Out of work actor William Lewis makes a living playing ‘Edwin,’ the fictitious boyfriend of high-powered executive Nathia. Or at least he used to. It had been an unusual job – not exactly what he envisaged when he left drama school – but it paid the rent, and then some. That is, until Nathia decided to let him go. Which was probably just as well because during the least meal with Nathia’s boss (Michael Richmond) and his wife (Rachel), William got the distinct impression that the beautiful Rachel knew more that she was letting on, and might be about to expose him. Does she know the truth? No matter – now that Nathia has decided she can’t go on with the sham relationship, William has more pressing problems ……. his rent.
Though the pavement is hot enough to fry an egg on, and the park across the road is heaving with tourists treating it like a naturist resort in the Algarve, no amount of sunshine is going to shift the cloud over my head. It hangs there like a giant floating lump of coal, casting a shadow over my entire life. Nathia only ‘dumped’ me a week ago, yet it feels as if the blackness has been there forever.
“Never mind William,” says Zlata, “I will find you new client. Lots of clients. Some new ladies that need nice pretend boyfriend.” She smiles and picks up a small cup of coffee-scented sludge. She drinks the lot in one go, and for a moment I’m sure I get a caffeine buzz simply by sitting opposite.
“Zlata,” I say after one of my heavier sighs of the morning, “I don’t want to be someone’s pretend boyfriend!”
“Ah! You say that now,” says Zlata, “but what about when the rent is due and you don’t have the moneys? Then I think you will pretend to be anyone’s boyfriend. Maybe even mine! And maybe not pretend.” She winks at me, then hunts around in her handbag.
“You know Zlata, once upon a time I wanted to be an actor.”
“You are still actor,” she says without looking up from the bag on her lap, a mass of chestnut curls obscuring her face. “What is today if not acting? Now hurry up and drink your English tea, and then we go back to work.”
“I mean a real actor! In a theatre! Or on film! For crying out loud, I’d be understudy to one of Cinderella’s coach men if it finally meant a life on stage.” She doesn’t reply. She’s too busy lighting a cigarette. Inhaling deeply as if this might be the last pack of tobacco-related products in existence.
“You are too good to be understudy,” she says eventually.
“Yeah? Says who!”
“Says me.” She adds a very European shrug to emphasise the point.
“And that’s very kind of you to say Zlata, but sadly it doesn’t make one jot of difference what you think of my acting abilities.”
“Really?” she says. “Not one jot?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Oh. I see.” She takes a thoughtful drag on her cigarette and then rests it in the ash tray before leaning across the table. “Tell me William, how many womens have you loved in your life?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Tell me,” she says, the question hanging in the air.
“I dunno,” I say after a moment. I do know. Of course I know.
“So, not that manys,” says Zlata. “Five years we know each other. Five! And in all that times you have just the one girlfriend. Just one. And she left you.”
“I prefer being single,” I lie.
“And good for you. One time, I was almost single. It looked like the peaceful life.”
“What exactly is your point?” I ask.
“Even though you have no girlfriend, I have watched you acting the romantic hero; always with the cheeky smile, and the twinkly eyes, and the wink, and the good hair. The ladies, they want you! And the gentlemens, they hate you! But also, they want to be you. Do they know you only have the sex with two womens in your whole life? No! They believe you to be the great Casanova! Roger the Romantic Hero! You, William, are very good actor.” She picks up her cigarette, gives me a look that clearly says ‘so there’ in any language, and takes a long drag.
“You asked me how many women I’ve loved,” I say, making no attempt to hide the irritation in my voice. “Nobody mentioned anything about sex.”
“Pffff. Please,” says Zlata. “With you is same thing. Drink your English tea.”
Carol Brown was my first proper girlfriend. Statuesque. Athletic. Driven. I met her within days of starting drama school and we were pretty much inseparable from that moment on.
