I realised I was very hungry. I hadn't eaten since the morning and now it was past seven. 'Okay, if you insist.'
'I do, and by the way, Professor, you should do some work on your neuroses. If ever any guy was an obsessive and compulsive grader man, that guy is you.'
I'd heard all about Ben's book, of course. I'd even bought a copy of it when it was on special offer in my local bookshop back in the UK. But I hadn't read it.
Since Charlie's death I'd not read anything except my emails and of course the fashion and the other women's magazines. I had to stay on top of bags and boots and frocks and shoes because it was my job to keep my fingers firmly on the pulse of fashion and to be aware of what was trending.
But now I'd met the author I decided I ought to read his work. I should try to get a handle on this guy who'd married Tess, a girl who probably hadn't read a novel since she was sixteen and still at school, and had been forced to do so then.
There was a bookcase in the living room containing half a dozen copies of Ben's first collection of short stories which had won some prizes and made him a slight literary sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, but had bombed commercially. There were also three whole shelves of various editions of his ber-super-duper-worldwide-knockout bestseller Missouri Crossing in two dozen languages or more. So, if I had wanted, I could have had a go at learning Portuguese, Swahili or Malay.
I'd read it first in English, I decided. I'd find out if it was as wonderful as everybody publishers, reviewers and ordinary readers seemed to think. A man might be a fashion tragedy, but this didn't have to mean he couldn't write a novel.
'You didn't waste a lot of time,' I said, as I made I had to learn to say I fixed some coffee for us both in Tess's huge and gorgeous kitchen which was lit by three big chandeliers and even had a wine room leading off it temperature-controlled, naturally.
The sink was big enough to bath a toddler and a Labrador together. As well as ordinary mixer taps, there were special ones from which you got your water iced. Or conversely boiling. It took me quite a while to realise I didn't need a kettle. This was just as well because there wasn't one.
'How did you know you'd be compatible?' I added as I fiddled with the coffee-maker. This was the most complicated model I had ever seen. Ben had bought it. He was into gadgets, obviously. The place was full of them.
'We ran some tests, of course.' Tess was busy making dinner with the basic stuff we'd bought from Target and some speciality stores in downtown Minneapolis earlier that day. She said she had to make some effort because there could be company tonight. Ben had said he might invite a friend. So I didn't count as company? I let it pa.s.s.
'Compatibility,' I prompted.
'We did the inkblot stuff.'
'What do you mean the inkblot stuff?'
'It's sort of like the Tarot but it's more scientific.' Tess looked at me and frowned. 'I thought you went to university?'
'I read Modern Languages, not inkblotology.'
'Okay, you have these cards with different patterns on them, like those b.u.t.terfly designs we made when we were little, blobbing paint on paper and folding it in half, you know?'
'So then you look at them and tell the other person what you see. They reveal all sorts of stuff about your personality, your hopes, your fears, your dreams. I don't remember much of what Ben said because he was distracting me. When I have some time I'll go online and find out more. It's probably on Wikipedia.'
She rinsed the collard greens in the enormous granite sink. 'I'll do it when we come back from the mall. After we get up tomorrow morning we're going to the mall.'
'I've been to malls before.'
'You haven't been to this one. It's the Hollywood of the Midwest and it's a total blast. You'll never look at Oxford Street in the same way again. You're going to think you've died and gone to heaven in a golden BMW. Or I did, anyway.'
'You don't, at least not yet.' Tess put down her saucepan and then she grinned at me. 'Actually, I'd like a golden BMW. My Toyota's it was very nice of Ben to buy me the Toyota my Toyota's sweet. But if I did that dirty thing he's always going on at me to do in bed but I don't fancy doing, I wonder if I'd get a BMW as well?'
'There's only one way to find out.' I poured the coffee. 'You and Ben, you're not the likeliest of couples, are you despite the inkblot stuff?'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Well, he's a famous novelist, but you're-'
'I'm stupid and he's smart?'
'No, don't be so daft, you're far from stupid, and you know it. All the same, you're not an academic, and I would have thought perhaps ...'
'But it's not like you think,' said Tess. 'We have a lot in common. He grew up in a trailer park where almost everybody was on drugs or in and out of prison all the time. I grew up in a concrete rat-hole of a council flat in Bethnal Green. Ben's brothers are all misfits. My brothers were all born to thieve. Ben's father was disabled in an accident at work and so was Dad when a big lorry wrecked his market stall. The family lived on welfare, just like mine.'
