The Opening Chapter of How To EAT LOADS And LOSE WEIGHT

To Begin With

Back in 2013 I found myself on BBC Radio Two, talking to Steve Wright (in the afternoon), about a book I’d co-written that seemed to promise the impossible: How To Eat Loads And Stay Slim.

Steve was very enthusiastic about the book. Or, more accurately, about the title. And the blurb. He liked that too. Little wonder; it promised a diet-free way to lose weight. This was everything that Steve, and potentially a large proportion of his listeners, had been looking for. But as the interview progressed, it became obvious that Steve wasn’t going to be reading past the blurb, because we hadn’t written the book that he really, really wanted. There was a look on his face, one that said “I’ve heard this all before.”

Thing is, whilst Steve wasn’t 100% right, he wasn’t 100% wrong either. How To Eat Loads And Stay Slim does indeed contain a lot of conventional advice that you might have heard before. But it also, I’m proud to say, contains a few ‘new’ ideas which I think we did a damn fine job of putting into layman terms.

That said, I’m the first to admit that some of the suggestions we made might have been a little too ‘out there’. Very few people seemed willing to give the ‘oil diet’ a go.

Looking back I realise that How To Eat Loads And Stay Slim does exactly what it says on the cover; if you’re already slim, then that book might help you stay that way. Maybe. If you follow the advice.

But what if you’re not slim? What if you’re overweight and desperate… what then?

Well I’ll be honest with you, following our advice might not work. And how do I know? Because four years after that radio interview I was fatter than I’d ever been in my entire life. I could no longer bear to see myself naked.

How did I get that way?

Simple: By enjoying food, by being happy with life, and celebrating the fact whenever I could.

Did I buy smaller plates to control my portion size? No.

Did I vary my meals as much as possible in order to confuse my taste buds and dull my appetite? No.

Did I have a protein rich breakfast? No!

Did I swap high fat products for low-fat alternatives—absolutely not!

Did I try anything that my co-author and I had proposed just a few short years earlier?

Yes. I gave my beloved oil diet another go.

Did it work…?

No.

Then in September 2017, Valerie, my partner, did a very risky thing. She suggested that I needed to lose weight. You know you’re in a strong, loving relationship when one of you can say something like that, and get away with it.

I was shocked. More than that, I was shocked that I was shocked. Because she was right.

In the previous couple of years together I’d started to struggle with certain age-related ailments. The rubbish feet I’d inherited from my father were starting to play up. My knees had started to creak. To sleep through the night I’d have to take a good swig of antacid to calm my acid reflux, and then follow that with an antihistamine.

This was the new norm.

But it wouldn’t be like that forever. I could see where this was heading.

My father is an enormous man. He has severe dementia, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. He can barely move. I love him dearly, but my biggest fear was (and still is) that I might end up with the same physical ailments. On those occasions when I could actually bear to look in the mirror, it wasn’t me who I could see staring back at me, but my father.

I had no idea whether losing weight would prevent the inevitable, but it certainly seemed a good place to start.

You know what the most dangerous word in the English language is? Should. Behind every should there’s always an assumption, and I’ve noticed that nine times out of ten times, ‘assumptions’ are nearly always wrong.

Take weight loss for instance; when I came to try and lose all that ‘extra’ weight by adopting a simple ‘eat less, move more’ strategy, or any kind of calorie counting regime—advice that, so conventional wisdom had it, should work—my body steadfastly refused to play by the rules. I was hungry all the time. I had zero energy. I’d lose maybe a pound here and there, only to put it straight back on again. Somewhere along the line assumptions had been made, and clearly they were wrong!

I’ve always been a problem solver—a ‘fix-it’ man if you like. Much of my professional life has been spent figuring out why stuff that should work doesn’t, and then putting solutions in place. So faced with the problem of trying to lose a few pounds I did what I always did: I read a lot. Went in search of solutions. Found some! Made changes accordingly. And…

It worked.

In a few weeks I lost 18 pounds. Over a stone.

I was slim again.

More than that… I’m still slim.

And what’s more I’m still enjoying food. I’m still happy with life, and I’m still celebrating the fact whenever I can.

For instance; last night we went out to an Italian restaurant. I had a steak, with a blue cheese sauce. Val had the meatballs. We shared two bottles of Prosecco. Then today I had a ham hock omelette for breakfast, and for lunch I’ll probably have a cheesy meaty wrap. For dinner I’m cooking a broccoli bake in a heavy cream & mozzarella sauce. And there’s another bottle of wine chilling in the fridge to go with it. Tomorrow morning we’ll have our usual weekend fry up, or maybe scrambled eggs. And yet, for the first time in my life, whilst my weight might fluctuate from one day to the next, it has, by and large, stayed pretty much the same for an entire year.

Want to know how?

Welcome to How To EAT LOADS and LOSE WEIGHT.

If you’re fed up with diets, diet food, counting calories, and all that miserable weight loss malarkey, then this book might be for you.

If you suffer from any kind of weight related ailments—diabetes type 2, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, acid reflux, GORD—then this book is probably for you.

And if you want to take back control of your body, if you’re prepared to make some fairly painless (but nonetheless significant) changes to the way that you eat, if you’re prepared to do a little bit of reading, thinking, questioning, and re-learning—and if you really, really, want to eat LOADS (of lovely, proper, tasty food) and still LOSE WEIGHT—this book is most definitely for you.

But it’s not for everyone.

For instance, if you’re a lifetime member of a slimming club, follow some sort of calorie controlled diet, and that seems to be working for you… well, this book might not be for you.

If you think of yourself as fairly traditional, find ‘newfangled’ ideas difficult to swallow (pun intended), might have used the phrase ‘fad diet’ once or twice in your lifetime, have an absolute unshakeable faith in the medical wisdom and advice of the last five decades, and you prefer the taste of skimmed milk over full fat… well, this book probably isn’t for you either.

And if you’re one of those people who don’t like being told what to do, can’t stand change or ‘compromise’, of any description, might—once or twice—have been accused by friends and family of being a ‘fussy eater’, and would rather part with tens of pounds than hand over that packet of biscuits you’re currently munching through… yeah, this book: definitely not for you.

But you know what? You’re here now. You’ve read this far. You’re comfortable. And I’m not actually going to ask you to change anything… not for a few pages anyway.

All I’d like you to do for now, is read.

And think.

Give me one chapter. And if you find yourself surprised, maybe even a little intrigued, by what I have to say, well then give me another.

Because you too can EAT LOADS and LOSE WEIGHT.

The Big Fat Lie

Fats make you fat.

Everybody knows this. That is, after all, why they’re called ‘fats’. It’s a ‘fat fact’. One that’s easy to verify with other facts, and a little logic. Let me talk you through it.

Pretty much everything we eat is made up of three ‘macronutrients’. You will have heard of them, I’m sure. They are: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.

So, for instance, a humble 100-gram stick of celery (let’s assume that it’s a very large humble stick) contains 3 grams of carbohydrates, 0.7 grams of protein and, wait for it, 0.2 grams of fat.

Each of these macronutrients contain energy, which we measure in terms of ‘calories’. The human body needs energy to function, and the more active a body is, the more calories it ‘burns’. In that sense, you’re a bit like a car.

So the more calories a food has (despite its size that enormous stick of celery only has a mere 16 of them) the more energy a food is, and the longer it can sustain you.

From this we can conclude what I’ve always known in my heart to be true; man cannot live on celery alone.

But there’s more to it than that.

Anybody with a basic knowledge of human biology knows that the body stores the calories it doesn’t use. It does this so that if there aren’t enough calories coming in the front end, it can use the ones in storage. Which is why we get fat. In that sense, you’re like a car with an expanding fuel tank.

So, to lose excess weight you merely need to eat food with fewer calories, or burn more calories than you consume, and you should get slimmer.

Or to put it another way, eat less, move more. Calories in (eaten) vs calories out (used as fuel). Simple.

Here’s the crucial thing though; whilst all macronutrients can be measured in terms of calories, they don’t yield the same amount of calories. Protein and carbohydrates both contain four calories per gram, whilst fats contain a whopping nine calories per gram! More than double.

So by avoiding fatty foods, you should, logically, reduce your overall calorie intake a lot quicker. Reduce those calories enough and your body will be forced to fall back on its reserves, use all those stored calories and suddenly you’ll be able to get back into those skinny jeans you had three summers ago.

And if that isn’t enough to start you munching on celery sticks, how about this: fats are bad for you. Specifically, saturated fats. Saturated fats clog up your arteries and raise your cholesterol. Clog them up enough and you might drop down dead. Still finding it hard to get excited about celery?

Except that… all that I’ve just told you might be nonsense.

For whilst it all makes total sense on paper, it’s not actually borne out by any solid scientific research.

Not one scrap.

For the last four decades at least, although the powers that be and the mainstream media have consistently cast saturated fats as the dietary arch-villain, preached the mantra of calories in vs calories out, and provided us with low-fat everything, as a nation we’re not getting any slimmer. We’re getting fatter. And sicker.

Some diet professionals claim this is because no-one is listening to the advice. No one, apparently, is buying diet books. No one is attending weekly weigh ins, or diet clubs. No one is eating those low-fat foods. No one.

Except of course we are.

So maybe it isn’t us.

Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t actually our fault at all. Maybe the traditional weight loss advice of the last half a century is total and utter bilge. Maybe fat DOESN’T make you fat. Maybe it’s something else?

Blimey.

That can’t be right.

Can it?

EAT LOADS LOSE WEIGHT


How To EAT LOADS And LOSE WEIGHT will be available in paperback, and for your tablet, phone, or computer (via the free Kindle App) from Boxing Day (26th January). Pre-order here, now.

The eBook is a mere £1.99. Less than the price of a cup of coffee. Click or tap here now.

Other ebook formats will be available in the New Year.

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The opening chapter to: The Truth About This Charming Man

IMG_0618Act I

Scene One

Zlata Ruzencova must be the worst theatrical agent in London. In five years she has only ever managed to secure me two acting jobs. A track record that’s even less impressive when you realise that:

  1. A) I’m the only actor she actually has ‘on her books’, and
  2. B) that first role was playing a part she’d devised!

Still, she did find me Nathia. And though working for Nathia can be something of a challenge (the role being somewhat unusual) I have had quite a run. And it does pay well. I should probably be more grateful. But it’s hard to be grateful when you’re sitting in the back of a cab fuming over the disappearance of your watch.

“Zlata – have you got my watch? Zlata?”

“Hello. Zlata is not here at the moments. She is very busy person. Please do leave nice message after the noise. Beeeeep.”

“Zlata – quit messing about. Zlata. Zlata!” But she’s hung up.

Nathia’s smiling when she opens the door. A big, warm, welcoming smile that promises an evening of laughter and cocktails. It’s fake, of course – she’s just rehearsing. In our four years together I’ve learnt more from Nathia than I ever learnt at drama school.

The smile falters when she sees that it’s me. “You’re late,” she says with enough venom to poison a small army. She turns and stomps back into her apartment, and I notice she’s already in full costume: slim-fit high-waist sleek-black trousers, semi-translucent shirt, killer heels – the usual Nathia attire. I glance at the ornate wall clock, which seems to glare back from inside its black wooden case. Even the pendulum is swinging back and forth in an impatient manner.

“We’ve got plenty of time,” I shout from the hallway as I hang up my jacket and turn off my mobile phone. “They’re not due for another forty minutes, and you know what they’re like; Rachel’s probably still herding Michael out the door.”

But Nathia doesn’t say anything, and as I enter her palatial kitchen she’s chopping carrots in a way that suggests parts of my anatomy could be next.

