The Substitute - Cover

The Substitute

by Denham Forrest

Copyright© 2010 by Denham Forrest

Romance Story: Arriving at Naples airport, a guy — with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder — unexpectedly runs into and old adversary, who has a little problem. The adversary needs help, so the guy decides to offer his assistance. But he intends that he will have a little fun — and get some payback -- at the same time. But things don't really turn out as he expected.

Tags: Romance   Melodrama  

Colloquial clarifications: Ha'p'orth = halfpennyworth; Sort (a Sort/ the Sort) = an attractive female; rabbit = in conversation; 'On a promise!' = ... bugger, surely you can work that one out for yourselves!

My appreciation and thanks go to Angelina, for her assistance with preparing this tale of woe for posting.

Sorry, another story that just kinda stops.

The Substitute

You know there are occasions in your life when you arrive at a moment, when your instincts are telling you that something is wrong, out of whack ... definitely not kosher. And you are clearly aware that if you had a ha'p'orth of sense in your head, you would flee, scarper; get the hell out of Dodge a bit sharpish, while the going is still good. Well, I got that instinctive feeling in my gut the instant I stepped through the arrivals gate at Naples airport that afternoon.

But then again, there's another side of human nature that is innately curious. That curiosity -- or maybe naivety, or could it even be stupidity -- is somehow persuading you to hang around, just long enough to figure out ... well, what the chuffin'-'ell is going down.

Odd things had been happening all morning, already that day. At the check-in at Gatwick, I'd spotted Billy Thornton – a fellow student from my college days -- up the front of queue and apparently also booking-in for the flight to Naples. I wasn't sure I wanted to renew our acquaintance, or fall into conversation with the bugger. But I really didn't have much choice; the sod recognised me the instant he turned away from the desk after collecting his boarding pass.

"Bloody hell, Kevin! How's it been going mate? I've been hearing great things about you; didn't you have an exhibition at some flash gallery up in town? Bit on the saucy side, from what I hear!"

"Hi, Bill. Yeah, I've had a few exhibitions. Sold enough of my work to keep the wolf from the door."

"So I've been hearing. Only good things, Kev; only good things! You off to Naples as well?"

"Well, why else would I be in the effing queue, you imbecile?" No, I didn't say that, but I definitely thought it. What I actually said was,

"Yeah, a little research trip down there, for a week or so. Nothing heavy, I've got a commission to do and I'm just going down there to soak up the ambiance for a few days. One has to get in the mood, you know."

"Oh yeah, I understand. You artistic types need to absorb the feel of the place, don't you?" Billy grinned back at me.

I very much doubted Bill Thornton had any idea of what I was talking about, but he made a good job of pretending he did.

"And you, Bill, why are you off to the boot?" I asked, in an attempt to move the philistine's subject of conversation away from me.

Look, I'd known Billy Thornton since college; the only form of art he appreciated was the brewer's.

"The boot? Oh yeah, Naples..." A grin came over Billy's face again; only this time, a very big and lecherous type grin, if you know what I mean? "Well, you see ... Oh god!"

Billy suddenly stopped speaking and inexplicably his expression turned very serious. He was thinking, that I could tell; I'd watched him enter more than one examination room back in our college days.

Then for a few seconds Billy's facial expression became unreadable. Then a few seconds later, a sly smile came over his face.

"Well, I was meeting a Sort down there ... But bugger-it, I can't ... Say, Kevin, exactly what are you going to be doing down in Naples?"

"Just milling around and soaking up the atmosphere, I told you."

"So, no business meetings and all that malarkey?"

"Billy, I'm an artist; I work alone. Why are you so interested?"

"Oh, nothing really, it was just..." Billy faltered; for a moment it looked like I'd stumped him with that question, but then he suddenly went on. "Well, I thought that maybe we might possibly get together for a drink or something down there, but ... But we can't now, I just got a message and I can't go anymore."

"Message, when?"

"While you were checking-in ... I got a text from the office. Seems the buggers can't do without me back there and I'm needed in a hurry. Look, give me your mobile number Kevin? And if I do get down in the next few days, I'll give you a call?"

