The opening chapter to: The Truth About This Charming Man

IMG_0618Act I

Scene One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay,” I say, and turn to leave.

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venture capitalists?”


“But I thought… My agent said–”

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

“Of course,” I said. “Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” said Nathia.

“So?” I said. “Do you have a job?”

Nathia sighed irritably. “Bertram!” she said.


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

“Your made-up boyfriend?” I asked.


“You need me to be Bertram?”

“That’s what I said.”


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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” says Rachel. “We did.”

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

“Jarad,” says Rachel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Already?” he slurs.

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

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

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

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

“Sounds very grand,” I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m tired,” she says. I nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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Chapter Two: The Truth About This Charming Man


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.


“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.


“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


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.”


“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.


“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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