© Timothy Saint
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‘Solomon Says’ is a collection of Modern Morality Tales comprising twenty short stories, each inspired by an Old Testament quotation from the Book of Proverbs – traditionally supposed to have been penned by King Solomon. All the stories are posted on YWO.
SOLOMON SAYS: I Should Have Told Her (revised)
A Short Story – 3,600 Words
I first set eyes on Chloe Chisholm in the spring of 1999. To be more precise, I set eyes on her hair. It was the beginning of the spring semester and we were in Lecture Theatre number Two, the orange flip-up seats banked up in a semi-circle under the bright spotlights. I was seated about four rows behind and to the left of her. I don’t know much about women’s hair now, and I knew less back then. I couldn’t even say what colour it was - only that it was the sort of brown that is warm, soft and inviting. It seemed to brush the shoulders of her light-woollen jumper without touching. It shone as if washed in spring-water; each strand appearing individually visible and glistening.
Wow, hair like that, she’s just got to be stunning, I thought.
I nudged Kev.
“Who’s that?” I whispered.
“Who’s what?” replied my study-buddy, drinking partner and best friend at Uni.
“That girl.” I inclined my head towards her. “The one with the hair.”
Kev glanced up from his notes.
“They’ve all got hair, matey,” he said. “That’s how you know they’re chicks.”
I realised I’d have to find out for myself. At the end of the lecture we filed out of the theatre. I managed to get as close to her as possible. Which wasn’t as close as I’d liked to have got. But it was close enough to confirm my hypothesis, as we students liked to say at the time. Not only a lovely face, but a perfect body to go with it.
Somebody shouted to her in the throng.
“Coffeeshop, Chloe? Coffee and a Danish. On me!”
Chloe. The name seemed perfect. It went with her and it went with her beautiful hair. She turned and moved toward the voice, the books in her arms folded against her chest as she edged her way through the melee. The crowd parted to let her pass and, for a moment, she was within touching distance. And talking distance.
In that moment a dozen different salutations ran through my mind. A dozen follow-up lines which introduced myself and ended with a confirmed date that evening hovered around my own lips. I thought I’d tell her how much I liked her hair and how good we would be together – if we could just get past the awkward greeting and swapping personal details phase of our relationship. Our eyes met … almost. She moved on, just a hint of jasmine left floating in the air. The words froze in my mouth; my tongue a dead-weight of gristle lying lumpen and useless behind my teeth. God, I fancied Chloe Chisholm and I should have told her. But I couldn’t.
At that stage I didn’t even know her full name. I was pretty sure she was, like myself, a second-year student but didn’t think our paths had crossed often; either on campus or in lectures. I was soon able to track down some details. She was an Information Technology major and was only taking Sociology as a minor subject. That explained why I didn’t know her. This college specialises in Social History, Social Economics and Social just-about-everything so, even as a Sociology major myself, it came as no surprise our modules seldom coincided.
From that time on, my vigilance was exemplary. I watched for her in the refectory, the coffee bar and the Junior Common Room. I prowled the corridors and the campus paths. I hung about in the library, criss-crossing the matrix of gunmetal-grey bookshelves and sidling into the ‘quiet areas’ hoping to catch her at an opportune moment - my introductory remarks rehearsed and ready for the moment she fixed me with those … I didn’t even know, at that time, what colour her eyes were.
Thursday mornings at ten o’clock provided me with my best opportunity to ‘accidentally’ bump into Chloe. Our shared Sociology module. Except she always managed to be several rows in front of me and always surrounded by a phalanx of friends - both female and male.
Chloe was one of those attractive girls whose personality seemed to act as a magnet, and I only ever saw her in the centre of an admiring throng. I contrived to sit as close to her as possible, and once spent a pleasurable hour within touching distance of that wonderful soft, clean hair. That I fought down an almost overpowering urge to touch it, to run my fingers through it, lean forward and press my face against it to see if it smelt as good as it looked was, I believe, only to my credit.
