Terry Gaiman adjusted his black bow tie in the mirror, trying to get it straight. He twisted it first one way, decided he’d gone too far, twisted it back, realised he’d overcompensated, twisted it again.

Why did evening wear have to be so complicated?

He fussed with his cufflinks. The shirt cuffs felt like a pair of oversized floppy manacles. He looked back in the mirror and tried, again, to straighten his bow tie.

He checked the clock and felt his heart flutter in nervous panic.

She was going to be here soon.

He flittered round his bedroom like an over-caffeinated moth. Did he have everything? Were his clothes right? He was convinced he was going to make a fool of himself.

He knew there was no real need to panic. She wouldn’t care either way. He still wanted to make an effort though. It wouldn’t feel right if he took it for granted.

The doorbell rang as he was tying up his shoelaces. He’d been expecting the sound but the shock of it still kicked his heart up until it felt like he was on the verge of spitting it out onto the floor.

He rushed back to the mirror. Damn tie still wasn’t straight.

Fuck it.

He was almost out of his bedroom when he remembered something. He turned back and plucked an old trilby hat from a stand in the corner.

“Mustn’t forget this,” he said.

The hat had been stylish once and despite being a little age worn it still possessed a bit of class. At least Terry thought so. He put it on his head and rushed down the corridor to answer the door.

The girl on the other side took Terry’s breath away.

He’d expected sexy. He’d expected fit. He’d expected raunchy.

What he hadn’t expected was a beauty that looked as if she’d stepped straight out of the pages of a fairytale to pluck at his heartstrings as if they were an exquisite harp. How to even describe her?

Her skin was pale like fresh snow.

No, that was the wrong metaphor. Snow is cold, undesired.

There was a coldness to her features though. Like marble.

Yes, that was a better fit. Stone had an aloofness and distance about it, as if it was far removed from such paltry concerns as rot and decay. She had the cold perfection of stone worked by a master sculptor, a beauty that sat outside the flow of years as if they could never touch her.

Terry didn’t know what to do. His plans now seemed like the despoilment of a lush paradise.

“Hello, I’m Nicole,” the girl said. “Are you Terry?”

Terry nodded. Her voice had the same trace of an accent he’d heard on the phone. He couldn’t tell if it was French or Eastern European. During the phone conversation her voice had made him picture an exotic model or actress from an old chic movie. He knew his mental image wouldn’t match up; he hadn’t expected it to be surpassed.

She wore a white fur coat and fashionable sunglasses and looked every bit the stylish and refined model. Her hair was cut in a short black bob. She looked stunning.

What would she make of him, Terry thought. Inwardly he must disgust her.

“You can speak you know,” Nicole said with a smile.

Her lips were a contrast to the paleness of her skin, a vivid splash of red like a precious bloom. When she smiled her entire face was transformed. The cold perfection softened into a truly heart-melting beauty.

“I’m sorry,” Terry said. “I’m not used to speaking to beautiful women. Come in,” he added, backing into the hallway to allow her to enter.

“So what are we doing this evening?” Nicole asked. “From the way you’re all dressed up I’m guessing we have plans to go out.”

Terry picked up a flier from the telephone table. It advertised a summer dance at the local cricket club.

“Would you like to come with me to the dance?” he asked.

“Why I would love to accompany such a charming young man to the dance,” Nicole replied. “But first…”

She examined him with a critical eye. Then she stepped forward and went down on her knees until her head was level with his crotch.

Was she going to? Already? He felt his cock stiffen in his pants and all of a sudden he felt a little giddy and light-headed.

Nicole reached behind him and untied his cummerbund. She dropped the red silk slash on the phone table with an expression on mild distaste.

“A little too formal for a summer dance I think,” she said.

Terry let out a breath, unsure whether it was relief or disappointment.

Nicole ran a finger up the outline of his erection, causing Terry to shiver with pleasure.

“Later,” she smiled, getting back to her feet. “We have the whole night ahead of us.”

“Do I look okay?” Terry asked, opening his arms. “The suit was my father’s. It’s all I have.”

And the hat had originally belonged to his grandfather, but he wasn’t about to mention that. Leaving the house without his hat was not an option.

“I look horribly out of fashion don’t I?” Terry said.

“Nonsense,” Nicole said, stepping close enough for the subtle fragrance of her perfume to toy with his nostrils. “You look like a perfectly stylish young man.”

