Real Beauty is the fourth part of the short story series Love Story. Part one can be found here, part two here, and part three here.

True to his word Mitch was on time. Stacey had got herself ready in record time, two hours and forty-three minutes. She was wearing a loose chiffon blouse that was two tone grey and black. Below she wore black trousers. Mitch looked like he always did, skinny jeans, crisp shirt, waistcoat and a flat cap. His car was a total piece of crap. A very old VW Polo, Stacey would have liked to believe that it had charm and was part of his character. It was what it was, a shit car owned by someone who didn’t earn a lot. She smiled, kissed him on the cheek and waited for him to open the passenger door.

“Where are we going then babes?”
“I know a place out in the country, it’s just a pub, but it is really nice.”
“Sounds amazing! It has been a while since I was taken out for dinner, so thank you.” Stacey smiled at Mitch. Mitch checked his mirrors and started the car, got in gear and pulled away.
Stacey checked out the car and then Mitch. He was laser focussed on the road. “You smell nice, what are you wearing?” Mitch dipped his nose to his shoulder and shrugged. “It’s just my deodorant.”
“Mmm, what kind is it? I like it.”
“Lynx I think.” Stacey burst out laughing. “That’s not deodorant is it? It’s more like febreze for soap dodgers.” Another first, Mitch smiled. He cracked the biggest grin, a real ear-to-ear job. Stacey felt quietly pleased with herself.

They arrived at the restaurant, well, it was more of a pub that did food. It was one of those places that had a brass plate on the table with a number on it. A wipe clean laminated menu with nearly 500 dishes to choose from and desserts that was so ostentatious that they could feed a family of ten. Nothing was priced over £9.99. Stacey smiled to herself, it was clear that Mitch didn’t date often.

They found a nice corner table with a window that looked out across the beer garden which backed onto a sleek river that reflected the crimson sky and snaked away to the distance. All in all for a pub, it was quite romantic.

Mitch ordered cider and Stacey had Prosecco. They re-engaged immediately. Stacey was keen to continue their chat about travel. Mitch wasn’t going to stop her. They had a couple more drinks then Mitch ordered some food. Whilst he was at the bar placing the order a thought struck Stacey, she would do it. Here and now, if he’d agree, she would sell up and travel the world. All of the countries that grow coffee sound amazing. Mitch was fantastic. This could be the adventure of a lifetime.
Mitch arrived back at the table. He was carrying cutlery and he had ordered himself a soft drink. “What did you order in the end?” Stacey asked.
“Just a steak.”
“I’ve been thinking, if you were going to travel, where would you want to go first? Colombia or Vietnam?”
“Oooh, that’s a tough one.” Mitch sat back down. “I think,” as he started to speak his face changed. He blushed and glanced down. He stopped talking and almost looked away.
“What’s up babe?” Mitch stared past Stacey and over her shoulder. He was timid and sheepish.

“Mitchell! Hi man! Where have you been? Not seen you for a while.” A tall lad who looked almost like a photo copy of Mitch was stood behind Stacey. With him where two other guys and four girls.
“Just been around, working, you know?”
“Yeah? Need a catch up bro, mucho happening. Need to spill the deets.”
“Yeah, I’ll give you a shout.”
“So?”
“So, what you lot doing way out here?”
“Dickhead! Who’s this?”
“Oh. Erm, this a mate. Erm, Stacey.” The man leaned around and looked Stacey over.
“OK, hi Stacey. We’re out here for Zelga’s birthday, Nay and the girls are doing a surprise thing, should’ve invited you! Du’h! Anyway, I’ll text you and maybe you can come later.”
“No, it’s alright. We’re just eating then we’re gonna get going. Yeah, see ya then.”
“Mr. Anti-social as usual. Well, if you change your mind just come along, bring Stacey if you like.” The guy spoke about Stacey as if she wasn’t there. Stacey’s eyes narrowed and she took a sip of her prosecco. The party left.
For a moment, Mitch said nothing. Stacey felt uncomfortable so had to say something. “Where they your mates?”
“Yeah.” Mitch nodded. He took a pull on his drink and issued a half-hearted smile in Stacey’s direction.

