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Maria’s eyes casually flicked up and down the wanted ads. Not that she was expecting anything: there’d been nothing promising since she’d arrived, and that was a month ago. Her gaze stopped, lingered, passed on, then returned. Thoughtfully she tapped her cheek, ‘Mmmmh, lonely widower…sense of humour, comfortable position…blah, blah…likes people and enjoys relaxed evenings in….’ Relaxed evenings in – that suited Maria fine. A sudden excitement flashed through her, a usual occurrence following her habit of cheek tapping. She made an effort to compose herself, smiled slowly and nodded. Definitely worth a response.
A reply came more quickly than Maria had expected. He must be lonely, certainly eager, she mused. Alex Martin, as the lonely widower with the sense of humour, called himself, would like to meet her. Both agreed to by-pass the initial meeting in a public place. Neutral ground, to see if they liked each other enough to want to meet again was a sensible idea, but…. He offered to call on her. But she didn’t want that either. She was more interested in seeing how and where he lived, how he appeared against his own surroundings.
Date and time were arranged: no she didn’t want him to pick her up, she was happy taking a cab. According to the address, Alex Martin lived in a Mews. Then the driver arrived at the mouth of what Maria saw as more of a cul-de-sac, she left the cab and walked the short distance. It would give her the chance to get a feel of the place. Maria looked around her, not exactly what she’d been expecting, but then she wasn’t sure what she had been expecting. Boarded up houses devoid of occupants stood forlorn. Strands of solitude fingered the air, emphasised by the odd apologetic street lamp. At the end of the Mews she found the house she was looking for. Nothing ostentatious and it looked inhabited.
Martin must have been waiting for her at the window. As she mounted the steps, the front door opened the moment her hand reached out to the bell. Maria’s first impression, despite his welcoming smile was that of an ‘ishish’ sort of man. He was plump-ish, fair-ish, tall-ish, nothing definite at all. She followed him in to what she saw as an overstuffed lounge. He clearly liked his comforts, plump fussy cushions, tasselled curtains in heavy velvet; almost theatrically Victorian. He took her coat, waved her into a seat that swallowed her up as she sank into it, and asked what refreshment she would like.
Maria, while not being obvious, watched his every move. There was an awkwardness about his hospitality which she felt came from a shyness he was trying to hide. He seated himself opposite her but conversation was slow to get into a rhythm. His ‘ishness’ was still prevalent. He could have been a farmer, someone’s benevolent Uncle, a sweet shop keeper, and he had a habit of twisting, interlacing and unlacing his fingers. Her eyes were drawn to the movement almost hypnotically.
Maria did her best to put him at ease and gradually Alex Martin began to relax and talk about why he had placed the ad. In fact, once started he bubbled over with words. It was, he said, the first time he had ever done such a thing but since his wife had died, nothing he did gave him satisfaction any more. He hadn’t realised how together they had been. Watching or listening to a programme, listening to music, they did it together, talked about what they had seen or heard. He missed her terribly. Not that he expected ever again to find someone he could love as much as he’d loved his wife, that was something that happened once in a lifetime. He just wanted someone to help him fill the gap in his evenings, whenever convenient of course.
He enjoyed cooking and it would be a pleasure to make dinner for her. She must tell him what food she liked and was she fond of desserts? If so he had some fine exotic recipes. Did Maria like cooking? Maria smiled and waved a hand deprecatingly. If Alex was willing to cook, she was happy to eat with him, a candle-light dinner sounded inviting: yes, she concluded, he was also, chef-ish. He then asked Maria about herself. She was ready for that and launched into how her parents had died in a car crash, and being an only child she had no siblings to turn to. Maria had answered the ad with a view to making friends. She was new to the district and knew no one. Why had she moved away from familiar surroundings?
Since the death of her parents, she told him, she hadn’t been able to settle, moving from place to place, looking for something without knowing what. Alex sympathised; he knew that feeling well. ‘So you too are lonely.’ Maria thought he slavered over the words, which were a statement rather than a question.
‘Of course it might have been different if we’d had children, but sadly we were never blessed that way.’ Maria told him she had not got as far as marriage, let alone children. Not, she hurriedly assured him, that marriage was what she was looking for now. It was Alex’s turn to wave a deprecating hand, once his hypnotic fingers had unlaced.
Maria had controlled her cheek tapping since she had been there. She was well aware of her habit and its significance. One finger, one cheek, but two hands and all fingers? What was to be read there, she wondered. She also wondered where the sense of humour he’d advertised, was lurking. When Maria decided it was time to go, she allowed Alex to drop her at her door. They said goodnight and arranged a further meeting.
