The cab drove away and Paula took a deep breath before walking through the doors of the restaurant. Robin, the Maitre d', was his usual obsequious self as he greeted her.
'A pleasure as always,' he said. 'And Mister Ellis?'
'Seb sends his best,' she said. 'I'm meeting Saskia this evening. Girl's night out.'
'This way, please.'
He led her to her usual table in the rear. She ordered a gin and tonic and checked her phone. Ten past eight and still no word from Saskia. Still, her being late was nothing out of the ordinary. That one would be late for her own funeral.
She showed up at eight thirty, full of contrition.
'Meeting ran late, traffic, then a sprint to get ready...I bet I look a fucking fright, don't I?'
She didn't. She looked amazing. After considering of the lustre of her skin, the swagger of her mannerisms and the exhibitionist cut of her cream trouser suit, Paula was left in no doubt that Matt, Sakia's unfortunate husband, was once again wearing horns.
A couple of glasses of wine was all it took for the truth to emerge.
'He's a golf pro. Actually, it was Matt who introduced us. He was helping him with his swing.'
'Golfers? Ugh...' Paula wrinkled her nose. 'The fashion sense alone...'
'Patrick has impeccable taste, I can assure you.'
'Especially in women.'
'Well, obviously.' Saskia smiled and raised her glass, failing to pick up on the sarcasm. 'I'm seeing him later on. Would you like to meet him? I'm sorry to do this babe, but you're my alibi for tonight. I'm going to tell Matt that you and I went to a club up the West End.'
Paula said nothing. The lack of consideration was typical.
After their meal they took a cab to a wine-bar in Clerkenwell. As they walked in the door, Paula scanned the assembled ranks – media bottom-feeders and other assorted hangers-on – for likely candidates. Given what she knew of Saskia's preferences, none seemed obvious. Unless she'd suddenly developed a taste for effete boy-men...
'There he is.'
'What's your problem?'
'Nothing, it's just...'
'He's black, what of it? I never took you for a racist.'
Before she could reply, Patrick had come over.
'Pat, this is my...friend. Paula.' Saskia's looked on coldly as Paula took his hand.
'Paula. Shall we sit?'
The vibe was awkward as they took their seats at a corner table. Patrick ordered Bollinger and played host with a hyperactive bonhomie that Paula suspected owed not a little to chemical stimulation. He was older than she had expected, perhaps in his late thirties, with an accent that was a cocktail of French, African and Mid-Atlantic. His skin was walnut coloured and he had a slim goatee whose contours reminded Paula of the landing strip she had fashioned from her own pubic hair. And although Saskia's accusation of racism had stung her, she nevertheless found herself checking out the size of his hands. Distinctly average.
When Patrick excused himself to go to the bathroom, Paula turned to her friend and said, 'I can't believe you'd think that about me. How long have we known each other?'
'I didn't like your tone. Anyway, I'll ask you again. He's black, what of it?'
'It was a surprise. You should have told me, that's all. He seems like a really nice bloke.'
'Nice has nothing to do with it.' Saskia's leer was the most corrupt thing Paula had ever seen.
Patrick returned in a welter of tics and seemed upset when Paula said she had to go.
'It's so early,' he said. 'Maybe we should try somewhere else.'
'I have an early meeting,' said Paula. 'But it's been a pleasure.'
'Saskia tells me you're in PR. Do you have a card?'
She didn't, so she wrote her e-mail address on a match-book and handed it to him. It was worth it, if only to see the look of fathomless loathing that crossed Saskia's face.
'Call me.' She air-kissed her friend, shook hands with Patrick and took her leave of them wearing a smirk.
I still fancy him, Paula thought. Great ass for a forty-seven year old. Clean. Hard-working. Makes me laugh. Yeah, I still fancy him. But if that's the case, and he is all that, then why is my mind wandering like this in the middle of fucking him?
Seb loomed above her, deathly serious. She cupped his face and looked into his eyes, making some appreciative noises. Looking down, she watched his cock enter and leave her body with metronomic regularity, and though she had no idea what a crankshaft was, she thought of one anyway.
'It's so good, babe,' he gasped.
Maybe that's the problem, thought Paula. It's not that I'm not enjoying this. Or is it? I wish he'd hurry up and come...
