Romance Fiction posted April 23, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
a gentle romance

Thursday Evenings

by mfowler

Story of the Month Contest Winner 

Clifford Dankhurst was a grey man. Not literally grey, as his balding crown still sported tufts of peppered red and brown, and his skin was still smooth and rosy for a man of forty five. But, in the sense of blandness.
For Clifford lived such an ordered, unremarkable existence, that people who frequented the landscape of his life might not have noticed him at all, in the same way a spindly tree might grow unobserved as seasons pass.
His neat, suburban home, replete with tidy gardens and widowed mother who fussed over him, was his haven. On weekends he'd stroll to a local shop to buy the Saturday paper. The crosswords, and articles, both literary and political, occupied his entire day. Each evening he sat in the living room reading, occasionally speaking to his mother about the day's highlights. Their conversations were brief and featureless, just as his parents' had been.
His work at the city's National Bank headquarters allowed him to move about unnoticed. Successive managers placed him in various roles involving limited customer contact. This suited Clifford perfectly as he was able to keep his own counsel, and work diligently on computer based tasks without needing to be part of any staff camaraderie.
When Mrs Dankhurst passed, Clifford's routine was interrupted for awhile. He learned to cook singles' meals, and with a simple roster, managed most of the basic domestic chores without stress. As for company, Sooty, the family's ancient cat took the role of Mrs Dankhurst in the evenings.
'Mr Frobisher has a new picture of his family on his desk. Lovely silver frame.' Sooty would flick his tail and settle down by the heater. Answers weren't necessary.
It appeared that Clifford's grey life would go undisturbed for his entire existence. But, sometimes Sooty wasn't enough. A strange feeling surreptitiously entered into Clifford's world. It took a long time before the empty feeling could be identified; its name was loneliness.
In time, loneliness bored away at his psyche, and he found himself staring into the mirror looking for the culprit that made him so unhappy. Talking to Sooty proved unfulfilling, and in desperation, Clifford opened up to those around him.
'Good evening, Mrs Jones,' he said one evening as he sprayed the roses. 'Nice weather?'
His elderly neighbour looked at Clifford as if he were a stranger, not the son of her best friend. 'Why, yes...,yes it is, Clifford. Very nice.'
This simple conversation warmed Clifford's heart, and he gradually embraced new experiences.
'Good Morning, Mr Frobisher,' he'd say on the way to his desk.
'The Saturday Mail, Mr Roberts. And I think I'll have a packet of Tingles to top off the morning,'  he'd say to the stunned newsagent.
Clifford's life had settled into a modified and satisfying pattern. That is, until Maud Bliss happened into his life.
While borrowing a copy of Moby Dick from the council library, he noticed a new face behind the counter. As the librarian checked out his book, Clifford said, 'New here?'
She lifted her head. Clifford saw her soft, pink face and pea-green eyes looking at him through rimless glasses. It was as innocent and intelligent a face as he'd ever noticed on a woman. Not that he really noticed women.
'Are you?' she replied. 'I'm new myself...But, your card says you've been coming here since 1979.'
'Does it?...Yes, since I was a boy.' His mild faux pas caused Clifford no end of embarrassment. His face flushed even redder than a fox.
'Are you OK?' inquired the librarian. 'You might like to sit down.'
Her concern brought back memories of his mother's dedicated care.
'I might do that,' he said, and popped himself onto a reading chair opposite ROMANCE FICTION.
The librarian left the counter unattended. She brought Clifford a cup with cool water. 'Here, this might help.'
Clifford sipped the water and looked at his heroine. Another strange emotion suddenly caught him unaware. He felt quivers all over, and a shortness of breath that stopped him speaking.
'I'm Maud-Lynn Bliss...Maud to friends,' said the librarian. 'I've just been transferred from our other site. I hope I can always be of service to you.'
That feeling which caught him unawares, now progressed to stuttering. 'Y...yes, too.'
'And you're Clifford Dankhurst of 1 Staid Place,' she said in a voice that sparkled.
'How do you know?' he asked politely.
'Your card, silly.' She giggled, and mystical skyrockets went off in Clifford's imagination, a place rarely tested by big thoughts.
And thus began a shift in Clifford's ordered life. He stayed up late to finish his books. He'd rush to the library on a Thursday evening to exchange them. Maud was always glad to see him, and their simple conversations shifted to furtive glances as he pretended to read in the chair opposite ROMANCE FICTION.

