Tuesday, 18 December 2018

G. College

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

G. College
My name is Thomas and my life is lie. I am a big fraud and I am atoning every single day. I am not what I look like. I am not but the real me will not come out and face the world. I am a coward trying to be strong. So what do I look like? I am Thomas, the golden boy, chased by women because of my looks, my sporting prowess, my charm, my loaded parents who happen to have a title and a house in the country, not a fucking castle but close.
I never swear, I am the perfect old-fashioned Brit gent, they don’t make them like you any more, an old fart told me, friend of my dad, rich like Croesus but dead inside, he even tried some dirty tricks on me, the pervert, but I politely moved the hand away and said: “No go, old chap” or something like that. He said sorry and it was like it had never happened.
I was always a precocious child wonder, the joy of dumb parents. Rich but dumb, loving but dumb, right-wing and dumb. Unlike my sister, she is from bad stock, no doubt an ancestor with bad genes. She is beautiful, bad and dangerous to know, a la Byron.
People my age either like me or hate me. The latters think I have it all. It’s all a fucking lie, a travesty and I am stuck in it. I am a cunt, yes I am. I need to use the swear words, sorry about that, it’s my own fucking diary anyway and if you are reading this, you are the biggest cunt. I have not given you permission to read it, you nosey bastard! It’s nicely locked up anyway, so how dare you, employee of this sodding bank prowling in private boxes?
Anyway, I have slept around in my teenage years with loads of girls, my public school was near a girls’ school and one has to keep up his reputation of being top athlete, top student, prefect, the works. I was never mean, I never abused my power on younger pupils, grant me that. I longed to if they were particularly beautiful, but I refrained. On my away days I was in London, in Soho, if you must know, doing what I really wanted to do, seedy and hellish to you but heaven to me. I do like a bit of rough. Again, I digress…
When I was 24 my parents started to make noises about me not having a proper girlfriend, my reputation as a playboy was a disgrace… bla, bla, what’s wrong with me, I am such a caring son… bla, bla… they obviously did not know I was sleeping around to hide this other thing I enjoy to do. I do not want to be gay, but I am. I do and do not relish seeking the pleasure of my flesh in some seedy joint but I do. It has to be seedy for another reason; the posh ones would be dangerous for me, ex public school boys on the prowl and all that. Nobody must know, I can’t do it to my family, I must not, I am in line to inherit the lot and my sister is already making some unpleasant headlines with her activities.
I have to let this stuff out or I will go mad. I can’t tell anyone, the press loves my kind of story… drunk people blab, even friends. I have experienced that before but it was a minor thing, luckily. That’s why I came up with this idea of the diary locked into a bank’s safe box. I come here, they give me a room for an hour and I write my stuff, lock it back and they put the box away. So I am pretty confident I am not going to be busted (no sex pun intended). Well, 99%, there is always the rogue, nosey employee… but let’s not be paranoid.
So I was at G. college, you might wonder why… you reader who does not exist… well I wanted to escape my old school friends, they were all having it large at King’s, Trinity and St John’s in Cambridge, although many were in Oxford, our future politicians, god save us! If you think having it with a pig is bad, that’s the top of the fucking iceberg for some of these people.
So I was at a formal dinner and this younger student caught my eye. She was not a head stopper, she was ordinary looking but with amazing, intense blue eyes and a sharp mind, like a surgeon’s scalpel. Well I wanted to become a surgeon initially, like my uncle Sebastian, but then I decided I must atone for the sins of my flesh by finding a cure for cancer. No fancy front role for me, obscure lab work all the way. I managed to get a postdoc place with a Nobel-prize PI, out of merit, my family money had nothing to do with it. I am paid a salary but give the money to charity, mostly to AIDS and LGBT ones. I need to clean my soul somehow. I am not even sure if I am ashamed to be gay or ashamed I cannot live as a gay man. I don’t really know.
Anyway, her name was Elizabeth and she kind of looked like good old Queen Bess, the first one, of course. Her hair was strawberry blond, long, she was skinny, not the curvy type. I thought, “I could work with this.” When her hair was tied back and she wore her huge glasses and her little boy clothes, I truly fancied her. She bought a lot of clothes and shoes in the children’s department of John Lewis. She was quite small and thin. She was perfect for me. Her family was not rich but presentable enough. I had an investigator working on them to make sure. She was going to be my wife and I did not want any nasty surprises down the line or perhaps down the web I was spinning like some demented fucking spider. To my delight, she was not too interested in sex. She was happy for me to be like a cuddly teddy bear, she did not expect me to perform much, we had sex now and then, but she did not ask for more I could give. She needed a lot of emotional support and I was happy to provide it. You must notice I am writing in the past tense. Well some fucking shit happened. I am trying to make sense of it in this airless room.