Tanya’s here. Of course. She doesn’t say anything either. Just leans against the fridge, watching the master chef at work whilst occasionally sipping beer from a bottle. She’s wearing a ripped T-shirt that seems slightly incongruent for a woman who looks every one of her forty-six years. When the slogan on the front catches my eye I fail spectacularly to hide a frown. Who’d have thought it was possible to get that many expletives into one sentence? Isn’t language a wonderful thing.

She doesn’t like me very much, Tanya. I’m an obstacle. I stand between her and what she wants – which, in broad terms, is an end to what she sees as a ‘farce’. She turns slowly to look in my direction and I give her my biggest broadest smile, but she turns away with a shake of her head, and I’m slightly disappointed when all those piercings fail to jangle.

“Look,” I say, “sorry about cutting it a bit fine. I lost track of time. Literally, actually. You remember Zlata – my agent? Well, she’s been doing an evening class in – would you believe – watch stealing! You know, right off your wrist? I mean, who the hell thought running a class like that would be a good idea? Anyway, it turns out my agent is the star pupil!” I proffer my naked wrist as evidence. Neither woman seems the slightest bit interested.

“Are you planning on standing there all night?” asks Nathia without looking up. “Only I’d quite like you to change for dinner? If that would be all right with you?”

“Sure,” I say. I know better than to question her authority, but I do so anyway. “We don’t need to catch up first? Nothing that I need to know?”

“Like what?” she asks after a moment. I shrug.

“I dunno. The usual: am I still working for Amnesty International? Has my Dad had his knee operation? Have I started writing that book I’m always going on about? That sort of thing.”

“Nothing’s changed,” says Nathia, and I swear I see Tanya wince slightly. “Just go and get ready.”

“Okay,” I say, and turn to leave.

“And Edwin,” adds Nathia, “wear the blue shirt tonight.

* * * *

My name isn’t Edwin. It’s William. Will to my friends. Though it could just as easily be Gary, or Roger, or Stephan – just tell me who you’d like me to be and watch me morph into someone else. It’s not lying. Lying is an untruth. This is acting. It’s telling a story, and stories are a good thing: they teach us. They help us to make sense of the world. They allow us to stay safe – in that way they’re better than the truth.

And sometimes – in order to tell the story as best we can – actors need to forget about the person behind the mask, let go of the person we would normally be and instead allow the character we’ve taken on to become as real as possible. Nobody knows this better than Nathia Brockenhurst. It’s how we came to meet, four years ago, in a dingy little south London pub.

“What’s this?” I asked, taking the folder from the scratched, beer-stained table and leafing through the half dozen pages. It wasn’t a script. That much was obvious.

“Non disclosure agreement,” said Nathia. I had only the vaguest notion of what that was, something that must have been evident from the look on my face. “It’s a legal document,” continued Nathia. “It states that anything we discuss is strictly confidential and must go no further or there will be… ramifications.”

“Er, okay,” I said. “Is that… usual?” Other than periodically working for Zlata and giving private drama lessons to spoilt brats, my glittering theatrical career had consisted mainly of waiting tables, pulling pints, or flagging people down on the street and persuading them to part with their direct debit details. If you’d told me that successful actors signed legal documents and secured roles in seedy backstreet pubs, I’d have probably believed you.

“Sign it,” said Nathia, producing an expensive looking pen from her handbag. “Then we can talk.” I did as I was told, and once Nathia had taken back the signed document and given me a copy, she took a deep breath, and fixed me with a look of solemnity. “I’m gay,” she said.

“Right,” I said taking a moment to consider how this might have any bearing on the so-called ‘interesting job offer’ that Zlata had told me we were here to discuss. “Okay.”

“And that’s a problem,” she continued.

“It is?” Nathia shuffled in her seat, glanced around the tired bar to see if the landlord or his other patrons might be listening, but she had nothing to worry about. Everyone else was either mesmerised by the large plasma television, throwing darts in the general direction of a dart board, or trying very hard to remain upright. Nathia put her arms on the table between us and leant forward.

“The people I work for… well, let’s just say that they’re somewhat traditional.” I nodded for her to continue, though I had no idea where she was going with this. “Sure,” she said, “it’s the twenty-first century, and they can cope with me being a woman in a man’s world – just – but homosexuality is a step too far.”

“That’s…” I said, running a hand through my hair, feeling it slide through my fingers, “…surprising.” Until now I’d always thought theatre had something of a reputation for attracting your more liberal types. I’d never once heard it described as a ‘man’s world’. Or homophobic. “Who do you work for again?”

“A small firm of venture capitalists, William. That’s all you need to know for now.”

“Venture capitalists?”

“Yes.”

“But I thought… My agent said–”

“Are you going to let me finish?” snapped Nathia.

“Of course,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Anyway,” she continued, “even though my employer and his clients expect me to spend all of my daylight hours – and a fair proportion of my night time ones – doing their evil bidding, occasionally they need to know that I’m still human. That despite my ruthless business instincts, on the inside at least, I’m just an adorable little pussycat. And a heterosexual one at that.” She paused for a moment to take a sip from her orange juice; I picked up my beer and did the same. “There are functions,” she continued, “and fundraisers, and parties, and all manner of ‘after work socials’, and whilst it’s not compulsory to turn up to these events with a partner in tow, the absence of someone I can rather quaintly refer to as ‘my boyfriend’ is becoming a problem.”

“Right,” I said, trying and failing to keep a frown from forming. “Well – can’t you just invent someone?” I reached for my pint.

“Oh, believe me, I’ve tried,” said Nathia. “Within hours of inventing a fictitious love-interest, my boss’s wife called me up, and invited ‘Bertram’ and me to dinner.”

“Bertram?!” I said, very nearly spraying her with a mouthful of beer.

“It’s the first name I could think of! Anyway,” she said, glaring at me, “needless to say I couldn’t accept the invite. Instead I had to invent a plausible sounding explanation as to why Bertram and I wouldn’t be available, and then a week or so later an even more elaborate story to explain why ‘he’ wasn’t on the scene anymore!”

“I take it you’re not very good at coming up with stories?”

“On the contrary,” said Nathia, “I’m a master! Having introduced the possibility of a Bertram I’m now beating off advances left right and centre from any man with a drink in his hand who now sees me as your regular good time girl! After all, why else would I be foot loose and fancy free? Quite frankly, William, I’ve had enough!” She sat back in her chair, arms folded tightly across her chest, and fixed me with a look so intense I found myself trying not to breathe. “You look confused,” she said after a moment.

“Sorry, no. I mean yes. A bit. Look – I understand that you’re, well, that you have a bit of dilemma, with how much you can tell your colleagues, about ‘things’. I get that. It’s just… my agent said you had a job! An acting job! That’s what I do – I’m an actor!”

“I know,” said Nathia.

“So?” I said. “Do you have a job?”

Nathia sighed irritably. “Bertram!” she said.

“Sorry?”

“I need you to play the part of Bertram.” The words bounced around in my head whilst my brain made sense of them.

“Your made-up boyfriend?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You need me to be Bertram?”

“That’s what I said.”

“But–”

Nathia raised a hand to silence me, and with the other reached into her bag to pull out a second, much larger document than the first. It hit the table with a distinctive thud, before she pushed it towards me.

“You would be required,” she said, adopting the tone of someone who’s spent far too many hours in corporate boardrooms, “to play the part of Bertram, my doting boyfriend, at various social functions – the schedule of which will be mutually agreed between ourselves.” I turned the first page and began leafing through the document. “In addition,” continued Nathia, “I will require you to come to my office, say once a month, to ‘take me out for lunch’, and to make the occasional phone call to my PA for suitably boyfriend-sounding reasons that we can work out later. I will also provide you with a mobile phone that you will be required to answer, as Bertram, during office hours. In return I am prepared to pay you a monthly fee which I trust you’ll find extremely generous, as well as reimburse you for all reasonable expenses, such as travel, phone calls, food and bar bills, and any clothes that you need to purchase in order to fulfil your ‘Bertram’ duties.” She paused for a moment to take in what I was currently wearing. “For instance,” she said, “I’m not sure Bertram would wear a coat that so obviously came from an army surplus store.” I ignored her remark and continued to thumb through the contract.

“So?” she asked. “Any questions? Comments?” I scratched the stubble on my chin, then raised my eyes.

“I’m still not sure about the name Bertram,” I said.

* * * *

For legal reasons I can’t tell you what was in that contract. Neither can I tell you my fee. I can tell you that at the end of month one I stood to earn more than I’d earned in my entire previous acting career. I picked up the pen and signed on the dotted line.

From that moment on, things got considerably easier for Ms Brockenhurst and myself. She had a boyfriend she could mention, receive flowers from, blame for all manner of things, and if necessary, point to. More than that, she now had somewhere she could conceivably be whilst actually being somewhere else. She was free to discover the real Nathia Brockenhurst, to be whoever she wanted, see whoever she wanted – people like Tanya. And all this behind closed doors, safe in the knowledge that someone else was contractually obliged to cover for her.

As for me – I could finally start paying back some of my more desperate debts. Enter stage left: Edwin Clarkson.

Much thought went into that name, and we decided early on that Nathia would always address me as Edwin to reduce the possibility of blurting out my real name.

Over the years Edwin has been introduced to most of Nathia’s work colleagues – the ones that matter anyway – at various work functions or get-togethers, including regular dinner dates with Michael and Rachel Richmond, her boss and his young wife.

Once a month I follow the river round to Nathia’s luxury apartment in Chelsea, don my Edwin costume, and spend a pleasant enough evening sinking bottles of Merlot whilst I entertain Michael and Rachel with torrid tales of Edwin’s life working for human rights organisations – all painstakingly researched on Google, earlier that afternoon.

The door bell sounds. My cue that the evening of duplicity has begun. I open my designated drawer, take out a pair of thick framed glasses and after a final mirror check, leave the bedroom to meet my audience.

* * * *

Michael roars with laughter, at the hilarity of his own wit, and slaps his palms on the table so hard I fear Nathia’s antique mahogany furniture may have finally met its match. He picks up his glass, finds it empty, and then attempts to reach across the table for the bottle.

“Oh, Michael – allow me,” I say, grabbing the bottle of port and refilling his glass. I throw him a smile, and not for the first time I study his face: he looks like he’s been chiselled out of granite. And whilst he wears expensive shirts, in pastel colours, with floral ties, they do nothing to soften features that are almost jagged.

In many ways Michael Richmond is a man out of time. A century or two ago he’d have a bushy moustache, impressive sideburns, and a belly the size of a small country. He’d spend his evenings smoking expensive cigars and talking about his time in Africa. Roll back the centuries still further and I can imagine him dressed in animal furs, sporting a heavy copper helmet, and wielding a blade high above his head before he conquers another village, and takes his pick of the wenches available. But instead Michael goes to the gym. He watches his weight. He pops statins. And on evenings such as this, he shares stories of boring corporate deals negotiated across expensive but dull conference room tables. Is it any wonder that he drinks too much, laughs too loudly, and always looks as if he might explode at any given moment? That granite exterior is holding a lifetime of frustration in place.

I hand him his port and glance across the table at Rachel, who’s watching me in that way she does.

Rachel’s altogether more interesting. On the surface she’s a working class girl, born and bred in the East End to a British father and Jordanian mother, destined to live a simple, honest existence. That is, until Michael booked a table at the bar and brasserie where she worked, and stole her away from a life of waitressing. But behind that shy smile, those beautiful soft cappuccino eyes, and her tall, lean, slightly Arabian veneer, is someone else. And sometimes, when she’s asked me an innocent sounding question, she stays quiet after I’ve given my answer, like she’s waiting for me to say more, waiting for me to give myself away. I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t give me something of a buzz.