All very unconvincing, I thought. I hadn't noticed Billy with a phone in his hand. But then can't say that I'd been watching while I was checking-in. Anyway, I'd always considered Billy Thornton to be a bit of a disorganised scatterbrain back at college, why should I suspect he'd changed. Whatever before I got the chance to ask him any more questions, Billy said that he had to go, and dashed off to retrieve his luggage.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't ... If I got the chance?" Were his last words.

I doubt he heard me reply. "Some hopes!"

More than a little confused, I watched the bugger for a few seconds as he ... well argued with the woman on check-in and I suppose he eventually got his bags back from her. Then I ... er, got lost in the crowd.

But then, very strangely ... well, I'm not too sure ... but for a moment, I thought I caught sight of the bugger as I went through the departure gate. Well, the guy did have his back to me, and was talking on a mobile phone at the time. But for life of me, I would have sworn that it was Billy Thornton; so much for his need to hurry back to his office.

I'll admit that I was just a little concerned. Billy Thornton hadn't run with the best of crowds back in our college days. Nothing serious that I was aware of; but you never know in this day and age. By that time Billy could have been into anything ... drug or cigarette smuggling, or anything. And ... if he was being watched by the authorities? Well, they might have seen us talking together on the concourse.

Yeah, maybe that was the reason for Billy's sudden and confusing change of plans. Perhaps he'd spotted someone tailing him. I think my mind was running riot as I took my seat on the plane.

Whatever, the flight itself was uneventful.

I must have been one of the last passengers on my flight to exit the gate that day. Chiefly because -- as is its usual wont -- my luggage had gone AWOL. I have no idea why, but my bags have acquired the somewhat frustrating habit of going the long way round. But for some reason they are always the last ones to arrive at baggage claim.

It's always same when I fly, and I suppose it always will be. By that time in my life, I'd got to the point that I wouldn't go near an airport baggage carousel until nearly everyone else had collected their bags and gone.

I know, I know, frequent travellers will ask me what I'm complaining about, at least my bags do turn up at the same airport as myself ... eventually. Some poor buggers arrive in one country and find that their luggage is not just in another country, but often on a different continent; that's of course assuming that the airline ever finds their bags again. At least my luggage gets lonely and it has always arrived on the right carousel – but as I said -- eventually.

Anyway, it is my habit -- when I arrive in the baggage claim hall -- to I find a quiet corner where I stand and read for a while until the frantic mob has dispersed. Well, why struggle in the expectant crush by the carousel, when you know that your suitcase will still be enjoying its own little private tour of the airports luggage handling facilities, to ensure that it will be the very last one to come up the elevator, down the bleeding chute, or whatever.

Then, having at last retrieved my bag, I go to the immigration and customs desks etcetera, and then head for the exit; expecting soon to be basking in the warm Italian sunshine.

That day the crowd of people who are always milling around waiting to meet friends and loved ones outside the arrivals gate had almost completely dispersed by the time I stepped out onto the airport's main concourse, all-but alone.

I must have glanced around the expanse to get my bearings -- it had been sometime since I'd visited Naples -- and that was the moment that I got my first inkling that everything weren't as I'd expected, or would have wished.

I don't know what drew my attention the far side of the expansive area; but there she was, talking with a group of other people.

I suppose I did a quick double take, as one tends to do in the circumstances, but I pretty soon convinced myself that standing, talking with a group of other people on the far side of the arrivals hall was a female who I more than vaguely recognised.

I'm still not completely sure why I noticed her. Maybe it was the fact that, on spying me, she'd instantly detached herself from the party she was with and headed in my direction; with a big -- and dangerous looking -- smile on her face.

I think I must have stopped in my tracks. I know that I took a quick glance behind me to check that it was actually me she was walking towards, and not some other late arrival.

But sod-it, no! There was no handsome bugger following me through the gate.

Almost instantly -- it took a few moments to get over the shock of seeing her -- three questions jumped into my mind.

The first, "What the chuffing-'ell is Melanie Frobisher doing here?"