I should have known something was afoot when she started to talk about her boss on a daily basis. She is a bit of an obsessive, a bit of an OCDer. I thought it was hero worship and let it go after my investigator assured me he was as clean as a whistle, a family man, well regarded, no sordid liaisons with students. She was in sensible, capable hands. He would handle her. What a fool! A big fucking fool considering how well I know the power of the obsession of the flesh. Yes, I do still visit Soho and other places when I go to conferences, you won’t find me in the hotel bar doing small talk with other academics when the talks are over.
Besides we had our plans, we had talked about it, we would get married when she had finished, she would start pupillage and have children at a convenient time so she could finish her training and then our first child would be old enough to be in a nursery – or we could hire a nanny - and she could continue with her career. She is a bright star, very sharp, I did say that already. Her tutor told me she could be top barrister in no time. Other children would come but her star would still shine bright, she would be supported all the way: nursery help, home help, what is needed. We also discussed moving to London and I would commute to Cambridge.
God dammit, my parents really liked her. She was like a daughter to them. Mind you my sister is just a pain in the butt, so she was what they wanted a daughter to be: respectful, with morals and manners, intelligent and appreciative. Even her family did not dim their opinion of her, they are the money-grabbing kind, although not too vulgar, I have seen worse. Still it was funny to see them going around my parents’ humble abode pricing everything with their eager eyes, their little brains whirring like old-fashioned calculators.
For her I even became a soppy romantic, for God’s sake. I did all that crap women expect from their lover and they drool over in those chick movies. I did my research and was the perfect boyfriend. I let her into my head, shared my thoughts (obviously not all of them) and let her see I was driven to do something with my life, not just loaf around surrounded by my money like armour. I even told her she was my oracle and sought her opinion as often as I could. Every day I bolstered her confidence and she blossomed. She did. Like a beautiful rose, she opened her petals and she smelled divine like that rose my mum likes. She is a keen gardener and I followed her caring tips on my English rose.
It was going so well, my parents kept inviting her in the country, at their pied-a-terre in Chelsea, they showed her off to their friends, the ones who count, not the sycophants they are surrounded with. I thought she was all set and happy. What a cunt! Obviously I should have tried harder in the bedroom department, give a bit more oomph there, be a better actor and performer. Close the laptop she kept open to check her emails and make violent love to her, satisfy her needs. I was too basic and obviously not enough for her.
Lab work clouded my thinking. I was doing a lot of overtime, she was left on her own devices too much. Too much thinking will be your ruination, I read that in a book and thought, what a jealous bastard, what’s wrong with thinking too much… a wise bastard really. And that’s the saddest thing, my ice queen thought too much of another man and melted.
She was so wrapped up into her imagination she became removed from the real world. The shit happened but for once my family’s money and connections came in handy. Our lawyers kept it out of the papers and the University got a big fat donation. After all, not much harm was done, superficial wounds and two shaken people. Two innocent shaken people. I am not sure what she imagined they were doing. I had nothing to do with him, my lawyer was the go between, but I did seek the woman out. And I am glad I did. In all this awful business there is a silver lining.
She is an impressive woman, so strong despite her personal tragedies. She tried to help Elizabeth because she saw how troubled she was, but Elizabeth gave her a hard time. After the shit happened, Solange realised why. She was shocked to be thought of as a love rival. Shocked that a comforting hug from the man she considers a sort of Pygmalion was construed as a sexual act. Her mother had just died of cancer and she was miles away and feeling hurt, guilty and broken. Sex was the last thing on her mind and on Umberto’s mind, she told me. He has been helping her to overcome family tragedies. Her family has been ravaged by cancer, her mother died of breast cancer after a long fight, her sister got it now but under control, her dad had testicular cancer and barely survived, her mother’s aunt had throat cancer and died two years before because she couldn’t and wouldn’t give up smoking. I told her about the work we do and she was so interested. She offered to help me because she wants to do something about it. She studied biology at some point and does a lot of computation in her current job, wouldn’t she be able to move to my department? Bioinformatics are sought after, aren’t they. Yes they are. I am looking into it, I think the Stem Cells Institute would be great for her. They are advertising a paid PhD and I think she would easily get it. Move over Umberto, here I come. This is my redemption and she is fucking gorgeous to boot, dark, tall and intense.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

College lives: W. College

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

It is so unprofessional but I can’t help it. You can’t stop love in its track. No, it’s not lust, I have searched myself and it’s not that. I am up and down. I have always admired him from afar since when I attended one of his lectures on comparative politics. He is not handsome in the conventional sense, not like Thomas, my boyfriend.
Thomas is the golden boy, the prize my girlfriends would have wanted to win; they do keep telling me how lucky I am. I am not feeling that lucky now: I am miserable, excited, aching, hurting, uncomfortable, joyful, sad, happy, loving and yes lustful but wrapped with love. I’d be happy to just reach out, put my hand on his face, removes his glasses, stare in his dark eyes and not speak. Me who can’t stop talking, a chatterbox since I was a child, a prize-winning debater no-one could touch at university. A top arguer earmarked by my college tutor to be a high-ranking barrister one day.
Thomas has never made me feel this way. He is a good lover, he is my best friend, he is all people imagine him to be and yes I am very lucky he loves me, but since I have been working with Prof. Umberto Dellangelo to give him his full title, Thomas’s star is fading. When Umberto interviewed me I felt great admiration for him. He is loved by anyone who works for him, his mind is needle sharp, he is a great communicator in several languages; his English is flawless with a tiny bit of an Italian accent that is so sexy you would not believe.
At the stage I am right now, he just has to speak for my body to feel all sort of uncalled and unwanted sensations. He does not even have to say something clever to make my blood literally boil and bubble. I even have this aching feeling in my body and I have never been into sex in a big way. I want to be with Umberto but at the same time I pull away and try to do my job with dignity, displaying no feelings, ice-queen mode.
I know he knows or maybe I imagine he does, I do not know any more. I am totally and utterly lost. I do not recognise my rational and sharp self in this woman who is pining for an older married man. A woman who has been with her golden boyfriend for two years with plans to get married and have children. A woman embarking in a tough career path to become a barrister and a queen’s silk at some point. I am that ambitious and driven. People have encouraged me to be at Cambridge, they have injected me with confidence, excluding my parents of course, although they admire my career path because it’s a money-making gig. My family is full of philistines who are only interested in money. They are only interested in beautiful things if they make money. I prefer Thomas’s parents, cultured, well mannered, aloof in a good way, not poking their noses into their son’s life like my parents do, like pigs in a trough, they put their snouts in and make these disgusting noises, bleat stupid stuff, not that pigs bleat, sheep do, they are kind of a sheep/pig combination really.
Thomas is my second boyfriend, my second proper relationship. I was with Nigel first when I was in a secondary school in Rugby until our choices of universities separated us (me Cambridge, Nigel Edinburgh). It was a clean break and we see each other now and then when I go back to see my parents. We are still friends, university happened and we moved on. I had a few small affairs at university after that, but I never went all the way. Then I met Thomas, he blew me over with his golden perfection and he fell in love with me against all odds. He is handsome, rich, caring, charitable, an excellent student, a sportsman, a great friend, a marvellous son to his mum and dad. He got a PhD at Cambridge after getting a first in Oxford. How could I resist him, he is even romantic, everything a woman wants from a man. He accompanies me clothes shopping and meekly waits for me to faff around in the changing room. I hate clothes shopping so I am so grateful. He is perfection personified, never a harsh word to me even when I am annoying.
He might be Tory by birth but he reads the Guardian and squirms at injustice. He wants to do good. He was born entitled but he is not one of those smug bastards going around Cambridge flaunting their wealth and connections. He is trying to find a cure for cancer, for God’s sake; he works tirelessly in the lab with a Professor who won a Nobel Prize.
Me, I am flawed. I am not beautiful, not ugly, just average, have a terrible relationship with my parents, suffer from SAD so I am on medication during all the winter months (a low dose but still…), I am no good at sports, nothing much to write home about except my icy blue eyes behind a pair of huge specs and a sharp mind like a surgeon’s scalpel. This is what Thomas fell in love with, my mind and my ice-queen eyes. I am his oracle; he has told me I am, I have not made it up.
I think he cares for me. He loves my being, my essence, my personality. He accepts me as I am and compliments me when I make an effort to look posh to go to his family’s dos. They have a very smart flat in Chelsea and a house in the countryside, for house read mansion house. My parents were all agog when they were invited for a weekend during the Christmas holidays – money speaks to them in an enchanted tongue. Like the saying goes, money is music to their ears. They were going through a whole symphony in the countryside. My mum loves Downtown Abbey and it’s like her dream had come true.
But Thomas’s star is dimming and in danger of being swallowed by Umberto’s black hole. If I were religious, I’d say he is the devil, a benign one. But what he is doing to me has the potential to be evil, it can have terrible consequences for his family and for Thomas and me.

