By seven oclock that evening, Trishs mood has unaccountably transformed. Or maybe not so unaccountably. I arrive downstairs in the hall to see her wandering out of the living room with a cocktail glass, bloodshot eyes, and a high color.
So! she says benevolently. Youre going out with Nathaniel tonight.
Thats right. I glance at myself in the mirror. Ive gone for a fairly informal outfit. Jeans, nice simple top, sandals.
Hes a very attractive young man. She eyes me inquisitively over the top of her glass. Very muscular!
Er ... yes. I suppose so.
Is that what youre wearing? She runs her eyes over my outfit. Its not very jazzy, is it? Let me lend you a little something.
I dont mind not being jazzy I begin, feeling a few qualms, but Trish has already disappeared up the stairs. A few moments later she appears, holding a jewel box.
Here we are. You need a bit of glitz. She produces a diamante clip in the shape of a sea horse. I got this inMonte Carlo!
Er ... lovely! I say, eyeing it in horror. Before I can stop her, she sweeps my hair to one side and plonks it on. She looks at me appraisingly. No ... I think you need something larger. Here. She fishes out a large jeweled beetle and clips it to my hair. Now. You see how the emerald brings out your eyes?
I gaze at myself speechlessly. I can not go out with a sparkly beetle on my head.
And this is very glam! Now shes garlanding a gilt chain around my waist. Let me just hang the charms on ...
Mrs. Geiger ... I begin, flustered, as Eddie appears out of the study.
Just got the quote in for the bathroom, he says to Trish.
Isnt this twinkly elephant gorgeous? says Trish, hooking it on the gilt belt. And the frog!
Please, I say desperately. Im not sure I need any elephants
Seven thousand. Eddie cuts across me. Seems quite reasonable. Plus VAT.
Well, how much is it with VAT? says Trish, rifling in her box. Wheres that monkey gone?
I feel like a Christmas tree. Shes hanging more and more glittery baubles off the belt, not to mention the beetle. And Nathaniel will arrive any momentand hell see me.
I dont know! retorts Eddie impatiently. Whats seventeen and a half percent of seven thousand?
One thousand, two hundred, and twenty- five, I respond absently. Theres a stunned silence. Shit. That was a mistake. I look up to see Trish and Eddie goggling at me.
Or ... something. I laugh, hoping to distract them. Just a guess. So ... have you got any more charms?
Neither of them takes the slightest notice of me. Eddies eyes are fixed on the paper hes holding. Very slowly he looks up, his mouth working strangely.
Shes right, he announces. Shes bloody right. Thats the correct answer. He jabs the paper. Its here!
Shes right? Trish breathes in sharply. But how ...
You saw her! She did it in her head! They both swing round to goggle at me again.
Is she autistic? Trish seems beside herself.
Oh, for Gods sake. Rain Man has a lot to answer for, if you ask me.
Im not autistic! I say. Im just ... Im just quite good with numbers. Its no big deal ...
To my huge relief the doorbell rings, and I rush to answer it. Nathaniel is standing on the doorstep, looking a little smarter than usual in tan jeans and a green shirt.
Hi, I say hurriedly. Lets go.
Wait! Eddie blocks my way. Young lady, you may be a lot brighter than you realize.
Whats going on? asks Nathaniel.
Shes a mathematical genius! says Trish wildly. And we discovered it! Its just extraordinary!
I shoot Nathaniel an agonized shes- talking- nonsense look.
What formal education have you had, Samantha? Eddie demands. Other than cooking.
Oh, God. What did I say in my interview? I honestly cant remember.
I ... um ... here and there. I spread my hands vaguely. You know ...
Its the schools today, Trish declares. Tony Blair should be shot.
Samantha, Eddie says self- righteously. I will take on your education. And if youre prepared to work hard hard, mindIm sure we can get you some qualifications.
This is getting worse.
I dont really want any qualifications, sir, I mumble. Im happy as I am. Thanks anyway
I wont take no for an answer! insists Eddie.
Aim higher, Samantha! says Trish with sudden passion, gripping my arm. Give yourself a chance in life! Reach for the stars!
As I look from face to face I cant help feeling touched. They only want the best for me.
Urn ... well ... maybe. I surreptitiously divest myself of all the jeweled creatures and slip them back into the jewelry box. Then I turn to Nathaniel, who has been waiting patiently on the doorstep. Shall we go?