The second, "Why the chuffing-'ell is she heading my way?"

And thirdly, and probably more confusing -- and worrying -- than the other two, "Why the fuck is she walking towards me with a bleeding great smile on her face?"

I suppose I'd better explain a little. I'd known Melanie Frobisher since we had both been about four or five-year-olds, and ... Well to be honest -- as I had it figured -- the bitch wouldn't invite me to attend a funeral, if I were the last person left on the planet; unless it was my own funeral, of course. And then ... shit yeah, I would have imagined that the bitch would have happily paid for that bugger.

Not that I could ever understand why. But then again, Mel is of the female variety and I am a mere male; the gender they like to keep confused and totally nonplussed about the whys and wherefores, of everything they do.

Look, Melanie Frobisher and I go back almost to the year dot. We lived near to each other and we were in the same class all through nursery, primary, junior, and secondary schools. Eventually we even went to the same college; although we didn't in fact do the same courses; I was reading art and she studied ... oh 'eck, I have no idea what she studied ... how to be a real bitch, I should imagine; I weren't bloody interested by then. Anyway, in consequence of our different courses we saw little of each other around the campus.

For the greater part of our younger life, Mel and I had got along okay; well, I always thought we had. To be honest, for a long time, I had thought we were quite good friends. I even had some tentative aspirations for when we got a little older forming in the back of my mind ... But ... Yeah well, I'd had failed to take into account that Mel was a female of the species, where as I ... yeah well, I'd have thought that was obvious. And ... well, female brains don't work the same way as guy's brains do, do they?

From a young age, Mel and some of her girlfriends – mainly because they lived local, I'd thought -- had taken to tagging along behind my group of mates and myself. Even, volunteering to make up the numbers in more than the odd football and cricket team as time went on. Bugger, as I recall, for a while there, Mel was dab 'and with a cricket bat, and she could have taught some of the lads on the school football teams a thing or two about tackling.

The boys and I kinda accepted the girls hanging around because ... Oh bugger, you know, I really don't know why our little gang was mixed gender, when most of the other gangs of kids around our way, were strictly segregated, gender-wise.

Well, until the teenage years -- and puberty raised its ugly head -- that remained the status quo, each of those five girls were kinda treated like one of the boys. Excepting of course that they tended to wear skirts and kinda roped some of us guys in for to going to their stupid birthday parties and the like; where we have to play silly games with them, like Postman's Knock etcetera.

I can recall that most of the guys found the games embarrassing, until puberty began to pay them a call, and then -- very suddenly -- the girls didn't seem to want to play anymore. Or rather as the boys developed some enthusiasm for the games -- Postman's Knock in particular -- some of the girls started to get a little choosey about which boys they played it with.

I think it was about the time puberty raised its ugly head that I started to find that Melanie and I, didn't get on so well.

Well, to be honest with you, you could say that us boys in the gang began to get a little ... frustrated with the some of the female associate members.

As I recall now, it went a little like this. When we all reached about twelve or thirteen years old, some other lads -- a year or so older -- began to ... I don't know, I suppose you could say they'd hang around our little crowd. Hey, the gang was never a closed shop, if you understand me, it was mostly just a group of kids who lived quite close to each other, hung around, and played sports together regularly.

But these new arrivals appeared to be more interested in ... well, chatting to Mel and the others girls, than playing footy or cricket with the lads. Look it's pretty frustrating as a bowler, when you bowl a batsman a good one and he hits an easy catch; but then you find that the fielder -- who should be in the right spot take the bloody thing -- is standing there giggling with one of the girls. Or rather, she's giggling away at his stupid jokes.

You could say that our little close knit gang of regular friends began to break-up around that time. Well, the girls' sort-of began to drift away anyway for at least some of the time. Very often as we made our way home from school, one or two of the girls would be missing. Most often to be spotted walking -- and giggling -- with a couple of the new hangers-on, if you understand me.

