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 Three: The Truth About This Charming Man

Previously……

Out of work actor William Lewis made a living playing ‘Edwin,’ the fictitious boyfriend of high-powered executive Nathia. Or at least he used to, until Nathia decided to let him go. No matter, Zlata, his best friend and supposed theatrical agent has a new job for him… one that on the face of it is completely ridiculously and risky in the extreme. Although it would involve working very closely with someone Will rather likes… someone who seems to be no stranger to the concept of ‘secret identities’…

Read the previous chapter (two) here

Start from ‘Chapter One’ here

Act 1

Scene Three

“Gentlemen – welcome to my ’umble restaurant, I am Stephan LeBlanc…” I am not Stephan LeBlanc. I am William Lewis. Will to my friends. But these are not my friends. And I barely own anything more than a watch – restaurants are definitely out of my league.

I shake the hands of the two gentlemen and waiting staff step forward and offer to take their coats. I’d half expected them to be wearing traditional Arabian dress, but instead they’re dressed in three-piece business suits. Savile Row, if I’m not mistaken. And I only know this because they’re similar to my own, though I’m guessing that they probably own their suits, whereas mine is most definitely hired.

“It is so nice to finally meet you and put faces to names,” I continue, though as I’m sure you’re beginning to realise, I’ve never had any kind of contact with either gentleman before this moment.

“Allow me to introduce my personal assistant; Miss Taylor. Miss Taylor handles many of my day-to-day activities.” Rachel steps forward and offers her hand. For a tense moment I watch the reaction of the two men. Much has been said in the previous few days about particular cultural attitudes towards women, and the reception Rachel might get as a woman working in a key role within ‘my’ organisation. But the two men bow and clasp her hand much more warmly than my own.

“Also, let me introduce Jarad Hossaini, my head of catering and senior chef. It was Jarad that started me on this wonderful journey when he introduced me to his fabulous Jordanian cuisine. Shall we sit?”

Whilst waiters distribute coffees I sneak a glance at my ‘colleagues’. Jarad looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming juggernaut. Rachel, on the other hand, seems unfazed. She smiles shyly whenever anyone looks in her direction, which they do, often, and I can see that our guests are rapidly becoming beguiled by her charms. And for the first time since I agreed to take on this role, I’m starting to believe there’s every chance we might just pull this off.

Eight days ago I sat in this same restaurant, and discovered that the woman I knew as Rachel Richmond – shy and retiring wife of venture capitalist Michael Richmond – wasn’t so shy or as retiring as she’d led everyone to believe. Whilst Michael spent his days breathing life (or not) into fledgling companies throughout London, his wife was secretly running a restaurant, with Jarad – a talented Jordanian chef, and as it turns out, a distant cousin on Rachel’s mother’s side.

“But why keep it a secret?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“If you knew my husband, it would make total sense.”

“But I do know your husband! Don’t I?”

“You only know what you see, Will; the man who likes to put on an expensive suit, drink an entire bottle of port, and entertain you with tales of his investment exploits. But there’s another side to Michael. A darker side. A cruel side. Did he ever tell you how we met?”

“Many times,” I replied. “You were waiting tables. He was meeting a business associate. Your eyes met across the crowded restaurant…”

“I suppose that’s one version of events,” said Rachel. “It was my first job and I loved it. That quirky old building, the people I worked with, the customers – I could have happily waited tables for the rest of my life. And then Michael started coming in with his ‘business associates’ – first once a week, then twice, then every day.

“I thought nothing of it at first. Why wouldn’t you come in every day if you could afford to? Then he started making demands: first he wanted the same table, then he refused to be served by anyone else, finally he told me he wanted to marry me.”

“Crikey,” I said. “That really is demanding!”

“Yes, well, I thought he was joking at first. An extension of his lewd comments, and attempts to pinch my bottom, but it turned out he was serious. He told me if I agreed to marry him he would buy the restaurant and give it to me as a wedding present. It would be mine. I could run it.

“Well, I was used to customers coming on to me, it came with the territory, but no man had ever offered to buy me anything more than a drink – but then, Michael wasn’t your average man. He was older, wiser, more confident, more powerful. He was very, very attractive. And I was young. A little naïve. And maybe… a little greedy. I loved that restaurant so much, Will. If Michael was willing to get it for me then I figured he must really… I thought it meant…” Rachel blinked a few times, bit her bottom lip, then turned to look out of the window whilst she bunched the table cloth in her fists. I exchanged glances with Zlata.

