You know that practised smile, the air-hostess smile so beloved in the world of the antiseptic greeting? Miss Laura had it and could look on you and then move away before you could ask if her manner was sincere or meant just for you or a mere reflection of your longing, but luck was not on her side the day I joined her dancing class.
I was lonely and desperate, and for some years I had lived as a recluse, through force of circumstance rather than desire. One evening, an advert in the local newspaper caught my eye and here I was holding Miss Laura in my arms, and seeing her eyes, warm and nurturing, then wary, then alarmed as she looked up at me. I could almost hear her refined and polished instincts whirring into action as she sought a way to extricate herself from the arms of this odd creature without creating a scene.
I hung on to her a bit too long and her eyes, with that gentle seriousness I had seen before in other girls, made the unspoken suggestion that I was threatening to embarrass myself and her until, like some piece of refuse caught briefly by an overhanging branch, I was released from my hypnosis and freed her from my grasp.
As I let her go, her eyes hardened as if to say, “I do not waste my warmth on men like you” and to be honest there was a guarded, careful quality about her which was at odds with her apparently social and generalised manner.
I had been a wealthy man in my time, and used to employ a modesty of character combined with an expensive wardrobe to attract those whose company I might enjoy. Up to my mid-forties I had been considered sensible, balanced and particular, until a certain Maria Gratzia, who boasted among other things, that she was a distant descendant of Lucretia Borgia, caught my eye: which outlandish claim was given some credence by her subsequent conduct.
What she had against men, or mankind in general, or just me, I cannot truly say, but once I lost myself in her, she married me, took half my wealth, my reputation and my peace of mind before leaving me to find consolation in uneasy solitude brought on by shame and balmed by any drink I could acquire.
We all have unsavoury, grubby aspects to our character do we not, and she managed to fillet out mine and make it general knowledge to excuse her own conduct, which it did; leaving me, now a pariah, to steal into the obscure seclusion from which I had failed to free myself for close on a decade. At last, the longing to be absolved, touched and recognised gradually possessed me until I had made this unbalanced attempt to renew my social life.
I was like a man dying of thirst who stumbles into some fine restaurant and gulps and slurps from a carafe of wine without ceremony, revolting the diners with his display of unpolished appetite, as was my brief and awkward dance with Miss Laura until she saw the hunger in my eyes. After a while recognition overlay the hauteur and she said, “Mr Longestine, please do not come back here again,” and I left as quickly as I could. Secrets laid bare, it seems, can sometimes haunt us all our lives.