Still proofing The Cinnamon Snail. Here are the first three chapters. It should be ready to go up on Amazon in the next week.
THE CINNAMON SNAIL
A novel by ROSEMARY WHITTAKER
‘Please be out,’ I beg silently as the intercom shrills and echoes up inside Marie’s flat. ‘Either out or called away to an acrylic nail calamity.’
Christian and I are waiting outside the flat at eight o’clock exactly. Christian hates being late for anything. He likes to extract the maximum enjoyment from every situation. He rings the bell again and smiles at me. ‘You have brought the flowers?’
I nod and wave the orchids, creamy and delicate in their cellophane jacket.
‘Wonderful! Marie loves orchids. That was a clever choice.’
‘What wine did you bring?’ I ask, not because the name will mean anything to me but because I want to return the compliment.
‘Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc. You can’t go wrong there, can you?’
I shake my head. If he’d said two bottles of Blue Nun and one of Chianti, I’d have been none the wiser.
The buzzer shrieks and he leans towards it. ‘Marie, it’s not terrorists – it’s us! Now let us in, we’re freezing out here!’
The door clicks and swings open and I follow him up the stairs. Jeremy and Marie are standing in the doorway. His arm is around her shoulders. I notice she’s had her hair freshly highlighted and I push my own hair behind my ears before she can see that it’s still just the same boring colour, despite the card she slipped threateningly into my hand the last time we met.
‘Darlings!’ She leans an inch or two towards me and wafts a breathy kiss in my direction. I know the drill now and waft one back. The first time I met her and she leaned in, I kissed her cheek and she jumped as though I had shot her.
‘Kate.’ Jeremy takes advantage of the fact that Marie now has both arms round Christian’s neck, to wave at me, shrugging his shoulders to show he can’t get near. I don’t care. He and I aren’t exactly kindred spirits. If Jeremy and Marie weren’t Christian’s friends, I’d happily never see either of them again and I suspect the feeling is mutual.
Marie unpeels herself reluctantly from Christian and steps back. ‘You get more handsome each time I see you, darling. Come in, come in. Dinner’s ready. And that’s a lovely necklace, Kate,’ she throws over her shoulder as she disappears into the reception room behind. I have learned to refer to it as The Space.
Jeremy takes my coat and hangs it in the concealed nook behind the door. ‘Drinks, anyone?’
‘I’ll have my usual, thanks.’ Christian sinks into the white leather sofa and waves at me to join him.
‘What about you, Kate?’
What on earth is Christian’s usual? I usually wait until he asks for something then say I’ll have the same.
‘Yeah, sounds good to me,’ I say as confidently as I can, wondering what I have let myself in for.
Dinner at Marie and Jeremy’s is always a bit of an ordeal but Christian loves them both, so we meet up at least once a month, either at their ultra-minimalist flat in Belgravia or at a nearby restaurant in Knightsbridge. The food at the restaurants is invariably pretentious and the prices eye-wateringly laughable but I prefer those evenings to the ones at their flat, when I spend the whole evening terrified that I will smash or maim one of their boring but priceless minimalist artefacts. At a restaurant, there are always waiters and other diners around to distract attention from me and the fact that I have absolutely nothing to say to these people, or they to me. They tolerate me as a hanger on for the sake of getting hold of Christian for the evening. Everyone loves him, me included. He is witty, well-read, moves effortlessly between the groups in which he finds himself and on top of that he is decorative, unbelievably and unfairly decorative. Even if he sat silent like me, scrabbling frantically for something to say, he would be welcome simply for the golden glow he casts across the table.
Marie pops her head round the door. ‘Nearly ready, darlings! Did I tell you that Milla and Rupe are coming too? They’ll be a little late.’
‘Fantastic!’ says Christian. He loves crowds.
‘Great,’ I add gloomily. Milla intimidates me even more than Marie. It’s not just her endless legs and her immaculate hair. It’s her air of confidence, the certainty that whatever happens, she is all right, everyone will love her and she will succeed at anything she tries. Whenever she is in the room, I feel myself subsiding into a huddle of self-consciousness and I try not to speak in case I embarrass myself. Luckily, Christian is always happy to do the talking for both of us. It’s not that he tries to be the centre of attention but somehow, when he is in a room, people cluster round him, warming themselves at his gregariousness. They like how unassuming he is about his achievements, his looks and his charisma. He draws people out so that they feel good about themselves too.
He did it with me too, the first time we met, at another party – my flatmate Becca’s work Christmas do. She’s a brilliant architect but hates forced socialising so she insisted I came along too, promising all sorts of good-looking and talented men. I have no idea if she was telling the truth because I saw Christian immediately I walked in and spent the entire evening staring at him as he moved easily from one group to another. I saw everyone light up as he joined them and watched how they subsided back into clusters of uneasy, boring people once he moved on. I waited for him to come to us and eventually, just before midnight, he did.
‘Saving the best until last!’ he smiled as he shook our hands.
‘What’s that accent?’ I asked and immediately felt stupid. I should either have known at once what it was or not been gauche enough to show I even noticed it.
‘I am from Denmark. Clever of you to notice, no one else has commented.’
I glanced quickly at him to make sure he wasn’t being sarcastic but his smile was open and friendly and he didn’t look annoyed.
‘Your English is very good,’ I said stupidly.
‘You’re very kind. We start to learn it very early in Denmark. No one else speaks our language so we must speak theirs!’ He smiled again and I found myself smiling back and studying his face more closely
‘And my mother was British,’ he added.
‘She died when I was a teenager but we often spoke English at home so we boys would have better opportunities. And you? Are you Irish by any chance?’
‘I only meant that you have that wavy, dark hair and those dark blue eyes. It’s not that usual, I think?’
‘I’m from Dorset so you’re a fair way out geographically, I’m afraid.’
‘I haven’t been there yet. I have been mostly around the London area. But I would like to see more of the country. Maybe you will show me Dorset some time?’
‘Yeah, maybe.’ I said it as coolly as possible. It wasn’t possible he could mean it. He was just making conversation. He’d probably asked every other woman at the party to show him their home county too. I wasn’t going to make a fool of myself by assuming he meant more than the usual casual chitchat.
But he rang the following day.
‘How did you get my number?’ I asked and wished I could rewind to a more sophisticated, ‘Christian?’ – thoughtful pause – ‘Oh, Christian from the party! Yes, I think I remember you.’
