Too Many Regrets

I fold my paper, staring out silently at the night. If I'd invested six months ago, I'd be rich by now, but as I always do I talked it up, but never did it. Story of my life. The coffee is going cold, so I down it quickly and walk out. I hate this time in the evening, when work is over, but it is too early to sleep, and I'm left to think. The park is empty, apart from a few dog-walkers. Even the joggers don't come out at this time. They're too sensible. I saunter slowly along, going nowhere, but I can't face going back to the flat, yet. Finding a bench I sit down, trying to ignore the voice at the back of my mind begging for sleep. If I stall long enough I won't dream.

The last of the sunlight is fading, and I jump slightly as the streetlight behind me turns on. I open the paper to read it for the third time and wonder, staring blankly at the pages, where it all went wrong.

Tomorrow, I'll hide behind my work for another day, until eventually they start to turn the lights out and I have to leave. Another day of my life gone. Nothing really accomplished. Life wasn't meant to be like this. All the way through school, university, they tell you that you can change things, that what you do matters. It doesn't. If you have enough friends, you can ignore it, blind yourself to the slow ticking of your life as it passes, as I used to. If not you can always crawl into the bottle and hide. I've too much pride for that.

I can remember what it felt like to have friends, to be part of the crowd. Making jokes at other's expense that weren't really funny, but you laughed anyway because you were friends. Being seen by others as part of a group, and accepted as such. Now I am alone, people are warier around me, and I find myself the target of the jokes and the pointing. And I laugh and pretend it doesn't hurt, just as our victims used to.

The night is becoming cold and I rouse myself and begin the long way home. This is a good area of town, but even so it is as well to beware of muggers. Too many men think it won't happen to them, which of course is an attitude that will ensure it will. I stay in the light, listening to the rhythm of my footsteps and my heartbeat as I walk the too familiar route. Across the way, a woman is swaying along the pavement, advertising what she offers to the world. She's seen me, and I pause, wondering whether or not to pick her up, just for the sake of company for the evening, and realise ironically that I am too tired. I walk on.

At the flat, I buzz automatically, before I pull out my keys and let myself in. There's been no one there for years, but old habits die hard. As I walk up the stairs I pause, then shove the paper through the door and turn and walk out. Rough though it is, I go back out for a walk, in case something interesting happens. A child's promise that, but one I have made to myself before. I know too well that nothing will happen, for I do this every night and nothing ever does. I miss the people I knew, but they have their own lives now, and have no time for old friends. I found that out when I contacted them again, reluctantly, for I had promised myself I would not. Pathetic isn't it, that I cannot even keep promises to myself.

As I retrace my steps, I see the woman on the far side of the street. She watches me walking, offers herself. "Looking for a good time?" The words are traditional, her tone is bored. For the hell of it, I stop and look at her. I haven't deliberately touched another human being in 3 years. I could pay her. I know how it goes in theory, and I've money enough - just. I just can't be bothered. I've paused too long I realise, and must say something.
         "No thanks. You're not going to get much business round here this time of night." She looks at me, obviously considering swearing at me to drive me off, and then reflecting that I'm probably the only person to talk to her this evening.
         "Too right. Got a light?" I pull out my lighter, usually carried in case the car door freezes, and decline the fag she offers. She doesn't seem comfortable with me here, not surprising considering the number of women in her trade who die at stranger's hands. Looking across at the all-night cafe, I wonder about inviting her for a drink, ignoring my growing fatigue. It is the wrong thing to do, and she won't accept, but I do it anyway.
         "Do you want a coffee? On me." Her smile twists nastily, and I continue hastily. "Look, I'm not a client, and you're getting sod all business out here. Its November, the clubs are still open, so you aren't going to get their patrons for a few hours, so you might as well wait somewhere warm." A small part of me, watching dispassionately, reminds me that work won't be impressed if word gets round that I'm chatting up prostitutes. I don't really care. They can think what they like. I know I am innocent.
         "You're right you know. And its a friday, so the married ones are with their wives or their mistresses." She straightens up, visibly deciding if I am dangerous. I don't seem to pose a threat, because she smiles, and takes my arm. I jerk away, reflexively, and she stiffens. I can see her anger, and humiliation, and talk quickly.
         "I'm sorry. My....someone close to me died. Recently." The break in my voice make it seem real, though I know it is a lie. She believes me and nods sympathetically. We cross to the cafe in silence. I don't know if my fast excuse has made me seem more understandable, but she is less defensive. Sitting down I order drinks, and look across at her. My mind's gone blank. What can you say to someone in her job. I blurt out the question without thinking.
         "How did you get into...err...?" Fortunately she isn't offended. She puffs away on the cigarette, holding it out of the window. It should be no smoking, but there's no one else here, and I'm a good enough customer that the barman doesn't say anything.
         "Guess it would have been when I was about fourteen. Standard story. Ran away from home, cos me dad hit me, got in with the wrong crowd, and just got into this gig. Never got out of it neither, cos you don't make enough to save up, or pay for courses. God knows what I'll do when I'm too old." Despite the paint on her face, there are lines showing. Any desire I had for her is long gone. This woman's been used too much, too badly to feel much any more. Abstractedly I wonder how old she is. I recognise the tone of bitter regret in her voice. "What about you? Whatta you do?"
         "Nothing fancy. I'm a manager. In the City." The silence stretches and I decide to leave it. Realising I've said all I'm going to she chuckles, and hunches her shoulders, deepening her cleavage.
         "You sure you aren't looking for anything. City usually means money."
         "Yes, usually." The bitterness in my tone matches hers a moment ago. I know I made the wrong choice years ago, and I'll never get to the top. I don't have the talents, and no one rewards second best.
         "Any pets, hobbies?" I shake my head.
         "I never saw the point. What about you?"
         "Can't afford a pet. Kid would love one though. 'Part from that I do a bit of gardening. Don't really have the time anymore. When I was younger it was different, but now..." She gazes out the window again, and I join her, finishing the coffee in silence. Abruptly she checks her watch, and stands up. "Oh god. Sorry, I gotta go. The babysitter's going in a minute." I could offer her a lift, but know she would decline. I wonder, quietly as I watch her leave, what she has, a boy or a girl? And whether my life would have been different had my daughter lived. What might there have been, instead of the bitterness and the loss? It doesn't matter, and I'll never know. I stand up, walking home, thinking about the evening. Nothing really happened, but it was better than being stuck indoors.

Telling my exhausted body to keep moving, that it can sleep soon, I wonder about her. What kind of home she goes to, where she lives, what she will do when she can't earn anymore. For a moment I consider trying to trace her, to help out, but I know I won't. My poor justification is that she wouldn't accept any help I offered, but I actually just don't care enough. What really was there? The illusion of company over coffee. A familiarity she feigns with all her clients. And I never even asked her name.