After Michael Richmond insists on meeting Will’s alter ego – Stephan Le Blanc – Will has no option but to visit Nathia (Michael’s right-hand woman) and ask for her help. But when it becomes obvious that Nathia has no way of persuading Michael not to go ahead with the meeting, an alternative plan is required. Something a little more theatrical. And daring. Unfortunately the plan relies heavily upon Rachel…
The receptionist smiles. We’ve never met. She’s a temp. Today is her first day after the regular receptionist, Caroline, suddenly received a surprise spa break as a ‘thank you’ for all her years of loyal service. Caroline’s stand-in looks nervous. And I know how she feels. Nerves don’t quite describe the anxiety I’m attempting to conceal. Part of me wishes that Nathia had banished me from the capital, rather than agreeing to help, but that was a week ago. It’s too late to back out now – the performance has already begun.
Right on cue Nathia comes round the corner and stands directly in front of me. “Monsieur LeBlanc?” she asks. “My name is Nathia Brockenhurst – I work for Mr Richmond. Won’t you come this way?”
The receptionist doesn’t even blink. Why would she? She has no idea that Nathia and I know each other. She has no idea that my name is actually William Lewis. She has no idea that I’m an actor. To her, everything is just as it appears. I get to my feet, give the receptionist a smile, and follow Nathia out of the reception area.
As we enter the boardroom there’s a small pile of documents at one end of the table. In the centre there’s a complicated looking telephone. And at the other end there’s a plate of Danish pastries, and a coffee percolator. All this for a meeting that isn’t going to happen.
Nathia picks up the telephone handset.
“Michael,” she says, “Monsieur LeBlanc is here, though he advises me that he does have to leave in twenty minutes to catch a plane back to Paris.” She stops talking for a second whilst she listens to the voice at the other end. “I’ll tell him you said that,” she continues, and then replaces the handset.
“He’s on his way. You’d better move fast.” I remove my watch, pull off my tie, ruffle my hair, and take my Edwin glasses from the inside pocket of my jacket.
“Tell Rachel she’s on,” I say.
“Leave it to me,” Nathia replies as she drags a chair to the end of the room and stands on it to reach the clock hanging on the wall.
I head out of the boardroom. Go through the doors into the stairwell and take them two at a time to the next floor. The top floor. Where there’s only one office. Michael’s.
Michael is standing behind his desk as I enter, putting on his jacket. He looks surprised to see me, and I can’t say I blame him. We haven’t seen each other in over a month and even before Nathia gave me my marching orders I was never in the habit of walking into his private office unannounced.
“Edwin!?” he says, as I close the glass door behind me.
“Michael,” I say, by way of a greeting. I smile. And frown. And then smile again. “Sorry to barge in on you like this,” I continue.
“Edwin – how the fuck… who let you up here?!”
“Oh, the receptionist lady,” I say, walking further into the room. “She’s new here, isn’t she? Anyway, she looked very busy so I just came on up. I hope that was okay?” Michael’s face flushes with anger. It’s not okay. I never thought it would be.
“The thing is, Edwin, I’ve–” I don’t wait for him to finish, instead my legs buckle beneath me, and I collapse onto my knees in the middle of the room. I bury my face in my hands, and cast my mind back to the Labrador puppy I had as a boy – the one that ran out in front of the car before I could do anything about it – and from the very pit of my soul I wrench up two or three great sobs of anguish. I can’t see Michael any more but I can tell from the stillness in the room that I have his reluctant attention.
After a second or two I take a deep breath, remind myself that I never had a puppy, not even of any kind, wipe my nose on the sleeve of my jacket and slowly get to my feet.
“I’m sorry, Michael,” I say. “I don’t know what came over me. I’ll leave.” I turn to walk to the door, but pause just long enough to see if my little display was enough.
“Edwin! Wait!” Michael bites his lip as he wrestles with conflicting emotions. “What… what’s wrong?”
“Nathia!” I reply, like there could only ever be one answer to that question. “She won’t see me! She won’t return my calls! She’s completely cut me out of her life! I don’t know what to do. I love her, Michael! How do I get her back?” Michael flushes again. But gone is the anger from a moment ago, now I can almost hear him squirm with embarrassment.
“Oh, well, Edwin,” he stammers, “look, I sympathise, fuck me I do, but I’m really not…”
“But you and Rachel,” I plead. “You have such a special relationship. I thought, if anyone understands women…”
“Well, er, yes,” says Michael, “I can see how you’d think that. Sometimes though, things aren’t always what they seem. And anyway, right now–”
“I’m a mess, Michael!” I say. “I can’t get her out of my head! I haven’t been to work for a week. I haven’t eaten in days!”
“Right,” says Michael as he casts a surreptitious glance at the schedule on his desk, “well, tell you what; why don’t you wait, er, downstairs, and after I’m done we’ll go out and get a spot of lunch. How’s that sound? And you know what, maybe I can give you a few… pointers. A little of the old Richmond magic.”
