Part of a varied fibrous society, the ‘Ladies who Lunch’ are lunching in Hampstead. Sat as they often are in a café by the Heath, they work to keep peace amongst their peers, gossiping about who needs to mind their tongue and who needs more to speak. These are two of my most mature friends, and they do God’s work, steering the rest of our group in the right direction, nibbling on nibbly bits and drinking lattes, hairs split and wet from a dip in the ponds. I have never seen them at play mind you. They wouldn’t let me. I’d just tell everyone else what I’d heard, and they know that – those who pull the strings in the background do not themselves need to be pulled.
That said, I do enjoy the walk up to Hampstead. Starting at Little Venice, which even in a good light looks nothing like Venice, I wiggle through St John’s Wood, up Fitzjohn’s, past the ‘Tower’, and into the village. I get to see my friend who lives next door to Liam Gallagher’s ex-wife. Try some hearsay of my own. I tell her about a girl I knew who famously ate oranges in the shower and exclusively dated American poets named Tycho, and how jealousy cripples me but those who are jealous aren’t really living.
“She spent two weeks, having sailed along Montenegro, cooking with her Nona in Rome who speaks no English, herself speaking no Italian, cooking white sauce after white sauce after white sauce. Apparently it was all to die for.”
“She’s a bitch mind you. Arrogant. Not really one for reality. A bit eggy. Probably thinks trilbys are fashionable.”
My friend suggests that we should also have a bite to eat and so picks a café by the Heath. I mention the famed ladies. I laugh about how they lunch after swimming, gossiping about how they might deal with us, as we natter about them and their schemes.
On a balcony not far across town is a trapped girl. Peering out of a roomy flat sandwiched between a night-shift doctor and a family of four, she chants mantras into the air.
“I’m keeping busy” she tells the horizon.
“I wonder if he is thinking about me?”
Duty. Obligations. Honour. The chains that bind her, the words that keep her. A debt owed to him – the waste of space lover that she longs to return from over the ocean.
“Oh, but if you only saw the ring he gave me”.
A life without sweetness, only rot. Held in stasis, pickled, faithful to a promise to love him that was made long ago. With his five-year old by her side, she begins to softly weep. It wasn’t always this way she says to herself. He had yearned for me once. Staved off other men for me. Kissed me just to kiss me.
When they were younger, she was fulfilled, but what now filters into her life is trivial. What fish should she include in this evening’s fish pie? Her dependency grows old. She forgets why she does things, only that it has always been the way. No one has told her what she must do and where she must do it, but her temperament keeps her tied to her repetitive life and some corner of London. Her parents’ relationship seemed perfect when compared to her own. They danced with each other in the evenings after dinner, showed their love this way, and were nothing like her.
Unbeknownst to her, from the street below she is for the first time truly seen. A young fireman back from his watch spots her at work on her balcony. He calls up, sensing her discomfort. She looks down. He is attractive. She smiles, releasing herself.
A Brit and a Frog
In London look up, in Paris keep moving. There are things that a man can only learn from being in a city, how to date Parisians for example. I remember the exact moment when one of my closer friends first learnt this lesson. A Brit and a Frog, bound to bash heads and become smitten.
They will tell you with some confidence that it was late one night at the table of a café on Boulevard Saint-Germain. Having bribed the bouncer by promising to buy a bottle of champagne, we sat down for cigarettes. There is no doubt that it was an important moment for them. Her bare legs did turn inwards to touch his, his hand did slip into her hand; they later kissed waiting for a cab, but it wasn’t the moment - it came instead at a party hosted in a very narrow hall like apartment two nights prior.
Over chatter I heard him tell her about his passion for literature. I watched as her eyes lit up. I knew, quite plainly, it was out of their hands. Fate had plans even if he was moving to Australia in the new year. They were walking into a relationship; they just didn’t know it yet and I was going to enjoy it.
A little over two months later and I was in Paris again with the now courting couple, staying together at the mythic Rue Fresnel, our humble hideout in the XVIeme. We owed her a lot. She took us to brilliant parties, and through no small effort of my own, they got a name for themselves as the tallest couple in the whole arrondissement. A pleasure to be around, yes; they did also help me redefine what it is to third wheel. Conscious I shouldn’t stick around any longer, I set out across the town to let them “enjoy some time alone together”.
He did eventually get on that plane. I did what I could to keep in touch with them both over the phone. I’d even ask them for relationship advice from time to time. She once told me:
“She hasn’t been fucked in a while. That’s why she is so angry”.
Impartial advice if I ever heard it and funny coming from someone at the precipice of love. Finally, after months of internal deliberation and to no one’s surprise, they announced they were each other’s boyfriend and girlfriend. I pretended not to have predicted it.
A wild and passionate kiss
They started with a wild and passionate kiss; him loving her and her loving him. The sensation of tight jeans buckling. Breath on his neck. A condom pulled off. Underwear coiled in a corner. Scrunched up faces when the morning light emptied from outside.
The doubt they had shared about their own adequacy and the other’s attraction to their naked selves had now shifted, at one point in the night having effectively joined them both in bed. A calming peace now encompassed them, her arms wrapped around him with neck kisses and soft humming, perhaps an offering to the gods of good mornings.
This was not the crunch of two unmatched gears binding; mechanical physicality driven by the drunken mind’s best guess at how “things will turnout” when both parties are sober, but satisfaction, sex with meaning. She wondered how long he had felt this way, he wondered how long she had known, both already running through all the outcomes, awkward silence only kept at bay by their mutual nerves. He wore an honest smile, saved for Sundays and for her. She wore an oversized t-shirt that said “Courage Bagel” on it in large white letters. Her exposed legs were bumpy in the cold. His hand was warm as it brushed along them.
It was strange to have chosen her father’s beach condo as the moment to have first slept together, at a party to say goodbye to the property before its sale at that. So many eyes to follow them about for when they did eventually choose to descend to the kitchen together. Plenty of opinions too. He wasn’t sure if he cared.
She stopped thinking of him as a friend the summer before last. Her cousin had confided in her that she thought he was cute. That was all it took. Chatting with him over a glass of cold dry white wine and a side of cheese twists, under a terrace on their friend’s ranch, she fell in love.
She noticed that though he often made people laugh, she laughed the most. That he had a way of giving her attention that didn’t seem doting and having him around seemed to complete her - whatever that meant. She tried not to fall falsely into his interests but couldn’t help herself. He liked baseball so she did too. He thought fancy dinners were for posers and so she held herself back from making reservations. Their best time was spent on warm evenings alone, after nightclubs and parties, or early in the morning.
His days of watching her melancholically through the back window of his Toyota pickup were over. She always sat on the flatbed because “she liked the air, and it made her feel like a cowgirl”. This made him shake his head with a grin and softly strain to catch a glimpse of her through the rear-view mirror. He had noticed her, right from the off, sad that she thought of him as just a pal. Upset that she was, in his mother’s words, “off limits” because their families were friends. Did he have a reputation as a womaniser? That did not seem fair to him, especially as they were now firmly into their mid-twenties. He had always liked her. He knew that she didn’t like baseball. He let her paint his nails.
Stepping out of the bed he arched an arm over his shoulder to stretch. Put on a Toro Y Moi record. Walked into a cold shower. Farted. Shaved. Returned to her. She lay there, having not moved. Her glasses slipped from the top of her nose, turning from her book towards his wet body. Reaching forward he bent down and kissed her forehead. Together then, in his childhood summer home, their desires reciprocated. Shivering. Vulnerable. Acutely alive. Ready to face the parents.