I tossed about all night, humiliated by the knowledge that I’d been wrong about Constanza and Alistair. Yet, at the same time, I was excited about the trial separation, of course I was. Because at the end of it I would find out whether I could survive without Alistair, whether I wanted him or whether I wanted something else entirely. And yet the thought of the upheaval, the change, the strangeness of not sleeping beside him, was so overwhelming, it was as if my brain couldn’t process the enormity of what was happening.
Ivy, however, had less of a problem. When I told her over breakfast that Mummy would be living at Auntie Tanya’s for a while, she said, “That’s nice. Ooh, I forgot to put in my new sparkly hair clips. I’ll go up to my room and get them.”
As she raced off, Constanza, who was cooking pancakes, came over and scowled at me.
“The man and the wife, they should stay together for life,” she said, chewing agitatedly at her crucifix.
Okay, so I’d been wrong about Constanza sucking any part of Alistair’s anatomy, but she could drop the holier than thou act. Maybe in the village in
“That’s all very well in theory,” I said, trying not to react to her brooding stare. I was in a good mood for the first time in ages and was damned if I was going to let her guilt trip me out of it. “But all we do is fight. I’ll be round to see Ivy most days, so it shouldn’t be too disruptive.” Damn. She was still slobbering all over that damned crucifix.
“Look,” I said. “I know it’s really none of my business, but I can’t bear to watch you sucking on that crucifix a moment longer. It’s covered in germs. Come on, hand it over, and I’ll give it a good soaking in bleach.”
Constanza’s face went red.
“I am sorry I am upsetting you. I will not wear any more,” she said, unfastening the chain and throwing it in the trash, before dashing out.
Well, that wasn’t precisely what I’d meant, but it would be something of a relief not to see her carry on her repulsive habit. Even the fact that I’d hurt her feelings couldn’t make a dent in my buoyant mood.
And then, stomach spinning like a tumble dryer, I stepped out of my front door and took a deep gulp of that wonderful, life-altering morning.
The air felt balmy, full of possibility, and ripe with the scent of yellow roses, which were shedding their petals in our front garden. I felt like cart wheeling down the street and screaming out, “I’m free!” but contented myself instead with jogging all the way down to
Panting and feeling wildly overcome by emotion, I pushed open the door to The Cutting Edge, where my stylist Ben washed, dried and mussed my locks about with some hair wax, until it looked like I’d fallen asleep in a pool of lager. He charged me a hundred and ten quid for the privilege, but I was too cheerful to care. Then I went next door to the beauty salon and had my legs waxed. I was trying to be realistic about what tonight might bring. Even though Connor wasn’t likely to make a move, I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t pounce on him, and figured it was best to be prepared.
Oh God, I couldn’t get over how liberating it all was! Tonight I would be allowed to pounce! This date wasn’t going to be about cheating, it was going to be all about finding myself. And if I found myself in bed with Connor in the process, so much the better.
In a state of barely contained excitement, I spent the afternoon with Tanya, searching for the perfect dress for my date. It turned out to be a backless Miu Miu concoction in plum and silver, which, combined with a padded bra, Tanya declared, made me look positively statuesque.
She was surprised that Constanza and Alistair hadn’t been going at it after all, but didn’t bat an eyelid when I announced the trial separation. She said something along the lines of, I would have suggested it ages ago, but you wouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice, so I didn’t. And when I asked if she minded me moving in, she jokingly replied that since she didn’t have any money spare to pay for a cleaner, me moving in would do just fine.
We went back to the house and I packed up some of my stuff and took it back to her apartment. As we unloaded my possessions, I kept having to remind myself that this was temporary. A window of opportunity to live a little, to work out my priorities. Ivy would have her mother back, in time. I just needed a break. And once I’d thoroughly vacuumed Tanya’s spare room and was in my dress, all nervous with excitement, she got a call from Jake the honest paparazzo. As she pulled on a long black wig and hastily twirled it up into a bun, it was clear she was headed on another Sachiko mission.
