Of course, there were other things I could have done that night.
I could have gone out to the cinema. I could have got all dressed up and taken the Tube to some God-forsaken spot, stood in line alone among snug young couples and jostling teenaged boys.
I might have sat through Star Wars II again unmoved, out of sync with the cheering crowds, tortured by popcorn smells, ripping through half a pack of Benson’s in the smoking rows. I pictured myself traveling home alone late to my hostel in a vacant underground car, and tallied the whole thing’s costing a small fortune — four or five quid all told for an empty, miserable time.
I told the stranger I’d met in the park, “I can only go out a couple of hours, I work breakfast in the morning. I have to be up at six.”
His musical voice rushed up a staccato scale: “Then this boyfriend of yours has cancelled?”
“At the last minute he decided to go home to Torquay, too see an old friend in town.”
This fib had the ring of truth; Adrian often did spend weekends there, raving it up with his old school mates. That I worked Saturdays was a valid reason he didn’t bring me.
I suggested we meet out — no way would I be seen being picked up when I’d told everyone I was going out with Adrian. I suggested the Odeon, a big disco in Leicester Square I’d heard other students speak of. I ought to see the Odeon before flying home.
“Ah, the Odeon,” the stranger said over the phone in his melodic voice. “I have been there many times. Things do not get going at the Odeon until nine o’clock. Why not come round to my flat first for a drink?”
Naturally, I hesitated. In fact, I was on the verge of backing out altogether. It would be easy enough, standing at the pay phone outside the lounge, to give this man the brush, as Adrian did to me.
This man knew that if I walked over to Leicester Square, I’d look up at the big red and black building with the silver-tone letters mounted high in the sky, and I wouldn’t go in. I would glance around the square, with its hordes of rushing strangers, its slack-jawed, sheeny-suited businessmen, its clusters of turquoise German backpackers, its turbaned Indians, and about-face to Oxford Street.
There I might stroll at leisure, peering longingly into shop windows — electric blue sailor suits, thin-soled loafers in red, mustard and gray, V-neck T-shirts and baggy trousers. I’d gaze at all the dazzling things I couldn’t afford as the neon night swirled around.
I might then walk up the quiet streets of Maida Vale, where I’d known good times when the weather was cool, met Adrian and his friends at a the Elgin Arms, ate cockles and mussels under budding spring trees.
Or I might go even safer, journey past Swiss Cottage up to St. John’s Wood, to Tom-my-American-friend’s. Tom might be sitting in the front room, scowling over Economics — that frown so incongruous to his six-year-old’s features, the curling brown hair and gentian blue eyes, that frown wiped out when I appeared announced once, rapping on the window from among rhododendrons.
Before stopping for refreshment at a suitably ritzy pub, Tom and I might walk those rarified streets, flanked with huge trimmed bushes guarding cross-beamed houses, streets whose sidewalks were bordered by thick thriving grass, streets of detached homes and Labradors barking in back. Woof!
No, my chances of turning up at the Odeon did not look too good.
“Come round now, while it is still light,” the man urged.
Why shouldn’t I go over to his Earl’s Court flat? Hadn’t I been going round to people’s houses, up to men’s rooms for years? Come round to my place for coffee, for a drink, for fish and chips, to hear this record, meet my brother, watch Top of the Pops. I would never have met anyone in London if I went around saying no.
Naturally I felt foreboding at being invited in to someone’s house, at climbing strange stairs for a job, clambering into the cab of a truck, hitchhiking to Wales. But I beat the fear back.
I wasn’t the kind of girl who stayed in moping over a man; I was a girl who went out into the night.
So I may as well go into it with this new one, this nice man I was very nearly rude to, who behaved so flawlessly in the park all afternoon. I’ll meet him out for a drink somewhere, kill a couple of hours, and go home.
No one here need know I didn’t go out with Adrian.
No one needs to know where I am at all.