The love story begins here… James was six feet tall in his socks, broad-shouldered and dark-haired. He also had the most beautiful smile imaginable. James had charm and a wonderful way with women . Facially, he resembled a cross between Tom Jones and Alan Bates. He was the sort of man any girl would be pleased to be seen with. And as if that wasn’t enough, he was extremely nice.
James was born, fully grown, at the age of twenty-six on the seventeenth of March, 1978. He was the brainchild of Carol Valentine.
Carol was twenty-three, five foot three in her stockings, rather bright and extremely pretty, and any man should have been pleased to be seen with her. She felt neither bright nor pretty, however, since Tom Everton had decided not to marry her after all. He was the reason she had come to London. Further than that, we need not discuss Tom Everton he did not deserve her, anyway.
It was for the benefit of the other girls in the office that Carol invented James. On her arrival in London, she had signed on with a temporary help agency and had taken the first secretarial job offered. She didn’t particularly like it, but pounding away at a typewriter day after day was a kind of therapy Tom Everton had done something destructive to her initiative and she needed time to build it up again. But we are not discussing Tom Everton.
During coffee and lunch breaks, the other girl’s conversation concerned their boyfriends or husbands, and Carol used to sit quietly during these sessions feeling distinctly uncomfortable. Myra, who had red hair and freckles and no inhibitions, turned to Carol one day and asked, “What’s your boyfriend’s name?”
“James,” said Carol instantaneously, giving the first name that entered her head. Curious, she thought afterward, that the first name that entered her head was not Tom curious, and healthy. She must be recovering.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at Carol.
“What does he do ?” asked Myra again.
Carol considered. What would James do? “He’s in business, “she said. “He’s a consultant.”
“Sounds very serious,” someone said.
“Oh, he’s not,” said Carol, warming to her subject.
“Well, he’s serious about business, of course, but he’s great fun.”
“I wish Eddie was,” sighed someone else.
Carol’s imagination took flight. By the time she had finished describing James and all his glories she had acquired a new status in the office and, in a curious way, a new outlook on life.
From the bus, she saw hanging in the window of an art shop a paper mobile, consisting of one large bird and several smaller ones floating beneath it. The birds were delicately painted in blue and gold and looked poised to fly away. She disembarked at the next stop and bought the mobile. It cost two and one-half pounds, and she had to wait for forty-five minutes before an empty bus arrived to complete her journey home, but she hummed as she hung the pretty mobile in her bedsitter window. The little room took on quite a different quality with these rare and fragile creatures hanging there.
“James gave me those, “she imagined herself saying to a visitor. “Well, yes, he is a bit frivolous at times, you know. But awfully reliable.”
She boiled an egg, having eaten quite well in the cafeteria at midday, then switched on the radio and pulled out her crocheting. She was making a poncho for herself in blue and gold, like the birds.
In her head, James was saying, “What’s a nice girl like you doing all alone this fine evening?”
“Ah,” said Carol. “If only you were real.”
“I am real, in a sense,” said James . ” ‘ If only ‘ don’t get people very far, though, do they?”
“That’s true,” said Carol. “I said you had a lot of common sense.”
“More than you, if you ask me,” said James. “Sitting there moping, with the great big world out there waiting to be explored.”
“I’m sitting here because nobody wants me,” said Carol, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand,” said James, “it’s self-pity. How can anyone want you if nobody sees you? You have to get out and meet people. Didn’t we see something in the paper about a poetry group tonight?”
“Yes, but …”
“No buts. Get the paper.
So she went to the poetry reading, which was held in the upstairs room of a pub, and it turned out to be a lot of fun. Carol found herself talking to her neighbors, and one young man insisted on buying her a drink and walking her home. She felt rather uncertain, but he was very persistent. When, at the front gate, he asked meaningfully if he could come in for coffee, she said she was awfully sorry, but James wouldn’t like it. James, she explained, was her boyfriend, who was away on a business trip and was, incidentally, a karate expert. The young man went away.
So James turned out to have more uses than one.
After that, James persuaded Carol to visit the theater and the opera and have supper at the nearby health food restaurant. Gradually Carol found herself acquiring new friends. But she didn’t acquire anyone remotely resembling James.
“If only you were real,” she sighed one evening, cutting the last piece of wool from her blue and gold poncho.
James was silent.
“I didn’t mean to offend you, ” said Carol. “I mean, I’m having a very nice time as it is, but ….”
” Ifs and buts, ” said James crossly. ” That poncho looks terrific. You have a real feeling for color, you know. Ever thought of taking up painting? ”
“Hmm …” said Carol thoughtfully. “Well, your suggestions usually turn out pretty well. “
So on Saturday afternoon, wearing her blue and gold poncho, she joined an art class at her local adult education institute. Though she felt clumsy and unpracticed, the teacher was encouraging, and afterward, feeling quite a buoyant, Carol went into the cafeteria for a coffee.