“Meant what?”

“That he genuinely loved me,” she said, so quietly I could barely hear her. I shuffled in my chair.

“Well I’m sure he did,” I said. “And probably still does. Doesn’t he?”

“No, Will,” she said, her voice hardening. “I didn’t realise it for a long time, but it turned out… he was just buying me. He’d figured out my price, and was adding me to his ‘portfolio’.” She stared off into the distance, her eyes full of the past.

“That sounds a little harsh,” I said eventually.

“It’s also true,” she said, coming back to the here and now. “But who am I to judge? I wanted that restaurant, just as Michael wanted me. So I agreed; I married him.”

“Wow,” I said.

“And then I watched Michael do what Michael does so well.”

“He bought you the restaurant?” I asked.

“In a manner of speaking. The owner didn’t want to sell it – not even with my assurances that nothing would change. But that wasn’t going to stop Michael. Within a few months he’d acquired the building, and terminated the lease on the restaurant. The brasserie closed shortly after I became Mrs Richmond, and the owner and all my old colleagues found themselves out of work.

“I told myself it didn’t matter. That we’d re-open, under my management, and that I would re-employ as many of the original staff as I could, and together we would win back our old customers. It would be even better than it had been. Everybody would be happy.”

“I take it that’s not what happened,” I said, after a long pause. Rachel shook her head. “Michael never gave me the restaurant,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. “He struck a deal with a property developer, and together they tore that lovely old building to the ground, and replaced it with a block of ‘luxury’ apartments. And one day he presented me with a piece of paper telling me that those flats were mine – that was my wedding present; a constant reminder of a place I’d once loved, the people I used to enjoy working with, and how my greed had destroyed it all.”

“Gosh,” I said. Eventually. Though more to fill the void with something other than the sound of Zlata’s rings clinking against her coffee cup. She’d obviously heard the story before, but still, I couldn’t help thinking that a moment of respectful silence was called for. Whilst I glared at Zlata, Jarad came over with another coffee and set it on front of Rachel.

“For you,” he said, placing a hand tenderly on her shoulder, and then taking the seat next to me.

“Thank you,” she said, with a smile.

“So, how did you come to run this place?” I asked.

“I met Jarad at a family function,” said Rachel, picking up her frothy milky drink. “He told me about his passion for cooking, how he’d always dreamt of owning a restaurant, and I realised that here was an opportunity to make up for what I’d done. We found this premises and together we started this business.”

“And Michael doesn’t know?” I asked.

“He knows the restaurant exists, of course – but he doesn’t know about my involvement. Or that Jarad is my cousin. And that’s the way I want it to stay.” Something didn’t make sense.

“Then how on earth did Michael end up coming here for a business meeting?”

“Ah, well – in retrospect perhaps that wasn’t such a good idea,” said Rachel, shooting Jarad a look.

“What wasn’t?”

“The restaurant, this restaurant, has been extremely successful. A few months ago we started to wonder whether we could expand. Open a second restaurant. Perhaps even a small chain. But expansion needs money, William. Investment.”

“You’re kidding me. You contacted your husband! After what happened before?”

“Perhaps it was madness, but it felt like fate had handed me an opportunity. If I could get that… miserable worm to invest his money in our restaurant, it would, in some small way, be a kind of retribution. I wrote to Nathia, as Jarad, and asked whether her firm might be interested in discussing an investment opportunity. She came, saw the potential, and took the idea to her boss – my husband. Everything seemed to be going to plan – until, that is, the evening Michael came to see the restaurant for himself.

“I sat next to him, as his wife, and watched, helpless, as he fired his stupid investment questions at my cousin: what was his gross turnover for each year we’ve been in business? How much of that was net profit? What were his projections? And even though Jarad promised to provide Michael with everything he wanted, and more, by email the next day – that wasn’t good enough for my husband. Eventually he wasn’t even asking proper questions any more, he was just saying anything he could to belittle Jarad, my cousin, my business partner, right in front of me! I was livid, but what could I do? Once again this man had taken my dreams, and crushed them!”

Rachel sat back in her chair, exhausted. I was pretty shell shocked myself, my mind reeling at how much more there was to this melancholy beautiful woman I used to sit opposite at dinner parties.

Zlata broke the silence. “Nonsense,” she said. “The dream is not over! Always there is another way to skin dog!”

“I think you mean cat,” I said.

“I know what I mean,” said Zlata. “And this time we cannot fail!”

