Have you ever looked at someone in the street and wished you had their life? Just like that, without knowing anything real about them? Because it happens to me all the time.
Yesterday I saw a girl getting off the bus at Westbourne Grove: pink fleecy sweater, lime-green lacy skirt, a fake fuschia flower in her dark hair, big trendy trainers which made her thin ankles look almost spindly. Matte white skin, straight black fringe and narrow hips. Notting Hill goes to Chinatown. She didn't look at all like me. I wanted to be that girl so badly I could feel the yearning around me like an aura.
It's not that I dislike my life, or my clothes. But somehow they're never enough. Without giving up myself, I want to be the girl on the bus too. Every time I walk into a clothes store I want every nice thing on the racks, no matter if it doesn't suit me, still less if I already have an item so similar at home that nobody but me would know the difference between them. I still crave them.
At this point you may well be thinking that this must be the shallowest expression of dissatisfaction imaginable. I want the world, but how narrowly I want it, how obsessed I am with myself -- mainly with how I look. Forget travel, new perspectives, new adventures; I just want to keep transforming myself until I can be, for a brief moment, anyone I want to be. But even then I run the risk of leaving the house as the girl on the bus and seeing someone else in a club whose identity I suddenly want to assume instead. Somehow, all common sense to the contrary, I think that if I finally get my appearance right then everything deeper than my skin will fall into place too.
I do know how ridiculous that is. But I keep on believing it. Wait for it, though. I am capable of being even shallower than this. I can't even stay faithful to a perfume or a jeans label. How can I, when I'm being constantly seduced by reams of advertising and product placements? No matter how well I know that the brand of jeans I wear is the best I'll ever find, I keep trying the latest thing to hit the billboards in the hope of a miracle transformation. You never know, they just might be the pair that will turn me into the model who's wearing them. And the disappointment never lasts long enough for me to realize how unrealistic my fantasies are, because there's always something else new to try, and something after that...
A few days ago I went into the supermarket, the big one a couple of bus stops down the road. I practically never shop at supermarkets because I just don't have the time; if I'm not eating out -- which I usually do, because it's my job -- I grab a sandwich at lunchtime and some frozen meal for dinner, calorie-counted and microwave-ready, perfect for the working girl in a hurry and on a perpetual diet. But last Sunday, for some reason, I got the impulse to stock up my store cupboards. I think it was residual guilt from my job. I'm a food PR. I spend my days promoting restaurants, TV shows featuring the chefs from the restaurants, and -- often equally lucrative -- the spin-off cookbooks from both. I had spent most of the previous week on the phone, trying to convince dubious journalists that the latest cookbook by one of my clients would transform the way they looked at food. "Just a few simple ingredients...fresh reinterpretations of all those classic old recipes we used to love...no more than twenty minutes in the kitchen..." Blah, blah, blah. The usual string of tired old clichés. Of course I assured them that for me, personally (that redundant word which cretins think sounds extra-sincere), cooking my way through the wretched tome had been an almost life-changing experience. The truth was that I had barely even rifled through its glossy pages. And, contemplating the dusty, bare shelves in my kitchen cupboards that evening, I was filled with shame. Two tins of kidney beans past their sell-by dates and an opened bag of couscous, probably ditto.
I was a disgrace to my profession. Hence the trip to the supermarket. I had forgotten how intimidating they could be, and how enormous. My nemesis, surreally enough, came in the form of the tinned tomato aisle. That there could even be a whole aisle devoted to tinned tomatoes was extraordinary. I stood there, frozen with indecision. Should I go for the own-brand stuff, which was bound to be reliable if not exciting? Or the heavily advertised labels, rich in celebrity endorsements? Or the Italian ones, which would look much more authentic on my shelves? Chopped or whole? Flavored or plain? And should I also consider the bottles of passata -- but, if I went for passata, did I want it smooth or chunky? There were tomatoes with chilli, basil, cumin, garlic, onion, garlic and onion, Italian herbs, five-spice, mixed peppers, even fennel seed. I mused for a moment about the eccentric in Product Research who had thought there would really be a demand for chopped tomatoes with fennel seed.