That’s not how Nathia sees it, of course. She thinks Rachel’s developed some sort of girly crush. One that might lead to all manner of complications further down the line if it’s not nipped in the bud. Which is ridiculous, but explains why she wanted me to wear the plain blue shirt tonight. Rachel prefers the striped one.

“Anyway,” slurs Michael, though I can’t for the life of me remember what he was talking about, “Nathia said we should check the place out, so check the place out we did. Didn’t we? Precious?”

“Yes,” says Rachel. “We did.”

“Fuck me Edwin,” continues Michael with a shake of his head. “What a fucking dive. Ghastly fucking people, eating ghastly fucking food. The owner… what was his name again? Oh for fuck’s sake… foreign chap. Wasn’t even a proper name. Just a collection of fucking sounds…”

“Jarad,” says Rachel.

“Yesss! That was it! Jar head! You’ve never met a more nervous man in your entire fucking life,” says Michael, waving his glass around so much it’s a wonder the walls aren’t splashed with port. “Whilst his business partner – the so-called brains of the operation – couldn’t even be fucking bothered to turn up! Left this mouse of a man to blunder through probably the most important meeting of his fucking life. Fucking idiot!” Michael shakes his head at the memory, before pouring half the glass down his throat, and suppressing a belch. “I mean doesn’t that seem a little fucking odd to you, Edwin? I have the power to completely transform their shabby, two-bit, here-today-gone-tomorrow, two-man enterprise into whatever they fucking want it to be. I’m fucking Santa Claus! I’m their own personal fucking Jesus! No wait – I’m fucking God! I’m granting them a fucking audience with fucking God! And yet one of them can’t make the fucking meeting – with God – because…” he makes air quotes with his fingers, “they’re ‘busy’! I tell you Edwin, there’s something fishy about the whole enterprise. And I fucking hate fish!” The belch he’s been trying to contain finally makes it into the open, and it lasts a full three or four seconds before Michael waves his hand about as some sort of apology. I look down into my lap and try and hide a smirk.

“He liked you though, didn’t he? Precious? That fucking… ‘Jar-head’ fellow. Couldn’t keep his fucking eyes off you.”

“I can’t say I noticed,” says Rachel with a smile. A false one, but convincing enough to the untrained eye. She takes a breath, and puts a hand on her husband’s. “Sometimes, darling, I wish you’d remember that these are people’s dreams that you’re playing with.”

“Oh fucking poppycock! Dreams? It’s business! There’s no place for dreamers in business! Don’t you agree, Edwin?”

“Well…” I bluster, accompanied with some appropriately vague hand gestures. I know better than to express an actual opinion. This way Michael’s imagination is filling in the gaps with whatever he’d like me to say.

“If anyone wants me to consider investing my money – or my clients’ money – then I need more than fucking dreams. I need to see potential! Real potential! That’s why Nathia suggested we invest in the fucking place! Because of their reputation for ‘outstanding cuisine’. And having had many a fine meal in these humble surroundings, lovingly prepared by her own fair hands–”

“You’re very welcome,” says Nathia, raising her wine glass.

“–I thought the girl knew a thing or two about food! But fuck me! Just how fucking wrong can you be?” Michael slaps both palms flat on the table and blasts us with another belly laugh.

“Well,” says Nathia with a sigh, “clearly I let my initial enthusiasm run away with me. I apologise.” Michael wafts away her apology.

“No need,” he says with the faintest of slurs. “But the last thing this country needs is another fucking chain of ghastly restaurants serving fucking foreign muck, to the fucking ghastly masses.” And with that he picks up his port glass again and drains the contents. I look across at Rachel. Her hands are in her lap, and the smile – false or otherwise – is gone. And not for the first time I have this piercing stab of regret that she’s so obviously trapped inside a marriage that makes her unhappy. If things were different, if we’d met under different circumstances, ones where I’m not contractually obliged to be someone else, I think we could be good friends. Maybe more than friends. Michael belches yet again.

“Nathia darling,” he says, “we need more port.”

“I think, Michael,” says Rachel, placing her hand on her husband’s for the second time that evening, “that we should make a move.”

“Already?” he slurs.

“Yes. Already,” she says, her voice wobbling slightly. She gets up from the table, and flashes me and Nathia a polite smile. “Excuse me a moment,” she says, and leaves the room. Nathia and I exchange looks, then she too gets up from the table and follows Rachel.

“Edwin,” says Michael, his voice considerably lower than its usual bellow, “whilst the girls are out of the room, have you ever thought about getting into the investment business?”

“Me?” I blink. “Really? I’m not sure I have the constitution for it.”

“Fucking nonsense!” says Michael. “You’re a sharp cookie. Anyone can see that. And the thing is, a rather interesting investment opportunity came across my desk the other day which I think might be just up your street; Vanadium Global.”

“Sounds very grand,” I say.

“Doesn’t it,” says Michael with a nod. “Ironically though, they’re too small at the moment for Steele & Richmond to climb into bed with. Which is a real fucking shame, because they’re going places. Anyone with half a fucking brain can see that. Which is why I thought of you, Edwin. It might be a good way to get your feet wet.”

I wrinkle my nose. “I don’t know, Michael,” I say. “I’m not really the–”

“Michael,” says Rachel. She’s standing in the doorway, her jacket draped over her arm. Michael gives a resigned sniff and eases himself out of his chair.

“Pop into my office next time you’re in the neighbourhood,” he says with a wink, “and we’ll discuss it further.”

“I thought I told you to wear the blue shirt,” says Nathia as we close the door on our guests.

“Did you?” I say, glancing down to look at my chest as if I’m expecting to see something other than stripes.

“You know I did,” she adds before walking back into the dining room.

I hate this bit. The obligatory deconstruction of the entire evening; what I said, to whom, and whether any of it might have, in some obscure way, undermined the elaborate fabric of fiction we’ve been weaving these past four years. All whilst we gather up dirty dishes and spent glasses and cart them through to the kitchen. If I actually worked in theatre I’d probably be in a cab right now. I take off my Edwin glasses and put them in my pocket.

“I don’t really like the blue shirt,” I say as I enter the dining room.

“Doesn’t matter,” says Nathia as she gathers up cutlery.

“I’m not sure it’s Edwin. It’s a little too conservative. In the political sense I mean. It makes me look like a… police detective… or something. Not Edwin at all.” I look at the destruction and chaos on the dining room table and let out a sigh. How can four people make such a mess? I reach for the empty bottles.

“It really doesn’t matter, William,” says Nathia, using my real name for the first time in so long it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Something isn’t right. I follow her through to the kitchen.

“Everything okay?” I ask. She turns and leans against the work surface.

“I’m tired,” she says. I nod.

“It was an extraordinarily long evening. How many bottles of Merlot did we get through? Three? Four? I think Michael finished half a bottle of port by himself.”

“No,” says Nathia with a shake of her head; she looks as if she has great invisible weights hanging from her shoulders. “I’m tired of this. This endless – farce. This isn’t me. It never was.” She lifts her eyes from the floor and gives me a long weary look.

“I was going to wait a few more weeks,” she says, opening the drawer where she normally keeps her collection of instruction manuals and warranty documents for the kitchen paraphernalia, but instead produces a white envelope. She passes it to me and resumes her stance against the work surface.

“What’s this?” I ask, though I think I can guess. Nathia takes a deep breath.

“Formal termination notice,” she says. “Effective immediately, your services are no longer required.”


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Chapter Two: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously……

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.

Not read ‘Chapter One’? Find it here


Act 1

Scene Two

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.”

“Zlata Ruz…”

“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.

“Yes.”

“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.

“That’s right.”

“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.

I blinked.

“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.

“Very special.”

“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.

“What is?”

“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.

“Three?”

“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!”

“Why not?”

“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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Chapter Four: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously…..

Rachel has big plans for a chain of restaurants, and is all set to strike up a partnership with a small chain of London restaurants / coffee shops. Unfortunately, these restaurants are run by a pair of Arab Princes (brothers, and ‘special friends’ of Zlata). Being Arabian they will, of course, only negotiate business with another man, which is why Will, our hero, finds himself playing French Entrepreneur ‘Stefan Le Blanc’ at a business meeting. Everything is going perfectly until the Princes mention their investor – Michael Richmond – Rachel’s husband!

Read the previous chapter (three) here

Start from Chapter One here

Act 1

Scene Four

Thirty seconds after our Arabian guests have left I burst into the kitchen with only one murderous thought on my mind – Rachel and Jarad are only a few steps behind me.

Zlata, meanwhile, is completely unaware that these are her final moments. She sits at the far end of the kitchen, in a haze of cigarette smoke, her feet on an upturned bucket, whilst she watches a small black and white television.

“I thought you said they were princes!” I roar.

“Hush, William,” she replies, her eyes still glued to the screen, “we are coming to the best bit.”

I glance at the television. “Columbo!?”

“Yes, Columbo! He is about to find out who murderer is, and always he says, ‘just the one more thing’. It is my favourite part.”

“I can tell you who did it, Zlata – it’s the actor, in the kitchen, with,” I look around me, “the frying pan!”

“What are you talking about?” says Zlata, her eyes never leaving the TV screen. “There is no actor. And the body was found in the swimming pool.”

“They won’t find your body, Zlata. I’m going to put you through that blender and turn you into pies!” For the first time Zlata looks up from the television, first at the blender, then at me, then at Rachel, and then back at me.

“Oh no!” she says, spinning around in her chair to face us. “Not again! The meeting did not go well?”

“The meeting went fabulously!” I say. “They want to strike a deal. Everything went according to plan.” Zlata brightens. “– Except for the part where the Arabian princes aren’t actually princes.” She blinks.

“Of course they are princes,” she says.

“No Zlata, because if they were they wouldn’t need the backing of investors!”

“Well,” she says with a shrug, “maybe not ‘princes’, but they have the royal blood. So ‘almost princes’.” I can feel the rage inside me reaching a crescendo.

“You’re not listening to me, are you,” I say as I lean forwards and put my hands on her shoulders. “We don’t care if they’re related to the King of Sweden – we only care that they don’t need to involve anyone who works in investment, and by anyone I mean Michael Richmond! Rachel’s bloody husband!” Zlata frowns, takes a long slow drag on her cigarette, and blows smoke in my face.

“I not understand,” she says. “Why is this problem?” I stand up, part of me wondering whether she genuinely hasn’t grasped the seriousness of the situation, whilst the other part of me can’t quite believe that I haven’t killed her yet and is still chomping at the bit.

“What do you think Michael’s going to say when his client casually mentions that they’ve been in business talks with his wife?” I ask. “And that she seems to be operating under her maiden name? And is in partnership with the man he spent an entire evening ridiculing!?”

“Pfff. William. You worry too much.”

“I’m beginning to realise I don’t worry enough!” I reach up, take down the large cast iron frying pan that is hanging from a hook, and check the weight in my hands. Perfect.

“Will!” says Rachel. “Wait!”

“It’s okay, Rachel,” I assure her, “if I can convince the world that I’m the boyfriend of a woman who’s clearly gay, hordes of desperate men that I’m some sort of seduction expert, and two Arabian gentlemen that I’m the French owner of a Jordanian restaurant, I reckon I stand a pretty good chance of getting away with murder!”

“No, you don’t understand,” she says, “Zlata’s right!”

“Go ahead, William,” counters Zlata. “Bash out my brains with frying pan. Personally I’d use knife. Much quicker.”