So, what was all that about? asks Nathaniel as we start walking along the village road. The air is soft and warm and my new hair is bouncing lightly, and with every step I can see my toes, painted in Trishs pink nail polish. Youre a mathematical genius?
No. I cant help laughing. Of course not! I can just ... do sums in my head. Its no big deal.
Must be useful.
It can be. But Id rather be able to cook like your mum. Shes wonderful. I think back to the serene, homey atmosphere of the cottage, sitting at Iriss table, feeling sated and sleepy and secure. You must have had a really happy childhood.
We were pretty happy, Nathaniel assents. Of course, Dad was alive then.
It sounds like they had a fantastic marriage.
It wasnt all hearts and flowers. Nathaniel grins. Mum can speak her mind, and so could Dad. But it was ... grounded. They knew they belonged together and that was more important than anything else in life. He smiles, reminiscently. When they got really mad with each other, Dad would go and chop wood in the barn, and Mum would chop vegetables in the kitchen. The two of them would be at it furiously. Jake and I would be creeping around, not daring to make a sound.
Then what happened?
One of them would crack, he says, laughing. Usually Dad. He turns his head. How about your parents?
I tense up with apprehension. Im not sure if Im ready to start talking about myself yet.
They split up when I was little, I say at last. And my mum works hard ... It wasnt really the same.
People do what they have to do, says Nathaniel after a pause. Its tough for a single woman bringing up a family on her own, having to make ends meet.
Urn ... yes.
Somehow I sense he might have formed a slightly different idea of ??Mum from the reality.
We walk on, passing an old stone wall covered with a profusion of climbing roses, and as I breathe in the delicious scent, I feel a sudden buoyancy. The street is dappled with soft evening light and the last rays of sun are warm on my shoulders.
Nice hair, by the way, says Nathaniel.
Oh, thanks, I say nonchalantly. Its nothing, really. Flick. So ... where are we heading?
The pub. If thats OK?
We walk over the bridge and pause to look at the river. Moorhens are diving for weed and the sunlight is like amber puddles on the water. Some tourists are taking pictures of each other, and I feel a glow of pride. Im not just visiting this beautiful place, I want to tell them. I live here.
And what about you? says Nathaniel. Before you came here? Whats your background?
Oh ... you dont want to know. I give him a brush- off smile. Very boring.
I dont believe that for a minute. His tone is light but persistent. Did you have a career?
I walk for a few paces without responding, trying to think what to say. I can feel Nathaniels eyes on me, but I twist my head away from his scrutiny.
You dont want to talk about it, he says at last. Its ... its hard. Nathaniel exhales sharply. Youve had a bad time of it? Oh, God, he still thinks Im an abused wife.
No! Its not that. Its just ... a long story.
Nathaniel doesnt look put off. Weve got all evening.
As I meet his steady gaze I feel a sudden pull, like a hook inside my chest. Although itll be painful, I want to tell him. I want to unburden everything. Who I am, what happened, how hard its been. Of all people, I could trust him. He wouldnt tell anyone. Hed
understand. Hed keep it secret.
So. He stops still in the street, his thumbs in his pockets. Are you going to tell me who you are?
Maybe. Were only a few yards away from The Bell, and theres a small crowd outside. A couple of people greet Nathaniel and he waves back; the atmosphere is casual and happy. I dont want to puncture the mood.
But ... not right now. I smile at him. Its too nice an evening to spoil with all my problems. Ill tell you later.
We make our way through the crowd. Some are standing by the door, others sitting at the wooden tables.
What are they doing? I ask.
Waiting, he says. Landlords late.
Oh, I say. I look around but all the tables are already taken. Well, never mind. We can sit here.
I perch on an old barrelbut Nathaniel has already headed for the door of the pub.
And ... thats odd. Everyone is standing back to let him through. I watch in astonishment as he reaches in his pocket and produces a big bunch of keys, then looks around to find me.
Come on. He beckons with a grin. Opening time.
You own a pub! I say in wonderment, as the initial melee of the evening dies down.
Ive watched for fifteen minutes as Nathaniel has pulled pints, bantered with customers, given instructions to the bar staff, and made sure everyone is happy. Now the initial rush is over, hes come round to where Im perched on a bar stool with a glass of wine.
Three pubs, he corrects me. And its not just me. Its our family business. TheBell, The Swan over in Bingley, and The Two Foxes.
Every seat seems to be full, with people spilling outside into the tiny garden and onto the forecourt. The chatter is tremendous. How on earth do you keep the pubs running and have time to be a gardener? I ask.
