This was it, the big day. After fourteen months, three weeks and five days, Ellen was finally going to meet SilverSurfer84 or, Stephen Nicolson as she knew him. When they first connected on the Doctor Who forum, ‘Time Will Tell’, the previous year, Ellen would never have imagined she’d meet someone as kind, as funny or as handsome (or certainly as his pictures suggested).
They were due to meet up in his home city of Canterbury, but as it was a three-hour train journey from Winchester for Ellen, she decided to travel up the night before and stay in a hotel. The last thing she wanted was to be flustered and sweaty from travelling when she finally came face to face with the man she had gotten so close to, albeit virtually, over the past year. She hadn’t told Stephen about her extra night, wanting an evening to herself to overcome her anxiety of meeting what her friend called a ‘total stranger.’
‘He could be an axe murderer El!’ Shannon had said.
‘Why is it always axe murderers?’ Ellen replied. ‘Why is it never spanner murderers or screwdriver murderers? Although now I hear myself say it out loud it doesn’t sound anywhere near as scary. Maybe that’s it.’
‘El, I’m being serious,’ Shannon doubled down.
‘Look, Shan, I know this man. We’ve spent hours on FaceTime, and sent thousands of messages, just because we haven’t met doesn’t mean I don’t know him very well. Plus, I’ve got a good feeling about this trip.’
Arriving at Canterbury East train station, Ellen pulled up the handle of her overnight case and dragged it over the uneven cobbles, following the signs to the city centre. The wheels made a rhythmic thud, thud, thud as she walked. Checking the map on her phone, she went up and down the historic streets towards the imposing cathedral that cast a shadow over the quaint cafes and fairy-lit trinket shops. Her hotel for the night, a boutique independent place called The Falstaff, boasted impeccable views of the tenth-century religious building from every room.
As she was a little early for check-in, Ellen followed her feet and found herself at a bar and restaurant called The Wren. Crushed velvet blue sofas huddled around small wooden tables, illuminated by quirky neon signs saying things like ‘it’s 5pm somewhere’ and ‘let the good times be-gin.’ She perched herself up on one of the stools and ordered a Mimosa.
A self-confessed soft drink enthusiast, Ellen usually reserved alcoholic beverages for birthdays and special occasions, but her nerves were getting the better of her and she thought the Dutch courage might quieten down her anxiety, at least for the evening. Meeting Stephen face to face was future Ellen’s problem.
Looking around the bar, she felt decidedly underdressed. It was clear the patrons here were out for the night and starting early, the women wore sky-high heels and short skirts, and the men were decked out in tight shirts and chino trousers. She looked down at herself, feeling her travel outfit of a grey sweatshirt and ripped jeans didn’t quite match up.
Her feelings of self-consciousness soon started to disperse however when she noticed a man leaning against the bar looking over at her. Ellen’s friends had told her many times she wouldn’t notice a man flirting with her even if he came up to her, dipped her salsa-style and snogged her in front of everyone, and they were absolutely right. When it came to the opposite sex, she was largely oblivious. A long and unhappy relationship she had been in since school made sure of that.
Darren told her often that no one else would ever want her, she’d ‘let herself go’ since school and she was lucky to have him. He wore her down and over the years she began to believe the brute. Until one day his ‘sorry, I promise I won’t do it again, I just lost my temper’ diminished in value and she finally found hers. It took everything she had but she walked away from him and never looked back. However, oblivious and somewhat lacking in confidence as she was, even she could see this dark-haired stranger eyeing her up.
She could feel herself blushing at his attention. It had taken a long time for Ellen to put herself ‘out there’ as her friend Angie put it. Maybe this was why it all felt so easy with Stephen, it was online and therefore at a safe distance. Until tomorrow that was.
Ellen absentmindedly checked her phone when she could see in her peripheral vision the man from the bar approach her. She looked up, looped her loose hair behind her ear and smiled, feeling her heart flutter. He had a strong jawline and a welcoming smile, two things that made her weak. But she knew whatever this man had to say, she would have to turn him down. After all, she’d come all this way to meet her virtual love and didn’t want anything getting in the way of that. She found it ironic though, she had been single for years and now two men were vying for her attention.
‘Hi there…’ he said.
‘Hello!’ she quickly said, ‘I’m very flattered as quite frankly, you’re gorgeous, but I’m seeing someone.’
‘Oh… I see. Errm, actually I came over to ask if you were using this chair?’ he said, gesturing to the empty blue bar stool opposite her.
Ellen felt every inch of her skin heat up. Her chest sank and she stumbled over her words.
‘Gosh… how silly of me. Of course, yes. I mean no, no one is using it, please, just, just take it.’
She was more embarrassed than the time she came out of the school bathroom with her skirt tucked into her knickers and didn’t find out for hours. The man smiled at her and nodded quickly, taking the chair around the corner. Ellen rubbed her face with her hands and decided it was probably best that she leave as quickly as possible. She gathered her things, left a few coins on the bar as a tip and made her way to the door.