'He's had it hard, you know.' Tess started peeling sweet potatoes. 'Poor white trash, that's what he says they called him when he went to Yale on a scholarship, and he still thinks meatloaf is the height of gracious living, even though he could afford to buy the weight of that one we've been making in Beluga caviar. As for me and him and our relationship he's experimenting, isn't he? He's trying something new and so am I.'
'So you're not in love with him?'
'Do me a favour, mate? I like him lots. I really do. He's clever and he's generous and he's fun. You'd have to walk a million miles to find a man who's half as good at concentrating on a girl, who makes her feel like she's the only woman in the world well, at that moment, anyway. When we were in Las Vegas, it was beyond fantastic. But all the time he was with me, he was eyeing up the local babes. I know he has some playmates here in Minneapolis-Saint Paul. I've often heard him on his mobile, whispering and laughing.'
'What if he was talking to a student or his agent?'
'I doubt if he would tell a student or his agent she's got the cutest a.s.s in the Twin Cities.' Tess put down her peeler. 'Or perhaps he might? You can't be sure with Ben. He's s.h.i.t with boundaries. He couldn't do political correctness if he tried.'
'Well, there you are, then.'
'Yes, but all the same, I know the score.' Tess looked at me and shrugged. 'I'm Mrs Fairfax Three yeah, that's what he calls me and I bet he'll get to Mrs Fairfax Six or maybe even Mrs Fairfax Seven before he calls time out. I've already stashed my diamonds in the bank against a rainy day.'
'He's given you some diamonds?'
'Just a few.'
'But they're nice big fat ones, are they genuine girl's-best-friends?'
'Yeah, I suppose.'
'Why don't you wear them?'
'I couldn't wear a great big diamond, Rosie. It wouldn't be my style. They're staying in the bank.'
'How long are you thinking this will last?'
'Maybe five, six years?'
'What if you caught him cheating on you now?'
'What, like in bed with someone else? I might have to take some form of action scissor-wise, make my displeasure felt, know what I mean? I don't mind him flirting. But he's not allowed to play away until I give him my permission, until I don't want him any more.'
'What about the babies?'
'Did we mention any babies?'
'Yes, the ones you told me you might have eggs past their sell-by date and all that stuff?'
'I haven't made my mind up yet. But I don't think he's very keen on children, actually. They might mess with his gadgets. So-'
'Tess, I think your meatloaf might be burning.'
'Oh, s.h.i.t I think you're right.' She yanked open the door of the enormous range-style cooker and then pulled out the smoking, blackened pan which now contained a Bible-style burnt offering.
'Well done, Rosie, just in time.' She dumped the pan down on the kitchen counter. 'Blast, I've burnt off half my thumb,' she cried. 'I hate this cooking lark! I'm no domestic G.o.ddess, growing my own ruddy basil, making sausages from guts and lungs. If I cut the top off this disaster, do you reckon it will do?'
'Give me a knife and get a plaster for your thumb. Let's see if I just tidy this side here?' I sc.r.a.ped away some charcoal then stood back from the blackened lump. 'It doesn't look too bad. Maybe I should turn it upside down? Do you think it will be enough for four? Ben's friend, he's definitely coming, is he?'
'Yeah, so it would seem.'
'You going to tell me anything about him?'
'There's nothing much to say. He's called Patrick Riley and does something with computers. Ben says Pat's a tedious number cruncher and couldn't be more boring if he tried.'
'What's he like?'
'You mean in looks or personality?'
'I mean in both.'
'He's tallish, darkish, thirty-fiveish, and like Ben says boring. Or, if we're being charitable, intense. He doesn't have a lot to say to me. Apart from hi, how are you doing, I don't think he speaks to me at all. Whenever he comes here to the apartment it's to talk to Ben.'
'How does he know Ben?'
'He's from Recovery, Missouri, too. They lived in the same neighbourhood. But Pat lived in a house, not in a trailer, so maybe he was cla.s.s while Ben was trash? Anyway, they went to school together in some sagebrush swamp. After they grew up they kept in touch and now they teach at the same university.'
'Sagebrush grows in deserts, not in swamps.'