The aisle seemed to expand before me, stretching out to either side like a computer-generated hallucination. Tomatoes to right of me, tomatoes to left of me. It was the tomato Valley of Death. Gingerly I reached out and dropped a tin of chopped tomatoes with mixed peppers into my trolley. Then one of cherry tomatoes in their own juice (as opposed, I assumed, to somebody else's), then a jar of chunky passata with garlic and onion. Then the five-spice tomatoes, and one with Italian herbs. And I needed tomato purée as well. But did I want it plain or with mixed vegetable concentrate? And maybe I should get a tube of sundried tomato purée too...
By the time I had finished my supermarket tour my trolley was so full I looked as if I were stocking up a nuclear shelter. I could barely get it all into my kitchen cupboards. Not really knowing what I wanted, I had bought one of practically everything. I tried to reassure myself by the reflection that the excesses of globalized capitalism offered us far too many choices. The only way to remain sane was to limit these drastically by -- for instance -- refusing to buy any tomatoes but chopped ones with mixed peppers, wearing any jeans but one's usual brand, and sticking to the same sexual partner as long as one could.
It made a lot of sense. But that was the irony. Ever since I had broken up with my long-term boyfriend, I had been happily working my way through large quantities of young men of most conceivable flavors, not to mention textures. Smooth, chunky, coarsely chopped...Just as in the supermarket, I had been collecting at least one of practically everything; and yet, throughout this happy odyssey, I had never once felt overwhelmed by choice.
Quite the contrary. Some pretty twenty-five-year-old would catch my eye in a club and I would think, "Hmn, he looks like James -- no, the one I'm thinking of wasn't called James -- what was he called? Anyway, mmn, interesting: a toned-up version of what's-his-name! I wonder what that would be like?" Or, if the guy were out of my usual range: "Oooh, look at that bleached blond hair. He's skinny, isn't he -- God, those cheekbones. Haven't had anything like him before. Definitely not a natural blond. I wonder what that would be like?" It came to much the same thing in the end.
No, picking them off the shelf had never been the problem. And afterward it was equally simple; the length of time it lasted was dictated by a basic equation: how good the sex was, multiplied by how easy it was to hang out with them when we weren't having sex, equals a time limit that could be anything from a few hours to a few months. Up till now, the math had worked, and it had been pretty blissful. But little did I know that the supermarket incident was some sort of cosmic warning that the tectonic plates on which my life was based were beginning to shift. Earthquake alert.
In retrospect, the signs were clear enough. An uncharacteristic attempt at domesticity; the sensation of being swamped by choice, rather than relishing it; the hopelessness that overcame me when I had finally made my selection and carried it back to my lair; and, most significantly, the profound wish simply to stuff it all into a cupboard because I didn't really know what I wanted to do with it.
It wasn't very fair on Tom, though. I do feel a bit guilty about that. But after all this time of happily cruising along, how could I tell that I was about to stall so precipitately? And Tom was just the start. It was like some awful parody of that saying that you always remember the first man you have sex with. Poor Tom would certainly be burned into my mind as the first man I --
I'm rushing ahead. I'll start at the beginning. Rolling around on a sofa at a conference with a near-stranger trying to undo my bra.
I do pick my moments for cosmic revelations.
I wasn't expecting any sofa action at all that weekend. There are rarely any good-looking men at conferences, and the few that are tend to be gay. It's pretty much an axiom of the circuit. PR women are usually better looking, but I'm so much less judgmental about other women's looks. I see their good points as well as the soft spots. I'm much harder on myself than I am on my friends, or even other women. I'm not as slim as I would like to be and I punish myself for that by thinking about it constantly. My friends don't notice those extra pounds, and my boyfriends either don't notice or don't care; men have a wonderful ability to concentrate on the good bits. It's almost as refined as a woman's ability to pick out her own bad ones.
