He was certainly clever, Jane thought as she pulled navy mascara through her pale lashes. Oh yes, she thought as she appraised her reflection, Gerald was clever all right. That's what she liked about him. That's what had drawn her to him that Saturday afternoon three months ago. In the Friends Room at the Royal Academy. In the queue for coffee. That's how they'd met. They'd both reached for the cream jug at precisely the same second. And they'd laughed, then blushed, then politely murmured, 'after you', and then he'd suddenly looked her in the eye and said, 'Don't you find early Kandinsky a little ...jejune?' Jane had been too taken aback to reply straight away. And too busy surveying this strange man who was now calmly whitening her Kenco as though they'd known each other for years.
'Jejune? Well...' she gave an amused little shrug. 'I'm not sure what that means.'
He dropped first one pale brown sugar lump into his coffee, and then another.
'It comes from the Latin, jejunus,' he explained as he began stirring vigorously. 'Meaning fasting.'
'Insubstantial. Intellectually thin. Feeble,' he added confidently. He chinked the spoon three times on the rim of the cup then said, 'Would you like to sit down?'
Jane had smiled her assent and followed him to the black leather sofa by the door. She'd heard about this, she reflected with wry amusement. The Friends Room was a notorious pick-up place. Everyone knew that. And this, she presumed, was a pick-up. Really! she'd thought. What a nerve. And then she'd remembered that that was precisely why she'd joined. The man was still talking about Kandinsky - 'Middle period... Cubism... superior to Picasso.... Klimt...' - and as he did so Jane had sat there half smiling, and nodding politely while she discreetly took him in. Bookish. That was it. Owlish, even. He looked a bit like Stanley Spencer. Round, horn-rimmed specs. A mop of thick brown hair. Small features which seemed to crowd into the centre of a soft, round face. Not a handsome face, she'd thought with a pang. No. Not handsome at all. But not hideous either, she reflected judiciously, and at this she'd felt a sudden rush of hope. She'd casually let her gaze drop a little to scrutinise his physique. He wasn't slim. Nor was he fat. He wasn't tall. But his shoulders were broad. Chunky. That's what he was. And smartly-dressed, in a navy blazer and grey casuals. A chunky, well-spoken, forty-something man. Single, she presumed.
'Do you come here?' she began, then stopped herself just in time. 'I mean, have you been a Friend of the RA long?' The man sipped his coffee, then lowered his cup.
'Years,' he replied. 'I'm a friend of the Warburg too. And the Tate.' At this Jane had felt something within her stir. Oh yes. She adored clever men...
...Jane dabbed on a smidgeon of blusher, drew a brush through her short blonde hair, then sprayed a mist of 'Allure' on to her lightly powdered throat. She looked at her watch. Ten to seven. As usual, she was going to be late. She was always late for Gerald. She knew it didn't do to be prompt. Usually, it was a question of five or six minutes. Sometimes, when she was feeling more confident, she might be eight minutes late, or even ten. For Jane had been playing Gerald carefully, like an angler with a large trout. Tickling him. Taking her time. Doing nothing to startle or rush him. Because Gerald was clearly not the kind of man who could be rushed. She walked slowly downstairs, took a final check in the hall mirror, then picked up her bag and stepped outside. She thought of the cultural evening which lay ahead. There'd been so many since she met Gerald. They'd been to King Lear at the Barbican, and Edward Lear at the Tate. They'd been to Hodgkin at the Hayward, and Shostakovich at the Festival Hall. They'd seen Pinter at the Almeida, and Ballet Rambert at Sadler's Wells. And she was beginning to think that, yes, after three months it was time that he... Yes, it was time.
Jane's heart began to pound a little as she turned into Kentish Town Road. Tonight was the night that she was going to move things on. Give him a gentle prod. After all, he'd already agreed that they had lots in common. Like her, he loved the opera - he went to Glyndebourne every year. Jane had had a sudden, happy vision of them there, sitting side by side on a mohair rug, laughing, and sipping champagne. Gerald liked the theatre too, and films, as long as they were of the highbrow kind. And concerts of course. He went to lots of those. And he was passionate about the visual arts. Oh yes, they had so much in common she told herself again as she entered Kentish Town tube. Naturally there were some differences. For example, Gerald was brilliant at maths and she... but then everyone had agreed that the O-level questions had been particularly tough ones that year. But Gerald was a genius at maths. He had a double first in it from Oxford. One of his favourite hobbies, he told her, was 'thinking about the universe'. Another thing they didn't have in common - television. He didn't have one; 'Nothing to watch!' he'd say. But Jane worked in TV. As a freelance producer. Another point of departure - he was a humanist, and Jane was a Catholic. A half-hearted one, admittedly, but she knew she could never give it up. It was ineradicable. It ran through her like the lettering in a stick of seaside rock. But Gerald was devout in his unbelief - evangelical almost. 'Look, I know for a fact that God does NOT exist,' he'd announce, pushing his glasses up his nose. 'Absolutely not. No way!' This slightly dismayed Jane, who thought there was an outside chance He might. But then you can't expect to have everything in common with your potential partner, can you, she told herself philosophically as she slipped her ticket into the automatic gate. And Gerald was interested in her. That was clear. Because after each date, he would phone her the following morning, without fail, and say, 'Well, Jane, go and get your diary.' And they'd pencil in the next time - usually four or five days hence.
