I have this picture in my mind of my grandfather, as an old man, sitting in a striped canvas deckchair under an apple tree laden with fruit. The picture is always in black and white, but you just know that the fruit is red. Rosy red. And I say that it is a picture of my grandfather as an old man, but I guess he would have only been in his mid-50s. At 61 I'm already older than he was when he died. It's funny how our concept of age changes as we ourselves age.
To this day, I'm not really sure why I agreed to meet with Louisa. Perhaps it was because her request was a hand-written note, hand written on an A5 sheet of pale blue wove laid paper with what appeared to be a blue-black charged fountain pen. In an age of badly worded emails, a brief but well-composed hand-written note does have a certain stand-out quality. Or maybe she just caught me at a weak moment.
'You say in your article,' she said, 'that democracy and the restoration of economic equilibrium are incompatible.'
'A cup of tea?' I suggested. 'Or would you prefer something stronger? I think it's safe to assume that the sun has passed the yardarm in both directions.' She frowned slightly but expressed no immediate preference. I took this as an invitation to pour a couple of thirst-quenching gin and tonics -- a splash of gin and lots of tonic.
'If -- as you suggest -- neither side can afford to alienate the five or six percent of the electorate that swings back and forth, then how is change to be effected?'
'It isn't,' I said. 'Unless the party or the coalition of parties that effects the change is prepared to risk losing the next election. And I have yet to meet one that is.'
'So, you're saying that we are stuck with the current situation?'
'Pretty much. Barring the occasional happy accident.'
Louisa frowned again and made a note on her stenographer's pad. 'Well, isn't that dishonest?' she said.
'For me to say that we are stuck with the current situation? Or for it to be so?'
'I mean ... why would politicians promise to sort things out if they know that they can't and won't?'
'Because otherwise we wouldn't vote for them. There are really only two rules of political life. The first is that the politician shall do whatever it takes to get elected; and the second is that, once elected, the politician shall do whatever it takes to get re-elected.'
Louisa made more notes on her pad.
'So ... are you a staffer or a freelance?' I asked.
'At the moment I'm on an internship,' she replied.
'Ah. Slave labour.'
'Well there's no salary, as such. But the magazine does cover my expenses. And given the present situation, being an intern is about the only way to get any quality experience. I think it's been more than two years since the magazine has actually hired a new writer.'
'They don't need to if chaps like you are happy to provide your labour free of charge.' I handed Louisa one of the drinks. 'Cheers,' I said.
'Thank you. Cheers,' she echoed.
I've never been very comfortable being interviewed. Each time the interviewer asks me a question I find myself wondering why they asked that particular question. What are they really trying to get at? What trap are they trying to set? My usual defence is to start asking questions right back at the interviewer. I guess that's what I was doing with Louisa. 'Have you always wanted to be a journalist?'
'I've always thought that it was a possibility.'
A possibility. 'But there were other possibilities too?'
'I studied at Trinity College for almost three years. Cello. And then I broke my hand.' Louisa held up her left hand and waggled her elegant fingers.
'And what made you chose the cello?'
'My father's a cellist. I suppose I just sort of grew up with it.'
Louisa was sitting opposite me, wearing a tailored black skirt, her knees neatly together and turned slightly to one side; but briefly, in my mind anyway, she was wearing a full skirt, a cello steadied between her splayed thighs. 'Do you still play?'
'Just for my own ...' she hesitated, 'amusement, I suppose.'
'Can a cello be amusing? I can see that a tuba might be amusing. Or a triangle. But a cello? I think I would need some convincing.'
As we sat and sipped and chatted -- and Louisa managed to slip in the odd question -- the late afternoon sun started to flood in through the tall Georgian windows and I suddenly realised that it was almost five o'clock and I really needed to be elsewhere. Normally, I would have had no hesitation in drawing the meeting to a close. But, for some reason, it didn't feel right to just toss Louisa out onto the street. 'Look, I need to put in an appearance at a book launch,' I said. 'Why don't you come along?'
Louisa looked down at her silky lilac blouse and plain black skirt and made a little sweeping motion with her hand. 'I'm not really .... Well, you know.'
