DEREK AND FREDERICA
'It'll be fine,' Doris said. 'You know it'll be fine. If he's a wrong'un, you just leave.'
'What if he stops me?' Frederica said.
'Then I'll stop him stopping you.' Doris laughed. 'I'll break his arm and you run.'
'I don't think it'll be that bad.'
'Of course it won't. I'm just ready for anything.'
Doris and Frederica moved up the pebble path to the Cholera Monument. The park was moderately busy but most of the other visitors were down at the front; a woman in a blue coat playing with her two Collies and a man reading on a bench.
Frederica's eyes were fixed on Derek who was standing right in front of the monument itself. Doris stopped halfway and gave the two some space but kept just close enough to listen.
'I'm so glad you came,' Derek said. 'I've been stupid. I didn't really want to lie to you, I'm just funny about my mates, that's all. I've chucked them now, the ones who said stuff. They didn't understand my persistence.'
Doris frowned. From the way he spelled it out, 'persistence' obviously wasn't a word Derek normally used.
'It doesn't matter what they think,' he continued. 'I realise that now. I appreciated you when I saw you but now I appreciate you more. Loads more. Do you still appreciate me?'
Doris cringed. She checked Derek's jacket pockets for the bulge of a pocket dictionary. All flat. There certainly wasn't a thesaurus.
She looked at Frederica. All the appreciation and persistence seemed to be working. Doris sighed.
Frederica kissed Derek and said. 'I do appreciate you. But I don't want you to lie to me like that again.'
Derek glanced over her shoulder. 'I promise. Wholeheartedly.'
Doris followed his gaze to the man on the bench. He had stopped reading, looking quite engrossed by the reconciliation happening. He saw Doris and turned away.
'I'll see you later, Frederica,' Doris said but her friend was busy with a kiss that looked like it might take days to finish.
Doris moved down towards the front entrance. She turned to the man on the bench. 'Maybe lay off the romance novels, eh?'
She chuckled as she carried on down the path. The man on the bench watched her until she had disappeared around the gates.
RICHARD AND ERIN
Doris bought herself a Mocha Grande. Accidental espionage was thirsty work.
She sat down at a sofa seat near the coffee shop bay window, eyes fixed on a woman with electric blue hair.
She was doing this for a friend, Richard. It wasn't exactly how she would have liked to spend her Sunday afternoon but she would have probably ended up people-watching anyway. She had just finished her book.
Doris watched the woman, Erin, as she talked with her male companion. He looked very familiar but she couldn't place him. She remembered the Cholera Monument.
'Well, well,' she muttered, bringing the cup to her lips. 'The love coach.'
Unfortunately the love coach didn't seem to be having much luck with Erin. Doris could see she was a natural flirt, that there was no real implication to the way she leaned in and patted his hand. The man seemed to know this as well; perhaps he wasn't so naive after all.
Doris heard Erin say Richard's name clearly on two occasions. This guy didn't have a chance.
Suddenly Erin started packing her bag. She kissed the man on the cheek and then left him sat across from an empty cup of tea. Doris stood up and walked over to the table.
'Do you remember me?' she said. 'From the Cholera Monument?'
The man looked up at her, frowning.
'Derek and Frederica?'
'Oh. Yes,' the man said. 'That was a year ago, wasn't it? It wasn't romance novels I got that stuff from, it was films. Laid off them all the same.'
'You've got a memory as long as mine. May I sit down?'
'I'm Doris, by the way.'
'John.' He offered his hand. Doris smiled and shook it.
'I couldn't help but notice your date didn't end well.'
'It wasn't a date.'
'I know her. My friend Richard, the one she was talking about, really wants to go out with her.'
'You were spying on his behalf?'
'No. I just came in for coffee and spotted her.'
John shrugged his shoulders. 'Well, he's in luck. She can't seem to get off the subject of how great and interesting he is.'
'I do hate the way some girls can't read the situation they're in.'
'Tell me about it.'
Doris took out her phone, bringing up Richard's number.
'Do you know where she went?'
'Back to work.'
'Do you work with her?'
'How much does her happiness matter to you?'
John folded her arms. 'Not enough to pass on this Richard's number unfortunately.'
'I suppose that's fair.' Doris put her phone away. 'Do you know any other way I might get it to her? Richard doesn't have much time off work these days.'
'She's off every Tuesday afternoon.'
'That sounds good. I might be able to catch her. Where do you work?'
'Look,' John said, 'Just give me the number. I was being silly before. I'm probably your best option here.'
'All right but where do you work?'
'The Celluloid Cellar. We're ushers there.'
'That's cool. I could go see a movie.'
'It might look awkward, a customer giving the usher something in return for a ticket.'
'I don't see why it should.'
John pulled a small notepad and pen out of his jacket pocket. 'I promise it'll find its way to her.'
'The Celluloid Cellar's really close to here, isn't it?'
'Yes. Around the corner.'
'I could convince Richard to sneak away early on Tuesday afternoon. They could meet here.'
'I'm sorry. Are we orchestrating something now?'
Doris smiled. 'Just look at me. I'm the romantic now. What do you say?'
'The last time I did something like that it was incredibly embarrassing.'
'Well, there were a few appreciations too many.'
'Exactly. And why would I even want to pair off a woman I like with some guy I've never even met?'
'Because Derek and Frederica are still together and very happy.'
John stared at her. 'Really?'
'Yes. Clumsy old-time romantics actually worked.'
'God. I haven't been in contact with Derek for a few months now.'