It was there that she met Lawrence and Tony.
She couldn’t help noticing them in the lineup because, while Tony was fair and not very tall, Lawrence was the exact image of James. When they came to sit at Carol’s table, she could scarcely take her eyes off him. Even more astonishing, the impact was mutual. He was staring at her, hard.
“You have some paint on your nose,” he said eventually.
Carol blushed and groped in her purse for her compact and a tissue.
“Such a pretty nose, too,” he went on, looking at her with those dark, intense eyes she had thought only James possessed.
“No need to guess what class you’ve been at,” his friend remarked laughingly.
The two men, it turned out, were studying Spanish, with a view to summer holidays. They shared an apartment; Lawrence was in advertising and Tony in computers. Carol wished she was involved in something more interesting than office work and decided it was time to look for another job. The conversation flowed, however; both men seemed interested in her, and she blossomed under their attention. Particularly the attention of six-foot, dark-haired Lawrence.
It was odd the way James popped into the discussion, but he had become so much a part of her life that when he crept into the conversation it was almost as if he’d done so on purpose. “When James suggested this folk club the other night …” she heard herself saying.
” Who’s James ? ” asked Lawrence, alert.
“Oh, just a friend,” she said, looking, she knew, extremely self conscious.
“Boyfriend?” Lawrence raised an eyebrow.
“Sort of,” she said.
“No … not exactly.”
He relaxed and smiled. Carol relaxed, too. He was amazingly attractive, she thought. And charming, and attentive, and all the things James would have been … if he’d been real.
“See you again soon?” Lawrence asked, holding her hand at the door.
Carol’s doorbell rang unexpectedly the next morning, which was Sunday. She was wearing her new long flowered cotton skirt, just in case, the doorbell should ring unexpectedly.
The unexpected person, however, was not Lawrence but Tony. She tried not to let her face drop.
“I was just passing,” he said, smiling. “Wondered if you’d offer me a cup of coffee?”
“Sure. “With as good a grace as possible, Carol put the kettle on and spooned instant coffee into two mugs.
“How’s Lawrence today ?” she asked brightly as she poured, knowing she hadn’t a hope of sounding casual.
“Oh, he’s gone out for the day. To see his mother,” he said.
“I was wondering… would you like to come out for a while? Take a trip down Regent’s Park Canal, maybe?”
For all his cheerful appearance, he sounded very tentative. Carol liked men with assurance, like Lawrence and James, but there was something rather touching about Tony’s hesitance. Almost as if he expected her to say no.
“Why not ?” whispered James.
“Why not ?” echoed Carol. She might as well she was dressed for it and the sun was shining.
They took a barge down Regent’s Park Canal. Tony was quiet and gentle and he held her hand as she climbed onto the boat. She would have liked him a great deal more if she didn’t have Lawrence on her mind.
“Have you two known each other long ?” she asked, as they seated themselves.
“We’ve been sharing the apartment for almost three years now. We get along pretty well. Lawrence is out most of the time, of course. Has a lot of girlfriends. He’s very attractive to women.”
“Ye-es,” said Carol, not particularly relishing this piece of information. “What about you ? ” she asked.
“Oh… I was engaged last year, for a while. It fell through. ”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was engaged, too, and that fell through, as well. It’s awful, isn’t it? ” She looked at him with genuine sympathy, seeing him for the first time. He had nice smiling blue eyes, but now she could see wariness creeping into them.
“Next time I’ll be more careful,” said Tony. “Not to rush into anything.”
“Lawrence … isn’t engaged ? ” she asked.
“Lawrence isn’t the marrying kind, ” Tony said briefly. Then he looked at her seriously and said, “Look, this isn’t my business, but you’ve been hurt once and I know what that means. I saw the way you were looking at Lawrence last night and … well, be careful. ”
“Lawrence,” said Carol with some difficulty, “was looking at me, too.”
“Yes,” said Tony sadly. “He looks at all women like that, just as if they’re the only one in the world. Carol, listen. You said you already have a boyfriend, so stick to him.”
“It’s a challenge to Lawrence, you see. I’ve seen him do it. He likes to take a girl away from her boyfriend, and when he’s done that there’s no more challenge. And he’s afraid of getting trapped. So he drops her. ”
Carol’s cheeks burned bright pink. ” I don’t believe you. I don’t know why you’re saying such things. I’m sure he’s not like that. ”
At which point the phone rang and it was Lawrence. He had spent the day at his mother’s, he said and had just arrived home. Would Carol like to have a drink with him?