I was twenty five when I finally sent myself to drama school. That was almost ten years ago. And for those three years the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art nurtured my dreams and whipped them into a frenzy of possibilities. Life looked good back then. And Carol and I were a team. A dynamic-thespian-duo; as obsessed with all things theatrical as we were with each other. Back then the two things seemed intrinsically linked. We spent long evenings discussing Shakespeare, the parts we’d like to play, and what we would bring to the role. And long days, wrapped in each other’s arms, whether an exercise required it or not. We always found ways to bring our intimacy into our craft, and vice versa.
But, less than a month after we graduated, Carol landed a major part in a touring company. She changed her name, boarded a bus at Victoria Coach Station, and left me and our relationship standing in the rain. I can’t say I blame her. When an opportunity like that lands in your lap you have to take it. But I’ve often wondered whether I’d have done the same.
Then there was Isla. We met soon after. And she was nice. Barely an inch over five foot. Curvy. Covered in freckles. She was the polar opposite of Carol and actually it felt refreshing to spend time with someone who wasn’t constantly quoting lines from plays, or treating each and every moment like an impromptu performance. Although she worked as a theatre nurse at Great Ormond Street, and we used to joke about that; how we were both in ‘theatre’ – except that I wasn’t. I was at home. Looking for work.
Having stepped back into the real world I’d joined a throng of theatre-loving hopefuls, all scouring the classified pages of The Stage newspaper for anything that resembled paid acting work. I remember the first time I realised just how little work there was, and how many other hopefuls were competing for it. I’d always heard it was tough making a living as a full time actor, but I’d never thought to actually check. Occasionally I’d get an audition, and I, like so many others, would wait in line for hours and hours for a shot at a part that in all likelihood had already been cast.
Eventually, after months of living on my girlfriend’s charity, whilst slowly deconstructing my sanity on a daily basis, I did what all professionals do when their chosen career lets them down. I took to teaching.
Afternoons were spent filling young minds with false hope, honing whatever theatrical skills they had for a profession that’s already too crowded to accommodate them, all whilst taking their parents’ money. It’s not dishonesty. It’s the way of the world. Reality is harsh, brutal, and unforgiving. My clients paid me to provide them and their offspring with something altogether more palatable.
But despite this crushingly disappointing start to my theatrical career, things between Isla and I were pretty good. At least for a while.
Then one particularly chilly morning in March, an eccentric gum chewing woman of indeterminate years – all wild bleached blonde hair (with dark roots), pristine makeup (and plenty of it) – turned up on my doorstep.
“Hello,” she said, as I opened the door. “You are Lewis, the actor. Yes?”
“If you say so,” I replied. It was very early in the morning. Too early to be standing on my doorstep talking to a tall lady in a fake-fur-coat that just about covered her shoulders, and a snake-skin mini-skirt that was barely long enough to cover, well, anything.
I on the other hand was still in my dressing gown, my hair looked as if it had declared independence from the rest of my head, and the only reason I’d opened the door at all was because I was in a grumpy mood, and this would have been a perfect opportunity to tell whoever it was that I didn’t want to buy whatever they were peddling, and that Jesus and I had never seen eye to eye after he’d inspired yet another lousy Lloyd Webber musical. The woman frowned.
“I am sure this is place,” she said, retrieving a scrappy piece of paper from her bag. “I copy it very carefully. M. R. Lewis.”
“M?” I said. “I’m not an M. I’m a W. For William. William Lewis.”
“You are sure? I definitely copy down M and R. See here.”
“I think you might mean ‘Mister’. M R. It’s short for mister. It’s a title. Like Doctor. Or Sir. Or King.” She gave me a look. One that a few months later I’d come to know as the I know what I mean look.
“But you are actor?” she asked.
“Well, that’s somewhat debateable,” I said, scratching my unshaven chin. The woman gave an impatient sigh.
“I look for acting teacher!”
“Right. Well, yes sadly I am that. Although normally not until much later, and definitely after I’ve had a shower and at least two cups of coffee.”