‘I asked someone at work and they told me you lived with Becca. So I took her number from the system at work. I hope I haven’t been rude to do so?’
In anyone else it would have been rude but I shook my head, forgetting he couldn’t see me.
‘No, that’s OK. Just don’t tell Becca.’
‘I wondered if we could meet one evening for a drink?’ he asked and I relaxed.
‘I’d love to, how about tonight?’ I kicked myself for over-enthusiasm as soon as the words left my mouth. I always plan to kick myself before the words are out of my mouth but somehow it never seems to work out that way.
‘I can do tonight.’
And so it started. I collared Becca when she arrived home that evening. ‘How long have you known Christian?’
‘Who?’ She dumped her umbrella on the table where it dripped water onto my new shoes. I crossly swooped them out of the way.
‘Christian, the Danish guy I met at the party last night. He works for your firm. You must have met him.’
‘Oh, him. He’s on the floor below me. I think he’s been over here about a year. Why?’
‘He’s just rung and asked me out for a drink. What do you know about him? Married? Girlfriend? Both?’
‘I have no idea. He’s not really my type.’ She rifled through the pile of post. ‘Anything for me?’
‘I don’t think so. How can he not be your type? He must be everyone’s type. Didn’t you see his eyes and that gorgeous wavy blonde hair?’
‘People who are everyone’s type aren’t my type. Now leave me alone. I’m starving, do you want to get Chinese?’
‘I told you, I’m meeting Christian for a drink.’
‘Oh, right. Have fun.’ And she wandered off to the kitchen to look in the fridge.
‘Of course, your type is geeky IT guys who are too stupid even to notice you,’ I whispered and felt immediately guilty. Becca and I have been friends since school. She’s lovely and has helped me out loads of times and it isn’t a crime to prefer Jon in IT to Christian. In fact, I was just as glad not to have the competition. I had a strong suspicion that there would be plenty of that ahead, if I even got as far as dating him seriously. The fact he had asked me out for a drink most likely meant nothing more than that he was at a loose end that evening.
‘Here’s your akvavit, Kate!’ says Jeremy, jolting me back into the present. He hands it to me with a lifted eyebrow.
‘Great!’ I say, taking a sip and choking. ‘I thought your usual was a martini,’ I hiss at Christian out of the corner of my mouth.
‘Yes, it is, but Jeremy keeps a really good bottle of Akvavit so I always have that when we come round here.’
I take another sip and he sees my face and laughs. ‘Hold on for one minute and I’ll finish mine and we can change glasses.’
He touches my cheek and I brush his fingers with my lips. He’s a rock on occasions like this. I wouldn’t get through them without him. He is never knowingly unkind and if he knew how uncomfortable I am in these occasions, he would probably insist we didn’t come here again. But I know how much he loves to socialise so I’m not about to spoil things for him by admitting how much I hate group events.
‘You finished that one quickly, Kate. Another one before dinner?’ says Jeremy as he passes by. I’m sure I don’t imagine the sardonic gleam in his eye.
‘No thanks but I’ll have an orange juice if you’ve got any,’ I say and push my empty glass into his hand.
‘I’ll just go and see.’
I hear him go into the kitchen and rummage around. That’s just the sort of place this is. If I asked for absinthe or a White Russian for breakfast, it wouldn’t be any problem but asking for orange juice is like demanding a chocolate cream pie at a Weight Watchers meeting. I don’t follow him in to offer any help. Marie never lets anyone into her kitchen on these occasions and I have my suspicions as to why. Her kitchen is as minimalist as the rest of the flat and frankly I’m surprised she can even make toast in it, let alone a five-course dinner for six people. Not that she would want to make toast anyway, because she is on a wheat-free, dairy-free, everything-that-tastes-of-anything-free diet.
Jeremy emerges at last. ‘Will tomato juice do you? Don’t tell Marie. I took some from the special carton she keeps for Bloody Marys. She has it delivered specially from Harrods. Southern Italian, organic tomatoes…’
‘…crushed by the feet of ten virgins at dawn?’ interrupts Christian. He looks amused. ‘Next time, Kate, get Jeremy to make you a martini.’
I take a sip. ‘This is lovely. Sorry to put you to so much trouble, Jeremy.’
‘Don’t worry. Marie won’t notice it’s gone. She’s too busy…’ he stops abruptly.
‘Serving up?’ I suggest and he nods gratefully.
‘Come on through. It’s time to eat.’
No sooner are we settled at the table than a series of shrieks from the door signals the arrival of Milla and Rupe. They waft into the room on a cushion of air kisses and ‘darlings’ and I notice without resentment that Jeremy pushes enthusiastically past Rupe to kiss Milla. She looks as annoyingly gorgeous as ever with her glossy, chestnut hair falling neatly onto her shoulders and her wrap dress accentuating her slender curves. When I wear a wrap dress, it spends its evening gaping wider and wider at the top, exposing far more than I ever intended and always on an evening when I haven’t worn decent underwear.
Once we are all sitting again, Marie emerges from the kitchen with a loaded tray. ‘Tada!’
Christian jumps up to help her pass the bowls around and everyone dips in appreciative spoons.
Milla tastes hers. ‘Lobster bisque! Marie, you are so naughty. You know I can’t resist this and it just puts pounds on.’
I lay my spoon down guiltily, uncomfortably aware that the waistband on this skirt has been too tight for months. But it’s the one I was wearing when I first met Christian and I have a sentimental attachment to it. I leave the rest of the soup and sit in silence as everyone chatters about what a marvellous cook Marie is. She dips gingerly into her bowl of bouillon without croutons and smiles at their praise.
By the time we have moved through monkfish and noisettes of lamb and are on our second helpings of chocolate mousse, I have thrown caution to the winds. I can always eat nothing tomorrow. I’m not wasting this meal. Marie of course hardly touches anything. Milla has a little of the fish but pushes the lamb and the chocolate mousse around. Christian glances over at me and grins. ‘I am glad to see one healthy appetite at the table. This meal deserves to be appreciated.’
I immediately feel as though I have swollen to a size eighteen. ‘Well, Marie went to all the trouble of…erm, so I thought…’
‘I agree. Does anyone want the last portion of mousse? Lucky for me.’ He disposes of it in two quick gulps and leans back. ‘Marie, you are the absolute best chef I have ever met.’
