwards after each word. It’s a sort of droning sound, like when you’ve got a cold. Husky? I’ve heard it called husky once or twice. You’ll have to take my word for it.

She was beautiful too, but I won’t bore you by describing her appearance. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, there’s no guarantee that what I’d describe would sound in the least bit appealing to someone else, especially you. For all I know, you could be attracted to something completely different. No, I won’t go to any lengths trying to empathise with you, but what I will say, is that to me, Julie was nothing short of beautiful.

I initially thought I’d be able to ignore her without letting it affect my life.

Infatuated to the point of being obsessed, I ended up following her for several weeks. Someone like you would put it down to spring fever or a morbid fascination, but I don’t think it was either, it was that voice of hers.

I became so adept at stalking her that whenever she deigned to glance back over her shoulder, as they all do in the movies, I had no trouble darting into a doorway or back-alley, moving out of sight like some dastardly villain. The only problem was when she visited the park. She would feed the ducks for hours at a time, and I would be forced to manoeuvre myself behind a tree or bush, staring at her from between leaves and thorns; avoiding the uncomfortable stares of nature enthusiasts who stumbled across my vantage point.

As all professional stalkers believe, I thought it would be enough to stand at a distance observing her, gleaning what little insight I could, while filling in the rest with my imagination.

After a while I got it into my head to introduce myself.

Now, before I go on, let me just say that I have made many unsuccessful attempts at wooing ladies. If I hadn’t known any better and had not -as Nietzsche advises us- learnt from my mistakes, then there’s no doubt I would have waltzed up to her with an extended hand and offered her my full name and a ridiculous grin, hoping she would fall in love with me there and then. I’m not an idiot. I know this approach would have ended in tears and I would have been forced to return to my gloomy observatory amongst the trees.

It wouldn’t be unfair of you to assume that I’m much more intelligent than most other people. I’ve learnt from my youth, and I know what works and what doesn’t work. Still, on this particular occasion, I decided to adopt what I’m willing to term: a rather ‘unorthodox’ approach.

Having watched Julie for several weeks, I knew her to be an extremely kind and thoughtful person. I had observed her in the company of others closely enough to know that she was not the type who was likely to inflict social injury upon someone. Not without good cause. This was the key to my idea, as I intended to use her compassion to my advantage.

I positioned myself several yards further down the path of her usual route home through Rowntree Park. I walked towards her with a confident and self-assured prance, the sort of gait that males who regularly experience a degree of success with members of the opposite sex, will often have.

“Hi-hello Julie.” I addressed her, interjecting a loud assertive impetus into my tone.

At first she was taken aback, not expecting to be addressed. Her neck jostled and her eyes bulged at me, her motor functions frantically assessing the severity of the situation.

“Oh -hi. Yes?” She began to mumble.

I made sure to not waste my opportunity by hesitating. My plan was to assume prior knowledge of our acquaintance and to convince her that any alarm she might have felt at being addressed by a complete stranger, was in fact not in the least bit necessary. We were friends. We had known one another for many years. It was all perfectly natural. After all, they say we’re each isolated by three degrees of separation. My knowing her from afar had most likely reduced the distance between us to two if not one degree; and by introducing myself and pretending I already knew her, she would have no choice but to go along with it.

“Julie -my god, I haven’t seen you in years,” I said, “not since that conference…it’s me Noel. How the devil are you?”

Perplexity reigned in her face and I attempted to banish her unease with the sincerity of my smile.

I knew she’d be willing to go along with it, hoping to avoid the embarrassment of admitting she didn’t remember me.

“She won’t risk being rude or offensive to me,” I thought. “The Julie I know would never do that.”

I took my plan to the next stage by engaging her in physical contact. This may be news to you, so listen carefully: people are irresistibly drawn to physical contact. That is a historical fact, though I do not currently have the facts at my disposal; you see, people can’t function without physical contact. I do not mean anything sexual by that, if you were thinking that, then please stop thinking altogether. All I meant was a handshake here and a friendly hug there.

Anyway, in that moment, I reached over and enveloped her in a pleasant, familiar embrace, smiling all the while, and making sure to maintain eye-contact as I withdrew. The hug was neither lecherous nor antagonistic. It was a perfect balance between tenderness and an expression of gratitude, similar to how one might hug a close relative or a competent hairdresser.

Something changed in her expression. I saw instantly that my plan had worked. She was now smiling and happy to see me, even though we had never met before this moment. She was convinced that we possessed some form of an acquaintance, a bond that by meeting in this way -purely by chance- we had suddenly rekindled from the depths of our rich and varied past-lives.

“Hi, yes, Noel. Of course, it’s you!” She stuttered, hurrying to make amends for her initial trepidation, fawning upon me in the customary Julie fashion.

“I thought it was you,” she said. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in ages…”

By the end of our brief encounter I had managed to convince her that we should meet up later that evening for dinner. I gave her my contact details, informing her that, having changed phones since meeting at the conference, it was unlikely she would have my current number.

It was during our dinner that things became particularly complex and a little too strange for my liking.

**

When I saw her outside the restaurant I was pleasantly surprised to see she had not only stayed faithful to our meeting arrangements by arriving on time, but had also dressed accordingly in high-heels, lipstick and an elegant dress.

“You look wonderful,” I found myself saying as I approached, making sure to withhold the word beautiful -at least until we began eating.

“Oh, Noel, stop,” she droned, revelling in modesty and pretending to slap my shoulder with her hand.

“I wanted to make an effort,” she said. “I was so embarrassed when you saw me earlier, I must have looked a complete mess.”

Taking hold of my arm, she steered us through the entrance where we engaged in a brief exchange with the waiter, who then ushered us to our table.