“Good,” said the woman, her face beaming. “Then I am at right place.” She extended a hand. “My name is Zlata Ruzencova.”
“Ruzencova. It is Czech name. I am Czech. I was born in Czech Republic. I live there my whole life.”
“Er, congratulations,” I said, still shaking her hand.
“And now I wish to be famous actress.” I let go of her hand.
“Why?” I asked.
“I do not understand.”
“Why do you want to be an actress?”
“It is like dream,” said Zlata with a shrug. “And everybody want for something, yes? If only glass of water.”
“Right,” I said. “Well, I can definitely teach you to act, but as for the fame bit, you’re on your own I’m afraid.”
Zlata considered this for a moment. “That is acceptable,” she said. “May I enter your house?”
I opened my mouth to say something along the lines of, do you know what time it is? Because I don’t! Which means it must be very early because generally I don’t look at a clock before midday, but then closed it again. Zlata was still smiling at me, which meant that anything I said that didn’t involve inviting her in would make me look like an arse.
“Sure,” I said with a sigh. “Why not.”
She tottered into my flat on platform heels and I made her a coffee whilst she yabbered on about how cosy my tiny little bedsit was, how much she liked Isla’s taste in clothes (the ones that were drying on the clothes horse), and how the view from my window of the neighbouring off-licence, fire station and building site was so much more interesting than anything she had. Then I dressed in the bathroom whilst she continued to yabber from the other side of the door. And eventually, when I managed to get a word in edgeways, I explained to her how – and more importantly when – I taught my private clients.
And so on Monday and Wednesday afternoons Zlata and I began working on obtaining her LAMDA acting exams. Two-hour sessions that usually overran, sometimes by several more hours – though by the end of each session very little acting was taking place. Instead Zlata would be perched on the window sill, blowing great plumes of smoke out of the window, whilst she drank copious amounts of coffee and shared anecdotes of how she’d left the Czech Republic in search of her fortune, and how London would be the first of many stops on her quest for world domination.
I liked her. I still do. At some point I no longer thought of her as a client; she’d entered that small select group of people I think of as friends. And evidently that was a problem. Suddenly Isla was cross all the time, and no end of ‘she’s just a friend’ or ‘you should try and get to know her, you might like her’ conversations could save us. So far as she was concerned, aside from family members, there should only ever be room in a man’s life for one female.
One Tuesday morning Isla left me. Love, she said – as she stood there and stuffed her suitcase with dirty washing and tears – is a connection that only really works when all other distractions have been eliminated. I said nothing. Just rocked back and forth on the balls of my feet, and wondered how it was possible for two people to spend so much time in each other’s lives and not really know each other at all.
The truth of it is, theatre was, and always has been, the only real love in my life. And if anything was a distraction, then it was Isla. When she left I took on more classes, applied for every theatrical part I could find, and taught Zlata three times a week.
On the days that Zlata wasn’t with me honing her craft as an actress, she was at the local college learning business studies. In the evenings she took classes in Neuro Linguistic Programming (I’m still not entirely sure what that is), Kendo (a martial art that involves bamboo canes), and Close Up Table Magic. You really can learn anything these days, and Zlata’s never been one to place limits on herself. Eighteen weeks to the day after walking through my door she announced that I’d taught her everything she needed to know, and that she’d decided to become a theatrical agent.
“An… agent?” I said.
“Yes,” replied Zlata.
“Do you know anything about being… an agent?” I asked.
“I know lots of things,” said Zlata defiantly. “And you, William, will be my first client.”
“Me?!” I’d always dreamt of having an agent, but I never thought it would happen like this.
“You can actually find me work? Proper acting work – not just handing out leaflets in Oxford Street?”
“I have already,” she said, beaming from ear to ear with triumphant pride. I was gobsmacked. And suddenly extremely suspicious.
“Hang on – you mean you’ve got me an audition?”
