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One Day / Îäčí äĺíü (by David Nicholls, 2009) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

One Day / Îäčí äĺíü (by David Nicholls, 2009) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

One Day / Îäčí äĺíü (by David Nicholls, 2009) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě

Ăîäű ó÷ĺáű ďđîřëč, ěčíîâŕë âűďóńęíîé, Äĺęńňĺđ č Ýěěŕ ďđîâîä˙ň ďđîůŕëüíóţ íî÷ü, ďđĺćäĺ, ÷ĺě óéňč â ńâîáîäíîĺ ďëŕâŕíčĺ. Îíč ëčřü ââĺđ˙ţň äđóă äđóăŕ, ÷ňî áóäóň ďîääĺđćčâŕňü ńâ˙çü, âńňđĺ÷ŕňüń˙ č íŕńëŕćäŕňüń˙ äđóćáîé, ęŕę č âńĺ ďđĺćíčĺ ăîäű. Íî ćčçíü řňóęŕ ęîâŕđíŕ˙. Ýěěŕ, ęŕę áű íĺ ńňŕđŕëŕńü óęđŕńčňü ĺĺ ńî÷íűěč ęđŕńęŕěč, óňîďŕĺň â đóňčíĺ, ďčřĺň íčęîěó íĺ číňĺđĺńíűĺ ďüĺńű č ňčőî ňîěčňń˙ â îćčäŕíčč âńňđĺ÷č ń Äĺęńňĺđîě. Ŕ îí ýňčě âđĺěĺíĺě íĺ ńęó÷ŕĺň. Ŕëęîăîëü, ćĺíůčíű, óńďĺő č ęŕđüĺđŕ – âńĺ ó íĺăî ńęëŕäűâŕĺňń˙ ďđîńňî čäĺŕëüíî. Č âäđóă đĺçęčé đŕçâîđîň. Ńóäüáŕ äŕĺň Ýěěĺ řŕíń ďîçíŕęîěčňüń˙ ń íîâűěč ëţäüěč, čçěĺíčňü đŕáîňó č ěĺńňî ćčňĺëüńňâŕ, ëčřŕ˙ ěĺć ňĺě Äĺęńňĺđŕ âńĺő áëŕă, ęîňîđűěč îí đŕíĺĺ îáëŕäŕë. Îíŕ čăđŕĺň ń ăĺđî˙ěč â řóňęó, ďîäáđŕńűâŕ˙ řŕíń ďîăîâîđčňü č ďđčçíŕňüń˙ â ÷óâńňâŕő. Íî ęŕćäűé ňîđîďčňüń˙ óâëĺ÷üń˙ íîâűěč îňíîřĺíč˙ěč, íĺ ďîíčěŕ˙, ÷ňî đîäíîé ÷ĺëîâĺę ńîâńĺě áëčçęî. Ďîäîáíűĺ ńęčňŕíč˙ áóäóň äëčňüń˙ äâŕ äĺń˙ňęŕ ëĺň, ďđĺćäĺ ÷ĺě äđóçü˙ ďđčçíŕţňń˙ â ńâîčő čńňčííűő ÷óâńňâŕő. Íî íŕńëŕäčňüń˙ ń÷ŕńňüĺě čě ňŕę č íĺ óäŕńňń˙.

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One Day / Îäčí äĺíü (by David Nicholls, 2009) - ŕóäčîęíčăŕ íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě
Ăîä âűďóńęŕ ŕóäčîęíčăč:
2009
Ŕâňîđ:
David Nicholls
Čńďîëíčňĺëü:
Anna Bentinck
ßçűę:
ŕíăëčéńęčé
Ćŕíđ:
ęîěĺäč˙, love-story
Óđîâĺíü ńëîćíîńňč:
upper-intermediate
Äëčňĺëüíîńňü ŕóäčî:
16:29:10
Áčňđĺéň ŕóäčî:
48 kbps
Ôîđěŕň:
mp3, pdf, doc

Ńëóřŕňü îíëŕéí One Day / Îäčí äĺíü ŕóäčîęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě ˙çűęĺ:

Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .doc (Word) ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ david_nicholls_-_one_day.doc [1,5 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 41) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü ňĺęńň ęíčăč â ôîđěŕňĺ .pdf ďî ďđ˙ěîé ńńűëęĺ  david_nicholls_-_one_day.pdf [2,15 Mb] (cęŕ÷čâŕíčé: 41) .
Ńęŕ÷ŕňü audiobook (MP3) áĺńďëŕňíî ń ôŕéëîîáěĺííčęŕ.


×čňŕňü ęíčăó íŕ ŕíăëčéńęîě îíëŕéí:

(×ňîáű ďĺđĺâîäčňü ńëîâŕ íŕ đóńńęčé ˙çűę č äîáŕâë˙ňü â ńëîâŕđü äë˙ čçó÷ĺíč˙, ůĺëęŕĺě ěűřęîé íŕ íóćíîĺ ńëîâî).


David Nicholls ONE DAY Part One 1988–1992 Early Twenties ‘That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it and think how different its course would have been. Pause, you who read this, and think for a long moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on that memorable day.’ Charles Dickens, Great Expectations CHAPTER ONE. The Future FRIDAY 15 JULY 1988 Rankeillor Street, Edinburgh ‘I suppose the important thing is to make some sort of difference,’ she said. ‘You know, actually change something.’ ‘What, like “change the world”, you mean?’ ‘Not the whole entire world. Just the little bit around you.’ They lay in silence for a moment, bodies curled around each other in the single bed, then both began to laugh in low, predawn voices. ‘Can’t believe I just said that,’ she groaned. ‘Sounds a bit corny, doesn’t it?’ ‘A bit corny.’ ‘I’m trying to be inspiring! I’m trying to lift your grubby soul for the great adventure that lies ahead of you.’ She turned to face him. ‘Not that you need it. I expect you’ve got your future nicely mapped out, ta very much. Probably got a little flow-chart somewhere or something.’ ‘Hardly.’ ‘So what’re you going to do then? What’s the great plan?’ ‘Well, my parents are going to pick up my stuff, dump it at theirs, then I’ll spend a couple of days in their flat in London, see some friends. Then France—’ ‘Very nice—’ ‘Then China maybe, see what that’s all about, then maybe onto India, travel around there for a bit—’ ‘Travelling, ’ she sighed. ‘So predictable.’ ‘What’s wrong with travelling?’ ‘Avoiding reality more like.’ ‘I think reality is over-rated,’ he said in the hope that this might come across as dark and charismatic. She sniffed. ‘S’alright, I suppose, for those who can afford it. Why not just say “I’m going on holiday for two years”? It’s the same thing.’ ‘Because travel broadens the mind,’ he said, rising onto one elbow and kissing her. ‘Oh I think you’re probably a bit too broad-minded as it is,’ she said, turning her face away, for the moment at least. They settled again on the pillow. ‘Anyway, I didn’t mean what are you doing next month, I meant the future-future, when you’re, I don’t know. .’ She paused, as if conjuring up some fantastical idea, like a fifth dimension. ‘. . Forty or something. What do you want to be when you’re forty?’ ‘Forty? ’ He too seemed to be struggling with the concept. ‘Don’t know. Am I allowed to say “rich”?’ ‘Just so, so shallow.’ ‘Alright then, “famous”.’ He began to nuzzle at her neck. ‘Bit morbid, this, isn’t it?’ ‘It’s not morbid, it’s. . exciting.’ ‘“Exciting!”’ He was imitating her voice now, her soft Yorkshire accent, trying to make her sound daft. She got this a lot, posh boys doing funny voices, as if there was something unusual and quaint about an accent, and not for the first time she felt a reassuring shiver of dislike for him. She shrugged herself away until her back was pressed against the cool of the wall. ‘Yes, exciting. We’re meant to be excited, aren’t we? All those possibilities. It’s like the Vice-Chancellor said, “the doors of opportunity flung wide. .”’ ‘“Yours are the names in tomorrow’s newspapers. .”’ ‘Not very likely.’ ‘So, what, are you excited then?’ ‘Me? God no, I’m crapping myself.’ ‘Me too. Christ. .’ He turned suddenly and reached for the cigarettes on the floor by the side of the bed, as if to steady his nerves. ‘Forty years old. Forty. Fucking hell.’ Smiling at his anxiety, she decided to make it worse. ‘So what’ll you be doing when you’re forty?’ He lit his cigarette thoughtfully. ‘Well the thing is, Em—’ ‘“Em”? Who’s “Em”?’ ‘People call you Em. I’ve heard them.’ ‘Yeah, friends call me Em.’ ‘So can I call you Em?’ ‘Go on then, Dex .’ ‘So I’ve given this whole “growing old” thing some thought and I’ve come to the decision that I’d like to stay exactly as I am right now.’ Dexter Mayhew. She peered up at him through her fringe as he leant against the cheap buttoned vinyl headboard and even without her spectacles on it was clear why he might want to stay exactly this way. Eyes closed, the cigarette glued languidly to his lower lip, the dawn light warming the side of his face through the red filter of the curtains, he had the knack of looking perpetually posed for a photograph. Emma Morley thought ‘handsome’ a silly, nineteenth-century word, but there really was no other word for it, except perhaps ‘beautiful’. He had one of those faces where you were aware of the bones beneath the skin, as if even his bare skull would be attractive. A fine nose, slightly shiny with grease, and dark skin beneath the eyes that looked almost bruised, a badge of honour from all the smoking and late nights spent deliberately losing at strip poker with girls from Bedales. There was something feline about him: eyebrows fine, mouth pouty in a self-conscious way, lips a shade too dark and full, but dry and chapped now, and rouged with Bulgarian red wine. Gratifyingly his hair was terrible, short at the back and sides, but with an awful little quiff at the front. Whatever gel he used had worn off, and now the quiff looked pert and fluffy, like a silly little hat. Still with his eyes closed, he exhaled smoke through his nose. Clearly he knew he was being looked at because he tucked one hand beneath his armpit, bunching up his pectorals and biceps. Where did the muscles come from? Certainly not sporting activity, unless you counted skinny-dipping and playing pool. Probably it was just the kind of good health that was passed down in the family, along with the stocks and shares and the good furniture. Handsome then, or beautiful even, with his paisley boxer shorts pulled down to his hip bones and somehow here in her single bed in her tiny rented room at the end of four years of college. ‘Handsome’! Who do you think you are, Jane Eyre? Grow up. Be sensible. Don’t get carried away. She plucked the cigarette from his mouth. ‘I can imagine you at forty,’ she said, a hint of malice in her voice. ‘I can picture it right now.’ He smiled without opening his eyes. ‘Go on then.’ ‘Alright—’ She shuffled up the bed, the duvet tucked beneath her armpits. ‘You’re in this sports car with the roof down in Kensington or Chelsea or one of those places and the amazing thing about this car is it’s silent, ’cause all the cars’ll be silent in, I don’t know, what — 2006?’ He scrunched his eyes to do the sum. ‘2004—’ ‘And this car is hovering six inches off the ground down the King’s Road and you’ve got this little paunch tucked under the leather steering wheel like a little pillow and those backless gloves on, thinning hair and no chin. You’re a big man in a small car with a tan like a basted turkey—’ ‘So shall we change the subject then?’ ‘And there’s this woman next to you in sunglasses, your third, no, fourth wife, very beautiful, a model, no, an ex -model, twenty-three, you met her while she was draped on the bonnet of a car at a motor-show in Nice or something, and she’s stunning and thick as shit—’ ‘Well that’s nice. Any kids?’ ‘No kids, just three divorces, and it’s a Friday in July and you’re heading off to some house in the country and in the tiny boot of your hover car are tennis racquets and croquet mallets and a hamper full of fine wines and South African grapes and poor little quails and asparagus and the wind’s in your widow’s peak and you’re feeling very, very pleased with yourself and wife number three, four, whatever, smiles at you with about two hundred shiny white teeth and you smile back and try not to think about the fact that you have nothing, absolutely nothing, to say to each other.’ She came to an abrupt halt. You sound insane, she told herself. Do try not to sound insane. ‘Course if it’s any consolation we’ll all be dead in a nuclear war long before then!’ she said brightly, but still he was frowning at her. ‘Maybe I should go then. If I’m so shallow and corrupt—’ ‘No, don’t go,’ she said, a little too quickly. ‘It’s four in the morning.’ He shuffled up the bed until his face was a few inches from hers. ‘I don’t know where you get this idea of me, you barely know me.’ ‘I know the type.’ ‘The type?’ ‘I’ve seen you, hanging round Modern Languages, braying at each other, throwing black-tie dinner parties—’ ‘I don’t even own black-tie. And I certainly don’t bray—’ ‘Yachting your way round the Med in the long hols, ra ra ra—’ ‘So if I’m so awful—’ His hand was on her hip now. ‘—which you are.’ ‘—then why are you sleeping with me?’ His hand was on the warm soft flesh of her thigh. ‘Actually I don’t think I have slept with you, have I?’ ‘Well that depends.’ He leant in and kissed her. ‘Define your terms.’ His hand was on the base of her spine, his leg slipping between hers. ‘By the way,’ she mumbled, her mouth pressed against his. ‘What?’ He felt her leg snake around his, pulling him closer. ‘You need to brush your teeth.’ ‘I don’t mind if you don’t.’ ‘S’really horrible,’ she laughed. ‘You taste of wine and fags.’ ‘Well that’s alright then. So do you.’ Her head snapped away, breaking off the kiss. ‘Do I?’ ‘I don’t mind. I like wine and fags.’ ‘Won’t be a sec.’ She flung the duvet back, clambering over him. ‘Where are you going now?’ He placed his hand on her bare back. ‘Just the bog,’ she said, retrieving her spectacles from the pile of books by the bed: large, black NHS frames, standard issue. ‘The “bog”, the “bog”. . sorry I’m not familiar. .’ She stood, one arm across her chest, careful to keep her back to him. ‘Don’t go away,’ she said, padding out of the room, hooking two fingers into the elastic of her underpants to pull the material down at the top of her thighs. ‘And no playing with yourself while I’m gone.’ He exhaled through his nose and shuffled up the bed, taking in the shabby rented room, knowing with absolute confidence that somewhere in amongst the art postcards and photocopied posters for angry plays there would be a photograph of Nelson Mandela, like some dreamy ideal boyfriend. In his last four years he had seen any number of bedrooms like this, dotted round the city like crime scenes, rooms where you were never more than six feet from a Nina Simone album, and though he’d rarely seen the same bedroom twice, it was all too familiar. The burnt out nightlights and desolate pot plants, the smell of washing powder on cheap, ill-fitting sheets. She had that arty girl’s passion for photomontage too; flash-lit snaps of college friends and family jumbled in amongst the Chagalls and Vermeers and Kandinskys, the Che Guevaras and Woody Allens and Samuel Becketts. Nothing here was neutral, everything displayed an allegiance or a point of view. The room was a manifesto, and with a sigh Dexter recognised her as one of those girls who used ‘bourgeois’ as a term of abuse. He could understand why ‘fascist’ might have negative connotations, but he liked the word ‘bourgeois’ and all that it implied. Security, travel, nice food, good manners, ambition; what was he meant to be apologising for? He watched the smoke curl from his mouth. Feeling for an ashtray, he found a book at the side of the bed. The Unbearable Lightness of Being , spine creased at the ‘erotic’ bits. The problem with these fiercely individualistic girls was that they were all exactly the same. Another book: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat . Silly bloody fool, he thought, confident that it was not a mistake he would ever make. At twenty-three, Dexter Mayhew’s vision of his future was no clearer than Emma Morley’s. He hoped to be successful, to make his parents proud and to sleep with more than one woman at the same time, but how to make these all compatible? He wanted to feature in magazine articles, and hoped one day for a retrospective of his work, without having any clear notion of what that work might be. He wanted to live life to the extreme, but without any mess or complications. He wanted to live life in such a way that if a photograph were taken at random, it would be a cool photograph. Things should look right. Fun; there should be a lot of fun and no more sadness than absolutely necessary. It wasn’t much of a plan, and already there had been mistakes. Tonight, for instance, was bound to have repercussions: tears and awkward phone-calls and accusations. He should probably get out of here as soon as possible, and he glanced at his discarded clothes in preparation for his escape. From the bathroom came the warning rattle and bang of an ancient toilet cistern, and he hurriedly replaced the book, finding beneath the bed a small yellow Colman’s mustard tin that he flipped open to confirm that, yes, it did contain condoms, along with the small grey remains of a joint, like a mouse dropping. With the possibility of sex and drugs in a small yellow tin he felt hopeful again, and decided that he might stay a little longer at least. In the bathroom, Emma Morley wiped the crescents of toothpaste from the corner of her mouth and wondered if this was all a terrible mistake. Here she was, after four romantically barren years, finally, finally in bed with someone she really liked, had liked since she’d first seen him at a party in 1984, and in just a few hours he’d be gone. Forever probably. He was hardly likely to ask her to go to China with him, and besides she was boycotting China. And he was alright, wasn’t he? Dexter Mayhew. In truth she suspected he wasn’t all that bright, and a little too pleased with himself, but he was popular and funny and — no point fighting it — very handsome. So why was she being so stroppy and sarcastic? Why couldn’t she just be self-confident and fun, like those scrubbed, bouncy girls he usually hung around with? She saw the dawn light at the tiny bathroom window. Sobriety. Scratching at her awful hair with her fingertips, she pulled a face, then yanked the chain of the ancient toilet cistern and headed back into the room. From the bed, Dexter watched her appear in the doorway, wearing the gown and mortar board that they’d been obliged to hire for the graduation ceremony, her leg hooked mock-seductively around the doorframe, her rolled degree certificate in one hand. She peered over her spectacles and pulled the mortar board down low over one eye. ‘What d’you think?’ ‘Suits you. I like the jaunty angle. Now take it off and come back to bed.’ ‘No way. Thirty quid this cost me. I’m going to get my money’s worth.’ She swirled the gown like a vampire’s cape. Dexter grabbed at a corner but she swiped at him with the rolled-up certificate before sitting on the edge of the bed, folding her spectacles and shrugging off her gown. He had one last glimpse of her naked back and the curve of her breast before they disappeared beneath a black t-shirt that demanded unilateral nuclear disarmament now. That’s that, he thought. Nothing was less conducive to sexual desire than a long black political t-shirt, except perhaps that Tracy Chapman album. Resigned, he picked her degree certificate off the floor, rolled the elastic band along the length of the scroll, and announced ‘English and History, Joint Honours, 1st Class.’ ‘Read it and weep, two-two boy.’ She grabbed for the scroll. ‘Eh, careful with that.’ ‘Getting it framed, are you?’ ‘My mum and dad are having it turned into wallpaper.’ She rolled it tightly, tapping the ends. ‘Laminated place mats. My mum’s having it tattooed across her back.’ ‘Where are your parents anyway?’ ‘Oh, they’re just next door.’ He flinched. ‘God, really?’ She laughed. ‘Not really. They drove back to Leeds. Dad thinks hotels are for toffs.’ The scroll was stashed beneath the bed. ‘Now budge up,’ she said, nudging him to the cool side of the mattress. He allowed her in, sliding one arm somewhat awkwardly beneath her shoulders, kissing her neck speculatively. She turned to look at him, her chin tucked in. ‘Dex?’ ‘Hm.’ ‘Let’s just cuddle, shall we?’ ‘Of course. If you want,’ he said gallantly, though in truth he had never really seen the point of cuddling. Cuddling was for great aunts and teddy bears. Cuddling gave him cramp. Best now to admit defeat and get home as soon as possible, but she was settling her head on his shoulder territorially, and they lay like this, rigid and self-conscious for some time before she said: ‘Can’t believe I used the word “cuddle”. Bloody ’ell — cuddle . Sorry about that.’ He smiled. ‘S’alright. Least it wasn’t snuggle .’ ‘Snuggle ’s pretty bad.’ ‘Or smooch .’ ‘Smooch is awful. Let’s promise never, ever to smooch ,’ she said, regretting the remark at once. What, together? There seemed little chance of that. They lapsed into silence again. They had been talking, and kissing, for the last eight hours, and both had that deep, whole body fatigue that arrives at dawn. Blackbirds were singing in the overgrown back garden. ‘I love that sound,’ he mumbled into her hair. ‘Blackbirds at dawn.’ ‘I hate it. Makes me think I’ve done something I’ll regret.’ ‘That’s why I love it,’ he said, aiming once again for a dark, charismatic effect. A moment, then he added, ‘Why, have you?’ ‘What?’ ‘Done something you regret?’ ‘What, this you mean?’ She squeezed his hand. ‘Oh, I expect so. Don’t know yet, do I? Ask me in the morning. Why, have you?’ He pressed his mouth against the top of her head. ‘Course not,’ he said, and thought this must never, ever happen again. Pleased with his answer, she curled closer into him. ‘We should get some sleep.’ ‘What for? Nothing tomorrow. No deadlines, no work. .’ ‘Just the whole of our lives, stretching ahead of us,’ she said sleepily, taking in the wonderful warm, stale smell of him and at the same time feeling a ripple of anxiety pass across her shoulders at the thought of it: independent adult life. She didn’t feel like an adult. She was in no way prepared. It was as if a fire alarm had gone off in the middle of the night and she was standing on the street with her clothes bundled up in her arms. If she wasn’t learning, what was she doing? How would she fill the days? She had no idea. The trick of it, she told herself, is to be courageous and bold and make a difference. Not change the world exactly, just the bit around you. Go out there with your double-first, your passion and your new Smith Corona electric typewriter and work hard at. . something. Change lives through art maybe. Write beautifully. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved if at all possible. Eat sensibly. Stuff like that. It wasn’t much in the way of a guiding philosophy, and not one you could share, least of all with this man, but it was what she believed. And so far the first few hours of independent adult life had been alright. Perhaps in the morning, after tea and aspirin, she might even find the courage to ask him back to bed. They’d both be sober by then, which wouldn’t make things any easier, but she might even enjoy it. The few times that she’d gone to bed with boys she had always ended up giggling or weeping and it might be nice to try for something in between. She wondered if there were condoms in the mustard tin. No reason why there shouldn’t be, they were there last time she looked: February 1987, Vince, a hairy-backed Chemical Engineer who had blown his nose on her pillowcase. Happy days, happy days. . It was starting to get bright outside. Dexter could see the pink of the new day seeping though the heavy winter curtains that came with the rented room. Careful not to wake her, he stretched his arm across, dropped the end of his cigarette into the mug of wine and stared up at the ceiling. Not much chance of sleep now. Instead he would pick out patterns in the grey Artex until she was completely asleep, then slip out and away without waking her. Of course leaving now would mean that he would never see her again. He wondered if she would mind, and presumed she would: they usually did. But would he mind? He had managed perfectly well without her for four years. Until last night he had been under the impression that she was called Anna, and yet at the party he hadn’t been able to look away. Why had he not noticed her until now? He examined her face as she slept. She was pretty, but seemed annoyed by the fact. Her bottled-red hair was almost wilfully badly cut, alone in front of the mirror probably, or by Tilly whatsername, that loud, large girl she shared this flat with. Her skin had a pallid puffiness that spoke of too much time in libraries or drinking pints in pubs, and her spectacles made her seem owlish and prim. Her chin was soft and a little plump, though perhaps that was just puppy-fat (or were ‘plump’ and ‘puppy-fat’ things you weren’t meant to say now? in the same way that you couldn’t tell her she had tremendous breasts, even if it was true, without her getting all offended). Never mind that, back to her face. There was a slight greasy sheen on the tip of her small, neat nose and a spattering of tiny red spots on her forehead, but these aside there was no denying that her face — well, her face was a wonder. With her eyes closed he found that he couldn’t recall their exact colour, only that they were large and bright and humorous, like the two creases in the corners of her wide mouth, deep parentheses that deepened when she smiled, which seemed to be often. Smooth, pink mottled cheeks, pillows of flesh that looked as if they would be warm to the touch. No lipstick but soft, raspberry-coloured lips that she kept tightly closed when she smiled as if she didn’t want to show her teeth, which were a little large for her mouth, the front tooth slightly chipped, all of this giving the impression that she was holding something back, laughter or a clever remark or a fantastic secret joke. If he left now he would probably never see this face again, except perhaps at some terrible reunion in ten years’ time. She’d be overweight and disappointed and would complain about him sneaking off without saying goodbye. Best to leave quietly, and no reunions. Move on, look to the future. Plenty more faces out there. But as he made his decision, her mouth stretched open into a wide smile and without opening her eyes she said: ‘So, what do you reckon, Dex?’ ‘About what, Em?’ ‘Me and you. Is it love, d’you think?’ and she gave a low laugh, her lips tightly closed. ‘Just go to sleep, will you?’ ‘Stop staring up my nose then.’ She opened her eyes, blue and green, bright and shrewd. ‘What’s tomorrow?’ she mumbled. ‘Today you mean?’ ‘Today. This bright new day that awaits us.’ ‘It’s a Saturday. Saturday all day. St Swithin’s Day as a matter of fact.’ ‘What’s that then?’ ‘Tradition. If it rains today it’ll rain for the next forty days, or all summer, or something like that.’ She frowned. ‘That doesn’t make any sense.’ ‘Not meant to. It’s a superstition.’ ‘Raining where? It’s always raining somewhere.’ ‘On St Swithin’s grave. He’s buried outside Winchester Cathedral.’ ‘How come you know all this?’ ‘I went to school there.’ ‘Well la-di-da,’ she mumbled into the pillow. ‘“If on St Swithin it doth rain/Something dum-di-dum again.”’ ‘That’s a beautiful poem.’ ‘Well, I’m paraphrasing.’ She laughed once again, then raised her head sleepily. ‘But Dex?’ ‘Em?’ ‘If it doesn’t rain today?’ ‘Uh-huh.’ ‘What are you doing later?’ Tell her that you’re busy. ‘Nothing much,’ he said. ‘So shall we do something then? Me and you, I mean?’ Wait ’til she’s asleep then sneak away. ‘Yeah. Alright,’ he said. ‘Let’s do something.’ She allowed her head to drop onto the pillow once more. ‘Brand new day,’ she murmured. ‘Brand new day.’ CHAPTER TWO. Back to Life SATURDAY 15 JULY 1989 Wolverhampton and Rome Girls’ Changing Rooms Stoke Park Comprehensive School Wolverhampton 15 July 1989 Ciao, Bella! How are you? And how is Rome? The Eternal City is all very well, but I’ve been here in Wolverhampton for two days now and that’s felt pretty eternal (though I can reveal that the Pizza Hut here is excellent, just excellent). Since I last saw you I have decided to take that job I was telling you about, with Sledgehammer Theatre Co-operative and for the last four months we have been devising, rehearsing and touring with ‘Cruel Cargo’, an Arts Council-funded spectacular about the slave-trade told through the medium of story, folk song and some pretty shocking mime. I have enclosed a crudely photocopied leaflet so that you can see what a classy number it really is. Cruel Cargo is a TIE piece (that’s Theatre-in-Education to you) aimed at 11–13-year-olds that takes the provocative view that slavery was a Bad Thing. I play Lydia, the, um, well, yes, the LEAD ROLE as a matter of fact, the spoilt and vain daughter of the wicked Sir Obadiah Grimm (can you tell from his name that he’s not very nice?) and in the show’s most powerful moment I come to realise that all my pretty things, all my dresses (indicate dress) and jewels (likewise) are bought with the blood of my fellow human beings (sob-sob) and that I feel dirty (stare at hands as if SEEING THE BLOOD) dirty to my SOOOOOOUUUUL. It’s very powerful stuff, though ruined last night by some kids throwing Maltesers at my head. But seriously, actually, it’s not as bad as that, not in context, and I don’t know why I’m being cynical, defence-mechanism probably. We actually get a great response from the kids who see it, the ones that don’t throw stuff, and we do these workshops in schools that are just really exciting. It’s staggering how little these kids know about their cultural heritage, even the West Indian kids, about where they come from. I’ve enjoyed writing it too and it’s given me lots of ideas for other plays and stuff. So I think it’s worthwhile even if you think I’m wasting my time. I really, really think we can change things, Dexter. I mean they had loads of radical theatre in Germany in the Thirties and look what a difference that made. We’re going to banish colour prejudice from the West Midlands, even if we have to do it one child at a time. There are four of us in the cast. Kwame is the Noble Slave and despite us playing mistress and servant we actually get along alright (though I asked him to get me a packet of crisps in this caf? the other day and he looked at me like I was OPPRESSING him or something). But he’s nice and serious about the work, though he did cry a lot in rehearsals, which I thought was a bit much. He’s a bit of a weeper, if you know what I mean. In the play there’s meant to be this powerful sexual tension between us, but once again life is failing to imitate art. Then there’s Sid, who plays my wicked father Obadiah. I know your whole childhood was spent playing French cricket on a bloody great chamomile lawn and you never did anything as d?class? as watch the telly, but Sid used to be quite famous, on this cop show called City Beat and his disgust at being reduced to THIS shines through. He flatly refuses to mime, like it’s beneath him to be seen with an object that isn’t really there, and every other sentence begins ‘when I was on telly’ which is his way of saying ‘when I was happy’. Sid pees in washbasins and has these scary polyester trousers which you WIPE DOWN instead of washing and subsists on service station minced beef pasties, and me and Kwame think he’s secretly really racist, but apart from that he’s a lovely man, a lovely, lovely man. And then there’s Candy, ah Candy. You’d like Candy, she’s exactly what she sounds like. She plays Cheeky Maid, a Plantation Owner and Sir William Wilberforce, and is very beautiful and spiritual and even though I don’t approve of the word, a complete bitch. She keeps asking me how old I am really and telling me I look tired or that if I got contact lenses I could actually be quite pretty, which I ADORE of course. She’s very keen to make it clear that she’s only doing this to get her Equity card and bide her time until she’s spotted by some Hollywood producer who presumably just happens to be passing through Dudley on a wet Tuesday afternoon on the lookout for hot TIE talent. Acting is rubbish, isn’t it? When we started STC (Sledgehammer Theatre Co-operative) we were really keen to set up a progressive theatrical collective with none of that ego-fame-getting-on-the-telly-ego-showing-off bullshit, and just do really good, exciting original political devised work. That may all sound dopey to you, but that’s what we wanted to do. But the problem with democratic egalitarian collectives is that you have to listen to twots like Sid and Candy. I wouldn’t mind if she could act but her Geordie accent is unbelievable, like she’s had a stroke or something and she’s also got this thing about doing yoga warm-ups in her lingerie. There, that’s got your attention, hasn’t it? It’s the first time I’ve seen someone do the Sun Worship in hold-up stockings and a basque. That can’t be right, can it? Poor old Sid can barely chew his curried beef slice, keeps missing his mouth. When the time finally comes for her to put some clothes on and go on stage one of the kids usually wolf-whistles or something and in the mini-bus afterwards she always pretends to be really affronted and feminist about it. ‘I hate being judged on my looks all my life I’ve been judged on my exquisite face and firm young body,’ she says as she adjusts her suspender belt, like it’s a big POLITICAL issue, like we should be doing agit-prop street theatre about the plight of women cursed with great tits. Am I ranting? Are you in love with her yet? Maybe I’ll introduce you when you get back. I can see you now, giving her that look where you clench your jaw and play with your lips and ask about her careeeeeer. Maybe I won’t introduce you after all. . Emma Morley turned the page face down as Gary Nutkin entered, skinny and anxious, and it was time for the pre-show pep-talk from the director and co-founder of Sledgehammer Theatre Co-operative. The unisex dressing room was not a dressing room at all, just the girls’ changing room at an inner-city comprehensive which, even at the weekend, still had that school smell she remembered: hormones, pink liquid soap, mildewed towels. In the doorway, Gary Nutkin cleared his throat; pale and razor-burned, the top-button of his black shirt fastened tight, a man whose personal style icon was George Orwell. ‘Great crowd tonight, people! Nearly half full which isn’t bad considering!’ though considering what exactly he didn’t say, perhaps because he was distracted by Candy, performing pelvic rolls in a polka-dot all-in-one. ‘Let’s give ’em one hell of a show, folks. Let’s knock ’em dead!’ ‘I’d like to knock ’em dead,’ growled Sid, watching Candy while picking at pastry crumbs. ‘Cricket bat with nails in, little bastards.’ ‘Stay positive, Sid, will you please?’ implored Candy on a long, controlled out-breath. Gary continued. ‘Remember, keep it fresh, stay connected, keep it lively, say the lines like it’s the first time and most importantly of all, don’t let the audience intimidate or goad you in any way. Interaction is great. Retaliation is not. Don’t let them rile you. Don’t give them that satisfaction. Fifteen minutes, please!’ and with that Gary closed the dressing room door on them, like a jailor. Sid began his nightly warm-up now, a murmured incantation of I-hate-this-job-I-hate-this-job. Beyond him sat Kwame, topless and forlorn in tattered trousers, hands jammed in his armpits, head lolling back, meditating or trying not to cry perhaps. On Emma’s left, Candy sang songs from Les Miserables in a light, flat soprano, picking at the hammer toes she’d got from eighteen years of ballet. Emma turned back to her reflection in the cracked mirror, plumped up the puffed sleeves of her Empire line dress, removed her spectacles and gave a Jane Austen sigh. The last year had been a series of wrong turns, bad choices, abandoned projects. There was the all-girl band in which she had played bass, variously called Throat, Slaughterhouse Six and Bad Biscuit, which had been unable to decide on a name, let alone a musical direction. There was the alternative club night that no-one had gone to, the abandoned first novel, the abandoned second novel, several miserable summer jobs selling cashmere and tartan to tourists. At her very, very lowest ebb she had taken a course in Circus Skills until it transpired that she had none. Trapeze was not the solution. The much-advertised Second Summer of Love had been one of melancholy and lost momentum. Even her beloved Edinburgh had started to bore and depress her. Living in her University town felt like staying on at a party that everyone else had left, and so in October she had given up the flat in Rankeillor Street and moved back to her parents for a long, fraught, wet winter of recriminations and slammed doors and afternoon TV in a house that now seemed impossibly small. ‘But you’ve got a double-first! What happened to your double-first?’ her mother asked daily, as if Emma’s degree was a super-power that she stubbornly refused to use. Her younger sister, Marianne, a happily married nurse with a new baby, would come round at nights just to gloat at mum and dad’s golden girl brought low. But every now and then, there was Dexter Mayhew. In the last few warm days of the summer after graduation she had gone to stay at his family’s beautiful house in Oxfordshire; not a house, but a mansion to her eyes. Large, 1920s, with faded rugs and large abstract canvases and ice in the drinks. In the large, herb-scented garden they had spent a long, languid day between the swimming pool and tennis court, the first she’d ever seen that had not been built by the local council. Drinking gin and tonics in wicker chairs, looking at the view, she had thought of The Great Gatsby . Of course she had spoiled it; getting nervous and drinking too much at dinner, shouting at Dexter’s father — a mild, modest, perfectly reasonable man — about Nicaragua, while all the time Dexter regarded her with a look of affectionate disappointment, as if she were a puppy who had soiled a rug. Had she really sat at their table, eating their food and calling his father a fascist? That night she lay in the guest bedroom, dazed and remorseful, waiting for a knock on the door that clearly would never come; romantic hopes sacrificed for the Sandinistas, who were unlikely to be grateful. They had met again in London in April, at their mutual friend Callum’s twenty-third birthday party, spending the whole of the next day in Kensington Gardens together, drinking wine from the bottle and talking. Clearly she had been forgiven, but they had also settled into the maddening familiarity of friendship; maddening for her at least, lying on the fresh spring grass, their hands almost touching as he told her about Lola, this incredible Spanish girl he’d met while ski-ing in the Pyrenees. And then he was off travelling again, broadening his mind yet further. China had turned out to be too alien and ideological for Dexter’s taste, and he had instead embarked on a leisurely year-long tour of what the guide books called ‘Party Towns’. So they were pen pals now, Emma composing long, intense letters crammed with jokes and underlining, forced banter and barely concealed longing; two-thousand-word acts of love on air-mail paper. Letters, like compilation tapes, were really vehicles for unexpressed emotions and she was clearly putting far too much time and energy into them. In return, Dexter sent her postcards with insufficient postage: ‘Amsterdam is MAD’, ‘Barcelona INSANE’, ‘Dublin ROCKS. Sick as DOG this morning.’ As a travel writer, he was no Bruce Chatwin, but still she would slip the postcards in the pocket of a heavy coat on long soulful walks on Ilkley Moor, searching for some hidden meaning in ‘VENICE COMPLETELY FLOODED!!!!’. ‘Who’s this Dexter then?’ her mother asked, peering at the back of the postcards. ‘Your boyfriend, is he?’ Then, with a concerned look: ‘Have you ever thought about working for the Gas Board?’ Emma got a job pulling pints in the local pub, and time passed, and she felt her brain begin to soften like something forgotten at the back of the fridge. Then Gary Nutkin had phoned, the skinny Trotskyist who had directed her in a stark, uncompromising production of Brecht’s Fears and Miseries of the Third Reich back in ’86, then kissed her for three stark, uncompromising hours at the last-night party. Shortly afterwards he had taken her to a Peter Greenaway double-bill, waiting until four hours in before reaching across and absent-mindedly placing his hand on her left breast as if adjusting a dimmer switch. They made Brechtian love that evening in a stale single bed beneath a poster for The Battle of Algiers , Gary taking care throughout to ensure that he was in no way objectifying her. Then nothing, not a word, until that late-night phone-call in May, and the hesitant words, softly spoken: ‘How would you like to join my theatre co-operative?’ Emma had no ambitions as an actress or any great love of theatre, except as a medium to convey words and ideas. And Sledgehammer was to be a new kind of progressive theatre co-op, with shared intentions, a shared zeal, a written manifesto and a commitment to changing young lives through art. Maybe there’d be some romance too, Emma thought, or at the very least some sex. She packed her rucksack, said goodbye to her sceptical mum and dad, and set out in the mini-bus as if heading out on some great cause, a sort of theatrical Spanish Civil War, funded by the Arts Council. But three months later, what had happened to the warmth, the camaraderie, the sense of social value, of high ideals coupled with fun? They were meant to be a co-operative. That’s what was written on the side of the van, she had stencilled it there herself. I-hate-this-job-I-hate this-job , said Sid. Emma pressed her hands against her ears, and asked herself some fundamental questions. Why am I here? Am I really making a difference? Why can’t she put some clothes on? What is that smell? Where do I want to be right now? She wanted to be in Rome, with Dexter Mayhew. In bed. ‘Shaftes-bury Avenue.’ ‘No, Shafts-bury. Three syllables.’ ‘Lychester Square.’ ‘Leicester Square, two syllables.’ ‘Why not Lychester?’ ‘No idea.’ ‘But you are meant to be my teacher, you are meant to know.’ ‘Sorry,’ Dexter shrugged. ‘Well I think it is stupid language,’ said Tove Angstrom, and punched him in the shoulder. ‘A stupid language. I couldn’t agree with you more. No need to hit me though.’ ‘I apologise,’ said Tove, kissing his shoulder, then his neck and mouth, and Dexter was once again struck by how rewarding teaching could be. They lay in a tangle of cushions on the terracotta floor of his tiny room, having given up on the single bed as inadequate for their needs. In the brochure for the Percy Shelley International School of English, the teachers’ accommodation had been described as ‘some comfortable with many mitigating features’ and this summed it up perfectly. His room in the Centro Storico was dull and institutional, but there was at least a balcony, a foot-wide sill overlooking a picturesque square that, in a very Roman way, also functioned as a car park. Each morning he was woken by the sound of office-workers breezily reversing their cars into each other. But in the middle of this humid July afternoon, the only sound came from the wheels of tourist suitcases rumbling on the cobbles below, and they lay with the windows wide open, kissing lazily, her hair clinging to his face, thick and dark and smelling of some Danish shampoo: artificial pine and cigarette smoke. She reached across his chest for the packet on the floor, lit two cigarettes and passed him one, and he shuffled up onto the pillows, letting the cigarette dangle from his lip like Belmondo or someone in a Fellini film. He had never seen a Belmondo or Fellini film, but was familiar with the postcards: stylish, black and white. Dexter didn’t like to think of himself as vain, but there were definitely times when he wished there was someone on hand to take his photograph. They kissed again, and he wondered vaguely if there was some moral or ethical dimension to this situation. Of course the time to worry about the pros and cons of sleeping with a student would have been after the College party, while Tove was perching unsteadily on the edge of his bed and unzipping her knee-length boots. Even then, in the muddle of red wine and desire he had found himself wondering what Emma Morley would say. Even as Tove twirled her tongue in his ear, he had conducted his defence: she’s nineteen, an adult, and anyway I’m not a real teacher. Besides, Emma was a long way away at this moment, changing the world from a mini-bus on the ring road of a provincial town, and what was all this to do with Emma anyway? Tove’s knee-length boots sagged in the corner of the room now, in the hostel where overnight visitors were strictly forbidden. He shifted his body to a cooler patch of terracotta, peering out of the window to try to gauge the time from the small square of vivid blue sky. The rhythm of Tove’s breathing was changing as she slipped into sleep, but he had an important appointment to keep. He dropped the last two inches of cigarette into a wine glass, and stretched for his wristwatch, which lay on an unread copy of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man . ‘Tove, I’ve got to go.’ She groaned in protest. ‘I’m meeting my parents, I’ve got to leave now.’ ‘Can I come too?’ He laughed. ‘Don’t think so, Tove. Besides you’ve got a grammar test on Monday. Go and revise.’ ‘You test me. Test me now.’ ‘Okay, verbs. Present continuous.’ She coiled one leg around him, using the leverage to pull herself on top of him. ‘I am kissing, you are kissing, he is kissing, she is kissing. .’ He pulled himself up on his elbows. ‘Seriously, Tove. .’ ‘Ten more minutes,’ she whispered in his ear, and he sank back to the floor. Why not, he thought? After all, I’m in Rome, it’s a beautiful day. I am twenty-four years old, financially secure, healthy. I ache and I am doing something that I shouldn’t be doing, and I am very, very lucky. The attraction of a life devoted to sensation, pleasure and self would probably wear thin one day, but there was still plenty of time for that yet. And how is Rome? How is La Dolce Vita? (look it up). I imagine you right now at a caf? table, drinking one of those ‘cappuccinos’ we hear so much about, and wolf-whistling at everything. You’re probably wearing sunglasses to read this. Well take them off, you look ridiculous. Did you get the books I sent you? Primo Levi is a fine Italian writer. It’s to remind you that life isn’t all gelati and espadrilles. Life can’t always be like the opening of Betty Blue. And how is teaching? Please promise me you’re not sleeping with your students. That would just be so. . disappointing. Must go now. Bottom of page looms, and in the other room I can hear the thrilling murmur of our audience as they throw chairs at each other. I finish this job in two weeks THANK GOD, then Gary Nutkin, our director, wants me to devise a show for infant schools about Apartheid. With PUPPETS for fuck’s sake. Six months in a Transit on the M 6 with a Desmond Tutu marionette on my lap. I might give that one a miss. Besides, I’ve written this two-woman play about Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson called ‘Two Lives’ (either that or ‘Two Depressed Lesbians’). Maybe I’ll put that on in a pub-theatre somewhere. Once I’d explained to Candy who Virginia Woolf was, she said that she really, really wanted to play her, but only if she can take her top off, so that’s the casting sorted. I’ll be Emily Dickinson, and keep my top on. I’ll reserve you tickets. In the meantime, I have to choose whether to sign-on in Leeds or sign-on in London. Choices, choices. I’ve been trying to fight moving to London — it’s so PREDICTABLE, moving to London — but my old flatmate Tilly Killick (remember her? Big red glasses, strident views, sideburns?) has a spare room in Clapton. She calls it her ‘box room’, which doesn’t bode well. What’s Clapton like? Are you coming back to London soon? Hey! Maybe we could be flatmates? ‘Flatmates?’ Emma hesitated, shook her head and groaned, then wrote ‘Just kidding!!!!’ She groaned again. ‘Just kidding’ was exactly what people wrote when they meant every word. Too late to scribble it out now, but how to sign off? ‘All the best’ was too formal, ‘tout mon amour’ too affected, ‘all my love’ too corny, and now Gary Nutkin was in the doorway once again. ‘Okay, places everyone!’ Sorrowfully he held the door open as if leading them to the firing squad, and quickly, before she could change her mind, she wrote—God I miss you, Dex — then her signature and a single kiss scratched deep into the pale blue air-mail paper. In the Piazza della Rotunda, Dexter’s mother sat at a caf? table, a novel held loosely in one hand, her eyes closed and her head tilted back and to the side like a bird to catch the last of the afternoon sun. Rather than arrive straightaway, Dexter took a moment to sit amongst the tourists on the steps of the Pantheon and watch as the waiter approached and picked up her ashtray, startling her. They both laughed, and from the theatrical movement of her mouth and arms he could tell that she was speaking her terrible Italian, her hand on the waiter’s arm, patting it flirtatiously. With no apparent idea what had been said, the waiter nevertheless grinned and flirted back, then walked away, glancing over his shoulder at the beautiful English woman who had touched his arm and talked incomprehensibly. Dexter saw all this and smiled. That old Freudian notion, first whispered at boarding school, that boys were meant to be in love with their mothers and hate their fathers, seemed perfectly plausible to him. Everyone he had ever met had been in love with Alison Mayhew, and the best of it was that he really liked his father too; as in so many things, he had all the luck. Often, at dinner or in the large, lush garden of the Oxfordshire house, or on holidays in France as she slept in the sun, he would notice his father staring at her with his bloodhound eyes in dumb adoration. Fifteen years her elder, tall, long-faced and introverted, Stephen Mayhew seemed unable to believe this one remarkable piece of good fortune. At her frequent parties, if Dexter sat very quietly so as not to be sent to bed, he would watch as the men formed an obedient, devoted circle around her; intelligent, accomplished men, doctors and lawyers and people who spoke on the radio, reduced to moony teenage boys. He would watch as she danced to early Roxy Music albums, a cocktail glass in her hand, woozy and self-contained as the other wives looked on, dumpy and slow-witted in comparison. School-friends too, even the cool complicated ones, would turn into cartoons around Alison Mayhew, flirting with her while she flirted back, engaging her in water fights, complimenting her on her terrible cooking — the violently scrambled eggs, the black pepper that was ash from a cigarette. She had once studied fashion in London but these days ran a village antiques shop, selling expensive rugs and chandeliers to genteel Oxford with great success. She still carried with her that aura of having been something-in-the-Sixties — Dexter had seen the photographs, the clippings from faded colour supplements — but with no apparent sadness or regret she had given this up for a resolutely respectable, secure, comfortable family life. Typically, it was as if she had sensed exactly the right moment to leave the party. Dexter suspected that she had occasional flings with the doctors, the lawyers, the people who spoke on the radio, but he found it hard to be angry with her. And always people said the same thing — that he had got it from her. No-one was specific about what ‘it’ was, but everyone seem to know; looks of course, energy and good health, but also a certain nonchalant self-confidence, the right to be at the centre of things, on the winning team. Even now, as she sat in her washed-out blue summer dress, fishing in her immense handbag for matches, it seemed as if the life of the Piazza revolved around her. Shrewd brown eyes in a heart-shaped face under a mess of expensively dishevelled black hair, her dress undone one button too far, an immaculate mess. She saw him approach and her face cracked with a wide smile. ‘Forty-five minutes late, young man. Where have you been?’ ‘Over there watching you chat up the waiters.’ ‘Don’t tell your father.’ She knocked the table with her hip as she stood and hugged him. ‘Where have you been though?’ ‘Just preparing lessons.’ His hair was wet from the shower he had shared with Tove Angstrom, and as she brushed it from his forehead, her hand cupping the side of his face fondly, he realised that she was already a little drunk. ‘Very tousled. Who’s been tousling you? What mischief have you been up to?’ ‘I told you, planning lessons.’ She pouted sceptically. ‘And where did you get to last night? We waited at the restaurant.’ ‘I’m sorry, I got delayed. College disco.’ ‘A disco . Very 1977. What was that like?’ ‘Two hundred drunk Scandinavian girls vogue-ing.’ ‘“Vogue-ing”. I’m pleased to say that I have absolutely no idea what that is. Was it fun?’ ‘It was hell.’ She patted his knee. ‘You poor, poor thing.’ ‘Where’s Dad?’ ‘He’s had to go for one of his little lie-downs at the hotel. The heat, and his sandals were chafing. You know what your father’s like, he’s so Welsh .’ ‘So what have you been doing?’ ‘Just wandering around the Forum. I thought it was beautiful, but Stephen was bored out of his skull. All that mess, columns just left lying around all over the place. I think he thinks they should bulldoze it all, put up a nice conservatory or something.’ ‘You should visit the Palatine. It’s at the top of that hill. .’ ‘I know where the Palatine is, Dexter, I was visiting Rome before you were born.’ ‘Yes, who was emperor back then?’ ‘Ha. Here, help me with this wine, don’t let me drink the whole bottle.’ She already had, pretty much, but he poured the last inch into a water glass and reached for her cigarettes. Alison tutted. ‘You know sometimes I think we took the whole liberal-parent thing a bit too far.’ ‘I quite agree. You ruined me. Pass the matches.’ ‘It’s not clever, you know. I know you think it makes you look like a film star, but it doesn’t, it looks awful.’ ‘So why do you do it then?’ ‘Because it makes me look sensational.’ She placed a cigarette between her lips and he lit it with his match. ‘I’m giving up anyway. This is my last one. Now quickly, while your father’s not here—’ She shuffled closer, conspiratorially. ‘Tell me about your love-life.’ ‘No!’ ‘Come on, Dex! You know I’m forced to live vicariously through my children, and your sister’s such a virgin . .’ ‘Are you drunk, old lady?’ ‘How she got two children, I’ll never know. .’ ‘You are drunk.’ ‘I don’t drink, remember?’ When Dexter was twelve she had solemnly taken him into the kitchen one night and in a low voice instructed him how to make a dry martini, as if it were a solemn rite. ‘Come on then. Spill the beans, all the juicy details.’ ‘I have nothing to say.’ ‘No-one in Rome? No nice Catholic girl?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Not a student, I hope.’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘What about back home? Who’s been writing you those long tear-stained letters we keep forwarding?’ ‘None of your business.’ ‘Don’t make me steam them open again, just tell me!’ ‘There’s nothing to tell.’ She sat back in her chair. ‘Well I’m disappointed in you. What about that nice girl who came to stay that time?’ ‘What girl?’ ‘Pretty, earnest, Northern. Got drunk and shouted at your father about the Sandinistas.’ ‘That was Emma Morley.’ ‘Emma Morley. I liked her. Your father liked her too, even if she did call him a bourgeois fascist.’ Dexter winced at the memory. ‘I don’t mind, at least she had a bit of fire, a bit of passion. Not like those silly sex-pots we usually find at the breakfast table. Yes Mrs Mayhew, no Mrs Mayhew. I can hear you, you know, tip-toeing to the guest room in the night. .’ ‘You really are drunk, aren’t you?’ ‘So what about this Emma?’ ‘Emma’s just a friend.’ ‘Is she now? Well I’m not so sure. In fact I think she likes you.’ ‘Everyone likes me. It’s my curse.’ In his head it had sounded fine: raffish and self-mocking, but now they sat in silence and he felt foolish once again, like at those parties where his mother would allow him to sit with the grown-ups and he would show-off and let her down. She smiled at him indulgently, and squeezed his hand as it rested on the table. ‘Be nice, won’t you?’ ‘I am nice, I’m always nice.’ ‘But not too nice. I mean don’t make a religion out of it, niceness.’ ‘I won’t.’ Uncomfortable now, he began to glance around the Piazza. She nudged his arm. ‘So do you want another bottle of wine, or shall we go back to the hotel and see about your father’s bunions?’ They began to walk north through the back streets that run parallel to the Via del Corso towards the Piazza del Popolo, Dexter adjusting the route as he went to make it as scenic as possible, and he began to feel better, enjoying the satisfaction of knowing a city well. She hung woozily on his arm. ‘So how long are you planning to stay here then?’ ‘I don’t know. ’Til October maybe.’ ‘But then you will come home and settle down to something, won’t you?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I don’t mean live with us. I wouldn’t do that to you. But you know we’d help you out with a deposit on a flat.’ ‘There isn’t any rush, is there?’ ‘Well it’s been a whole year, Dexter. How much holiday do you need? It’s not as if you worked yourself ragged at University—’ ‘I’m not on holiday, I’m working!’ ‘What about journalism? Didn’t you talk about journalism?’ He had mentioned it in passing, but only as a distraction and alibi. It seemed that as he ambled through his late teens his possibilities had slowly begun to narrow. Certain cool-sounding jobs — heart surgeon, architect — were permanently closed to him now and journalism seemed about to go the same way. He wasn’t much of a writer, knew little about politics, spoke bad restaurant-French, lacked all training and qualifications, possessed only a passport and a vivid image of himself smoking beneath a ceiling fan in tropical countries, a battered Nikon and a bottle of whisky by his bedside. Of course what he really wanted was to be a photographer. At sixteen he had completed a photo-project called ‘Texture’, full of black and white close-ups of tree bark and sea-shells which had apparently ‘blown’ his art teacher’s mind. Nothing that he had done since had given him as much satisfaction as ‘Texture’ and those high-contrast prints of frost on windows and the gravel in the driveway. Journalism would mean grappling with difficult stuff like words and ideas, but he thought he might have the makings of a decent photographer, if only because he felt he had a strong sense of when things looked right. At this stage in his life, his main criterion for choosing a career was that it should sound good in a bar, shouted into a girl’s ear, and there was no denying that ‘I’m a professional photographer’ was a fine sentence, almost up there with ‘I report from war zones’ or ‘actually, I make documentaries.’ ‘Journalism’s a possibility.’ ‘Or business. Weren’t you and Callum going to start up some business?’ ‘We’re giving it some thought.’ ‘All sounds a bit vague, just “business”.’ ‘Like I said, we’re giving it some thought.’ In truth Callum, his old flatmate, had already started the business without him, something about computer refurbishment that Dexter didn’t have the energy to understand. They’d be millionaires by the time they were twenty-five, Callum insisted, but what would it sound like in a bar? ‘Actually, I refurbish computers.’ No, professional photography was his best bet. He decided to try saying it out loud. ‘Actually, I’m thinking about photography.’ ‘Photography?’ His mother gave a maddening laugh. ‘Hey, I’m a good photographer!’ ‘—when you remember to take your thumb off the lens.’ ‘Aren’t you meant to be encouraging me?’ ‘What kind of photographer? Glamour? ’ She gave a throaty laugh. ‘Or are you going to continue your work on Texture !’ and they had to stop while she stood in the street laughing for some time, doubled over, holding onto his arm for support — ‘All those pictures of gravel !’ — until finally it was over, and she stood and straightened her face. ‘Dexter, I am so, so sorry. .’ ‘I’m actually much better now.’ ‘I know you are, I’m sorry. I apologise.’ They began to walk again. ‘You must do it, Dexter, if that’s what you want.’ She squeezed his arm with her elbow, but Dexter felt sulky. ‘We’ve always told you that you can be anything you want to be, if you work hard enough.’ ‘It was just a thought,’ he said, petulantly. ‘I’m weighing up my options, that’s all.’ ‘Well I hope so, because teaching’s a fine profession, but this isn’t really your vocation, is it? Teaching Beatles songs to moony Nordic girls.’ ‘It’s hard work, Mum. Besides it gives me something to fall back on.’ ‘Yes, well, sometimes I wonder if you have a little too much to fall back on.’ She was looking down as she spoke and the remark seemed to rebound off the flagstones. They walked a little further before he spoke. ‘And what does that mean?’ ‘Oh, I just mean—’ She sighed, and rested her head against his shoulder. ‘I just mean that at some point you’ll have to get serious about life, that’s all. You’re young and healthy and you look nice enough, I suppose, in a low light. People seem to like you, you’re smart, or smart enough, not academically maybe, but you know what’s what. And you’ve had luck, so much luck, Dexter, and you’ve been protected from things, responsibility, money. But you’re an adult now, and one day things might not be this. .’ She looked around her, indicating the scenic little back street down which he had brought her. ‘. . this serene. It would be good if you were prepared for that. It would do you good to be better equipped.’ Dexter frowned. ‘What, a career you mean?’ ‘Partly.’ ‘You sound like Dad.’ ‘Good God, in what way?’ ‘A proper job, something to fall back on, something to get up for.’ ‘Not just that, not just a job. A direction. A purpose. Some drive, some ambition. When I was your age I wanted to change the world.’ He sniffed ‘Hence the antiques shop,’ and she jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. ‘That’s now, this was then. And don’t get smart with me.’ She took hold of his arm and they began walking slowly again. ‘I just want you to make me proud, that’s all. I mean I’m already proud of you, and your sister, but, well, you know what I mean. I’m a little drunk. Let’s change the subject. I wanted to talk to you about something else.’ ‘What else?’ ‘Oh — too late.’ They were in sight of the hotel now, three stars, smart but not ostentatious. Through the smoked plate glass window he could glimpse his father hunched in a lobby armchair, one long thin leg bent up to his knee, sock bunched up in his hand as he scrutinised the sole of his foot. ‘Good God, he’s picking his corns in the hotel lobby. A little bit of Swansea on the Via del Corso. Charming, just charming.’ Alison unlooped her arm and took her son’s hand in hers. ‘Take me for lunch tomorrow, will you? While your father sits in a darkened room and picks his corns. Let’s go out, just you and me, somewhere outside on a nice square. White tablecloths. Somewhere expensive, my treat. You can bring me some of your photographs of interesting pebbles.’ ‘Okay,’ he said, sulkily. His mother was smiling but frowning too, squeezing his hand a little too hard, and he felt a sudden pang of anxiety. ‘Why?’ ‘Because I want to talk to my handsome son and I’m a little too drunk right now, I think.’ ‘What is it? Tell me now!’ ‘It’s nothing, nothing.’ ‘You’re not getting divorced, are you?’ She gave a low laugh. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, of course not.’ In the hotel lobby his father had seen them, and was standing and tugging on the ‘push to open’ door. ‘How could I ever leave a man who tucks his shirts into his underpants?’ ‘So tell me, what is it?’ ‘Nothing bad, sweetheart, nothing bad.’ Standing on the street she gave him a consoling smile and put her hand in the short hair at the back of his neck, pulling him down to her height so that their foreheads were touching. ‘Don’t you worry about a thing. Tomorrow. We’ll talk properly tomorrow.’ CHAPTER THREE. The Taj Mahal SUNDAY 15 JULY 1990 Bombay and Camden Town ‘ATTENTION PLEASE! Can I have your attention? Some attention if you don’t mind? If you could listen? Don’t throw things, listen please? Please? ATTENTION, PLEASE? Thank you.’ Scott McKenzie settled on his bar stool and looked out at his team of eight staff: all under twenty-five, all dressed in white denim jeans and corporate baseball caps, all of them desperate to be anywhere but here, the Sunday lunch-time shift at Loco Caliente, a Tex-Mex restaurant on the Kentish Town Road where both food and atmosphere were hot hot hot. ‘Now before we open the doors for brunch I’d just like to run through today’s so-called “specials”, if I may. Our soup is that repeat offender, the sweetcorn chowder, and the main course is a very delicious and succulent fish burrito!’ Scott blew air out through his mouth and waited for the groaning and fake retching to subside. A small, pale pink-eyed man with a degree in Business Management from Loughborough, he had once hoped to be a captain of industry. He had pictured himself playing golf at conference centres or striding up the steps of a private jet, and yet just this morning he had scooped a plug of yellow pork fat the size of a human head from the kitchen drains. With his bare hands. He could still feel the grease between his fingers. He was thirty-nine years old, and it wasn’t meant to be this way. ‘Basically, it’s your standard beef-stroke-chicken-stroke-pork burrito but with, and I quote, “delicious moist chunks of cod and salmon”. Who knows, they may even get a prawn or two.’ ‘That’s just. . awful ,’ laughed Paddy from behind the bar, where he sat cutting limes into wedges for the necks of beer bottles. ‘Bringing a little touch of the North Atlantic to the cuisine of Latin America,’ said Emma Morley, tying on her waitress’s apron and noticing a new arrival appearing behind Scott, a large, sturdy man, fair curly hair on a large cylindrical head. The new boy. The staff watched him warily, weighing him up as if he were a new arrival on G-wing. ‘On a brighter note,’ said Scott, ‘I’d like to introduce you to Ian Whitehead, who will be joining our happy team of highly trained staff.’ Ian slapped his regulation baseball cap far back on his head and, raising an arm in salute, high-fived the air. ‘Yo, my people!’ he said, in what might have been an American accent. ‘Yo my people? Where does Scott find them?’ sniggered Paddy from behind the bar, his voice calibrated just loud enough for the new arrival to hear. Scott slapped a palm on Ian’s shoulder, startling him: ‘So I’m going to hand you over to Emma, our longest serving member of staff!—’ Emma winced at the accolade, then smiled apologetically at the new boy, and he smiled back with his mouth closed tight; a Stan Laurel smile. ‘—She’ll show you the basics, and that’s it, everyone. Remember! Fish burritos! Now, music please!’ Paddy pressed play on the greasy tape deck behind the bar and the music began, a maddening forty-five minutes loop of synthetic mariachi music, beginning aptly enough with ‘La Cucaracha’, the cockroach, to be heard twelve times in an eight-hour shift. Twelve times a shift, twenty-four shifts a month, for seven months now. Emma looked down at the baseball cap in her hand. The restaurant logo, a cartoon donkey, peered up at her goggle-eyed from beneath his sombrero, drunk it would seem, or insane perhaps. She settled the cap on her head and slid off the bar stool as if lowering herself into icy water. The new guy was waiting for her, beaming, his fingertips jammed awkwardly into the pockets of his gleaming white jeans, and Emma wondered once again what exactly she was doing with her life. Emma, Emma, Emma. How are you, Emma? And what are you doing right this second? We’re six hours ahead here in Bombay, so hopefully you’re still in bed with a Sunday morning hangover in which case WAKE UP! IT’S DEXTER! This letter comes to you from a downtown Bombay hostel with scary mattresses and hot and cold running Australians. My guide book tells me that it has character i.e. rodents but my room also has a little plastic picnic table by the window and it’s raining like crazy outside, harder even than in Edinburgh. It’s CHUCKING IT DOWN, Em, so loud that I can barely hear the compilation tape you made me which I like a lot incidentally except for that jangly indie stuff because after all I’m not some GIRL. I’ve been trying to read the books you gave me at Easter too, though I have to admit I’m finding Howards End quite heavy-going. It’s like they’ve been drinking the same cup of tea for two hundred pages, and I keep waiting for someone to pull a knife or an alien invasion or something, but that’s not going to happen is it? When will you stop trying to educate me, I wonder? Never I hope. By the way, in case you hadn’t guessed from the Exquisite Prose and all the SHOUTING I’m writing this drunk, beers at lunch time! As you can tell I’m not a great letter writer not like you (your last letter was so funny) but all I will say is that India is incredible. It turns out that being banned from Teaching English as a Foreign Language was the best thing that ever happened to me (though I still think they overreacted. Morally Unfit? Me? Tove was twenty-one). I won’t bore you with all that sunrise over the Hindu-kesh prose except to say that all the clich?s are true (poverty, tummy upsets blah blah blah). Not only is it a rich and ancient civilization but you wouldn’t BELIEVE what you can get in the chemists without a prescription. So I’ve seen some amazing things and while it’s not always fun it is an Experience and I’ve taken thousands of photographs which I will show you very very slooooooowly when I get back. Pretend to be interested, won’t you? After all I pretended to be interested when you banged on about the Poll Tax Riots. Anyway, I showed some of my photos to this TV producer who I met on a train the other day, a woman (not what you think, old, mid-thirties) and she said I could be a professional. She was here producing a sort of young people’s TV travel show thing and she gave me her card and told me to call her in August when they’re back again, so who knows maybe I’ll do some researching or filming even. What’s happening with you work-wise? Are you doing another play? I really, really enjoyed your Virginia-Woolf-Emily-whatsername play when I was in London, and like I said I think it showed loads of promise which sounds like bullshit but isn’t. I think you’re right to give up acting though, not because you’re not good but because you so obviously hate it. Candy was nice too, much nicer than you made out. Send her my love. Are you doing another play? Are you still in that box room? Does the flat still smell of fried onions? Is Tilly Killick still soaking her big grey bras in the washing-up bowl? Are you still at Mucho Loco or whatever it’s called? Your last letter made me laugh so much, Em, but you should still get out of there because while it’s good for gags it’s definitely bad for your soul. You can’t throw years of your life away because it makes a funny anecdote. Which brings me to my reason for writing to you. Are you ready? You might want to sit down. . ? ? ? ‘So, Ian — welcome to the graveyard of ambition!’ Emma pushed open the staffroom door, immediately knocking over a pint glass on the floor, last night’s fags suspended in lager. The official tour had brought them to the small, dank staffroom which overlooked the Kentish Town Road, packed already with students and tourists on their way to Camden Market to buy large furry top hats and smiley face t-shirts. ‘Loco Caliente means Crazy Hot; “Hot” because the air-conditioning doesn’t work, “crazy” because that’s what you’d have to be to eat here. Or work here, come to that. Mucho mucho loco. I’ll show you where to put your stuff.’ Together they kicked through the mulch of last week’s newspapers to the battered old office cabinet. ‘This is your locker. It doesn’t lock. Don’t be tempted to leave your uniform here overnight either because someone’ll nick it, God knows why. Management flip if you lose your baseball cap. They drown you face down in a vat of tangy barbecue relish—’ Ian laughed, a hearty, slightly forced chortle, and Emma sighed and turned to the staff dining table, still covered with last night’s dirty plates. ‘Lunch hours are twenty minutes and you can have anything from the menu except the jumbo prawns, which I believe is what’s known as a blessing in disguise. If you value life, don’t touch the jumbo prawns. It’s like Russian Roulette, one in six’ll kill you.’ She began to clear the table. ‘Here, let me—’ said Ian, gingerly picking up a meatily smeared plate with the tips of his fingers. New boy — still squeamish, thought Emma, watching him. He had a pleasant, large open face beneath the loose straw-coloured curls, smooth ruddy cheeks and a mouth that hung open in repose. Not exactly handsome, but, well — sturdy. For some reason, not entirely kind, it was a face that made her think of tractors. Suddenly he met her gaze and she blurted out: ‘So tell me, Ian, what brings you down Mexico Way.’ ‘Oh, you know. Got to pay the rent.’ ‘And there’s nothing else you can do? You can’t temp, or live with your parents or something?’ ‘I need to be in London, I need flexible hours. .’ ‘Why, what’s your stroke?’ ‘My what?’ ‘Your stroke. Everyone who works here has a stroke. Waiter-stroke-artist, waiter-stroke-actor. Paddy the bartender claims to be a model, but frankly I’m doubtful.’ ‘Weeeeeell,’ said Ian, in what she took to be a Northern accent, ‘I suppose I’d have to say that I’m a comedian!’ Grinning, he splayed his hands either side of his face and gave them an end-of-pier waggle. ‘Right. Well, we all like to laugh. What, like a stand-up or something?’ ‘Stand-up mainly. What about you?’ ‘Me?’ ‘Your stroke? What else do you do?’ She thought about saying ‘playwright’ but even after three months the humiliation of being Emily Dickinson to an empty room still burned bright. She might as well say ‘astronaut’ as ‘playwright’, there was as much truth in it. ‘Oh, I do this—’ She peeled an old burrito from its carapace of hardened cheese. ‘This is what I do.’ ‘And do you like it?’ ‘Like it? I love it! I mean I’m not made of wood.’ She wiped the day-old ketchup onto a used napkin and headed for the door. ‘Now, let me show you the toilets. Brace yourself. .’ Since I started this letter I’ve drank (drunken? dronk?) two more beers and so am ready to say this now. Here goes. Em, we’ve known each other five or six years now, but two years properly, as, you know, ‘friends’, which isn’t that long but I think I know a bit about you and I think I know what your problem is. And be aware that I have a lowish 2. 2 in Anthropology, so I know what I’m talking about. If you don’t want to know my theory, stop reading now. Good. Here it is. I think you’re scared of being happy, Emma. I think you think that the natural way of things is for your life to be grim and grey and dour and to hate your job, hate where you live, not to have success or money or God forbid a boyfriend (and a quick discersion here — that whole self-deprecating thing about being unattractive is getting pretty boring I can tell you). In fact I’ll go further and say that I think you actually get a kick out of being disappointed and under-achieving, because it’s easier, isn’t it? Failure and unhappiness is easier because you can make a joke out of it. Is this annoying you? I bet it is. Well I’ve only just started. Em, I hate thinking of you sitting in that awful flat with the weird smells and noises and the overhead lightbulbs or sat in that launderette, and by the way there’s no reason in this day and age why you should be using a launderette, there’s nothing cool or political about launderettes it’s just depressing. I don’t know, Em, you’re young, you’re practically a genius, and yet your idea of a good time is to treat yourself to a service wash. Well I think you deserve more. You are smart and funny and kind (too kind if you ask me) and by far the cleverest person I know. And (am drinking more beer here — deep breath) you are also a Very Attractive Woman. And (more beer) yes I do mean ‘sexy’ as well, though I feel a bit sick writing it down. Well I’m not going to scribble it out because it’s politically incorrect to call someone ‘sexy’ because it is also TRUE. You’re gorgeous, you old hag, and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of Confidence. Either that or a scented candle. I know from your letters and from seeing you after your play that you feel a little bit lost right now about what to do with your life, a bit rudderless and oarless and aimless but that’s okay that’s alright because we’re all meant to be like that at twenty-four. In fact our whole generation is like that. I read an article about it, it’s because we never fought in a war or watched too much television or something. Anyway, the only people with oars and rudders and aims are dreary bores and squares and careerists like Tilly-bloody-Killick or Callum O’Neill and his refurbished computers. I certainly don’t have a master plan I know you think I’ve got it all sorted out but I haven’t I worry too I just don’t worry about the dole and housing benefit and the future of the Labour Party and where I’m going to be in twenty years’ time and how Mr Mandela is adjusting to freedom. So time for another breather before the next paragraph because I’ve barely got started. This letter builds to a life-changing climax. I wonder if you’re ready for it yet. Somewhere between the staff toilets and the kitchen, Ian Whitehead slipped into his stand-up act. ‘Have you ever been in, like, a supermarket, and you’re in the six items or less queue, and there’s an old lady in front of you, and she’s got, like seven items? And you stand there counting them, and you’re like, soooo angry. .’ ‘Ay caramba,’ mumbled Emma under her breath before kicking open the swing doors to the kitchen where they were met by a wall of hot air that stung their eyes, acrid and infused with jalapeno peppers and warm bleach. Loud acid house played on the battered radio cassette as a Somalian, an Algerian and a Brazilian prised the lids off white plastic catering tubs. ‘Morning, Benoit, Kemal. Hiya, Jesus,’ said Emma cheerfully and they smiled and nodded cheerfully back. Emma and Ian crossed to a noticeboard where she pointed out a laminated sign that showed what to do if someone choked on their food, ‘as well they might’. Next to this was pinned a large document, ragged at the edges, a parchment map of the Texas — Mexico border. Emma tapped it with her finger. ‘This thing that looks like a treasure map? Well don’t get your hopes up, because it’s just the menu. No gold here, compadre, just forty-eight items, all the different permutations of your five key Tex-Mex food groups — minced beef and beans, cheese, chicken and guacamole.’ She traced her finger across the map. ‘So, moving east — west, we’ve got chicken on beans under cheese, cheese on top of chicken under guacamole, guacamole on top of mince on top of chicken under cheese. .’ ‘Right, I see. .’ ‘. . occasionally for the thrill of it we’ll throw some rice or a raw onion in, but where it gets really exciting is what you put it in. It’s all to do with wheat or corn.’ ‘Wheat or corn, right. .’ ‘Tacos are corn, burritos are wheat. Basically if it shatters and burns your hand it’s a taco, if it flops around and leaks red lard down your arm it’s a burrito. Here’s one—’ She pulled a soft pancake from a catering pack of fifty and dangled it like a wet flannel. ‘That’s a burrito. Fill it, deep fry it, melt cheese on it, it’s an enchilada. A tortilla that’s been filled is a taco and a burrito that you fill yourself is a fajita.’ ‘So what’s a tostada?’ ‘We’ll get to that. Don’t run before you can walk. Fajitas come on these red-hot iron platters.’ She hefted a greasy ridged-iron pan, like something from a blacksmith’s. ‘Careful with these, you wouldn’t believe how many times we’ve had to peel a customer off these things. Then they don’t tip.’ Ian was staring at her now, grinning goofily. She drew attention to the bucket at her feet. ‘This white stuff here is sour cream, except it’s not sour, it’s not cream, just some sort of hydrogenated fat, I think. It’s what’s left over when they make petrol. Handy if the heel comes off your shoe, but apart from that. .’ ‘I have a question for you.’ ‘Go on then.’ ‘What are you doing after work?’ Benoit, Jesus and Kemal all stopped what they were doing as Emma readjusted her face and laughed. ‘You don’t hang about, do you, Ian?’ He had taken his cap off now, and was turning it in his hand, a stage suitor. ‘Not a date or anything, you’ve probably got a boyfriend anyway!’ A moment, while he waited for a response, but Emma’s face didn’t move. ‘I just thought you might be interested in my—’ in a nasal voice ‘—unique comedy stylings, that’s all. I’m doing a—’ finger apostrophes ‘—“gig” tonight, at Chortles at the Frog and Parrot in Cockfosters.’ ‘Chortles?’ ‘In Cockfosters. It’s Zone 3 which seems like Mars I know on a Sunday night, but even if I’m shit there are still some other really top notch comics there. Ronny Butcher, Steve Sheldon, the Kamikaze Twins—’ As he spoke Emma became aware of his real accent, a slight, pleasant West Country burr, not yet wiped away by the city, and she thought once again of tractors. ‘I’m doing this whole new bit tonight, about the difference between men and women—’ No doubt about it, he was asking her out on a date. She really ought to go. After all, it wasn’t like it happened very often, and what was the worst thing that could happen? ‘And the food’s not bad there either. Just the usual, burgers, spring rolls, curly fries—’ ‘It sounds enchanting, Ian, the curly fries and all, but I can’t tonight, sorry.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Evensong at seven.’ ‘No, but really.’ ‘It’s a nice offer, but after my shift here I’m wiped out. I like to just go home, comfort-eat, cry. So I’ll have to give it a miss, I’m afraid.’ ‘Another time then? I’m playing the Bent Banana at the Cheshire Cat in Balham on Friday—’ Over his shoulder Emma could see the cooks watching, Benoit laughing with his hand to his mouth. ‘Maybe another time,’ she said, kindly but decisively, then sought to change the subject. ‘Now, this—’ She tapped another bucket with her toe. ‘This stuff here is salsa. Try not to get it on your skin. It burns.’ The thing is, Em, running back to the hostel in the rain just now — the rain is warm here, hot even sometimes, not like London rain — I was, like I said, pretty drunk and I found myself thinking about you and thinking what a shame Em isn’t here to see this, to experience this, and I had this revelation and it’s this. You should be here with me. In India. And this is my big idea, and it might be insane, but I’m going to post this before I change my mind. Follow these simple instructions. 1 — Leave that crappy job right now. Let them find someone else to melt cheese on tortilla chips for 2.20 an hour. Put a bottle of tequila in your bag and walk out the door. Think what that will feel like, Em. Walk out now. Just do it. 2 — I also think you should leave that flat. Tilly’s ripping you off, charging all that money for a room without a window. It isn’t a box room, it’s a box, and you should get out of there and let someone else wring out her great big grey bras for her. When I get back to the so-called real world I’m going to buy a flat because that’s the kind of over-privileged capitalist monster I am and you’re always welcome to come and stay for a bit, or permanently if you like, because I think we’d get on, don’t you? As, you know, FLATMATES. That’s providing you can overcome your sexual attraction to me ha ha. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll lock you in your room at nights. Anyway, now the big one—3 — As soon as you’ve read this, go to the student travel agency on Tottenham Court Road and book an OPEN RETURN flight to Delhi to arrive as near as possible to August 1st, two weeks’ time, which in case you’ve forgotten is my birthday. The night before get a train to Agra and stay in a cheap motel. Next morning get up early and go to the Taj Mahal. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, big white building named after that Indian restaurant on the Lothian Road. Have a look around and at precisely 12 midday you stand directly under the centre of the dome with a red rose in one hand and a copy of Nicholas Nickleby in the other and I will come and find you, Em. I will be carrying a white rose and my copy of Howards End and when I see you I will throw it at your head. Isn’t that the greatest plan you’ve ever heard of in your life? Ah, typical Dexter you say, isn’t he forgetting something? Money! Plane tickets don’t grow on trees and what about social security and the work ethic etc. etc. Well don’t worry, I’m paying. Yes, I’m paying. I’m going to wire the money to you for your plane ticket (I’ve always wanted to wire money) and I’m going to pay for everything when you’re here which sounds swanky but isn’t because it is so DAMN CHEAP here. We can live for months, Em, me and you, heading down to Kerala or across to Thailand. We could go to a full moon party — imagine staying awake all night not because you’re worried about the future but because it’s FUN. (Remember when we stayed up all night after graduation, Em? Anyway. Moving on.) For three hundred pounds of someone else’s money, you could change your life, and you mustn’t worry about it because frankly I have money that I haven’t earned, and you work really hard and yet you don’t have money, so it’s socialism in action isn’t it? And if you really want you can pay me back when you’re a famous playwright, or when the poetry-money kicks in or whatever. Besides it’s only for three months. I’ve got to come back in the autumn anyway. As you know Mum’s not been well. She tells me the operation went fine and maybe it did or maybe she just doesn’t want me to worry. Either way I’ve got to come home eventually. (By the way, my mother has a theory about you and me, and if you meet me at the Taj Mahal I will tell you all about it, but only if you meet me.) On the wall in front of me is this massive sort of praying mantis thing and he’s looking at me as if to say shut up now so I will. It’s stopped raining, and I’m about to go to a bar and meet up with some new friends for a drink, three female medical students from Amsterdam which tells you all you need to know. But on the way I’m going to find a post box and send this before I change my mind. Not because I think you coming here is a bad idea — it isn’t, it’s a great idea and you must come — but because I think I might have said too much. Sorry if this has annoyed you. The main thing is that I think about you a lot, that’s all. Dex and Em, Em and Dex. Call me sentimental, but there’s no-one in the world that I’d like to see get dysentery more than you. Taj Mahal, 1st August, 12 noon . I will find you! Love D . . and then he stretched and scratched at his scalp, drained the last of his beer and picked the letter up, tapped the edges together and laid the stack solemnly in front of him. He shook the cramp from his hand; eleven pages written at great speed, the most he had written since his finals. Stretching his arms above his head in satisfaction he thought: this isn’t a letter, it’s a gift. He slid his feet back into his sandals, stood a little unsteadily and steeled himself for the communal showers. He was deeply tanned now, his great project of the last two years, the colour penetrating deep into his skin like a creosoted fence. With his head shaved very close to the skull by a street barber, he had also lost some weight but secretly liked the new look: heroically gaunt, as if he’d just been rescued from the jungle. To complete the image he had acquired a cautious tattoo on his ankle, a non-committal yin-and-yang that he would probably regret back in London. But that was fine. In London he would wear socks. Sobered by the cold shower, he returned to the tiny room and dug deep in his rucksack to find something to wear for the Dutch medical students, smelling each item of clothing until they lay in a damp, ripe pile on the worn raffia rug. He settled on the least offensive item, a vintage American short-sleeved shirt, and pulled on some jeans, cut off at the calves and worn with no underwear, so that he felt bold and daredevil. An adventurer, a pioneer. And then he saw the letter. Six blue sheets densely written on both sides. He stared at it as if an intruder had left it behind, and with his new sobriety came the first twinge of doubt. Picking it up gingerly, he glanced at a page at random and immediately looked away, his mouth puckered tight. All those capitals and exclamation marks and awful jokes. He had called her ‘sexy’, he had used the word ‘discersion’ which wasn’t even a proper word. He sounded like some poetry-reading sixth-former, not a pioneer, an adventurer with a shaved head and a tattoo and no underpants beneath his jeans. I will find you, I’ve been thinking about you, Dex and Em, Em and Dex — what was he thinking? What had seemed urgent and touching an hour ago now seemed mawkish and gauche and sometimes frankly deceitful; there had been no praying mantis on the wall, he hadn’t been listening to her compilation tape as he wrote, had lost his cassette player in Goa. Clearly the letter would change everything, and weren’t things fine just as they were? Did he really want Emma with him in India, laughing at his tattoo, making smart remarks? Would he have to kiss her at the airport? Would they have to share a bed? Did he really want to see her that much? Yes, he decided, he did. Because for all its obvious idiocy, there was a sincere affection, more than affection, in what he had written and he would definitely post it that night. If she overreacted, he could always say he was drunk. That much at least was true. Without further hesitation he packed the letter into an airmail envelope and slipped it into his copy of Howards End , next to Emma’s handwritten dedication. Then he headed off to the bar to meet his new Dutch friends. Shortly after nine that night, Dexter left the bar with Renee van Houten, a trainee pharmacist from Rotterdam with fading henna on her hands, a jar of temazepam in her pocket and a poorly executed tattoo of Woody Woodpecker at the base of her spine. He could see the bird leering at him lewdly as he stumbled through the door. In their eagerness to leave, Dexter and his new friend accidentally jostled Heidi Schindler, twenty-three years old, a chemical engineering student from Cologne. Heidi swore at Dexter, but in German, and quietly enough for them not to hear. Pushing through the crowded bar, she shrugged off her immense backpack and searched the room for somewhere to collapse. Heidi’s features were red and round, like a series of overlapping circles, an effect exaggerated by her round spectacles, now steamy in the hot humid bar. Bad-tempered, bloated on Diocalm, angry with the friends who kept running off without her, she collapsed backwards on a decrepit rattan sofa and absorbed the full scale of her misery. She removed her steamy spectacles, wiped them on the corner of her t-shirt, settled on the sofa and felt something hard jab into her hip. Quietly, she swore again. Tucked between the ragged foam cushions was a copy of Howards End , a letter tucked into the opening pages. Even though it was intended for someone else, she felt an automatic thrill of anticipation at the red and white trim of the airmail envelope. She tugged the letter out, read it to the end, then read it again. Heidi’s English wasn’t particularly strong, and some words were unfamiliar — ‘discersion’ for example, but she understood enough to recognise this as a letter of some importance, the kind of letter that she would like to receive herself one day. Not quite a love-letter, but near enough. She pictured this ‘Em’ person reading it, then re-reading it, exasperated but a little pleased too, and she imagined her acting upon it, walking out of her terrible flat and the rotten job and changing her life. Heidi imagined Emma Morley, who looked not unlike herself, waiting at the Taj Mahal as a handsome blond man approached. She imagined a kiss and Heidi began to feel a little happier. She decided that, whatever happened, Emma Morley must receive this letter. But there was no address on the envelope and no return address for ‘Dexter’ either. She scanned the pages for clues, the name of the restaurant where Emma worked perhaps, but there was nothing of use. She resolved to ask at the reception of the hostel over the road. This was, after all, the best that she could do. Heidi Schindler is Heidi Klauss now. Forty-one years old, she lives in a suburb of Frankfurt with a husband and four children, and is reasonably happy, certainly happier than she expected to be at twenty-three. The paperback copy of Howards End is still on the shelf in the spare bedroom, forgotten and unread, with the letter tucked neatly just inside the cover, next to an inscription in small, careful handwriting that reads: To dear Dexter. A great novel for your great journey. Travel well and return safely with no tattoos. Be good, or as good as you are able. Bloody hell, I’ll miss you. All my love, your good friend Emma Morley, Clapton, London, April 1990 CHAPTER FOUR. Opportunities MONDAY 15 JULY 1991 Camden Town and Primrose Hill ‘ATTENTION PLEASE! Can I have your attention? Attention everyone? Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking. Please? Please? Thank you. Right I just want to go through today’s menu if I may. First of all the so-called “specials”. We’ve got a sweetcorn chowder and a turkey chimi-changa.’ ‘Turkey? In July?’ said Ian Whitehead from the bar, where he was cutting lime wedges to jam into the necks of bottles of beer. ‘Now it’s Monday today,’ continued Scott. ‘Should be nice and quiet, so I want this place spotless. I’ve checked the rota, and Ian, you’re on toilets.’ The other staff scoffed. ‘Why is it always me?’ moaned Ian. ‘Because you do it so beautifully, ’ said his best friend Emma Morley, and Ian took the opportunity to throw an arm around her hunched shoulders, jokily wielding a knife in a light-hearted downwards stabbing motion. ‘And when you two have finished, Emma, can you come and see me in my office please?’ said Scott. The other staff sniggered insinuatingly, Emma disentangled herself from Ian, and Rashid the bartender pressed play on the greasy tape deck behind the bar, ‘La Cucaracha’, the cockroach, a joke that wasn’t funny anymore, repeated until the end of time. ‘So I’ll come straight out with it. Take a seat.’ Scott lit a cigarette and Emma hoisted herself onto the bar stool opposite his large, untidy desk. A wall of boxes filled with vodka, tequila and cigarettes — the stock deemed most ‘nickable’ — blocked out the July sunlight in a small dark room that smelt of ashtrays and disappointment. Scott kicked his feet up onto the desk. ‘The fact is, I’m leaving.’ ‘You are?’ ‘Head office have asked me to head up the new branch of Hail Caesar’s in Ealing.’ ‘What’s Hail Caesar’s?’ ‘Big new chain of contemporary Italians.’ ‘Called Hail Caesar’s?’ ‘That is correct.’ ‘Why not Mussolini’s?’ ‘They’re going to do to Italian what they’ve done to Mexican.’ ‘What, fuck it up?’ Scott looked hurt. ‘Give me a break, will you, Emma?’ ‘I’m sorry, Scott, really. Congratulations, well done, really—’ She stopped short, because she realised what was coming next. ‘The point is—’ He interlocked his fingers and leant forward on the desk, as this was something that he’d seen businessmen do on television, and felt a little aphrodisiac rush of power. ‘They’ve asked me to appoint my own replacement as manager, and that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I want someone who isn’t going anywhere. Someone reliable who isn’t going to run off to India without giving proper notice or drop it all for some exciting job. Someone I can rely onto stick around here for a couple of years and really devote themselves to. . Emma, are you. . are you crying ?’ Emma shielded her eyes with both hands. ‘Sorry, Scott, it’s just you’ve caught me at a bad time, that’s all.’ Scott frowned, stalled between compassion and irritation. ‘Here—’ He yanked a roll of coarse blue kitchen paper from a catering pack. ‘Sort yourself out—’ and he tossed the roll across the desk so that it bounced off Emma’s chest. ‘Is it something I said?’ ‘No, no, no, it’s just a personal, private thing, just boils up every now and then. So embarrassing.’ She pressed two wads of rough blue paper against her eyes. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry, you were saying.’ ‘I’ve lost my place now, you bursting into tears like that.’ ‘I think you were telling me that my life was going nowhere,’ and she began to laugh and cry at the same time. She grabbed a third piece of kitchen paper and wadded it against her mouth. Scott waited until her shoulders had stopped heaving. ‘So are you interested in the job or not?’ ‘You mean to say—’ She placed her hand on a twenty-litre tub of Thousand Island Dressing ‘—all this could one day be mine?’ ‘Emma, if you don’t want the job, just say, but I have been doing it for four years now—’ ‘And you’ve done it really well, Scott—’ ‘The money’s adequate, you’d never have to clean the toilets again—’ ‘And I appreciate the offer.’ ‘So why the waterworks then?’ ‘Just I’ve been a little. . depressed that’s all.’ ‘Depressed.’ Scott frowned as if hearing the word for the first time. ‘You know. Bit blue.’ ‘Right. I see.’ He contemplated putting a paternal arm around her, but it would mean climbing over a ten-gallon drum of mayonnaise, so instead he leant further across the desk. ‘Is it. . boy trouble?’ Emma laughed once. ‘Hardly. Scott, it’s nothing, you just caught me at a low ebb, that’s all.’ She shook her head vigorously. ‘See, all gone, right as rain. Let’s forget it.’ ‘So what do you think? About being manager?’ ‘Can I think about it? Tell you tomorrow?’ Scott smiled benignly and nodded. ‘Go on then! Take a break—’ He stretched an arm towards the door, adding with infinite compassion: ‘Go get yourself some nachos.’ In the empty staff room, Emma glared at the plate of steaming cheese and corn chips as if it was an enemy that must be defeated. Standing suddenly, she crossed to Ian’s locker and plunged her hand into the densely packed denim until she found some cigarettes. She took one, lit it, then lifted her spectacles and inspected her eyes in the cracked mirror, licking her finger to remove the tell-tale smears. Her hair was long these days, styleless in a colour that she thought of as ‘Lank Mouse’. She pulled a strand from the scrunchie that held it in place and ran finger and thumb along its length, knowing that when she washed it she would turn the shampoo grey. City hair. She was pale from too many late shifts, and plump too; for some months now she had been putting skirts on over her head. She blamed all those refried beans; fried then fried again. ‘Fat girl,’ she thought, ‘stupid fat girl’ this being one of the slogans currently playing in her head, along with ‘A Third of Your Life Gone’ and ‘What’s the Point of Anything?’ Emma’s mid-twenties had brought a second adolescence even more self-absorbed and doom-laden than the first one. ‘Why don’t you come home, sweetheart?’ her mum had said on the phone last night, using her quavering, concerned voice, as if her daughter had been abducted. ‘Your room’s still here. There’s jobs at Debenhams’ and for the first time she had been tempted. Once, she had thought she could conquer London. She had imagined a whirl of literary salons, political engagement, larky parties, bittersweet romances conducted on Thames embankments. She had intended to form a band, make short films, write novels, but two years on the slim volume of verse was no fatter, and nothing really good had happened to her since she’d been baton-charged at the Poll Tax Riots. The city had defeated her, just like they said it would. Like some overcrowded party, no-one had noticed her arrival, and no-one would notice if she left. It wasn’t that she hadn’t tried. The idea of a career in publishing had floated itself. Her friend Stephanie Shaw had got a job on graduation, and it had transformed her. No more pints of lager and black for Stephanie Shaw. These days she drank white wine, wore neat little suits from Jigsaw and handed out Kettle Chips at dinner parties. On Stephanie’s advice Emma had written letters to publishers, to agents, then to bookshops, but nothing. There was a recession on and people were clinging to their jobs with grim determination. She thought about taking refuge in education, but the government had ended student grants, and there was no way she could afford the fees. There was voluntary work, for Amnesty International perhaps, but rent and travel ate up all her money, Loco Caliente ate up all her time and energy. She had a fanciful notion that she might read novels aloud to blind people, but was this an actual job, or just something that she’d seen in a film? When she had the energy, she would find out. For now she would sit at the table and glare at her lunch. The industrial cheese had set solid like plastic, and in sudden disgust Emma pushed it away and reached into her bag, pulling out an expensive new black leather notebook with a stubby fountain pen clipped to the cover. Turning to a fresh new page of creamy white paper, she quickly began to write. Nachos It was the nachos that did it. The steaming variegated mess like the mess of her life Summing up all that was wrong With Her Life. ‘Time for change’ comes the voice from the street. Outside on the Kentish Town Road There is laughter But here, in the smoky attic room There are only The Nachos. Cheese, like life, has become Hard and Cold Like Plastic And there is no laughter in the high room. Emma stopped writing, then looked away and stared at the ceiling, as if giving someone a chance to hide. She looked back at the page in the hope of being surprised by the brilliance of what was there. She shuddered and gave a long groan, then laughed, shaking her head as she methodically scratched out each line, crosshatching on top of this until each word was obliterated. Soon there was so much ink that it had soaked through the paper. She turned back a page to where the blots had seeped through and glanced at what was written there. Edinburgh morning, 4 a.m. We lie in the single bed and talk about the Future, make our guesses and as he speaks I look at him, think ‘Handsome’, stupid word, and think ‘might this be it? The elusive thing?’ Blackbirds sing outside and the Sunlight warms the curtains. . Once more she shuddered, as if peeking beneath a bandage, and snapped the notebook shut. Good God, ‘the elusive thing’. She had reached a turning point. She no longer believed that a situation could be made better by writing a poem about it. Putting the notebook away, she reached for yesterday’s Sunday Mirror instead and began to eat the nachos, the elusive nachos, surprised all over again at how very comforting very bad food can be. Ian was in the doorway. ‘That guy’s here again.’ ‘What guy?’ ‘Your friend, the handsome one. He’s got some girl with him.’ And immediately Emma knew which guy Ian was talking about. She watched them from the kitchen, nose pressed against the greasy glass of the circular window as they slumped insolently in a central booth, sipping gaudy drinks and laughing at the menu. The girl was long and slim with pale skin, black eye make-up and black, black hair, cut short and expensively asymmetrical, her long legs in sheer black leggings and high-ankled boots. Both a little drunk, they were behaving in that self-consciously wild and reckless way that people slip into when they know they’re being watched: pop-video behaviour, and Emma thought how satisfying it would be to stride out onto the restaurant floor and cosh them both with tightly packed burritos-of-the-day. Two big hands draped on her shoulders. ‘Schhhhhwing,’ said Ian, resting his chin on her head. ‘Who is she?’ ‘No idea.’ Emma rubbed at the mark her nose had made on the window. ‘I lose track.’ ‘She’s a new one then.’ ‘Dexter has a very short attention span. Like a baby. Or a monkey. You need to dangle something shiny in front of him.’ That’s what this girl is, she thought: something shiny. ‘So do you think it’s true what they say? About girls liking bastards.’ ‘He’s not a bastard. He’s an idiot.’ ‘Do girls like idiots then?’ Dexter had stuck his cocktail umbrella behind his ear now, the girl collapsing into enchanted laughter at the genius of it. ‘Certainly seems that way,’ said Emma. What was it, she wondered, this need to brandish his shiny new metropolitan life at her? As soon as she’d met him at the arrivals gate on his return from Thailand, lithe and brown and shaven-headed, she knew that there was no chance of a relationship between them. Too much had happened to him, too little had happened to her. Even so this would be the third girlfriend, lover, whatever, that she had met in the last nine months, Dexter presenting them up to her like a dog with a fat pigeon in his mouth. Was it some kind of sick revenge for something? Because she got a better degree than him? Didn’t he know what this was doing to her, sat at table nine with their groins jammed in each other’s faces? ‘Can’t you go, Ian? It’s your section.’ ‘He asked for you.’ She sighed, wiped her hands on her apron, removed the baseball cap from her head to minimise the shame and pushed the swing door open. ‘So — do you want to hear the specials or what?’ Dexter stood up quickly, untangling himself from the girl’s long limbs, and threw his arms around his old, old friend. ‘Hey there, how are you, Em? Big hug!’ Since starting to work in the TV industry he had developed a mania for hugging, or for Big Hugging. The company of TV presenters had rubbed off on him, and he spoke to her now less like an old friend, more like our next very special guest. ‘Emma, this—’ He placed one hand on the girl’s bare, bony shoulder, forming a chain between them. ‘This is Naomi, pronounced Gnome-y.’ ‘Hello, Gnome-y,’ smiled Emma. Naomi smiled back, the drinking straw nipped tight between white teeth. ‘Hey, come and join us for a margarita!’ Boozy and sentimental, he tugged on Emma’s hand. ‘Can’t, Dex, I’m working.’ ‘Come on, five minutes. I want to buy you a drunk. A drink ! I mean a drink.’ Ian joined them now, his notebook poised. ‘So shall I get you guys something to eat?’ he asked convivially. The girl wrinkled her nose. ‘I don’t think so!’ ‘Dexter, you’ve met Ian, haven’t you?’ said Emma quickly. ‘No, no, I haven’t,’ said Dexter. ‘Yes, several times,’ said Ian, and there was a moment of silence as they stood there, the staff and the customers. ‘So, Ian, can we get two, no, three of the “Remember the Alamo” margaritas. Two or three? Em, are you joining us?’ ‘Dexter, I told you. I’m working.’ ‘Okay, in that case, do you know what? We’ll leave it then. Just the bill, please, um. .’ Ian left and Dexter beckoned to Emma and in a low voice said, ‘Hey, look, is there any way I can, you know. .’ ‘What?’ ‘Give you the money for the drinks.’ Emma stared blankly. ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘What I mean is, is there any way I can, you know, tip you?’ ‘Tip me?’ ‘Exactly. Tip you.’ ‘Why?’ ‘No reason, Em,’ said Dex. ‘I just really, really want to tip you,’ and Emma felt another small portion of her soul fall away. On Primrose Hill, Dexter slept in the evening sun, shirt unbuttoned, hands beneath his head, a half-empty bottle of grocer’s white wine warming by his side as he slipped from the hangover of the afternoon into drunkenness again. The parched yellow grass of the hill was crowded with young professional people, many straight from their offices, talking and laughing as three different stereos competed with each other, and Dexter lay in the centre of it all and dreamt about television. The idea of being a professional photographer had been abandoned without much of a fight. He knew that he was a decent amateur, probably always would be, but to become exceptional, a Cartier-Bresson, a Capa or a Brandt, would require toil, rejection and struggle, and he wasn’t sure if struggle suited him. Television, on the other hand, television wanted him right now. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Growing up there had always been a television in the home, but there was something a little unwholesome about watching the thing. Now, in the last nine months it had suddenly come to dominate his life. He was a convert, and with the passion of the new recruit he found himself getting quite emotional about the medium, as if he had finally found a spiritual home. And no, it didn’t have the arty gleam of photography or the credibility of reporting from a war zone, but TV mattered, TV was the future. Democracy in action, it touched people’s lives in the most immediate way, shaped opinions, provoked and entertained and engaged far more effectively than all those books that no-one read or plays that no-one went to see. Emma could say what she liked about the Tories (Dexter was no fan either, though more for reasons of style than principle) but they had certainly shaken up the media. Until recently, broadcasting had seemed stuffy, worthy and dull; heavily unionised, grey and bureaucratic, full of bearded lifers and do-gooders and old dears pushing tea-trolleys; a sort of showbiz branch of the Civil Service. Redlight Productions, on the other hand, was part of the boom of new, youthful, privately owned independent companies wresting the means of production away from those fusty old Reithian dinosaurs. There was money in the media; the fact sang out from the primary-coloured open-plan offices with their state-of-the-art computer systems and generous communal fridges. His rise through this world had been meteoric. The woman he had met on a train in India with the glossy black bob and tiny spectacles had given him his first job as a runner, then a researcher, and now he was Assistant Producer, Asst Prod, on UP4IT , a weekend magazine programme that mixed live music and outrageous stand-up with reports on issues that ‘really affect young people today’: STDs, drugs, dance music, drugs, police brutality, drugs. Dexter produced hyperactive little films of grim housing estates shot from crazy angles through fish-eye lenses, the clouds speeded up to a soundtrack of acid house. There was even talk of putting him in front of the cameras in the next series. He was excelling, he was flying and there seemed to be every possibility that he might make his parents proud. ‘I work in TV’; just saying it gave him satisfaction. He liked striding down Berwick Street to an edit-suite with a jiffy bag of videotapes, nodding at people just like him. He liked the sushi platters and the launch parties, he liked drinking from water coolers and ordering couriers and saying things like ‘we’ve got to lose six seconds’. Secretly, he liked the fact that it was one of the better-looking industries, and one that valued youth. No chance, in this brave new world of TV, of walking into a conference room to find a group of sixty-two-year-olds brainstorming. What happened to TV people when they reached a certain age? Where did they go? Never mind, it suited him, as did the preponderance of young women like Naomi: hard, ambitious, metropolitan. In rare moments of self-doubt, Dexter had once worried that a lack of intellect might hold him back in life, but here was a job where confidence, energy, perhaps even a certain arrogance were what mattered, all qualities that lay within his grasp. Yes, you had to be smart, but not Emma-smart. Just politic, shrewd, ambitious. He loved his new flat in nearby Belsize Park, all dark wood and gunmetal, and he loved London, spread out vast and hazy before him on this St Swithin’s Day, and he wanted to share all this excitement with Emma, introduce her to new possibilities, new experiences, new social circles; to make her life more like his own. Who knows, perhaps Naomi and Emma might even become friends. Soothed by these thoughts, and on the verge of sleep, he was woken by a shadow across his face. He opened one eye, squinting up. ‘Hello, beautiful.’ Emma kicked him sharply in the hip. ‘Ow!’ ‘Don’t you ever, ever do that again!’ ‘Do what?’ ‘You know what! Like I’m in a zoo, you poking me with a stick, laughing—’ ‘I wasn’t laughing at you!’ ‘I watched you, sat straddling your girlfriend, chuckling away—’ ‘She isn’t my girlfriend, and we were laughing at the menu—’ ‘You were laughing at where I work.’ ‘So? You do!’ ‘Yes, because I work there. I’m laughing in the face of adversity, you’re just laughing in my face!’ ‘Em, I would never, ever—’ ‘That’s what it feels like.’ ‘Well I apologise.’ ‘Good.’ She folded her legs beneath her and sat next to him. ‘Now do your shirt up and pass me the bottle.’ ‘And she really isn’t my girlfriend.’ He fastened three low shirt buttons, waiting for her to take the bait. When she didn’t, he prodded again. ‘We’re just sleeping together every now and then, that’s all.’ As the possibility of a relationship had faded, Emma had endeavoured to harden herself to Dexter’s indifference and these days a remark like this caused no more pain than, say, a tennis ball thrown sharply at the back of her head. These days she barely even flinched. ‘That’s nice for you both, I’m sure.’ She poured wine into a plastic cup. ‘So if she’s not your girlfriend, what do I call her?’ ‘I don’t know. “Lover”?’ ‘Doesn’t that imply affection?’ ‘How about “conquest”?’ he grinned. ‘Can I say “conquest” these days?’ ‘Or “victim”. I like “victim”.’ Emma lay back suddenly and squeezed her fingers awkwardly into the pockets of her jeans. ‘You can have that back ’n’ all.’ She tossed a tightly wadded ten-pound note onto his chest. ‘No way.’ ‘Yes way.’ ‘That’s yours!’ ‘Dexter, listen to me. You don’t tip friends.’ ‘It’s not a tip, it’s a gift.’ ‘And cash is not a gift. If you want to buy me something, that’s very nice, but not cash. It’s embarrassing.’ He sighed, and stuffed the money back into his pocket. ‘I apologise. Again.’ ‘Fine,’ she said, and lay down beside him. ‘Go on then. Tell me all about it.’ Grinning, he raised himself up on his elbows. ‘So we were having this wrap party at the weekend—’ Wrap party , she thought. He has become someone who goes to wrap parties . ‘—and I’d seen her around at the office so I went over to say hi, hello, welcome to the team, very formal, hand outstretched, and she smiled up at me, winked, put her hand on the back of my head and pulled me towards her and she—’ He lowered his voice to a thrilled whisper. ‘—kissed me, right?’ ‘Kissed you, right?’ said Emma, as another tennis ball struck home. ‘—and slipped something into my mouth with her tongue. “What was that?” I said and she just winked and said, “You’ll find out”.’ A silence followed before Emma said ‘Was it a peanut?’ ‘No—’ ‘Little dry-roasted peanut—’ ‘No, it was a pill—’ ‘What, like a tic-tac or something? For your bad breath?’ ‘I don’t have bad—’ ‘Haven’t you told me this story before anyway?’ ‘No, that was another girl.’ The tennis balls were coming thick and fast now, the odd cricket ball mixed in there too. Emma stretched and concentrated on the sky. ‘You’ve got to stop letting women slip drugs into your mouth, Dex, it’s unhygienic. And dangerous. One day it’ll be a cyanide capsule.’ Dexter laughed. ‘So do you want to hear what happened next?’ She placed a finger on her chin. ‘Do I? Nope, I don’t think so. No, I don’t.’ But he told her anyway, the usual narrative about dark back-rooms at clubs and late-night phone-calls and taxis across the city at dawn; the endless, eat-as-much-as-you-can buffet that was Dexter’s sex-life, and Emma made a conscious effort not to listen and just watch his mouth instead. It was a nice mouth as she remembered, and if she were fearless, bold and asymmetrical like this Naomi girl she would lean over now and kiss him, and it occurred to her that she had never kissed anyone, that is never initiated the kiss. She had been kissed of course, suddenly and far too hard by drunken boys at parties, kisses that came swinging out of nowhere like punches. Ian had tried three weeks ago while she was mopping out the meat locker, looming in so violently that she had thought he was going to head-butt her. Even Dexter had kissed her once, many, many years ago. Would it really be so strange to kiss him back? What might happen if she were to do it now? Take the initiative, remove your spectacles, hold onto his head while he’s still talking and kiss him, kiss him—‘—so Naomi calls at three in the morning, says, “Get in a cab. Right. Now.”’ She had a perfectly clear mental picture of him wiping his mouth with the back of his hand: the kiss as custard-pie. She let her head loll to the other side to watch the others on the hill. The evening light was starting to fade now, and two hundred prosperous, attractive young people were throwing frisbees, lighting disposable barbecues, making plans for the evening. Yet she felt as far removed from these people, with their interesting careers and CD players and mountain bikes, as if it had been a TV commercial, for vodka perhaps or small sporty cars. ‘Why don’t you come home, sweetheart,’ her mother had said on the phone last night, ‘Your room’s still here. .’ She looked back to Dexter, still narrating his own love-life, then over his shoulder at a young couple, kissing aggressively, the woman kneeling astride the man, his arms flung back in surrender, their fingers interlocked. ‘. . basically we didn’t leave the hotel room for, like, three days.’ ‘Sorry, I stopped listening a while ago.’ ‘I was just saying. .’ ‘What do you think she sees in you?’ Dexter shrugged, as if he didn’t understand the question. ‘She says I’m complicated.’ ‘Complicated. You’re like a two-piece jigsaw—’ She sat and brushed the grass from her shin. ‘—in thick ply,’ then tugged the leg of her jeans a little higher. ‘Look at these legs.’ She held a tiny twist of hair between her finger and thumb. ‘I’ve got the legs of some fifty-eight-year-old fell-walker. I look like the President of the Ramblers Association.’ ‘So wax ’em then. Hairy Mary.’ ‘Dexter!’ ‘And anyway, you’ve got great legs.’ He leant across and pinched her calves. ‘You’re gorgeous.’ She knocked his elbow away so that he fell back onto the grass. ‘Can’t believe you called me Hairy Mary.’ Beyond him the couple were still kissing. ‘Look at these two here — don’t stare.’ Dexter peered over his shoulder. ‘I can actually hear them. Over this distance, I can hear the suction. Like someone unblocking a sink. I said don’t stare!’ ‘Why not? It’s a public place.’ ‘Why would you go to a public place to behave like that? It’s like a nature documentary.’ ‘Maybe they’re in love.’ ‘And is that what love looks like — all wet mouths and your skirt rucked up?’ ‘Sometimes it is.’ ‘Looks like she’s trying to fit his entire head into her mouth. She’ll dislocate her jaw if she’s not careful.’ ‘She’s alright though.’ ‘Dexter!’ ‘Well she is, I’m just saying.’ ‘You know some people might think it’s a bit weird, this obsession you’ve got with being in a constant state of intercourse, some people might think it’s a bit desperate and sad. .’ ‘Funny, I don’t feel sad. Or desperate.’ Emma, who did feel these things, said nothing. Dexter nudged her with his elbow. ‘You know what we should do? Me and you?’ ‘What?’ He grinned. ‘Take E together.’ ‘E? What’s E?’ she deadpanned. ‘Oh, yes, I believe I read an article about that. Don’t think I’m cut out for mind-bending chemicals. I left the lid off the Tipp-Ex once and I thought my shoes were trying to eat me.’ He laughed gratifyingly and she hid her own smile in her plastic cup. ‘Anyway I prefer the pure, natural high of booze.’ ‘It’s very disinhibiting, E.’ ‘Is that why you’re hugging everybody all the time?’ ‘I just think you might have fun, that’s all.’ ‘I am having fun. You have no idea how much fun.’ Lying on her back and staring at the sky, she could feel him looking at her. ‘So. What about you?’ he said, in what she thought of as his psychiatrist voice. ‘Any news? Any action? Love-life-wise.’ ‘Oh you know me. I have no emotions. I’m a robot. Or a nun. A robot nun.’ ‘No you’re not. You pretend to be, but you’re not.’ ‘Oh, I don’t mind. I quite like it, getting old alone—’ ‘You’re twenty-five, Em—’ ‘—turning into this bluestocking.’ Dexter wasn’t sure what a bluestocking was, but nevertheless still felt a Pavlovian twinge of arousal at the word ‘stocking’. As she talked, he pictured her wearing blue stockings before deciding blue stockings wouldn’t suit her, or anyone in fact, and that stockings should really only ever be black or possibly red like those ones Naomi had worn once, before deciding that maybe he was missing the point about the phrase ‘blue stocking’. This kind of erotic reverie occupied great swathes of Dexter’s mental energy, and he wondered if perhaps Emma was right, perhaps he was a little too distracted by the sexual side of things. Hourly he was rendered idiotic by billboards, magazine covers, an inch of crimson bra-strap on a passing stranger, and it was even worse in summer. Surely it wasn’t natural to feel as if he’d just got out of prison all the time ? Concentrate. Someone he cared for dearly was engaged in some kind of nervous collapse, and he should concentrate on that, rather than the three girls behind her who had just started a water-fight. . Concentrate! Concentrate. He steered his thoughts away from the subject of sex, his brain as nimble as an aircraft carrier. ‘How about that guy?’ he said. ‘What guy?’ ‘At work, the waiter. Looks like captain of the computer club.’ ‘Ian? What about him?’ ‘Why don’t you go out with Ian?’ ‘Shut up, Dexter. Ian’s just a friend. Now pass the bottle, will you?’ He watched as she sat and drank the wine, which had become warm and syrupy now. While not sentimental, there were times when Dexter could sit quietly and watch Emma Morley laughing or telling a story and feel absolutely sure that she was the finest person he knew. Sometimes he almost wanted to say this out loud, interrupt her and just tell her. But this was not one of those times and instead he thought how tired she looked, sad and pale, and when she looked at the floor her chin had started to pouch. Why didn’t she get contact lenses, instead of those big ugly spectacles? She wasn’t a student anymore. And the velour scrunchies, she wasn’t doing herself any favour with the scrunchies. What she really needed, he thought, ablaze with compassion, was someone to take her in hand and unlock her potential. He imagined a sort of montage, looking on patrician and kindly as Emma tried on a series of incredible new outfits. Yes, he really should pay Emma more attention, and he would do it too if he didn’t have so much happening at present. But in the short term, wasn’t there something he could do to make her feel better about herself, lift her spirits, give her self-confidence a boost? He had an idea, and reached for her hand before announcing solemnly: ‘You know, Em, if you’re still single when you’re forty I’ll marry you.’ She looked at him with frank disgust. ‘Was that a proposal , Dex?’ ‘Not now , just at some point if we both get desperate.’ She laughed bitterly. ‘And what makes you think I’d want to marry you?’ ‘Well, I’m sort of taking that as a given.’ She shook her head slowly. ‘Well you’ll have to join the queue, I’m afraid. My friend Ian said exactly the same thing to me while we were disinfecting the meat fridge. Except he only gave me until I was thirty-five.’ ‘Well no offence to Ian, but I think you should definitely hold out for the extra five years.’ ‘I’m not holding out for either of you! I’m never getting married anyway.’ ‘How do you know that?’ She shrugged. ‘Wise old gypsy told me.’ ‘I suppose you disagree on political grounds or something.’ ‘Just. . not for me, that’s all.’ ‘I can see you now. Big white dress, bridesmaids, little page boys, blue garter. .’ Garter . His mind snagged on the word like a fish on a hook. ‘As a matter of fact, I think there are more important things in life than “relationships”.’ ‘What, like your career, you mean?’ She shot him a look. ‘Sorry.’ They turned back to the sky, shading into night now and after a moment she said, ‘Actually my career took a bit an upturn today if you must know.’ ‘You got fired?’ ‘Promotion.’ She started to laugh. ‘I’ve been offered the job of manager.’ Dexter sat up quickly. ‘In that place? You’ve got to turn it down.’ ‘Why do I have to turn it down? Nothing wrong with restaurant work.’ ‘Em, you could be mining uranium with your teeth and that would be fine as long as you were happy. But you hate that job, you hate every single moment.’ ‘So? Most people hate their jobs. That’s why they’re called jobs.’ ‘I love my job.’ ‘Yeah, well, we can’t all work in the media , can we?’ She hated the tone of her voice now, sneering and sour. Worse still, she could feel hot, irrational tears starting to form in the back of her eyes. ‘Hey, maybe I could get you a job!’ She laughed. ‘What job?’ ‘With me, at Redlight Productions!’ He was warming to the idea now. ‘As a researcher. You’d have to start as a runner, which is unpaid, but you’d be brilliant—’ ‘Dexter, thank you, but I don’t want to work in the media. I know we’re all meant to be desperate to work in the media these days, like the media ’s the best job in the world—’ You sound hysterical , she thought, jealous and hysterical. ‘In fact I don’t even know what the media is—’ Stop talking, stay calm . ‘I mean what do you people do all day except stand around drinking bottled water and taking drugs and photocopying your bits —’ ‘Hey, it’s hard work, Em—’ ‘I mean if people treated, I don’t know, nursing or social work or teaching with the same respect as they do the bloody media —’ ‘So be a teacher then! You’d be a fantastic teacher—’ ‘I want you to write on the board, “I will not give my friend careers advice!”’ She was talking too loud now, shouting almost, and a long silence followed. Why was she being like this? He was only trying to help. In what way did he benefit from this friendship? He should get up and walk away, that’s what he should do. They turned to look at each other at the same time. ‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘No, I’m sorry.’ ‘What are you sorry for?’ ‘Rattling on like a. . mad old cow. I’m sorry, I’m tired, bad day, and I’m sorry for being so. . boring.’ ‘You’re not that boring.’ ‘I am, Dex. God, I swear, I bore myself.’ ‘Well you don’t bore me.’ He took her hand in his. ‘You could never bore me. You’re one in a million, Em.’ ‘I’m not even one in three.’ He kicked her foot with his. ‘Em?’ ‘What?’ ‘Just take it, will you? Just shut up and take it.’ They regarded each other for a moment. He lay down once more, and after a moment she followed and jumped a little when she found out that he had slid his arm beneath her shoulders. There was a self-conscious moment of mutual discomfort before she turned onto her side and curled towards him. Tightening his arm around her, he spoke into the top of her head. ‘You know what I can’t understand? You have all these people telling you all the time how great you are, smart and funny and talented and all that, I mean endlessly, I’ve been telling you for years. So why don’t you believe it? Why do you think people say that stuff, Em? Do you think it’s a conspiracy, people secretly ganging up to be nice about you?’ She pressed her head against his shoulder to make him stop or else she felt she might cry. ‘You’re nice. But I should go.’ ‘No, stay a bit longer. We’ll get another bottle.’ ‘Isn’t Naomi waiting for you somewhere? Her little mouth crammed full of drugs like a little druggy hamster.’ She puffed out her cheeks and Dexter laughed, and she began to feel a little better. They stayed there for a while, then walked down to the off-licence and back up the hill to see the sun set over the city, drinking wine and eating nothing but a large bag of expensive crisps. Strange animal cries could be heard from Regents Park Zoo, and finally they were the last people on the hill. ‘I should get home,’ she said, standing woozily. ‘You could stay at mine if you wanted.’ She thought of the journey home, the Northern Line, the top deck of the N38 bus, then the long perilous walk to the flat that smelt unaccountably of fried onions. When she finally got home the central heating would probably be on and Tilly Killick would be there with her dressing-gown hanging open, clinging to the radiators like a gecko and eating pesto out of the jar. There would be teeth marks in the Irish Cheddar and thirtysomething on TV, and she didn’t want to go. ‘Borrow a toothbrush?’ said Dexter, as if reading her thoughts. ‘Sleep on the sofa?’ She imagined a night spent on the creaking black leather of Dexter’s modular sofa, her head spinning with booze and confusion, before deciding that life was already complicated enough. She made a firm resolution, one of the resolutions she was making almost daily these days. No more sleepovers, no more writing poetry, no more wasting time. Time to tidy up your life. Time to start again. CHAPTER FIVE. The Rules of Engagement WEDNESDAY, 15 JULY 1992 The Dodecanese Islands, Greece And then some days you wake up and everything is perfect. This fine bright St Swithin’s Day found them under an immense blue sky with not the smallest chance of rain, on the sun deck of the ferry that steamed slowly across the Aegean. In new sunglasses and holiday clothes they lay side by side in the morning sun, sleeping off last night’s taverna hangover. Day two of a ten-day island-hopping holiday, and The Rules of Engagement were still holding firm. A sort of platonic Geneva Convention, The Rules were a set of basic prohibitions compiled before departure to ensure that the holiday didn’t get ‘complicated’. Emma was single again; a brief, undistinguished relationship with Spike, a bicycle repairman whose fingers smelt perpetually of WD40, had ended with barely a shrug on either side, but had at least served to give her confidence a boost. And her bicycle had never been in better shape. For his part Dexter had stopped seeing Naomi because, he said, it was ‘getting too intense’, whatever the hell that meant. Since then he had passed through Avril, Mary, a Sara, a Sarah, a Sandra and a Yolande before alighting on Ingrid, a ferocious model turned fashion-stylist who had been forced to give up modelling — she had told Emma this with a straight face — because ‘her breasts were too large for the catwalk’, and as she said this it seemed as if Dexter might explode with pride. Ingrid was the kind of sexually confident girl who wore her bra on top of her shirt, and although she was by no means threatened by Emma or indeed by anyone on this earth, it had been decided by all parties that it might be better to get a few things straight before the swimwear was unveiled, the cocktails were drunk. Not that anything was likely to happen; that brief window had closed some years ago and they were immune to each other now, secure in the confines of firm friendship. Nevertheless, on a Friday night in June, Dexter and Emma had sat outside the pub on Hampstead Heath and compiled The Rules. Number One: separate bedrooms. Whatever happened, there were to be no shared beds, neither double nor single, no drunken cuddles or hugs; they were not students anymore. ‘And I don’t see the point of cuddling anyway,’ Dexter had said. ‘Cuddling just gives you cramp,’ and Emma had agreed and added: ‘No flirting either. Rule Two.’ ‘Well I don’t flirt, so. .’ said Dexter, rubbing his foot against the inside of her shin. ‘Seriously though, no having a few drinks and getting frisky.’ ‘“Frisky”?’ ‘You know what I mean. No funny business.’ ‘What, with you?’ ‘With me or anyone. In fact that’s Rule Three. I don’t want to have to sit there like a lemon while you’re rubbing oil into Lotte from Stuttgart.’ ‘Em, that is not going to happen.’ ‘No, it isn’t. Because it’s a Rule.’ Rule Number Four, at Emma’s insistence, was the no nudity clause. No skinny-dipping: physical modesty and discretion at all times. She did not want to see Dexter in his underpants or in the shower or, God forbid, going to the toilet. In retaliation, Dexter proposed Rule Number Five. No Scrabble. More and more of his friends were playing it now, in a knowing ironic way, triple-word-score-craving freaks, but it seemed to him like a game designed expressly to make him feel stupid and bored. No Scrabble and no Boggle either; he wasn’t dead yet. Now on Day Two, with The Rules still in place, they lay on the deck of the ancient rust-spotted ferry as it chugged slowly from Rhodes towards the smaller Dodecanese islands. Their first night had been spent in the Old Town, drinking sugary cocktails from hollowed-out pineapples, unable to stop grinning at each other with the novelty of it all. The ferry had left Rhodes while it was still dark and now at nine a.m. they lay quietly nursing their hangovers, feeling the throb of the engines in their churning liquid stomachs, eating oranges, quietly reading, quietly burning, entirely happy in each other’s silence. Dexter cracked first, sighing and placing his book on his chest: Nabokov’s Lolita , a gift from Emma who was responsible for selecting all the holiday reading, a great breeze-block of books, a mobile library that took up most of her suitcase. A moment passed. He sighed again, for effect. ‘What’s up with you?’ said Emma, without looking up from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. ‘I can’t get into it.’ ‘It’s a masterpiece.’ ‘Makes my head hurt.’ ‘I should have got something with pictures or flaps.’ ‘Oh, I am enjoying it—’ ‘Very Hungry Caterpillar or something—’ ‘I’m just finding it a bit dense. It’s just this bloke banging on about how horny he is all the time.’ ‘I thought it would strike a chord.’ She raised her sunglasses. ‘It’s a very erotic book, Dex.’ ‘Only if you’re into little girls.’ ‘Tell me one more time, why were you sacked from that Language School in Rome?’ ‘I’ve told you, she was twenty-three years old, Em!’ ‘Go to sleep then.’ She picked up her Russian novel. ‘Philistine.’ He settled his head once more against his rucksack, but two people were by his side now, casting a shadow over his face. The girl was pretty and nervous, the boy large and pale, almost magnesium white in the morning sun. ‘Scuse me,’ said the girl in a Midlands accent. Dexter shielded his eyes and smiled broadly up at them. ‘Hi there.’ ‘Aren’t you that bloke off the telly?’ ‘Might be,’ said Dexter, sitting and removing his sunglasses with a raffish little flick of his head. Emma quietly groaned. ‘What’s it called? largin’ it !’ The title of the TV show was always spelt in lower case, lower being the more fashionable of the two cases at this time. Dexter held his hand up. ‘Guilty as charged!’ Emma laughed briefly through her nose, and Dexter shot her a look. ‘Funny bit,’ she explained, nodding towards her Dostoyevsky. ‘I knew I’d seen you on the telly!’ The girl nudged her boyfriend. ‘I said so, didn’t I?’ The pale man shuffled and mumbled, then silence. Dexter became aware of the chug of the engines and Lolita lying open on his chest. He slipped it quietly into his bag. ‘On holiday, are ya?’ he asked. The question was clearly redundant, but allowed him to slip into his television persona, that of a really great, down to earth guy who they’d just met at the bar. ‘Yeah, holiday,’ mumbled the man. More dead air. ‘This is my friend Emma.’ Emma peered over her sunglasses. ‘Hi there.’ The girl squinted at her. ‘Are you on television too?’ ‘Me? God, no.’ She widened her eyes. ‘Though it is my dream.’ ‘Emma works for Amnesty International,’ said Dexter proudly, one hand on her shoulder. ‘Part-time. Mainly I work in a restaurant.’ ‘As a manager. But she’s just about to pack it in. She’s trainin’ to be a teacher in September, aren’t you, Em?’ Emma looked at him levelly. ‘Why are you talking like that?’ ‘Like wha’?’ Dexter laughed defiantly, but the young couple were shifting uneasily, the man looking over the ship’s side as if contemplating the jump. Dexter decided to round up the interview. ‘So we’ll see you on the beach, yeah? Maybe get a beer or summink?’ and the couple smiled and headed back to their bench. Dexter had never consciously set out to be famous, though he had always wanted to be successful, and what was the point of being successful in private? People should know. Now that fame had happened to him it did make a certain sense, as if fame were a natural extension of being popular at school. He hadn’t set out to be a TV presenter either — did anyone? — but was delighted to be told that he was a natural. Appearing on camera had been like sitting at a piano for the first time and discovering he was a virtuoso. The show itself was less issue-based than other shows he had worked on, really just a series of live bands, video exclusives, celebrity interviews, and yes, okay, it wasn’t exactly demanding, all he really did was look at the camera and shout ‘make some noise!’ But he did it so well, so attractively, with such swagger and charm. But public recognition remained a new experience. He was self-aware enough to know that he possessed a certain facility for what Emma would call ‘prattishness’ and with this in mind he had been investing some private effort into working out what to do with his face. Anxious not to appear affected or cocky or a fake, he had been devising an expression that said hey, it’s no big deal, it’s only TV and he assumed this expression now, replacing his sunglasses and returning to his book. Emma watched this performance, amused; the straining for nonchalance, the slight flare of the nostrils, the smile that flickered at the corners of his mouth. She pushed her sunglasses up onto her forehead. ‘It’s not going to change you, is it?’ ‘What?’ ‘Being very, very, very, very slightly famous.’ ‘I hate that word. “Famous”.’ ‘Oh and what would you prefer? “Well known”.’ ‘How about “notorious”?’ he grinned. ‘Or “annoying”? How about “annoying”?’ ‘Leave it out, will ya?’ ‘And you can drop that now, please?’ ‘What?’ ‘The cockney accent. You went to Winchester College for Christ’s sake.’ ‘I don’t do a cockney accent.’ ‘When you’re being Mr TV you do. You sound like you’ve left your whelk stall to go and do this ’ere fancy telly programme.’ ‘You’ve got a Yorkshire accent!’ ‘Because I’m from Yorkshire! Dexter shrugged. ‘I’ve got to talk like that, otherwise it alienates the audience.’ ‘And what if it alienates me?’ ‘I’m sure it does, but you’re not one of the two million people who watch my show.’ ‘Oh, your show is it now?’ ‘The TV show on which I feature.’ She laughed and went back to her book. After a while Dexter spoke again. ‘Well, do you?’ ‘What?’ ‘Watch me? On largin’ it ?’ ‘I might have had it on. In the background once or twice, while I’m balancing my cheque-book.’ ‘And what do you think?’ She sighed and fixed her eyes on the book. ‘It’s not my thing, Dex.’ ‘Tell me anyway.’ ‘I don’t know about TV. .’ ‘Just say what you think.’ ‘Okay, well I think the programme is like being screamed at for an hour by a drunk with a strobe-light, but like I said—’ ‘Alright, point taken.’ He glanced at his book, then back at Emma. ‘And what about me?’ ‘What about you?’ ‘Well — am I any good? As a presenter?’ She removed her sunglasses. ‘Dexter, you are possibly the greatest presenter of Youth TV that this country has ever known, and I don’t say that kind of thing lightly.’ Proudly, he raised himself onto one elbow. ‘Actually, I prefer to think of myself as a journalist.’ Emma smiled and turned a page. ‘I’m sure you do.’ ‘Because that’s what it is, journalism. I have to research, shape the interview, ask the right questions—’ She held her chin between finger and thumb. ‘Yes, yes, I believe I saw your in-depth piece on MC Hammer. Very sharp, very provoking—’ ‘Shut up, Em—’ ‘No, seriously, the way you got under MC’s skin, his musical inspirations, the trousers. It was, well — untouchable.’ He swatted at her with his book. ‘Shut up and read, will you?’ He lay back down and closed his eyes. Emma glanced over to check that he was smiling, and smiled too. Mid-morning approached and while Dexter slept, Emma caught her first sight of their destination: a blue-grey granite mass rising from the clearest sea that she had ever seen. She had always assumed that water like this was a lie told by brochures, a trick with lenses and filters, but there it was, sparkling and emerald green. At first glance the island seemed unpopulated except for the huddle of houses spreading up from the harbour, buildings the colour of coconut ice. She found herself laughing quietly at the sight of it. Until now travel had always been a fraught affair. Each year until she was sixteen, it had been two weeks fighting with her sister in a caravan in Filey while her parents drank steadily and looked out at the rain, a sort of harsh experiment in the limits of human proximity. At University she had gone camping in the Cairngorms with Tilly Killick, six days in a tent that smelt of cup-a-soup; a larky, so-awful-it’s-funny holiday that had ended up just awful. Now, standing at the railing as the town came into clearer view, she began to understand the point of travel; she had never felt so far away from the launderette, the top deck of the night bus home, Tilly’s box room. It was as if the air was somehow different here; not just how it tasted and smelt, but the element itself. In London the air was something you peered through, like a neglected fish tank. Here everything was bright and sharp, clean and clear. She heard the snap of a camera shutter and turned in time to see Dexter take her photo again. ‘I look terrible,’ she said as a reflex, though perhaps she didn’t. He joined her, his arms holding the rail on either side of her waist. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ ‘S’alright,’ she said, unable to recall a time when she had felt happier. They disembarked — the first time she felt that she had ever disembarked — and immediately found a flurry of activity on the quayside as the casual travellers and backpackers began the scramble for the best accommodation. ‘So what happens now?’ ‘I’ll find us somewhere. You wait in that caf?, I’ll come and get you.’ ‘Somewhere with a balcony—’ ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘And a sea view please. And a desk.’ ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ and, sandals slapping, he strolled towards the crowd on the quay. She shouted after him: ‘And don’t forget!’ He turned and looked at her, standing on the harbour wall, holding her wide-brimmed hat to her head in the warm breeze that pressed her light blue dress against her body. She no longer wore spectacles, and there was a scattering of freckles across her chest that he had never seen before, the bare skin turning from pink to brown as it disappeared below the neckline. ‘The Rules,’ she said. ‘What about them?’ ‘We need two rooms. Yes?’ ‘Absolutely. Two rooms.’ He smiled and headed off into the crowd. Emma watched him go, then dragged the two backpacks along the quay to a small, wind-blown caf?. There she reached into her bag and pulled out a pen and notebook, an expensive, cloth-bound affair, her journal for the trip. She opened it on the first blank page and tried to think of something she could write, some insight or observation other than that everything was fine. Everything was fine, and she had the rare, new sensation of being exactly where she wanted to be. Dexter and the landlady stood in the middle of the bare room: whitewashed walls and cool stone floor, bare save for an immense iron-framed double bed, a small writing desk and chair and some dried flowers in a jar. He walked through louvred double-doors onto a large balcony painted to match the colour of the sky, overlooking the bay below. It was like walking out onto some fantastic stage. ‘You are how many?’ asked the landlady, mid-thirties, quite attractive. ‘Two of us.’ ‘And for how long?’ ‘Not sure, five nights, maybe more?’ ‘Well here is perfect I think?’ Dexter sat on the double bed, bouncing on it speculatively. ‘But my friend and I we are just, well, just good friends. We need two rooms?’ ‘Oh. Okay. I have second room.’ Emma has these freckles that I’ve never seen before scattered across her chest just above the neckline. ‘So you do have two rooms?’ ‘Yes, of course, I have two rooms.’ ‘There’s good news and there’s bad news.’ ‘Go on,’ said Emma, closing her notebook. ‘Well I’ve found this fantastic place, sea view, balcony, a bit higher up in the village, quiet if you want to write, there’s even a little desk, and it’s free for the next five days, longer if we want it.’ ‘And the bad news?’ ‘There’s only one bed.’ ‘Ah.’ ‘Ah.’ ‘I see.’ ‘Sorry.’ ‘Really?’ she said, suspiciously. ‘One bedroom on the whole island?’ ‘It’s peak season, Em! I’ve tried everywhere!’ Stay calm, don’t get shrill. Maybe play the guilt card instead . ‘But if you want me to carry on looking. .’ Wearily he made to get up from the chair. She put her hand on his forearm. ‘Single or double bed?’ The lie seemed to be holding. He sa