I flinch. I cooked him tuna pasta last week and he said he loved it. But I realise he is just being polite so I add to his praise. ‘It was delicious, all of it. Thank you.’
‘Rupe? You’ve been very quiet,’ says Christian. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Everything’s fine. Bloody hoo-hah at work today. Management threatened to cut the bonuses.’
‘That was predictable.’
‘It may be predictable but we’re not standing for it and we let them know that. You’d think we were baby-killers instead of investment bankers.’
‘But surely…’ I stop myself just in time and he ploughs on.
‘We’re the economic lifeblood of this country and they’d better remember that. We earn our bonuses and we need every penny of them just to get by.’
I stare at the tablecloth, willing myself not to make a scene when Christian is having such a good time. Rupe’s last bonus, the details of which we heard in nauseating detail at an identical dinner party round at their flat, was approximately twenty times my annual salary. I sip at my coffee and try to think of something cheerful to distract me.
‘Brandy, everyone?’ Jeremy stands. Milla beams at him.
‘Not for me, darling. I’m pregnant!’ She pats her flat stomach.
All the men jump to their feet and kiss her again while Marie shrieks happily from her chair. Rupe looks extremely pleased with himself and I swallow my resentment at his crassness and smile at him.
He puffs himself out. ‘Thanks, but you can see that this year’s bonus is only going to come in the nick of time. Babies are bloody expensive things. Trust funds, private education, tutoring, nannies. It’s not something to take on lightly.’
I think of the children I see around our way, many of them from single-parent families, where it’s a daily struggle just to pay the heating bills and feed everyone a decent diet.
‘It’s not easy.’ I agree.
I look over at Milla and soften. Her face is glowing with joy and excitement. It’s not the baby’s fault it’s going to be a rich kid and it certainly didn’t ask to have a jerk like Rupe for its father. Looking at his smug, red face, I almost feel sorry for the baby. I am happy at least for Milla. She may be perfect but that’s not her fault. It’s the luck of the draw. She’s going to have the perfect pregnancy and the perfect lack of stretch-marks and the perfect lack of sickness and the perfect baby. I wonder why I feel so resentful when I’m fairly sure my body clock hasn’t even had the cogs put in, let alone started ticking.
Christian kisses Milla warmly again before sitting down. I wish for a moment he wasn’t so tactile. It’s probably a Danish thing, I reassure myself, and you can’t legislate for cultures.
I start to gather up the plates, forgetting for a moment Marie’s ban on guests in the kitchen. Everyone is still gathered round Milla, asking questions, laughing. I push through the door to the kitchen and look for the dishwasher. It’s hidden behind a gleaming door and I open the washing machine and then the fridge before I find it. The fridge seems to be bare of anything but bottles and a chunk of brie. As I am putting the last of the plates into the dishwasher, the door behind me bangs open. It’s Marie and she looks annoyed. ‘I asked you all to stay out of my kitchen.’
‘Sorry – so you did. I was just helping.’
I look round at the gleaming work surfaces and the shining hob that hasn’t seen a saucepan in months. The swing bin catches my eye. It hasn’t been closed properly and the edge of one shiny silver box protrudes. I can just make out the words. ‘Clarke’s Catering.’ I jerk my eyes away from it and see Marie staring at me. She looks panicked.
‘I’m impressed,’ I say. ‘I always mean to wash up as I go along but I never manage to. You’re much better organised than I am.’
Her face relaxes. ‘It just takes practice. Shall we go out to join the others now?’
I follow her into The Space where everyone is now drinking brandy. Christian hands me a glass. ‘Everything OK?’
I take a huge gulp. Marie and Jeremy have their good points and Christian loves them. I simply must stop being so shy and ungracious around them. By the end of my second glass of brandy, it doesn’t seem that hard after all. Their faces are blurring into a pleasant haze and I am totally relaxed. It takes a moment for me to register that Christian is on his feet.
‘As this is an evening for big announcements, I should tell you that I have one too.’
Everyone’s eyes flick towards me in shock and Marie’s mouth falls open. I sit up straighter. We didn’t get engaged, did we? I’m fairly sure I’d remember that but I check my fourth finger just to be sure. Maybe he’s going to propose to me, just like people do on the scoreboard at darts matches, or possibly football. I turn expectantly towards him but he doesn’t catch my eye.
‘This is the last week of my assignment. The Copenhagen office has cut it short unexpectedly. We have landed a big project over there and all the hands need to be on the deck.’
I drain my glass and look round at everyone. Their faces have fallen and no one speaks for a moment. In fact, I think Marie might be going to cry.
‘Say something, someone?’ says Christian. He catches my eye and lifts his glass towards me in a half salute. I stare at him numbly. Jeremy turns to look at me before standing and raising his glass.
‘To Christian, our very good friend. May the road rise to meet you.’
There is a chorus of agreement and everyone drinks. I look vaguely towards my empty glass, reach over and refill it. He might have chosen a less public place to tell me. But that’s Christian. He’s an original and this is part of what I love about him. I can’t believe this is all happening so suddenly. I sit for a while in a dream as the chatters swells and drifts around me. It doesn’t register for a moment when Christian comes in with both our coats. He pulls me to my feet and does up the buttons for me.
‘Are you all right?’ he whispers.
‘Fine, it was just a bit of a shock. I mean, I knew it was coming sometime but…’
‘Can you walk downstairs?’
‘Of course I can. I’m not that shocked.’ I try to smile at him.
‘You’ve had a fair bit to drink.’
‘Hardly anything.’ I take his arm and aim a kiss at Marie’s eyebrow. ‘Lovely afternoon, thank you, darling. We must do it again.’
He steers me towards the door and turns on the top step to kiss her goodbye.
‘Remember, darling. If she’s too drunk to say no, she’s too drunk to say yes,’ trills Marie and I glare at her. It is plain that she doesn’t like the thought of anyone but her sharing a bed with Christian. Well, tough. I’m quite sober enough to make my own decisions. It’s all been a bit sudden, that’s all.
I wonder how I’ll like Denmark.
It’s almost noon by the time I finally climb back into reality. I’m at home and, when I check, I’m alone. Christian must either have left already or he didn’t stay after all. I lie for a while and stare at the half-closed curtains. It’s going to be a nice day. September so far has been a wash out, with gales and lashing rain, so an Indian summer would be perfect before the chill of October and the dreariness of November. I hate November – nothing but freezing cold mornings and endless rain to look forward to but still too early to start thinking about Christmas. Even January and February, although depressing, aren’t so bad because spring is lurking behind them, however reluctant it might be to appear.