“No! I know what I mean! Not audition! Work!”
“Okay, calm down! What is it then?” And once she’d told me I collapsed into an armchair, and waited for my brain to catch up with my ears.
“You want me to do what?” I said eventually.
Much to my considerable surprise the room, small though it was, was filling up with people. We might actually run out of chairs! I shook my head in disbelief.
One thing you learn pretty quickly at drama school is that finding an audience can be a challenge. And anyone who harbours quaint notions about concentrating on giving a stellar performance, whilst someone else takes on the responsibility of putting bums on seats, soon finds that that’s the easiest way to ensure that there will be more people on stage than sitting in front of it. Much of my time as a drama student had been spent handing out leaflets on street corners, or putting up posters in local libraries – time that would have been better spent learning lines – but there’s little point in learning lines if no one’s there to hear them. Sometimes we’d dispense with all the leafleting and postering, and just hand out free tickets… and we’d still struggle to fill more than the first three rows.
But not today.
Though I hadn’t told Zlata, I’d fully expected to spend the morning sitting in an empty hotel conference room, commiserating with my friend over her latest failed business exploit. But instead my ears were buzzing with all the excited chatter from folks who’d come far and wide to listen to the sage advice and wisdom from two people who were, in their own special way, experts in their field.
The only potential fly in this ointment of Zlata’s creation, was that those ‘experts’ were, in fact, Zlata and me. And the subject we were supposed to be experts in, was flirting.
NLP, Kendo, Table Magic… all those evening classes my friend was so keen on attending had taught her one thing above everything else; people will pay to learn stuff! And whilst there will always be a market for the bog standard subjects you were supposed to learn at school, what people really want to know are the skills you didn’t learn in the classroom. Particularly – so Zlata reckoned – those skills that everyone’s supposed to develop naturally, but invariably don’t. Like what you’re supposed to say and do when you meet someone who you quite like the look of.
Which is fine for Zlata, because she pretty much likes the look of anyone vaguely masculine, and has a complete absence of fears or doubts that might otherwise impose limitations on what she thinks she’s capable of. She’s spent a lot of time honing her seduction skills. She’s the perfect person to teach ‘flirting techniques’. I suppose it really isn’t all that surprising that Isla felt threatened.
I, on the other hand, know nothing. At least, back then, and certainly when it came to matters of the heart. The two great romances of my life had happened largely by accident. They certainly hadn’t left me with anything I could pass on in the way of wisdom.
Which is why Zlata had asked me to spend the day being someone else; my first real acting role since drama college. Today there was half a tub of gel in my hair. Today you’d be able to detect my cologne long before I entered the room. Today my trousers were in danger of cutting off the blood supply to my feet. Today I was ‘Gary’.
“Hello? Hello? Can everyone hear me?” boomed Zlata’s voice from every speaker in the room, causing about half a dozen people to slap their hands over their ears. I bounded over to my friend who was standing next to the PA control panel, and turned the volume down from ten to a more manageable six.
“Trust me,” I said. “They can definitely hear you.”
“Jolly good,” said Zlata. “What’s that, Roger? I don’t need the microphone? Oo, you are the cheeky man! I will deal with you later.” I frowned and then looked around for someone who might answer to the name of Roger. “What’s that?” she continued. “Well you’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you!” said Zlata, presumably still addressing her imaginary friend, as she walked down the centre aisle, and jumped onto the small makeshift stage at the other end of the room.
“Now then,” she said, placing the microphone in a stand and surveying the gathering in front of her. “Who do we haves here?”
“And so, ladies and gentlemens, now we’ll split into two groups. The ladies will come with me, and the gentlemens –you will be with Roger.”
Whilst the attendees moved themselves and their chairs to one end of the room or the other, I sat at the focal point of the semi circle that was forming around me, and fumed. All morning Zlata been referring to me as Roger and we’d agreed that my name was going to be Gary.