“Well – possibly,” said Rachel. “Zlata has this… alternative… idea.” I was starting to feel uncomfortable.

“Why do I get the impression that this somehow involves me?” I asked hesitantly. Rachel looked at her watch, and glanced at Jarad who left the table to fetch her coat and scarf.

“There are one or two complications,” said Rachel, getting out of her seat, taking the items from Jarad, and putting them on. “Unfortunately I don’t have time to go into them now – Michael will be wondering where I am – but let’s just say that we’re in need of an actor who specialises in playing unusual roles in real life. You can imagine how surprised I was when Zlata said she knew someone, and even more when I discovered that I already knew you – albeit as Edwin, boyfriend of my husband’s right-hand woman.” I shot a look at Zlata, who shrugged.

“Yes, well, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about her telling you that!”

“Don’t worry William,” said Rachel, reaching across the table and placing her hand on mine, “your secret is safe with me. Let’s talk tomorrow if that’s okay? I’d like to become your newest client.”

Not twelve hours later Zlata and I were parked in her ancient Mini Cooper, on double yellow lines, in a side street near London Bridge. Ahead of us, on the other side of a busy main road, was an austere looking coffee shop. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.

“So, that’s the place eh?” Zlata was leaning forwards, her torso pressed against the steering wheel, her nose almost touching the inside of the windscreen. I checked my watch. It was still on my wrist, which was a good thing, but it was way too early in the morning, which was not. “Why don’t we go in?” I suggested. “I could really use a cup of coffee. I was awake half the night worrying about what will happen if Michael finds out I’m not Edwin; he’ll confront Nathia, my god he might even fire her, and then there will be… ‘ramifications’.” I shuddered.

“That will not happen,” said Zlata, without ever looking at me. “Nobody is telling anyone anything.”

“You told Rachel!”

“That was different.”

“No it wasn’t!”

“Hush now,” said Zlata, turning to face me. “Look at the cafe.” I glanced back across the road, then at Zlata, who’d resumed her original position. At any moment I expected her to produce a pair of binoculars.

“Yes, it’s still there!” I said. Then frowned. “Not exactly busy, are they?”

“Exactly!” hissed Zlata. “Here we sit – looking at the many peoples; all going and coming. All of them needing something to eat, some coffee, a place to meet other peoples. And yet, no one goes in. No one comes out. It is like it is invisibles.”

“Too expensive, eh? It looks as if it might be quite pricey.” Zlata gave one of her eastern European shrugs. “Terrible food?” She shrugged again. “Okay, so why is it empty? At… nine-forty-five on a Monday morning?”

“It is the magic,” said Zlata.

“You mean like a curse?”

“No! Not like curse – I mean it has no magic! You go in, you drink coffee, you talk, you chat, but no magic. Nothing. It is empty experience.”

“Right,” I said. My stomach rumbled to let me know that it too was empty.

“And not just this restaurant,” continued Zlata, “all of them.”

“There are others?”

“Thirteen. All over London. All dead. All empty. No magic. But we – we have the magic!” Suddenly everything fell into place.

“Are you proposing that Jarad and Rachel merge with these guys?”

“Exactly!” replied Zlata. “It is perfect solution.” I rubbed my tired eyes.

“Well, it’s an interesting idea,” I mused. “But what makes you think Café Al Muteena would be remotely interested?”

“They will,” said Zlata. I narrowed my eyes. I could tell when she was up to something. “It is owned by two gentlemens. The Tahan Brothers. Abdul and Sadaqat. They are Arabian princes.”

“Princes? You’re kidding me.”

“I am deadly and serious. We had… the friendship.”

“The friendship?”

“Yes.” I raised an eyebrow.

“The ‘special’ friendship?”

“Sometimes it was special.”

“You and Abdul?”

“Yes. And his brother.”

“Both of them!?”

“They are very close. They share everything.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “Dear god…”

“And they are very proud men. Very traditional.”

“Not that traditional by the sounds of it!”

“It would be very bad thing if business fail. And so, like all business men, what they don’t have, they buy. We have the magic. They need the magic. They’ll talk to you.” She sat back in her seat and started the ignition.

“Hang on! Me?” I blurted.

“Yes. Of course you. And now we go for coffee – somewhere else.”

“But why me? Why not you?!”

“Our friendship,” said Zlata checking over her shoulder, “–not so special anymore.”

“Okay, well, then Jarad!”

“Jarad not so good with the business meeting. Remember?”

“Rachel then?”

