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Stamford Nights (extract)

by neilwills 

Posted: 09 July 2012
Word Count: 2701
Summary: Online dating? Old hat if the telly's coming to do a piece on a real, live dating agency.

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Shelley Martin swung her long dark hair away from her face the better to see her huge, hooped earrings reflected in the darkened shop window. Her small mouth pursed with pleasure upon seeing the greengrocer's assistant staring out at her from the recesses of the shop. She had never imagined Wayne would make much of himself. At school he'd been one of those who looked but didn’t have the gumption to do anything to impress her and it looked like he was going to remain just as uncool for the rest of his life. Pleased with the look she caught on his face she allowed her smile to turn to a scowl. The effect was instantaneous. His eyes dropped in confusion and embarrassment and the acknowledgement that she was out of his league. By the time he dared look up again, the pavement was empty save for the early morning street cleaners hefting their bags of rubbish to the collection point. A few metres further down, Shelley pushed open the squeaky door to the office, turned off the burglar alarm then headed for the kitchen to make the first brew. Behind her, the large, plain windows of the small office looked out at the unglamorous facade of a kebab shop, chippy and estate agency. Shortly, she heard Justin's whistle hello as he struggled past the counter carrying his briefcase and selection of morning papers. 'Porker.' She thought to herself, then aloud, 'Sugar today or sweeteners?' His voice was muffled by the sound of the answer machine being replayed so she dolloped three spoons of sugar into the coffee for him. As she stepped across the threshold carrying the drinks, the familiar voice of Jim Tovee was requesting another appointment. She shook her head and raise her eyebrows to the ceiling. Justin laughed and scribbled the name on his notepad. 'So, Justin what d'you reckon to this letter then?' She brandished a large manila envelope in front of his nose then snatched it away when he raised his hand to take it.
'Dunno. What is it?'
'This, Justin, is what I picked up from the mailbox last night after you’d gone home.'
He shrugged. 'And?' Shelley opened it slowly while she savoured the moment.
'What have I been telling you about these last few weeks?'
He rubbed his chin thoughtfully before answering. 'Those earrings you've got in? That bunch of no-hopers you hang around with?'
She shook her head. 'Nope.' Then paused. 'Telly Justin. The power of media exposure.'
A sigh of resignation slipped past his lips. He waited for her to continue. She moved around the room waving the letter like a flag of victory. 'Exposure. Exposure to millions of people.'
'I thought we'd finished that discussion a long time ago. I'm not paying good money to the telly. It's bad enough coughing up to the newspaper once a week.'
She stopped opposite the desk behind which he'd sunk and, as he leaned back in his large, executive, leatherette armchair, she leaned forward to emphasise her point. 'Documentary coverage. Not advertising. A Documentary about us and the business. We are going to be stars.' She giggled and did a little hop as she dropped the letter on his desk. Despite his reluctance, he sat upright and began to read. His eyes scanned each line and his mouth opened wider and wider until finally, a word escaped from it. 'Buggeration.'
Shelley squealed and clapped her hands. 'Who's a clever little assistant then? Go on. Read it out to me.' He began. 'Dear Ms Martin, Thank you so much for your recent letter regarding your dating agency. Our schedulers have been looking to produce something along these lines and have now decided that your invitation was very compelling. Please ring the number provided so we can arrange a meeting, at your convenience, to discuss the practical requirements and details prior to filming. We will of course expect to be able to interview and film some of your clients. It would be very helpful if you could prepare a list of any suitable subjects prior to us arriving. Etc etc.' He looked at Shelley with some incredulity. 'You, are a bit of a dark horse.'
She smirked. 'I told you when you hired me I'd make a real difference to the business. Are you going to tell your mum and dad?'
He looked shifty 'Not sure. Not just yet. You know what they're like about anything new. Perhaps when its been done eh?'
Shelley grinned over the top of her coffee cup. 'You mean when it's too late for them to stop it.' He smiled weakly then began to read the letter again. Shelley picked up the phone and handed it to him. 'Go on then.'