Names are hugely important when creating good characters, as important as the right costume, your accent or intonation, the way you move. And ‘Gary’ is the perfect name. He’s the boy about town. A modern day Lothario. All spiky hair and Paco Rabanne, with a patter to match. Gary is the sort of man who can charm the birds from the trees. And by birds I’m not referring to the feathered variety. I looked up at the group of men who were sitting there, hungry for whatever pearls of wisdom I had for them. Who were they more likely to believe when it came to matters of seduction? Roger the dodger, your lodger, an old-time codger? Or Gary?
“Right guys,” I growled, my leather bomber jacket creaking slightly as I rolled my shoulders. I ran a hand through my spikey hair and then forced a smile. “My name’s Gary,” I said.
“Sorry, did you just say your name was Gary?” asked a thirty-something guy, his arms folded across his chest. I tried to recall his name.
“I thought your name was Roger?” said a shorter man sitting next to him. He’d definitely introduced himself earlier as Jonathan. And he looked as if he should be playing outside on his bike, rather than sending himself on a ‘flirting’ course.
“Oh, that,” I said with a smirk. “That’s just Zlata’s pet name for me. You can call me Gary.”
“Zlata has a pet name for you?” asked the first man.
“And it’s Roger?” asked Jonathan.
“Just her little joke,” I said. “Now then –”
“But why ‘Roger’?” he persisted. I took a breath and locked eyes.
“Well I guess she must really like the name,” I said without the slightest hint of bitterness. “Now then,” I continued, pushing up the sleeves on my jacket, “shall we talk about women?” The circle of men shuffled expectantly.
“Everybody wants something,” I started, delivering the script that Zlata had outlined. “Even if it’s just a glass of water.” Puzzled looks were exchanged, but I soldiered on. “And women – well, they’re romantic creatures; most of them are brought up on a steady diet of fairy tales, and regardless of who they grow up to be, a small part of every woman never really lets go of the idea that inside they are a princess, and that one day, a handsome prince will ride into their lives and whisk them away.” I paused for effect. “So, you can imagine how bitterly disappointed they must feel most of the time!” Around me men tittered and nudged each other and exchanged crude jokes. I waited for them to settle back down again.
I leant forward, resting my elbows on my thighs. Most of the group did the same.
“You see, what a woman doesn’t want is to meet the man of her dreams through ‘a dating agency’ or on the internet. Or even at a nightclub. She wants the romance. She wants to bump into him at the supermarket. She wants there to be a mix up of luggage at the airport. She wants to be rescued from the kerbside by a handsome RAC man in a big truck.” I glanced at Jonathan. He looked confused. But most of the other men nodded sagely to each other whilst the rest scribbled notes.
“So… we’ve got to wait around in supermarkets or mislabel our luggage every time we travel?” asked the defiant thirty-something guy.
“No,” I said slowly. “You’re missing the point.”
“So what is ‘the point’?”
“No woman wants to feel that a meeting is orchestrated. They want the chance encounter. They want the feeling that destiny brought the two of you together. That it was somehow inevitable. Inescapable.” Jonathan raised his hand again.
“But haven’t we got to meet a woman in the first place?” he asked.
“Listen,” I said, leaning forwards again. “Guys like you always tell me that they never meet women. Well, that’s just bollocks. Unless you never leave the house you’re meeting women every single day of your life. There are about two dozen on the other side of this room, for cryin’ out loud! And every time you’re in the same room as a woman it’s a potential ‘moment’, just waiting to be seized.”
“So you’re talking about ‘chatting women up’?” asked Jonathan.
“No! I’m talking about nudging the situation a little. Creating that inevitability. Giving destiny a helping hand.”
“But how do we do that?” asked Jonathan, the desperation turning his voice into a shrill whine.
“That depends on the situation,” I said.
“So, I should crash into her with my shopping trolley?” asked thirty-something guy.
“It lacks elegance,” I said, “but if that works for you.”
