She Could Be Anyone
by Wendy Freebourne

On her toes, Ruth managed to loosen the book she wanted from the top shelf. She could not grasp it; it fell towards her. Male hands reached up and caught it. She smelled tobacco.

‘There you are.’ His voice was deep and resonant.  He handed her the book. ‘I like Monet too.’

She looked up into a broad face with laughter lines around dark blue eyes, a generous mouth, disguised by a full beard, and a mane of wavy grey hair. He wore a dark grey overcoat and blue jeans. His eyes met hers full on. He seemed confident, self-assured. He could be anyone. Ruth was not used to talking to strange men. Embarrassed, she thanked him and turned away.

When she moved to the till to pay for the book, he was leaning on the counter, smiling at her.

‘I suppose I save you a headache.’

‘Yes.’ He was growing on her. ‘It could have fallen on my head.’ He waited for her to pay and, as she turned away, he turned with her.

‘Would you like to have coffee?’

Ruth thought his clipped consonants might be German. His English was good.

‘I would like that,’ She meant it.

He held out his hand. ‘Teo.’

‘I’m Ruth.’ She grasped his warm hand.

‘I feel like I know you from somewhere,’ he told her in the coffee shop. ‘Do you live in Leeds?’

‘Yes. I’ve lived here all my life.’

Ruth looked at her small hands, and his long fingers. She noted neither of them wore rings.

‘And you?’

‘I am working at the theatre.’ He gestured towards the Playhouse. ‘I live in London, but I come from Croatia.’

‘The former Yugoslavia?’

‘Yes. I was born on the Dalmatian Coast. Very beautiful.’

His eyes looked sad; sensitive and vulnerable, she thought. She noted his square shoulders and broad chest. She felt herself sitting up straighter. He reminded her of middle-European Jewish uncles when she was a girl.

I’m attracted to an old man. This is ridiculous. I’m going to be fifty-six next week; not that she knew exactly what that meant. Distracted, she ran her fingers through her hair. The light reflected gold and silver. Soon, he looked at his watch.

‘I am so sorry. I have to go now. Can I see you again?’

Ruth was flustered. Her heart was fluttering. She felt a twinge of excitement in her stomach. ‘Would you like to come to my birthday party next week?’ The thought of having a real date with him made her panic.

‘How nice of you.’ They exchanged telephone numbers.

Ruth felt safe with her friends and family around her. Her daughter, Candy, and her husband Tim were there, with little Charlie, her grandson, but not Jamie. She was glad not to have to explain Teo to both her children at once. They were young when her marriage ended and witnessed too many men come and go in her life. But none of them had been right for her.

When Teo arrived he handed her a silver-leaved ginger plant. She thanked him.

‘I like your colours.’ She was wearing silver and lilac. He wore a soft flannel suit, a black open-necked shirt. Ruth thought he looked distinguished. She introduced him to Candy and went to fetch him a drink, edging around who he really was. After all, she hardly knew him herself.

As hostess, she had little chance for long conversations with anyone at the party, including Teo. He stayed after the last guest left. She sat down next to him.

‘You must be tired?’

‘No, but it’s nice to sit down.’

‘I will make us some coffee.’

Ruth was delighted. She sat on the sofa and kicked off her shoes. He kicked off his shoes too, which made her a little nervous, but she sipped her coffee.

‘Is Candy your only child?’

‘No, my son, Jamie is travelling in Europe.’ She warmed to anyone who was interested in her children. ‘Do you have children?’

He leaned his elbows on his knees, rested his forehead on clasped hands and, looking down into his lap, he sighed. ‘I’ve had two marriages, two divorces and four children. The oldest, Aleksander, was killed in the war, with his wife and baby. I fled to England with the others. I lost my home, nearly everything.’

Ruth felt for him. He had spoken of everything she held dear. ‘I am so sorry about your son. I can’t imagine how it would be to lose a child, and a grandchild too. And to be uprooted from your home in that way.’

They sat for a while in silence.

Then he sighed again, relaxing back into the sofa. ‘My daughter, Ana, is a model and has a boy and a girl. My son, Luka, is an artist and lives with his girlfriend.’ He sounded proud. ‘They are in Zagreb now. My youngest, Marija, is a dancer. Sometimes she stays with me in London.’ He smiled.

‘You have quite an accomplished family.’

‘You too.’ He had been speaking to Candy, the computer whiz.

Ruth did not ask any more about Teo’s work. She fancied he had artistic hands. She imagined he painted scenery. She felt so sorry for him.

‘And what do you do?’ he asked.

‘I’m just a housewife. I have a part-time job in the doctor’s surgery - and I go to an art class once a week.’

‘You paint?’

‘Yes.’ She thought he might say he painted too, but he didn’t.

They fell silent. Ruth looked into her coffee mug. Teo looked at Ruth. Eventually, she raised her eyes and looked into his. ‘Would you like me to help you clear up?’ he asked.

‘No,’ she said, becoming suddenly bold, ‘what I would like . . . ’

He looked into her eyes. ‘I too would like . . .’

‘I would like to be held.’ She was still feeling his sadness.