After half an hour of lying and wishing I had the energy to get up and get some painkillers and a drink, I force myself out of bed. It’s Saturday and I wonder what I had planned. Christian probably has something organised. Christian! I sit back down on the bed. Something about him is niggling inside the deepest recesses of my brain. Did we have an argument? Is that why he isn’t here this morning? The thought doesn’t feel quite right and anyway, Christian never argues. He’s perfectly happy with disagreements. Although he rarely changes his mind, he doesn’t expect me to either. Sometimes I’d really prefer to have a shouting match but his way is probably better. Culture probably comes into it too – I always tell myself that when we see things differently. But if we didn’t have a row, why is he so strongly in my mind? He can’t be ill. He was perfectly cheerful at Marie and Jeremy’s last night. If her caterers have poisoned him, then why don’t I feel ill except for a thumping headache and dry mouth?
As I sit and stare at the line of autumn gold pushing itself through the edge of the curtains, I go back through last evening bit by bit. Something about the kitchen and Marie being annoyed with me? Rupe’s stupid bonus? That can’t have bothered Christian. He may not be on a banker’s salary but he has a pretty good job with his firm. Milla! Of course, she’s pregnant. She told us all last night. I have a vision of her patting her flat stomach and beaming round at us all. Mystery solved.
Except it isn’t. As I make my way to the kitchen and fill the largest mug I can find with water, something is still worrying me. Why would Christian care if Milla is pregnant? I put the glass down with trembling hands. He doesn’t want to start a family, does he? I have a vague recollection that he and I talked about getting engaged – or someone else did. Did we talk about children too? I grab at the memory but it slips easily past me and disappears. I hadn’t considered getting engaged this young but I think about it for a moment and it doesn’t seem so awful. It seems to happen to most people eventually so why not now? Maybe people get married younger in Denmark. Denmark! I choke down the last gulp of water and lean back against the counter. Whatever is bothering me is to do with Denmark and not about getting engaged at all. I let my mind go blank and sure enough the memory slides in, uninvited, and sits there watching me. I inspect it. Christian made an announcement too, something about going back there soon. I can’t quite remember why or for how long but at least I won’t look so stupid now when I see him. I relax and rinse my mug before heading to the bathroom for a shower.
By the time I am clean again and dressed, I am feeling better and quite hungry, even after Marie’s five course meal last night. I remember that I planned not to eat at all today but the thought no longer appeals. Starve a something and feed a hangover, or whatever it was Mum used to say. Just as I open the fridge door, the phone goes. It’s Christian and he sounds as cheerful as ever. ‘How is your head this morning?’
‘It’s fine,’ I say cautiously, feeling it to check. ‘At least, it is if I don’t shake it too much.’
In future you must stay away from Jeremy’s akvavit. It doesn’t suit everyone.’
‘I hardly touched mine,’ I remind him. ‘You had them both.’
‘Then it must have been the brandy.’
‘I don’t think so. I don’t even like the stuff. I had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and that’s it.’
He sounds even more amused now. ‘OK, whatever you say. Can you manage any food?’
‘I was just about to get some breakfast,’ I tell him with dignity.
‘It’s almost one o’clock so shall we make it lunch? I can pick you up in ten minutes.’
I close the fridge again. ‘Lunch would be fine but nothing too spicy. I think I ate too much rich stuff at Marie’s.’
‘Just something light,’ he promises and rings off, laughing.
I make my way back to my bedroom and look through my wardrobe for something nice to wear. Christian always dresses much more smartly than me. He wears his expensive suits with an easy air and never looks over-dressed. I always feel wrong in comparison, either too casual or too smart for any occasion.
‘Why should that matter?’ asked Christian one evening when I confided this to him. ‘Dressing is all about what makes you feel comfortable, not what other people think is suitable.’
That would be fine if I looked as good as he does in everything he wears or if I had his charisma and confidence. He could turn up for a black-tie dinner in ripped jeans and every other guest there would feel over-dressed. His confidence is one of the things I love about him. He makes everyone feel better just by being there. I choose my smartest pair of jeans and my favourite T shirt and add a jacket as a gesture at smart casual. I can always tell him I thought we were going to get a sandwich and eat it in the park.
He smiles and kisses my cheek when he arrives and pushes a huge bunch of roses into my arms.
‘What are they for?’ I ask. Not the most gracious question but I’m feeling a little disorientated today.
‘Why do they have to be for anything in particular?’ he counters. ‘They are just pretty and they reminded me of you.’
I give him a quick hug and push my face into their delicate, pink petals. ‘Sorry. They’re perfect. Thank you.’
Becca emerges from her room while I am rummaging round for a vase. She is still in her Winnie the Pooh pyjamas and I nudge her. ‘I didn’t know you were here. I thought you must have gone out. Christian’s here too so you might want to hide those pyjamas!’
‘Why?’ She blinks at me sleepily and wanders past me into the hall. ‘Hi, Christian, how’s it going?’
He kisses her. My favourite architect! And those pyjamas are fantastic. Very post modern.’
‘Well, I thought so.’ She waves a hand at us both and disappears into her bedroom.
I look after her as she goes. How can she be so relaxed, so uncaring about what anyone else might think of her? If I emerged into the hall in tatty Pooh Bear pyjamas and found her boyfriend standing there, I’d die of shame. Not only does she not seem to care but no one else does either.
‘Ready to go?’ Christian takes my hand.
‘Where are we going?’
‘There is this great noodle bar near the office. I thought we could go there.’
Noodles sound safe enough so I nod happily. ‘Isn’t it a fantastic day?’
‘The best. It is what I’ll most remember about England, these crisp mornings and warm afternoons in autumn.’
What he’ll most remember? The memory of him making an announcement about a visit home flickers into my mind, but it’s still hazy. I decide to wait until we’re sitting down so that I can ask him properly.
Oodles of Noodles is only twenty minutes walk away. By the time we arrive, my head has cleared almost entirely. The owner has pushed some of the tables out onto the pavement and people are talking and laughing in the warm, autumnal air. We sit down under a huge striped umbrella.