“But isn’t this cheating?” asked Jonathan.
“Yeah. Doesn’t it, like, take the romance out of the situation?” asked another man.
“Oh, wake up gentlemen!” I said leaning back in my chair, putting my hands behind my head, and chewing on imaginary gum. “This is the twenty-first century! Do you want to wait for a girl to fall in your lap or do you want to do something about it? If you want the fairy tale then you need to be sitting over there with the other girls.” I jerked my head in the direction of Zlata. “Over here, we’re about giving the ladies what they want. We’re about creating the fairy tale.”
“So we’ve got to somehow generate romance out of thin air!?” said thirty-something guy. “How are we supposed to do that?”
A dozen or more faces stared back at me; a smorgasbord of dissatisfaction. Some glared at me in contempt. Some pleaded with me to rescue them from their lonely, loveless lives. Others just frowned in confusion. I was losing them. So much for Zlata’s script – if I’m honest, it wasn’t doing much for me either. It lacked substance. It was all ‘what’ without any of the ‘how’ – and these men needed the ‘how’, and I wasn’t sure I could give them that.
“That’s a valid point,” said another guy – older than the others, quieter, somehow more solid – “generating rapport without any common ground would be quite a challenge,” he mused. “Although I suppose it must be similar to how actors develop a relationship with their audience,” he continued.
“Er, yeah,” I growled, as I straightened my jacket. “That’s a… good… analogy.”
“But we still don’t know how!” whined Jonathan. I locked eyes.
“Have you ever been hurt?” I asked.
“How do you mean?” asked Jonathan.
“I mean have you ever had your heart broken? Has a woman you’ve had feelings for ever cheated on you? Have you ever felt rejected? Or just completely ignored?”
Jonathan said nothing, just shuffled in his chair and looked sheepish.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” I said with a sanctimonious sniff.
I looked from one man to the next, at the painful memories in every pair of eyes. Now that I was off script I could feel Gary gathering momentum, as if Zlata’s pre-prepared words had been holding him back.
“Most people try to do whatever they can to get rid of that pain,” continued Gary. “Some people bury those feelings – pretend like it never happened. Some harden their heart, build an invisible wall around themselves. And others will spend hours in therapy, deconstructing their hurt, piece by piece. But if you do any of those things you’re missing an opportunity. Pain is power.”
“Power?” asked thirty something guy.
“What those ladies over there want – more than anything else in the world – is emotion. They want to feel something. Actually, that’s all anybody really wants, but for now let’s assume I’m just talking about girls. If you want to get a woman’s attention – I mean really get it – then you need to generate a feeling.
“Let’s assume, gentlemen, that you’ve finally plucked up the courage to leave that squalid bedsit you call home, and you find yourself in the same room as a walking, talking, female – an amazing, magical, breath-taking goddess of a woman, one that you would not mind giving up one side of the bed for and every shelf in your bathroom. Regardless of whether you find yourself in the supermarket, or at the airport, or on the hard shoulder of the M25, you are, in that moment, an actor, on a stage, and she is your audience. And it’s your job to give the audience what she’s come for – you need to make her feel something.
“So, here’s what you do – you reach inside yourself, and you dredge up that pain you’ve been hauling around all this time; you find an emotion so deep and so raw that it feels like you’re ripping out a very part of your soul. And then, you mould that into whatever you need it to be. Maybe you pretty it up with some nice words: ‘Hello. How are you? Lovely day isn’t it? I can’t help but notice that you seem to have broken down by the side of this here motorway…’ Whatever! It doesn’t matter what you actually say. The only thing that matters is that underneath is all that emotion, all that feeling. You take those feelings, and you throw ’em at your audience, through your words, and your actions – and you keep on doing it until you make them feel it too. And if you can make them laugh, and make them cry, and then make them laugh again, well, you have finally seized the moment.”
