Pikehouse

Hunter (unfinished)

Mixed up with a woman again, was he? She turned on the gas, and momentarily forgot to strike a match. The smell, as pungent as his socks, brought her back to the kitchen. She lit the match and the gas whooshed 0-60 in half a second flat as flames enveloped the saucepan.
"Damn."
Would this one turn up on the doorstep like the last, looking like a bag lady who had found a particularly choice set of clothes out of the local clothing bank, or perhaps just run up his credit card to 'Let's fly Concorde' proportions à la Deirdre number two. She would sit on the sidelines and wait and see, as if she was watching a particularly unamusing farce in an out of the way provincial theatre - all smutty sex and lots of running in and out of doors.

She almost wished she didn't know, but Harry found it impossible to hide things, though he thought he did. It was little things: a new tie in a colour combination he would never consider; extra meals on the Barclaycard, sometimes a jewellers or clothing store she never used; once, she had found a rosebud and a very pretty necklace with a broken clasp in his jacket pocket when she took it to the cleaners.
At one time she used to accost him with this evidence and demand to know 'The Truth'. He would squirm and deny everything until she got angry and started looking for proof. It came falling out of the walls if she did that and, latterly, she just hadn't felt interested enough. It didn't seem to affect him in the long term and she had discovered it didn't make an enormous difference to her either. It was a fact of life and she had realized long ago that she forgave him wanting to add zest to what was in fact a fairly ordinary marriage.
Her friends all though she was mad. "Chrissy," they'd go in semi-mock horror as she told them about the latest escapade, "how do you put up with it?" And in truth she sometimes did not know.
Partly, deep down she appreciated the stability she and Harry had and as the children grew older she came to see how that gave her a degree of independence. This was coupled with a knowledge that she loved him and he her; not like falling in love which she did frequently, but something enduring and enfolding.
The other part had to do with options. Divorce and separation, even the most amicable, appeared a sordid business if her friends' examples were anything to go by. All that raking over the muck - both the smelly, rotten kind and the more mundane worldly goods kind. If the relationship had been bad, she could have seen the point in the suffering.
She had once or twice indulged in overnight activity, but dealing with colleagues the following weeks at work was excruciating even though no-one else in the office had known. This option had more allure when her hormones gave her an extra boost of energy, and she knew if the person and the time was right she would have no second thoughts.
She generally favoured another way: using the space 'the other woman' gave her to pursue her own inclinations. The most time consuming at the moment was online gaming. There had been many days in the last month when she had staggered into work to sit in a lack-of-sleep fug in front of her PC after a long night. On those days, all she could manage was to catch up on her email. Quake Arena was best and she had so enjoyed playing in some after work sessions that she had set up a good, fast connection at home. Now she was up with the best of them playing their American evenings to her early mornings.
Her gaming persona was called Hunter; she had been pleased to get something simple in a world of 'Diaz3297' and 'open_wht'. She liked the confident feel of it and lived it well in her other world. The thrill was intense; she thought it must be like excelling at some dangerous sport, bobsled riding or rally driving. Except, online, you never met your opponents. They were just a name and a 'skin' - a body shape that could change from game to game - though most serious gamers had their favourite looks. Hers was a leopard skin tunic over purple thigh-high boots and revolting violet coloured skin. And a quite grotesque body, but she had never had the patience to start changing that.
She played as a team now, with a couple of other people, Pete (whose gaming name Hringsword) and Anorak (called Anorak). She had come across them a few months back and, having killed off the pair of them on four successive evenings, became as excited as if she had been asked out by John Cusack and got the offer of her dream job on the same day. They had quite a reputation in the Arena world, so they emailed her with an invitation to join them, rather than suffer the ignominy. It was more satisfying playing in a team. Congratulations and commiserations after the match, as well as warnings and other asides during, produced a warm feeling of camaraderie.
The boys, as she called them, knew her as Chris and she had never enlightened them as to her sex. She realized that she, too, had made assumptions in this area. Pete had told her he lived in San Diego, which sounded heavenly from his description. Anorak she didn't know about. And they both knew she lived in Bath, England, and that she worked for a computer magazine publisher. She was surprised they both knew Bath, but then it did seem to be on every American tourist's whistle stop Eurotour.

* * * * * *

Out of the blue one day, she got an email from Anorak, saying he was in London and could he come and visit. Chrissy panicked. It was one thing emailing across the world, intimate thoughts and details passed to total strangers,volume of quite another to meet in 'real life'. What if he was completely weird? A stalker? A psycho? What if she just didn't get on with him? It would be awkward.
She made some coffee as she considered. Well, she could follow all the rules, and hopefully the worst that could happen would be they would have nothing to say to each other and that would be that. Strange how she had no inclination to meet this person she had been so close to. She hoped it wouldn't ruin their gaming team.
Okay, she emailed back. Meet me by Paddington Bear in Paddington Station tomorrow at 11.30. She told Harry what she was planning and, bar raising a cynical eyebrow, he had nothing to say.
It was raining in the morning as she walked to the station, and she had to keep avoiding the puddles on the uneven paving. Bath station is so depressing that Chrissy spent as little time there as possible, with the result that she had to run to catch the train before they locked the doors. None of that 'running along the platform, trying to grab a door handle and leap into a moving carriage' nowadays. She sat on the train trying to read her book. She sometimes agonised over reading matter if she was meeting someone, trying to strike the right note with them. She thought this was stupid, but did it anyway. Today it was the third volume of Zelazny's Great Book of Amber series. Not yet into the slightly flakey ones but past the brilliant first two. Showed commitment though.
But her mind was elsewhere. She realized she didn't even know what Anorak looked like, or indeed whether to call him that at all. Could she really address someone as 'Anorak'? She was also hoping Paddington hadn't been put away for cleaning or something during the rebuilding of the station. They always had to visit him whenever she went to London with the children even thought the oldest was now fourteen, but the station had been in chaos last time she went.
Swindon; Reading; all those pretty little stations along the Thames; Slough - what a dump; Ealing Broadway; then graffiti land after Acton until the train arrives ever so suddenly, but remarkably slowly, into Paddington.
Chrissy picked up her bag and slowly filed off the train. Paddington Bear should be right over there. She made her way slowly thought the milling throng wondering why she had come. There was the bear in his glass case. 11.10. Time for a coffee. And to pay for a visit to the loo. She could never get over these turnstile toilets, especially as she never had any change. 11.28. She made her way back to Paddington's lookout.
She saw no sign of Anorak, only a small, dark-haired woman obviously looking out for someone. 11.30. The woman looked at her closely; she was younger than Chrissy and had chocolate brown eyes with a glitter in them and was wearing a red denim jacket and jeans.
"Chris?" she said haltingly. Chrissy jumped at being spoken to by a stranger.
"Anorak?" she replied in a disbelieving voice.
"Well, yes," the woman seemed hesitant. "It seems silly now we're face to face; it doesn't matter online. It's what my brothers call me but it's not too good in the light of day. My real name's Angeline."
"I'm Chrissy. I think I was expecting you to be a man," Chrissy spoke carefully, not wishing to offend.

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