Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website

Julius Craister

Julius Craister felt in his pockets. He fumbled through the loose change; the odd bus ticket and bits of scrumpled paper. Nowhere could he feel the soft, comforting edges of his handkerchief.

His eyes watered with the anticipated sneeze and he held his breath, hopeful of averting the inevitable. With a sound like thunder the sneeze crashed down through his sinuses and escaped his nostrils like a hurricane roaring to its destination.

He was mortified.

Hastily bringing his arm to his nose he gazed surreptiously around him. His nearest neighbours at the bar were all staring studiously ahead, obviously bent on ignoring his outburst altogether.

Looking into the mirrored glass that reflected all around him, his eyes swept the room. With the odd exception, his sneeze appeared to have gone unnoticed. All the occupants of the booths and tables seemed wrapped in their own little worlds and mentally, he heaved a sigh of relief. He would just have to pay a visit to the gents and get a wad of tissue. He knew from endless past experience that one sneeze usually presaged several others.

Carefully he aligned his small glass of scotch on the cardboard coaster and, glancing nonchalantly around, was just about to make his exit when his shoulders itched with the feeling that he was being stared at; stared at intently. A quick survey revealed no such person but still the feeling persisted and a second perusal of the room brought him up sharp by contact with a pair of deep brown eyes at the end of the bar.

She was small, dark short cut hair with a fringe that descended to her well- shaped brows. The features of her face were equally small, sharply but pleasantly delineated and overall, dominated by her huge dark eyes.

‘I could lose myself in those eyes’ he thought ‘and never care if I ever found the way out again’.

His gaze traversed the curve of her shapely neck. Her dress was red; some sort of soft material that clung and flowed to the outline of her shapely form. He realised with a start that she was alone.

And she was looking at him.

And why not?

He wasn’t such a bad looking fellow after all. True, his hair was beginning to recede at the temples but everyone said that only made him look more distinguished and the rest of him was still in pretty good shape.

He knew from his bathroom mirror and scales that, for forty- two years of age, he looked as good as he had at thirty- two. And what age was she? He found it impossible to calculate.

That was the trouble with women. She could be anything from nineteen to thirty three. She appeared to him to be one of those women who never seemed to change for long periods of time. He had met them many times before, but always they were spoken for.

He had become conscious that people at the bank were beginning to wonder why he wasn’t married. If he were to advance his career beyond that of Assistant Manager, it would be well if he began to look for a wife. With the new Manager due to take over tomorrow he would need to begin making an impression for the good.

He was filled with worry about the new Manager. No one knew anything about him; except his name. L.K. Darrow. Even his name sounded, sharp, sophisticated, up- to -the minute. ‘No doubt he was able to cope with anything and everything with a snap of his manicured fingers’ he thought sourly.

Head Office had made the appointment out of the blue. He had rather hoped he might be in line for it himself. He sighed heavily. He comforted himself with the thought that maybe he was still a bit young for the position. After all Haycroft hadn’t made Manager until he was fifty-three so there was time for him yet.

He felt quite cheered by this thought until he remembered that Haycroft had been married. The bank looked for stability in spite of the rush for modernisation. He shrugged. He would just try to forget it for the time being.

He brightened.

At least his musings seemed to have averted the onslaught of sneezing.

He nursed his drink and let his eyes wander down the bar. He fidgeted on the bar- stool. He brooded on the dark haired woman. He felt his toes tingle. A sure sign that he was really interested. Her mouth looked so pleasant. He was certain although he could not have said why, that he would be able to get on with her.

She was looking at him again.

Surely her mouth was curving into a pleasing smile. Strangely he felt warmth creep over and through him but perhaps it was only the scotch. But no, she was indeed smiling at him. She obviously hadn’t been put off by his sneeze.

He contemplated the situation.

Should he approach her, or should he let her make the first move? His experience with women had taught him that whatever you did would most likely be wrong. If you make a motion towards them they invariably called you a ‘stereotyped male chauvinist.’ If you didn’t, then they would smile contemptuously at you and name you ‘a wimp’. What to do? What to do?

He picked up his drink and eyed her over the rim of the glass.

She was still looking at him – staring at him in fact. He began to preen mentally inside his head. Why shouldn’t she look at him? There was after all, very little in the male stakes line in the bar to compare with him. Even with the sneeze.

Thinking of that, he felt the first, faint tickle that he knew announced the beginning of another. He began to panic whilst struggling to maintain his cool exterior.

Should he go to the gents and get some tissue? If he did, would she still be here when he got back? More to the point, would she still be interested? Of would she have gone, tired of his lack of action?

The bar stool pressed into his haunches as his muscles tensed with indecision. It had all seemed so comfortable just a short time ago. The bar, the ambience, the scotch. Almost he began to resent her presence.