The group remained quiet. Wide eyed and awe struck. Their minds and imaginations processing advice that they’d never heard before. And though I could see glimmers of doubt on one or two of those faces, I knew that by the time Gary had finished with them, a group of new actors would have been created, and a pack of confident men would leave the room, their heads held high, ready to put into practice what they knew to be true.
I took a moment, looked over at the girls, and as I did so Zlata happened to turn, catch my eye, and give me a wink. Her ladies were probably hearing similar advice. Similar, but different. But still about how to give people what they want – even if that thing is just a glass of water.
We know about that, Zlata and I. That’s the business that we are in now. And even though we’ve been running these ‘flirting workshops’ once a quarter for near on five years, there seems to be no shortage of customers.
“William, I don’t think you are even listening to me?” Zlata taps one of her many ringed fingers against the side of her coffee cup.
“Sorry,” I say, shaking the past out of my head, and coming back to the here and now. “I was thinking.”
“About what were you thinking?”
“Seizing the moment,” I say. Actually what I’m really wondering is why there have only ever been two women in my life.
“Ah,” says Zlata, stubbing out another cigarette in the ashtray. “They are the very wise words.”
“They’re your words!” I point out.
“Yes. Exactly. This is why they are wise. Now then,” she says, “–idemo!”
I raise an eyebrow that basically says ‘I teach theatrical skills, and theatrical skills cunningly disguised as flirting techniques, but foreign languages are beyond me.’
“Time to go!” says Zlata. I sigh, glance at my arm, and notice that once again my watch is gone! When I look up she’s dangling it in front of me, looking very pleased with herself. I snatch it back and return it to my wrist.
“This new parlour trick of yours,” I say, “is beginning to get really old!”
Today’s flirting course – our fifteenth – is another success. Men and women gather up their belongings and go back into the world, filled with a new found confidence and self-belief that they can woo the opposite sex. Some of the guys seem so keen to put their new skills into practice that they don’t even wait to get outside. Why wait when half the people in the room are single and female? Instead they’re seizing the moment. Just as I’ve taught them. Maybe I should do the same. But there’s only one woman I know of that I’d like to ‘seize the moment’ with, and she’s married. To my ex-client’s boss. She’s long gone.
It takes Zlata and me a further half an hour to tidy the conference room and put it back more or less as we found it, then we head out in search of food. This is all part of the ritual: run a flirting course, break for lunch, finish up, then out to dinner. And whilst we always lunch in the same café on the other side of the park from where we run our courses, dinner could be anywhere.
Food is another of Zlata’s passions, and I’d have sworn we’ve sought out everything London has to offer in the way of non-English cuisine – but no, here we are in Blackheath, not all that far from Greenwich. Despite the fact it’s not that far from my pad on the South Bank I’ve only ever been here a few times before, and yet it has to be one of my favourite places in London. It’s like a bustling village on the edge of the heath, with the towers of Canary Wharf visible in the distance. And whilst the heath itself is a huge sprawling mass of flat, sun-scorched yellow grass, an impressive ornate church dropped seemingly at random amongst its expanse, the ‘village’ seems to have been built on a series of small hills, causing the streets to duck and dive, weave and bob. It’s fun, charming, quirky, and somehow slightly out of place, both in time and space, like the rest of London is somehow oblivious to its existence. Even the shops and restaurants refuse to play by the rules; whilst there is the odd high-street pizza parlour or coffee shop chain, the vast majority are small independents, thriving on the hubbub of visitors that flock here day and night, seven days a week. Take for instance Jarad’s, which from the blackboard outside the entrance, promises the finest in Jordanian cuisine.
“This lamb thing is absolutely delicious,” I say, indicating the remains in the bowl between us with my fork.
“Mensaf,” says Zlata, who stopped eating a good ten minutes ago. “National dish of Jordan. Made with fermented dried yogurt, and… other things.”