There are plenty of thin girls at cookery conferences, contrary to what you might think. But, equally, they are not generally as popular with men as most women imagine. I know this perfectly well from long years of experience. And yet I can't stop flogging myself about that extra half-stone, probably because the issue isn't men at all. It's perfection. I'm very good at my job, and I want to be that good at everything else, all the time. That I can't is the cross to which I'm nailed. Which, incidentally, must weigh a lot more than half a stone; if I could just put it down things might even themselves out...
I could tell, even across the room, that the young man I was ogling wasn't gay. His blond hair was disheveled, and though his sweater was perfectly nice it was slightly creased and too loose-fitting for him to have been anything but straight, considering that the torso beneath looked in good condition. If he were gay, he would have shown it off more. Besides, he was talking to a group of people and his long arms -- he was very tall -- were flailing at the air with an awkwardness that any gay man would have mastered by his teenage years.
Actually, he looked oddly familiar. He must have sensed my speculative gaze: turning around, he caught my eye and waved enthusiastically. I still didn't recognize him but the gesture was, naturally enough, more than welcome.
"Hey!" he said, surging across the room to my side with the enthusiasm and clumsiness of a Labrador puppy after a sudden growth spurt. "You're Juliet Cooper, aren't you? You probably don't remember me. We met at the opening of Samsara, you know, that bar on Charlotte Street? Three years ago? I'm Tom."
I racked my brains to remember the conversation we might have had. Or even to place his name.
"I made you a dry martini with a twist," he added helpfully. "Gin, not vodka."
Oh no. A barman.
"You have a really good memory," I said politely.
Now I had a classic dilemma. I wasn't doing either waiters or barmen any longer. Waiters and barmen were practically always dissatisfied with their jobs, no matter how much money they were making, and I had resolved a long time ago to put the struggling artist/writer/musician phase firmly behind me. In my twenties it had been fine, but at thirty-three, with a proper job, the imbalance was too great. I was happy with my life, and making good money, factors that the struggling wannabees all too quickly started to resent.
But Tom was undeniably eager, and I was charmed by that. He looked like a big fresh hunk of meat, the kind you could sink your teeth deep into and still never reach the other side. I was still debating my no-barmen rule when he added, pushing back a large chunk of fair hair which had flopped over his forehead, "But I'm not working at Samsara any more."
"Oh?" I said cautiously.
"No, thank God. Enough was enough. I've got into organizing events. I'm on the staff here, actually."
"Got bored with having to remember every food PR's favorite drink?" I said, trying not to smirk. An events organizer was definitely possible.
"I broke too many bottles to be a good barman," he said cheerfully. "Boyish charm can take you only so far."
"Funny, too," I commented appreciatively.
"As well as what?"
I looked up at him -- he was unnecessarily tall -- and I was tempted to give him the answer he wanted. But he looked like he would blush too easily.
"As well as making a good martini," I said.
"I didn't think you remembered," he said, looking hugely flattered. I had been right, he really was like a puppy -- one that knows you have a treat for it and is jumping around your ankles, panting in happy expectation, its big eyes wide. And who can resist a cute puppy looking for love?
"It's coming back to me," I said.
And it was, actually. That floppy, straw-blond fringe, those dangerously over-quick movements...
But just then I spotted a food critic I really needed to talk to coming out of the lift.
"I've just seen someone I need to catch up with," I said apologetically to Tom, nodding in Jemima's direction.
"Oh yeah, sure. Well, really nice to see you again. Will you be around later? At the banquet?"
I bet that he would search me out. And if he didn't, I would make sure we bumped into each other. I found myself smiling as I headed off to talk to Jemima.
"Who was that?" she said, squinting after Tom. "Trust you to find the good-looking ones, Juliet."
"Oh, just some ex-barman," I said, truthfully enough.
She lost interest immediately, as I had known she would. I don't mean to say that neither of us would have been interested in Tom if he'd still been a barman/waiter/whatever; but, if we'd slept with him, we'd probably be pretty drunk, and we certainly wouldn't tell anyone but our closest friends about it. That wasn't snobbery -- it was career politics. Women couldn't afford to get a reputation for screwing around, and particularly not with the hired help. Very unfair. Men could shag waitresses till the cows came home and no one would blink an eye.
