© Damien Florebert Cuypers

Short story: Romantic

"I like intelligent women, he said. Looks are nothing. What’s sexy is smart"
June 17, 2015
Janice Galloway is an award-winning novelist, memoirist and short story writer, who most recent works are This is Not About Me and All Made Up. Her new story collection, entitled Jellyfish, explores in razor-sharp prose David Lodge’s contention that “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” The story below, “Romantic,” is narrated by a woman whose eye is caught by a man nearly 20 years younger than her. Galloway says: “This story is set in Edinburgh—or at least its international face—complete with castle on a rock, cool eateries and bars. Two old friends, neither of whom are native, meet up unexpectedly after an absence during a too-hipster-for-comfort day. It’s original title was ‘Iconic.’ Too close to ‘laconic’ in flavour, I scrapped it for ‘Romantic,’ because that’s what it is.”


He’s there when I arrive, 20 minutes late, still standing at the bar. I can tell from his face he’s ordered already and he doesn’t kiss me hello. He usually consents to a kissed hello, but I am late again. I don’t deserve it.

Sorry, Charlie, I say. Traffic.

I know he says. It’s always traffic. Anyway, I’ve ordered. 

I know.

This—he says grandly, opening one arm like a theatre curtain—is Maria. She’s Hungarian. He nods in a don’t make a fuss sort of a way. She’s just staying over for a few days at the flat. 

There are always people staying over at the flat. We have that kind of place. I smile at Maria and her long blue hair, her dark purple nails. She smiles back with a look that suggests she is fed-up being smiled at by strangers and having her hair noticed. It’s probably been happening all day and she’s tired. Maybe she’s just arrived. 

She’s tired, Charlie says. Just arrived. 

I smile again. We were going to have a meal out at the bar together, nothing fancy, but just me and Charlie. We don’t do it often and we save up, look forward. For entertainment, I brought some self-help book Simon wants him to review for the Herald and pictures of funny cats off the internet as light relief in case work is a no-go area over dinner. I thought we’d have a beer and a laugh, but not now. Maria is both here and Hungarian, so couples-out-for-a-night-together in-jokes and self-help books are not suitable conversation. Charlie says he ordered Cullen Skink and haggis to do his bit for Scottish tourism and Maria looks blank. He likes haggis anyway, but he’s making a self-deprecating joke for either me or Maria—which is hard to say—suggesting her ethnic origins are being indulged to placate an unexpressed requirement for local guidance. 

Charlie is a self-appointed Statue of Liberty: the poor, huddled masses and foreigners know. The way moths find light. I’m never sure whether he enjoys cherishing the stranger in his midst or if it’s a compulsion. He’s always been an earnest sort, more earnest as he ages. It used to be very attractive. 

Anyhow, I make travelling small-talk to Maria to be helpful and give him a breather and he uses it to scan the room and start waving. Charlie spends a lot of his waking hours waving, mostly at people he doesn’t know. A friend I haven’t met yet—that sort of thing. Even before the wave stops he buggers off to speak to some different woman in ripped tights on the other side of the bar. I notice she gets the kiss I didn’t get and ask Maria how she likes Edinburgh, enunciating more clearly than usual so she can tune in to the new accent. 

It’s OK. 

I nod. This is Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, we’re talking about here; Edinburgh is apparently OK

Not as nice as Budapest.

No. I say. Budapest is unique.

Yes, she says. Everywhere is. That’s a truism.

And we’re done. Charlie comes back just as Maria is discovering she hates Cullen Skink, so he eats his alone while she goes outside for a fag to take the taste away and I can’t see her through the window. Either she’s had enough or she’s shorter than I thought. 

Nervous of butting in, Charlie says. He means Maria. She thinks we’re business partners, not—well, whatever the word is these days. I called you my partner and she assumed it wasn’t a personal thing. You know, like business partner. He shrugs, picks haddock from between his teeth with a nail. The buzz all around us gets louder. More people are coming in to eat. I’m just about to order myself a beer since nobody else will when Ruaridh breezes in, all rippling T-shirt and bouncy as a pup. He says hi, clocks I have no drink and orders one for me too. All one move; the way tall guys seem so fluently to be able to do, over my head before the barmaid even spots me. I smile at him, feeling the best I have since I came in and he rests a hand on my shoulder. Maria turns up dead on cue, wondering if she and Charlie are about to go to the garden where the castle is (she has heard the castle is very romantic) and Charlie, no hesitation, dumps cash on the bar for the waiter. 

Tell them no thanks for the haggis, he says. You appear to be staying. 

And that’s it. Gone. All I have to do is make sure Charlie’s uneaten feast is no longer a burden and spend the afternoon with Ruaridh, cheered up by how square his jaw is, how green his eyes are after a pint or two. I can’t hold it these days. 

I can’t get the hang of English girls, he says. Glad to be back. A load of talk about cars and food and my new project. They take work so fucking seriously down there! 

Well, sounds like the ones you met do.

Another thing, he says, not listening to me, is they take it so fucking seriously when you say fuck a lot. Like they think it’s swearing or something. 

We laugh. He’s young in the head even for a young thing. And good looking. He’s really good looking. 

I like intelligent women, he said. Looks are nothing. What’s sexy is smart. Guys that don’t get that are fucking morons. He smiled. Only problem is, the intelligent ones pack you in quicker. Just been dumped. 

Oh, I say. Sad face. You OK? 

Terrible, he says. Distraught and all that. Let’s not talk about it. 

He smiles again. This time I smile back. We smile too long. So, he says. Want to share a cab?

I look at him. You don’t know where I live.

No, he said. You could come back to mine. It’s an invitation. I look at him. 

I’d nearly forgotten what a great place it is. Big bay window, lovely view of the castle. You’d like it. 

I laugh. Castle view. Expensive. 

Well, he says, when I say you can see the castle I mean you can see the castle if you stand on the bed, jump and down a wee bit. But still. Romantic. 

He is looking at his feet. Almost blushing. Then he lifts his head and our eyes lock. Just long enough. 

What do you say? he says. Welcome me home. 

I keep looking at him, widen my eyes. He is nearly 20 years younger than me. Peridot green-eyed. So bloody good looking. My shoulders ripple. The hairs on the back of my neck rise. 

Sure, I say. I have under-appreciated cats on my mobile if we run out of things to say. Get-out clause—in case. 

Outside, he touches the back of my neck. We kiss.

You sure? I say.

Sure I’m sure, he says. No expectations. See what you think when we get there. It’s too big a bed for one.

So we walk. Bugger the cab, we take our time. We walk. Tonight the pub can keep its waifs, its strays, its temporary friends and noise. Fleetingly, I imagine pissed-off Maria finding Edinburgh disappointing, noticing Charlie’s teeth spiked here and there with slivers of fish. This time of night, in the right company, I hear the castle is very romantic.