“You been here before?” I ask. Zlata doesn’t answer. She’s finishing her wine, and moments later our waiter – a stocky man in his mid to late forties, shaven head, possibly of middle eastern descent – appears to top up her glass. They exchange smiles, the kind of smiles that indicate they know each other quite well. Perhaps even very well.
“A few times,” says Zlata, eventually, in answer to my question. “One of the owners is special friend of mine.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“How ‘special’?” I ask.
“Was that the ‘special’ owner?”
“It was,” she says with a smile. “Jarad. He is very nice man. Very gentle. But also sometimes the tiger!” She growls playfully, and as she does a light blinks on in the back of my mind, and the name ‘Jarad’ bounces around in my head like it’s trying to connect with something. “It is very sad,” says Zlata after a moment.
“Jarad’s business partner – very nice lady, also good friend of mine – she had the big plans. A dream of many many restaurants, all over London, all serving Jarad’s food.”
“Why’s that sad?” I ask, scraping the last of the mensaf onto my plate.
“The meeting with their business investor, it did not go well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say through a mouthful of food. Zlata shrugs.
“Like I say: Jarad is gentle man. Very wonderful chef. Sometimes the tiger. But in the business meetings – not so good.”
“What about this business partner of his? Aren’t meetings her thing either?”
Zlata takes a long thoughtful sip of her wine.
“She wasn’t at meeting,” she says.
“Even though it was her idea?”
“There was… the complications. She was someone else.”
“You mean she was with someone else.”
“I know what I mean,” says Zlata. And suddenly all manner of bells and buzzers go off inside my brain, and I finally remember where and when I’ve heard Jarad’s name mentioned before.
“Zlata,” I say slowly, “when exactly was this business meeting?”
“Maybe three weeks ago,” she says.
“Maybe.” I count back the days in my head, and come to the same conclusion that my subconscious had already arrived at some moments ago.
“Where are you going?” says Zlata as I get up from my chair, and start putting on my jacket.
“I’m sorry Zlata – I’ve got to go.”
“Nonsense. Sit down again. Let us order more coffee, and also cake.”
“No you don’t understand – I can’t be here!”
“Because this is the same restaurant that Nathia – and more importantly Michael and Rachel, her boss and his wife – came to three weeks ago! Don’t you see? Michael was Jarad’s prospective investor!”
“So?” she says.
“So I might get recognised! As Nathia’s other half! As Edwin! And I’m not Edwin at the moment! I’m Roger – I mean Gary – I mean–” I shake my head. “I’m William!”
“You worry too much,” say Zlata, “what does it matter who you are? Sit down.”
“No, Zlata, it’s too risky.”
Right on cue the bell above the restaurant door tinkles the arrival of another customer, and I turn, fully expecting to see Nathia and a small army of her work colleagues, all of whom know me as her boyfriend – ex-boyfriend! Instead, slightly obscured through the enormous fish tank between ourselves and the door, I see a lone woman with her back to us. She shakes rain off an umbrella, then starts to take off her coat and headscarf. I look back at Zlata.
“‘Too risky’?” she prompts.
“Right. Yes. Look – this is a case of two worlds colliding and that makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m an actor. I like the security of scripts, lines, and stage directions. Even improv has a structure. But this is a disaster waiting to happen! So thanks for dinner, but I’m outta here.”
“Whatever happened to ‘seize the moment’?” asks Zlata.
“I’m really more of a ‘control the moment’ kind of person,” I say. “See you next week.” I check that my watch is still on my wrist and then, as I turn to leave, I walk straight into the woman who came in moments ago. I take a step backwards, and our eyes meet.
“Hello Edwin,” she says. “Or is it… William?” My head spins.
“Rachel?” I splutter.
“William,” says Zlata from behind me, “I believe you know already Rachel Richmond – Jarad’s business partner.” I look to Zlata and then back at Rachel.
“Jarad’s… you’re the elusive business partner?”
Rachel smiles. That shy smile. “I’m many things,” she says. “Most people are, I find. But no one knows that better than you, William, do they?”
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