Umberto has two sons, 12 and 16. Umberto’s wife is Japanese and the mix of these two ethnicities and nationalities into the boys is breathtaking. I have met them when Umberto invited me to his house in Chesterton for dinner alongside his PhD students. They are both handsome with perfect manners.
Umberto has a tiny, immaculate house. It’s a minimalist house full of warmth, not a combination that comes to mind when you imagine a minimalist’s living space. I am the messy type in my living quarters; Thomas is methodical and precise in the lab but as messy as me at home. We had to hire a cleaning lady - we both hate cleaning and it was like a dump when we were left to our own devices. We live in a penthouse flat in central Cambridge overlooking Parker’s Piece, another thing my friends envy. They live in poky college accommodation or rent rooms from private landlords.
Umberto is my boss so it’s very unprofessional to feel this way. I have taken this short-term contract job to tidy me over before I start pupillage in chambers. I have done my vocational bit already. I am Umberto’s maternity cover secretary, she will be back in a few months and I will be off to London. Umberto is very intense and work-driven. He emails me at six in the morning and expects a reply by 7. He does not bully me into replying by 7, that is not how he operates. I know he is expecting a reply because if I don’t reply, he will send another email to remind me. I am like him, perfectionist, always giving 110%, which is mathematically impossible, but 100% is not good enough in our books. We are both Cambridge trained, Umberto has been here longer than me, but we know what must be done. Thomas does too. We are all in this very intense working environment where professional and personal blurs. It’s not a 9 to 5 job, you do not switch off when you get home, your brain does overtime without you even being aware, except for the flashes of brilliance when a solution to a difficult problem pops into your head as if by magic.
I shower and I think of a problem without even realising it, I dry myself and the solution pops up. I cycle to work and execute it. Job done. That is how it is, deal with it or walk away and ‘be normal’. At weekends I do fun stuff, I am human… but if Thomas has to pop to the lab to check something, I will pick up one of my law books and read, ponder, write notes, jot down ideas…
I do draw a line about doing work for Umberto at weekends. I force myself not to log into my work email. Mostly I want peace of mind. When I read his emails, feelings cloud my brain, sensations run through my body. I sit uncomfortably in my chair, my body aching, like that song, the one about feeling a fever. It’s like I am going insane, I do not welcome these feelings. I do not want to be shaken and stirred. The ice queen is not melting, not now, not ever. I have my career to think of, Thomas to think of, our future children to think of. So I just don’t log in. It costs me, though.
Umberto emails me a lot at weekends. I get the whole lot on Monday. I feel guilty, although he has made clear that he does not expect me to work at weekends, he likes to send emails when it’s calmer for him, weekdays are often too busy. However, I should not worry about these emails until Monday. He made it clear at the interview; he is a workaholic, his whole family is, in Japan workers take very few holidays. His wife is the same. The children are the same. The boys study hard and love what they do so it’s kind of easy for them. They love computers and can code since in primary school. They already get paid work from a Cambridge gaming company. Umberto is very proud of them. He does not mind they are not academic material, well, they will do computer science somewhere, maybe Southampton, where the inventor of the net is, but in the meantime they earn good money while at school. No car washing or childminding for them, real work. Umberto has set up a limited company for them and they sell their services through it. They are scarily determined boys. I mean at their age I was reading books and dreaming of escaping home. I earned my pocket money doing chores for my mum and the neighbours…
Anyway, I am not happy about all this. I have told no-one. My friends would not understand, my family would be appalled (more from the money angle really, Umberto is not rich). When I say friends I mean students I know from university and my college (I am at G. but I do not live in their accommodation’s block anymore, I prefer to be central with Thomas, who is also from G. That’s where we met originally, at a formal dinner, although he was an MA student looking for a PhD supervisor and I was still an undergraduate).
And yet I am happy. I want and ache to be with Umberto. I have to stop myself going into his office with ‘pretence’ questions to see him. It’s not rational stuff, that’s why I am struggling. A sharp brain is useless when your heart is sliced open by feelings. No, I am wrong, it’s not being sliced open, it’s more like water on a rock, slowly and insidiously moulding it, the rock does not want to change, it wants to say sharp and edgy. The water does not care, it slowly smoothes away the sharpness, the jagged bits. Like a pebble on the beach, smooth, round, beautiful and then you realise it was originally a sharp piece of glass - natural stones are not in that artificial green colour.
What does this say about my heart, a rock, I have had a heart of stone for years and it’s being smoothed against my will. My brain does not like watching this, it’s sickening. I sometimes feel nauseous thinking about my situation, I want to be safe with Thomas, in our safe love and safe relationship. I do not want to travel on this bumpy road, I do not want the water to come and smooth my rock.
I must resign, leave him, resign. It’s no good. But I am pulled towards him, it’s like magnetic water and I have lost my compass. You’d think my medication would do something to tone down these feelings. It does nothing. I should go to the GP and ask to up my medication. I want to feel nothing or very little or just enough to be human. I do not want this volcano burning inside. I have not asked for it or maybe I did, the body betrays you all the time, small betrayals, like farting in the yoga class, so embarrassing. But this is really bad stuff, what is happening to me is bad. What do I mean happening, nothing has happened. If I were on a trial I’d have to admit I have no evidence, no wrongdoing to show, nothing.
It’s all in my head. I am going mad because I am happy. Happiness is bad for me, that’s why I did not give John a chance. He made me so happy that I was scared of losing control. Yes, it’s about losing control, I do not want to lose control. That’s why I have always avoided deep relationships, alcohol and drugs. Drink and drugs were offered, they were there for me to have. I said no, people thought I was a prude or not much fun, but I did not care. I said no and I want to say no to all of this now, a big fat NO, but I can’t. I don’t know what to do. I have to keep pretending nothing is happening. That’s the way, good girl, that’s the way. Ignore feelings, sensations, don’t look at him too much, keep the eyes down and the mind will clear. Just stop looking at him and dreaming of his hands over your body, stop that! I need a full emotional detox. Yes, I can do it, I have years of training, I am not going to be smoothed by this weird magnetic water and I will not break. I can’t afford to break down now. I can’t, a lot is at stake and it’s not just about me.