Sometimes they were even spotted holding hands with them as well. A cause for much ribbing, the following day at school

It was about the same time as all that began to happen, that I first figured that I'd done something to piss-off Melanie, big time. But I had no idea what at the time, and I still hadn't the day I stepped through that arrivals gate at Naples airport that day.

But as time progressed there was couple of things about her general demeanour -- where I was concerned -- that kinda told me that I had seriously transgressed in some way.

Hey, even as little kid's, we mere males always know when we have transgressed or done something to upset a female. Oh yeah, they make damned sure you know! Often we have no idea what we've done, but they make damned sure with know we've don't something, whatever it was. It must a hereditary skill they are all born with.

Of the five girls, Mel and Susan always were ... well to be honest, I'd say they were just a little prettier than the other three. Not that any of us boys would actually dare say so -- to any of the girls -- at the time. Even as small children, we instinctively knew that such discussions were strictly taboo. One slip in that direction and then the jealousy worm raises its head, and the next thing you know all out war has broken out.

Hey, looking back all five girls were pretty little things, but I think I'm safe in saying that Melanie and Susan stood out from the crowd. It was mainly Susan and Mel, that those older boys were usually sniffing around anyway. Hoping they were going to get lucky I always imagined; going by the general conversation in the sports changing rooms around that time.

Well, come on, you didn't think I was that stupid did you? The rest of the guy's knew what those older boys game was, as well. It was just that our own hormones hadn't developed to the point that females took preference over football and cricket in our psyche yet.

That day raced up on us pretty quickly though. And maybe we had missed the boat, as they say; but that's life, ain't it?

Whatever, I think I can recall the day that Melanie first gave me 'that look'. You know, the expression on a female's face that tells you that you've transgressed in some unexplained way; even though you have no idea how.

Just that lunchtime, Melanie and I had been sitting in the school canteen together, and as I recall, we'd apparently been getting along fine; just as we always had.

As I recollect now, we were talking about Gail -- one of the other girls -- who had been off school for a week or so with the dreaded chickenpox. I do believe I'd said something about, maybe calling in to see Gail -- having suffered the scourge myself a year or so before, theoretically I was immune -- but Melanie had suggested that Gail's parents wouldn't like her to have any boy visitors when she was supposed to be confined to bed.

Some of the girls' parent's were a little funny about that kind of thing in those days. You know, they interpreted any boy that their daughter knew, as a prospective suitor but they considered that their daughter was far too young to have a boyfriend.

While Melanie and I were chatting, one of her (slightly older) would-be suitors joined us at our table, and – much to my surprise -- Melanie fell into conversation with him about ... Oh bugger, I can't recall what they talked about now; I wasn't in the slightest bit interested, anyway.

Mind you, I was probably annoyed that the bloke had joined us at our table uninvited. Most of the regular gang would ... Well, I don't know why really, but when Mel and I were chatting together, in private like ... Well, for some inexplicable reason, the rest of the gang would wait until Mel or I nodded to them, before they sat down. You know, they kinda waited until they were invited to join us. I have no idea why; but that was the way things had always been.

Whatever, I sat there that day and Mel was rabbiting away to the twerp, like there was no tomorrow. It's hard to recall exactly now, but I know I must have got a little pissed-off myself, because -- having finished my lunch -- I got up and returned my tray to collection point. Then, instead of returning to sit with Mel and the plonker -- I should imagine that I didn't want to listen to their inane soppy conversation anymore -- I went over and sat with some of our other friends.

Now I come to think of it, they were all a little surprised by my sudden appearance, that day. And to be honest with you the conversation there weren't much better, as I recall. The main topic of conversation appeared to be the upcoming school spring dance, and who was going to it with whom. Dancing not being my thing back then, I was more interested in the imminent cricket match with our schools main rivals for the District Cup.

Yeah well, the sporting side of my nature was still prominent back then. My artistic bent didn't really come to light until a year or so later, when I began to realise the beauty of ... No, I think you'll realise yourself exactly what I began to appreciate, as I got a little older. And what was to prove to be the driving force that brought my artistic side to the fore.