Their food arrived and they ate in silence. Each mouthful was torture. The night had started brilliantly. This was crap. Stacey pushed her plate away. “Did you bring me all the way out here so that we wouldn’t be seen together?”
“What? No! Don’t be, no, that’s silly.”
“Is it? You should have seen your face when you noticed them.”
“I..”
“Listen, if you don’t want to be seen with me, then why did you ask me out?” Mitch stumbled for a word. “Oh forget it.” Mitch pushed a forkful of pink meat into his mouth and he began to chew.
“No. I’m not going to forget it actually. What’s wrong with me? Are you ashamed to be seen with me? I mean, there are about 50 pubs like this within a mile of my house. We’ve drove for half an hour to get here. It’s not the fucking Ritz is it?”
Mitch began chewing at a frantic rate and his shoulders raised up as his eyes darted everywhere except in Stacey’s direction. “Well? Speak then.”
“It’s not that, it’s nothing. It’s I dunno, like you know? The blonde thing. I’m not sure. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak.”
“The blonde thing? Elaborate please, Cat fuckin’ Weasel!” This phrase seemed to spark a response.
“Alright it’s your tan and the dyed hair, it can be a bit much that’s all and you’re loud.”
“Loud! You aint heard nothing yet mate, wait until I start shouting. What do you mean blonde thing? What is that greasy beard all about? And those tattoos! All of that is camouflage, it’s what you hide behind. You’re trying to make a statement. Don’t judge me! We’re the same, my hair dye, the fake tan, it is another version of that bullshit you’ve got running up and down your arms. Along with those fucking action man plates you’ve gone and stuck in your ears. We all hide Mitch, we all hide behind something. The difference between us though, is that I’ll acknowledge that I’m hiding because I know why I’m doing it.”
A waiter came over, ‘Is everything ok?” Mitch nodded and smiled, “yeah it’s lovely thanks.” The waiter didn’t seem convinced, he smiled at Stacey and about turned and headed back to the serving station. “I’m going home.”
“No, please don’t do that. I’ll give you a lift.”
“A lift? I own my own business you dick! I can afford a taxi. Good night. Why don’t you go to Zelga’s surprise party? They can use those dishes in your tabs as ashtrays!”

Shoulders back and head held high, Stacey marched to the bar and asked them to order her a cab. She walked out and waited for it in the car park. Her hands shaking with anger and a tear or two in each eye, she stared out over the river, as it continued to slide silently off into the distance. That is exactly what Stacey wanted to do.

The British summer has an annoying habit of leaving the party early. It arrives the life and soul of the event with the newspapers screaming about how we are all going to fry. Then the cheeky bastard slips out the back door, leaving us with ash coloured clouds and wondering what happened to all those barbeques we were supposed to have.

Mitch noticed the change of season by the kinds of beverages that he was preparing. The iced frapuccinos were out, and the old classics back with a vengeance. The arrival of autumn would always be foreshadowed by an increase in the amount of hot chocolates he had to make.
Mitch thought about that night in June often. He felt ashamed and a bit confused. As he played it all back in his head, he understood Stacey’s rage and couldn’t fathom his own stupidity. Stacey had not been in the coffee shop since then. Mitch craned his neck around the chrome barrier of his barista machine to peep into the boutique. Alas, he wasn’t an Ostrich and couldn’t make the angle. It was as though Stacey has just disappeared.

Christmas was on its way. The shop was rammed every morning. The workers of the city needed hot drinks to give them a morning cuddle that made the trek to the office that teeny bit more bearable. It was not yet eight o’clock and Mitch had made probably 150 flat whites already. Kasia passed him a take out cup, “Skinny cappuccino to go Mitch please.” On auto pilot Mitch took the cup and began crafting the drink. In Kasia’s pissed, ink splotted, spider scrawl it read ‘Stacey’. Mitch’s stomach dropped and his heart skipped a beat or three. He dared himself to explore. It wasn’t her. He looked again. Maybe. Shit. It was her. Now his heart galloped. She was just there, her skin, her face, free of that paste she used to cover it in. Soft, pure and flawless, she was actually glowing. The peroxide was long gone and had been replaced with layers of hazelnut and caramel. Mitch was stunned.
“Are you not talking to me then?” Stacey winked when she caught his eye.
“Hey, how are you? Wow it’s been ages.”
“I know, I’m good. The sauce trays in your tabs look a bit smaller.”
“Do they?”
“No. I’m taking the Mick,”
“I haven’t seen you in the shop or the boutique for ages.”
“I sold it. I’ve been travelling. Australia, the Philippines. I’m thinking about Latin America next. I just need someone to go with.”
Mitch gulped, and began to steam some milk. His eyes flicked up at Stacey, “I’m sorry you know? For what happened. I think I may be socially awkward or something.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yeah,” Mitch passed her the coffee.
“As I say, I’m looking for a travelling partner. Someone who knows how to make a cup of coffee might be useful.” Stacey smiled and handed Mitch a napkin. “That’s my number you’ve got about two weeks then I’m off.” Mitch looked at the napkin and then at Stacey as she smiled once and left the shop.

Walking out on to the street Stacey took a breath, her left hand was still trembling slightly. That went about as well as it could have. She took in the city and looked over the street at her old boutique. Ping! She had a text. She looked at it, there was a number clearly someone who wasn’t a contact. She swiped her finger across the screen, the message said: I love making coffee for you. I’ve missed it. You got room for me?
Stacey texts back: Only if you behave and if we see someone I know, you have to pretend to be my cousin or something. That, or walk five feet behind me.
Mitch: Deal! Can I come then?
Stacey: Yes you can 😉
Mitch: Stacey, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship xxx.

The End 

This is a short story by Nick Mann, if you liked it, you can find more of the buggers here. Otherwise, if you have enjoyed it please consider sharing it – Karma and my badself will thank you for it. The buttons are on the right, thank you kindly.

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