He wasn't quite ready yet. Paula got on all fours as requested and Seb got into position at the rear of her. She glanced sideways and watched their reflections in the mirrored door of a wardrobe – his zeal; her facsimile of it. The sight of her body displeased her – slack flesh, voluminous butt, tired eyes. And her roots needed doing...
As the tip of his cock slipped inside her, he slapped her arse lightly.
Now that's just plain wrong, she thought. Not his style.
Seb's reflection gritted his teeth and upped the pace. Paula recognized his pre-climax face and chipped in with a selection of ecstatic moans. She rubbed her clit furiously but to no avail. His come filled her vagina with pleasant warmth and a small shudder passed through her. It was better than nothing.
Seb was in the mood for cuddling afterwards. And he was feeling post-fuck profound.
'It's so still,' he said. 'You can almost touch it...'
'I need a smoke,' said Paula. 'Old habits and all.'
'When are you going to quit?' Seb lay back with his hands behind his head. 'Every month you say it.'
Paula knew his apparent concern was nothing more than a dig at her for having spoiled his moment. His face was sour, like a Persian cat's.
He gives me that look. I should be the one who's got the hump, she thought.
'Stress, innit.' She took a cigarette from the box in her robe pocket and clamped the filter between her teeth. 'Don't wait up.'
'I'm glad you think it's funny...'
Paula shut the door behind her, missing out on the rest of what he had to say. But she was sure that it would have really made her think.
She tiptoed past Charlotte's door, noting the faint luminescence within the frame. What does a sixteen year old girl do all night on that laptop? Had to be a new bloke. She smiled, thinking of her daughter's hooker face of make-up every morning for the past few weeks. God knows what her mum would have done had she seen her in a similar get-up.
She lit her cigarette by the kitchen door and walked out into the back garden. It was scary how you said something and only afterwards realized that it was exactly the sort of thing your parents would have come out with. Like with Saskia the other night. "I can't believe you'd think that about me..." Caught by the balls but squirming off the hook with a display of wounded innocence. That was her old lady alright. Mind games like a fucking grandmaster.
Saskia, though. Her and a coked-up gigolo. What was she thinking?
A neighbour's dog half barked, half whined, the sound definitely carnal to her ears. Bitches in heat. The whole world's got the itch. She remembered watching stray cats fucking in the lane behind her house in Wembley when she was a girl. The violence of it – the rucks between the toms to see who was top boy and the prize, a couple of fur-ripping, ear-biting seconds corkscrewed into the haunches of a pissed-off queen. Was it worth all that bother? Saskia obviously thought so. Perhaps it wasn't so much the sex as the bother that people got off on. Lies, the buzz of danger, the satisfaction of pulling a fast one. But what would a well brought-up girl like her know about all that?
She lit another cigarette from the butt of the first, stubbing out the latter on the wall. He wants me to quit just because he did. And the shit thing is, I'm going to. And then we can be self-righteous together. Okay, I still fancy him. But Jesus, he can be such a smug prick.
She saw him in Morrison's in Acton every Saturday morning when she dropped in on the way back from the gym. Most of those days, she didn't need anything in particular but it was better than going straight home.
Supermarkets made her feel stoned. She would drift randomly from aisle to aisle, her tracksuit faintly smelling of chlorine, carrying a basket full of pointless, self-indulgent purchases – rosé, Pringles, a DVD she would never watch, a CD she would listen to once and never again. There was so much stuff to look at but she preferred to watch people and arrive at scandalous conclusions about them based on the contents of their baskets and trolleys. Bulimic, pedo, lush...the bathtub chemist with a trolley full of cough medicine and coffee filters; the suburban prostitute getting in the weekend's supplies of condoms and baby-wipes; the widower attempting to fill the hole left inside of him with cake...
And then there was him. Late forties, early fifties maybe...it was hard to tell. He was lighter than Patrick, shaven headed, always dressed, as she was, for the gym. Not her gym – she'd surely have run into him there at some stage and anyway, he didn't fit the profile. She knew of a boxing club nearby. That seemed more likely even though he didn't look like a fighter. Paula's Dad had boxed in the army and she knew the kind of marks it left – scar tissue on the eyes, misshapen ears, a punchy vacancy. This bloke was clean, seemed much too alert. Even a dancing master wouldn't go through his career without a few souvenirs of occasions on which he had run into a scrapper, like her Dad had been, and been sucked into a brawl. Still, it was obvious that he'd be useful. A massive escalation merchant, she decided, like a Rottweiler – dead quiet, stock still, then boom...Your face ripped off before you knew what had happened.
