For the Incredibly Beautiful Man, who shall henceforth remain initialless.
“Stop here, I want to buy a paper.” Richard, faintly irritated by the heat, instructed his chauffeur, who acquiesced immediately. He got out of the limousine and strode across to the small tobacco and newspaper store. It was a grubby yet busy looking shop, brightly coloured baskets and fruit sitting outside to entice people in from the bright sunlight.
The older lady behind the counter looked at him sternly. He noted the curve of her neck, the grim expression. He found himself strangely engaged. He was so used to people being nice to him.
“Anything else?” She looked at the newspaper, and returned her gaze to Richard. He was aware that she did not recognise him, which was unusual.
“I don’t think so.” he tried smiling at her. It was not returned.
“Thank you.” she took his money and turned to shuffling the newly disturbed pile of papers.
“See you tomorrow.” Richard turned to leave. He was already looking forward to it.
When he arrived at the station, the usual crowd mobbed him. He was hustled into make-up, given his papers, taken in to the studio and presented his well-known politics show. Everyone knew who he was, surely? Why did the newsagent not know?
After the show, he went to his research department, berating them for not being ahead of the politicians he had interviewed. The Minister for Health had been particularly assertive today. Richard did not like this. Several junior researchers had been selected to take the blame for this, they bowed their heads accordingly.
Having extracted his pound of flesh, Richard had his make-up removed and looked at himself. Still a handsome man in his early sixties, he was aware that he had become isolated by his fame, but he had fought so hard for it all his life that it did not bother him. People were dead weight, obstacles to be overcome to get where you wanted to go. You couldn’t be at the top of a pyramid, however, without several layers of them beneath you so you had to tolerate them to a certain degree. He thought back to the newsagent, and wondered what she was doing. Her lack of recognition intrigued him. Evidently whatever it was, it wasn’t watching TV.
He chose a silk shirt and linen trousers and called for the chauffeur, who had been waiting for him all day.
“I want to buy a paper.”
“Another one?” the chauffeur was surprised at this change in the normal routine.
“Yes, same store.” Richard stepped back into his limousine.
The store was fifteen minutes away. The chauffeur knew better than to make conversation, since Richard did not like that. When they pulled up the blinds were down. Richard again got out and crossed the pavement towards the door. He wasn’t sure what he wanted, he just knew he wanted to see her again.
“Yes?” she looked up at him with the same nonchalant expression she had had that morning. Richard selected a newspaper.
“You bought that one this morning. Did you lose it?” She again failed to smile at him, or show any recognition of his importance. Richard felt a little dip of disappointment, and rather liked it.
“Yes, yes I suppose I did.” he felt awkward, nervous even. Richard had not felt like this in years. “You have been working a long time. When do you close?”
“6am until midnight, every day.” The disinterested newsagent pushed a stray curl from her face. She looked at him, a slightly insulting expression. “I guess you don’t work these hours, eh?”
“No, no I don’t. I guess there is no point in asking what you do in your time off?” Richard tried smiling at her again.
“Not a lot, no.” She ran a finger along the counter top. “We close on Sundays, though. I do the laundry, since you’re so interested.” she scowled at him.
“Ah I see.” Richard made further efforts to ingratiate himself. “I will see you tomorrow.” He felt a little excited at the boldness of this. What if she sneered at him?
“I suppose.” she pulled her apron back into position and flicked her black hair behind her before turning her back on him.
Richard was left with no option but to leave. He felt rejected. This, after years of having people trying to be nice to him on the basis of getting something out of it was almost refreshing. She really didn’t know who he was at all! What would it take to get her attention!
He considered methods of self-improvement on the way home. What could he do to get her attention in that tiny transaction, of buying his newspaper. What would get a person like her excited to see him? What did she think about, between customers? How could she stand sitting there all day, every day? What was she like with other customers?
The next day was one of Richard’s many days off. He resolved to see the shop when it was busy, to evaluate whether she actually disliked him, or was merely ambivalent to everyone. He saw brief flashes of her beautiful neck in his head, craning in some expression of ecstasy he supposed, the black curls dampened with sweat. How would he persuade her into such a position? How could buying his newspaper develop? Why was it so important to him?