‘If this was the South of France, we could do this practically all year round,’ I tell Christian as I settle into my chair.
‘Maybe, but then you’d be eating frogs legs and not noodles.’
‘I would not! They must eat other stuff too.’
‘Indeed they do – snails and garlic and horse meat and…’
I slap at his hand. ‘Shut up! My head’s not up for it today.’
‘A bowl of Harry’s noodles and you’ll be a new woman.’
‘How do you know the owner’s name?’
‘A bunch of us from work come here some times for lunch.’
‘Oh.’ I concentrate on my menu. Christian’s life is so much more interesting life than mine. Even his lunchtimes sound fun. Mine seem to consist of day-old sandwiches stuffed with whatever I can find first thing in the morning. I’m always running late.’
Harry is standing by our table. ‘Something to drink? Oh, hi, Christian! Just two of you today? That makes a change.’
‘I managed to get the prettiest one all to myself for once,’ says Christian, closing his menu.
‘Uh huh.’ Is it my imagination or does Harry sound doubtful? ‘You two ready to order?’
‘Shall we have the ginger chicken?’ Christian asks me. ‘Harry makes the best I’ve ever tasted.’
‘Sounds good,’ I agree. It saves me ploughing through the entire menu and choosing something that I hate when it finally turns up.
‘And to drink?’ asks Harry.
‘Kate? The house red is very good.’
‘Do you by any chance have orange juice?’ I ask and Harry frowns in surprise.
‘Of course we do. Orange and mango, orange and apple or straight orange?’
‘Straight up,’ In case he has misunderstood me, I add hastily, ‘I don’t mean with vodka.’
‘No, got it.’ He looks at Christian. ‘House red for you, mate?’
Harry disappears and Christian takes my hand. ‘Congratulations on managing to order an orange juice. I hear it can be quite hard to find in north London.’
I laugh at the thought of Jeremy sneaking Marie’s precious tomato juice from under her nose last night, while she was busy unwrapping and hiding the catering boxes.
‘What is she like? Honestly, Christian! Did I tell you that I went into the kitchen afterwards and it was completely spotless? There’s no way in hell she ever…’
‘It was a lovely evening, wasn’t it?’ he interrupts and I flush darkly. I had forgotten how loyal he always is to his friends. He never utters a word of criticism about them and neither does he expect me to.’
I change tack quickly. ‘Yes, it was great. I was just going to say how clean it all was. I make a horrible mess whenever I try to cook.’
He takes my hand and smiles as my blush subsides. ‘We are not all the same and that is OK. They’ve been so kind to me while I have been here. I’m going to miss them.’
I’m glad he has raised the subject. With a little careful probing I should be able to tease out the mystery of this visit to Denmark – and hopefully without him realising I don’t have the faintest idea what exactly it was that he announced last night.
I dig into the pile of steaming noodles in my bowl and the hot, fragrant sauce banishes the last of my headache. ‘You’re right, these are amazing. What were you saying about missing Marie and Jeremy?’
He puts down his chopsticks. ‘Naturally I will. Milla and Rupe too. What did you think, that I would forget everyone as soon as I left?’
‘No, of course not but you’ll be back. Milla will probably ask you to be godfather to the baby. She loves you. She must be due sometime in the spring.’
‘I don’t think so. She will choose someone British.’
It’s my turn to lay down my chopsticks. ‘Someone British? Why on earth should she? Even under this government, there’s no rule that says someone who was born in another country can’t be a godparent. Don’t be silly. Everyone here loves you. I bet they do ask you.’
‘We won’t argue about it.’ He takes a slug of his wine.
‘No, because I’m right.’ I finish the last of my noodles and grin at him.
‘And you?’ he asks. ‘Are you all right with all this?’
‘Fine,’ I lie airily. ‘Of course you want to visit your family. I would too in your position.’
I’m hoping he might take the chance to invite me to visit too. I’d love to meet his father and brother. In fact, if he and I are going to stay together, I’ll have to meet them sometime. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. If he needs to make this visit alone, to get his homeland out his system and find some closure, then I won’t get in his way.
‘I must say, you are taking this better than I thought you would. Thank you so much for understanding.’ He lifts my hand and kisses my wrist. Something in his eyes makes me uneasy.
‘There’s nothing to thank me for. Did you really think I’d kick up a fuss about you wanting to visit your family and friends? You don’t know me very well.’
He stares at me. ‘I don’t understand. You were there last night when I made my announcement.’
‘Yes, you said something about a project at work and that you need to visit to help them out. I’m really sorry, Christian but I think I was a bit tired or something. I didn’t take in all the details.’
He leans back and waves at Harry. ‘Two filter coffees please, one black.’
I don’t speak while we wait for the coffees to arrive. Images from last night swirl through my head – Milla glowing, Marie drinking far too much as usual and flirting with Christian, me feeling fat and unattractive, the tomato juice, Rupe’s bonus and finally, coming faster and faster into focus, Christian standing up and raising his glass towards me. I can see him quite clearly now, his mouth moving, saying the words I still can’t hear. I can see his face, not open and friendly as it usually is but wary, calculating, even slightly nervous.
Harry places our coffees in front of us, instinctively giving the black one to Christian and I wait until he’s gone before looking up. My hands are clasped around the cup for warmth, so tightly in fact that the cup jiggles noisily and the creamy brown liquid splashes into the saucer.
‘You didn’t say ‘visit’ did you?’ I whisper and I can’t help the shameful tears prickling at the back of my eyes, before they slide down my cheeks and splash onto the table.
He shakes his head. ‘No.’
‘But even today, you’ve let me go on thinking…’ I can’t go on.
‘That’s not fair.’ He sips at his coffee and I’m annoyed to see his hands are perfectly steady. ‘I told you all very clearly last night what my future plans were. It’s not my fault that you had so much to drink that you didn’t take it in properly.’
It’s a fair point so I wait for a moment for my voice to steady again. There’s never any point trying to have a row with Christian. He just becomes cooler and more detached until I calm down.
‘Is this a permanent move?’ I ask at last, trying to sound as though I feel nothing but a mild curiosity instead of fighting a sensation that my entire world is crashing down around my head.
‘I am afraid so. They only sent me on assignment for six months and I have overstayed that by another eight. I have told you several times that one day I must go back. You must remember that.’
