She gazed once more at his letter, although she knew the words by heart. She looked at her watch... only two minutes had passed since she last looked. Her eyes drifted back to the telephone. She had thought it was fun, trendy, even, when she bought the ridiculous carved duck. It was probably the single most unpractical thing she had ever bought. Its front opened to reveal the handset. She willed it to quack, in its peculiarly un-duck-like fashion. It remained silent.
'Must get a sensible model,' she told herself. 'He's late,' she added, 'nearly twenty minutes late.' She got up to go to the bathroom, knowing that as soon as she left the room the 'phone would be sure to ring. She went anyway, leaving the door open to avoid missing it. She had rehearsed what she would say. Several times. She had even decided the number of rings she would allow, before answering ... enough to suggest she wasn't sitting waiting but not enough to allow him to ring off.
She washed her hands before flushing the loo. She could miss the phone, with the crashings of the noisy cistern. She resumed her seat next to the duck and waited. Ten-thirty. Half an hour late. It was an unpromising start to a new relationship.
She didn't like weekends. Her colleagues at the office seemed manically over-excited on Fridays. From the moment Gavin suggested they should all go for a lunchtime drink, to celebrate surviving another week, Friday afternoons went downhill. Everyone in the normally staid office began playing silly practical jokes and sent suggestive memos to the girls in typing. It wasn't that she lacked a sense of humour, but somehow, she never quite belonged to the group. It wasn't as if she was any older than the others but somehow, her own sense of isolation set her apart. A woman in a man's world. Was it the price she had to pay for being successful?
'Nearly five to eleven. He's forgotten,' she said softly, to the duck. 'I should have known better than to wait. I work with men all the time but never seem to find one with whom I can socialise.'
She made herself cross the room and studied herself in the mirror. She wasn't bad looking: no beauty, but she had nice eyes and her hair always looked shiny and well-groomed. The honest truth was that she looked forbidding. That was it. She ran her fingers through her hair, fluffing up the usually immaculate smoothness. She always worked hard and had become so efficient she scared men off. Was she so unrealistic to nurture hopes of a relationship? Thirty-two was no age, but she could see it drifting into thirty-three, four or five and she would probably still be eating her solitary little dinners.
The well-polished lady at the exclusive dating agency was very positive. They had any number of gentlemen on their books, all looking for someone like her. She remembered the way the bracelets had jangled on her wrist as she flicked efficiently through the card index.
'So much more personal that computers, don't you think?' she had said. As if it made any real difference!
The decision to join Introductions for the Discriminating had been a difficult one. After all, surely it was only people who were inadequate in some way, who needed help in this way? She had looked at pictures in magazines, showing happy couples who had met through computer dating agencies, but none of them seemed remotely like her. Cosy domesticity wasn't her style at all. She was a high-flier but honestly lacked time or motivation to look for someone to share her life. Besides, where could she go? Discos were out, as were pubs, clubs and evening classes, the apparently traditional hunting grounds for the unattached. The agency had convinced her that they could help. She had managed to hide her look of utter shock at the fees: one must surely meet decent types, if it cost so much to join.
She looked at the letter again. On thick notepaper, with the heading, Introductions for the Discriminating, she read the details,
Charles, six-feet tall, medium build, blue eyes. Age thirty-eight. Unmarried. Likes theatre, concerts (except Beethoven), dining out, travel ... there were several paragraphs. So, if he said he wanted to meet her, why hadn't he rung? He had seen her details and the polished lady said he seemed keen. He would phone on Sunday at ten. The suggestion was for pre-lunch drinks and if all went well, lunch together.
'Quack quack,' the phone sounded. She let it continue for five times, as she had decided was appropriate. She cleared her throat, picked it up, and spoke in what she hoped was a well-modulated tone.
'Good morning, Valerie Bentinck.'
'Hi Val. You sound posh today,' said her sister.
'Oh, Sue. It's you.'
'You don't have to sound so disappointed. Who were you expecting? One of the newly available Princes? It couldn't be your stock-broker, not on a Sunday.'
'Do you want something?' she asked her sister.
'I wondered if you could do me the biggest favour and sit with the kids? Tom's playing cricket and there's a party afterwards. I just have to go. Haven't been out for ages and it sounds like such a good do. Come early and have lunch. The kids would love to see you and you're always at a loose end on Sundays.'
She listened to her sister's prattling. It was always the same; Good old Val will baby-sit. She'll enjoy time with the kids. Admittedly, she wasn't against the idea of having children, but she preferred her nephews in small doses. She had nothing in common with small boys, relations, or otherwise. Besides, if Charles phoned, however late, she wanted to be free to go out.
'Are you still there?' asked Sue. 'Well, what about it?'
'It's not really convenient,' she stammered. 'I do sort have plans.'
'Come on love, whatever do you do on Sundays? You can put off washing your hair or whatever it is. How can you sort of have plans? You either do or don't.'
'It isn't convenient,' she repeated. 'I do have plans, but they're not finalised yet. Look, I'll call you back if things don't work out.'
'If you insist. But don't leave it too long. Eleven is really the latest.'
'But it's gone eleven now,' she protested.
'Who's forgotten the clocks went back? You surely couldn't forget, not you?'
Valerie went pale.
'I'll have to go, Sue. I'll call you back later.' She put the phone down, before her sister could began a new conversation. The duck began to quack again. Was it Sue complaining about her sister's strange mood, or could it be Charles?
'Hallo, Valerie?' said the deep masculine voice. 'This is Charles. I have been looking forward to speaking to you.'
Valerie Bentinck settled back into the comfortable chair to enjoy her call. Sue would have to find herself a new, tame baby-sitter. She intended her diary to be full from now on.