That was the nearest I got to getting to know Chloe that spring. It was a semester in which I achieved academically, but failed in my quest to let her know I existed. The summer vacation beckoned, and the idea of spending ten weeks at home in Kent with no Chloe to watch out for, loomed like something akin to a prison sentence. It passed however, as time always does, and I had my next chance early in the autumn semester. Chloe Chisholm, joy of joys, turned up in the Students’ Union bar one evening. As an habitué of the Union bar I knew both the regulars and the irregulars - and the lovely Chloe was neither.
She and her friends eschewed the dubious pleasures of the campus facilities for the pubs, clubs and bright lights that our East Midlands university town provided in ample quantity. This was a lifestyle my own circle of friends found inviting but, under cover of the ‘assignments to get finished’, ‘reading to catch up on’ and ‘microfiche library machine-time booked’ excuses, we rarely got further than the Swamp.
There, surrounded by fly-speckled posters which ranged from modern art to gothic horror, taking in Indie rock and Manchester United on the way, we drank copious amounts of beer and practised being nihilistic in a middle-class way. We used words like ‘eschewed’ and reinforced the bonding which held our macho culture together.
Of course the real reason we clung to the students’ bar was that we had little idea how to chat up women - and even less idea of how to get started.
So to find Chloe sitting in a corner of the bar one October night not only set my pulse racing, but brought back all the feelings I had been at pains to suppress; knowing my chances of ever being a candidate for her affections were on a par with my playing centre-forward for Spurs. The ambience within our bar, aside from the musty smell of beer-soaked carpet, can only be described as gloomy, but Chloe illuminated it. Her beauty seemed to radiate in a way that lit up the space around her. The feeble lights glowing in the ceiling caught in the silkiness of her hair producing something which, to me, looked like a halo. True, she was with a set of people I hadn’t seen before, but in my naïve way I didn’t preclude the possibility she might glance across the room and, catching my eye, fall in love with me.
“Kev,” I said under my breath, “Chloe’s in.”
Kev, who was well-acquainted with my obsession, looked up from his pint of bitter. Years later I would always remember Kevin Hitchcock with his head bent either over a sociology textbook or a pint of John Smith’s.
“I s’pose you think she’s about to fall in love with you?” he said in his Welsh drawl.
“Course I don’t, you prat,” I said. “I was just wondering where those bozos have sprung from?”
He squinted in the dim light.
“Not from round here, matey. Can’t say I like the look of ‘em much.”
He returned his attention to his drink. Her friends, I was sure, were not from the college; they looked older and more worldly-wise than Chloe, and her easy way with them gave me my first misgivings about the way she was living her life.
I have no right to lecture anybody about their drinking habits. My whole time at college was lubricated in no uncertain degree by alcoholic beverages that were many and varied. I was a student - it is expected. However, the noise emanating from Chloe’s group had that raucousness which spoke of forced jollity; alcohol-fuelled rather than the laughter which springs from pleasure in each other’s company.
“I’m going to see if can get closer to their table,” I informed Kev.
I hoped to get some moral support. It wasn’t forthcoming. He didn’t look up from his drink.
“Get us another pint, matey, if you’re going anywhere near the bar.”
It came as no surprise that her companions were indeed quite well-oiled. Chloe was very drunk. I feared for her. I should have taken my courage in both hands. I should have risked blowing whatever slim chance I had of getting to know her. I was worried where her attraction to the bright lights and the party lifestyle was taking her. I wanted to tell her, and I should have told her. But I couldn’t.
I barely saw Chloe again before I graduated the following year. In part because our paths had been seldom likely to cross in the normal course of events. But I had an uncomfortable feeling that, were she on campus, the law of averages would have ensured more sightings than took place. My misgivings were strengthened when I failed to see her at either graduation ceremony or graduation ball.
Whispers reached my ear, like the far-off lapping of waves on a shore, that she had dropped out of college during her final year. Not being numbered amongst her inner circle of friends, I had no way to substantiate the truth of the rumours. So I picked up my graduation certificate, posed for the obligatory photograph and departed for a large Social Services department in a run-down London borough.
I returned to my alma mater nine months later. Kev, now involved in post-graduate studies, was happy to put me up in his cramped, scruffy flat. It was my first long period of leave from what was turning out to be a fascinating if arduous assignment in my new calling as a social worker. I spent a few days looking up old friends and reporting back to one or two tutors who had taken an interest in my progress. More a man of the world by this stage, I possessed the self-confidence that belonging to a profession and receiving a monthly salary cheque generated. Kev’s offer of an evening’s clubbing was both accepted and looked forward to.