Anyway a few minutes after I'd joined the gang – probably when someone had moved the conversation back to that damned dance evening again -- I happened to glance in Mel's general direction, and -- just for an instant -- locked eyes with her. That was the first time I can recall that she gave me ... well, 'the look!' An expression that I was to become very familiar with, and one that told me that ... Oh shit, I've no idea what it told me; besides, maybe, "Get lost!"

On our way home from school that evening -- Melanie and Susan being conspicuous by their absence -- I came across Mel and the twerp -- standing outside her front gate; probably making soppy-talk again.

That was it, really. Although to all intent and purposes she was chatting with the twerp, I had noticed that Melanie was watching intently, as my two friends and I approached.

Maybe a little annoyed that I'd been -- all but -- snubbed, or pushed out of the conversation that lunch time, I purposely made sure that I didn't lock eyes with Mel again as we got close. Actually I didn't even call out "Hi!" to Mel and the twerp, when my two friends did.

But out, of the corner of my eye, I saw that expression come over Melanie's face for the second time.

To this day I can't describe it, but I've seen that same expression on many female faces over the years. All I can tell you about it is, that when you see that expression, or 'the look' on a woman's face, then ... Hey shit, are you in trouble!

I'm sure many of you guys -- especially the married ones -- will know 'the look' I mean -- or at least the more observant of you will – females use it all the time. No words are necessary; everyone knows that whoever is on the receiving end of 'the look' is in trouble and for the 'high jump' when his other-half gets him home, or somewhere private.

Anyway that was the first time that I could recall Mel giving me 'the look'; even if she didn't see that I'd been aware she'd thrown it my way a second time that day. Over the following couple of years I'd find Melanie giving me that look, more and more often. Very often in fact when she was ostensibly chatting with one of her many suitors or, if I was with Gail.

I told you that Mel had always been a pretty child; as the months and years rolled by, she developed into ... yeah well a real cracker; she kinda developed a large (hopeful) entourage of male admirers, who trailed around behind her wherever she went, as well!

Ah yeah, you spotted the mention of Gail, didn't you? Well you see, Gail and I kinda gravitated together. Once the old hormones had really kicked in, so to speak; both Gail and I found that we had something to take into account that most of the rest our peer group didn't. -- Besides both being candidates for the nickname 'Four-eyes' that is. Yeah, both Gail and I wore spectacles most of the time. – Gail and I were both interest in art.

Gail was a very pretty girl, but let's say that, the best looking blokes tended to cast their aspirations elsewhere. Me? Well, I had always known that my specs were going to ... well look; it ain't like Buddy Holly died yesterday is it. Young guys who wear glasses have been reassigned to the 'also ran' stable in this day and age. Well, when it comes to the pick of the crop, that is!

So I should imagine that it was the fact that Gail and I both suffered from defective eyesight – along with mutual appreciation of art -- that led us to gravitate together, almost naturally.

I can't say that I ever recall asking Gail out on a date, as such. Suddenly we were holding hands when walking home from school together one day. I remember that day, because Melanie had made some inane comment about the fact that we were holding hands.

From there, it was the pictures I think, or maybe it was one of the other girl's birthday party or something. Whatever, just a couple of weeks later Gail and I had become a couple, as far as everyone else in our regular crowd were concerned.

Look, I don't want anyone to get the idea that Gail and I were hopelessly in love with each other or anything. There was no real teenage romance. We were attracted to each other, yeah. But I'm sure that we never were in love, in the true sense of the word. However, we had great fun together for more than a few years.

And, as we got a little older, we learnt about sex together, from our first fumbling groping sessions, until we did the deed with each other for the first time a couple of years later.

All during that time Melanie was around of course. But her one-time friendship with Gail and myself had evaporated completely. Through the grapevine, I ... we, got word that Melanie was calling Gail all kinds of vile names behind our backs, and telling everyone that she was a bit of slut and the like.

One time, the two girls had a real stand up ding-dong in one of the so-called night-clubs in town -- no more than cheap discothèques really -- where I and Mel's date that night, had to physically step-in and separate the two girls.

