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!
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.”
“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!”
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!”
Read the next Chapter (Five), right now, without leaving this blog. Simply click here. OR, use the link below to buy the entire book for less that the price of a cup of coffee and download it onto your phone, tablet, computer. All you need is the free kindle app. Come on. You’ve read this far…