‘And I would like to hold you.’ She melted in his arms. After a while he held her away from him, kissed her forehead and looked at her with those penetrating eyes again. ‘I would like to hold you all night.’ She liked his boldness.

‘I can’t promise more than that,’ but she took his hand.

‘Of course.’

She led him up the stairs.

When they reached her bedroom, Ruth was flustered again. She had not taken her clothes off in front of a man in nearly ten years. She had aged during that time. Ruth busied herself finding a towel and showed him where the bathroom was. She took off her clothes and climbed into the old tee shirt she usually slept in. Then she got into bed and waited.

He came back, naked to the waist, the towel wrapped around him. Ruth tried not to stare. When she saw him reach for the towel, she drew in her breath. He was wearing white boxers.

He climbed in beside her and laid his watch on the bedside table. ‘I have no rehearsal tomorrow.’

This unnerved Ruth. She had to ask him. ‘Are you an actor?’ trying to hide her surprise.

‘Yes. I am playing Hamlet. We open in one week. You will come?’

Ruth felt embarrassed, not knowing what to say. An actor – he might be famous. What would he want with a provincial Jewish housewife?

He put his arms around her as if they had been doing this all their lives. She pushed away misgivings. After a while, she became aware of Teo’s gentle snoring. She freed herself and sat up in bed. The bedside light was still on, so she read for a bit, clinging to her normal routine, feeling more comfortable now. Eventually, she turned off the light, and snuggled down, facing away from him. He turned towards her, the shape of his body accommodating the curve of her back. He reached his free arm round to
hold her, finding a breast beneath the T shirt.

She wriggled round to face him. ‘I thought you were asleep.’

He kissed her deeply in answer. They made love and went to sleep. They did not speak. There was no need.

Ruth forgot about the theatre.

‘I do love you.’ She opened her eyes in the morning as he opened one of his.

‘I love you too.’ He made love to her again, before the sound of his long vowels had faded from her ears.

She was hungry, but it was more than physical, more than just for love. She believed in him as if she had known him all her life, even though they had just met. This belief fuelled her passion. She had always believed she would meet him, someday, even though that belief had often wavered, disappeared into the underworld of her consciousness when she could bear the pain no more. More than once she had invested that belief in the man of the moment, only to be betrayed by self-delusion. But she had not believed in herself then.

But Teo was different. She had no misgivings, she told herself that morning. He made her feel whole, a wholeness she realised she had without him, had grown into slowly during all the time she had spent alone. She suspected he had it too. She liked how she was with him.

But then she remembered his acting. It bothered her.

‘I’ve wanted this for so long.’ Ruth sat on the edge of the bath.

Teo was drying his face. He bent his knees so that  his eyes were level with hers. ‘Is been a long time for me too.’ He leaned towards her. She felt the rhythm of his breathing, already familiar. He sobbed, dry at first, then wet, unstoppable, their intensity making her dizzy. She feared she would topple backwards and crack her head.

‘With you, I feel I come home,’ he managed at last. ‘I am so comfortable.’

‘I am comfortable with you.’ Ruth felt she had come home too, to herself.

They moved to the bedroom. Ruth crawled under the duvet and held it back, inviting Teo.

‘There are things I need to tell you. But first, I make some coffee.’

He turned and walked out of the room. She heard his steps on the stairs. He did not come back for nearly half an hour. Ruth began to worry. What did he want to tell her?

At last, he came into the room with a tray, laden with orange juice, toast, fresh coffee. He got in beside her. ‘Ruth, you have your family here. I live alone in London. I travel to other countries.’

Ruth felt her heart contracting. I knew it, I knew it.

‘I am making movies.’

It gets worse. Ruth could not breath.

He put his arms around her. ‘I want you to come with me. Come to London, meet Marija.’

‘Teo, I would love to, but I’m afraid. Your life style . . . How would I fit in with the people?’

‘They would love you. But let me finish.’

‘Teo, you are a celebrity. I had no idea. Why haven’t I seen you in films?’

‘In Croatia, I was a famous actor. But it has never been the same since I left. I have respect, but I do not get big roles any more.’

‘I don’t mind now. I am tired. Acting no longer challenges me. Being with you, I realize, I want to stay home, develop my writing and my painting.’

‘So, you do paint.’

‘Yes. But I want to talk to you about your painting. I have been looking at what you have around the house, here, downstairs.’

That’s why it took him so long to get the coffee.

‘Do you have any more?’

‘Lots. But I’m not very good.’

‘I will speak to someone in London. I will arrange an exhibition.’

‘That’s very kind of you, Teo, but I don’t think anyone would be

‘I think your work is very good.’

So did the critics.

Wendy Freebourne is a psychotherapist and astrologer, writing short stories, poetry, non-fiction and a novel about relationships. She has had articles and poetry published in various magazines and anthologies. She lives with her cat, Ben, in Bath, UK and has two grown-up sons and a grandson, who she visits frequently in Southern Spain. She likes to read Carol Ann Duffy,Allen Ginsberg, Michael Ondaatje and Ian McEwan. Contact Wendy.

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