Umberto looks like he is ten years older today. He is like shrunk unto itself, his fine eyes cloudy, his right fingers cannot stay still, tapping on a packet of cigarettes and here I am with a genuine request of information. The phone rings, he excuses himself, he has to take the call, but I can wait until it’s done. He does not say much, his face darkens, it’s bad news of some sort but he keeps it together, he is still strong - weary, stressed but still magnificent. I fantasise that his wife has left him. It must be really bad news, he has never looked so troubled.
“Are you sure this is what I need to do?” He clutches the packet of cigarettes and squeezes so hard the cigarettes pop out and scatter on the desk among the papers. He listens some more, he shakes his head, he looks so unhappy my heart tightens. I wish I could do something criminal to whoever is speaking to him and making him suffer this way. I am not a violent person but I could do anything for him. He does not even have to ask, I will do it.
“OK, listen, my secretary is here, I will sort this out, it must be done.”
He hangs up, puts his face into his hands for a few seconds, then looks up and says:
“This is not a good moment, Sarah, you need to go now, please. If you need something, ask Solange, I need to be at my college in an hour and I must prepare.”
I feel weak in the knees, diminished. This is not how I see myself. I am his trusted collaborator, I contribute ideas, I solve his problems, I can’t be dismissed like that. I want to leave the room but I am rooted on the spot. I want to cry but I can’t cry. I want to swear loudly but my tongue is glued inside my mouth. I feel angry, cold and nauseous at the same time. I am nothing for him, nothing. It has all been in my head. I am a Fucking nothing.
“Please, Sarah,” he says, his voice pleading but with a hard edge that slices into my heart, “I need to be alone now.”
I dig deep and find the energy to leave the room. I keep hold of the door as I exit, good manners still in place. I don’t slam it. I am super angry, but still love him. Stupid, stupid cow who I am. I entered his office with a legitimate request. I needed to have more information on the French project, I am writing the fucking grant application and I dislike Solange, that sycophant. She is always all over Umberto and they go away to conferences together. I even contributed to the latest paper, it was my data, a small bit of data, but it was mine and thinking about it, shouldn’t I have received a credit for it? Yeah I know, I have only been here for six months and I will be gone in three, but I have made a contribution to that project and I am still doing stuff for it.
I was going to be super good, push away the feelings I have for Umberto. But now I want to come down like a ton of bricks and get what is mine. I won’t be diminished. I will rise and strike. This thought pleases me. When I feel strongly about something I am like this crusading-warrior woman. Thomas calls them my Joan of Arc’s moments. Yes, I will fight this, I have to now.
I know Umberto is at his college this afternoon at 4pm. I will go there and declare my intentions. I am not taking this shit and keeping quiet. I will do whatever is required. I am getting my satisfaction because so far I couldn’t get no satisfaction, like that old song goes. I go back to my office, smirk at Solange’s busy back, her fingers flying wildly and untidily on her keyboard – Mademoiselle Parfaite can’t touch type - and go through my list to clear all at double speed. I will finish the workload early enough to go to his College and have my say.
When Solange leaves for the library – good riddance to French rubbish – I grab a pair of scissors and head to the toilet. I untie my pony tail and cut my hair into a short bob, like the Joan of Arc in that painting by Albert Lynch. I have the short fringe already, which is handy. I chuck the cut hair in the rubbish bin and go back to my office to get ready to leave. Nobody is around on my floor at 3pm in the afternoon, most people are either in the library or gone home to pick up their children from school. I put my hat on, no need for that busybody of a receptionist to notice my hair.
I say: “Bye Susan, see you tomorrow.” The American moron looks up and says nothing, just scowls at me. Rude bitch. She is wearing that awful purple dress and fake flowers in her blue hair. Who she thinks she is, Frida Kahlo? I do not understand why they employed her, she does not look right nor act professionally. There must be a gap in the market for reception staff, too many intelligent people, not enough minions.
I cycle down Sidgwick Avenue, dodge the tourists trying to photograph the mathematical bridge and enter the alleyway by the Anchor pub. I proceed into Mill Lane, focusing on the road as it’s full of tourists wanting to punt or have a walk by the river. I pass the cows on the meadows by the Engineering Department, cycle into Newnham and then back towards the gas station and up Sidgwick Avenue (what the hell am I doing?) and into Grange Road. I feel strong now. I can do it! I get to the bottom of Grange Road, mount the pavement and cycle towards W. College. I get there, park my bike, lock it and steal a glance at the giant topiary penguin. The College has really lovely gardens but they do not soothe me today. I am fierce like those lions in the Chinese-style building. Unlike them I am not holding a pearl. I am still angry and craving my satisfaction.
Umberto’s room is in a cute little cottage on the grounds, not in the main building. My card works there so I gain access through the main door. I control my stride and walk as quietly as I can. I approach the door and put my ear against it. Silence and then a muffled sound like someone is crying. Oh no, what is going on, he really needs me. My anger melts away, I am aching for him. Something is very wrong.
I open the door slowly and see Umberto sitting on the sofa by the bookcase, Solange in his arms. She is crying and his arms are around her. She is facing the bookcase and crying, he is facing the door and looks startled by my appearance but says nothing.
I put my hand in my bag to get my phone out, I am going to take a picture of this sickly tableau and email it to the Vice-Chancellor. I feel the coldness of the scissors. I grab them and run to the sofa and let go of all my love and frustration. I channel the red anger in my right hand, I strike, I see red, blood red. I drop the scissors, I flee. I manage to cycle home, I collapse on my bed. I am terrified. I have fucked up my life and achieved nothing. I hurt two people. I am a monster.
Thomas walks into the bedroom and rushes to me. I am in a state. I cry, cry, I am sick all over, I pee on the quilt, I am a human mess. I am breaking, piece by piece. Thomas is strong, he is my anchor, he does not let go. I have behaved badly. He really loves me. The ambulance takes me away, Thomas is holding my hand. I don’t deserve him.