'You'll be fine,' I said.
The book that was being launched was a biography of Tobias Harkness, a 19th century lawyer and politician who many believe was the model for the conniving Willard Buckthorn in Thomas Thorburn's 'Castle Point' trilogy. The author had been one of my Ph D students.
A few heads turned when I walked in with Louisa, an attractive young woman less than half my age. I think most people assumed that she was one of my students. But Mark Richards, one of my colleagues at the university, clearly knew that he hadn't seen her before. 'Who's the young lady?' he asked, when she was out of earshot.
'Louisa. My new mistress,' I told him.
Richards smiled. 'In your dreams,' he said.
After an hour or so, Louisa announced that she was going to have to go. 'I'm having supper with my parents this evening. My mother gets all flustered if I'm late. I wonder if it would be possible to meet up again when you have an hour or so to spare. We didn't really get very far this afternoon, did we?'
'What about tomorrow afternoon?' I said. 'Four-thirty?'
The following day, Louisa arrived right on the dot of four-thirty which, in London's West End, is no mean achievement. Whether you choose a bus, the Tube, or a taxi, there is usually something to make the journey more of an adventure than it needs to be.
Louisa was wearing a silky, full-skirted dress. It was basically a warm grey colour but then it had almost random patches of a darker grey and a dusky pink. 'Is that a cello playing skirt?' I asked.
She looked down. 'Cello playing? Umm ... yes. Yes, I suppose it is,' she said.
I didn't bother with the pretence of offering her a cup of tea. I just poured a couple of gin and tonics.
'Right. Where were we?' I said.
She opened her notepad and took the top off her pen. 'You were being elusive.' She said this as a simple statement of fact rather than as any sort of criticism.
'Was I? I think I may have been concerned about your injured hand.'
She smiled. 'My hand is fine. Thank you.'
'But your injury cut short a promising career as a world-renowned cellist.'
'I'm not sure that there was ever any guarantee that I would even be an adequate cellist,' she said.
'I find that hard to believe,' I told her.
'You suggested yesterday that politicians are simply interested in getting elected and then re-elected.'
'So what about the ones who go into politics to make the world a better place?'
'Well, if they succeed in getting elected, they soon find that they can't make the world a better place. And if they fail to get elected, they eventually realise that they are wasting their time trying to get elected. Either way, they usually end up redirecting their energies to the pursuit of honours -- a knighthood or a seat in the House of Lords. Being a knight or a baronet does wonders for your ranking in the queue when you are checking in for a week on the Costa del Sol.'
Louisa took a sip of her gin and tonic and then made a few notes on her pad.
'And how was your mother?' I asked. 'Not too flustered?'
'No. She was fine.'
'And your father?'
'My father was my father.'
'And is that good?'
'Oh, yes,' she said.
The next couple of hours passed quickly -- aided by another couple of G&Ts -- and Louisa even managed to slip in a few probing questions (which I did my best to dance around).
'Right. I think we need to eat,' I said. 'I somehow managed to miss lunch today. There's a little Italian place around the corner that does a very good saltimbocca alla Romana.'
For a moment or two, Louisa hesitated. 'I've probably taken up quite enough of your time already ....'
'What! You're going to forsake the opportunity to observe how I hold my knife and fork and whether I am rude to the serving staff -- which I'm not, by the way.'
'Come on. If we go now, you'll still have time for whatever you have planned for later.'
Louisa closed her notepad. 'I don't actually have anything planned for later.'
'Even better,' I said. And I helped her with her coat. 'Oh, and by the way, I'm off to New York tomorrow. A symposium. I'm presenting a paper. You have my email address. If you have any further questions, you can send them through. I probably won't answer them, but you can still send them through. You never know.'
'Thank you,' she said. 'I think.'
The symposium was a three-day affair, but after the first two days I had had quite enough. There is a limit to how much hot air my system can cope with. I did, however, take the opportunity to lunch at some length with several old friends and colleagues while on the other side of the pond. As a result, it was a week before I returned to London.