My love life had, by this time, thrown off the gauche fumblings which had characterised my time at college. In as much as it had started. I had not forgotten Chloe but had been careful not to hold her up as an exemplar in my dealings with the opposite sex. I was aware I might never be able to reproduce the feelings she engendered in me. It was a secret source of pleasure to bring forward, on occasion, those memories. In general though, I felt it was prudent to keep them in a file labelled ‘Danger, youthful infatuation - do not enter!’
When I saw Chloe Chisholm in Maximillian’s that night my emotions were tipped into a maelstrom. Shock, hope, lust and - it has to be admitted - a little self-disgust at my own vulnerability, all did battle with one another. She stood, much as I last remembered seeing her, at the centre of a small crowd. It may have been the throbbing darkness of the club or the fact I had been away for so long, but I had to check twice before I was sure it was her.
I sought a second opinion.
“Kev. Hey, Kev!” I had to shout to make myself heard above the dinning music.
He raised an eyebrow. I pointed.
“That’s Chloe, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Still with the Chloe thing?” he shouted, smiling. “Enough, already!”
I was no longer in a party mood.
“It is, isn’t it?” I asked again.
“Yep, I’d say so. Lost some weight though, don’t you think?”
She was, indeed, thinner than I remembered. Her face showed more sharp angles, but that could have been due to the strobe lighting. Her hair was different though. It was longer and seemed ungroomed. It was tied up, but looked as if that had been the easiest option when preparing to go out.
What the nightclub’s various lighting sequences couldn’t disguise was the absence of lustre. The way Chloe’s hair glowed and shone was imprinted on my mind and I would have recognised it anyplace, anytime. It was gone. The men gathered around Chloe were older than those who had visited the Swamp so many months before. They were smartly dressed but something about them made me feel uncomfortable.
“Pretty rough-looking bunch,” Kev observed.
He was right. An air of sleaze permeated by a hint of menace was as near as I could get to identifying it. Kev agreed.
“Just you go careful, matey,” he said.
I shook my head, annoyed he seemed to be reading my mind, but glad of his large, unkempt presence.
I pulled myself together. We were in our mid-twenties. Adults had to live their own lives. Not only was Chloe nothing to do with me but, in truth, never had been. We lived in different worlds and had our separate pathways to follow.
But I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Trying not to ignore my own friends and doing my best to enjoy my night out, my gaze kept returning to Chloe and her group. Her facial expressions were difficult to discern in the darkness, but her body language spoke of tiredness and languor. She wasn’t dancing. It was almost as if she was there but not there. Even when one of the men hugged her and lifted her off the ground, as if she were a feather-weight, she seemed not to react. Not for the first time I feared for her.
I knew I ought to say something. I almost felt we had, in some strange way, been in a relationship of sorts since that long ago Sociology lecture. I felt I owed Chloe some sort of interference. Just as a friend.
“What d’you think, Kev?” I yelled over the music, desperate for some input, a point of view.
Kev was huddled in conversation with one of our group, discussing the relative merits of Honda Gold Wings and Harley Davidson Electra Glides. He seemed reluctant to tear himself away from the subject of touring motorcycles.
“Let it go, matey,” was his advice.
My chance came an hour later. I hadn’t seen Chloe for a while and needed to use the men’s room. I went through the door marked Maxies and Moxies and found myself in a bright corridor. The white-tiled walls and antiseptic smell seemed far removed from the multicoloured noise and mingling of perfumes and aftershaves. At the far end stood Chloe, slumped against the wall. A man in an expensive-looking leather jacket turned from her and brushed past me as he made his way back to the pounding beat of the dance floor. Under the fluorescent glare I could see Chloe’s face was white and had the beginnings of a haggard quality. A wrap of paper protruded from her fingers.
With an effort she straightened and, as she did so, looked into my eyes. Blue. Her eyes were blue. Was that the first time she had ever looked at me? I wasn’t sure. My attention was taken by the pale substance which clung to her right sleeve. I realised with revulsion it was vomit. I returned her gaze but she looked right through me. Wherever her mind was it was over some far horizon - one in which the figure of a slightly earnest social worker didn’t figure.