We ate, laughed and talked as most people do when catching up with old friends. I imparted news of my recent promotion, along with the trouble I was having while searching for a reputable electrician. She told me all about Roger and Janet and the affair Roger was having with Siobhan; which according to Susie (who didn’t even work in their building and only came in each morning to deliver the croissants), Janet had known about it all along. Apparently, everything was brimming under the surface, ready to come out.

I felt we were becoming familiar with one another like I’d always hoped we would, and as familiar as Julie believed we had been when we first met at the conference, even though there had never been a conference.

“I have missed you, Noel.” She told me, staring into the depths of her third glass of wine, my face grinning uncontrollably at seeing how well she was responding.

“I didn’t forget about you.” She said, creasing her brow as if impatient.

“I broke up with my ex a couple of months ago and I thought about you then. I haven’t been feeling too well. I hate him. I hate liars.”

“You’re beautiful, totally beautiful, utterly beautiful.” I began saying, not caring that I’d interrupted her, concerned solely for the validity of what I was saying.

“I’ve been meaning to do this for so long,” I said, “I -I just didn’t know how you’d respond.”

Was I dreaming? Was this too good to be true? It felt better than anything could possibly feel, certainly better than it had when I’d imagined us together.

“I have to confess something, Noel,” she said in her serious tone, sounding throatier than ever. Her big beautiful eyes enfolding me, turning me into a complete idiot: staring blankly at her, my jaw skimming along the piping surface of the pea soup I’d ordered as a starter.

“I was hoping you’d come and talk to me sooner,” she confessed. “I know you can’t plan for this sort of thing, but I suppose I’d hoped you’d find me before now.”

I noted something intense, something strange and unsettling in her seriousness.

Was she telling me the whole truth? Could I trust her? Was she really who she claimed to be?

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen you, Noel: today I mean. That wasn’t the first time since the conference, you know.”

“It wasn’t?” I asked, my smile fading as I realised just how stupid I’d been, how obvious this all was.

“Of course, she must have seen me walking about behind her, stalking her like some desperate fool,” I chided myself. “God only knows what she must think of me…”

“We were in the library.” She mentioned, fidgeting with her cutlery.

“You we reading a National Geographic, I think that’s what it was…” she fingered her chin, trying to recall.

I too, wracked my brains. Had I followed her into the library at some point? No. I couldn’t remember doing that. It’s true, I did have a library card, I did frequently visit the library and I did read old National Geographics, but I could not recall following her into one of the city’s libraries. I was certain of it.

“Perhaps she’s mistaken me for someone else?”

“Yes, you were wearing your old cardigan, the blue one,” she said, motioning to her shoulder with a hand, smiling fondly as if enjoying one of our old jokes.

“You know, that tatty cardigan of yours.” She prompted me, my face blank and swathed in sweaty confusion. Still she gestured to her shoulder, even pretending to be cross with me when I couldn’t remember.

“The one with the rip on the shoulder-pad.” She laughed, reaching for the bottle of wine and topping us both up.

I knew at once that something was amiss. I knew instantly she was referring to the cardigan I had accidentally ripped while installing two oak bookshelves in my lounge. Though, I hadn’t worn that cardigan in the past six months -for precisely that same reason, and I had only known of Julie’s existence for the past eight weeks.

“My blue cardigan…?” I mouthed.

“Have another drink, silly, you need to keep up with me.” She giggled, moving the glass closer to my hand.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said, looking directly at me, oblivious to my increasing dismay.

“Why don’t we do what we always said we were going to do? It’s been too long, hasn’t it? Why wait any longer? I’ve been waiting for you to ask me to dinner for so long and now I’m tired of waiting.”

She was clearly impatient about something.

“Do you ever get that feeling,” she asked, “you know, that you’re just marking time for the sake of it? Like you should really make an effort to do the things you always said you’d do? Well, why don’t we?” She asked, her face widening with that beautiful smile.

I hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about.

“Why don’t we go to Venice like we said we would? We can drive there, you can take your car and I can read. Or better still, does your Vauxhall have a CD player or a cassette?” she asked, placing her glass down and sitting up, raising her arms as if readying herself to express a splendid idea.

“How do you know I have a Vauxhall?” I asked her, my voice so low that I could have been speaking to anyone, or no one.

“Who does she think I am?” I wondered.

“Well, either way, it doesn’t matter,” she said, her excitement evolving with each new idea.

“If not, I can always transfer it onto a CD. But why don’t we listen to my audio copy of Bleak House on the way there? You told me you liked Dickens the best, and that’s the only one you haven’t read. I assume you still haven’t read it?”

It was true, I did like Dickens the best and Bleak House was the only one of his that I hadn’t read. But how did she know that? Was she psychic or insane?

“We’d have more than enough time to listen to it from start to finish if we drove down,” she told me. “I honestly can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. Me and you. Please make it work. I know you’ve been given that promotion but surely your boss can let you have a week off, maybe even just a long weekend?”

How did she know I wanted to visit Venice, or did everyone simply long for a holiday in Venice? Had we really met at that conference? She worked in insurance, I in supplies: what conference could we have ever been on together? There was none. I knew it then. There had never been a conference.

“Listen, why don’t you give work a call, or at least begin to think about how to phrase it?” she proposed, emerging from her seat and handling the strap of her hand-bag.

“I’m just nipping to the loo, I won’t be long. Don’t go anywhere, Mr.”

I fled that instant, my legs carrying me away with a profound urgency. I have never seen Julie since, though I did receive a postcard from her containing a scenic depiction of Venice. There was no writing on the back, but I know it was from her. It must have been.

Since then I’ve made sure to avoid visiting the park. Still, I know she’s there, feeding those damned ducks of hers.

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