“Okay, that M&S spotting was a total waste of my time,” she said. “By the time I got there she’d gone. Jake was still there, though, and said he’d had a good chat with Sachiko. Apparently he cracked the ice by pretending he was doing market research on what her favourite flavour of yogurt was—it’s apricot by the way—and as they got chatting, she told him she often shopped at out the way places because that way she was less likely to be accosted by eager fans. I can’t figure out why she didn’t mace him though. Maybe he just has the magic touch, the bastard.” Tanya jabbed a chopstick through her messy bun. “Okay, now. Wish me luck. She’s just been sighted leaving the G bar in Piccadilly, and is heading towards Notting Hill. Jake says a bunch of celebs are gathered at the Tiger Lilly bar and he’s pretty sure she’s headed there.”
“Great!” I enthused. “The Tiger Lilly’s round the corner from The Attic isn’t it? We can share a cab.”
After I dropped her off, I attempted to stroll casually into the restaurant, but was stopped by two surly bouncers, who checked my name off a list, before escorting me down a hallway and into an ancient lift, which made a slow shuddery descent. As the doors opened, I walked out into a room packed full of ill looking people, their deathly pallor brought about by the greenish strip lighting.
The interior designer could scarcely have made the place less inviting, I thought, as I was shown to my table by a waiter with slicked back hair. My spirits sank further as he showed me to my table, a misshapen piece of wood that looked like the product of a remedial woodwork class.
As soon as I rested my elbows on its surface, a splinter embedded itself in my skin. While I was biting my lip and trying to suppress a yelp, the waiter asked if I’d care for a cocktail.
“Yes, oh my God that hurts, what would you recommend?”
“A Green Goddess?”
I nodded. It was now seven thirty-two, two minutes past the time we’d arranged to meet. My stomach felt queasy, like it was filled with cold congealed rice.
As I drank my cocktail, I told myself to get a grip. So he wasn’t here yet? So what? I would just relax. Chill out. I leaned back in my roughly hewn chair, cursing as my back incurred a nasty scratch. Wiping away the blood, I smarted under the looks of the other sensibly covered up diners. If you came here regularly like we do, was the unspoken message, you’d know that no one in their right mind comes here baring flesh.
Since I couldn’t rest my arms on the table or my back against the chair, for fear of incurring more scratches, I leaned forward, supporting my forearms on my thighs. It’s hard to look sophisticated when you’re hunched over like Quasimodo, but I think I managed it.
By seven fifty-five I was still hunched over, and acting calm and in control, like it didn’t bother me a jot that I’d been well and truly stood up.
After I caught a middle-aged guy throw me a pitying glance and whisper something to his companion, I kept my eyes strictly on my mobile, which lay on the table in front of me.
“Ring damn you, ring,” I muttered under my breath, until it eventually got the message and started to ring.
“Ah, madam,” said the waiter, rushing over. “We do not allow our patrons to use mobiles. If you would kindly switch it off.”
Turning my back on him, I grabbed the phone.
“Connor. Where on earth are you?” I said, rather more aggressively than I’d intended.
“I’m at Heathrow.”
Leaning back against the splintery chair and scraping my back I shrieked, “Shit!”
“Are you all right?”
“Not really. Would you please go away,” I hissed at the waiter.
“Do you mean that?” Connor said, sounding hurt.
“Sorry, not you. I was talking to someone else.”
“Madam, would you please switch off your phone,” said the waiter. I put a hand over my ear so I could concentrate on what Connor was saying.
“Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to leave you in the lurch. My Mum’s been in a car accident. Happened at lunchtime. Some maniac was speeding like crazy. She was on a pedestrian crossing and he smashed right into her.”
“Oh my God. Is she all right?”
“Yeah, well, as well as expected. She’s in a coma. I’m catching a flight to
“I totally understand.“
“I’m sorry not to have called you earlier, only I’ve been on the phone with one person after another, ever since it happened. Her doctors won’t give me a straight answer on how bad it really is. I’ve tried to press them, because I really need to know what exactly is wrong with her. I keep telling them to just give it to me straight, but all they’ll say is that it’s way too early to assess the damage. Tests, they need to run tests and …”
He was really rambling now and I didn’t know what to say. I felt totally helpless. I thought of saying something jokey like, By the way, I’m officially free now, so you won’t have to worry about Alistair coming after you with a cricket bat. But even I could see it really wasn’t the time. So instead I said, “Now listen to me, Connor. Take a deep breath.”