“Too much blood,” I reply, “and I’ve had it up to here cleaning up after your mess.”

“What mess?” asks Zlata. “There is no mess! So they are not princes – so what? So they have the investors – so what? So investor is Michael Richmond! So what?”

“You haven’t been listening to a word I say, have you?! You never do! Never mind. This ends here!” I raise the frying pan over my head.

“Will!” screams Rachel. “Taylor isn’t my maiden name!” I pause, the frying pan still in the air, whilst I wait for the implications of this new information to sink in. “I picked a name at random,” continues Rachel, “in case something like this should happen.”

Zlata takes a final drag on her cigarette whilst I stand there frozen in thought. She flicks the dog end into the sink, where it fizzes for a brief second, and then crosses her arms in one final act of defiance.

“That doesn’t change anything,” I say, “As soon as Michael hears Jarad’s name we’re sunk.”

“No! He won’t remember it!” says Rachel behind me. “He’s dreadful with names. Especially foreign names. I had to remind him when he was recounting the story to you and he’d forgotten it again before he’d finished what he was saying! He ended up calling him jar head! Don’t you remember?” That was true. I lower my weapon.

“Okay, but what about Nathia?” I say, turning to Rachel. “She’s met Jarad twice! What’s to stop her reminding Michael who Jarad is?”

“And why would she do that?” asks Rachel. “She liked this restaurant. And the food. And Jarad.” Jarad gives me his best ‘that’s true’ nod. “She could see the potential – and then Michael made her look like a fool, just as he has countless times before. She’s the real brains of that operation. She should have been made a partner years ago, but instead she’s been held back by my husband, all while she pretends to be someone she isn’t. Trust me, when Nathia realises it’s the same Jarad she’ll do everything she can to push this deal through.”

I stand there for a moment longer, the frying pan still in my hand. You know, there’s really nothing quite as irritating as getting yourself worked up enough to commit the most heinous of all crimes, only to have someone talk you down. Zlata is already lighting another cigarette.

“So,” she says. “Now we will open a bottle of the finest wine – one with the sparkles – and later Jarad will bake fantastic pie, but without Zlata meat.” I put the frying pan on one side.

“Well,” I say, “seems like you’ve all got the whole thing figured out.”

“William,” calls Rachel as I turn and walk out of the kitchen, but I don’t reply. I’m not in the mood for talking, or celebrating, or eating pie; I’m exhausted. I walk through the restaurant, grab my jacket on the way, and leave them to their victory.

All I’ve ever wanted in life is to be an actor. That’s all. A proper actor. On a stage. With an audience. An audience that knows I’m an actor, and knows they’re the audience. Just to be paid by people who want to be entertained for a couple of hours. Instead, I’m a con-man.

That’s the truth of it.

And the biggest con I’ve pulled off in my dubious career is the one where I’ve convinced myself that I’m anything different. In therapy circles I believe they call this denial.

My mobile phone rings at least three times before I get home, and each time it’s Zlata. I don’t answer, and instead consider throwing the damn thing into the Thames, but that would be overly dramatic, even for me. In the end I just switch it off.

As I open my front door, the answering machine light dares to blink at me from across the hall – I stomp over, pull the power cable out of the back, and then yank the phone cable out of the wall. I’m not in the mood for talking, I’m in the mood for wallowing. And wallowing, as you might be aware, is best done with a bottle of cheap wine. The cheaper the better. It adds to that overall sense of suffering.

I walk into the kitchen, find an ancient bottle of wine that one of my old students gave me as a thank you for misleading them into believing that they could one day become a successful actor, pick up a vaguely clean glass from the draining board and fill it to the brim before taking a swig. Something rubs against my shin. And I look down into the eyes of my big ginger cat. He blinks back at me, then meows his general dismay that once again his food bowls are empty.

“At least you want me, eh Oscar. Even if it is only for my ability to open cans of tuna.” I start looking through cupboards for something to feed my cat whilst simultaneously allowing their emptiness to become a metaphor for my life and non-existent theatrical career. If I find a tin of tuna, then the act of emptying its contents into Oscar’s bowl will represent my soul being hollowed out to be devoured by an industry – represented by Oscar – that gives very little back and continually asks for more. On the other hand, should I fail to find tuna, or indeed cat food of any description, something which seems far more likely, well then, that too can take on some weighty symbolic significance which I will ponder whilst I drain the wine bottle of its contents.

Eventually I give up looking for tins, pour boiling water over some prawns I find lurking at the bottom of the freezer, and put them in Oscar’s bowl. Then I grab the bottle and move to the lounge.

When I’m done with wallowing I plan to crawl into bed and dedicate much of tomorrow to self-pity, a task that will be considerably easier with the thumping hangover I’m bound to have by then.

But my wallowing plans are disrupted by thoughts of Rachel.

And her lovely long dark hair.

And those eyes.

And her shy smile.

And the way that she makes me feel.

Whilst I want to fixate on the career I’ve never had, all I can really think about is how much I’ll miss Rachel now that my part in her ruse is over, and how I wish I’d been more to her than a stooge.

Thirty six hours later I’m woken by the sound of the door bell. I check the clock. It’s barely ten o’clock.

“Hello Will,” says Rachel as I opened the door.

“Rachel!” I say. “Well, er… this is a surprise!”

“Zlata told me where you live,” she says. “I tried to call but…”

“Oh, er, yes. My mobile; it’s… switched off.” There seems little point in lying about it.

“Right,” says Rachel. “Can I come in?”

“Yes, yes of course.” I usher her in. “Would you like a coffee?” I ask as I close the door and walk through to the kitchen.

“That would be lovely,” replies Rachel as she follows me. I open a cupboard and look at the large empty space where occasionally I keep things like jars of coffee. When I have them.

“It appears that at present I am all out of coffee,” I say. “I can offer you… um… water?”

“Water would be great,” says Rachel. I begin opening other mostly empty cupboards where I have in the past come across clean glassware. “You have a cat?” asks Rachel, looking at the empty food bowls on the floor.

“Er yes. He’s somewhere around here.”

“I never thought of you as a cat person. Oh, and er, here he is.” I turn, and there in the kitchen doorway stands a large black cat. It’s the sort of cat that looks as if it might have been hit by a car – but the car came off worse. It should have an eye patch. Perhaps even a hook instead of a paw. It’s certainly not the sort of cat you’d want as a pet.

Our eyes meet.

He knows what’s coming next.

“Out!” I yell, arms flailing. “Out now!” The cat darts under the kitchen table, onto the worktops and after knocking several items off the draining board, makes his escape through the partially open window above the sink. “Bloody animal!” I mutter. Rachel looks shocked.

“That was Spot,” I say by way of explanation. “It’s one of my neighbours’ cats.”

“Oh,” coos Rachel, looking considerably more relaxed. “Right. Odd name for a black cat though; Spot. Were your neighbours being ironic?”

“Oh, no. That’s my name for him.” Rachel frowns. “Because I’m always telling him to get out.” The frown deepens. “‘Out damn Spot?’ It’s a quote. Macbeth.” Still the frown. “Shakespeare?” Finally the frown evaporates.

“Of course,” she says. “Always the actor. Makes perfect sense. We actually studied that at school. Clearly it made no impression on me at all.” We stand there for a moment longer before I remember I’m supposed to be finding a clean glass. “Look, Will, I need to apologise for the other day…”

“No! No – you don’t,” I say, resuming my search and coming across an old vase that I hope I can pass off as an oversized, ornate pint glass. “If anyone needs to apologise it’s me. I was being an idiot. I just wanted to… I was just worried that… I…”

“You were right,” she says, “about Michael.”

“I was?”

“He remembered Jarad’s name. Not immediately of course, but last night he kept flicking through his appointment diary like he was looking for something. When I asked what he was doing he suddenly leapt out of his chair and yelled, ‘Jar head!’ Then he told me how two of his clients had been approached by ‘that effing ghastly Jordanian fellow’, and how he fully intended to tell them to ‘stay well clear’. It was all I could do to stop him phoning Abdul and his brother right there and then.” I say nothing for a moment, until I notice I’m still holding Rachel’s glass of water.

“Why don’t we go and sit down,” I suggest. We walk through to the lounge. Rachel takes the end seat on the sofa, whilst I sit in the armchair next to her.

“So, what did you do?” I prompt.

“I asked him whether they’d said anything else, whether there’d been anyone else at their meeting, whether they’d sent him any paperwork – anything to get him to concentrate on the actual business proposition rather than his dislike of Jarad!”

“Clever,” I say, as I imagine Michael all red-faced with rage as he turns the air blue.

“Maybe,” says Rachel.

“Did it work?”

Rachel sighs. “I don’t know. He just opened another bottle of port and sat there in silence for the rest of the evening.” I nod.

“So why are you here?” I ask, eventually. She turns and looks at me. Those lovely, lovely eyes, so sad.

“I needed someone to talk to,” she says. “And I didn’t have anywhere else to go.” I blink.

“What about Zlata?” I ask.

“Well, she’s lovely, but… you know what she’s like. She’d have started with one of her plans and right now I just need a friend.”

“Well, I’m delighted you think of me that way,” I say, though ‘delighted’ doesn’t quite cover it.

“Of course I do,” she says. “I always have.”

“But you only ever knew me as Edwin. I was playing a role. Wearing a mask.”

“Well,” says Rachel. “We all do that, don’t we? To an extent. And yet friendships blossom. And sometimes when the mask is removed they grow stronger still.”

“Very wise,” I say. She smiles, but the sadness is still there.

“Anyway,” continues Rachel, “it’s only a matter of time before my charming husband poisons the deal. He’s probably putting the knife in even as we speak.” She stares moodily across my apartment. And it doesn’t take a mind reader to see that she’s lost in thoughts of Michael. Intentionally or otherwise, this man has brought nothing but destruction to Rachel’s life.

“Rachel,” I say eventually, “can I ask you a personal question?”

“Of course,” she says, coming out of her trance.

“Why do you stay with him? Why stay with a man who you so obviously despise?” Rachel looks down at her hands. “I assumed at first it was because you’d become accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle, but then it occurred to me that you must have an income from the flats he gave you – so why stay in the marriage?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” asks Rachel without looking up.

“Not to me,” I say.

“To put it right! Undo all that damage he did when he closed my old restaurant, and turned it into flats.”

“But what if you can’t?” I ask. “What if you can’t ‘put it right’?” Rachel’s face hardens.

“Then I want him to pay – in terms that cold hearted monster will understand!”

“Revenge?”

“Yes! Revenge!”

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I happen to know a thing or two about revenge,” I say. “It’s a popular theme in theatre. It never ends well for ‘the avenger’. Death or madness are the usual outcomes.” Rachel lets out a single humourless laugh.

“I can believe that,” she says. “Most of the time it feels like I’m losing my mind.” She goes back to examining her hands.

“You know,” I say, “it occurs to me that if you really want to exact revenge on your husband for taking your colleagues’ jobs – for closing the restaurant that you all loved – the easiest way would be to take something from him. Something that he treasures. Something he’ll never be able to get back – no matter what price he’s willing to pay.”

“Yes, well, that would be wonderful wouldn’t it,” says Rachel. “And believe me, if I could think of anything…” she continues, her voice, soft and quiet, tailing off.

“But you’re forgetting,” I say gently, “this is a man who, when he couldn’t buy a certain restaurant, bought the very ground it stood on! And why? So he could marry a waitress! He must have really wanted to marry that waitress!” Rachel looks up. “Even if he doesn’t love you, Rachel, he does love showing you off. Of all the possessions he has, you must be amongst his most prized. If you really want to hit him where it hurts, walk away – and never go back.”