I am in a hospital bed. I have lost sense of time. I am clean and in a gown. I feel calm and sleepy. There is a camera over the bed. I hear the door unlock and someone comes with a bottle of pills. She smoothes my hair off my face and I start crying, my beautiful long hair, short and ragged, my heart broken, my future in tatters, alone in a loony bin by the look of it. Nobody is here with me. Thomas has deserted me. He must know what I have done by now. I cry a river like the song goes. They sting these tears; they are bitter, salty but bitter. The nurse keeps stroking my hair and asks me to take the pills in a soft voice, the voice of an angel. I take the pills. I wish she were the angel of mercy. I want to die.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Hello, new series announcement + #nanowrimo!

Good morning, long time no see... I am planning a new series based on Cambridge Colleges, 31 stories, in the same vein of Circle Lives. I am not sure when I can publish them as one is in a competition, when it's over, I will publish it here. I can't share it now. I will develop the other 30 during #nanowrimo.

One of Cambridge's colleges... 

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Moorgate: lunchbreak

Image result for moorgate station roundel
Pic: Andrew Bowden

The sky was dark. The waves were swollen, crested by strokes of black and purple. Accents of white foam edged the dusky sand.  A woman, dressed in a smart pinstripe suit, was facing the storm. She was standing still and supple, as if the day’s weariness had been swallowed by the violent waves.

Sky and waves, meeting in the distance - where did the sky end and the sea start? Dark clouds were gathering and soon silver flashes fragmented the sky.  A moon ray filtered out of a cloud: a translucent beam in the midnight blue.

She was waiting, her bare feet washed by the sea, her eyes on the far horizon. High sprays bathed her face, making her eye make-up run down in dark rivulets. In those roaring waves, in that soaked sand, in that sky split by lightning, there was a force. A powerful one she had not encountered before.

Invisible arms were enveloping her. A supreme being breathed in the sea, sky and sand. The storm was his powerful lullaby. Tired, she lay on the sand and closed her eyes.

At last all was calm. The sea was an indigo brush stroke, the sky a jewelled midnight blue, the woman a shapeless body on the burnt sienna sand. A suffused light illuminated the unframed canvas, a pair of black high-heeled shoes neatly placed underneath. 

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Barbican: Curiosity killed the Cath

Image result for barbican tube station
Pic: Mattbuck, Wikimedia

Cath looked out of the bus window. The street lamps were diffusing an orange glow to the street, while the brightly lit shop windows murmured, ‘Come in, come in.... we are open late tonight...’ She yawned, then felt her stomach rumble. Time to go home, have a bath, eat dinner, watch TV and then off to bed.

The bus slowed down as the rush-hour traffic built up. The doors opened and closed, people got on until all the seats were taken and a line of people were standing from the back up to the driver's seat. Cath saw angry faces when the driver refused to take any passengers at the next stop.

She peered out of the window and saw people approaching the old church that had been shrouded like a giant mommy by scaffolding and plastic sheets for months. A banner screamed ‘Grand Opening’ in big letters, lit by a row of industrial-strength spotlights. She saw people entering freely, no sign of a bouncer or anybody collecting invitations.

She rang the bell. The bus stopped and the doors opened. She negotiated her way through the standing passengers and got off. She reached the church and joined the visitors’ flow.

By the door a tall desk displayed exhibition programmes, a price list and leaflets of future events. Cath picked up one of the programmes and walked into the main room. Three metal towers reached the ceiling of what once was the main nave. People holding wine glasses were milling around, talking to each other and glancing at the smaller exhibits hanging from the whitewashed stone walls.

Cath liked the towers best. The first one had a plaque at the base with the words ‘Name your fears’. The second’s plaque read ‘Challenge your fears, while the third said ‘Overcome your fears’. She opened the programme and read: "Xandra Behr's totemic installations deal with the interior knots of pain, alarm or apprehension we call fears. Unlike animals, human beings can identify their fears, so naming your fears is the first step to rationalisation, a truly liberating experience, the first step to harnessing the dark instincts we bury inside us."

"Clever rubbish, isn't it," remarked a female voice.
Cath looked up. A tall woman dressed head to foot in black and wearing dark sunglasses was smiling down at her.
"It sounds interesting."
The woman removed her sunglasses. Two icy blue eyes bored down on Cath. "Nice, interesting, pah, it's non-committal crap. Do you like the artwork or not?" She waved her arm around the room to include every single piece.

Cath noticed that people were staring at them. She thought, "Bloody woman, why couldn’t she harass somebody else?" and moved aside, clutching the programme like a lifesaver. She walked to the bar at the other end of the room and picked up a glass of white wine. She sipped it slowly, admiring a black statuette of a woman holding a child by hand. Milk spurted from her left breasts and dripped, white on black, on her side to form a pool at her feet. The child's head was bent down, his small features screwed up in pain. Under the statuette, placed on the floor an open suitcase had been filled with spiders. On its stiff leather handle sat a stuffed rat with a long, slim tail.

"This work has a disturbing quality to it, don't you think?" asked a male voice behind her. He looked like he was in his sixties and was dressed head to toe in bottle green, a paisley scarf knotted around his neck. Cath ignored him and moved towards the second tower. A small queue was standing by the staircase that led to the door at its top. A gallery attendant was directing people to climb one by one.

The queue moved slowly, so Cath opened the programme. "Challenge Your Fears stands for courage, the prerogative of facing what limit or terrifies us as human beings. The triptych completes the journey through the human psyche with Overcome Your Fears. How can you control your fears? Is it through psychoanalysis, extreme fortitude or necessity? There isn’t only one answer, the solution is different for everyone of us. You're invited to complete the journey and find out what you're made of."

"Intriguing isn't it?" said the woman in front of her. Cath looked up and noticed with relief that she was speaking to the man beside her. She was getting paranoid about being approached by weird strangers. "Yes, very, but do you think it's dangerous?" asked the man. "Not for the initiated," she replied looking smug.

"What a snob," thought Cath and leafed through the programme. On the last page there was a short biography of the artist. Xandra Behr had been at St Martin’s Art School, had then exhibited all over the UK and abroad and been an artist in residence for a mental health charity. Cath had read about art therapy and wondered if the exhibition had been influenced by her latest experiences. Fears became phobias, phobias could lead to mental disorders.

The woman in front of her started to ascend the steps that reached the tower’s summit. She let the door go abruptly, so that it clanked loudly. At a sign of the attendant, Cath started to ascend the steps. She noticed that they had holes so she could see through them, the holes getting bigger as she ascended. When she was nearly at the top she looked down and she could see the far-away floor, a rather unpleasant experience. She felt dizzy. She had never been afraid of heights, but her left foot was frozen on the lower step and she couldn't move the right one. “Don't be stupid,” she thought. Only the thought of the people watching her down below, made her grab the handrail and force her legs to reach the top.