He sucked in some air, but it didn’t do much good, and he was off again immediately. “I wish I didn’t have to dash off, but the thing is, someone’s got to keep my Dad in line. He always was a bit of an ass, but since this happened, he’s gone off on a bender. And what with an empty house at their disposal, I don’t want to think about what my teenage brothers, Sean and Declan, a.k.a. the Evil Twins, will be getting themselves into. My sisters, Una and Bridget, live nearby, but they have kids of their own and can’t be expected to see that the Evil Twins don’t burn the house down while Mum’s in hospital.” There was a pause and he said something I didn’t catch, due to a flight being announced from the PA. Connor was making sniffling sounds. Was he crying? I couldn’t handle this. Tonight was meant to be my big night of freedom, and now I just wanted to go home and curl up with a cup of soup and bawl my eyes out.
His parting words were, “Have fun,” and as I placed the phone back on the table, I was thinking that he wouldn’t want me to just go home and drink soup. He’d want me to partake in the four hundred pounds worth of food and drink going begging. And that was exactly what I intended on doing.
The waiter was still standing beside me.
“I’m sorry, but that was an emergency.”
“If you use that phone again, madam, I’m afraid you will be asked to leave,” he said, flouncing off.
I glanced over to the next table, where a striking-looking woman, her toned body encased in a sky blue dress the size of a legwarmer, was telling her companion in a Californian drawl, “I think I’m going to complain about this salad, Chad. I know the Brits like their food tasting like boiled socks, but this is meant to be one of the best restaurants in
“Leave it,” said her companion, a muscular guy sporting long dark sideburns.
“Well, okay. But if the next course isn’t any better, I’m going to say something.” She turned to me and gave me a big smile. “I don’t recommend the wild mushroom and quinoa salad. It tastes like garbage. And I’m sorry you scratched your back. These chairs really suck, don’t they?”
Since I wasn’t in the mood to be sociable, I quickly buried my face in my menu. Maybe Tanya would be able raise my spirits, I thought, reaching for my mobile. Holding up the menu to shield my phone from the waiter’s prying eyes, I quickly stabbed out her number. When I got through, she sounded severely pissed off. The elusive Sachiko had left Tiger Lilly shortly before she’d arrived, but I managed to cheer her up with the promise of free drinks, and she told me she’d see me in ten.
I told the waiter to give her name to the bouncers, but twenty minutes later I was still waiting, ducked behind my menu, while Blue Legwarmer gave the waiter a piece of her mind.
“All I’m saying, is that this tuna is raw, when I asked for it cooked.”
“I conveyed your wishes to the chef, but I’m afraid he refused to do it.”
“Refused! I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in my life.”
“The fact is madam, this is how we serve it here. The raw fish is marinated in rice vinegar and six different herbs. To cook it would be to destroy the delicate balance of flavour.”
“Look, cut the crap, will you. Are you going to cook this thing or aren’t you?” She picked up her plate and thrust it at him.
“Well, madam, I’m afraid the answer is going to have to be no.”
I peered over the edge of my menu. This was getting rather interesting.
Blue Legwarmer tossed back her red bobbed hair and glared at the waiter. “Do you know who I am? Do you?” Now she mentioned it, she did look vaguely familiar.
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Well,” she said, clearly taken aback at the waiter’s ignorance, “I’m Sachiko Fiorelli, and shall I tell you what I’m going to do if you don’t pan sear this right this instant? I’m going to get on the phone to one of your newspapers and tell them about the God awful way in which I was treated.”
Oh no. Oh dear God no. I hadn’t recognized her before, because she’d had her long black hair chopped off and dyed red. I had to get out, before Tanya got here and started making a scene.
I got up and walked over to her table. “Look, sorry to interrupt,” I said to Sachiko, before turning to the waiter. “But I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided I’m going to dine somewhere else tonight.”
“You see what’s happening, don’t you?” said Sachiko. “This woman doesn’t want to eat here because of the terrible service.”
“It’s not that. The service is perfectly charming,” I said, backing towards the door and colliding with Tanya, who was just rushing in. She was still in the black wig and looked dishevelled, like a witch who’d been pulled through a hedge.
“What a palaver,” she said. “Those bouncers wouldn’t let me in for ages. Acted like I was some kind of criminal. So, where are the free drinks?”
“Actually,” I said, “I was thinking we might go somewhere else. My treat.”