They sipped cocktails at a hotel with a very pretty garden. Lawrence held Carol’s hand and told her about his mother, whom he said she must meet sometime. On Monday he took her to the movies and put his arm around her, and during the intermission, he told her she was the prettiest girl he’d met for a long time. On Tuesday he had to work late. And On Wednesday he took her out to dinner, just the two of them, and gazed into her eyes. On Saturday, after their classes, they made a beeline for each other in the cafeteria and went out afterward. This time Tony did not join them.
Carol was very happy. At least, she would have been happy but for James. Sometimes when Lawrence asked her out she found herself saying that she was seeing James that evening. ” Just to keep him on his toes, ” James explained afterward. Sometimes, at moments that would otherwise have been rare and beautiful, James chipped into her thoughts with remarks like, ” I’d take that with a pinch of salt if I were you. “
When Lawrence said, “You have the most beautiful eyes, Carol, ” James burst in on her thoughts with, ” of course. He can see himself reflected them.” And once, when Lawrence had just taken her face in his hands and was about to kiss her, James said hollowly, ” Remember Tom Everton. ”
“I don’t want to discuss Tom Everton! ” Carol said aloud.
“Darling, what are you talking about? What’s wrong? ” Lawrence asked.
Carol was dumbfounded. ” Oh, gosh, I’m sorry. I was … I was sort of daydreaming.”
Lawrence was not flattered. He hadn’t so far actually said that he loved her, but it was quite clear that he did, as Carol kept explaining to James. No one could be so attentive, so interested, so loving, without meaning it. Tony had been wrong . Or even if there was something in what he had said, it was simply that until now Lawrence had not met the right girl, the one he would want to stick with. She, Carol, was the right girl.
Her mind became so full of Lawrence that James seldom managed to get a word in, but when he did his remarks were as cryptic as ever.
Sometimes Lawrence would say, ” How’s James ? ” and Carol would make some airy comment. The last time Lawrence asked about James was when they were dining at a little restaurant they had been frequenting. Carol smiled openly and said, ” Oh, he’s gone abroad. For his firm. So I won’t be seeing him again for a long time. If at all. ” She continued to smile at him, waiting for his response.
Over his face there passed a flicker of … could it be an annoyance? ” Oh, I thought you two had something going together … I mean, you’ve been seeing quite a lot of each other.”
“Not so much since I’ve known you, ” said Carol meltingly.
Lawrence began to crumble a roll. ” I hope … I hope I didn’t break anything up. ”
“Oh, no you mustn’t worry. We were just friends, you know. ” She leaned forward and laid her hand on his.
“I mean, ” said Lawrence, ” I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression about me. ” And he removed his hand from under hers.
“What do you mean? ”
“Well, you’re wonderful, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing you the past few weeks, but I’d hate for you to get serious about me. ” He smiled his enchanting smile. ” But you haven’t, of course, have you? ”
Carol felt the pain in her stomach that comes from being punched, hard. James whispered, “ You told Tony you weren’t going to get hurt, remember? ” Right, she wouldn’t.
“Serious about you ? ” she said, smiling still. ” I wasn’t serious about James – why should I be serious about you? James is a very attractive man, you know. He asked me to marry him before he left, but I don’t want to be tied down just yet. ”
” Oh, good. I mean, it’s good you’re not unhappy about his going. ”
Somehow the rest of the evening passed, and when Lawrence delivered her to her front door she was not really surprised to hear him say, ” I’m afraid I’m going to be rather busy for the next few weeks. I’ll get in touch with you in a while. Okay? ”
“If I’m still around, ” said Carol, giving him a casual peck on the cheek and closing the door firmly.
She slammed her bedroom door, flung off her coat in one direction, and her shoes in another, and found a cushion that she proceeded to pound with furious clenched fists for several minutes.
” No tears ? ” asked James.
She sat breathlessly on the shapeless cushion. ” No tears,” she said firmly. ” You were right and Tony was right and I was wrong . I’m angry, I’m furious, but ”
“You weren’t really in love with him,” said James.
“No, I suppose I wasn’t. I did want to be in love with someone, though. And he is very handsome. ”
“Looks aren’t everything, you know, ” said James.
Several weeks later she was sitting in Tony’s newly decorated living room. A painting of Regent’s Park Canal signed C.V. hung bravely over the mantelpiece and she was cut ting the last piece of wool for the cushion cover she had been crocheting.
Tony brought in the coffee. He stopped and looked around, then breathed a sigh of satisfaction. ” It’s all very domestic, isn’t it ? ” he remarked.
” Yes. Rather cozy, I was thinking. ”
“Yes. Carol, I always said I wouldn’t rush into any. thing. ”
There was a long pause. Tony set the coffee cups down and sat on the sofa next to Carol. He said, ” That friend of yours James. Whatever happened to him? ”
Carol was surprised. ” Oh … James ! ” she said. ” He’s gone away.
And this time, he really had.
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