“Like I say, they are traditional.” There was a metallic crunch whilst Zlata went through her usual unique approach to putting a car into first gear. “Arabian business gentlemens only do business with other gentlemens.”

“So because of your not-so-special-relationship, Jarad’s missing business acumen, and Rachel’s misfortune at being female, I have to negotiate with these… gentlemens!”

“Yes. That is about the shape of it.”

“You mean size!”

“I know what I mean,” said Zlata. The car launched forward, approached the junction at an alarming speed, and then joined the traffic on the main road to the usual fanfare of angry car horns.

“And who exactly am I supposed to say I am?” I yelled over the noise of the engine.

Stephan LeBlanc?!”

Without the hubbub of diners and waiters weaving between tables, Jarad’s had a church-like tranquillity about it. I, however, was feeling anything but tranquil. I waited impatiently for Zlata to light her cigarette and explain what mysterious Czech logic had led her to choose such a ludicrous name. Rachel glanced nervously from Zlata to me and back again. Jarad shuffled in his seat.

“Zlata thought that was quite a good name,” said Rachel.

“Zlata always thinks her names are good! Look, getting the name right is perhaps the most important part of developing a character. Would Macbeth have worked quite so well if the murderous Scottish general had been called…” I hunted around in my psyche for a suitably absurd name to illustrate my point. “… Bertram?”

“Well he could be, couldn’t he?” asked Rachel. “Isn’t Macbeth a surname?”

“My point is–”

“Never mind point,” interrupted Zlata, “Abdul and his brother already know Stephan LeBlanc. We write them nice letter and we sign it; Stephan LeBlanc. It is good name! Very convincing! And we cannot change it. Not now.”

“But it’s French! And I am not French!”

“But you are very good actor. This will be walk in the street.”

“Park!”

“I know what I mean!”

“And what if I don’t agree to this… lunacy?” Zlata said nothing, just took a long drag of her cigarette.

“Well,” said Rachel, “we’d have to find someone else.” But I could see she wasn’t convinced.

“Who? Who else is going to play this part?”

“I would play it!” said Zlata defiantly.

“You!?”

“Why not me?”

“Several reasons,” I said, preparing to tick them off my fingers. “A) You’re not a man, B) you’re not French, C) they already know you as their ex-‘special’ friend Zlata! And D)… you’re not a man!”

“I will wear disguise!”

“Good god!”

“I am good with disguise!”

“Look, Will,” said Rachel, reaching across the table and touching my arm, “There is no one else! We know that. So does Zlata.”

“I could do it!”

“Yes, Zlata, er, possibly, but not as well as Will. That’s why you suggested him. And that’s why we went ahead and contacted Abdul, because we were reasonably certain we knew someone who could play the part of Stephan when and if the time came. True, we probably should have waited until you’d agreed, Will, but we had to move quickly. Abdul and his brother aren’t in the country all that often.” She held my gaze, those cappuccino eyes never leaving mine for a second, and though it really was lunacy, a part of me wanted to do it for no other reason than it was important to Rachel. And I liked her. I liked her a lot. If she’d put her faith in me then I wanted to show her it was justified.

“Fine,” I said eventually. “Fine! I’ll do it. For you. But on one condition!”

“Name it,” said Rachel.

“None of this, none of this, ever gets back to Nathia and Michael. Or anyone else.” I looked at Zlata. “Is that understood?”

“Of course,” said Rachel.

“I could have done it,” said Zlata.

Rachel is in full flow, taking the brothers through ‘our’ turnover figures for the past five years, our projections, all those things that business people obsess about. We’ve even alluded to Stephan’s ‘interesting’ personal taxation conundrum, and why his name might not be on the bottom of any contract. A first step in removing the fictitious element from this business arrangement. And the brothers seem fine with that. In their hearts I suspect they already know that Rachel is the true business brains of this operation. And it doesn’t seem to matter that she isn’t a man.

“I think I speak for both of us,” says Abdul, “when I say that you are a most impressive individual, Miss Taylor. Monsieur LeBlanc, you are indeed most fortunate to have Miss Taylor in your employ.”

“Thank you gentlemen, I am indeed very lucky. Miss Taylor tells me much the same thing on almost a daily basis.” Everybody laughs.

“Normally I’d like some time to consider such a proposal but…” Abdul looks at his brother who returns the merest of nods, “I’m not sure there is anything to consider. We would be honoured to form an alliance with you. To take what you have done here and replicate it in all thirteen of our establishments.”