She reached up with her pale hands to adjust his bow tie, finally getting it straight. Seeing those luscious red lips pursed in concentration, Terry felt the sudden urge to kiss her. His head angled down to meet her, a trajectory he halted long before they met.

They didn’t like to kiss, he’d heard, and he didn’t want to offend her.

Nicole was not the type to be offended. Her hands finished with his tie and then slid onwards over his shoulders and met behind his neck. She pulled his head down until her lips, soft and supple, crushed against his. His initial wild excitement was doused in a calm sea of bliss. Standing there, with Nicole in his arms, her warm lips working against his, he felt like he’d become part of the same perfect sculpture. In her arms it felt like time could no longer touch him, as if the passing of night and day ran together into one single blur.

She pulled away with a smile.

“We’d better stop, otherwise we won’t make the dance,” she said.

Was that such a bad thing? Terry thought, but he followed her out to her a car, a little Renault Clio. Outside the air was muggy and Terry was glad Nicole had got him to remove some of his excess clothing.

As they drove to the cricket ground on the edge of town Terry noticed Nicole still hadn’t removed her sunglasses. They were already deep enough into twilight for the street lights to bathe the road in a wan orange glow.

“Can you see okay with those?” Terry asked.

“I have a rare condition,” Nicole answered. “My eyes are extremely sensitive to light. Without my glasses even those street lights are bright enough to cause me pain.”

The field next to the ground was being used as an overspill car park. Even that was full, but Nicole’s car was small enough for her to sneak it into a space beneath a gnarled old oak.

“I suppose you see enough rare conditions every day,” Nicole said. “Dr Pratchett says you’re wonderful with the children at the hospital,” Nicole said.

“He does?” Terry said. “I just try and make things fun for them. It’s heart-wrenching some of the illnesses they suffer. Both Holly McKean and Madeleine Kieth have leukaemia. Dr Pratchett reckons they only have a few months left. Holly is eleven, Maddy is twelve. It’s Mary Dringenberg I really feel for. She has Progeria, that premature ageing condition. Eight years old and she already looks like a wrinkled old lady.”

“It’s a tragedy to have to become acquainted with death at such a tender age,” Nicole said.

“They’re still children though,” Terry said. “At heart they want the same things as any other child. They want to laugh, to play, to have fun. People forget that sometimes. They’re so busy pitying them or trying to hide their own revulsion, they forget the poor kid just wants someone to play with them.”

Terry paused and looked at Nicole.

“This probably isn’t a good topic of conversation before going out on a date is it?” he said.

Nicole smiled enigmatically.

“I don’t want you to think I’m morbid or obsessed by death or anything,” Terry added.

“Some say the only two topics worthy of conversation are sex and death,” Nicole said.

“Sex seems more appropriate for this evening,” Terry said. “More fun.”

“I agree. I think we should discuss it later,” Nicole said. She reached across and put a hand in Terry’s lap. “At great length,” she added with another enigmatic smile.

They walked to the bright lights of the clubhouse. A number of stalls had been set up outside and were gaily lit with bright lamps. Some offered games with the chance to win novelty stuffed animals. There was a tombola. Others offered a variety of different foods and drinks. The clubhouse itself rocked to the bass thumps of loud dance music. It was heaving in there.

Terry felt a momentary flash of reluctance. Most of the town youth would be here and there was him in his Granddad’s hat and his father’s dinner suit. Nicole’s presence on his arm emboldened him though. It felt like they were the most glamorous couple there. Everyone turned to look at them, or rather Nicole.

Of course it was only fantasy, but Terry didn’t care. He’d enjoy the night while it lasted.

“How do you know Dr Pratchett?” Terry asked.

“I comforted him after his wife passed on,” Nicole answered.

“Oh,” Terry said.

“That’s a very judgemental ‘Oh’ I’m hearing there,” Nicole said, cocking her head up to look at him.

“It’s a surprise, that’s all,” Terry said. “Dr Pratchett always seemed so stern and serious to me. I never would have thought… then I suppose we’re only here tonight because he gave me your number and ordered me to call you.”

“He’s a doctor. He understands what the body needs,” Nicole said. “As do I.” She gave Terry’s buttock a cheeky squeeze.

The music from the clubhouse changed tempo, switching from blaring dance numbers to slower numbers designed to put lovers in each other’s arms.

“Let’s dance,” Nicole said, grabbing Terry’s hand and pulling him into the main bar before he could protest.