Even after I'd finished telling Jemima all about some posh chocolates I was promoting, I realized I was still smiling. It was Tom. His enthusiasm for seeing me had been infectious.
"You're much nicer to me now that I'm an events organizer," Tom said much later, as we milled around the wreckage of the awards banquet. The tables were littered with what, an hour or so ago, had been enticing sources of pleasure. Now all the crème brûlée was eaten, the dessert wine drunk, the petits fours demolished, the tablecloths thoroughly stained, and cigarettes stubbed out in every available container. It looked like Attila and most of the Huns had stopped by for dinner. Smoke hung in the air, as thick as dry ice.
I picked at the remains of my crème brûlée. Hotel banquet food is never that good, even at food awards dinners, but we're all greedy, we all need some reward for having to network and make nice all day, and so by God we all stuff our faces anyway.
Tom had tracked me down with a couple of martinis -- gin, with a twist -- which he had taken the trouble to make himself.
"Thanks," I said, taking one of the martinis. It wasn't an after-dinner cocktail, but his making it was a signal to me that (a) he remembered what I liked, and (b) he was eager to give it to me. The approach was as subtle as a tongue sandwich. Young men in their mid-twenties are like heat-seeking missiles, and most attempts to treat them as anything else will go badly wrong. I was more than happy with this attitude to life, which explained why I was finding it so bloody hard to give up young men in their mid-twenties.
"Mmn, not bad," I said, sipping the martini.
"Bombay Sapphire," he said. "I heard you signed up Liam O'Donnell, by the way. Congratulations! I bet everyone was after him."
I nodded, trying to sound modest. "I'm really pleased."
The alcohol was beginning to get to me, not to mention the four-course dinner. My brain felt like a vodka-soaked sponge. Across the room I glimpsed Gill, one of my best friends, through a cloud of smoke. She was sitting at a table talking to some people; as I watched, she reached out and took the untouched ramekin of crème brûlée from the person next to her. I couldn't hear her words from this distance but she was obviously asking him if he minded. He shook his head, pantomiming an enormous stomach with his hands. Gill dug in with gusto. There were two empty ramekins in front of her already.
Gill had never been thin, but since her marriage she had been growing steadily plumper. The extra flesh suited her, but I knew she wasn't happy about it. How could one be, in a society where women were supposed to look like boys with breasts? Gill's husband, Jeremy, was very reassuring: he always told her that if she put on weight it was a hazard of her job, and simply meant there was more of her to love. Which sounded wonderful, until you knew how much loving, in a practical sense, actually went on in that household.
I shuddered. I considered marriage the deathknell to all the principal sources of fun in my life. It wasn't even a distant shadow on my horizon. I was far too busy gathering my rosebuds while I might.
"Hey," said the current rosebud, "you've finished your martini. D'you want another?"
I was surprised, and a little shocked, to realize that I had thrown it back so quickly.
"Maybe later," I said.
I needed a line to clear my head. I looked up at Tom, wondering what I actually wanted to do with him. He was sweet, he was keen and he had a very nice body. I certainly wanted to have a good flirt. It was my favorite hobby. Nothing like it for whiling away an evening that would otherwise be spent in an endless round of work gossip. Besides, there were hardly any good-looking men here, and I was sure the attention he was giving me hadn't gone unnoticed. I am shallow and vain. I wanted to keep him by my side. I liked the thought that a few people would be commenting on Juliet's new conquest; it made me feel more secure, specifically about the amount of crème brûlée I had eaten. I might not be the thinnest girl here, but I certainly had the most attractive, and youngest, man. And if I went to queue for the toilet someone else would try to snap him up while I was away, meaning I would have to reclaim him. Which would take effort. Not to mention showing my hand.
The words left my mouth without any conscious awareness of my having pronounced them.
"Do you want to do some coke?" I said.
