Playing It Safe

Rex/Shutterstock © Handsome man sitting at bar Pic: Rex/Shutterstock, Mandy Dixon


Who was this strange woman and why was she tailing me every Sunday?

I looked away the first time.

I saw her. She’d smiled at me, but brief encounters of the casual kind have never been my style, especially not in parks on sunny spring mornings.

In my experience, solitary women with friendly smiles often stop to talk, and it was my luck to be born with the kind of face that looks… I suppose “welcoming” is one way to describe it.

I’m a journalist, and on this particular Sunday I needed to work out my column for Tuesday’s paper. I do my best thinking in parks.

As the woman moved away, I glanced at her briefly. Mid-thirties, with a pert, intelligent look. If I hadn’t had other plans, I’d have stopped.

Instead, I sorted out my thoughts about the column and headed for lunch at the Hog’s Head Arms.

“Your usual, is it, Ian?”

The landlord, Harry, had known me since before Morag left me. I’d hoped to marry her one day, but out of the blue she’d announced that I was too predictable for her taste. Perhaps she was right – though at the time I’d resented her judgment. There’d been no-one since Morag.

I made for a table in the corner, swept away a few crumbs and sat down. The Hog’s Head isn’t the Ritz, but it suits me.

Harry went off to fetch beer and a ploughman’s. By the time he came back I was deep in Sunday’s paper, which is probably why I paid no attention when a smart black coat swished past my table.

It wasn’t until I’d finished lunch that I took time to inspect my surroundings. The woman from the park was seated across from me, sipping something pink and probably revolting. She raised her glass in a gesture of recognition.

I nodded and dipped back behind my paper. When I laid it down half an hour later, she’d gone.

The following Sunday she was in the park again, strolling past daffodils in full bloom. I don’t know if she smiled because I avoided looking at her. I do know she followed me to the Hog’s Head, where I continued to ignore her.

I didn’t mean to be rude – just private – and I wasn’t comfortable being trailed by this persistent stranger.

The pattern was repeated the next Sunday, and when I went for lunch she followed me again. I tried to concentrate on my paper but found I couldn’t.

Since Morag left I seemed to have become what estate agents call “a desirable property”. Friends kept introducing me to unattached women, who usually felt as awkward as I did.

Alright, so my face didn’t resemble ripe Gorgonzola and I was gainfully employed, but that hardly made me Catch of the Day. Until Morag came along, most of the time my dogs and my work had been enough.

Now I was single again, I’d turned to the easy familiarity of my job, my books and two rather overweight beagles who, at first, missed Morag as much as I did.

Recently I’d been congratulating myself that well-meaning friends had finally given up on my love life. Only now this woman from the park had turned up.

I peered over the top of my paper. Bad move…

She was staring straight at me. I turned to the financial section and waited ten minutes before risking another look.

This time when she saw me eyeing her she picked up her drink and came over to my table.

“Ian Campbell?” she asked, with a lift of shapely eyebrows.

I nodded. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Your picture’s on your column in the paper.”

“Oh. Right.”

Frustratingly, she took my tepid response as an invitation to sit down. Inwardly I sighed. Yet what could I say?

She smiled.

“I’m sorry if I’m intruding. My name’s Delilah Fox, by the way.”

“Oh, yes?” I replied, attempting to sound discouraging and polite at the same time. She responded with another disarming smile, so I added, “Is there a reason you’re following me, Ms Fox?”

“Delilah. And yes, there is. Have you ever heard of Planet Apollo?”

I had. Apollo’s was a fitness chain that catered mainly to health-conscious women. Morag had gone there for a while until someone told her only the healthy die young, and she’d given it up with relief.

I wondered if Delilah Fox thought my physique needed bulking up or something.

“Yes, I’ve heard of it,” I admitted.

“Good. I work for Sharp and Wolfe.” When I didn’t react, she added, “You know, the advertising people. We’re planning a nationwide campaign for the opening of Apollo’s new chain of unisex spas.”

I blinked. Were Sharp and Wolfe’s clients so desperate they had to drum up business in pubs?

“You’re confused, aren’t you?” Delilah took a sip of her pink drink. “The point is, we need a man and a woman to be the campaign’s public faces. We’ve signed the woman, but none of the men we’ve looked at have been right for us.”

“Yes?” Where was she going with this?

“So I think you may be just the face we’re looking for. You know, open, pleasant –”

“Safe,” I interrupted, with a grimace. “Welcoming.” And to think all this time I’d been imagining my masculine magnetism had attracted her. Served me right. I started to laugh.