Inside it wasn’t quite as crowded as the noise made it out to be. They found a quiet spot on the edge of the wooden floor. Nicole took his hands and moved before him with sinuous grace. In contrast Terry felt like Frankenstein’s monster with added cement shoes.

“I haven’t had much practise at this,” he said.

“It doesn’t need practise,” Nicole whispered in his ear. “Loosen up and let your body follow the rhythm of the music.”

“I’m frightened I’m going to trample all over your feet,” Terry said.

“Do that and I’ll trample you back,” Nicole giggled in his ear. “And I have spiked heels.” She prodded the top of his foot with a wickedly sharp point to remind him to stay focused.

Staying focused was not going to be easy. Her arms were around him and he felt the warmth of her soft body pressed against him. Her perfume, sultry and exciting, filled his senses. They twirled slowly under the flickering lights, just like any of the other couples dancing around them. Terry even managed to avoid treading on her toes.

Terry didn’t want this to end, but it wasn’t long before he felt a familiar weakness start to creep up his legs. His breath was coming out a little ragged too. He knew the excitement wasn’t helping matters.

“I have to take a break,” he whispered in her ear, feeling wretched that he needed to cut the dance short.

Nicole understood. She didn’t say anything as they walked over to the bar.

Phew, it really was hot in here, Terry thought, feeling a bead of perspiration trickle down the side of his neck.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Nicole asked with a smile.

“Yes,” Terry smiled back. “Just need to get my breath back. Then we can go up again.”

Even as he said it the music tempo switched again, going back to fast dance beats and Terry knew he’d never be able to keep up with that pace.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” Terry asked back.

Stupid question, he thought, cursing himself for being silly enough to ask it.

“Yes,” Nicole replied. “Because you’re enjoying yourself.”

Her face was as cryptic as ever. He wished he could see her eyes, but they were still hidden, as they had been all evening, behind those stylish sunglasses. What was she really thinking? he wondered.

Terry suddenly became aware of a looming presence standing next to them. He turned and saw a big bull of a man, easily over six foot and with a close-shaven bullet head. The man was dressed in an expensive looking dinner suit and had the overly friendly smile of someone hovering around the point of inebriation. There was a lecherous smirk on his lips as he looked Nicole up and down.

“You could do so much better,” the man said to Nicole.

Behind him the man’s friends smirked like a pack of hyenas.

Nicole looked him up and down right back, weighing up what she saw.

“You’re right, I am,” she replied, putting her arms around Terry and kissing him on the cheek.

“Don’t be too harsh dear,” Terry said, finding confidence in her presence he wouldn’t normally have. “It’s hard to find good style in gorilla size.”

The man’s friends laughed again, this time at him rather than with him.

It was all very funny until the man slugged Terry right on the jaw. Terry fell against the bar and slid down into a wobbly squat as his legs tried to decide whether they were propped up with bone or jelly. His hat went flying off.

My hat!

The gasps went up immediately. He saw them all staring at him with a mixture of shock, revulsion and then pity. He knew what they saw: a mostly bald head covered in a few strands of long greasy hair. He knew what they were thinking?

What’s he got? Is it contagious? Oh the poor man.

The big man backed away in shock. Terry didn’t care. He got back to his feet and raised his fists on his skinny little arms.

“Come on!” he cried, voice rasping with defiance.

The big man almost did. He was drunk enough for the primal instinct to fight to nearly overwhelm the common sense dictated by Terry’s appearance. If his friends hadn’t been there he’d have probably hit Terry again.

“Don’t be a tool, Neil!” one of his friends yelled in his ear as they tried to hold him back. “Can’t you see he’s on chemo?”

Neil blinked and took a proper look at the man standing in front of him. He backed down with an expression of sheepish embarrassment on his face. He couldn’t look Terry in the eye, instead staring all around him, anywhere but at Terry directly.

“No. Fight me!” Terry said, still waving his fists with his stick-thin arms.

The man and his friends melted back into the crowd of onlookers, the man still refusing to meet Terry’s eyes.

“Fight me!” Terry yelled after them. “Fight me,” he said, slumping forward as hot tears welled up in his eyes.

They came then, as they always did, clucking and cooing like concerned mother hens, crowding him, mithering him, always with that stifling pity that sucked all the oxygen from his lungs and left him weak-kneed and helpless. He pushed them off, loathing himself for shoving them away even though they meant well, and loathing them for making him loath himself.