OK, Ill come clean. Nathaniel lifts his hands. I dont serve very often. We have a great bar staff. But I thought it might be fun tonight.
So youre not really a gardener!
I am really a gardener. He straightens a bar mat. This is ... business.
Theres the same tone in his voice as before. As though Ive trodden on something sensitive. I look awayand my attention is caught by a picture on the wall of a fair- haired middle- aged man. He has Nathaniels strong jaw and blue eyes, and the same crinkles around his eyes as he smiles.
Thats your dad? I say cautiously. He looks wonderful.
He was the life and soul. Nathaniels eyes soften. Everyone here, they all loved him. He takes a deep slug of beer, then puts his glass down. But listen. We dont have to stay. If youd rather go somewhere else, somewhere nicer ...
The pub is bustling. Some song I vaguely recognize as a current hit is playing above the noise of talk and laughter. A group of regulars are greeting each other by the bar with cheerful insults. A pair of elderly American tourists in Stratford T- shirts are being advised on local beers by a barman with red hair and twinkling eyes. Across the room a darts game has started. I cant remember the last time I was in such an easy, friendly atmosphere.
Lets stay. And Ill help! I slip off my bar stool and head behind the bar. Have you ever pulled a pint before? Nathaniel follows me. No. I pick up a glass and put it under one of the beer taps. But I can learn. Nathaniel comes round the bar. You tilt the glass like this___Now pull.
I pull the tap, and a burst of foam splutters out. Damn!
Slowly ... He puts his arms around me, guiding my hands. Thats better.
Mmm, this is nice. Im in a blissful happy haze, enveloped in his strong arms. Maybe Ill pretend Im very slow at learning how to pull pints. Maybe we can stand like this all evening.
You know I begin, turning my head toward him. And then I stop as my eyes focus on something. Theres an old I wooden notice on the wall, stating: NO muddy boots, please and NO WORKING CLOTHES. Underneath, another notice has been pinned. Its printed on yellowing paper in faded marker penand it reads: NO LAWYERS.
Im dumbfounded. No lawyers? There we are. Nathaniel holds up the glass, full of gleaming amber liquid. Your first
Er ... great! I say. I pretend to examine the pump, then gesture casually at the sign. Whats this?
I dont serve lawyers, he replies.
Nathaniel! Get over here! someone calls from the other end of the bar, and he clicks in annoyance.
Ill only be a moment. He touches my hand, then moves away. Immediately I take a deep gulp of wine. He doesnt serve lawyers. Why doesnt he serve lawyers?
OK ... just calm down, I instruct myself firmly. Its a joke. Obviously its a joke. Everyone hates lawyers, just like everyone hates estate agents and tax collectors. Its an accepted fact of life.
But they dont all put up signs about it in their pubs, do they?
As Im sitting there, the red- haired barman comes up to where Im standing and scoops some ice out of the tank.
Hi, he says, holding out his hand. Im Eamonn.
Samantha. I shake it with a smile. Im here with Nathaniel.
Eamonn nods. Welcome to Lower Ebury!
I watch him serving for a moment, my mind working. This guy will know something about the sign.
So! I say when he comes back over. That sign about lawyers. Its a ... joke, right?
Not really, Eamonn replies cheerfully. Nathaniel cant stand lawyers.
Right! Somehow I manage to keep on smiling. Um ... whys that?
Ever since his dad died. Eamonn hefts a crate of orange mixers onto the bar and I shift round on my stool so I can see him properly.
Why? What happened?
There was some lawsuit between him and the council. Eamonn pauses in his work. Nathaniel says it should never have been started in the first place, but Ben got talked into it by the lawyers. He got more and more stressed by it and couldnt think about anything elsethen he had a heart attack.
God, how awful, I say in horror.
Eamonn resumes hefting crates. Worst thing was, after Ben died they had to sell off one of the pubs. To pay the legal bills.
The last lawyer came in this pub ... Eamonn leans conspiratorially across the bar. Nathaniel punched him.
He punched him? My voice comes out a petrified squeak. It was on the day of his dads funeral. Eamonn lowers his voice. One of his dads
lawyers came in here and Nathaniel socked him one. We tease him about it now.
He turns away to serve someone and I take another drink of wine, my heart hammering with nerves.
Lets not freak out here. So he doesnt like lawyers. That doesnt mean me. Of course it doesnt. I can still be honest with him. I can still tell him about my past. He wont take it against me. Surely.
But ... what if he does?
What if he punches me?