“Well, gentlemen,” I say with a respectful bow of my head, “words cannot express how happy that makes me.”

“There is just one thing we must do first,” continues Abdul. “As a courtesy to our investors, we are legally obliged to run a decision of this magnitude past them.” Abdul continues to talk but all I can hear is the word ‘investors’ echoing inside my head. This is the first time anybody’s mentioned investors.

“Of course, gentlemen,” I say. “Absolutely no problem.” Rachel gives me a sideways glance. And I know what she wants me to ask. “But, just out of interest,” I continue, “may I ask who your investors are?”

“Michael Richmond, of Steele & Richmond,” says Abdul. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?”


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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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To continue reading The Truth About This Charming Man pop over to amazon. It’s available right now in paperback or for your smart phone, tablet, or computer via the free kindle app! And remember, books make incredibly good gifts!

Boxing Day Mugs

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The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that a rather fetching ‘Boxing Day’ Mug often features in my posts on twitface. I love it, it’s my favourite mug, makes me smile every time I use it and I just love how it’s white (and red, obviously) on the outside and black on the inside.

Anyway, having been asked where I got it from a few times now, I decided maybe it was about time I made it available to the rest of the world (or other fans of Boxing Day). So here’s the ‘sales spiel’……..

There are actually several versions.

  • There’s a simple mug that says KEEP CALM AND HAVE A BOXING DAY on both sides (the perfect gift for that stressed out individual in your life) {£11.60}
  • For right handed people there’s a mug that says KEEP CALM AND HAVE A BOXING DAY on the side facing you and KEEP CALM I’M HAVING A BOXING DAY on the side facing everyone else! {£11.60}
  • Then there’s a left handed version of the same mug – I know, I know – I have literally thought of everything! {£11.60}
  • And for those who want to save a couple of quid, there’s a moderately cheaper version, but without the black interior. {£10.90}

The mugs are expensive. There’s no denying it. And I only make a quid or two on each one that gets sold. But they are beautiful. The design is lovely, of course – I did that – but the mugs themselves are really good quality. I’ve had mine well over a year, use it almost every day, and put it through the dishwasher several times a week, and it still looks like new.

To get a mug for yourself or a loved one, hop over to my Zazzle shop front at zazzle.co.uk/peterjonesauthor

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Would the real Peter Jones please step forward

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Back when my agent was shopping How To Do Everything And Be Happy around the UK publishers, there was some talk about whether or not I should change my name to avoid confusion with the other Peter Jones who, whilst equally tall, is often described as being more dragon like, and has a tendency to arrive at venues in a helicopter.

Sharing a name with a celebrity has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand people rarely forget me. I’m Peter Jones. Like the dragon. Like the shop. Memorability is a useful thing when you’re an author. On the other hand, journalists have this annoying habit of getting VERY excited about the possibility of an interview… and then lose interest just as quickly when they realise I’m not a billionaire, or a regular face on prime time television.

It’s a little like I offered you a five quid, and you thought I said five-hundred quid. When you realise I meant a five pound note you might feel ever so slightly let down. You might politely tell me to keep my cash. I want to say, “it is still cash you know!” but neither you and I are the actual people in this scenario, and nobody’s talking about cash.

Even amongst readers there’s some confusion. I occasionally get emails along the lines of “so you’re not the real Peter Jones then?” (am I somehow not real). And at a book signing back in January one lady came up to me, asked for the book to be made out to her son – and then promptly told me that he was doing my business course at college (I just nodded and smiled). Then a couple of weeks back, when I popped along to Author Della Galton’s latest book launch, one of her readers (who was clutching a copy of How To Eat Loads And Stay Slim) exclaimed “Wow! You’ve written a book with Peter Jones! Will he be here today?” When Della pointed out that I was standing right behind her there was that awkward moment of confusion that I’m beginning to expect when I’m introduced to people.

It occurred to me that a little re-branding might be in order. Time to tell the world that there’s another flavour of Peter Jones available, and like any branding exercise, give people some sense as to what I’m about. With this in mind I had some new author photos done.

Reaction has been mixed. Most have reacted very positively. Others… less so. I feel that I’ve stuck my head above the parapet somewhat. But then I suppose that was the point.

I’d be interested to know what you think (though try to keep in mind that I’m a human being, with actual feelings, armed with a delete button…), and even more interested if you’ve got a similar experience of your own to share. Use the comments box below.


You can see more of the pictures from the shoot on my facebook profile