She opened the metal door and closed it gently. Inside the tower was hollow. A spiral staircase descended in a dark pit. Small lights lit up as Cath descended each step. On the wall a small glass framed a photograph. One displayed the roof of a skyscraper, in another a big spider was standing on a woman's arm. Other photos illustrated claustrophobia, agoraphobia and even social phobias.

She descended the steps without feeling any anxiety. The staircase had solid sides and the steps didn't have holes through them. She wasn't frightened, but the darkness below each step was unnerving. At the bottom of the tower she saw with relief that a neon sign indicated the exit. She was expecting to be in the gallery again but entered a narrow booth. A chair stood against the wall and an old-fashioned diver helmet was waiting for her to try it on. She put the helmet on, intrigued. At first it was darkness, then multicoloured lights flashed in front of her eyes. A spiral started twisting round and round until she felt dizzy and had to close her eyes. She jerked herself awake and took the helmet off, got up, found a half-hidden doorway and came out in the gallery. She emerged at the back of the tower and noticed that only a few people were still milling around. Waiters were busy collecting glasses while a woman was plugging in a hoover. She looked at her watch. Eight o'clock. It couldn't be, she couldn't possible have spent half an hour in the tower.

She saw the man in bottle green talk to the woman dressed in black. They turned and looked at her. She crossed the room and quickly exited the gallery. Outside a couple was lingering, perhaps waiting for a taxi. She crossed the road towards the bus stop and sat on the plastic bench at the opposite end of an old woman who was muttering to herself. She was facing the gallery. The couple who were standing outside were now boarding a taxi. A man flung open the heavy gallery door and ran into the road. A car swerved to avoid him, the driver angrily tooting his horn. When the man was past the middle white line, he stopped, opened his arms and was knocked off by a courier van speeding down. Cath sat transfixed. The old woman whimpered, a hand on her mouth. The traffic stopped, men and women got out of their vehicles to look at the accident. The van’s driver was talking in a mobile phone.

Eventually the bus reached the stop. Cath and the old woman boarded it. Cath glanced at the man lying on the tarmac, surrounded by paramedics. On the bus, passengers were looking out of the windows to find out what was going on. Cath stared ahead. She had witness street accidents before, but never a suicide. She closed her eyes. She could still see the man standing in the road, his arms opened as if welcoming death.

When she saw the bright lights of the bingo hall, she pressed the request button. The bus stopped and the door opened. Cath got off with a man leading a dog on a leash. She walked up the alleyway towards her flat. The man with the dog caught up with her by the pub.
"Do you want to hear a funny story, mate? " he asked.
"No, not now, please."
"I'm not mad or anything." He bent to caress his dog's back and added: "Today my dog was supposed to be put down. The sweetest dog in the world."
"I'm sorry, I need to get home," said Cath and walked away.
"Sorry, yeah, sorry," she heard him muttered behind her.

When she got home, Cath walked straight into the kitchen. She put her coat and bag on the table and bent down to look at the trap. She could hear the sound of tiny claws scratching, while the box shook. Of course, being a humane trap with holes dotted along the box surface, the mouse was still alive and trying to find an exit or make one. She reluctantly picked the box up. It wasn't very heavy. A baby mouse, probably. She had a horror of mice, filthy, furry creatures, their faeces small black pellets that have been dotting her kitchen’s surfaces for weeks. She decided to free the mouse by the canal. She dropped the trap in a plastic bag and walked out again. She was tired but it could not wait.

Down the steps, the pathway was deserted. She walked a far as she could, to disorientate the mouse, hoping it would not find its way back. She bent down, opened the trap, but because she was nervous she twisted the box and the mouse fell on her shoes. It was a black small mouse, it squirmed and started to climb her left leg. Horrified, she tried to shake him off, but it gripped her leg through the lace tights. It would not let go. Cath jumped in the canal. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