“And waste four hundred quid? Are you mad? Where are we sitting?”
“This way,” I said, pulling her past the waiter, who’d finally seen sense and was taking Sachiko’s tuna away to be pan seared. I sat her down with her back towards Sachiko. This might work out fine, I thought, if I could just keep her distracted.
“I can’t believe the state of these chairs,” I said, turning round to show her my scratched back. “I’ve just been impaled on one.”
“Don’t be silly, these are just gorgeous,” she said, gazing at the chairs. “Limited edition, by Daniel van Deutsch. They go for two thousand pounds a pop. Absolutely magnificent craftsmanship.”
“Oh yeah, they’re great, as long as you don’t plan on doing something crazy, like sitting on them. I’d keep yourself covered up if I were you.”
“Well, okay, maybe I will.” She sat down, still in her shiny purple jacket. “You do look a bit bloody. Thank goodness Connor didn’t turn up, the state you’re in, eh?”
I still think I might have prevented her from catching sight of Sachiko, if only she hadn’t twisted round in her chair to get the waiter’s attention. When she’d ordered an apple martini and twisted back to face me, her expression was one of pure greed. I knew what she was going to say even before she leaned over and hissed, “You’ll never guess who’s at the next table.”
“I know who it is,” I hissed back. “But she’s in a bad mood and I would really appreciate it if you’d just leave her alone.”
“But this is such a brilliant opportunity.”
“No,” I said firmly, staring at my menu. “Now what shall we have?”
We were no luckier than Sachiko with our order. My swordfish was rubbery, and the pumpkin and bean soup had bits of grit floating in it and smelt of mouldy cheese. Luckily, however, the cocktails were flavourful, potent and utterly divine. As were the two bottles of
Tanya’s cheeks were glowing from the booze, as she ploughed through a plate of proscuitto wrapped in squid, or maybe it was the other way round. In any case, it looked like road kill. As Tanya drank, she became louder and louder. It was as if Sachiko and Tanya were competing to be the two loudest people in the restaurant.
My head was spinning as I listened to the two conversations.
Sachiko was talking about her therapist. “What Ronnie’s saying, is that I need to find closure about Natasha.” She was referring to Natasha Jones, the lead guitarist from Jezebel’s Revenge. The gossip mags had reported that they’d been in a covert relationship—Natasha had insisted on keeping the relationship a secret, as she wasn’t publicly out yet—until Sachiko leaked the affair to the press, at which point Natasha promptly gave her the boot.
“Well, is that really such a bad idea? “ said Sideburns. “You’ve been over for a month now, and Natasha is refusing to take your calls.”
“But there’s stuff I still need to discuss.”
“I really don’t think she wants to know. Forget about her. Why don’t you try your tuna? See if they cooked it right.”
Tanya had been listening to the conversation, but now that Sachiko was silently chewing, Tanya threw down her fork and said, “So, have you decided whether you’re going to call your little friend?” By now she was looking utterly deranged. Her wig had slipped back from her forehead, and a few blonde curls were poking free.
“What little friend?” I said nervously. I sensed she was a time bomb ready to go off. Any moment now, the levels of alcohol inside her would become dangerously high, and she’d explode all over Sachiko.
“I mean, your friend at Genderblast, Helenka Smythe. It’s obvious she wants you to come into her boudoir.”
“Yeah. For tea and scones.”
“Or tea and something.” She started to giggle loudly.
“Ha bloody ha.”
And then, suddenly, I looked up to see Sachiko beaming down at me with a winning smile.
“Hi, I’m Sachiko Fiorelli.” She held out her hand to me. “Pleased to meet you.”
Somewhat perplexed at why she was talking to me, I shook it. “Er, Scarlett Staines.” She lowered herself into the chair beside me. Tanya gawped at her, mouth hanging open to reveal some half-chewed squid. “And this is Tanya Putschnik.”
Sachiko eyed her with distaste, before turning her attention back to me.
“Sorry to butt in like this. I don’t usually listen in to people’s conversations, but it would be hard not to, with us all kind of squished in here together.” She gave me another delightful smile. “But when I heard you talking about Helenka Smythe, I just had to come over. She’s a buddy of yours?”
I opened my mouth, unsure as to whether I could legitimately define myself as being on buddy terms with Helenka. But before I could reply, Sachiko had begun talking again.