She was about to leave when suddenly she heard a familiar sound. A laugh she knew. Spinning round to scan the room, Ellen couldn’t believe her eyes when at the far end, behind where she had been sitting all evening, was Stephen. She blinked furiously to make sure the dim lighting wasn’t playing a trick on her vision, but he was really there, plain as day. She beamed a smile and walked over, excited to finally meet him and say how much of a coincidence this was when she noticed he wasn’t alone. Opposite him was a woman with long blonde hair. They were holding hands. She was laughing at something he had just said. Ellen quickly realised; they were on a date.
Frozen in place and in two minds about whether to turn around and walk straight out or go and confront him, the decision was made for her when Stephen finally looked up, locking eyes with Ellen for the first time. He immediately withdrew his hands from the blonde across from him and stood up.
‘Ellen!’ he said.
‘Stephen?’ she asked.
‘Who is Stephen?’ the blonde woman chimed in.
‘Listen, please, I can explain.’
‘Grant, who is this?’ the blonde asked.
‘Who the hell is Grant?’ Ellen said. ‘You know what, actually, I don’t want to know.’
Ellen pulled her coat around her and ran out of the bar, reaching the wall opposite and resting her entire top half on the cold brick. She saw Stephen following her out, his hands firmly in his pockets as he approached her.
‘What the hell, Stephen? If that is your real name? Was any of this real?’ Ellen asked.
‘Of course, it was real.’
‘Except your name.’
‘Well yes, but Stephen is my middle name. I’ve never really liked Grant.’
‘Who is that woman in there?’
‘That’s Suzanne, my… my girlfriend.’
Ellen had heard enough, she felt vomit creeping up her throat and needed to get away from this man.
‘Ellen, wait, can we talk about this?’ Grant called after her.
Ellen ignored him, stomping her way to the hotel on the next street. She thought about going straight to the train station, but there was a very real possibility she was going to be sick and she would much rather do that in an ensuite than in a bush. Arriving at her room, she threw down her suitcase and ran a bath with extremely hot water, filling the small room with steam. She slid down in the tub, dipped her head underwater and held her breath for what felt like five minutes. Eventually, she came back up, ran her fingers through her hair and let herself cry.
The following morning, Ellen packed up her suitcase and went down to the hotel lobby for breakfast. She glanced at her phone in the elevator and decided to ignore the eighteen messages from ‘Stephen’ and the handful of messages from her closest friends wishing her luck for the meeting today. She would build up the courage to tell them what had happened as soon as she’d finished processing it.
Putting two slices of wholemeal bread into the industrial metal toaster, Ellen riffled through packets of strawberry jam, marmalade, and marmite. To the left, she saw there were little pots of honey, something she only had on her toast when she was on holiday and reached across to grab one. As she did, another hand came over from the other side of the table, almost touching hers. She looked up and saw a face she recognised.
‘Hello again,’ the man said.
And with that, the realisation of who this man was came back to her.
‘Man from the bar!’ Ellen said.
‘Haha! Yes, or Michael, as my friends call me. Did you have a nice evening? I saw you leave rather abruptly last night.’
Ellen wasn’t sure if it was a good or bad thing that he had noticed her withdrawing herself from the situation.
‘Not really. The man I was seeing, well he was at the bar last night… with his girlfriend.’
‘You’re telling me.’
‘Well, he’s an idiot to let you go,’ Michael said.
Ellen toyed with the pot of honey, unsure how to respond thinking that this man was hitting on her again for the second time in twelve hours.
‘Would you like to join me for breakfast?’ he offered, gesturing over to his empty table.
Ellen hesitated before replying.
‘Sure,’ she said, picking up her toast and sitting opposite her new friend. She wasn’t flattering him; she really did think he was gorgeous. ‘What brings you to Canterbury then?’
‘Stag-do last night. They stayed out until 5am apparently but that’s not really my scene, so hotel room for one it was. I’m heading back home to Abbotts Barton this morning.’
‘You’re from Winchester?’ Ellen said. ‘Me too!’
‘Well, well! What are the chances?’ said Michael.
The pair enjoyed their breakfast and walked together to the train station.
‘I find it so bizarre that you’re getting the same train back as me,’ Ellen said. Remembering her mother’s words that there are no coincidences, only opportunities. ‘I hope I’m not crashing your journey back.’
‘Not at all,’ Michael replied. ‘I’m thankful for the company, I was only going to be watching old Doctor Who episodes on my laptop anyway.’
Ellen laughed, thinking the universe was playing a trick on her.
‘I know, I’m a proper nerd,’ Michael said, looking down nervously.
Ellen smiled as she walked out onto the platform, this trip may have not been at all what she was expecting, but could it be the start of something special? Time will tell.
Author Bio: Britt Marie Box is non-fiction author and new fiction writer. Her fiction work has appeared in Pigeon Review and Paragraph Planet. Britt is a finalist in the Page Turner Awards 2022 and is currently studying for a BA (Hons) degree in creative writing and English literature. She enjoys writing stories and going for coffee in a cute cafe, preferably at the same time. Find her on Twitter at @brittmariebox.