She looks at me for a moment, and as the tears start to roll down her cheeks I can see that she’s never thought of herself like that. She’s so used to Michael making her feel worthless that she’s completely forgotten she’s the most valuable thing he owns.

A few seconds later I’m on the sofa next to her, my arms around her. And as she sobs into my shoulder, I start to wonder if some good might come of all this subterfuge after all.

We spend the rest of the day together, talking, about everything and anything: how her years with Michael have just rolled by in one unhappy blur. How she feels trapped inside that moment when the brasserie closed for the last time, and the enormous guilt that she still feels years later. But also how she can leave him now, how she can start again, how there really is nothing stopping her other than her own fears. She has the business with Jarad. They can build that together – without investors. It’ll take time of course, but in the end it might be enough to make up for past mistakes.

At some point I get dressed, and we leave the apartment in search of something to drink other than water. Then we walk along the river, weaving our way through tourists, dodging the pigeons, and talking about London: our favourite landmarks. London’s rich vibrant history. How all the theatres used to be on the South Bank. Where the original Globe Theatre used to stand. And how it had been burnt to the ground during a performance of Henry VIII.

“I didn’t know that,” says Rachel.

“Apparently so. During the performance a cannon was fired, but the sparks ignited the thatched roof. The whole place went up in flames!”

“How awful!” she says. “Those poor people!” And I’m about to tell her how typical it is for her to think of the people involved, and how I really like that about her – when her mobile phone rings. She scoops it out of her handbag, flips it open and claps her free hand against her other ear to block out the sound of the tourists around us. And I can tell from the expression on her face that something isn’t right, and that the magic of our day together is about to be broken.

“That was Jarad,” she says, closing her phone. “Our Arabian ‘princes’ have been in touch.”

“Ah,” I say. “So the deal is off?”

“Actually, not quite,” says Rachel, looking across the river to the buildings on the other side. “It’s a little more complicated than that. Their investors – my husband – have given the go ahead.”

“He has?” I say, genuinely shocked.

“He does have just one caveat though.” Rachel bites her lip, then turns to face me. “Will,” she says, “Michael wants to meet Stephan LeBlanc!”


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Chapter Five: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously…..

After Will storms out of the business meeting with the two ‘Arab Princes’, Rachel turns up at his flat (the following day) to tell him that (amazingly!) the deal is still going through – but with one small caveat; Michael wants to meet Stephan Le Blanc.

Read the previous Chapter (four) here

Start from Chapter One here

Act 1

Scene Five

The receptionist throws me a sympathetic smile as I look up from the pages of The Economist. It’s only a flicker, and probably better described as ‘awkward’. It’s the smile of someone who doesn’t know whether they should be smiling, or not, and is apprehensive about what might happen next.

We’ve met before, the receptionist and I, many times in fact. But always I was Edwin, calling to take Nathia out to lunch, or to the theatre, or to drop off some flowers. Today – although I’m in full Edwin costume, complete with Edwin glasses, playing the part of Edwin – I have no idea how much the audience knows. And though I think it’s unlikely that Nathia has admitted I wasn’t her boyfriend, that for four long years she was paying me to help conceal the fact that she’s actually gay, she has probably told them that I’m no longer in her life. Yet here I am, sitting on a couch, browsing financial magazines, in the reception area of Steele & Richmond, Venture Capitalists.

“Edwin!” says Nathia as she comes round the corner. “What a surprise!” So, I am still Edwin – the ex-boyfriend. “Caroline, if you could hold my calls for, say, ten minutes.” Caroline nods rapidly, and then blushes.

“What the hell are you doing here?” hisses Nathia as soon as we’re out of reception.

“What? Can’t a man pop in on his ex-girlfriend when he’s in the neighbourhood?”

“Shut up!” growls Nathia. “Save it for when we’re in my office.”

As soon as we’re in the enormous room that serves as Nathia’s office she closes the glass door behind us, and lowers the blinds. I open my mouth to speak, but she stops me with a hand gesture and then uses a remote on her desk to switch on an enormous plasma television mounted on the wall opposite. She turns the volume up, then perches on the end of her desk, arms crossed.

“You’ve got ten minutes,” she says. “And it had better be good.” I remove my glasses slowly, and wait just long enough to create a sufficiently dramatic effect. I am an actor, after all.

“I’m Stephan LeBlanc,” I say. And I get the reaction I was hoping for.

“What do you mean you’re Stephan LeBlanc!” spits Nathia, her eyes flashing with rage.

“I mean I have a client who hired me to play the part of Jarad’s business partner,” I explain.

“Why would anyone do such a thing?”

“You’ve been in a business meeting with Jarad,” I continue. “You know how well that went.” Nathia’s lips are so thin they’re in danger of disappearing.

“I mean,” she says, “why doesn’t this elusive business partner just start showing up for meetings! Instead of leaving it all to Jarad, or hiring a… stooge!”

“Because they’re married to your boss.” I watch as Nathia’s mind ticks over.

“Rachel!?” she says eventually.

“Yes.”

“Rachel is in business with Jarad?”

“Yes.”

“And Michael doesn’t know about this?”

“Of course not,” I say. “Hence Stephan LeBlanc.” Nathia shakes her head in bewilderment.

“Is she having an affair with Jarad?” she asks.

“No. She’s his cousin – distant cousin. Another thing Michael doesn’t know.”

“But why all the secrecy?”

“Well, you know; sometimes people have very personal reasons for keeping things private, and are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make sure they stay that way.” And Nathia knows exactly what I’m talking about.

“I take it then that Rachel is aware of our… ‘arrangement’?” I take a breath. I knew this was going to come up.

“I’m afraid she does.”

“I see,” says Nathia, the temperature in the room dropping to just above freezing. “This is a breach of our contract, William,” she says, using my real name for only the second time in several years.

“I’m aware of that.” We stare at each other for what seems like decades, and I genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next. Part of me expects a crack team of lawyers to sweep in through the window and carry me off in chains. A more realistic part expects Nathia to command me to leave London and never return. But most of me is praying that Rachel was right about Nathia.

“So why are you here?” she asks.

“I need your help,” I say. “We – Jarad, Rachel and I – need your help.”

She says nothing, instead she walks round to her side of her desk and presses a button on her phone. Caroline answers.

“Edwin and I are taking an early lunch, Caroline, can you rearrange my appointments for this afternoon?” And before Caroline has a chance to reply, Nathia hangs up. She turns to me. “Let’s go,” she says.

* * * * *

“Let me see if I’ve understood this correctly,” says Nathia, after she’s checked and double checked that everyone in our immediate vicinity is either busy eating, talking, or too inebriated to pay us any meaningful attention. “You’ve been hired to play the part of Stephan LeBlanc, to negotiate a restaurant merger with two of my clients, so that one of the real owners, Rachel Richmond – my boss’s wife – can continue to remain anonymous and keep her business dealings secret!?”

“Close enough,” I say. Nathia takes another cursory glance around the pub, presumably to see if there is anyone who might recognise us. It seems highly unlikely. We spent twenty minutes in a cab getting as far away from her office as possible.

“But now the challenge is how you meet Michael, as Stephan LeBlanc, when he already knows you as Edwin Clarkson, my supposed ex-boyfriend, without him discovering that in reality you’re neither of those people. Not to mention that his wife is in business with a man that he can’t stand, and that you’ve been helping me to conceal the fact that I’m one of those ‘ghastly fucking lesbian people’? Is that everything? Or did I miss something crucial?”

“You’re not ghastly,” I say. “A bit prickly sometimes, maybe…” Nathia’s face hardens.

“Michael Richmond is not a man to cross, William,” she says, becoming almost threatening. “He’s a man with fixed ideas about how the world should work, and he has the power and influence to ensure that it operates his way.” I should probably be scared. Instead I’m irritated.

“Yes, and I thought you were sick of all that? I thought you’d decided you weren’t going to go along with Michael’s prehistoric ideas any longer? That’s why you fired me, wasn’t it? So you could ‘come out’ and be yourself?”

“And I will, William,” replies Nathia. “In my own time! But the last thing I need is you interfering and outing me before I’m ready!”

“I’m not interfering,” I protest. “Or at least I didn’t mean to. It just got out of hand. And right now I want it all to go away!” I say. “And I don’t see how that can happen without your help.”

“What exactly do you expect me to do?” asks Nathia.

“Persuade Michael that he doesn’t need to meet Stephan! That would seem to be the most obvious thing.”

“You’ve got no idea, have you,” says Nathia, cocking her head as if I am some strange creature inside a cage.

“About what?”

“The only reason this merger is still on the table is because Michael got me to check the figures that were given to Abdul and his brother. And guess what: they’re impressive. Whoever put them together is clearly a shrewd business person. Which begs the question, why would someone with that level of business acumen want to stay in the shadows? Why would that same someone leave important business meetings in the hands of inept colleagues? Perhaps everything isn’t quite what it seems? In short, William – Michael smells a rat!” This is all news to me. I put my elbows on the table between us, drop my head into my hands, and let out a muffled cry of frustration.

“It seems to me your only possible course of action,” continues Nathia, “is to persuade Rachel and Jarad to forget the merger, and walk away.” I look at her through my fingers. “Though to be honest,” says Nathia, more to herself than to me, “that probably isn’t an option either. Michael is unlikely to drop the matter. He really wants to meet this Stephan LeBlanc. And once he gets a bee in his bonnet…”

I think of Rachel, how Michael ended up buying a building just to get her to marry him. Nathia is right; Michael will pursue Stephan to the end of the world and back.

Unless he can’t.

“What if,” I say, an idea forming in my mind, “we killed off Stephan? Fake his death somehow?”

“Ridiculous.”

“No, listen – that could work! We place an ad in the obituaries column of The Financial Times. If Michael thinks Stephan is dead all he’ll be left with is paperwork, and the merger will go ahead.” It was genius. “The FT does have an obituary column, doesn’t it? Nathia?”

“Quiet,” says Nathia. “I’m thinking.” I sit back in my chair and stare at the bubbles in the pint before me. I’m not in a drinking mood. “Jarad said his ‘business partner’ was busy,” said Nathia slowly. “But busy doing what?”

“Being Michael’s wife!” I say, picking up my beer as a fresh bout of hopelessness sweeps through me. Maybe I am in a drinking mood after all.

“Maybe not,” says Nathia, leaning forward and becoming more animated than I’ve seen her in a long while. “What if we turned the tables somewhat; what if a meeting between the two of them is arranged, but Michael is forced to miss it, due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’ – especially if those circumstances are of a personal nature! He might just be more sympathetic to Monsieur LeBlanc’s previous absence.” I raise an eyebrow.

“What are you suggesting we do?” I ask. “Phone Michael at the last minute and tell him his aunt’s in hospital? Does he even have an aunt? And would he run to her bedside even if he did?” Nathia sits back in her chair. Gone is her enthusiasm.

“You’re right,” she says, picking up her orange juice. “It’s a stupid idea; Michael doesn’t care about anything other than work. The only personal life he has is Rachel and he doesn’t seem to give two hoots about her.” She sips her drink and then returns it to the table. “So basically you’re screwed. And so am I. Terrific. Well done, William. Are you even listening to me?!”

“Hang on,” I say, my head suddenly awash with thoughts of Rachel – maybe, just maybe, there is a moment waiting to be seized. “I might just have an idea.”

* * * * *

“You want me to do what?” says Rachel.