“I just adore Helenka. Me and
“Yeah, I do. Actually, he really is a buddy of mine.”
“Wow! Really. I thought he was, like, inspirational.”
“Malc, a gay version of Oprah?” said Tanya shaking her head. “Sorry, I just don’t see it.”
Pointedly ignoring Tanya, she turned to me. “You probably heard about my breakup with Natasha Jones.” I nodded. “For a long time I thought I’d lost the greatest girl ever. But Malc put it all, like, in perspective.”
“Oh yeah, absolutely. I made mistakes in that relationship, sure I did. Because I believed in it too much. I wanted her to be The One, but she wasn’t. I thought she saw a future for us. Turns out she didn’t.” Sachiko stared off into the distance. I was beginning to feel a little overwhelmed by all this American style emoting. “Anyhow, Malc showed me that from now on I should be open minded about who I get involved with. That my future girlfriends don’t necessarily have to have all those qualities I look for in a woman, which Natasha just happened to have, like being able to play guitar really well or looking sexy with a bed head, or being real smart and knowing about Eastern philosophy and shit.” She pulled herself up sharply. “Where was I?”
“How Malc changed your life,” said Tanya.
“Oh yeah. I bet he’s real tolerant now he’s found true love, right?”
Tanya opened her mouth. I couldn’t risk her saying something really stupid, so I cut in with, “To tell you the truth, Malc hasn’t actually found The One yet.”
“I don’t get it. What was all that about some guy barfing all over his shoes?”
“Um, just wishful thinking.”
“Well, that is a shame. A guy like Malc deserves to find someone as kind-hearted as he is.”
Tanya started to laugh, until I kicked her sharply under the table.
“Anyway, look.” She stood up, reached into her handbag and pulled out a card. “I’m in
I took the card and popped it in my bag. “I don’t actually have any people, but I’ll see what I can do.”
But Sachiko wasn’t listening. She was staring at Tanya, and suddenly her friendliness had evaporated, leaving a hard, suspicious look in its place.
“It is you, isn’t it? I thought so. The one from Gold Rush,” she said, narrowing her eyes.
“You are clever,” Tanya replied, whipping off her wig. “How lovely to see you again.”
It looked like Sachiko wasn’t equally overjoyed at the reunion. But before she could reach for the mace, I’d placed my hand on Tanya’s arm.
“May I introduce you to Tanya Putschnik, one of my oldest and dearest friends.”
“Pleased to meet you, again,” Sachiko said, giving a rather fake smile.
“I do apologize if I upset you the other night,” Tanya said. “It’s just that I had this proposition I wanted to put to you—”
“Well, we won’t keep you any longer,” I said, cutting Tanya off before she made an utter ass of herself. “I’ll see what I can do about those tickets.”
“Yeah, you do that. And look Tabitha, I’m sorry I maced you. But I only recently got rid of a stalker I had in LA.”
“It’s Tanya actually, and thank you. Apology accepted.”
“This is it. A sign, a God given sign that Sachiko is going to be the new face of Fondantdew and that Tanya Putschnik will get a massive commission.”
“Steady on, will you. If you go all heavy handed on her again, there’s no knowing what she might do. I didn’t want to ask how she got rid of that stalker. One phone call to one of her people and he was probably erased from the face of the earth.”
We were strolling towards Notting Hill tube station, when Tanya turned to me and said, “I was just thinking. Sachiko just gave you a nice little opportunity to phone Gavin without being too obvious.”
“Well, you can phone him and ask him to send her tickets, right? And get me one too, so I can meet her after the show and gently ease her into the idea of Fondantdew.”
“Look, the answer’s no. I am not going to phone Gavin. He’ll think I’m into him, which I’m not. He’s way too rough around the edges.”
“Sure he is. You can’t fool me with all this ‘he’s not refined enough’ bollocks. You know what I think? That you two should stop playing games and just get down to it.”
“Thanks for the concern about my love life, but we both know that you just want to get your mitts on Sachiko. So forget about it. I’m not phoning Gavin, okay?”
“Well, how am I going to get tickets then?”
“Oh, figure it out yourself,” I said. I couldn’t bear an awful tube ride, with her giving me the silent treatment all the way home, so I hailed a passing cab and jumped into it.