For a minute I wish he had never overstayed, wish that he had gone home when he was meant to instead of staying the extra months to meet me and break my heart, but I can’t. Christian is the best thing that has ever happened to me and my life will never be the same after meeting him. I can’t regret that. Besides, there is still hope. He hasn’t mentioned me coming too but perhaps the idea hasn’t yet occurred to him. I could even be the one to suggest it. But even before I have finished the thought, I know that it won’t work. Christian makes his own decisions. He won’t ever be swayed by anyone else. He needs to think of it for himself. I study his face, waiting for it to break into a huge smile, for him to tell me it’s an April Fool and of course he wants me to go along. But the minutes lengthen as he stirs his coffee and he doesn’t speak. Despite all my hoping and desperate planning, I know in my heart of hearts that he isn’t going to.
When I get back to the flat, I open the front door very quietly in case Becca is still around. Much though I love her, I don’t think I can face her matter-of-fact approach at the moment. All I want is to lie on my bed and howl for the rest of the weekend. As I make for my bedroom, she appears from the kitchen.
‘Just finished arranging those flowers you dumped in the sink.’
‘Thanks, Becca.’ I keep my face averted.
‘They’re really gorgeous. They must have cost a fortune at this time of year. What is it, some anniversary or other for you guys?’
‘No, it was just…’ My voice cracks and she looks at me in alarm.
‘Nothing, I’m just a bit hung-over.’
She goes back into the kitchen and I make a thankful dive for my bedroom, where I fling myself on the bed and hide my hot face in the pillow, waiting for the flood gates to open.
‘It’s just that I’ve seen you with hangovers before and this isn’t one of them.’ She’s followed me into the bedroom and sits next to me on the bed.
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘I’m sure you will – but you’re not fine right now, are you?’
She strokes my hair and that finally does it. Mum used to stroke my hair when I was a little girl and howling into my pillow because someone hadn’t picked me for their team or I was bottom of the lowest set in maths again. I slump back down and start to cry in earnest. Becca doesn’t mind. It’s one of the things I like most about her. She’s totally and utterly unflappable. If the flat was burning down, she’d wander into the street in her ratty old pyjamas and perch on the wall to wait for someone to come. She never gets flustered about work deadlines. If people don’t like her or are unkind, she shrugs comfortably and moves on. In fact, the only thing I’ve ever seen her even mildly stressed over is Jon in IT. She has nursed a secret crush on him for months but never done anything about it. I have urged her repeatedly just to get it over with and ask him out. If anyone has the personality to take a rejection, she has, but she refuses point blank.
She sits with me for what seems an age, stroking my hair, murmuring soothing nothings, just waiting. When I finally gulp and sit up, she pushes my hair back off my face and looks at me thoughtfully. ‘Water, or something stronger?’
‘Just water, please,’ I hiccup. She nods and leaves the room. I catch sight of myself in the wardrobe mirror and flinch. My eyes are almost swollen shut and my face is a mass of blotches, like strawberry ripple ice-cream.
She returns with the water and I sip it gratefully. ‘Thanks, Becca.’
‘No problem.’ She curls her legs under her on the bed and leans against the wall. ‘Is it a row, a break up, an arrest for insider trading, or another woman?’
‘Becca!’ I snort in spite of myself.
‘It’s all I could think of off the top of my head,’ she explains. ‘But give me a minute and I’ll come up with some more.’
‘Don’t bother!’ I sit up properly and start combing my fingers ineffectually through my hair to make it lie back down. ‘It’s none of those. He’s going back to Denmark.’
I nod miserably.
‘Are you going too?’
I shake my head and feel my eyes start to brim over again.
‘So you have split up.’
I hate the way she says it, matter of factly, as though it’s no more important than ordering a cappuccino.
‘No, we didn’t split up!’ I say it as firmly as I can. Denial is definitely the best way forward here. There are a million chances for me to put things right. It’s not as though we had some huge row. For once I am thankful that Christian doesn’t do rows. This is all just a misunderstanding and he hasn’t had time to think things through yet. He probably thinks I wouldn’t want to move to a strange country, that it would be far too much to ask of anybody.
‘So, you’re still together?’ She’s ruthless but I know she doesn’t mean to be. She just has a passion for facts, for order and reality.
‘Not exactly,’ I admit and it hurts even to hear myself saying the words.
‘You’re going to have to help me out here.’ Her face is faintly amused and I resent it. This might not be the tragedy for her that it is for me but she knows how I feel about him, how completely in love with him I am. She ought to understand the devastation I’m feeling now. But if she’s determined to be obtuse, I’ll have to make her understand.
‘I know he always said he was going back…’ I pause and watch her face for any indication that she’ll side with me. She doesn’t react. She never does. I plough on. ‘I mean, he always said it wasn’t permanent, him being over here. I just thought that…’
‘You thought what exactly?’ she prompts me.
‘That he’d want to take me with him.’
She pulls her knees to her chin and considers this before answering. When she does, she doesn’t even try to take my side, even though I’m crying. To be fair, she doesn’t take his side either. ‘Did he ever say that he was planning on taking you with him?’
‘No, but he didn’t ever say he wasn’t planning on it either. So that could mean anything.’
‘I’ve never said I’m going to try out for the Bolshoi ballet. Do you spend time picturing me in a tutu?’
‘I spend time picturing Jon in one. Does that count?’
She doesn’t even blink. ‘Returning to the original subject, he always said he was going back?’
‘He never once mentioned you coming too?’
‘Yet now you think he was playing games with you and leading you up the garden path?’
‘We’re a couple. Couples make decisions together.’
‘All evidence to the contrary. It seems to me that you have two choices. Either he saw you as a couple but he thought he’d spelled out his plans and you were happy to go along with them and have a ‘just for now’ relationship. Or else he never saw you as a couple. It’s your choice.’
‘We so were a couple.’ I’m close to tears now.
‘Then he obviously communicated his view of things and you didn’t communicate yours. I really don’t see how you can blame him for that.’
‘I communicated without words. People in love have a special unspoken language.’
‘Next time I suggest you get it in writing.’
She doesn’t say it unkindly but I know there’s no point in arguing further. She’s applied her own ruthless brand of logic to the situation and there will be no moving her. If I want to attempt any further self-justification, it’ll have to be in secret. She stretches and grins at me. ‘Would you like me to drop it now?’