“That’s right.” She beamed. “Safe. And healthy. Are you interested? We’d like to give you a test.”

“Is that why you were in the park? Trolling for talent?”

“Not at first, no. I often walk in the park. I noticed you but I didn’t speak because we’ve been looking at other possibilities. Unfortunately they haven’t worked out.”

She seemed to think that would encourage me. It didn’t…

“Thank you for the offer,” I said, “but I’m not the man you need.”

“Let me be the judge of that.” She leaned across the table to pat my hand. “Just think, you could be the toast of Britain. We’d make it worth your while.”

“You would?” I couldn’t believe this.

“Yes. Remember that coffee commercial featuring two lovers? They both became famous. This could change your life.”

“I’m flattered. Really. But I like my life the way it is.” I swallowed a last gulp of beer and rose to beat a retreat.

“Think about it, won’t you?” She handed me her business card. “You may change your mind.”

I was sure I wouldn’t but, to be fair to her, I did think about it – for at least thirty seconds.

The following Sunday I went early to the park. Delilah Fox wasn’t there. Even so, I decided not to risk the Hog’s Head and headed for the Happy Toad instead. The young woman who served me suggested shepherd’s pie.

I shook my head. “Any chance of a ploughman’s?”

She flashed me a harried smile and said she’d see what she could do. I felt vaguely guilty, without knowing why.

My ploughman’s, when it came, wasn’t up to the standards of the Hog’s Head, but she looked so anxious I told her it was fine.

“Oh, good.” She looked relieved. “I’ve never made one up before.”

“Doesn’t the cook do it?” My guilt escalated.

“Oh, no. We don’t usually serve ploughman’s, you see.”

“You made it for me specially?”

She nodded, twisting a faded pink apron around her fingers. Short fingers with unpolished nails.

“Thank you,” I said, meaning it. She had an appealing face. Not pretty, but bright, with a freckled nose and red hair.

“No trouble.” Her voice was bright too.

The next Sunday, Delilah Fox was again nowhere to be seen but I returned to the Happy Toad anyway. No point tempting fate.

“Can I buy you a drink?” I asked the red-haired server, who recognised me at once and told me her name was Janella.

“Oh, no! I can’t drink on the job.” She sounded shocked.

I nodded my understanding and reached for the paper. Funny, I hadn’t expected to feel disappointed.

“But I can sit for a bit, if you like.”

I put down the paper and grinned. “I do like. Very much.”

Janella perched on the bench beside me looking as if she might take flight at any moment. Not sure what to say but hoping to keep her there, I asked if she enjoyed her job. Luckily that broke the ice. She relaxed, and I soon learned that she was a graphic arts student working weekends.

“I’m hoping to get into advertising,” she explained.

That prompted me to tell her about Delilah Fox

“I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed. “Delilah approached me, too.”

I’d almost choked on a slice of Cheddar before I managed to blurt, “She did? You mean –”

“Yes. She thought I might be the right woman for her campaign.”

“And were you?”

She shook her head.

“No. I’m no actress, I’m afraid. Like you, I had to turn her down.”

For a moment our eyes met in stunned disbelief

Then both of us exploded into laughter – until I noticed the pub’s owner frowning at us from behind his counter. Janella saw him too and at once she stood up.

“Wait,” I said, standing too. “Can we talk more once you’ve finished here?”

She smiled, and I was about to suggest a time and place when I heard her gasp. Following the direction of her gaze, I saw a familiar black coat advancing purposefully to the bar.

“Delilah Fox,” we murmured in unison as we sank back onto the bench and, with one accord, reached for my discarded paper and ducked behind it.

As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. When I risked a look over the top of an editorial – dastardly doings in Whitehall, I think it was – Delilah was deep in conversation with a man who might have looked something like me if he hadn’t been a good five years younger.

By the time I left the pub after arranging to meet Janella later, I was pretty sure Apollo’s had their man.

Needless to say, I never did become the toast of Britain or the fitness crowd, although I did send Delilah Fox an email thanking her for her interest – and when Apollo’s new spas opened I wrote a glowing report on them for my paper. I owed her that much, since she’d been a hundred percent right about one thing…

Apollo’s did change my life – because I started seeing Janella, who the following year agreed to be my wife.

Look out for more springtime stories throughout April, published every Monday and Thursday.

Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me