We ended up in Tom's room. It was closer. And, naturally, it was a carbon copy of mine, which was four floors above in the same wing. The similarity made me feel at home immediately. I kicked off my shoes and curled up on the sofa, tapping coke out on to the glass-topped coffee table as easily as if I had done this before. Which I had, on mine, a few hours earlier.
In about thirty seconds Tom had the lights dimmed, the TV on -- he skipped quickly through the pre-ordered porn channels with an embarrassed grin -- and had joined me on the sofa. His big frame weighed down the cushions so that I found myself sliding toward him. I didn't mind that. I prefer men to be larger than me. I have a rule never to date anyone whose jeans I can't fit into.
I could feel Tom's stare on the side of my head, as intent as two barrels of a shotgun trained on their target.
"Hey," I said, tapping the table. "Drugs."
It was, after all, what we were allegedly here for. Proper procedures had to be observed.
"Whoo!" he said, tilting his head back and sniffing enthusiastically.
"D'you have anything to drink up here?" I asked.
I'd meant just to do some coke and go back downstairs; there were still lots of people I wanted to see. But I needed some alcohol to settle my nerves -- the line had been bigger than I'd meant to do -- so we had a glass of white wine each, fast, and then I was feeling tipsy and cut us a couple of smaller lines, just to maintain the balance, and by that time Tom had found an action film on the TV which was in its final spasm of violent explosion, so we had to watch the end of that. The hero was huge and practically plated in muscle. Excellent. His jeans would be much too big for me.
Still, I was unable to really kick back and let the film take me over. Tom's presence was too distracting. That tension was building up between us, that tension which needs to be either detonated or defused. And, as always, it was me holding the grenade. The men are usually eager to hand it to you, but in the end it's the woman who has to decide whether to take the pin out. I put down my glass.
"Do you want another drink?" Tom said, already half on his feet.
"No," I said, drawing out the word, rather evilly prolonging his moment of doubt.
He looked at me, blue eyes wide as saucers, still not quite believing what was about to happen.
"Then...um...what..." he mumbled.
I patted the sofa cushion right next to me, smiling at him. Tom shot toward me, dangerously fast. His limbs were so long and substantial that his attempts to rearrange himself on what was not a very large sofa gave rise to a good deal of shifting of pillows, elbows and knees sticking out at crazed angles, and muffled curses. It brought back the vivid memory of a tall skinny friend trying to fit himself into the back of a Fiat Uno; he had had to fold himself up like a slide rule, his knees scraping the ceiling.
When the curses had subsided and Tom had reached a more comfortable position, I took his face in my hands and kissed him.
He was very good at it. It's odd how often people's normal behavior doesn't necessarily reflect what they're like when they're kissing you, or having sex. Tom, who I had guessed might be clumsy, turned out to be tentative and exploratory and a very skilled tease. God, I loved this. Our hands wound in each other's hair, my tongue running around Tom's ear...I breathed out gently as I took his lobe in my teeth and he let out a sound of pleasure halfway between a grunt and a moan.
As I traced my tongue down his neck, feeling him shudder beneath my steadying hands, pushing his head sideways so I could get at that lovely long muscle in his shoulder, I had a moment of déjà vu. I was enjoying this tremendously, and as far as I was concerned Tom could do the same back to me all night and I would be deliriously happy. Still, it had just struck me how few things there really were to do, how limited the repertoire was. You kiss someone, then you bite their ears, lick their necks, raise them up so you can reach lower down, nibble with sharp teeth at their fingers...how many times had I done this before?
Tom pulled me firmly on to his lap and started kissing me purposefully. I melted. He was sliding the straps of my dress off my shoulders, kissing them all the way down. I tilted my head to watch what he was doing and found myself sliding my thumb into his mouth. It was so hot and wet I moaned.
"Bite it," I said, slipping the pad over one of his canines. He bit down, gently at first, then stronger. I shivered. Our eyes met above his mouth, my hand, as if we were watching ourselves having sex. He sucked my thumb into his mouth impatiently. I pulled it back and licked off his saliva, never taking my eyes from his.