He caught her scoping his basket once or twice. Fruit, greens, red meat. No junk or booze. But definitely shopping for one. A poor actress, Paula inevitably ballsed up the semblance of casualness she tried to portray at those moments. There was a defensive thing in his eyes that made pretence impossible. She wasn't short on front but there was a presence about the man that made her feel cowed. Like she was facing an arm wielding a cosh...
And with that, he was christened.
She had just shut the door of her car when she saw Cosh in the rear view. He was texting solemnly while slotting a key into the door of a red Insignia. Though he was in the row behind her, she crouched forward, not wanting him to see her. She hadn't seen him inside; only realised now that that meant she had been on the lookout for him. As he pulled out, she started her engine, waving on a jeep that moved into the space between Cosh's and her car.
Cover vehicle, she thought. I ought to have been Special Branch. I'm not tailing him or anything. We're both leaving. It's a coincidence.
Instead of taking the turn-off that would have brought her home to Chiswick, Paula flicked off her indicator at the last minute and followed the jeep and the Insignia along the Uxbridge Road. She hung back, chewing hard on a piece of gum that was failing to subdue her craving for a cigarette. Stopped at the lights by Ealing Common tube station, she took her emergency smokes from the glove compartment and lit up ravenously. Fuck it. Nearly a week off them was pretty good going.
She lost her cover when the jeep turned on to Hanger Lane and dropped back even further. The Insignia continued on to Ealing Broadway, eventually disappearing into the forecourt of a block of new apartments on a road behind the Council offices. She'd often wondered about the inhabitants of these type of gaffs. Singles, definitely. Separation flotsam, mid-life crises, closet cases...Rabbits in their hutches, noses pressed to the wire. Too depressing to contemplate. She pictured his flat and saw a stripped back orderliness that reflected its tenant's personality – a meagre kitchen, a lonely razor on the bathroom sink, a bench and a set of weights in the bedroom. The smell of air freshener and Lynx. The background hum of sexual frustration...
She drove through a succession of featureless streets that led her back to the Broadway. The clock on the dash said 11.45. Seb should be back from his cycle. An image of him in those aerodynamic shorts made her wince. I'll have to stop off in the garage and get some Mentos. Else he'll sulk cos I've "let him down..."
"No darling, you let yourself down...I'm here to help you..."
Why didn't he just admit that he didn't like her smelling of smoke? She'd never met a man so sensitive to bad odours. And as he got older, he had that face more and more, like he was smelling something bad all the time. Gave him a prissy mouth.
Still, he has aged well. Looks like, no, not an actor...a vicar. A celebrity vicar...
She giggled hysterically until tears stung the rims of her eyes.
The house was quiet when she got back. Seb was still out and Charlotte was sleeping over at a friend's that weekend. It was rare that the place was empty on a Saturday morning, even with only the three of them, and Paula wasn't sure if she liked it or not. She made some coffee and turned on a cookery show to tamp down the sensation she had of being hollowed out on the inside, like a cored apple. She sat down on the sofa and tried to concentrate on the television. One of the guests was a R&B star who, according to industry gossip, had a serious taste for underage skirt. Paula hoped that whoever was handling his publicity had a contingency plan. Or maybe exposing him as a nonce was part of their long-term strategy. Hit the doomsday switch. Bad press is better than none.
She rubbed the side of her neck as her thoughts returned to Cosh's apartment. It had changed since she had last imagined it; the cold daylight of her earlier vision replaced by dim-switch evening. She saw his clothes laid out on the bed but was lured away from examining them by the sound of falling water from the next room. Back in reality, she killed the TV, one hand worrying the chain of her pendant while the other climbed from the remote in her lap to search for her navel ring through her vest. She tried to control her breathing as she approached the bathroom door but it deepened with every step she took. The room was alternately hot and cold. She touched her chest and felt the skin coarse with gooseflesh above the bone.