As soon as I got into bed and closed my eyes, the room started to spin. At some point the room stopped spinning and sleep overpowered me. I was sucked into a hyper-real dream in which I was naked in an anonymous room, my thigh slipping between the hard thighs of a naked man, and experiencing that long forgotten sensation of newness you feel when you go to bed with someone for the first time.
Filled with a rabid urge to trace his contours, to explore every bit of him, I began to lick my way down the hard plane of his stomach, while dimly aware that he was twisting my hair into a rope at the back of my neck. Now, just as my head reached his erect cock, as my tongue made its first exploratory swirl around its tip, he jerked the rope of hair, like I was a dog on a leash.
“Not now,” he said. “We need to get started.”
Started with what? I thought, outraged that he was bossing me about. Reluctantly, I slid up his chest, until I was level with his face, which was not really a face. His nose was barely formed, just a bump, without any hard ridge of bone or nostrils. There were no eyes either, only eye sockets, covered in smooth skin. Only his mouth was fully formed and kissable, and as we kissed, desire fluttered up inside me and soon I had forgotten all about his bizarre physiognomy. By now I was absolutely aching to feel him inside me, so I pushed him back down on the bed and straddled him.
In one deft movement he rolled me onto my back. “Now,” he said, holding up a yellow silk scarf. “Why don’t you move over so I can tie up your wrists.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
He hesitated. “You did tick the ‘Light Bondage Play’ option on the order form, didn’t you?”
“The what? Who are you, anyway?”
“The Robolover Deluxe. You ordered me from room service.”
He sighed, running the scarf over my bare shoulder and causing me to shudder.
“Well, hurry up and make up your mind,” he said, a note of irritation creeping into his voice.
Had I ticked the bondage box? It was unlikely. I’d tried all that once with Alistair. He’d consulted a book, One Hundred Useful Knots, while I lay there, feeling like one of his Ikea flat packs, waiting to be assembled. Although that experience had been an unmitigated disaster, I decided it might be worth another go.
Once I’d given him the go ahead, Robolover started attaching my wrists to the metallic knobs of the bedpost with the confidence of someone who been knotting women to beds all his life.
I peered up at his face, where a nose and eyes were beginning to form. Now he seemed familiar, yet frustratingly, I couldn’t place him.
Once I was attached to the bedpost, he lowered himself on top of me, pressed his lips against mine, and gently prized open my mouth with his tongue. Now he mixed hard, insistent kisses with playful, teasing ones, until I was all whirled up like a milkshake in a blender. And now, as he pulled away and I could see his face—now fully human—a panicky flurry rose up and up inside me, as I realized that Robolover could only be one person. Everything about the way he smelt, the way he looked, reminded me of Gavin. Or wait, surely Robolover was Gavin, wasn’t he?
I was about to ask him who he really was, when he started to gently roll my nipple between thumb and forefinger, and suddenly I no longer cared if he was Gavin or Robolover or Father Christmas, because it just felt so good.
“I just know you’re going to love this,” he said, releasing my nipple and giving a macabre, sexy laugh. He tied a blindfold over my eyes, leaving me biting my lip with anticipation, as a silky blackness enfolded me.
Every inch of my skin waited. Waited and waited, for a brush of a fingertip, a kiss. Anything. But there was no one here. Nothing but an empty hotel room and a stupid woman tied to a bed. Robolover had left the room. I tumbled into panic mode.
Then, just as I wondered if I should start screaming, I heard the fridge being opened, the clatter of ice cubes into a glass.
“Aaah,” I couldn’t help but groan, as he teased an ice cube down my neck and over my breasts and down, down, to where he made my clit jump as it made contact with the ice. I was so warm, and worked up, that soon the ice had melted and was dripping between my thighs, mingling with my juices. He began to stroke me between the legs, slipped two fingers inside, causing me to jerk my crotch up against his palm. By now I was dying to come, grinding my clit against his palm and urging his fingers in, deeper, deeper. But just as the first tremors of orgasm began, he withdrew his hand, moved his body off the bed. The only sound now was my breathing, which echoed like the rush of sea on sand inside my head. By now I was less impatient, I knew he would touch me eventually, if I could just hold out for one more minute.
Hmm, wonder what that dream means?