It’s taken me ten minutes to outline my plan and now all eyes are on Rachel as the four of us – Jarad, Zlata, Rachel and myself – congregate at the back of Jarad’s kitchen.

“I know,” I say, chewing nervously on the side of my thumb, “it’s a lot to ask. But it’s the only thing I could think of. We need something that Michael values more than anything else, more than his obsession with Stephan LeBlanc at least, and…”

“It is brilliant!” declares Zlata.

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I say. “In fact I think the whole thing is completely loony. Not to mention unethical. And possibly illegal.”

“It is like banking heights!” continues Zlata.

“You mean a bank heist,” I say.

“I know what I mean.”

“Look, Rachel,” I continue, “it’s just acting. You don’t have to mean it. It just has to seem like you mean it. At the time. Afterwards you can tell Michael… well, you can tell him that…”

“It’s okay, Will,” says Rachel, getting out of her seat and smoothing down her skirt. “I’ll do it.” The rest of us exchange glances.

“Really?” I ask. Rachel nods.

“Yes,” she says.


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Chapter Six: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously…..

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…

Read the previous Chapter (five) here

Start from Chapter One here

Act 1

Scene Six

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.

“Well?”

“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.

We’ve failed.

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.”

“Zlata!”

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.

“Of course.”

“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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Chapter Seven: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously…..

Against all odds William, Zlata, Nathia and Rachel manage to keep Michael Richmond from meeting the fictitious Stephan Le Blanc, whilst somehow maintaining the ruse that he does actually exist! The restaurant merger is back on! Meanwhile, Rachel’s marriage is at an end. Now she’s in the arms of William. Our hero.

It should be a Happy Ever After... but something is keeping Will awake at night…

Read the previous Chapter (six) here

Start from Chapter One here

Act 2

Scene One

It’s 2am and something isn’t right.

If my life were a stage play, then right now I should be basking in the afterglow of my very own happy ever after, whilst the audience, on the other side of the curtain, gather up their coats and bags and leave an auditorium of debris for someone to clear up. But instead the curtains are still up, the house lights are down, and the audience look confused: There’s a stage direction that makes no sense. The odd prop out of place. A line in the script that seems wrong somehow. To be honest I’m not really sure what it is, but something in my life isn’t right and it’s keeping me awake. Awake when I should be fast asleep, curled around the beautiful woman lying next to me.

I wouldn’t mind so much if it were just tonight but this is the fourth night running, and my subconscious won’t let up. It keeps finding new things to ask me about. And without adequate answers these queries whirl around and around and around in my mind until I could scream, were it not for the fact that I would wake Rachel.

Oh – here comes another one! Another question to which I don’t have the answer, without which I will be denied any kind of rest:

Why would my agent gatecrash a Steele & Richmond private party?

Four days ago, Rachel and I spent a romantic evening sitting on London’s South Bank, recovering from what had been a rather frantic day convincing her husband that he’d managed to miss an important meeting with a man who doesn’t actually exist. This was all so that a merger between a chain of unsuccessful coffee shops, and a restaurant that Rachel part owns (but her husband doesn’t know about), could go ahead unencumbered by her husband’s racist paranoia. During the course of those shenanigans Rachel walked out of her marriage, and a few hours later, as we watched the sun setting over London, I suggested that she might like to move in with me. And just so she was in no doubt as to what I meant by ‘moving in’, I punctuated my offer with our first kiss.

That was quite a day.

As we entered my apartment a little later I was somewhere between completely and utterly exhausted, and walking on air. I closed the door behind us, and as I did so a stocky ginger cat walked out of the lounge to see who was entering his domain, and more importantly whether they’d brought anything with them in the way of food.

“So this,” I said to Rachel, “is Oscar.”

“Well hello Oscar,” said Rachel, squatting down and instinctively scratching Oscar’s head, “it’s lovely to finally make your acquaintance.” Almost immediately Oscar started to purr. “Has that big bad Spot been eating all your food again?” asked Rachel in that voice that people reserve for animals and small children. “Has he? Has he?” Unsurprisingly Oscar said nothing. He just pushed his enormous ginger head into her hand, whilst I was far too beguiled by this beautiful woman and the affection she was showing my cat to answer on his behalf. “And how did Oscar come to get his name?” asked Rachel, looking up at me. “Another Shakespearian quote?” I tugged on my ear.

“Er, no actually. He was a stray. I found him living in a bush outside the entrance. A tiny feral kitten – all teeth and claws, with enormous ears. Took me forever to actually catch him and bring him in.” Rachel frowned.

“Right!” she said, the penny dropping. “He was wild. Oscar Wilde. Cute.” I smiled.

“Would you like some…” I hesitated, “tea?” Rachel stood up and came closer.

“Do you actually have any?”

“Possibly,” I said.

“And milk?”

“You know, black tea is a highly underrated beverage.”

“And what about clean mugs, or will we be drinking out of vases again? Perhaps a saucepan, or other receptacles?”

“You really do want the world on a stick, don’t you!”

Rachel poked me in the ribs.

“You know Mr Lewis, perhaps you and I should embark on a little late night shopping trip to get some provisions. If I’m going to be living here we might need something more to sustain us than black tea.”

“Sorry,” I said with a frown, “I know not of this ‘shopping’ of which you speak.”

“Then it would be my pleasure to introduce you to its delights.”

I pulled her closer. “You know, I really have everything I need right here.”

“Really?” asked Rachel, putting her arms around my waist. “Everything?”

Everything.”

“Are we still talking about food items?” she asked, her eyes locked with mine.

“Not even remotely,” I replied.

* * * * *

The next two and half days were a delightful blur of domesticity. In sixty hours we went from being dinner party acquaintances who’d become friends and co-conspirators to a full-on co-habiting couple. Put like that I’m surprised either one of us didn’t try and make a break for it and run for the hills – but we didn’t. It felt right. More right than anything that had happened to me in a long, long time.

And after that first night together, and an obligatory trip to the shop the following morning, and a day of subtle negotiation over drawer space, wardrobe space, bathroom space, and various other (largely empty) spaces that had really just been waiting for someone to come along and make them feel loved again, it was starting to feel as if Rachel and I had always lived under the same roof. As though all those empty spaces were really just fragmented parts of much a larger space – one that was Rachel-shaped.

Come Monday morning, a new daily routine was beginning to emerge. I awoke to find her side of the bed empty, and when I plodded into the kitchen to look for her, I discovered that Oscar had already been fed, the dishwasher was already humming to itself, and there was a note waiting for me on the kitchen table:

Morning sleepy head!

Gone to work – will call you later.

R xx

PS. We need more milk

“More milk,” I repeated, scratching my head aimlessly. So this was my challenge for the day. I reckoned I could handle milk.

By 10am not only had I completed the milk mission, but I’d also managed to pick up a copy of The Stage. I made myself a cup of tea – with milk – and settled down for a day of scouring the pages for an audition, one that might lead to a real part, in a real play, or on a film set – anything – I didn’t mind.

Nor did I mind how big the part was. I mean, okay, obviously I wanted something a little more substantial than ‘extra’ work – I wasn’t that desperate (yet) – but I’d have honestly considered absolutely anything; Doctor Chasuble’s understudy in a Theatre In Education production of The Importance Of Being Earnest, Security Guard Number Three in an episode of The Billanything! And surely, in the four or so years since I had last looked for acting work, the world must have moved on and the task of securing some sort of paid theatrical work must have become easier? No?

No.

Nothing had changed.

After an hour or two of scouring the pages, all my old fears and loathing and desperation about trying to forge a career in an industry that limps from day to day, whilst simultaneously having the nerve to exude this bullshit veneer of prestige and glamour, started to creep back into my head.

Nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing! In fact, if anything, the entire theatre community appeared to be in a worse state that it had been the last time I checked! Fewer theatres, fewer productions, no jobs. At all.

When I’d finally accepted that the mythical ad I was looking for wasn’t printed in a microdot amongst an article on the growing number of theatre companies applying for charitable status, I tossed the paper in the bin and chewed on the side of my thumb for inspiration. What now?

Maybe it wasn’t the industry. Maybe it was the lens that I chose to view the industry through, i.e. The Stage. Perhaps there were in fact countless jobs out there, but for whatever reason, our nation’s favourite theatrical newspaper didn’t know about them. I entered the mysterious cavern that was my spare bedroom, moved a dozen boxes of junk, unearthed my ancient computer, and switched it on.

Something had changed.

In four years the number of websites where desperate souls such as myself could upload their acting resume had more than doubled. And the larger ones that I was familiar with now offered a wealth of services “guaranteed” to enhance your chances of making the big time. For instance: for a “small” monthly fee your profile could appear somewhere near the top of the search results, surrounded by blue flashing stars and a yellow box. And that, apparently, could make all the difference when a casting director with money to burn comes looking for the next Tom Cruise.

Something about this situation felt very familiar. And moments later I realised that here I was again, living with a girlfriend who had a job, whilst I played the part of the desperate out of work actor trying to prove to himself that four years of drama school hadn’t been a complete and utter waste of time. Okay, so the girlfriend was different, and the flat was different, but there wasn’t a single part of me that wanted to return to that fruitless existence. Which is when I remembered that I didn’t have to. Looking for work wasn’t my responsibility; I had an agent!

“Zlata – it’s Will. You probably realised that. Okay.” Voicemail. I hate voicemail. “Look, I wondered whether we could have a chat sometime about you finding me some acting work. Real acting work. On stage I mean. Or film. I mean, obviously the flirting courses, are, er, real – but I think maybe it’s time I did something I could… well, that I could tell people about frankly. That would be nice.” I bit my lip whilst I considered what else to add. Then a thought occurred to me. “Oh, and talking about flirting courses, can you confirm the date of the next one. I’ve got the 13th of September in the diary, but that’s a Saturday and I thought we’d decided Sundays were better. Okay. Well erm – give me a call.” I hung up.

It wasn’t really like Zlata not to answer her phone. She was one of those people who relished in taking a call no matter how inopportune a moment it might be. Even when I did seemingly get Zlata’s voicemail, it was usually just Zlata messing about.

In fact, thinking back over all the years we’d known each, I couldn’t recall ever having to leave Zlata a message, ever before.

* * * * *

The day continued its downward spiral.

I called up an old mate of mine over in Wapping to see if I could twist his arm into taking a fresh set of publicity photos for me. I was expecting some resistance. Last time I spoke to Dave he was spending most of his days being paid not insubstantial amounts of money to photograph naked and near naked women for girlie calendars and every top shelf men’s magazine I’d ever heard of. It was difficult to see what I could possibly offer that might persuade him to squeeze me in between ‘glamour’ shoots. But after some initial small talk – and a few awkward moments as I reminded Dave who I actually was – I broached the subject of having some head and shoulders shots, which I’d be happy to pay for, obviously – and then suddenly the deal was done, and we were putting an appointment in the diary for the coming Thursday. Clearly the glamour photography industry wasn’t as lucrative as days gone by either.

I followed this with a call to anyone and everyone I could remember from theatre school. Of those I did manage to contact, not one was earning a living as an actor – most had given up on finding acting work years ago. Only two of us, according to ex-classmate-turned-estate-agent Janice, were actually working in theatre; Carol Brown (and we all know what happened to her), and James Henderson. And whilst it was a shock that out of a group of perhaps thirty of the most talented people I know, only two had forged a career, I wasn’t surprised that Jim was one of them; he’s one of those actors who had spent a lifetime perfecting his art even before he got to drama college, because for Jim – and the many other actors like him – the only way to interface with the world is to develop some sort of socially acceptable mask to conceal the jumble of insecurities and oddities that would otherwise be on full view. He’s the sort of actor who you never really remember simply because when he’s playing a character, that’s all you see. Just the character. What he has isn’t talent, it’s how he makes it through life. So if anyone other than Carol was going to make it, it was always going to be Jim.