Then we grabbed at each other. Sofa cushions flew; the sofa itself rocked on its castors. I was straddling him, rubbing up and down against him, kissing him so hard he thrashed like a fish beneath me, his hands reaching around my bottom, up my back, pulling down my dress. He kissed my breasts through the lace of my bra. It was wonderful; I threw my head back and saw myself as if from a long way away, like a girl in a porno film. I never knew whether this was a good thing, because it made me feel incredibly sexy, or a bad one, because it made me feel self-conscious. Still, my groin was grinding away at Tom's with a will of its own, at that moment when the preliminaries have really kicked in and the body is fully charged and ready to go, screaming, "Mate! Mate!" as insistently as all the fire alarms in the building going off at once, a cacophony of whooping sirens and flashing red lights.
Tom would have fucked me then and there if I'd let him, ripped off my knickers and shoved himself up inside me with a great groan of release. And then, fifteen minutes later, it would have been over and we would have been avoiding each other's gazes as I collected my clothes and he started snoring. There was a chance it might not have gone like that, of course. Call me cynical if you must. I would just love to meet a guy who didn't rush anything, who already knew that sex was so much better the more you built up to it, especially the first time, a guy who could fool around for hours without ever having to be reined in. But then, I like enthusiastic twenty-five-year-olds. I am a creature of infinite contradiction. As Gillian says when she needs to get herself out of a particularly tricky corner: "I am Woman, I am Mystery."
But why the hell was all this rushing through my brain right now? Why was I thinking about anything else but the immediate and, on the available evidence, really good sex that I was imminently about to have?
Tom reached up for me.
"Are you OK?" he mumbled.
I shook my head to clear it.
"Of course!" I said, hoping I sounded more sure than I felt. My dress was around my waist. Tom's shirt was gaping open over his wide, smooth chest -- for such a big guy he had the tiniest, pertest little pink nipples...I bent my head and licked around one in an exploratory mission. Some guys loved this and some couldn't care less. Tom seemed to fit into the former category. Heat was coming off him in waves. I breathed it in. As my breasts came into contact with his stomach the warmth soaked through my bra and made them tingle, as hot as if he had been rubbing them with his hands. It was intoxicating.
"Do you like this?" I mumbled against his chest.
"Yes -- yes -- " he groaned. God, he was so smooth, his skin so fair. I hadn't had a blond guy in ages, I had forgotten how pale they could be...
Tom sat up with a start and put one hand firmly between my legs. He seemed to be getting hotter and hotter; it was like being scalded. I rubbed myself against him, kissing him as he stroked the heel of his palm against me, feeling myself go, another restraining cord snapping, tethered less and less to the ground of reason. With his other hand he ripped down one of the cups of my bra and put his mouth to my nipple. I felt like crying.
Why? Why did I feel like crying? Where had that come from?
"Tom," I said feebly against the top of his head. His hair was soft and silky and smelled of pine needles. He was busy with my nipple, tracing his tongue around and around it till the poor thing didn't know whether it was coming or going.
"Yes?" he said, his voice muffled by me.
But I didn't know what I meant to say. It was too stupid. Something in my head had slammed on the brakes so hard that I was skidding all over the place.
He looked up from my breast. His eyes were literally glazed with lust; there was a shiny film over them like sugar icing. I realized I had stopped grinding myself into his hand.
"Is everything OK?" he said.
"Yes. But no. I mean, yes, this is great, but no, it's not OK. I mean -- " I stammered myself to a halt, baffled and furious with myself.
"Is something wrong?"
"I don't KNOW!" I said angrily.
Switching into sensitive-man mode, Tom put on his best reassuring voice.
"We don't have to have sex if you don't want to," he said, very nobly, considering the erection that was currently pushing insistently at the inside of my right thigh, nudging me like a cat which head-butts when it wants to be stroked.
"But I DO!" I insisted. I reached for him, but the gesture didn't work. My hand fell back from his shoulder limply.
"Or we could just go on doing this," he suggested, flicking a warm thumb over my nipple.