I had caught the Heathrow Express into Paddington and I was standing on the concourse, trying to decide between taking a taxi and taking a walk, when I noticed Louisa. 'Hello. Don't tell me, let me guess: you have missed my genial company, and you've been standing here for the past five days, eagerly awaiting my return.'
She smiled. 'Or ... I just got in from Windsor.'
'I think I prefer my explanation,' I said. I glanced up at one of the station clocks. Six-forty-three. 'Do you fancy another visit to Mario's? In addition to the saltimbocca, they do a very good slow-cooked lamb dish, with garlic and rosemary.'
Louisa looked at her watch. 'You mean this evening?'
'We can drop my bags off at the flat on the way,' I said.
We headed out to the taxi rank. Even though it was a busy time of the day, the cabs were arriving thick and fast and there wasn't too much of a queue.
'How was New York? How was your symposium?' Louisa asked.
'New York was fine. In fact, better than fine. But the symposium was dry -- in both senses. There was a dearth of both ideas and alcohol. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans would have approved.'
'There is an unattractive puritan streak in some of our American cousins. In Plato's time, the very heart of a good symposium was the consumption of wine. The better the wine, the better the symposium. The presentation and discussion of ideas was just one of the more positive by-products of the lubrication.'
Louisa smiled and slowly shook her head in mock disbelief. At least I think it was mock disbelief. It can sometimes be difficult to tell with the younger generation. 'And how is your ... umm ... essay progressing?'
'The magazine is being put to bed as we speak.'
'And are you happy?' I asked. 'With the finished article?'
'Yes, I think so,' she said.
'And will I be happy with it?'
'We shall have to see.'
As Giancarlo showed us to our table, I could see Mario looking out from the open kitchen, smiling, nodding, and raising his eyebrows -- albeit subtly -- in acknowledgement of a second visit from the beautiful Louisa.
'You realise that it's too late for me to change the article,' Louisa said. 'Even if I wanted to.'
'Change? Whatever gave you the idea that I might want you to change anything?'
'It has already gone to press,' she said.
'So you said.'
'I just didn't want you to think that ....'
'Oh. I see. You're worried that I might be trying to bribe you with some of Mario's slow-cooked lamb.'
'Well, just so that you know,' she said.
I could see how the idea might have crossed her beautiful mind. But, no, I wasn't trying to corrupt her with Mario's slow-cooked lamb. In fact, at that point in the evening, I wasn't quite sure why I had invited her to dine with me. 'I realise that on a good day Mario's slow-cooked lamb could serve as currency, but perhaps I just enjoy your company,' I said. 'Is that a problem?'
'No,' she said. 'That's not a problem.'
'Perhaps,' I said, ' I am just hoping that if I get to know you well enough, I can persuade you to play the cello for me -- for my amusement, as you would have it.' Oh well, at least it made her smile.
She took a sip of her Valpolicella. 'I'm not sure about that. But what are you doing tomorrow evening?' she asked.
'Is this another of your cunning traps?'
She smiled again. 'No. But if you would like to hear some amusing cello music, my father is playing at The Wigmore Hall tomorrow night. And I have tickets.'
'Would I have to meet him?'
'Not if you didn't want to,' Louisa said.
I suppose that I should have put two and two together. Bathmaker is not a particularly common name. Leon Bathmaker. Louisa Bathmaker. One of his generation's finest cellists; and, had it not been for an unfortunate accident, perhaps one of the finest cellists of a new generation. And she had said that she had 'sort of grown up with the cello'.
When her father came on stage, I could see him discreetly scanning the first few rows of the auditorium. I was seated to Louisa's left. To her right there was a handsome young man closer to her own age. Her father seemed to approve. It was not my fault that he made an incorrect association.
'Are you sure that you don't want to say hello?' Louisa asked at the conclusion of the recital.
'Perhaps another time.'
'Your call,' she said. 'I'll meet you out the front in five minutes.'
It was only about a fifteen minute stroll from The Wigmore Hall back to my flat. Earlier in the day, I had purchased a handsome-looking line-caught sea bass. Just in case.
