TWO

Approaching the park from our direction of town, one invariably has to pass the fountain: a hideous monument in stone, spewing slightly suspect water back into itself. Every now and then kids put bubble bath in there. This was one of those days.

As a few twelve- or thirteen-year olds played with the bubbles, flinging globules of the stuff at each other, the elderly people sat on one side of the fountain, and criticised, while the other side of the fountain held a few of the junkies from my estate, who were nodding out too much to care. I exchanged a tired smile with one of them as I passed.
As we wandered onto the bright green grass, slightly hazy from the heat and from the wine we had already consumed, I searched desperately for my image of perfection, my Venus. I saw her three times, or at least so I told myself. She was, in turn, revealed to be a doughty old dame in a polo-neck, a couple with their dog and a crew member on one of the barges on the river. Angelene was nowhere to be found.

As my friends and I settled upon a shaded patch of grass and unpacked the wine, I flicked open my cigarette case, only to find myself confronted with my last cigarette. I decided I ought to buy some more from the nearby newsagent, and I excused myself from the company and trekked over the road.

The girl in the shop was reasonably pretty, with a shock of dark brown hair and green eyes. I exchanged a half-hearted smile with her as I bought my cigarettes, and the stern look she gave me reminded me how much I longed for that perfect spectre, my one and only darling. One of my consistent bad habits was that of falling in love with most of the pretty girls I saw, although the emotion never usually lasted this long.

As I stepped outside the shop, the sudden glare of the sun caught me off guard, and I stumbled past an elderly woman with a shopping trolley with little more than a mumbled "awfully sorry".
It was this sun, when I got closer to Dean and Steven, that made me think my eyes were playing tricks on me.

They had cosied up to a group of six people, four of whom were girls. One of them, in an unmistakably striped top, with unmistakably my very own picture of perfection from earlier.

My heart beat rather faster, and suddenly I felt giddier than I had done before. Dean waved to me, just in case I hadn't noticed that they had moved, and I waved back as nonchalantly as possible, even though my heart was bounding about my ribcage like an enthusiastic toddler. I cannot ever say why I felt so passionately about this girl after such a brief glimpse. Some bittersweet irony tempts me to say that it was Providence.

As I closed on our group, my heart missed a beat as she looked at me, in passing, smiled absently, and turned back to the rest. I could see now that all the girls around Angelene were veritable angels, but she struck me like a blow across the face, I can't describe the hold she had over me even from that second.

"Alright?" I asked when I sat down.

"Yes", said Steven, "these are some new friends of ours… they've got a couple of bottles of wine too so we decided to pool it!"

"Always good!" I smiled, trying, once again, to be nonchalant. I didn't go into the particulars of how, in the four or five minutes between my departure and my return, Dean and Steven had managed to join this group, but I didn't feel the need to ask.

The conversation seemed to revolve around a favourite subject for mirth and disgust: the tourists and locals alike tanning themselves in the park. All middle-aged men or young couples, all of whom were wearing decidedly little. I was gratified to note that all of this new party were in long sleeves: people of our kind!

I decided to try to be quiet, rather than risk blurting out something stupid and unfunny like "I love you and want to spend my life with you", and so I engrossed myself in the conversation, flowing readily around me.
I studied the sky, and the grass, anything to avoid looking at Angelene and possibly fainting with rapture: I was less than a foot away from her! Could it really be?
The closer I looked at the ground, trying to seem inconspicuous, the more numb I got, until I barely heard the conversation around me at all, such was the pace of the thoughts rushing through my head. At this point, there was a thunderclap.

"Got a light?" said one of the angels, a very pretty girl with brown hair in a ponytail. "Mine's run out, and Charlotte forgot hers!" she grinned, nudging Charlotte, previously known as Angelene. What a heavenly name! So caught up was I in identifying the beauty of that name, that I dropped the lighter as soon as I retrieved it from my pocket. I opened my case to take a cigarette, and the girl to whom I was giving the light exclaimed "Wow. Posh case there, mister!"

I smiled and muttered something idiotic about how I wasn't that posh once you got to know me. Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!

Dean announced that any aspect of my being posh was "a charade" and that in fact I was perfectly respectable and not at all posh. As I sat down again, Charlotte asked me, in a beautiful voice that could only have been matched by the sound of violins playing Bach, whether I had a spare. I immediately offered her a cigarette and the lighter, and she smiled such a perfect, pretty, knowing smile that I thought that I would die.

"Nice top" was all I could think of saying, as the conversation around us was ebbing and flowing once more, and neither of us was involved.

"Oh really? It's one of my favourites, but everyone says it makes me look French. Not that that's a bad thing, of course, but it's a difficult reputation to live up to!"

I smiled again. Someone had once told me that I had a nice smile, and so I took every opportunity to smile and take advantage of this gift. I wasn't convinced of it, but what did my opinion matter?
"I often wondered when I'd get to meet the wearer of that coat." She reached out and tugged gently on one of the pockets, which had already been pulled most of the way off. "It's not the kind of thing you usually see around here, certainly not in summer! You must be boiling."

"Well, it was second hand, so it's always been a bit battered, but hey. Is it's fame travelling then?"

"Certainly is. Must have seen that coat four, five times flitting about town. You walk bloody fast, by the way!"

Not wanting to smile inanely, I agreed, and said it was often necessary with a coat like mine and a debilitating eyeliner habit. She laughed, and said she liked the eyeliner. Nobody had EVER liked the eyeliner! I was in paradise, and there was no imminent prospect of being stolen away. Here I was, once and for all, with Charlotte.