One evening in Spring, Clifford returned Wuthering Heights. He'd completed it in less than a week. 'You must have loved this, Mr Dankhurst?' suggested Maud.
'Yes, Miss Bliss, quite sad really.'
'I cried when Heathcliff died. So tragic.'
Clifford thought, I was glad. Such a drama queen. 'Oh, yes, tragic, Miss Bliss.'
'Call me, Maud,' she said. 'I'll call you Clifford.'
Their casual conversations about his borrowings forced Clifford to make notes and remember quotes about important moments. Relating to Maud about books cheered him greatly. After reading Jackie Collins' work, he began to understand another new emotion. Attraction. Once named, he decided to act.
'Maud,' he said, as he returned Hollywood Wives, 'would you like to have tea with me one night?' His hands shook, but he didn't blush.
'Oh, yes, Clifford. I'm free early on Thursdays with our new rota.'
And so it was. Thursdays became their evening. At first, they'd take tea and cake at Molly's Teahouse. Clifford's new found joy in literature widened his conversational repertoire. Maud found a man who communicated his feelings about literature.
Clifford would walk Maud to her flat three streets away from Molly's. One cool evening, he took the chance and touched her hand. Maud clasped his hand warmly. Clifford's heart pumped a little harder.
One Thursday, six months later, as Maud unlocked her door, Clifford reached forward and kissed her gently on the lips as she turned to say goodnight.
'Oh, Clifford,' she cooed.
In that instant, Clifford knew that attraction had crossed the threshold of affection. There was no going back.
Clifford looked forward to Thursday evenings with the same enthusiasm he remembered feeling for Thursday nights at the Numismatists Club  when he was a lad. Then, coins had been love, now a cute, auburn-haired librarian was his treasure.
Clifford quickly accommodated their Thursday trysts as part of his ordered week. He knew they would talk about his chosen book, so even evenings home reading were exciting.
By the following year, Maud and Clifford had developed a comfortable routine. They would eat at Aunt Molly's Teahouse and return to Maud's for coffee and muffins. They'd discuss their latest books, and listen to Debussy or Wagner.
One night Clifford said, 'I've noticed you've been reading travel-themed books.'
'Very keen of you, Clifford.'
'Any reason in particular, my Dear?'
'I've been thinking of taking a trip. Holidays come up in March.'
'The seaside's nice that time of year. It's only a tram ride away.'
Maud put down her copy of Around the World in Eighty Days. 'I mean something grander. England perhaps. Always fancied seeing Buckingham Palace.'
Clifford's throat tightened, his eyes narrowed. 'That's a long way, Dear. Wouldn't you be frightened travelling alone?'
'I thought you might want to come, Pigeon.'
Clifford knew this feeling - fear.
'No,' he said, 'Dankhursts don't travel well. I once flew to New Zealand on bank business...spent the entire time vomiting.'
'Don't you ever want to spread your wings, fly? This would be so good for us.'
 'What about Thursday evenings? I love spending time with you.'
'We'd be together every day, Silly.'
An atmosphere of greyness filled the space between them. He left early, forgetting his Thursday kiss goodnight.
The following weeks went dreadfully, and his fear pushed Maud away.
'Tickets are booked. The plane leaves on the 31st of March. Here's my itinerary.'
'Looks awfully tiring,' he commented.
Their final Thursday rendezvous barely got beyond Maud's announcement. Clifford couldn't bear such upheaval. The thought of being with one person for three months in foreign cities and hotels frightened him greatly.
'I guess we've got no more to say on the subject,' he said, checking the bill. 'Hope you have a lovely time.'
'But I don't leave for weeks,' she insisted.
'You'll be able to concentrate on your preparations without me around,' he said.