Annoyingly Janice didn’t have his number, but she did have an address. I scribbled it down and then sat and looked at it for a full minute and a half. What was I going to do? Rock up, claim to be just passing by, and then casually ask if he could help me get some work? Yes. That’s exactly what I was going to do. I put on my jacket.

* * * * *

My overwhelming thoughts, as I squeezed through the gap that had taken on the ambitious role of ‘door’, was that for an abode it really wasn’t all that secure – tucked as it was down a side road, off the less salubrious end of Brick Lane. I’d stood outside for some minutes checking and double checking that this was the address Janice had given me. But it was. This was the place. Though ‘place’ was quite a generous term for what was actually a twelve foot gap between two old warehouses, transformed into a premises by the cunning use of corrugated iron. And whilst I was absolutely positive that people did live in ‘places’ like this, I’d had higher hopes for a classmate who apparently now worked in theatre.

“Hello?” I yelled into the darkness, whilst I waited for my eyes to adjust. “Is anybody in here?” One thing was for certain; this wasn’t anyone’s home. Couldn’t be. All around me were shelves and shelves of what, to the untrained eye, appeared to be… junk. Old furniture, shop dummies, hat stands, seventies crockery, framed photos, posters, paintings, rolled up rugs, boxes of records, CDs, newspapers (all labelled by decade), briefcases, trunks, stuffed animals, swords, fake machine guns, pistols…

“Can I help you?” said a voice. I span round to see a serious looking man in his mid thirties, around five foot four, sporting a big black paint-speckled bushy beard, and wearing an old equally paint-splattered moth eaten cardigan, knee length khaki shorts, and a pair of moulded rubber sandals. And he was holding a gold sceptre. Complete with emerald jewel. If you’d plucked Moses out of history, rolled back his years, and then dropped him in East London in the twenty-first century, this is exactly what he would look like.

“Hi,” I said, as I waited for my brain to give up making sense of everything, “I’m looking for Jim.”

“That’s me,” said the man.

“Jim?”

“Who are you?”

“It’s Will. From LAMDA?”

“Will?” asked Jim, after a pause so pregnant it had given birth to another pause.

“Hi,” I said again. I couldn’t resist; “Do you… live here?”

“Here?” asked Jim, like there might be another ‘here’ I was referring to. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my workshop.” Before Jim could elaborate, there was a muffled pop, and something wet hit me in the face. I recoiled, wiping whatever it was out of my eyes and – when I looked at my fingers, they were covered in blood.

“Bollocks!” said Jim, looking down at the gaping gun shot wound that had appeared in his chest. “Typical, just typical.”

* * * * *

“Props?”

“Yep. Whatever you need – I’ll find it. And if I can’t find it, I’ll make it,” said Jim. The kettle clicked off and Jim began pouring hot water into two ornate china cups, whilst I continued to sponge fake blood out of my clothes and looked around at what functioned as his office. It was like sitting in a fairy tale, or a place where fairy tales were made. In the middle was a table covered with small pots of paints, tubes of glue, bottles of this and that, brushes, tools, a washing up bowl that looked as if it were part fossilized – whilst surrounding us on all four sides were more working areas, and more shelves, only this time stacked with smaller objects than the rest of the ‘workshop’; toys, telephones, spectacles, badges, jars, tins, fruit (fake), flowers (also fake) – and from every era too; next to the art deco Tiffany lamp, which was on and working, was an ancient looking PC with a built in tiny green screen monitor that flickered occasionally in a manner that suggested it was about to breathe its last, and next to that a robust bottle-green cast iron typewriter that would probably continue to work even if you dropped a bomb on it. The entire workshop was like a pinch in the fabric of time itself.

“So give me an example,” I said. “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to make?”

“Weirdest?” asked Jim, handing me my coffee. “Nothing really. I usually end up making run of the mill items that are hard to come by.”

“Like?”

“Police badges,” said Jim with a world weary sigh. “They’re always in demand. You won’t find many of those lurking in charity shops.”

“How on earth do you make a police badge?”

“Plaster of Paris and silver paint. I got a mould from somewhere.”

“Right,” I said. “And your exploding chest?” Jim gave another weary sigh and examined the sticky red hole, prodding it with a finger.

“New type of squib I’ve been working on. Remote control. Though clearly it needs some tweaking. I reckon something else must have set it off.”

“Doesn’t it… hurt? When it goes off?”

“Oh! Stings like a son of a bitch! Looks good though. Just need to get the bastard to go off when it’s supposed to.”

It was fascinating, and at the same time, deeply depressing. Jim had been top of our class. A real talent. And here he was making exploding blood capsules, and fake police paraphernalia.

“So what about you?” asked Jim. “What are you up to these days?”

* * * * *

It was early evening when Zlata finally got back to me. And when she did, it was via text message. Which was odd in itself. In all the years I’ve known her, I’d never seen Zlata send a text to anyone – not when a simple phone call offered so much opportunity for loud talking and expansive arm gestures.

The message read simply this: course cancelled.

So here I am. Lying in bed. At just gone two-thirty in the morning.

You know when you’re watching a particularly sub-standard action-movie, and sometimes there’s that ‘hang on a minute’ moment when the plot kind of unravels inside your head and you realise that nothing you’ve seen makes any kind of sense? Or it does make sense, but only if you’re willing to accept that a staggeringly unlikely – and often extremely convenient – event, has taken place?

So it is with my life.

The events of the previous four weeks, perhaps even longer, just don’t add up. And this isn’t merely a case of my ‘actor’s paranoia’ on overdrive, fuelled by almost a week of insomnia. This is a full-on bona fide conspiracy, with facts and figures and everything.

Let me talk you through the thoughts that are currently buzzing between my ears: I have no idea how many theatrical agencies there are in London but I’m willing to bet it probably runs into the hundreds. Neither have I any idea how many investment companies there are, but I’d stake the entire contents of my spare bedroom that they outnumber theatrical agents 10 to 1. And restaurants; just how many quirky independent brasseries must there be in the whole of London? If you told me there were half a million I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised.

So given these facts, what are the chances that Zlata’s restaurant owning ‘special’ friend, Jarad, happens to the be the cousin, of the wife, of the boss, of her – flirting courses aside – one and only real client, Nathia.

It’s a bit of a coincidence.

More so when you consider that two of Zlata’s ex-lovers – granted, they’re brothers, but they’re ex-lovers nonetheless – also just happen to be clients of Nathia and her boss.

Now I’m no statistician, but I’d gamble my non-existent career that the likelihood of Zlata meeting any of these people by accident must be bordering on… ‘impossible’.

But it goes deeper than that. There are Zlata’s reactions.

90% of acting is reacting. It’s not enough to be standing in the right place waiting to say your next line, you must continually react to the events around you in a manner that’s in keeping with your character. And Zlata isn’t doing that.

In the original plan, Zlata’s remit as ‘cleaning lady’ was merely to prevent Michael from getting downstairs by getting in the way and, in the process, use her watch stealing skills to remove his Rolex. She wasn’t supposed to beat ten bells out of him with her mop! Granted, Michael ‘surprised’ her – that was also part of the plan, hence her headphones – but wouldn’t the normal reaction be to jump or perhaps let out a single scream? It’s a rare person indeed whose natural flight or fight response is to grab the nearest object that can be brandished as a rudimentary weapon and fight to the death!

And then, later that same day, whilst Rachel, Jarad and I were popping champagne corks, Zlata seemed to be more than a little withdrawn. Sullen, even. Like our bonkers plan hadn’t succeeded at all.

And what about that whole business about not wanting to return Michael’s watch?

And her off-the-cuff comment about not being Czech.

I don’t care what time it is, there’s not a hope in hell of ever getting another night’s sleep until I’ve got to the bottom of this. I slip out of bed, get dressed as quietly as I can, kiss Rachel softly on the forehead, and leave the flat.

* * * * *

Zlata sighs as she opens the door. She seems both surprised and not-surprised-in-the-slightest to see me. She stands there in jogging bottoms and a moth-eaten jumper, a tumbler of something pungent and intensely alcoholic in one hand, and a cigarette in the other.

“Now is not the good time,” she says.

“You don’t know why I’m here. Now might be an excellent time.”

“Are you here maybe for the sex?” I’m gobsmacked, but then I remember it’s Zlata.

“No!”

“Then I have sleeping to do, and I do not want to talk to you.” She starts to close the door. I put my hand against it to stop her.

“Do you mean you don’t want to talk to me now – or do you actually mean you don’t want to talk to me ever again?”

She gives me that weary look again.

“I know what I mean,” she says, and tries again to close the door.

“Zlata, wait! There’s something wrong, isn’t there. I don’t know what exactly, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with you, and me, possibly Rachel, Michael, maybe even Nathia. Maybe even Jarad. I don’t know. But I do know it’s making you miserable, and that possibly I’m supposed to know what this thing is – but I don’t. So I need you to tell me. I’d like you to tell me. Because, whatever it is, maybe I can help. And that’s what friends do. Isn’t it?” She looks at me intently – and I know, deep in my soul, that I’ve said the right thing, and that any moment now I’m going to discover that I’ve forgotten her birthday, or the anniversary of our first meeting, or her Czech name day (even though she’s apparently not Czech) – or something. Then I can make it right, and we can all move on.

“Very nice speech, William,” says Zlata. “Well done. But it is still the night time and you still can’t come in.” This time she succeeds in closing the door. It slams in my face.

“Zlata! For god’s sake!”

“Goodbye William,” she says.

“Five minutes! Just give me five minutes!”

“Go home!”

“No! I’m not leaving! If necessary I’ll stay here all night!”

“Whatevers. You can please yourself.”

“Good, because at some point tomorrow you’re going to have to leave that flat in order to get a cup of the sludge you call coffee and a fresh pack of cigarettes, and when you do I’ll still be here, having read your post and chatted to your neighbours.” There’s a long pause.

“I now no longer drink coffee. It is bad for you. I only drink water from the tap.”

“Oh really. And the cigarettes?”

“I have thirteen cartons of duty free. My sister brought them for me from Istanbul. It is very nice place. Maybe I go and live there with her. I will sell carpets.”

I shake my head, sit down on her door mat, and lean against the door. We’re talking at least, though I’d have preferred there not to be an inch-and-a-half of wood between us.

“You don’t even have a sister!” I say when I’m comfortable, at which point the door opens and I fall backwards.

“I think you know not even the one jot about me, William,” says Zlata, looking down at me lying on her carpet.

* * * * *

Zlata Ruzencova was born Zlata Ivanović – not in the Czech Republic as she’d always led me to believe, but in Dubrovnik. Croatia. Back when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia.

Life for young Zlata was a good one; her father – Dragan Ivanović – was a successful entrepreneur, with a small hotel just outside the walled city, and a couple of bars and restaurants near the harbour itself.

Back in those days whilst the Yugoslavian economy was sluggish at best, the tourist industry was booming, and holiday makers from all over the world flocked to the medieval city in search of cheap Mediterranean sunshine.

I have no idea what any of this has to do with the events of the past month – nothing I suspect – but at least Zlata’s talking to me again. And that’s a good thing.

I’m sitting opposite her on an ancient two-seater sofa, trying to ignore the springs that are poking me in places that I don’t want to be poked, and I nurse a tumbler of lethal looking liquid that Zlata poured for me without asking whether I wanted it or not. She’s on her third since I entered her flat, and there’s a cloud of cigarette smog floating just above our heads. I’m trying to ignore that too.