He brushed the top of his head casually with his hand and, just as casually, brought it down to his face and pinched his nostrils fiercely to prevent the sneeze. His eyes watered with the self-inflicted pain and he gulped the remains of his drink rapidly.

The fierce heat of the scotch took him by surprise and he began to choke. He snorted in his anxiety to remain quiet and the think skin of his nose began to quiver. He held his breath; his hand clenched the glass until his knuckles whitened.

He braced his feet rigidly on the bar rail, his whole being consumed with only one idea, one desire – to remain quiet, to remain attractive. He bit his lip in an agony for forthcoming embarrassment.

The turmoil inside his chest and nose would brook no stoppage. His elbows clamped on the firm wood of the bar, he pressed his lips together. His face reddened furiously and he could no longer contain it. He gave up the struggle and surrendered miserably to the demands of his body.

His being exploded with the ferocity of a volcano, his arms flying out involuntarily, knocking his own glass and that of his neighbour (a portly gentleman of some sixty years or so) flying. The portly gentleman’s glass shot down the end of the bar and landed neatly in the lap of the dark haired woman in red.

His own glass clattered to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. The noise of its shattering was as noting compared to the explosion of his sneeze which echoed around the bar, reverberating – at least it seemed so to him – a million times off the mirrors, the glasses and any other surface the noise could bounce off.

As his body convulsed helplessly, he watched the startled faces of the entire room stare at him as if he were some alien creature. Tears ran down his cheeks. He was gripped in the fury of his sneeze and he opened his mouth for air, feeling to his horror; the onset of yet another one. He could not control any facet of his body and his one overweening desire was to die instantly on the spot.

The crack and snap of his second sneeze bent him double at the waist until his brow touched the wooden surface of the bar.

Behind him he could hear the nervous laughter of the other patrons and he was aware that the portly gentleman had moved quickly away from his side. He was alone in his devastation and anguish. He thought he might never raise his head again and as the shudderings of his body subsided, he devoutly hoped that he would be blind; that he would never have to see the disgust on anyone’s face.

A hand touched him gently on the shoulder.

He raised his head, startled. She was there! Beside him!

He took in her neat, compact form, her dark, beautiful eyes and was completely tongue-tied. She held something white in her hand that she was apparently proffering to him.

‘Here. Take this. I always carry a spare.’

Gratefully he clutched the handkerchief she offered and noted how huge his hand seemed next to her small, white one. He shook his head vigorously, wiped his face and nose and smoothed his hair. He folded the handkerchief and tentatively held it out towards her. She gestured with her hand.

‘No that’s alright. Truly, I don’t need it.’

He rose from his seat to thank her.

‘Let me buy you a drink and try to apologise for all the disturbance I’ve caused.’

A smile curved her lips and his heart skipped a beat at the sight of it. He was sure he was falling in love.

He glanced around the room. He noted with relief that all the other occupants were now completely ignoring him. The excitement was over and they were all busily immersed back in their own lives. Peerhaps it was not too late to retrieve the situation. He smiled back at her.

‘Actually’ she said ‘I came here to buy you a drink.’

He looked at her, puzzlement showing in his face.

‘They told me at the bank you usually came here for lunch. I thought it might be a nice way to get to know each other. You know, informally so to speak.’

He stared at her bewildered. ‘What on earth was she talking about?’

She held out her hand.

‘I’m Lisa Kendall Darrow. L K Darrow – the new Bank Manager.’

She regarded him quizzically and once what she had said had penetrated his brain, he wished the floor would open and swallow him or at the very least, a small volcano erupt directly beneath him.

To think he had thought she might be interest in him – and she was – although not for the reasons he had hoped for. His humiliation was now complete.

She placed her hand on his arm.

‘Why don’t we sit down? Have a drink and get to know each other. I’m sure we’ll find we have a lot in common.’

Hopefully he stared at her. How strange she should say that. It was what he had felt himself; that they would have a lot in common.

And how delightfully her nose was wrinkling. Her eyes twinkled and seemed even more luminous. Her mouth opened slightly, revealing a small pink tongue. Her nostrils flared and she clutched at his sleeve convulsively. He began to be alarmed.

Her head went down and she shook it from side to side. The explosive sound of her sneeze took him by surprise as she scrabbled in her handbag and surfaced with a white handkerchief, the mate of that which she had given him. She buried her face in it and strange little noises issued from her. Noises he was entirely familiar with.

When she raised her face he saw that she was laughing. He began to laugh too. People around them began to laugh and suddenly the world seemed very bright to him.

Gallantly he took her arm.

‘Shall we retire to a booth where we can get to know each other and sneeze in privacy while we do so?’

‘Oh I’d like that a lot’ she said ‘Id really like that a lot.’

Sandra Shippy