I take two steps forward, and I can see from his eyes that he’s terrified I’m going to try and embrace him – instead, I take his hand and shake it vigorously.
“Thank you, Michael. Thank you so much. You have no idea how much that would mean to me.” I keep shaking his hand, aware that I’m playing for time now. If Rachel doesn’t show up soon I have no idea what I’m going to do next. “Thank you Michael. Thank you…”
“Michael.” We both turn. Rachel is in the doorway. A small suitcase next to her.
“Precious,” says Michael, the irritation returning to his voice. “What are you doing here? Nobody told me you were in the building.”
“Your new receptionist was going to warn you,” snaps Rachel. “I told her not to bother, this won’t take long.”
“I see. Well unfortunately, my love, I’m actually in a meeting–”
“I’m sure Edwin won’t mind waiting.”
“Not with Edwin, precious, I’m supposed to be downstairs in the boardroom. Right fucking now actually! So if you could just–”
“I’m leaving you,” says Rachel, and once again the room is silent.
“What? Fucking what?” asks Michael eventually.
“I’m leaving you,” says Rachel again. “I just thought you should know. In case you got home this evening and failed to notice my absence.” I sneak a look at Michael and swear that I see his face twitch slightly.
“I think maybe I should… ” I edge towards the door.
“Stay right where you fucking are, Edwin,” growls Michael.
“Yes, Edwin, there’s no need to go,” says Rachel. “I’ve said everything I came to say.” Michael is almost crimson now. I can actually see the veins on the side of his neck pulsating, but other than that he’s completely motionless, and when he does finally speak he sounds surprisingly calm.
“Look, precious,” he says. “Could you possibly not fucking leave me, for another,” he checks the large diamond encrusted watch on his wrist, “fifteen minutes or so? It’s just that there’s this fucking Frenchie in the fucking building and I’m rather anxious to meet him before he gets back on a fucking plane!!”
“No, Michael. I’ve waited long enough. That’s all I’ve done since we got married. Wait, for you to treat me like a human being, like your partner, an equal – rather than a trophy in a cabinet. Well, I’m not waiting a moment longer.” She grabs the handle of her case. “Go and have your business meeting – don’t expect me to be here when you return.”
“Edwin, I wonder if you’d be so kind as to keep my darling fucking wife company for a quarter of an hour…”
“No need, Edwin.”
“Fifteen fucking minutes!” says Michael, his voice beginning to crack slightly as he finally raises it another decibel. “Perhaps she can tell you how to win back Nathia!”
“Goodbye, Michael,” says Rachel, and turns to leave.
I’ve never seen Michael move so fast. He crosses the office before Rachel’s taken a single step towards the lift. But as he grabs her arm she spins round and slaps him so hard across the face I swear I hear his jaw crack.
“Don’t you dare touch me!” she roars, her eyes ablaze. Michael staggers back a few steps into the office, holding his cheek, and I realise that this is the moment when he’ll finally make his choice: keep Rachel, or meet Stephan LeBlanc. He stands up straight, and buttons his jacket.
“Goodbye, precious,” he says, regaining his composure. And with that he pushes past her, out of his office, towards the stairs and out of sight. Rachel and I exchange anxious glances.
Just then we hear a scream, a cry of pain, and the unmistakeable clank of a metal bucket. As we rush into the hall Michael is on his back, clutching various parts of his anatomy. And standing over him, one foot on Michael’s chest, her face red with rage, and brandishing a mop in much the same way a Kendo Martial Artist might hold a bamboo cane, is a headphone-wearing cleaning lady. She raises the mop above her head and screams: “Ovo je za mog oca ti licemjerni, lažljivi, prevarantski gade!” – but just before she brings the mop down on her victim I throw myself into her, rugby tackle her to the ground, and prise the weapon from her hands. Finally our eyes meet.
“He surprised me!” she says.
* * * * *
“Where the fuck is he?!” gasps Michael as we enter the boardroom.
“Michael!” says Nathia, getting to her feet. “What on earth… happened?”
“Nothing! Nothing!” blusters Michael, adjusting his hair with one hand, and straightening his tie with the other. The minute or two he spent in his private bathroom changing into a fresh suit (after he’d spent a good sixty seconds swearing at the cleaner) was hardly enough to restore his usual polished appearance of ruthless capitalism; he’s limping, his hair is damp, he smells vaguely of stale pond water, and the beginnings of a nasty bruise are just starting to appear on the side of his cheek. “Where’s that fucking Frenchie!?”
“Gone!” says Nathia.
“Already?!” he spits. “But I can’t have been more than…” He goes to check his watch. But the chunky Rolex is no longer there. He glances at my wrist to see if I’m wearing a time-piece, but I’m not, and then finally he spots the clock on the wall. And I can see from the look on his face that his worst fears are confirmed. Somehow he missed the meeting.