High Street Kensington

Pic: Wikipedia

English for beginners
Giulia worked as a waitress in a teashop in High Street Kensington from half past eight in the morning to three o'clock in the afternoon. She lived in Bloomsbury, where she shared a room with Margaret in a women's hostel opposite the British Museum.
The teashop occupied three floors in a Victorian building squeezed between modern office blocks in a narrow street off Kensington High Street. The narrow ground floor only had room for the patisserie counter with an old-fashioned till and a couple of bistro tables; the kitchen was located on the first floor, next door to the toilets, while the tearoom was on the second floor.
In the tearoom, the tables were covered by pink cloths with small ceramic vases of fresh flowers and a matching sugar bowl. The chairs and wall seats were upholstered in black leather, well worn and cracked in places. There was a small gap between the tables and when it was busy, Giulia moved around with difficulty, trying to avoid bumping into chairs and upsetting her tray.
The staff consisted of two waitresses, the pastry chef, a kitchen porter and the owner, a young French woman who like to talk to her customers when she wasn’t otherwise engaged. Christine was a resting actress. She had bought the teashop from a couple of compatriots, after having worked on and off as a waitress for many years.
The teashop was frequented by artists and businessmen. Christine knew all her customers and particularly cultivated the friendship of a theatre director who had promised her a small part in his new play.
At four o'clock, Giulia would take the uniform off and let her hair loose from the tight ponytail she had to wear while serving. She then combed her hair and applied a little make-up. Every evening during the week she attended classes at a language school in Oxford Street. The class started at five thirty and Giulia spent her free time before in Covent Garden, walking around the shops and watching the street performers.
If the weather was good, she would walk from her workplace to Marble Arch by crossing Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. It was a long walk, but it was very pleasant on sunny days.
Her day off was Wednesday, but she worked every Sunday. On weekends Giulia was on her own because Margaret went to see her parents in Manchester. Margaret had invited her to join her, but because Giulia worked on Sundays, it wasn’t practical for her to get away. On Sunday afternoons, she would take the tube to Camden Town to walk around the market or strolled by the canal towards Regents Park.
Margaret was thinking of moving out of the hostel and had asked Giulia if she would share a flat with her. Their accommodation was cheap and central, but they had to share the kitchen and no visitors were allowed past the reception desk.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Giulia accompanied Margaret to view a flat near Russell Square. The flat was in a quaint, pedestrianised alley, on the top floor of a brick building that was over 150 years old. On the ground floor was a pottery shop, its glazed door squeezed to the wooden front door of the flat, which was painted in an eye-catching postbox red.
The landlord was a middle-aged man who owned a local b&b. He arrived 20 minutes late and excused himself several times. He led them up a steep carpeted staircase and showed them round briskly. ‘The first floor is taken by a dental surgery. Every Friday you can leave an envelope with the rent money with the receptionist. This door, here, leads to the flat,’ he explained patting a solid-looking white door. ‘It’s a fire door and provides some security for you girls as the front door is kept open during surgery hours.’
They walked up concreted uncarpeted stairs.
‘The ceilings are bit low, but it’s pretty good flat for the price,’ he said unlocking the flat’s door.
They followed him in the living room, a square room with a small table and four chairs, a gas fireplace, an old-fashioned chintz armchair and a melamine shelving unit with a small portable TV on top of it.
The kitchen was tiny but clean. The bedroom had two twin beds with matching cabinets, a wardrobe and a chest of drawers.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ asked Margaret.
‘The bathroom is upstairs, and it’s shared with one room.’
‘Ah, that explains the price,’ said Margaret bluntly. Giulia admired her nerve; she had been thinking the same thing.
The landlord eyed her warily and said: ‘You won’t find anything at this price in this area. I could have rented this many times over, but I wanted the right tenant, like yourselves, two young girls who work and are no trouble. The room upstairs is rented to a young professional, a very quiet person. I want no trouble here and the rent paid on time.’
Opposite the flat, a matching white door led to more concrete steps, the top landing covered by green patterned lino. A coin-operated public telephone was mounted to the wall between two doors. Somebody had fixed a pen with a piece of blue tack and there was some paper for messages on a metal stool under the phone. The landlord showed them the bathroom, which was outdated but looked clean.
They followed the landlord downstairs and into the waiting room of the surgery. ‘So, girls, what is going to be?’ he asked eagerly.
‘I like it,’ said Giulia.
Margaret gave her a look and said: ‘We will take it if you knock off 50 pounds on the weekly rent. We can pay three weeks in advance as a deposit.’
The landlord didn’t look pleased but smiled at Giulia and asked: ‘I spotted an accent, there, are you Italian?’
Giulia nodded.
‘All right girls, since my wife is Italian too, I will give you the discount, but four weeks in advance, please.’
‘OK,’ said Giulia.
They shook hands and left. In the street Margaret nudged Giulia and said. ‘We got a flat, hurray! We can have parties and invite people now! It’s not a bad deal, but he would have taken three if you’d have let me work on him.’
‘It’s a nice area. I wonder whom we are sharing our bathroom with?’
‘An old man, no doubt. He’ll bang with a broom stick whenever we have visitors.’
The day of the move, Giulia stood on the pavement outside the hostel surrounded by cases and bulging black bin bags, while Margaret tried to hail a taxi. It was a short journey so the taxi driver had to be persuaded to take them. Giulia had only a case and a rucksack, but Margaret had been living in London for two years and had accumulated a lot of things.
The taxi had to stop on the main road as their new street didn’t allow access to vehicles. It took a while to unload their luggage from the taxi and carry it by the door of their new flat. The driver was such in a hurry to pick up his next fare that he helped them with the cases.
Margaret went upstairs to pay the deposit and the rent for the first week, while Giulia minded their possessions, which had blocked the door to the shop. Luckily it was closed.
The surgery receptionist gave Margaret a receipt and the keys of the flat. After several trips, they managed to take up everything. With their possessions in, the living room had shrunk in size.
In the bedroom Giulia and Margaret started to put away their clothes. The empty cases were pushed under the beds. They moved to the living room and soon the flat look more homely with their books, photos and small objects. Giulia looked at her watch. It was three o'clock and they had had nothing to eat since breakfast. She opened the kitchen cupboards and was pleased to find pans, plates and crockery. ‘We have everything we need here, but nothing to eat.’
‘I can go downstairs and ask the receptionist where the nearest supermarket is. Like you I left my food leftovers with the girls at the hostel, I couldn’t risk them making a mess in my bags.’
The surgery’s receptionist told them there was a shopping centre in front of Russell Square station. They found a Safeway supermarket, a laundrette, a cinema, a cobbler, a florist and a burger bar.
‘Let’s have a burger and French fries here and then we can go to the supermarket,’ suggested Margaret.
They ate their burgers perched on stools by the window. They were so hungry that everything tasted so good. They went back to the flat loaded with bags. Margaret filled the fridge and the cupboards, while Giulia investigated a small door near the fireplace, which had been papered to blend in. It was a tiny cupboard containing an ironing board, an iron, a hoover, a broom and a metal bucket with a mop.
‘We really have got everything we need,’ said Giulia feeling pleased.
Giulia and Margaret moved the furniture to suit them and hanged a James Dean poster above the fireplace. The shelves of the melamine unit were soon crammed with books.

