Stanley glanced up at the sky as he waited to cross the road. It was a deep, vivid blue, the sort of sky you might see in Cannes or Barcelona. Looking to either side he could see immaculate coiffured palm trees lining the coast road, some bearing coconuts, some heaving under their burden of bananas and mangoes.
He paused to let the last few cars coast past – a 1927 Bugatti, a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, a vintage Bentley in British Racing Green. He strolled across the road, leaving behind the throngs of the elegant and the sophisticated promenading by the sea shore in the late morning sunshine.
Of the many shops lining the esplanade, the one Stanley entered was the largest and most impressive, with plate glass windows nestled between its Corinthian columns. A uniformed doorman, his gold braid epaulettes shimmering in the sunlight, saluted smartly as he held the door open. Stanley tipped him generously, eliciting a touch of the doorman’s peaked cap in acknowledgement.
Inside, palm trees surrounded an artificial oasis, fed by a stone waterfall that poured sparkling water into a clear blue pond on whose surface bullfrogs danced between the lily pads. The ceiling was so far away that there was room for a flock of dodos to fly with surprising grace, weaving between the glittering chandeliers.
He approached a counter displaying an array of fine silk shirts in a range of rainbow hues. Behind the counter a girl was plumping up the arrangement. Blonde, with hair whose shoulder-length cascade echoed the waterfall, she wore a black dress and long diamond earrings that drew Stanley’s attention to her plunging neckline.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said cheerily. “How much are these?”
“Them T shirts is all five ninety nine, mate,” she replied with the melodious voice of a BBC newsreader, “like it says on the sign, innit.”
She glanced up, noticing the stARes for the first time. “Hoh, Hi do beg yer pardon, sir,” she said. “Them silk garments is ninety nine pounds, and well werf it if you was to ask me.”
“Thank you, miss,” replied Stanley, selecting a vibrant turquoise. “This one looks to be about my size. I’ll take it.”
“Certainly, sir,” she replied. “Give us it, I’ll bung it in a bag for yer.”
As she was processing his credit card, Stanley was once again struck by the perfection of her composition: a certain curve of the neck, the arch of her eyebrow, the way she brushed a stray lock of hair behind her elegant ear. He leaned forward across the counter and dropped his voice.
“Look,” he said, “I know this is frightfully forward of me, and everything, but, well, would you like to join me for lunch, er…”
“…Chardonnay,” she said.
“Chardonnay,” he repeated, rolling the syllables around his mouth like vintage champagne. “How absolutely delightful. So, Chardonnay, what of it? Will you accept my invitation and grace my table with your presence?”
She looked at him for a moment, then said “Fuck it, why not. It’s me break in ten. See you outside.”
Stanley spent the next fifteen minutes taking in the sunshine, seated on a bench outside the store. When Chardonnay arrived she was wearing a mink stole which, despite the warm weather, made her look cool and sophisticated.
She took his arm, and the pair strolled along the promenade. Stanley pointed out sights of interest along the way – the Arc de Triomphe, the Pyramid of Cheops, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Chardonnay greeted each new wonder with an ‘ooh’, as if she had never noticed them before.
They turned down a side street, which ran alongside a brook that teemed with trout and carp. A willow dripped its fronds until they just skimmed the surface of the bubbling water, and a kingfisher danced among the dragonflies. And there, coming towards them, Stanley spotted a pair of varsity men, resplendent in their striped blazers and cravats.
“What ho, fellows!” he called.
“Er, come on, love, let’s go the other way,” said Chardonnay, pulling Stanley back towards the main street.
“Nonsense,” said Stanley. He continued to march towards the pair, dragging an increasingly reluctant Chardonnay along with him.
Stanley greeted the men as if they were old friends, declaiming “I say, chaps, been punting on the backs?”
The men seemed to find Stanley’s greeting hilarious, and made no effort to restrain their amusement.
“Ho, guv’nor, what what what?” said one of them. “Unless h’Im very much mistooken, what we ave ere appears to be one of them stARseoles. Innit, mate? That right, whatwhat?”
They moved up close to Stanley, pushing him from one to the other. One gave Stanley’s head a slap with the back of his hand, knocking the stARes clattering to the ground.
Stanley dropped to his knees in search of the headset, and gazed up at the two men. The hoodie one of them wore was stained with oil, bloodshot eyes staring out of the gloom; the other was encased in a ripped leather jacket embellished with skulls and swastikas. They kicked him hard in the ribs and strutted away, disappearing among the trucks and refuse lorries that thundered along the main road.
Stanley glanced to the side of the narrow, rubbish-strewn alley, where a pasty woman in a sagging tracksuit cowered in terror, her tears forcing her mascara into black streaks. She clasped her thin housecoat around her and struggled to her feet, pushing her lank hair behind her ear.
“Come on, love,” she said. “We don’t need to see this. Here you go,” she said, picking up the stARes and placing them back on Stanley’s face. “There, ain’t that better?”
Stanley struggled to his feet, dazed, and tentatively took Chardonnay by the arm. Once again he was dazzled by her simple beauty.
“I…” he began.
“There, pet,” she said, “no need to fret. Now, what about that dinner? I could murder a curry.”
And they strolled arm in arm out into the sunshine.