The odd thing was, Melanie might have been shouting at Gail, but most of the time she'd been staring at me. I kinda figured that whatever Melanie's gripe was, it wasn't really with Gail. Mel was going for Gail as a substitute for physically attacking me, only I never could figure out why.

Oh, don't worry, Melanie vented her spleen at me verbally more than a few times, or tried to; especially when she had had a little too much to drink, at parties and the like. Only -- maybe because she'd a little more than incoherent, because of the alcohol -- I'd never had been able to get my head around what she'd been raving-on about.

Hey look, I'd never been a confrontational type, especially where females are concerned. Well, a guy you can square-up-to and punch on the nose, can't you? A man never raises his hand to a female, no matter what the provocation? Well, that's what my old man brought me up to believe.

"Strike a female and you'll never be able to look at yourself in a mirror again, son!" that had been my father's take on things.

Consequently the moment Melanie started her ... demented ravings, at me ... Well, I went for the strategic withdrawal method of dealing with things. Some folks might have handled Mel's verbal attacks differently, but I could never see the point in getting into a slanging-match with the woman.

Gail and I kicked along quite nicely together, right up to -- and even for quite a while after-- we both finished college. Gail had gone to work in an office somewhere, and I had started my career as an artist. Only, not liking the idea of living on the breadline, I took a lot of commissions as a graphic artist and illustrator on the side.

Look, I'm reputedly good at that kind of thing and I'd taken a few commissions even while still in college. I planned to be a full time artist one day, but I just kept up with my contacts and used that money to live on.

Of course, as a struggling artist, I couldn't afford to even contemplate marriage, not that I'd thought Gail would say yes, even if I had asked her. I told you, Gail and I were much more than friends; she even shacked up at my flat for a couple of years. But I believe I can truly say that neither of us had ever been in love with the other. As a matter of fact, we are still much closer to each other than many siblings are to their brothers and sisters. Maybe that is a form of love, but we were never 'in love', if you understand the concept. If you don't, well there's not much I can add.

I knew that the sexual part of Gail and my relationship was about to end just a few seconds after I'd introduced Gail to Dmitri Golder. Dmitri was a young writer who had just managed to get his first book accepted by a publishing company. At their suggestion, I'd been commissioned to ... well, tidy up -- or recreate -- Dmitri's attempt at illustrations. A good children's author Dmitri might be; an artist, he definitely ain't!

Whatever, Gail had always said she wanted to write children's books, but for some reason I hadn't been able to persuade her to try the water for temperature. After chatting with Dmitri and seeing his enthusiasm for writing, or rather his get up and go. Well, I figured that some of that enthusiasm might rub off on Gail. Little did I foresee that Gail might fall head-over-heals in love with the guy at their first meeting!

However, no sooner had I introduced the two of them, than I could see that Dmitri was enchanted by Gail and that I'd lost her forever.

Now I'd heard of love at first sight of course; who hasn't? But I had never believed that such a phenomenon actually existed, until I saw those two standing there staring at each other. Jesus it was like they had neon lights on top of their heads saying, "Kevin, just get the hell out of here, and leave us alone!"

So I did. Hey, that's me, good old Kevin. Besides, only a complete idiot wouldn't have recognised what had just happened. Gail and Dmitri were married less than two months later.

And guess what, I got the commission to illustrate Gail's first book. That Monday morning -- technically -- I was going out to Naples on commission for Gail's second masterpiece.

Okay, okay, Gail's second children's adventure novel. Her first had been about a group of children during the English civil war. The second was about a group of children in ancient Rome. I was heading for the ruins of Pompeii (and Rome) to assimilate the atmosphere before I did the illustrations for her book.

Come on, that official explanation turns a holiday in Italy into a tax-deductible business trip. I might not be a rich wanker who works in the city, but I'm not averse to learning how the arseholes manage to get and stay rich.

Oh, for the uninitiated it's called 'Tax Avoidance', which is legal. As against 'Tax Evasion' that very definitely isn't. Providing I spent some of my time soaking up the atmosphere of ancient Rome, taking photographs and making sketches, then I was technically working, and therefore my trip was tax deductible.

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