As they both worked during the day, they only met late the evening when Giulia came back from her classes. On her day off, Giulia used to spend most of the day in the flat studying. They loved the independence and did not mind having to share the bathroom as it was always free when they needed it.
Giulia bumped into their neighbour on a Saturday evening. Margaret had gone to Manchester to a friend’s wedding. She was carrying a shopping bag up the steep stairs and was so absorbed in her thoughts that she collided against a tall, young man, who was running down in haste.
She managed to keep her balance, but the shopping bag flew off her hands. He helped her to pick up her purchases then introduced himself. ‘Hi, sorry about the accident, I’m Robert.’
‘I'm Giulia. Don’t worry; I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘You must be my new neighbour. Are you Italian?’
‘Yes, from Milan.’
‘I have great admiration for Italian art; I have been in your country many times. I'm an architect. What do you do here in London?’
‘I study English and work in a teashop.’
‘I'd like to speak Italian. I did a course but I lack practice.’
‘I've had some problems with English. It's so different from Italian.’
‘I could help you, if you could help me in exchange,’ Robert offered. ‘Does it matter that I’m American?’
‘No, it’s OK,’ said Giulia. Robert sounded like an interesting person and was very good looking. ‘When are we going to start?’ she blurted, and then bit her tongue hoping she did not sound desperate.
‘First we must get acquainted. What about going out for a walk tomorrow afternoon? I'm a respectable man, with respectable intentions,’ he joked.
‘We could meet after three, where I work, if it’s OK,’ suggested Giulia.
‘OK, leave the address by the phone, I'm going now. I’m meeting a friend and I am late.’
Giulia prepared her dinner and ate with appetite. She then sat on the chintz armchair to watch TV. At ten o'clock she switched it off and took a book from the shelf. It was a simplified version of Pride and Prejudice. She read it with a dictionary on her lap so she could look up the words she didn't understand.
The next day she woke up early. She arrived at the teashop well before the opening time and had breakfast in the kitchen. The cook did not come on a Sunday and his assistant was in a good mood. He had prepared crepes, which they ate drizzled with honey.
That morning there were only a few customers. It had started to rain as soon as Giulia had opened so not many people were about. Giulia hoped the weather would change in the afternoon or her walk with Robert would be ruined.
It stopped raining and the tearoom was crowded at lunchtime. There quite a few elderly men and women as they still served tea in the old-fashioned way, with a hot water jug by the teapot.
Giulia’s replacement arrived early, so ten minutes before three she went into the staff toilet to get changed. She looked at herself in the mirror with critical air and put a bit more makeup on her eyes.
Robert was waiting outside and smiled when he saw her.
‘What are we going to do today?’ She asked.
‘What about a tour of the canals? You can leave from little Venice and reach the zoo and Camden Town by water.’
‘Where is little Venice?’
‘It's by Paddington. It's not quite like Venice, but it’s pretty and the barges are very pretty.’
They took the underground to Paddington. During the journey, Robert told Giulia about his big family and his plans to open an architect studio in Houston. He wanted to build houses in the traditional European style.
Giulia was impressed. She didn’t have much to say about herself, she was an only child and her parents owned a small wine company. She had come to London to study English so she could help her father export wine.
Little Venice was a narrow canal crossed by two brick bridges. Colourful narrowboats and barges were moored along it.
A barge hosted an art gallery. The artist, an older man wearing a kaftan on cropped jeans, showed them round and gave Giulia a postcard with an ink drawing of the canal and his barge.
They waited in line to board the tour boat. The boat moved slowly because of the shallow waters. For a while there was nothing much to see. The embankments had been reinforced by block of concrete, which were covered in ugly graffiti. The view improved when they passed near Regent’s Park and when the boat reached the zoo, Giulia spotted wild animals peering at them through the fence.
They got off at Camden Town and walked towards the Lock market. Robert seemed to know the area as well as Giulia. He bought a wooden incense dish for himself and a small papier mache’ box for Giulia with two Siamese cats painted on its lacquered lid. Later, they shared a cream tea at a teashop overlooking the canal.

From that afternoon, Giulia and Robert would meet once or twice in the evening during the week and spent the weekends together. Sometimes they spoke Italian, sometimes they spoke English.
Margaret was introduced to Robert and often invited him to dinner. Occasionally they all went to see a movie at the cinema opposite Russell Square tube.
As Giulia and Robert became good friends, Margaret started teasing her. Giulia was unsure of how she felt. Robert always behaved correctly and made her feel at ease. She was going back to Italy at the end of the summer and she didn’t believe in long-distance relationship.
Margaret was of a different opinion. ‘Life is short, why don’t you let things take their course and worry later? You think too much, just let yourself go.’
‘I’m not a flirt like you,’ retorted Giulia which made Margaret laugh as she had met a university student in Manchester she really liked and did not know what to do about it.

One evening, Robert came back from work with exciting news. ‘The project is complete so I’m finished here. I called one of my university pals and he’s willing to be my partner in the studio. Things are proceeding faster than I expected.’
‘When are you leaving?’ asked Giulia. She was shocked at how much she was distressed by Robert’s departure. She had known from the start that they would have to part. Had she hidden her real feelings to protect herself?
‘When I'm settled, you can pay me a visit. In my home, there will be always a place for good friends.’
Friends, that’s what they were and what they will ever be. Giulia’s father might not wish to finance another foreign trip and it would take her a long time to save enough money for it.

Giulia returned to Italy two months after Robert’s departure. She had passed her exam and obtained the proficiency certificate. Her father was delighted and soon Giulia started working with the sales manager.
She left home early in the morning, worked and came back home late in the evening. At weekends she went to eat a pizza or watch a movie with her school girlfriends. At Christmas she received a card from Robert. He had finally opened his studio and was inviting her to visit him in the spring or summer.
Giulia thought it was best to leave it at that, Christmas cards and the occasional postcard from Liguria where her family owned a holiday flat. Although she missed London, she had fitted back in her old life and was enjoying her job. Next year she would start travelling to the European wine fairs and she was looking forward to that. She mentioned the invitation to Margaret when she called her to wish her a Happy New Year.
‘Are you mad? You have to go! Think of the great time you’d have.’
‘But isn’t it best this way? Besides it’s quite expensive to fly to the US.’
‘If you go in the low season it won’t cost as much.’
‘What about you, what are you up to?’
‘I got a promotion! I’m now the PA of the managing director. I can afford to rent our flat on my own. Emma is a pain, she has to go. Soon it will be just me, unless you fancy coming back.’
‘Are you going to ask her to leave? Poor Emma.’
‘Don’t worry. She’s is moving in with her boyfriend. I wish him all the luck in the world as he will need it.’

Giulia called the travel agent to book plane tickets to Paris and hotel accommodation for the Spring Wine Fair. It was going to be her first international fair. She couldn’t resist asking for the cheapest fare to Houston. She was told that direct flights were expensive, but if she didn’t mind changing in New York, there was a really good deal for early February. Giulia thanked the woman and hung up. If she added her Christmas money to her savings she could afford to go.
She rang Robert and asked him if it was OK to visit him for a week in February. ‘I know it’s a bit sudden, but I was quoted a good fare and I can just about afford it now.’
‘I’d love to show you around,’ said Robert. ‘I can take some time off as it is not too busy now.’

Giulia managed her connection to Houston without a hitch. She had never spent so many hours on planes and when she got off, her legs felt numb. She collected her case and walked towards the exit, eager to stretch her legs.
Robert was waiting in the arrival area with a pretty blonde. They were laughing and looked very happy together. They soon spotted her and Robert waved.
‘Hi, I'm Susan, Robert told me all about you.’
 ‘Hello, Susan, nice to meet you.’
‘You must be tired,’ said Robert and took her case. They walked to the underground parking and Robert put Giulia’s case in the boot of an expensive looking convertible.
From her back seat, Giulia struggled to follow Robert and Susan’s conversation, saying very little. When they reached Robert’s apartment and Susan made her feel at home with a coffee and slice of cake, Giulia couldn’t contain her curiosity any longer. ‘Where did you meet?’ she asked trying to sound casual.

‘I've know Rob since he was a little,’ said Susan, ruffling Robert’s hair. ‘I’ve loved him from the first sight. Isn't my little brother awesome?’