“He said he’ll try and catch up with you the next time he’s in London,” says Nathia. “But he didn’t seem very happy about being kept waiting. What happened?” Michael says nothing. He staggers back and collapses into one of the comfy chairs running along the wall. He straightens his tie again and then stares into the space directly in front of him.
“Where’s my wife?” he asks eventually. I exchange looks with Nathia.
“I’m afraid she’s, er, gone, too,” I say. “Though she did ask me to give you this.” I take an envelope from my inside jacket pocket and hand it to him. He doesn’t open it. At least not before I slip quietly from the boardroom, and out of the building.
* * * * *
By the time Nathia arrives at Jarad’s we’re on our second bottle of champagne. We cheer as she enters the restaurant; well, Jarad, Rachel and I do – Zlata remains curiously silent.
“Hi,” I say, getting up and coming over. “Sorry – I think we’re all somewhat relieved that’s over.”
“As am I,” says Nathia. She doesn’t smile, but Nathia isn’t really one for smiling.
“I don’t think you’ve ever actually met Zlata, my agent, have you?” I ask.
“Actually I have,” says Nathia. “At a Steele & Richmond function. That’s how we became acquainted.” This is all news to me. Until this very moment I’d always assumed Nathia got Zlata’s number from the internet. Slowly Zlata gets out of her seat and joins us.
“Miss Brockenhurst,” says Zlata with a weary sigh, and a noticeable absence of sincerity, “it is very nice to see you again, after all of the years.”
“You too,” says Nathia, though I have my doubts. “Are you still in the habit of crashing parties?” she asks.
“No, no,” says Zlata with the faintest hint of a polite laugh. “Now I am too old for the parties.”
“I’m sure that’s not the case,” says Nathia. Zlata does one of her more dramatic European shrugs. This one says that’s very kind of you to say.
“William has told me much about you,” says Zlata, changing the subject.
“Has he indeed,” says Nathia, one eyebrow climbing higher than the other.
“Not really,” I add.
“You’re all he talks about,” says Zlata.
“Hardly ever,” I chirp. “In fact never. Ever.”
“I find it all very fascinating,” continues Zlata.
“She doesn’t mean that,” I explain.
“I know what I mean,” says Zlata.
“She’s just stirring,” I chip in, unable to prevent my voice raising an octave. “It amuses her.”
“Well, you certainly created a stir today,” says Nathia. “When I left the office Michael was still raging about ‘that effing cleaning lady’ and how she set about him – he’s been on the phone much of the afternoon trying to find out who she was so he can make sure she never works again.”
“It was the part I was born to play,” says Zlata with no feeling whatsoever.
“He also sent our temporary receptionist home in a flood of tears for letting people wander around the offices unescorted, and raked me over the coals for persuading him to send Caroline away on a spa break. As dramas go, this was a fairly busy day.”
“Oh, that reminds me,” I say. “Zlata, where’s the watch?”
“What watch?” asks Zlata.
“The watch!” I say. “Michael’s Rolex?”
“I don’t know about watch.”
She digs deep into her pockets, takes out Michael’s Rolex and hands it to Nathia. I stare at her, waiting for an explanation.
“I thought perhaps I keep it,” she says with a shrug. “Remind him never to mess with cleaning lady!” Nathia smiles. She actually smiles.
“I’ll sneak it back into his private bathroom this evening.” Zlata shrugs again, then turns, walks through the door that leads to the kitchen, and lets it slam behind her.
“Was it something I said?” asks Nathia, raising an eyebrow again.
“Er, no. She’s just… a bit… Czech,” I say.
“And I am not Czech!” says Zlata from the other side of the door. I frown. And when I look back at Nathia she’s looking even more bemused than usual, like we might all be slightly deranged.
“So, you’re going back to the office now?” I ask, in an effort to change the subject.
“Of course – I have a merger to oversee.” And now Rachel and Jarad are out of their seats.
“So Michael’s agreed to the merger?” asks Rachel.
“How could he not?” says Nathia. “He can’t tell his clients that he failed to make a meeting that he insisted upon. I hope it works out for you,” she says to Rachel. “Both of you,” she adds, and gives a nod to Jarad.
“Thank you,” says Rachel, “for everything. We couldn’t have done this without you.”
“You’re very welcome,” says Nathia.
“From me too,” I add. “Hey, maybe someday you’ll need me to play Edwin again?” Nathia narrows her eyes and leans forward.
“Over my dead body,” she whispers in my ear.
* * * * *
“You cold?” I ask.
“A little,” replies Rachel.
“Here, take my jacket,” I say, removing it and putting it round her shoulders.
“Why, thank you,” she says. “But now you’re cold!”