Sorry about that. All of a sudden Nathaniel is in front of me. Are you OK?
Im fine! I say over- brightly. Having a lovely time!
Hey, Nathaniel, says Eamonn, polishing a glass. He winks at me. What do you call five thousand lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?
A start! The words jump out of my mouth before I can stop them. They should all ... rot. Away. Into hell.
Theres a surprised silence. I can see Eamonn and Nathaniel exchanging raised eyebrows.
OK. Change the subject. Now.
So! Er ... I quickly turn to a group standing by the bar. Can I serve anyone?
By the end of the evening Ive pulled about forty pints. Ive had a plate of cod and chips and half a dish of sticky toffee puddingand beaten Nathaniel at darts, to loud cheers
and whoops from everyone watching around.
You said you hadnt played before! he says in disbelief after I nail my winning triple eight.
I havent, I say innocently. Theres no need to mention that I did archery at school for five years.
At last Nathaniel rings Last Orders with a resounding clang of the bell, and a good hour later the last few stragglers make it to the door, each pausing to say good- bye as they leave. He must know every single person in this village.
Well clear up, says Eamonn firmly, as Nathaniel starts picking up glasses, five at a time. Give those here. Youll want to be enjoying the rest of the evening.
Well ... OK. Nathaniel claps him on the back. Thanks, Eamonn. He looks at me. Ready to go?
Almost reluctantly I slide down off my bar stool. Its been an amazing evening, I say to Eamonn. Brilliant to meet you.
Likewise. He grins. Send us your invoice.
Im still buoyed by the atmosphere; by my win at darts; by the satisfaction of having spent the evening actually doing something. Ive never had an evening out like this in my life.
No one inLondon ever took me to a pub for a datelet alone to the other side of the bar. On my first evening out with Jacob he took me to Les Sylphides atCovent Garden, then left after twenty minutes to take a call from the States and never returned. The next day he said he was so bound up in a point of commercial contract law, he forgot I was there.
And the worst thing is, instead of saying You bastard! and punching him, I asked what point of commercial contract law.
After the beery warmth of the pub, the summer night feels fresh and cool. I can hear the faint laughter of pub- goers up ahead, and a car starting in the distance. There are no street lamps; the only light comes from a big full moon and curtained cottage windows.
I really, really loved tonight, I say with enthusiasm. Its a great pub. And I cant get over how friendly it is. The way everyone knows you! And the village spirit. Everyone cares about each other. You can tell.
How can you tell that?
From the way everyone claps each other on the back, I explain. Like, if someone were in trouble, everyone would rally round in a heartwarming way. You can just see it.
I hear Nathaniel stifle a laugh.
We did get the MostHeartwarmingVillage award last year, he says.
You can laugh, I retort. But inLondon, no ones heartwarming. If you fell over dead in the street theyd just push you into the gutter. After emptying your wallet and stealing your identity. That wouldnt happen here, would it?
Well, no, says Nathaniel, straight- faced. If you die here, the entire village gathers round your bed and sings the village lament.
My mouth twists into a smile. I knew it. Strewing flower petals?
Naturally. He nods. And making ceremonial corn dollies.
A small animal runs across the road, stops, and regards us with two tiny yellow headlamps, then skitters into the hedgerow.
How does the lament go, then? I say.
It goes something like this. Nathaniel clears his throat, then sings in a low, mournful monotone. Oh, no. Hes gone.
What about if its a woman? I match his deadpan manner.
Good point. Then we sing a different lament. He draws a deep breath and sings again, on exactly the same tuneless note: Oh, no. Shes gone.
I cant help but laugh. Well ... we dont have laments inLondon. We move on. Big on moving, Londoners. Big on staying ahead.
I know about Londoners. Nathaniel runs his hand along a hedge. I lived inLondon for a time.
Nathaniel lived inLondon? I try, and fail, to picture him straphanging on the tube, reading Metro.
I was a waiter on my year off before uni. My flat was opposite a twenty- four- hour supermarket. It was lit up all night, with these bright fluorescent strips. And the noise ... He winces. In ten months of living there, I never had a single moment of total darkness or total quiet. I never heard a bird. I never saw the stars.
Instinctively I tilt my head back to look up at the clear night sky. Slowly, as my eyes adjust to the blackness, the tiny pinpricks begin to appear, forming whorls and patterns that I cant begin to decipher. Hes right. I never saw the stars inLondon either.
My dad taught me the constellations, Nathaniel says, looking up too. He had a telescope up in the attic.