We spent about half an hour talking, in blissful isolation from the rest. We discovered that we had a lot in common: she had been brought up in London, as had I, although she had left when she was ten, two years earlier than I. She was a couple of months older than me, and jokingly called me 'baby boy', which I found surprisingly flattering.

She had just come out of a relationship with a chap who clearly didn't value her: he had left just as they were getting serious, citing boredom as his excuse. My fists itched to wallop him in the face, which I imagined to be smug and sharp, topped by some kind of quiff. She was altogether totally charming, and seemed engrossed as I told her the little I knew about myself.

Eventually, we were drawn back into the conversation by Dean telling Charlotte she had a nice top. I tried to give him a meaningful look, and he took it for agreement with his fashion taste. Soon enough, the main body of the conversation swirled around us again, about music and general life. One of the boys from the other group, who, it turned out, was an item with the other, commented that PJ Harvey was often criticised as being derivative of Patti Smith, and that it was unfair. I agreed.

"The influence is obvious, but she's branched out so much, I think she's actually as much of an icon in her own right" I asserted. The conversation picked up, and several bands were named and shamed, others praised to high heaven with reverential silences.

The scent of summer was strong in my nostrils, as was the scent of Charlotte's perfume. It was one of those that you know you've smelled a hundred times before, but always on the wrong people. This was right!

"What do you think of XFM these days, baby boy?" she turned to me and fixed me with such an attentive stare that I almost started.

"I think its probably the best station around, I mean it does a lot more of the right stuff, and the sessions are always pretty good".

She smiled, and that was good enough for me for a whole day. I was glowing and nobody could stop me.

The great tragedy was that they were scheduled to leave at three. When the time came, they got up, and I looked mournfully away, realising that I may never see her again. The two boys said their 'cheerio's, and walked off to the bus stop, while the girls stayed a minute longer, to deliver their farewells. The quick round of hugs was finished in a trice (far too quickly!), and one of the girls, who had asked me for a lighter earlier, asked Steven for his number. With practised leisure, he drew his phone out of his pocket and handed it to her, telling her to put her number into it. At times like this, he surely had enough charm to make Lauren Bacall give him her number.

She assented, groggily from the wine we had consumed, and as I observed this I realised I was more or less half-cut myself. I turned to Charlotte, who, strangely enough, was looking at me, and asked if she'd like to meet up for a drink next time she was in town.

She blushed slightly, and smiled that beautiful, all-pacifying smile.

"I'd love to… is Saturday night alright for you?"

Keeping control of my rapidly trembling voice and rapidly beating heart, I tried to sound casual as I replied "Yeah, sure thing".

We exchanged numbers on the pretence that we might need to contact each other if one of us was going to be late. With that, I got another hug, a rare delicacy, and she was gone.

"Well, that went alright!" said Dean, who had also managed to get a number, and was convinced that the girl in question had copped a feel when she hugged him.

"Certainly was, they were like something out of a bloody dream. In fact, Christ, they make the girls I dream about look like short, fat, bald men." Sighed Steven, with a look of distracted pleasure in his eye.

As for myself, I lay back on the grass, drank the last drop from our remaining bottle of wine (we had managed to persuade them into sharing virtually all of theirs) and daydreamed about Charlotte.

The sun beat down on me, and the chatter of my two friends enveloped my ears, pulsing through me like a catalyst.

"What to do now then, boys?" asked Steven apprehensively.

"I don't honestly know" replied Dean.

I was perfectly happy to have a wander back to the chateau and just remain there for a while, or even to go home. Nobody really seemed keen on this second option, and Dean absently threw some grass at me: "Wanker!"

I grinned, without opening my eyes, and remarked to myself that I would need a shave before Saturday night. Steven and Dean, realising they had not taken the opportunity to quiz me about this development in events, promptly took it upon themselves to do so.

"So, come on then, why so soppy over our little 'Flaming June?'" asked Dean, poking me in the ribs as he said so.

"Oh shut up, I don't know. She's pretty, that's all".

"No, you don't go this soppy over every girl you meet, you know. Only about ninety-eight percent of them."

Steven interjected with a swift "Yeah, come on, what's so special about her?"

And I couldn't tell them. I knew what it was, but I couldn't tell them. She was Rose.

In early years, Rose had walked beside me, had been my fairytale love, my first romance. She was, of course, a figment of my young imagination, and my memories of the time are very rare: I used to go up to outside windows and look for Rose inside, convinced that she was inside at that present time. I'd stand on our balcony for half an hour at a time calling her. I can only have been three or four.

And yet something remains: some dim memory, and such a sense of poignancy! Everything is hopelessly romantic to me, that's just one of my unfortunate drawbacks in life. Every blissful moment in the arms of a lover is destined to be recalled, someday, in a poem about guilt and regret. I cry over weepy movies, I fall in love far too easily, and over all, I'm not the best candidate for casual boyfriend because chances are, after the first date I'll be writing poems and sending flowers. That is, when I'm not in the Abyss, but more of that later.

But Rose. Strong spectres of Rose hung like garlands around my heart and soul, and here was one embodied. Charlotte was everything I had always dreamed of, since the days of Rose. Flowing red hair, a sort of vulnerable pre-Raphaelite beauty. Wit, intelligence, the probable ability to put up with my mood-swings and general annoyances. She was perfect. She was Rose.

I think I lied to Dean and Steven. I said that her sense of fashion would compliment mine, and that was why I was so soppy.

They did not believe me, and I think they must secretly have steeled themselves for another epic whirlwind of mood swings, poetry, nights spent walking the streets, deep in thought, et cetera. There isn't much glamour around here, you know. We all have to make ourselves heard in other ways.