It felt very pleasant, and yet something inside me curled back from the sensation, as if it were wrapping itself up into a ball, not wanting to be touched.
"No," I said, more confused than ever. "We'd go mad."
"So -- we should stop."
I couldn't believe this was happening to me. Still, I wasn't going to think about it now. If I did it felt as if my head would explode all over the sofa.
"OK," he said in what was almost a whimper. I felt horribly guilty.
I eased myself reluctantly off him. My body was screaming: "What are you doing? Stay! I need to FORNICATE!" and I felt as guilty toward it as I did toward Tom. What had I done to both of us? Was I going mad? And yet, somehow, I was automatically readjusting my clothing, slipping the straps of my dress back over my shoulders, and finding my shoes. I had just found the second one under the sofa -- I managed to extract it without bending over in any way that could have been considered provocative, as I didn't feel this would help matters much -- and was doing up the ankle strap when Tom suggested:
"Why don't I walk you back to your room?"
For some maudlin, drink-sodden, guilt-stricken reason, I was touched by this.
"OK," I said.
Just in front of the door to Tom's room was a door leading to the stairwell. It had already occurred to me that any lift we took was likely to be stuffed with drunken revelers. I wanted to keep this whole Tom thing as quiet as possible. If people were going to tease me about it, I wanted at least to have worked out in my own head what they were teasing me about. Besides, if anyone found out that I had had him in my grasp and spared him, as it were, my reputation would take a knock. I didn't want anyone to think I was going soft in my old age. Oh God, was that it? Was I getting too old to shag?
Of course, I shouldn't have accepted Tom's offer of an escort to my room. But I had jumped at it as a way of having company as long as possible. I really didn't want to be alone with my thoughts right now. Thank God it was only four floors up to my room, though the stairs weren't much fun in heels. I stuck my head into the corridor for a quick recce to see if any people I knew were staggering back to their rooms. The coast was clear, as far as I could see through the glass panel of the fire door halfway down the hall. All systems go. I scooted along to the fire door pulling Tom behind me -- it was a damn obstacle course, this hotel. And those doors were so heavy you could knock yourself out on them. Lawsuits just waiting to happen.
Just as I wrested it open, I saw Henry Ridgley appear further down the corridor, from the direction of the lifts. He was placing his feet with that resolution of purpose which, combined with the uncoordinated swaying of his upper body, denoted extreme drunkenness. He paused for a moment to study the directional arrows, working out which way to take for his room. I crossed my fingers that he would turn away from us.
Then the fire door banged shut behind Tom.
parThe sound caught Henry's attention. He turned his head and stared blearily down the length of the corridor toward me. I froze in my tracks. Tom stumbled into my back.
"What's up?" he said impatiently.
There was nothing for it. I proceeded along the corridor, keeping my head ducked and my gaze fixed to the diamond pattern on the carpet -- red and salmon and green, how tasteful -- followed closely by Tom. Henry was still fixing us with an intent though vacant stare.
At least we didn't have to pass him. My room was about halfway down that wing of the corridor. I fumbled my card key out of my bag and shoved it into the door. It whirred, flashed a red light, and spat the wretched card out again. I could have screamed.
"Shooliet? Is tha' you?"
Damn. Henry had finally identified me.
"Shooliet!" He was lumbering toward us. Everything about him sagged; his trouser knees, his stomach, his breasts, his jowls.
"Shoo won't believe what that bashtard Folcombe jusht shaid to me! Shooliet!"
I managed to get the card back into the slot. The heavens were more merciful this time. It whirred again, the light flashed green and I heard the lock disengage.
"Quick, get in!" I said to Tom, holding the door open for him. He shot me a baffled glance. I shoved him bodily through the door.
Tom's slowness might have been fatal; Henry was almost upon me. There wasn't enough time to get inside myself and close the door. My brain raced around my skull like a rocket-charged pinball, desperately trying to find a way to avoid Henry without mortally offending him. He was one of the most important food critics in Britain; if he took against me I would shortly find myself doing PR for Burger King. And besides, I actually sort of liked him.