He took the second car and waited outside the shop. He watched bustling through the window, saw her rub her sore back. Never did her expression change. She seemed to breeze through her long day in much the same mood. Would she ever smile for him? He found himself begging her silently. Please, please smile for me. What was her name?
Finally he went in, brushing past some buckets she had hung from above the door. He immediately apologised for the noise.
“You again!” She was serving another customer, but she nodded to him. “You want a job here or what?”
Richard shook his head. “I just came here to see you.” he did not smile as he gently flirted. Perhaps this would move things on.
The woman said goodbye to the previous customer with the same seriousness. “What would you like today?”
“Figaro.” he waved his hand vaguely at the newspapers and looked her in the eye. “What is your name?”
“Anna, but I am not a newspaper.” she glowered at him. Oh no! Had he made things worse? “What do you want?” she nodded like an impatient horse.
“I would like very much to take you out, Anna.” Richard tried being direct and very serious. “Is that possible?”
“I’m busy, and you are a fool. You don’t know anything about me.” A trace of bitterness entered her movements.
“I want to know Anna. Please let me take you out. Tomorrow is Sunday. We can have lunch.” Richard felt very awkward now, and he relished it. Anna was an unexpected and welcome challenge.
“It’s not that you aren’t cute. I’m sure you are, but I am not for sale here.” Anna looked him up and down. “What do you want with me, anyway?”
“You are so…different…so proud, so serious. I remember when I was serious. I want to know more about you.”
“That’s a shame. I think your life is too easy now. You know nothing.” Anna’s lip curled. “If I had daughters I would warn them about you.”
“You have sons?” Richard clutched at this straw with some desperation.
“No, I have no children. I am alone. Is that what you wanted, Mr Silk and Linen?” She still did not smile, but Richard was aware of some levity entering her mood. “You can ask all you want, I won’t say yes.”
“OK, Anna. I will see you tomorrow. Richard was despondent as he left the store.
So, he thought, she obviously wanted someone more serious. How could he achieve this? He resolved that he must not smile at her, ideally not look at her, and wear darker colours. His show must be less entertaining, more in-depth, less journalistic. He went home and made a few calls. His article for Figaro was more independent that week.
The following weeks saw Richard implementing a new strategy for his show. New suits had been bought, he had experimented with his hair, he had become more assertive with his interviewees. People had commented that he was more insightful, his viewing figures increased. He felt better about his career than he had for years. He returned to the newspaper store, feeling much improved.
“Like a bad penny. You want to read about yourself?” Anna openly sneered at him this time as she waved the paper at him. “I see you’re on the front page. You think it’s funny coming in here?”
“Anna…I don’t come in because I think it’s funny. I want to take you out. Please let me take you out.” Richard was pleading with her now. “I think of nothing but you.”
“You know nothing. What could you want here?”
“I just want you. I want to see you smile. I want to dress you up and show you off. I just want to spend time with you.” Richard’s chest was heaving. “Please let me make you happier. I tried to make the show better.”
“I don’t watch your stupid show. What could it mean to me? Nothing you say will change things here.” Anna looked genuinely hurt. “I don’t know why you think this is some joke. I have to survive. You can come and go as you please.”
“What can I do, Anna?” Richard tried to reason with her. “Please tell me what to do and I’ll do it.” A tear was escaping his left eye. He could not quite believe that his life seemed to be becoming a Belgian tragi-comedy. What was it about this woman that so intoxicated him?
“This can’t be right. It is not real, you saying these things.” she shook her head. “This is not real life.”
“What is real life?” Richard asked her, exasperated.
“Real life is some brutal man in working boots, that leaves after one week. It is being called a whore in the market, because I wear red on a Sunday. Real is not some silly man in a limousine who laughs at me.” Anna was deeply offended. “What do you know?”
“Give me a chance Anna.” Richard was more determined than ever to prove his seriousness to her. “Let me show you.”
“I live above the store. Tomorrow is Sunday.” she looked away again.
“If I come at eleven?”
“Eleven is fine. If you’re late I won’t be here.” Anna did not look back at him. “If you don’t come, then don’t come back to the store.”
“I promise.” Richard resolved to cancel his previous plans with the president of the TV station. “I’ll be here, whatever it takes.”