“Oh, I’ll live!” I say with a smile.
“Maybe we can share it,” she says, and shuffles along the bench. I put my arm around her shoulders.
“Now, this is much better,” I say, as we sit in front of the National Theatre building and look across the Thames, at the buildings on the other side, at the party boats going back and forth. And though we’ve spent some time in each other’s company during the past three weeks, this feels like the first moment we’ve actually been ourselves. “Can I ask you something?” I say.
“Were you acting?” I ask. “Earlier? When you told Michael you were leaving?”
Rachel says nothing for a moment, and just when I think I can’t bear the anticipation any longer, she answers.
“No,” she says. “That was the truth. Everything I want to keep is in that suitcase.”
“And the envelope? What was that all about? If you don’t mind me asking?”
“A copy of a letter I sent to my solicitor this morning, instructing them to transfer those flats back to Michael.” I remove my arm and turn to look at her.
“But Rachel,” I say. “That was your income – those are your flats!” She holds my gaze.
“I don’t want his blood money, Will. Besides, Jarad and I have thirteen new restaurants to manage! And they’re going to be very successful!”
“You seem very sure about that,” I say.
“I have a very good feeling about it.” She takes my hand. “Just as I always had a good feeling about you, Will, even when I knew you as Edwin. Even after Nathia told us the two of you had split, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when destiny brought the two of us back together. It was somehow inevitable. Inescapable.” I smile. I can’t help myself. She does that to me. “And what about you?” she asks. “What are you going to do now?”
“I’m not sure,” I say as I look back across the river. I put my arm back across her shoulders again and feel her move in closer still. “I was thinking about going to auditions again. I mean, it’s been a while. Years, in fact. But I’m a better actor now than I was back then. Or at least I think I am. And maybe in the end, that’s all that really matters.”
“We make our own truth, William,” says Rachel, as she snuggles her head into my chest, and I’d like to say something in reply, but all I can think about is how close she is, and how warm she feels. “I can hear your heart beating,” she says. And I’m not surprised in the slightest. If it was beating any louder passers by would be able to hear it.
“So, er, where are you going to stay?” I ask, as casually as possible.
“My sister says I can move in with her,” says Rachel.
“You have a sister?” I ask. It’s the first I’ve ever heard of her.
“Older by ten years,” says Rachel. “Not that I get to see her very often as she lives in Dorset. Well, that and the fact that she and Michael hate each other with a passion! She’s been banging on at me to leave him for years; you wouldn’t believe how many hours we’ve spent on the phone ‘planning my escape’. When I called her this morning with the news she was over the moon! Wouldn’t stop screaming for joy.” But I’m struggling to hear anything with the word ‘Dorset’ still ringing in my ears.
“That said, Dorset isn’t particularly practical,” continues Rachel, oblivious to the fact she’s clearly tuned into my thoughts. “So instead I’m going to use it as my official address. I can have my post forwarded there. Tell mutual acquaintances, that sort of thing – doubtless my controlling evil ex-husband is already trying to track me down, this way he’ll come to the conclusion I’ve moved in with Heather and her kids. In reality I’m going to stay with Jarad. His flat is tiny but you know what he’s like; he’s already insisting that I take his bed whilst he sleeps on the sofa.”
“He’s a man of few words, but big actions,” I say, but I’m disappointed that she hasn’t thought to ask if she can stay with me.
“I’ll probably kip there whilst I look for a flat share, or something.”
“You could always, er, flat share with me,” I stammer. “I mean, if you like. If you, if that, if…”
“If?” prompts Rachel.
“Yes, you know. If.” I swallow. She sits up and looks me square in the eye.
“You know, for a man who runs flirting courses, you’re really not very good at it.”
“But I’m not flirting!” I protest. “I’m just, you know… offering you a place to live.”
“Yes, a place, with you.”
“Well of course with me, it’s the only place I have to offer.”
“Ah. I see,” says Rachel. “So if you had another place, an empty place elsewhere, you’d be offering me that instead…”
“Maybe,” I say. “But I don’t. I only have my place. With me. It’s all I’ve got. Sorry about that. But you’re, erm, very welcome to share it.” I swallow again. “If you like.” Rachel raises an eyebrow.
“You’re not really selling it, William,” she says, poking me in my ribs with a long slender finger, and only now do I realise we are flirting, and that I should be seizing the moment.
“Did I happen to mention it was with me?” I ask.
“Meh,” she says with a sideways head nod. “I’m not sure that’s enough now.”
“Then how about this,” I say, taking her face in my hands, and kissing her. A long lingering kiss that feels like it’s been waiting in the wings since the beginning of act I – and even before I let go, from the way she’s kissing me back I already know what she’s going to say next.
“Sold,” says Rachel without opening her eyes. Then she smiles. That shy smile I’ve come to love so much. “Can we go home now?” she asks.
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