They saw a lot of each other over the following weeks. Sometimes he called for her, always on time, so that she could come down without his ever having to get out of the car. They’d go for a drive, make dinner together as Maria’s interest in the kitchen grew, listen to music or discuss books. Always he was thoughtful, attentive, in a shy, almost apologetic way.
Maria noticed with interest that whenever they saw a familiar car, or he thought he had seen someone he might know, he would avoid them. Maria in turn felt the same, though she was not expecting to see anyone she knew. Each had become as possessive as the other.
One evening Alex prepared a surprise, a sumptuous repast. They could have been at the Ritz: no head waiter could have been more attentive. Tonight he wanted to talk more intimately. Depending on what was in Alex’s mind, this was something Maria had wanted to head off. However, as they pussy-footed gently through the conversation, it seemed that Alex had nothing more intimate in mind than to talk about hobbies. They floated on headily into the evening and when it was almost time to leave, Alex said he had a confession to make. He confessed that he had a hobby that some people might consider strange or even illegal. He had few pleasures, good food and wine being the only ones left to him now, and in his loneliness he had found refuge in the unusual. Maria said she too had a few interests that might be considered unusual, but now it was late. Their next evening would be something to look forward to, when they could talk further.
Maria was pleased things were developing so smoothly, but were they perhaps moving too fast? She could go away for a while, tell him she needed time alone. Maria went to the phone; but could not pick it up. Then began the cheek tapping, a thrill of excitement suffused her, as thunder follows lightning. No, she must stay. To go away would be to pause in the middle of a race she had to win.
Before their next meeting, Alex rang and told her how much he was looking forward to their entre nous confession evening, and hoped she felt the same. This is it, thought Maria, he’s mine.
Maria prepared for the evening with almost geometric precision. Even so, before Alex was due she had to have one last check. Satisfied, she almost ran down the steps to the car.
The evening carried an air of suppressed anticipation and excitement; delightful. After dinner Maria made coffee. It comforted Alex to watch her in the kitchen, and to know she was not aware of his vigilance. In the lounge with their cups, Alex was the first to speak.
‘Well, now comes our awaited confession time. My peculiarity I’m afraid takes a long time to realise, but having to work at it makes me feel I’ve earned it. Loneliness is almost as devastating as worry. It pleases me to free people from it, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes, but now –.’ Maria felt slightly uneasy as his gaze met hers. Could he read her thoughts? She risked asking what his confession actually was. ‘Oh you’ll know soon enough’. And Alex began to laugh. ‘You must excuse my sense of humour, laughter is such a tonic and not easy to come by.’ She sat motionless and silent.
Alex went on, ‘I do believe you were thinking what a good idea it would be for a murderer to actually advertise for a victim. You are right, most murderers go to their victims, lie in wait, seek them in a crowd, even kill them sleeping, but rarely do they advertise for their victims to come and be murdered; but you haven’t drunk your coffee Maria, oh you surely don’t think –.’ He began laughing again. ‘Maria, you must know poison is not my way. Though that would be funny, oh yes. No, my choice would be strangulation. I’ve always been a hands on person, but forgive me, humour is a stranger to me. And thanks to you, it has returned. My ad was simply that of any artist looking for work.’ He was still laughing when he offered Maria the stage, ‘Play your part Maria. I’ve played mine.’
Had it never occurred to him, she asked, that even better, would be for a murderer to wait for a victim to advertise himself? Then have the victim make all the arrangements for his own murder. Making sure they were not seen together, checking no inquiring relatives?
‘Quite so,’ agreed Alex knowingly. Triumphantly, Maria asked if he had enjoyed his coffee.
‘More than you could imagine.’ The undertone this carried she dismissed. It was finished.
Alex did not slump forward as Maria expected. He laid back. The coffee had worked, yet there was no grimace or expression of horror, he was actually smiling in death. She left the flat with a disturbing unease.
It was a few days later that Maria again idly glancing through the paper, froze. A short column read: ‘Al Tramin, noted psychiatrist, hypnotherapist and one time actor, found dead. Foul play is not suspected. A life-long colleague said, “It is sad that such a great mind is lost but he had confided he wanted to leave this life but couldn’t implicate friends and didn’t want to die alone. Now he has. He helped so many people, but no one could help him…terminally ill…death of his wife…peace.”’
Maria watched the letters blur themselves from Tramin to Martin.
There was no ‘ishness’ about him in death. He was definite
and free. Artist, Actor, Psychiatrist. Now she could appreciate his
humour, his courage. He’d been in control all along. He hadn’t
even lied to her. And she realised that in his mind, Alex had spent
that last evening not with her, but with his wife, in anticipation
of a reunion. Maria felt she had been sleep walking through life.
Now she was awake. Something dark had lifted and flown away. To the
many talents of Alex she added ‘life-teacher’, definitely.
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