Chemistry is a short story written by author Adele Parks exclusively for Stylist's summer fiction special. Print out this page to take her story with you to read at leisure, or take a look at all of our exclusive short stories here.
I honestly don’t know where anyone meets anyone anymore,” groans Nikki. She’s squeezed under someone’s armpit; I can just see her over someone else’s dandruff-covered shoulder – the joys of commuter hour.
“The problem is all the good men are married or gay.” It’s not original but I believe it in my bones. Feeling sorry for ourselves is all the sport that’s left. It’s not as though anyone else is going to pity us, (or buy us dinner, take us clubbing or you know, let’s be blunt here, actually have sex with us).
“No one meets in bars or at parties, that’s for certain.” Throughout my early 20s I waited for Cupid to aim straight but he kept missing because I was always swathed in a cloud of smoke or sweaty from dancing with wild abandon (his arrows just slipped off me). It didn’t matter then. Nothing did. “Not at dinners hosted by well-intentioned match-making friends,” adds Nikki. Those resources were exhausted by our late 20s. Contacts were mined so greedily that at times I felt there was a danger of being buried beneath piles of keen-toimpress bankers and solicitors. But they were merciless players, wanting brief and hollow affairs. Then the strangest thing happened to these unpitying philanderers – as they blew out 30 candles on their birthday cakes, they each grabbed the nearest woman and proposed. I was always in the other room and was never grabbed.
“Not through personal ads,” groans Nikki. Because men lie about their age and height and fail to mention wigs and wives until two dreary courses have been endured.
“Internet dating lacks chemistry and mystery,” I groan. My last six dates were the result of internet searches. By the time I met those guys I knew everything about them – from favourite dinners to childhood nightmares.
“Maybe speed-dating will work,” says Nikki with faux-optimism. “Aitishoo.” My sneeze erupts into the packed carriage. I feel the unsympathetic shudder of weary commuters.
Stunned by this level of human interaction on a Tube, I turn to see who is blessing me. Astoundingly, the comment came from a good-looking, thirtysomething man. I nod an acknowledgement of his sympathy but wonder if I ought to explain commuter law to him. He must be foreign or else he wouldn’t speak.
Suited and booted, clean shaven, clean-cut the Bless You Man is uncomfortably neat compared to the other passengers all of whom look bedraggled and drained. I spend the rest of the four-minute journey sneaking glances at this man and fantasising about meeting him somewhere other than a train. Somewhere I could strike up a conversation, like people used to.
Speed-dating turns out to be everything I feared it would be. Trying to sell my ‘essence’ in four minutes flat whilst balding guys stared down my cleavage is a trial I’m not equal to. Odd, because I manage a 90-strong sales team who sell car insurance. A position I earned after years of cold calling the unwilling at teatime.
“Let’s go for a drink,” says Nikki wearily. We barely bother to scan the bar; scoping for talent is something the hopeful do, so I’m astonished when Nikki nudges me and says, “Weird coincidence. Look over there, near the door. Isn’t that the guy from the train who blessed you?”
So she’d noticed him too. I wonder if she’d also projected as far as birthing his second child before we reached Charing Cross? Probably. I shiver with excitement. I can’t help but think that maybe people do meet in bars and maybe there is such a thing as fate. Two sightings in one night, in a city of seven million inhabitants, it has to mean something.
“Don’t look now, he’s coming over.” We hastily turn towards the bar and laugh loudly to suggest we’re the wittiest women in town. But the Bless You Man isn’t fooled; he walks straight past us and into the men’s loos. My imaginary children spontaneously combust.
“Let’s go home. I’ve taken all the disappointment I can bear for one evening,” I mutter. We ooze gloom as we down our drinks and gather up our bags.
“Excuse me, you’ve dropped this.” The Bless You Man is holding out my travel card.
“Oh thanks,” I take it hastily. He smiles. It’s a good smile; it reaches right into his eyes.
“Do I know you? Your face is familiar.” What have I got to lose? “Erm, actually, I was on the same Tube as you earlier. I sneezed, you blessed me.”
He shakes his head dismissively. “No that’s not it. I was reading. I don’t even remember saying bless you. I say it automatically but I know your face.”
He chews his thumbnail for a moment. It’s a long moment. I want to fill it with something fun and flirtatious but I’m suddenly incapable. I try to remember my four-minute pitch but that too escapes me, which might be a good thing.
“Funny that we were on the same Tube,” he mumbles, “Even if I can’t–”
He looks embarrassed. “Yeah, but what a coincidence.” He rakes his hand through his hair and shyly adds, “Some might call it fate and I do know you from somewhere.” Sitting alongside the embarrassment there is an indefinable and undeniable tension between us. I almost remember. Chemistry.
I attempt a joke, “Can’t possibly be fate, that’s been replaced by internet dating profiles.”
“That’s where I know you from! I’ve read your profile online!” I want to gag him. I don’t want people thinking I’m the sort of woman who is so desperate for a date that I advertise online. Even if it’s true and even if everyone does it. Another thought occurs to me.
“You never got in contact?” I’m outraged. He shrugs. “Why? Didn’t you like my photo?”
“You’re striking, but you said you liked plonk and I’m a wine snob. Plus you said you’d never look at anyone who watched action movies and I love them.”
“Aren’t we,” he says with a grin. “Fancy a drink?”
“Yeah you can choose. But I’m picking the movie.”
About Last Night is out now (£14.99, Headline)