"Shooliet!" Henry was crying petulantly. "Wait! I need to talk to you!"
"Ist das die Hotel fur die Autobahn?" I said in a polite voice. "Meine kleine Liebchen ist bin der Wirklistshaft. Und ich sind Fräulein Greta Hauernbahnhof."
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled at him tolerantly in the kind of way that Greta Hauernbahnhof, being a nice, courteous sprig of Teutonic womanhood, might conceivably do if the cognac-sodden food critic of the Sunday Herald and Mode had just mistaken her for someone else and shouted incoherent English at her in a hotel corridor at two in the morning. Maybe I should have made her a Frau, so that it could have been Herr Hauernbahnhof shooting into her bedroom, but you can't think of everything. Greta was obviously a bit of a party girl.
Henry looked baffled but unconvinced.
"Es tot mir leid. Grussen Gott," I said, and did the shrug/polite smile combination once more.
"But -- but -- " Henry stammered. "Aren't you..." He fell back, going noticeably paler. "Oh my God," he muttered to himself. "Doppelgänger! German doppelggänger! How much cognac did I have?"
He covered his face with his hands and shrank back against the far wall.
"Achtung!" I said rather helplessly.
I wished there was some way I could reassure Henry that he wasn't going mad, but I couldn't do it without blowing Greta's cover. I slipped inside, shut the door, locked it and slid the bolt. I stood for a moment with my back to the door, breathing deeply, the way women always do in films.
parThe corridor was eerily silent. I peeped into the spyhole. Henry was still standing there, his hands over his face. As I watched, he removed one then the other with extreme caution, squinting through the fingers. He turned his head to look from side to side, obviously nervous of the prospect of hundreds of Juliet-lookalikes talking pig-German to him popping out of all the doors, one by one, like a Busby Berkeley musical with dream sequences by Salvador Dali.
"Are you OK?" Tom said in what to my panicked senses was nearly a shout. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring at me as if I had lost my mind.
I threw myself across the room and shoved my hand against his mouth.
"That was Henry Ridgley!" I whispered into his ear, paranoid that Henry, in his extreme state of disorientation, might be listening at the door.
"Well, I know that," Tom said through my hand.
"He's a terrible gossip. I can't believe you don't know that. He's famous for it."
"I haven't been doing this job very long," he said rather stiffly.
I looked down at him. I knew exactly what was going through his mind. When you're younger -- till the end of your twenties, say -- you don't care about gossip half so much. You don't understand the reasons for keeping something quiet, not flaunting yourself in the bar with someone who you may never have sex with again after that evening; you think that if someone doesn't want to be seen in public with you it means that they're ashamed of you. Of course this is often the case, but not always. It takes a while to appreciate the true values of discretion.
Out in the corridor I could hear the slow heavy steps which were Henry lumbering away from the scene of his hallucination. Tom took my hand away. He looked cross, offended and on the verge of leaving.
"I'm sorry," I said against his mouth. "I'm just a bit paranoid about Henry."
"Really. It's not you," I assured him. "You're gorgeous. It's me. I'm so sorry. This has never happened to me before."
He burst out laughing.
"You sound like you're apologizing for not being able to get it up," he managed to get out between whoops of laughter.
It was funny, I could see that. But somehow the impotency comparison didn't do much for my morale. Still, Tom was completely restored to his natural good humor.
"Here," he said, lying down on the bed. "Come and have a hug. I'd better wait a few minutes before I go back to my room in case Henry's still wandering the corridors."
He was so considerate. I curled up next to him in the crook of his arm. He kissed the top of my head. We hadn't turned on any lights and the room was illuminated only by a light I had carelessly left on in the bathroom. I closed my eyes. This was very restful.
My face was like raw steak. I wouldn't have believed a blond could have so much stubble on him. It felt as if he'd been going at me with a toothbrush for hours. The last conscious thought I had before passing out with exhaustion was to wonder if I had packed my extra-heavy night cream. I was going to need it.
Copyright © 2002 by Lauren Henderson