‘Please.’ I smile at her gratefully through swollen eyes. Until I can figure out exactly where we stand, I don’t particularly want to discuss it with anyone, even Becca. When we left the noodle bar, Christian said he’d ring me later. That doesn’t sound like someone who has entirely split up with someone else. And he said there would be a farewell party. I need to find something incredible to wear, get my hair cut into a proper style for once and possibly even highlighted. He just needs reminding of all he’s losing. As I think about this, I feel more cheerful. He must be in turmoil, leaving his friends, going back to a place he hasn’t lived for over a year, where he will have to revert to speaking his other language. I mustn’t be too hard on him. In fact, I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t thought more about him and been more supportive. I could have offered to help him with all sorts of tiny things, packing and passports and bottled water and whatever else he’s going to need. I feel better already, planning, thinking more rationally about the whole thing.
By Wednesday, I haven’t heard from him and I’m beginning to panic. He’s leaving on Sunday so the party must surely be arranged for Friday or Saturday and I need to make plans. Eventually I try ringing his number, though even I know this isn’t the greatest idea. I’m almost relieved when it drops through to his answer phone. After much thought, I decide I’m going to have to call either Milla or Marie. I weigh up the options. Milla is less in your face and definitely isn’t making a play for Christian but then I run the risk of getting the awful Rupe and hearing about his bonus yet again. In the end, I call Marie. Jeremy answers and sounds surprised to hear me. I keep my voice light as I ask for Marie.
‘She’s not here. Are you OK?’
‘Fine, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘No reason. Can I help you with something?’
‘It’s nothing really, just that Christian said there was going to be a farewell party for him before he goes and I haven’t been able to get him on the phone. Of course he must be terribly busy, so I thought I’d check with you two in case you’ve heard anything.’
There’s a long silence. He must know whether or not he’s heard anything, unless Marie keeps their social diary and only announces at the last minute where he’s going and what he should wear. She’s quite capable of it.
‘Shall I call back when she’s home?’ I ask at last and I can almost hear him jump.
‘No, don’t do that. It’s on Saturday at eight.’
‘Great!’ I say in relief. That gives me time to get my hair done and go shopping with Becca. ‘Where is it?’
‘It’s here,’ he says and I feel a jolt of surprise. I thought it would be at some big restaurant somewhere.
‘Great,’ I say again, less certainly this time. Surely someone was going to ring me and tell me? But of course they must have expected Christian to have invited me and he’s probably been too busy to make calls like that.
‘I think Marie was going to call you,’ he says and I nod, even though he can’t see me.
‘That’s fine. Can you let her know I called and I’d love to be there? Is there any special wine you’d like me to bring?’ It hits me when I say this that, while I’ve been with Christian, I haven’t had to worry about things like choosing hostess gifts or making arrangements. The thought makes me feel single for the first time since I met him. But of course it doesn’t mean anything. There’s no reason I can’t be helpful and take more of the burdens off him while he’s so stressed.
‘Nothing particular that I can think of,’ says Jeremy. ‘I’m pretty well sorted on the alcohol front so why don’t you bring some soft drinks? Orange juice, things like that. There’s bound to be someone who wants to drink that stuff.’
I ignore the note in his voice when he says that stuff. It was really quite thoughtful of him to remember.
‘See you at eight sharp,’ I tell him and ring off.
The next few days whirl by. Becca and I go out on Friday to the shopping centre near us which stays open until late. She is looking bored even before we get through the giant revolving doors and I have to promise her we will alternate clothes shops and book shops.
Her face is resigned. ‘And something to eat? I haven’t had anything since breakfast except horrible greasy canapés and some champagne.’
‘What on earth were they for?’ I ask, scanning the directory for clothes shops.
Her face changes. ‘Oh, Kate, I’m sorry, it was Christian’s leaving do this lunchtime. But it was pretty awful,’ she adds, seeing my face. ‘It was just boring old farts from the fifth floor making speeches and banging on about the wonderful work he’d done for our clients.’
‘I bet he has,’ I say loyally.
‘I suppose. Then they presented him with a stupid bronze cast of the Little Mermaid, of all things. Can you imagine? It would be like giving me a model of the Tower of London if I left. I don’t know whose stupid idea that was.’
‘What did he say?’ I’m trying to imagine him, standing there in his smart suit with one of his lovely pastel coloured shirts, giving a witty speech, with all the women hanging on his every word.
‘He gave a very nice speech, actually. He said that having The Little Mermaid as a gift would remind him every day of the links between his homeland and what he has come to think of as his adopted country. Everyone thought it was wonderful.’
‘I wonder if he’ll give a speech at the party tomorrow,’ I muse and she frowns.
‘Kate, are you absolutely sure that this is a good idea? I mean, isn’t it just going to hurt you more? If you like we could go out to the theatre or something and have a takeaway afterwards. We haven’t done that for ages. It would be fun.’
I feel guilty when she says this. We used to have a lot of evenings like that together. Ever since Christian came along, I’ve spent most of my spare evenings with him. But that’s natural. When friends pair off, they are bound to spend more time with their partners. If she and Jon had ever got it together, I bet I wouldn’t have seen her for dust. She’s watching me so I smile cheerfully.
‘We’ll have more evenings like that once Christian has gone back. But for now, I just need to see him, spend some time talking to him, and sort things out.’
‘It’s not the best place to talk, is it? A noisy party with Marie screeching at everyone and loads of people getting drunk.’
‘Maybe not but it’s all I’ve got. It’s not Christian’s fault that your stupid firm moved him at such short notice. Anyway, I thought maybe he and I would go out for dinner or something afterwards. The party can’t go on forever.’
She shrugs. ‘OK, whatever you say. Let’s get this shopping over with, shall we?’
Becca’s a real star. She walks past the bookshops without a second glance, accompanies me in and out of changing rooms and gives me as much advice as I’ll listen to.
‘Definitely too tarty,’ she says as I emerge from one dressing room in a plunging scarlet silk dress.
‘No, it’s not. It just shows my…assets.’
‘Christian’s already seen your …assets, hasn’t he?’
‘Well, yes, but no harm in reminding him.’
‘No sense having them fall out in front of everyone though, is there?’
‘They don’t!’ I give an experimental hop. ‘Oh, I see what you mean. Let’s keep looking, shall we?’
By the time we have found the perfect dress, I’m exhausted and she has that far-away look that means she’s eyeing up all the design features of the shopping centre and mentally semtexing and then rebuilding it. We find a coffee shop and order cappuccinos.