'How do you know that?'
'I went to Cambridge University and got a quarter blue in tiddlywinks.'
'Of course you did. Anyway, as I was telling you, Recovery is one of those dull, nothing-ever-happens little towns where people have to drink cheap alcohol, beat up their wives or shoot each other dead for entertainment. There's d.a.m.n all else to do. So Ben says, anyway.'
'It sounds like Royal Tunbridge Wells.'
'Yeah, when he talks about Recovery, I am immediately reminded of Royal Tunbridge Wells.' Tess began to fiddle with her home-made New York cheesecake which she'd knocked up from a packet mix and was trying to home-make a bit more by sticking candied lemon slices which had never been near any lemon all round the perimeter. 'Did we remember to buy a can of ready-whipped?'
'Yes, it's in the fridge. Or do I mean the icebox?'
'No, you mean the fridge. Americans have fridges now, an icebox is a cooler.' Tess took out the aerosol of cream. 'Okay, rosettes or swirls, what do you think? I told Ben we'd be making stuff from scratch. This needs to look like I made it myself.'
'I'd go for rosettes, then. But don't do them yet. This sort of cream collapses in a puddle five minutes after squirting. I think I heard the doorbell shall I get it?'
'Please, if you don't mind. I need to make the gravy and turn the sweet potatoes. They're catching just a bit. They always do.'
'You could blame the oven.'
'Yeah, I might.'
I walked off down the pa.s.sage. What had Tess just said about this guy that he worked with computers? I supposed that meant he was a geek.
He'd most probably be stooped, round-shouldered from crouching over keyboards endlessly, and either very fat or very thin, all lard or all raw bones. He'd have lots of dandruff and possibly some personal hygiene issues. He'd wear gla.s.ses fixed with sticking plaster, badly-fitting jeans, a cheap acrylic sweater ...
I unlocked the front door. I opened it and found that I was gazing into the dark brown eyes of the most attractive man I'd seen for years and years.
'Hi,' he began. 'You must be Rosie?'
The dark-haired girl who smelled of something flowery and expensive looked at me like I was something nasty on her shoe.
'Yes, I'm Rosie, and you must be Patrick?' she replied, in a voice that sounded like she should be in a vintage British movie or an episode of Downton Abbey, my mother's favourite show. She managed a half smile, like she was a t.i.tled lady condescending to a dirty peasant and not liking anything about the situation. 'Tess and I are busy in the kitchen,' she continued. 'Ben is working in the den.'
Okay, I thought, I get it. The famous British courtesy, the elegance of manner which means a British person can be polite and charming while privately deciding you're a jerk and somehow making sure you know it, too ...
I headed down the pa.s.sage to the den where Ben was working?
You could have had me fooled. I found him lounging like a sultan in his new recliner, watching television and cheering on the Minnesota Twins. A beer in his hand and a half dozen in the pack beside him, he was smug as a racc.o.o.n who found a whole roast chicken in the trash.
'What do you think?' he asked me.
'What do I think of what?'
'Our transatlantic friend, of course.' He grinned at me. 'Tess says she went to Cambridge that's Cambridge University in England. She's a French and German major. So she must be pretty smart?'
'She's quite a doll, as well. Great legs, great a.s.s, great hair, and brains and beauty are always a good mix, don't you agree? I can't abide a woman who's all packaging.'
'Once in a while, she's a little on the sharp side. So maybe there's a squeeze of lemon in her personality? Yeah, I guess there must be. She's mysterious, as well. She doesn't give a man too many clues. Does she like him? Does she wish he'd go jump from a plane without a parachute? Does not knowing what a woman's thinking add to her attraction? Yes, if the woman's cute.'
'I'll take your word for it.'
'You should, because you're talking with an expert. There's a little blonde at JQA, she works in the main library, looks after all the periodicals for the humanities. She's got a viper's tongue, spits like a cat. A guy would need a pair of tongs and goggles before he messed with Coralie. But I'm kind of picking up some signals and I'm pretty sure she's hot for me. She's always-'
'Dinner's on the table, guys!' called Tess.
'She's always none of your concern. You're a married man did you forget? Redheads, blondes, brunettes and all the other colour permutations, they're off limits nowadays.'
'You missed your vocation, Father Riley.' Ben stood up and stretched. 'Okay, let's go eat.'
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