“You know, my parents were very fond of Yugoslavia,” I say in an effort to re-start the conversation.

“And we probably welcomed them with the arms open,” says Zlata – though more to her drink than to me, and with an edge that suggests the welcome may not have been as genuine as it might have appeared. “We welcomed lots of peoples,” she continues. “Especially British peoples.” For the first time in perhaps five minutes Zlata looks at me. And I can tell from the weight of her stare that we’ve finally reached a point in the conversation where things might start to make sense. I hold the eye contact.

“There was one man,” says Zlata. “An English man. He came to stay in our hotel, and he was very charming, and very handsome. He used the long words, and always he spoke in the big voice.” She takes the bottle from the side table, and empties the contents into her tumbler. “And I was stupid young girl,” she adds, and I notice that her hands are shaking slightly.

“How old were you?” I ask.

“Old enough,” she says. “But not wise enough. He would sit in our bar, in the evenings,” continues Zlata, “and discuss with my father anything, and also everything. And I would stay and help with the English words. Stupid,” she says, and takes a sip of her drink.

“Why was that stupid?” I ask. “It seems like a nice thing to do.”

“My father didn’t need help.” Says Zlata. “His English was like mine, also very good. But I wanted… I wanted to be near this man. This handsome man. This charming man.” Her voice cracks ever so slightly.

“Wait a minute,” I say as I remember who I’m talking to. “Did you… did you and the man… did you?”

“One night he came to my room, yes.”

“To your bedroom?”

“He had run out of soap.”

“Right!” I say. “Well that’s perfectly reasonable. Knocking on the door of the proprietor’s young daughter, in the middle of the night, in search of soap!”

“He stayed for the long while.”

“Well, I’m sure the soap was very hard to find!”

“And the next night, I went to his room.” She takes another sip of her drink. “And the night after that. Like I say,” continues Zlata, a coldness in her voice that wasn’t there before, “he was the charming English businessman.” Somewhere an alarm goes off in my head.

“Businessman?”

“Yes. Like my father. And it was not long before they were doing what businessmen always do. Hatching the deal. Striking a plan.”

I started to say something, and thought better of it.

“This man have big English tourist company with strange name. I remember it my whole life: Vanadium Global. Many customers. Many English peoples looking for lovely holiday. And for just the small investment, they could come to our hotel. Our home in Croatia. And we would be able to charge the bigger prices! And we would build bigger hotel! It was the lifetime opportunity!”

“How small was this investment?” I ask

“Everything we had.” My heart sinks. “And after my father make the investment the big tourist buses, they never arrive. And the peoples, they never come. And our hotel is still small.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“There is no need,” says Zlata with a snort. “I did not mind. My mother did not mind. We did not want big hotel full of English peoples, wanting their chips and their tommy ketchup. But my father, he is proud man. He call the English man, and he says ‘Where are my customers? We have the business deal! You are the English man; English men are honourable.’”

“And what did the Englishman say?”

“There were the many apologies. And the many reasons: it was recession. It was competition. It was new British holiday legislation. But, for just the one more small investment…”

“He asked for more!?”

“And my father paid. And again. And again.”

“More than once?”

“More than once.”

“But where did he get all this money from?”

Zlata shrugs.

“From other ‘businessmen’. The sort you hope never to do the business with.”

A shiver runs down my spine, followed by a wave of melancholy from across the room. A part of me doesn’t want to know the end of the story, but Zlata is sitting there, staring into her empty glass, waiting for me to ask her.

“So…” I say, “what… happened?”

“What happened to all of us,” she says without looking up. “The war! One day there was shooting in the streets and my home wasn’t safe place. My mother put me on boat, and told me to flee.”

“She sent you away?”

“Just for few days. To be safe. It would be for me like holiday. But every day it get more crazy. More fighting. More death. Until soon I need new home, in new country, to start new life.”

“So you were basically… an asylum seeker?”

“Yes.”

“But you’ve been back? I mean, since the war – to visit?”

“Once. To see my mother.”

“Not your father?” I ask, but regretting it almost the moment the words pass my lips. Zlata shakes her head.

“Shortly after I left, he went missing. He was member of communist party. And it was not the good time to be communist. We think maybe… he was executed,” she says, her voice wobbling just a little. And I’m stunned.

“For being a communist?”

“Perhaps,” she says. “Or maybe, he make the one business deal too many.”

“You mean… with the people who lent him money?” Zlata nods. “Why didn’t you all flee?” I ask. “If it was that dangerous?”

“My parents had money just enough for me. Nothing else. Just big empty hotel and two empty bars. In a warzone. The charming English man, he stole from us our options.” And in that moment, all the revelations of the previous few minutes, and the odd little occurrences for the past month or longer, all start to make sense.

“Zlata,” I say. “Why England? Of all the countries you could have chosen to seek asylum – why here?”

“To steal from you the good jobs,” she says bitterly. “Like all asylum seekers.” I ignore her sarcasm.

“Then why change your name?”

She says nothing.

“Did you come here to find the English businessman?” I ask. “Your charming English businessman?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Is it Michael?”

“Of course,” she says.

I close my eyes and shake my head.

“I need drink,” says Zlata, getting up from her armchair, and leaving the room. From my place on the sofa I can hear her going through kitchen cupboards in search of another bottle, and though the chair is uncomfortable, staying in it would have definitely been the better option. Instead I feel like I should be doing something. Pacing, at the very least. I stand up, take a step or two towards Zlata’s chair, and notice the open book on her side table laying face down. It’s a play. Hamlet. And though I should leave it where it is, I pick it up – just out of curiosity, just to see which scene she’s reading. Which is when I discover the gun.

Simply lying there.

On the table.

I’ve never seen a real gun before. I’ve seen some pretty convincing fake guns – props, toys – but there’s something about the object I’m staring at now that leaves you in no doubt that this is not a prop. Or a toy. This is most definitely the real thing. Even without touching it I can sense its weight – both metaphorical and physical. I can smell it too. A faint, almost odourless vapour that glides down the back of my throat and leaves a metallic taste in my mouth. Without really thinking I reach out to pick it up…

And then stop myself.

I have no idea where this gun has been or what it’s been used for. Nor, for that matter, where it might end up. And as I’m pretty sure that hand guns are still illegal in this country, there’s no way I want my finger prints on any part of it.

Which is when Zlata comes back into the room.

“What is this?” I ask. It’s possibly the most stupid question I could have come out with, but surprisingly Zlata doesn’t berate me or give me any backchat. She just does what she always does when she doesn’t want to answer a question, or the question within a question: she shrugs.

“Where did you get it?” I continue. It’s a better question, but it still doesn’t remotely scratch the surface of what I want to know.

“It does not matter,” says Zlata.

“Is this thing loaded?” Perhaps my most intelligent question so far, but still Zlata doesn’t answer. Instead she lurches forward and snatches the gun from the table. Our eyes lock.

“Zlata,” I say, stretching out my hand slowly, “I need you to give that to me.”

“Why?” she asks. It’s a perfectly valid question. Particularly as only seconds ago I was concerned about finger prints. But everything’s changed now.

“Because it’s a gun,” I say. Which isn’t really the reason, but I’m hoping it’ll do for now.

“So?” asks Zlata.

“Because… I’m not sure you’re in a particularly good place… and I don’t want to see anyone get hurt.” Zlata frowns.

“I am not planning to shoot you!” she says.

“Okay, well that’s good to know. Although until you said that I didn’t think you were! But now that you have, I’m a little worried! So, for both our sakes… gimme the gun!”

She’s still frowning. “I am not planning to shoot me either!”

“So… why do you have a gun?” I ask. And though it’s probably my best question of the evening, the answer is in my head almost the instant I’ve said the words, and Zlata’s silence is all the confirmation I need. “Michael!?” I ask.

“Of course Michael!”

“Have you gone completely mad!?”

“You do not understand!”

“Try me!”

“When I was standing over him… face to face with that… monster… this devil man, it was like my father was there with me – and finally, I had the chance to make sure he would never again take from anyone!”

“You’d have beaten Michael to death with the mop if I hadn’t intervened?”

“Of course not! It is too hard! I need something better.”

“So you got a gun!?”

“Next time I want to be ready.”

“Next time? What next time? It’s over!!”

“It’s not over!” says Zlata, raising her voice.

“Of course it’s over!”

“My father was executed!”

“Yes, but Michael didn’t pull the trigger!”

“He took our options, William!”

“Okay, yes, sort of, in a way – but your father had choices! He chose to give his money to Michael!”

“There were no choices!” says Zlata, stamping a foot. “Only lies!”

“But –”

“There is no ‘but’, William! You ask why I come to England? I come to make Michael Richmond pay!”

And I’ve heard these words before. Albeit from Rachel’s lips; another woman hell bent on revenge, and for a brief second I wonder how many other bitter souls are desperately waiting for their opportunity to put right what karma seems to have forgotten about. But the sight of tears running down Zlata’s face pulls me back to the here and now.

“Zlata,” I say as softly as my racing heart will allow. “Don’t you remember what I told Rachel? If there’s one thing theatre teaches us, it’s that revenge is never enough. You will never fill that seething cesspit of anger inside you! And the more you try to satisfy that thirst, the more it will consume you. Sure – you could walk into Michael’s offices with your gun, blow out his brains in some twisted homage to your father – but you’ll spend the rest of your days behind bars. And that will be another life wasted, and who will pay for that?”

“Then help me, William!” pleads Zlata.

“Do what?” I ask. She says nothing for a moment, but it’s long enough for her tears to stop, and for her face to harden.

“Let us take from him all of his money!” she says. “Just like he take from my father!”

“And how are we supposed to do that?”

“We will find a way!”

I shake my head.

“And what about the people who work for Michael?” I ask. “And all the people connected with his company? And all their jobs? What about Rachel and Jarad’s restaurant merger that’s being managed by Steele & Richmond? What about that?”

“There will be other mergers,” says Zlata. “And other jobs. We will help them all!”

“Help!?” I’m gobsmacked. “The past few weeks have been one long train wreck. And all because of you and your secret quest for revenge! Without you poking around in people’s lives Rachel and Jarad would never have approached the Arabian brothers! And all that nonsense with Stephan LeBlanc could have been avoided!”

“Yes, and maybe you would never have met me,” says Zlata, waving her arms around in that way that she does, only this time with a deadly weapon in one hand. “Or Rachel, or Nathia, and you would be working in the Woolworths, not being actor, and selling the pick and mix!” And that hurts. More even than bullets.

“But I’m not an actor, Zlata,” I say. “I haven’t set foot on a stage in almost seven years. In fact – thanks to you – I am nothing more than an elaborate con-man. I’m sorry about what happened to you and your family – really I am – but enough is enough. It’s time for us – you, me, Rachel – to put the past behind us and get on with our lives! Do something we can be proud of!”

“And what about Michael Richmond?” asks Zlata. “We let him carry on taking from people? Destroying lives with greed?” I pick up my jacket and put it on.

“I’m not so sure the greed was his and his alone, Zlata. True, the man is a monster, and true, without Michael I’m sure things would have turned out very differently for you and Rachel, but there will always be monsters, Zlata. Always. And sometimes what the world needs isn’t fewer monsters, sometimes it just needs us to be better people.”

“Did you learn that from theatre also?” asks Zlata, her face now red with rage.

“No Zlata, that’s common sense.” I walk to the door, and open it. Zlata stamps her foot behind me.

“William!” she says. “If you walk away I will never ever speak to you again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, and close the door behind me.


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