Underneath the mirror stood an ironing board overloaded with shirts awaiting Alexei's attention. Reflected in the mirror he could see his computer screen also awaiting his attention. Beyond the computer, the green tops of the trees waved in the summer breeze passing their shadows onto the Saab convertible parked beneath them. He scratched at the stubble on his face and sighed, remembering the quantity of beer he had had the night before. Feeling overwhelmed at the thought of his chores he managed to stir himself enough to get to the kitchen. The smell of stale perfume clung to his T-shirt, connecting his thoughts to a hazy image of the previous night while he waited for the kettle to boil. He tried to think of her name without success and wondered if short-term memory loss was likely to be inherited via the gene pool, related to alchohol consumption, or age. The trigger point being forty which he'd seen some two years previously. Something to do with flowers, or spice he thought. Jasmine. No. That was it, Saffron. Returning to the living room he plonked himself down at the computer screen and pressed the button to collect his emails. The lines of black font lined up in front of him without exciting any one of his functioning brain cells. He deleted each one in turn but double keyed and missed the next but last. As a result, the header was visible and drew his eyes across the pink letters surrounded by small hearts. His lip curled as he caught sight of the improbably glamorous couple gazing out at him in bliss. Cyber-dating. What a con. Of course, he'd tried it, but had learned to add on another six to seven years to the published ages of the ladies who he'd called. Did they really believe they could pass for thirty three in the flesh? Last night had been typical. He should've known as soon as he smelt the Patchouli when he entered the pub. Match that with the name and it was a dead give away. No. Been there, done it and now, he bent his neck down towards his chest and sniffed. Got the Tshirt. He chuckled to himself and reached for the newspaper. The jobs' section might provide the answer for him. Perhaps if he got a local job, he'd cut down on the travelling and be around a bit more to consolidate a relationship. Who knows? He might even meet someone at work. He hummed as he turned the pages. And then he saw it. On the right hand page, a large bordered column that was impossible to miss.

Thirty, Forty?
Lazy, Sporty?
Pick up the phone
Wait for the tone
Dial our number
Ai Carumber

Go on! You know you want to. Fed up with Cyberliars? Been disappointed too many times? Try us, your local, established agency. STAMFORD NIGHTS is the answer to your dating doubts.
Ring us on 400500 and find out for yourself.

Alexei chuckled as he read it, especially the Ai Carumber twist. But, it had done its job well because he tore out the advert and placed it on his desk.

The door to the Tourist Office banged open, causing the elderly couple browsing the brochures to leap with fear. The young woman in the doorway smiled apologetically then her expression switched to one of pain as the polystyrene cups she carried retained the heat inside no more. Desperately she searched for a place to lay her burden down before the Cappuccino ended up on the floor. 'Morning' She called.
From the recesses of the office a head framed by blonde curls popped out from a cupboard. 'Afternoon Sue.'
The woman with the coffees finished flapping her fingers and took the newspaper from beneath her arm. 'I'm not that late Kate. Besides, I've brought you the local. It could be the answer to your prayers.' By now Kate had come out of the cupboard. In her arms were more brochures. She smiled goodbye to the couple who were now leaving the premises. 'What prayers would they be?'
'It's time you started dating.'
'Says who?'
'Me. That's who. My job is to sort out you lonely old maids.'
'You cheeky mare. I'm not a maid and I'm only thirty two.'
Sue shrugged. 'Technically maybe but you've not been out with anyone since you started here.'
Kate thought for a moment. 'Yes I have.'
'The Ghost Walk doesn't count. Unless you all had sex afterwards.' She thought further. 'Now that would be a tourist service to hit the headlines.' She bent forward and laid the paper on the counter, turning the pages swiftly, before triumphantly stabbing her finger to direct Kate's eyes to the relevant part. 'There it is. ' She watched the expression build on Kate's face as her grey eyes narrowed to focus on the print. 'It won't do you any good to say no.'

Days later Alexei pressed his foot down to accelerate off the roundabout only to jam his brakes on with a loud curse. A silver grey Audi cut across his path from the inside. He caught a glimpse of the driver as she continued, oblivious to his stare, away towards the town but was unable to give chase as, in his surprise, he had stalled his own car. He resorted to sounding the car horn loudly several times. Muttering dark thoughts and waving apologies to the other drivers who'd been forced to stop, he restarted the car and pulled off the roundabout. Shaking his head in annoyance he began the descent into St Martin's, keeping an eye out for the culprit but she was long gone.