‘You’re sure it’s the right dress, Becca?’
She sips at her chocolate foam. ‘I am sure. It’s nice, even I can tell that.’
I pull the edge of the dress out of the bag and stroke the silk. It’s heavy and matt and it drapes beautifully. It’s also in my very favourite deep teal. I can’t go wrong with this. For once, this is an occasion for which I am going to feel perfectly dressed.
‘Thanks, Becca. I’d never have gone in that snooty little shop without you.’
She raises her eyebrows. ‘I don’t see why not. They want to sell their stuff, don’t they?’
I look down at my faded jeans. ‘Not to me. Just to people like Joan Collins. That assistant’s face! Did you see it?’
‘I wasn’t looking specially. Have we finished now?’
‘Just shoes and underwear. I finish the last bite of my pain au chocolat as she groans.
‘I’m all shopped out. Honestly, Kate, this evening was more than I do in an entire year.’
‘You’re always in book shops.’
‘That’s not the same. That’s not shopping.’
‘Tell you what, I can manage the shoes and underwear by myself. Meet you in Waterstone’s in an hour?’
She slouches gratefully off and I wander round for a while longer, picking out some silky, cream underwear that actually matches. I never usually bother but this dress seems to demand it. I find some black shoes with a rather higher heel than I usually wear but Christian is tall. I’ll still look fragile and dainty beside him, or at least smaller than him, which will hopefully make him feel protective.
On Saturday afternoon I have an appointment at Anton’s. I finally phoned the number on the card that Marie gave me and the woman who answered said they didn’t have an opening for weeks. When I reluctantly mentioned Marie’s name, she said they could probably fit me in for a quick wash and cut but no highlights – so I settled for that.
When I arrive at the salon, I catch sight of the prices and gasp in horror, mentally reviewing the week’s purchases so far. I sit with a magazine and wait, frantically trying to calculate how much is in my bank account after last night’s shopping trip. This isn’t the sort of place where you want to stand at the desk and argue, while the assistant snips up your card with a huge flourish and the perfectly-coiffed customers raise perfectly-groomed eyebrows. My credit card isn’t even gold or platinum.
Eventually a man arrives and flings a rainbow coloured cape round my shoulders.
‘Kris at your service, darling! How can I transform you today?’
‘Erm…’ Is this guy for real? I stare at him without speaking. He has the weirdest bleached blonde and pink hair, all spiked out on one side. He’d better not be planning anything like that for me. My hands fly protectively to my head and he laughs. He has very kind eyes beneath the eyebrow piercings.
‘It’s your hair, darling. You tell me what you’re after. I am just your handyman.’
I suppress images of topiary and stare at my reflection without hope. He breaks the silence.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Christian,’ I say without meaning to but he’s caught me off balance.
‘What has he been up to? Off with another woman?’
‘No! It’s not like that at all. He’d never do that. It’s just that he’s going home to Denmark and he hasn’t asked me to go with him – yet.’
‘I see. So I need to give you a hairstyle that will sweep him off his feet and make him buy you a ticket immediately?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Then let me at it!’ He waves his scissors wildly and I dodge. ‘Just kidding, my pet.’ He runs his hands through my hair and grimaces. ‘I’d like to slice some layers through this, give it some more bounce. And you’re crying out for a fringe, just a half one. And these ends! Who cuts your hair, your flat mate?’
He laughs heartily but I ignore him. Becca only cuts it when I’ve messed up and can’t get both sides to match. He sweeps me off to the basins and leaves me in the care of what looks like a twelve year old girl, who washes my hair so nervously that I don’t have the heart to tell her the water is stone cold.
Kris combs my hair and then straps on a tool belt stuffed with enough implements for him to perform brain surgery. I watch him like a hawk as he starts to chop and chip, slice and razor and I relax when I see how little he is taking off the length. By the time he comes to the blow dry, I am almost asleep. It’s been a rough week and I find the scent of the papaya volumising lotion and the roar of the dryers all around, very soothing. He finishes drying my hair, whips off the rainbow cape and spreads his hands. ‘Voila!’
I stare at myself in the mirror. It’s amazing. My hair is still shoulder length but it curves gently round my chin at the front. The back, when he brings me a mirror to check, swirls into gentle waves.
‘I love it. Thank you so much.’ I feel tears pricking at my eyes. It feels as though someone has taken care of me, taken the trouble to give me a lift in this crappiest of all crappy weeks and I’m unbelievably grateful.
Not a problem, my darling. You look sensational. The man’s a fool if he doesn’t burn his ticket and throw away his passport on the spot.’
‘Just asking me to go with him would do fine.’ I stand and tilt my head from side to side to see the shining waves form and reform perfectly.
He touches my forehead with a dubious finger. ‘Just a suggestion – two eyebrows is the usual allowance. Better than one, don’t we think?’
‘Oh, yeah, I’ll have a go at them.’ I pick up my bag and reach for my purse.
He scribbles the price on a piece of paper. The list seems to go on and on, everything from the shampoo girl and next door’s weekly food and electric bill, to replacing the curling tongs. No wonder they write it down I think, as I watch him add them up. I wouldn’t be able to say the total out loud with a straight face either. He hands me the paper and I am grateful to see I have just enough in my account to pay him. I hand over my card and, while he is swiping it, search through my purse for change for a tip. I am horrified to find I only have two pound coins and a piece of chewing gum. While the receipt prints, I wonder if it would be more insulting to offer the two pounds or nothing at all. I decide I’d like even a small tip if it was me so I hold out the coins and pull a face. ‘I’m so sorry but this is literally all I have.’
‘How are you getting home?’ he asks.
‘Bus…erm, walking,’ I say.
He pushes the coins back into my hand and closes my fingers over them.
‘You’re not walking home with that hairstyle. It needs to stay perfect and not bring eternal shame on me. Keep the money and get the bus but I’ll make you a deal. You come back when you get engaged and bring me a huge bottle of champagne.’
‘I promise,’ I say, hoping that putting it into words isn’t bad luck. I wave goodbye and walk to the bus stop, feeling my beautifully blow-dried hair swish and flip in the breeze. I have the dress and shoes, I have the hairstyle and Becca has promised to do my nails. For once in my life, I have all the bases covered. If this doesn’t work, then absolutely nothing ever will.