'I think a glass of fumé blanc to start,' I said. 'And then you can come and entertain me with your witty conversation while I attempt to deal with a scaly monster from the deep. I'm thinking that it might be quite nice on a bed of thinly-sliced potatoes, with garlic and olive oil and lots of chopped parsley, in the Genoese style. OK?'
'It is,' I assured her. 'And, importantly, it's quick to prepare and quick to cook. And ... as an accompaniment, I think some green peas. While many "sophisticated" cooks look down their noses at frozen peas, I think they are the perfect accompaniment to a dish like this. Cooked, of course.'
Louisa smiled. 'I was assuming that you intended to cook them.'
'So ... what else are you working on? Who else is being subjected to the harsh glare of your hand-held spotlight -- now that I have been permitted to scuttle back into the shadows?'
As I peeled and sliced the potatoes and filleted the bass, Louisa told me about the piece she was researching on the state of the string quartet. 'Marcus decided that, since my father is a musician of some standing, and since I had studied music for a year or two, I must be an expert.' And then she rolled her eyes.
'Well, at least you have some understanding of the basic concepts. Or at least I assume that you do. And I'm not sure that there can be too many scribblers out there who can make that claim.'
And then with the preparation complete, and the thinly-sliced garlicky potato slices roasting, there was just time for another glass of wine.
Louisa was sitting at one end of the kitchen table. She was wearing her dark, silky hair piled high that evening and, as I reached from behind to top up her wine glass, her elegant neck looked so, so inviting. The urge to kiss it was not to be resisted.
'Mmm. That's nice,' she murmured.
I had to agree. And, at that moment, I would have taken things further. Or at least I would have attempted to take things further. But the oven timer pinged, indicating that it was time to add the fillets of fish. Perhaps later.
Cooked in the Genovese style, the fish requires only three or four minutes in the hot oven, just long enough for the flesh to turn translucent and for the delicious juices to start to be absorbed into the crisp-edged potato slices on which the fish lies. 'Almost there,' I announced.
'It smells divine,' Louisa said.
While the fish cooked, I boiled a kettleful of water and twice blanched a small bowlful of frozen peas. After they had been blanched (and drained) for the second time, I added a pinch of salt, some freshly ground pepper, and a large nob of butter.
'Right,' I said, looking at my watch. 'Forty-one minutes and thirty-three seconds -- give or take. Not bad, if I say so myself.'
'Very good,' Louisa said. 'And I'm impressed. I thought that perhaps you had a standing reservation at Mario's.'
'Well,' I said, 'to be fair, Mario does often play a small role in the provision of my daily bread. But I also like to keep my hand in. I can manage most of the basic stuff. And I have, on occasion, been known to make my own chicken liver pate. And when it comes to steak and kidney pudding ... I challenge you to find better than a pudding prepared in this very kitchen.'
Louisa smiled. 'Steak and kidney pudding. Yum. Perhaps you will allow me to bring the wine.'
'It's a deal,' I said.
The bass dish, while simple and rustic, was almost perfect. And the company was better than perfect. By the time we had finished our supper it was almost 10:30. 'Another glass of wine?' I asked. 'Or would you prefer some coffee?'
'Hmm ....' Louisa frowned slightly. 'Do you have any chocolate?'
'I think so. You mean drinking chocolate I presume.'
Louisa nodded. 'As a child, I always had chocolate before bed. I've never quite managed to shake the habit.'
'I see. Does this mean that you will soon be going to bed?'
'I'm hoping that we will both be going to bed,' she said. 'Together.'
Did either of us expect that this was how the evening would end? Did either of us expect that this was the beginning of what would develop into what sections of the media refer to as 'a relationship'? Who knows? In some ways, I had sort of hoped so; but I wasn't about to allow myself to be quite that optimistic.
In my mind's eye picture of my grandfather as an old man, there is also a woman. Her name is Miriam. She is a comparatively young woman, probably 20 years younger than my grandfather. When I was a child, my parents always referred to Miriam as granddad's 'housekeeper'. Unfortunately, when my grandfather died, my parents 'lost touch' with Miriam. I just hope that my children never feel the need to lose touch with Louisa.