Now when she breathed in, she could taste the damp heat of the shower. It was difficult to see through the haze of steam and the fogged partition but she could make out a shape, a tantalizing series of flashes of dark, wet flesh. She slipped forward over groaning vinyl, her toes en point inside her trainers. Her fingertips traced circles on her exposed stomach, always heading south, squirming under the waistband of her tracksuit as she watched him wipe the condensation from the shower door to offer her a sight of his upper body. She gave him tattoos, blue upon the streaming flesh of his pectorals and shoulders. She didn't want a gym junky's physique. Fuck all that clichéd narcissism. She wanted a man who looked like a man – lean, weathered, hard...
It was impossible to stifle the word as her fingers touched her clit through the stuff of her thong. She looked around, half expecting to see Seb or Charlotte watching on in horror but the house was still empty, still all hers. That it wouldn't be for much longer was an intolerable thought.
Give me time to finish this. Please...
She pushed one breast free of its bra cup and her vest and touched her licked fingers to the nipple. Her other hand pulled her thong aside and scribbled herself open. A gentle spasm that she always pictured taking the shape of a question mark wriggled through her insides when the tips of her fingers prepared to enter her vagina. Taking care with her nails, she dipped one fingertip inside, letting her thumb rest upon her clit.
The bottom half of the shower door remained opaque but she knew that he was hard, jerking himself off in the ecstasy of warm, falling water. At least a portion of her gathering climax expressed itself as a physical hunger for the tableau she pictured behind the door. Ebbing and flowing within the fog that surrounded him, his hand – equally as fascinating to her as that which it held – moved steadily along the shaft of his cock, slowing down at intervals to delay the orgasm which she knew was imminent.
She used to ask Seb to masturbate for her. She had been entranced by the spectacle, a glimpse of the mannerisms of an unfamiliar sexuality. But Seb had found it embarrassing, unlike Cosh. He knew that she was there. She was convinced of it. He knew, and it spurred him on, just as the thought of his awareness acted like an accelerant to the orgasm which surged up the centre of her body like water rushing from a breached levee. Her hips arched up from the sofa as it came again with twice the force of its predecessor. And again as Cosh's fist became still on his cock, pulling back hard upon at base of his glans as his come spurted out against the glass. She ached to feel what he felt, that ferocious concentration of pleasure in one location as opposed to the expansiveness of her own climax which left no part of her body unaffected. To feel the violence of it, just once.
Past her peak, she felt a lessening of the intensity of her spasms and the onset of the bittersweet coda. As ever, the best antidote to the blues was activity.
I'm sopping down there, she thought. That'll soak through.
Cupping a hand over her groin, she took a wipe from her gym bag and scooped the wetness from her labia. The room smelled funky. Needed some Febreze.
She recupped her breast and crossed to the fireplace, starting when she beheld the strange woman who looked out at her from the mirror. The breath was sucked from her lungs as she realized, for the first time in years, that it was a face that a man might actually want.
One Saturday, she was standing behind him in a queue for the ATM when they started talking. Paula, who wasn't in the habit of starting public conversations with strangers, seemed to be standing outside herself watching as she said, 'My friend had her card swiped. At the Abbey in the High Street.'
'Gyppos,' said Cosh. His voice had a south of the river inflection. 'Doing it all over.'
'Cleared her account,' said Paula.
'She get it back?'
'Yeah. But she's a mess now. Sees a mugger around every corner.'
He took off the shades he was wearing.
'You got to be wary,' he said. 'Else you're a mug. They smell you out.'
The queue moved forward.
'You ain't scared, though.'
'Nah.' He smiled. 'You from Willesden?'
'Why'd you ask?'
'Thought you was Irish.'
'But you not Wembley now. Moved up in the world.'
'What if I have?'
She didn't mind that he was a bit lairy. It was refreshing in comparison to Seb's passive aggression and the timid banter of her male work colleagues. She remembered the cut and thrust of teenage courtship – the boys' deliberate provocation, the girls' overdone outrage. And she had always had a thing for the cheekiest ones.
Cosh took his place at the ATM. She noticed the tattoos on his hands. Ex-con. Squaddie, maybe. He has that posture...
'So what now, you going to shoulder-surf me?' he said.
'I got more game than that coup.'
'What you know about coups? Nice girl like you?'
'Nice who?' Paula felt a pang of irritation that was reflected in her tone.
'It's a compliment.' Cosh took his money from the machine and walked away.
You scared him off now, she thought, keying in her PIN. He thinks you're one of those Range-Rover bitches. Like Saskia. And, you know, maybe you are.