'Now I can sort this by myself if I have to. Quite frankly the only thing you have to do is take Erin out for coffee after work.'
John massaged his eyes. 'You are cruelty personified.'
Doris chuckled. 'And you can be kindness.'
By the time they had finished their drinks, there was a sturdy working plan. They would meet again next Tuesday at 5:30pm.
'I'll just leave you two to it,' John said.
Richard and Erin were already sat down at the table. They were politely silent for a while but, as soon as John had started to walk away, the conversation was all go. Excited whispers building in volume.
John found Doris at the sofa by the coffee shop window. He sat down beside her.
'How are you feeling?' Doris said.
'You know,' John sighed.
'But you did a good thing.'
'I certainly bloody hope so.'
John tried to watch the couple as carefully as Doris did but just couldn't quite bring himself to see Erin light up in the presence of a more interesting man. Instead he found himself gazing at Doris' profile as she craned her neck. Striking in a rather pale way.
'I wish that tall old man would take his coffee elsewhere,' she muttered.
'Yes,' John said. 'He's an almost perfect obstacle in this situation. That being said, he does shield our espionage quite well.'
Doris turned to him. 'Espionage? It's not thrilling enough to be espionage.'
'Don't tell me you don't get a little thrill out of seeing this set-up work out.'
'Ah, the joys of vicarious living.'
'Speak for yourself. I just like to see two people hit it off.'
John straightened up. 'So you're telling me that you wouldn't want anything like that for yourself?'
'Of course not. I'm not interested in conventional heterosexual love.'
'So you're gay?'
'Really?' John folded his arms. 'Is that a thing now? An orientation?'
'I suppose that's irony for you. The last taboo being having no taboo at all.'
Doris looked him in the eye. 'Don't be an arsehole. Asexuality isn't the last taboo. It's been around for a while actually.'
'Well, I'm sorry, I didn't know that.'
'That's fine. Just don't run your mouth off about stuff you've only just learnt about.'
'Mea culpa.' John raised his hands in apology. 'So you've always felt this way?'
'One way or another. I have been in relationships.'
'And all the things between?'
Doris rolled her eyes. 'Can we just focus please?'
'They're doing fine. I expect details will be exchanged shortly.'
'I'm just wondering if I need to remind him about when his break ends. Can you think of a way?'
'You could throw a mug at him. Or I could.'
'John,' Doris said. 'I understand that you're still uncomfortable about all this and it's great that you're still here to support me. Thank you. That being said, if you're just getting frustrated, please leave. In fact I recommend it.'
'I'm here for you more than I'm here for her. I stayed for you.'
Doris sighed. 'That's sweet, John, but you did just hear me talk about being asexual, right? Are you here as a friend or are you hoping for something more?'
John shrugged his shoulders. 'Can't blame a guy for trying. But I'll go.' He stood up.
Doris swept her hair back. 'I really don't mind you being here, John. I just don't want to be sat next to a scorned man seething.'
'Now there's a title. Scorned Man Seething. I might just use it for the screenplay of my sad little life.'
'Jesus Christ, John. Throw your own self-pity parade, why don't you?'
'I shall.' He picked up his coat. 'I'm thinking this is a good street to start on.'
John left the coffee shop. Doris watched him until he disappeared around the corner.
She stayed around for a little while after to check on Richard and Erin. Neither of them were going anywhere. She sent Richard a text reminding him about work as she left.
DORIS AND JOHN
A week later, Doris returned to the Cholera Monument. When she saw John sat on the bench, she wasn't at all surprised.
She brought her book over to the bench and sat down beside him.
'I'm sorry,' John said, after a few page turns. 'You were right about me being jealous. And yes, I was fucking stupid to assume that asexuality was just an excuse.'
'What do you think it was an excuse for?' Doris said.
'To not go out with me. Girls have made worse excuses before. Even a few lads too.'
Doris put her book down. 'So you're bi, are you?'
'It varies. Mostly girls though.'
'Asexuality is not an excuse.'
'I know. It's a way of life.'
'It's not a taboo either. There are no taboos if you really think about it.'
John turned to her. 'Necrophilia?'
'So long as there's some consenting going on.'
'You mean, someone signs their dead body to a guy who shags dead bodies?'
'Something like that.'
John picked up his book again. 'I saw Erin and Richard the other day. Holding hands.'
'Excellent work on the set-up, by the way.'
'Thank you for the assistance.'
'Well, someone might as well be happy.'
Doris placed her bookmark ribbon between the pages she was reading. 'Still struggling on that front, are you?'
'For the first time in a long time, I don't particularly find anyone that attractive.' John smiled. 'Perhaps I should treat this as an experiment in asexuality.'
Doris shook her head. 'We'll have to find someone for you. Preferably someone very forgiving.'
'I also saw Derek too. Remember Derek?'
'He said he broke up with Frederica.'
'That's a shame.'
'About a month ago. When you told me they were still together.'
'I thought they were.' Doris raised her hands in apology. 'I had to say something to get you on board. I couldn't do it alone.'
'I don't actually blame you much,' John said. 'Funny that. Who really knows who is perfect for anyone?'
'Yeah.' Doris stared off at the blue-coated dog walker at the entrance, letting her Collies off their leads. They barrelled up the pebble path. 'That's why I don't go in for those kind of relationships.'
'That's why I can't,' John said, he grabbed her book before it fell off her lap. 'Is this a romance book? It looks like one.'
Doris didn't answer. She was watching the Collies as they moved up onto the green.