Nathaniel ... what happened with your dad? I speak tentatively. Eamonn told me there was a court case with the council?
Yes. His voice tightens. There was.
Was he suing them? Or ... or ... I trail off.
It was all so bloody pointless! He exhales. It started when the council dug up the road outside one of our pubs for eight months. They ruined access to it, and business went down. So Dad sued them. And lost. Thats when he had his first heart attack. That should have been the end of it.
I bite my lip. So ... what went wrong?
Then some other lawyers made contact. More expensive. I can hear the bitterness in Nathaniels voice. They persuaded Dad he would win on appeal. They kept whipping him up, pressing the right buttons. They knew he was ill. Mum and I tried to talk him out of it ... but he just called us negative. Dad always believed he was in the right. He kept saying justice would prevail. He trusted those bastards. Nathaniel is silent for a moment, then adds, He had the next heart attack a week after they lost the second appeal. It killed him.
Nathaniel ... Im really sorry. Thats awful.
Thanks, he says after a pause. It was a pretty bad time.
I feel chastened after hearing his story. This is a side of the law I have no experience of. Genuine concerns and people. At Carter Spink the deals may have been hugebut I was pretty much cushioned from real life.
How about you? His voice brings me back to earth. You were going to tell me how you came to be here.
Oh. I feel a spasm of nerves. Yes, right. So I was.
This is impossible. I want to tell him. But ... how on earth can I now? How can I admit that Im a lawyer?
Well, I say at last. I was inLondon. In this ... this ...
Relationship, he prompts.
Er ... yes. I pause, racking my brains for a way to continue. Well. Things went wrong. I got on a train ... and I ended up here.
Theres an expectant silence. Thats it, I add. Thats it? Nathaniel sounds incredulous. Thats the long story? Oh, God.
Look. I turn to face him in the moonlight. I know I was going to tell you more. But are the details really important? Does it matter, what I used to do ... or be? The point is, Im here. And Ive just had the best evening of my life. Ever.
I can see he wants to challenge me; he even opens his mouth to speak. Then he relents and turns away.
I feel a plunge of despair. Maybe Ive ruined everything. Maybe I should have told the truth anyway. Or made up some convoluted story about a nasty boyfriend.
We walk on again into the night without speaking. Nathaniels shoulder brushes against mine. Then I feel his hand. His fingers graze against my own casually at first, as though by accidentthen, slowly, entwine round mine.
I feel an arching inside as my entire body responds, but somehow force myself not to catch my breath. Theres no sound except our footsteps on the road and the hooting of an owl. Nathaniels hand is sure and firm round my own. I can feel the roughened calluses on his skin, his thumb rubbing over mine.
We come to a stop at the entrance to the Geigers drive. He looks down at me silently, his expression almost grave. I can feel my breath thickening. I dont care if its obvious I want him.
I was never any good at the rules, anyway.
He releases my hand and puts both hands round my waist. Now hes slowly pulling me toward him. I close my eyes.
For goodness sake! comes an unmistakable voice. Arent you going to kiss her?
I jump backward. Nathaniel looks equally shocked; his arms have dropped to his sides. I turn roundand to my utter horror, Trish is leaning out of an upstairs window, holding a cigarette.
Im not a prude, you know, she says. You are allowed to kiss!
I shoot furious daggers at her. Has she never heard the word privacy?
Carry on! Her cigarette end glows as she waves it. Dont mind me!
Dont mind her? Im sorry, but Nathaniel and I are not having our first kiss with Trish as a spectator. I glance uncertainly at Nathaniel, who looks as nonplussed as I feel.
Should we Im not even sure what Im about to suggest. Isnt it a lovely summers night? adds Trish conversationally. Lovely, calls back Nathaniel politely. This is disastrous. The mood is totally broken.
Um ... thanks for a great evening, I say, trying to keep a straight face. I had a great time.
Me too. His eyes are almost indigo in the shadows. So. Are we going to give Mrs. Geiger her kicks? Or leave her in an unbearable frenzy of frustration?
Trish is still leaning avidly out the window, as if were the floor show.
Oh ... I think she probably deserves the unbearable frenzy of frustration, I say with a tiny smile.
So Ill see you tomorrow?
Ill be at your mums at ten oclock.
He holds out his hand and we barely brush fingertips before he turns and walks away. I watch him disappear into the darkness, then turn and head down the drive to the house, my whole body still pulsating.
Its all very well, getting one over on Trish. But what about my unbearable frenzy of frustration?