An unwelcome friend came to visit Clifford in the following weeks. He recognised loneliness once again.
People noticed the change.
'No Tingles this morning?' said Mr Roberts, as Clifford picked up his papers.
'They rot your teeth.'
At work, Mr Frobisher asked, 'Are those estimates ready, Clifford?'
'What estimates?' His usually efficient adjustment advisor was flatter than a photocopy.
'You look unwell, Clifford. Don't come in till next week.'
Clifford had never missed a day in his life, but the grey mist hanging over him forced his hand. He took the two days off. Never having had a spare Thursday in his life, Clifford was lost. He listened to Debussy, but that made him cry. Sooty was more comatose than usual. And he hadn't borrowed a new book in weeks.
His life was a mess. Disorder reigned.
That night he had a terrible dream. Heathcliff, whose face looked remarkably like Clifford's, roamed the foggy moors calling for his beloved Maud-Lynn, not Catherine. Clifford sat bolt upright, his skin clammy and hot. But, he knew what he had to do.
Maud's plane was due for take-off 10:00 am. He waited in the airport's departure lounge, pacing up and down in hope of seeing her. He looked at the flight schedule on the monitor. Her plane had gone.
Clifford slumped into a plastic seat. He looked at his father's old watch. It had stopped working. Noooo...I wanted to tell her I love her.
Maud's jet screamed into Heathrow. She was exhausted and miserable. To think I believed in Clifford. The least he could do was call...tell me not to come.
Jetlag ensured she slept for eighteen hours after settling into her hotel. She woke in the middle of the night. Realising it was late afternoon at home, she repeatedly dialled Clifford's number.  But, all she heard was: Out. Please leave your details.
Maud woke to a bright, crisp Spring morning.  With Houses of Parliament, National Gallery, and Westminster Abbey visited, she sat down on a seat in Trafalgar Square. Her feet ached and her mind was far from London. A grey pigeon serenaded her with melancholy coos as it bobbled along nearby.
'Hello, Mr. Pigeon, I'm Maud-Lynn Bliss. Nice to meet you.'
The bird shuffled by, and looked up hopefully with its orange-black eyes.
'Would you like to share a sandwich with me this fine Thursday evening?'
'That sounds like a plan,' said a familiar voice. 'How about we do it every evening for the rest of our lives?'
'Clifford!' screeched Maud, jumping to her feet and hugging her man tightly. 'How did you....?'
'Followed your schedule. Planning's a good thing.'
The pigeon flew onto the seat, and pecked at Maud's cheese sandwich as the couple kissed passionately in view of tourists and a stone lion.
Flying to London on hope and a prayer, was the most radical act of Clifford's life. With unused holiday leave available, Mr Frobisher had willingly released Clifford for the next few months.
This sweeping change in his well-ordered life was duly accommodated, as Clifford and Maud toured the continent. In Venice they married in a gondola.
The pigeon had flown.
What changed most for Clifford, was that his world was now alive with colour, and the feeling that now carried him along was Bliss.


Story of the Month
Contest Winner


grey: British and colonial spelling of the colour

Wuthering Heights is Emily Bronte's only novel. Written between October 1845 and June 1846, 'Wuthering Heights' was published in 1847 under the pseudonym "Ellis Bell". The story is about Heathcliff and Catherine, who because of class differences find it difficult to consumate a love that crosses decades. In the end, Heathcliff goes mad and is seen skulking about the moors calling for his deceased lover Catherine. He speaks to her ghost.

'Hollywood Wives' is a 1983 novel by the British author Jackie Collins. It tells the stories of several women in Hollywood, ranging all the way from long-time talent agents and screenwriters to vivacious screen vixens and young, innocent newcomers.
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