Why couldn’t they treat him like everyone else?

Blood was streaming from his split lip as he sat at a table by the wall. His mouth ached, like biting down on a razor. One of the barmaids had given him a tissue. He pressed it into his mouth to try and stem the bleeding. One of his teeth ached with a dull throb. It felt loose.

Nicole joined him.

“I found your hat,” she said.

Terry took it and put it back on his head, hiding his ravaged skull from staring eyes. Too late, they knew now and those eyes would follow him everywhere, eyes filled with pity. At least he didn’t get to see that with Nicole, but with those sunglasses he didn’t see anything at all.

Terry’s tooth was more than loose. He nudged it with his tongue and it fell out of the socket. He spat it out into a tissue and stared at the blood-smudged white enamel as if it was a trophy.

“Still having fun?” Terry asked, looking up at Nicole and smiling. He dreaded to think what that smile looked like now. Gap-toothed and bloody, he must make for an even worse sight than usual.

Nicole didn’t seem to mind. She smiled right back at him.

“Yes, you?” she replied.

“Loving it,” Terry laughed, specks of dried blood still staining his chin. He felt exhilarated, alive.

“What about your tooth?” Nicole asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Terry said. He stared at the trophy in his hands with a mixture of both pride and revulsion. “The rest will all be falling out soon anyway.”

Nicole put her arms around him and leant against him, her head resting on his shoulder.

“I suppose that’s the end of any kissing this evening,” Terry said.

Nicole surprised him by lapping a spot of blood off his chin with a dainty little lick of her tongue.

“Don’t tell anyone, but I’m really quite a kinky little bitch,” she whispered in his ear, her voice husky and dripping with so much lust Terry felt his cock stir in his pants.

They leant against each other in comfortable silence and watched the party swing and flow around them. It had turned into a perfect summer night, warm without being sweaty. Being here, with an absolutely gorgeous woman, Terry felt truly alive for the first time in his life.

Unfortunately it didn’t take long for the fly in the ointment to return. The big guy, Neil, came back and stood on the other side of the table. His eyes were apologetic and his whole stance radiated contrition, albeit with a hefty amount of alcohol induced instability.

“I want to apologise,” Neil said. “I was out of order back there. That was the booze talking. I didn’t mean to belt you like that, especially on account of you being… you know…”

Ill. Sick. Weak. Pathetic. Which word would you prefer? Terry thought. Why did people have to be so awkward about it? It wasn’t as if it was their fault, or they could do anything about it.

“Let me buy you a drink. Make it up to you,” Neil said. He held out a hand.

“Sure,” Terry said.

The apology was appreciated, but after fetching them new drinks Neil didn’t leave. Instead he squeezed onto the seat next to Terry and didn’t show any inclination of leaving any time soon. His presence brought an awkward silence to the table. He stared at Nicole as if he couldn’t take his eyes off her. There was something dangerous there, a spark bordering on obsession.

Terry wasn’t sure what to do about him. He’d dearly like to tell him to fuck off, but he suspected that would only make the big man violent again. They could move away, but there was no guarantee he wouldn’t just follow them. Instead they tried to ignore him. It was difficult for Terry as he found the other man’s presence stifling. Nicole had no such problems though and was adept enough to divert Terry’s thoughts away from their unwelcome visitor. In the company of a girl as beguiling as Nicole it really wasn’t that hard to tune out the rest of the world.

“How much?” Neil said, suddenly slapping a couple of crisp notes onto the table.

They were hundred pound notes, Terry realised. Neil held his hand over them, showing off a solid gold watch that must have cost several grand. He stared at Nicole, eyes flecked with steely determination.

Terry looked at her with a nauseous feeling in the pit of his stomach. He couldn’t hope to match that kind of money. Nicole was as still as the flawless sculpture she resembled. She dabbed her vivid red lips with her tongue.

“I’ve been watching you all night,” Neil said to Nicole. “There’s no way you’d be here with him unless he’d paid you.”

Neil turned to Terry. “Not that I blame you for doing it. Makes perfect sense given your… condition. You’re playing in the big leagues now though.”

He turned back to Nicole.

“So how much to forget this guy and leave with me right now?”

There was a pause. Terry glanced from Nicole to Neil and then back again. Neil’s face was determined, Nicole’s impassive. She was going to leave with him, Terry thought, a sickening feeling growing in his stomach.