I wanted to tell Chloe that whatever demons she had within, whatever was driving her toward self-destruction could be addressed. I could steer her in the direction of any number of agencies who could help overcome her substance abuse, its underlying causes and any practical problems her downward spiral was creating. I wanted to tell her she could resume her education. I wanted to reassure her that the happy carefree student I had not dared talk to in a college lecture theatre could be resurrected.
And most of all I wanted to make Chloe believe the once beautiful sheen could be restored to her hair. I wanted to. Her dull eyes unseeing, Chloe walked past me as if I wasn’t there. I opened my mouth to speak and knew this might be my last chance. I know I should have told her. But I couldn’t.
I didn’t sleep much that night. Nor the next. I returned to my new life in London unaware I would only see Chloe once more. It happened two years later. Following the completion of a specialist qualification, I returned to that East Midlands town where my tertiary education and a beautiful girl called Chloe Chisholm were inextricably linked. My meeting with the director of the Social Services Outreach Project was scheduled for nine o’clock. When I walked through the front door of the run-down building which housed the department, there was only one person in the shabby waiting room.
The gaunt figure which looked up as I entered the room was unquestionably Chloe. Beneath the pallor and the pain etched onto her face, the pretty features which had once captivated me were still visible. Her thin, bruised legs stuck out from beneath a cheap skirt. Her stick-like arms were wrapped around her upper body as if to warm it. Or protect it. She rocked as she contemplated me, a forlorn waif. And the saddest thing of all was her hair. The wonderful shine had long since disappeared and had been replaced by long, lank tresses; dirty and uncared for.
The silence seemed to press in from all sides, the only noise a staccato ticking from a flickering fluorescent overhead. The tatty public information posters which covered every wall and the faint tang of disinfectant served only to depersonalise the room.
I don’t know how long this frozen tableau lasted; the wretched addict looking up at the stranger. She had no idea who I was. If she ever had. It occurred to me that I’d never heard her speak. Had she only ever been an unattainable fantasy figure? I couldn’t say. I only knew that, for the first time, I had Chloe to myself. No crowd of boisterous students bumping and barging, keen to get to their next seminar. No crowd of upwardly mobile cohorts giggling and swapping notes about the new bar, the new club, the next party. No shady hard-faced men in sharp clothes and designer sunglasses who knew which bouncers to tip. Just Chloe and me. After all this time. She continued to stare at me, eyes enormous in her thin face.
My own life had moved on by this stage. I had a partner, a mortgage and many of the other trappings of modern adulthood. I hadn’t thought about Chloe in any detail for a long time; in fact, I mourned the loss of my best friend more. Kev had returned to his native Cardiff one weekend to act as best man at his brother’s wedding. Their city centre stag night had ended with a senseless attack outside a kebab shop and Kevin had died from his injuries. The shambling, untidy Welshman, his bluff blokiness hiding a big, kind heart, had left a gap in the lives of everyone who knew him. I missed him.
And now here was Chloe, waiting for me to say something. All the feelings came rushing back. As fresh and as real as the day something within my soul conceived them. The something within which she - and only she - had been able to touch in that way.
I wanted to tell her I loved the way her hair shone and the way that, although it moved as one when she turned her head, you could see each individual strand moving. I wanted to tell her I was sure things would have turned out differently if I’d had the courage to approach her. In the lecture theatre, in the Student’s Union bar, in the nightclub. Especially in the nightclub. I wanted to tell her that in my fantasies I saved her from herself and we both graduated as talented young professionals and got good jobs. Me in social work and her in computers. But most of all I wanted to tell her I was sure I loved her - and had done so since the first moment I saw her.
She looked at me. I thought of all the times when I should have told her, but couldn’t bring myself to do so. A door slammed somewhere within the building. The wasted girl in the charity shop clothes jumped. The tableau was broken. I looked at my watch and walked past her. She dropped her gaze to the raw fingers twining and untwining in her lap. It was my very last chance to tell her. I should have told her. But I didn’t.
Open rebuke is better than secret love.
- Proverbs, 27:5