The doorbell tinkled the arrival of a visitor to Stamford Nights, causing Justin to look up from his computer screen. In the doorway stood a tall woman in her late thirties. A black bob hung to her shoulders, just touching the expensive mustard, Chanel suit. Sunglasses perched on top of her head made her look even taller. His first thought was that she couldn't possibly be a customer. How on earth would she have difficulty finding a partner? The door opened again and a petite woman stumbled in. A denim jacket topped low cut jeans. Her sunglasses fell from her face as she tried to catch the sheaf of papers she had dropped upon entering. The Chanel woman glanced down at her. 'Hermione for God's sake smarten up.'
From below the counter and out of Justin's sight her voice replied. 'Yes Jocasta. Sorry.'
Justin leapt to his feet and approached the counter 'Jocasta. I'm so pleased to meet you. I'm Justin.' He held his hand out for her and she took it half-heartedly. Behind her, Hermione smiled broadly at him. 'I'm Hermione.' In response to his quzzical look she added. 'The researcher?' Justin returned the smile and called through for Shelley.

At Shelley's insistence Justin locked the door, turned the closed sign round and switched on the answer phone before sitting with the others at his desk. Jocasta, her legs crossed, looked around the room taking in the blown up photos of happy couples, romantic sunsets over white, sandy beaches and beautiful people haughtily, while Hermione shuffled through her papers. 'Good trip?' Tried Justin. Jocasta turned her head to look full at him for the first time. Her blue eyes regarded him closely. 'I got beeped! Dreadful little man in a Mondeo or something.'
He shook his head in sympathy. 'London's got some pretty aggressive drivers. I was there last month.' Her look stopped him dead. 'It was here. Today.'
'Oh. Sorry.' He mumbled then, as if realising he was not actually subordinate to Jocasta he moved to take charge of the meeting. 'I think it would be a good starting point if I explained how our operation works.' Standing up, He motioned for Jocasta and Hermione to follow him into the back room. In the centre of the floor stood an armchair with a table to one side sporting a vase. The paper flowers, which projected out of the top had been freshly dusted by Shelley that morning. Facing the chair, and angled down towards it, a video camera stood on a tripod. Justin jumped behind the camera and, as if to make it easier for them to understand, looked through the viewfinder as he spoke while performing the charade movements for movie making. 'The client sits in the chair and I video them talking about themselves. It's a really easy way for them to show off their personality and, of course, what they look like. Once I've captured them on film, the cassette is stored in our library and given a catalogue number. We use a still from the video or a photo they supply to us for the catalogue. Simple really.' Jocasta's face remained expressionless then 'Do they have a script to follow?'
Shelley took over. 'If they are a little shy or slow in coming forward about themselves we can direct them. If necessary, I'll do a coaching session with them.'
Justin continued. 'After browsing the catalogue they can select the videos they would like to see. We book them out for 24 hours.'
'Isn't that a little risky?' Hermione interrupted. They all looked nonplussed. She continued. 'I mean, how d'you know the people borrowing the videos will return them or, more importantly, are genuine? What about stalkers?'
Jocasta snapped her fingers and looked with interest at her. 'Stalkers.' She then turned to Justin. 'Well?' His vacant look forced her to elaborate. 'Have you had any wierdos doing unspeakable things after borrowing the videos?' Before he could answer, he caught Shelley's warning glare.
Perhaps a little too quickly, Shelley laughed as if the very thought was at the far end of the spectrum of possibility. 'Not at all. We insist upon verifiable identification and addresses before we sign anyone up to the service.'
Hermione appeared to obtain some level of comfort from Shelley's affirmation. Jocasta however, seemed a little disappointed. 'Not even one?'
Sensing he was losing Jocast's interest Justin selected a video tape from the shelf. 'I can show you an example if you like Jocasta?'
'So you do have one then?'
Uncertainty flickered across his face as he waved the tape in front of her. 'Well, not really, no.' Then cheerfully continued. 'This is just a tape for you to view. The real thing. One of our regular members.' Jocasta reached out and removed the tape from his hand. 'I'd like to select one at random if you don't mind Justin.'
Before he or Shelley could object, she had taken one from the top shelf. Turning, with a smile on her face that looked more intimidating to Justin than if she had bared her teeth and growled, she allowed him to take it from her and place it in the machine. Unfortunately, Shelley was unable to catch sight of the catalogue number before it slipped into the slot. Jocasta sat down in Justin's chair and beckoned Hermione to stand next to her. The flickering snow jumped up onto the screen, faded temporarily then started. Shelley watched through her partially open fingers, trying to compute which of their customers might destroy her carefully planned strategy and finish the documentary before it had started. The screen started to fill from the top and as soon as she saw the hair she knew her worst fears had been realised.

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