Jane always left it to Gerald to phone her. She knew that that was best. And though not naturally manipulative, she felt her coy caution was paying off. Because he'd started to call her when he was away on business, for his bank. He'd rung twice from Glasgow, and once, even, from Paris. At this she'd been quietly thrilled. And as they'd chatted she'd imagined him standing at a window overlooking the Place Vendome with the Seine glinting in the autumn sun. Oh yes, he's keen all right, she'd thought as she stepped on to the train. And that's why he was taking his time. But now she felt like applying just a little pressure to the button marked 'FF'.
Gerald was forty-five. Ten years older than Jane. He didn't talk much about his past. Jane knew only that he'd been divorced for eight years (high time he took the plunge again then!) and that he regarded his ex-wife, Susie, as a 'moron'. This had dismayed Jane a little. She'd felt her heart sink when he'd said that to her, over dinner, on their second date. She'd looked at him slightly reproachfully and gently murmured, 'Oh Gerald.' Then he'd guiltily explained that he'd left Susie because though she was 'absolutely gorgeous', she was 'thick'. And it had surprised Jane that Gerald had been married to someone gorgeous as he wasn't exactly gorgeous himself. But on the other hand, yes, on the other hand... on the other hand, he was rich.
For her own part, Jane strenuously avoided talking about herself, though sometimes Gerald would probe. She rather liked it when he got a little bit inquisitive like this, but took care to keep her replies breezy and light.
'Oh well,' she'd say airily. 'I suppose I've just never met the right one... you've just got to get it right, haven't you?' she'd add. She never admitted that if she ever,ever laid eyes on her ex, Philip, again she'd probably fell him with one smart blow from her bag. 'Oh yes,' she'd go on, with a regretful little smile. 'It's just go to beright.'
As the train rattled southwards Jane checked her make-up once more, pushed her hair behind one ear, and removed a piece of fluff from the velvet lapel of her coat. They were going to the opera - to see Hansel and Gretel at the Coliseum. As always, she'd got the tickets, and he'd take her for dinner afterwards. 'I'll take care of the entertainment,' she'd joked at the start, 'and you can be in charge of catering.' And though she knew he earned a fortune, she was always careful to pay her way. Jane stepped on to the escalator at Leicester Square and floated up, and out. Through St. Martin's Court, then sharp right, and now she could see the opera house, and the crowd hurrying up the steps. And there was Gerald. By the box office. Waiting. She spotted him before he saw her and was pleased to see that he looked slightly concerned.
'Sorry I'm late,' she breathed as she proffered her cold cheek for him to kiss. 'The phone just wouldn't stop ringing - couldn't get away!' This was not so much a white lie, as a flashing fluorescent pink and green one. No one had rung her at all. She glanced at Gerald's suit - a Prince of Wales check. He looked good in it, and though he was far from handsome, at least he always looked smart. She dropped her coat off quickly, as the two-minute bell began to clang. Underneath her coat she was wearing a pale blue cashmere cardigan and a short, bronze-coloured velvet skirt. She smiled at Gerald, ran a manicured hand through her hair, then they made their way upstairs to the front of the dress circle.
'I love this,' she thought as they took their seats and the house lights dimmed. 'I love this moment when the curtain goes up and the hush comes down, and I'm cocooned in the darkness with him.' Convinced that her right profile was more attractive, she always tried to sit on Gerald's left. She crossed her legs, aware that he could hear the gentle rasp of expensive tights. She hoped too that he'd notice the soft gleam of her velvet skirt as it stretched across her thighs, and inhale the warm, vanilla-y sweetness of her scent. 'Tonight,' she thought as the music swelled. 'Tonight,' maybe. Tonight.' Sometimes, when they went to the theatre, she'd place her right elbow on his armrest. And if he did the same, with his left arm, then they could feel each other's bodies rise and fall. Up and down. Up and down. Then one of them would shift.
In the interval, Gerald was in raptures: 'Post-Romanticism...Wagnerian harmony ... folkloric melodies... Richard Strauss very keen. Jane listened with a warm glow inside as she sipped her red wine, happy to be with this clever man; happy, happyexcept... At dinner, afterwards, she decided that she'd drop a gentle hint. But Gerald was still waxing lyrical about nineteenth-century music. But then, as the waiter brought coffee, there was a moment when their eyes met, across the table, in sudden silence. Courage surged through Jane's veins with the white Bordeaux.
'Gerald...' she began carefully. 'Gerald, there's something I...'
'Schoenberg!' he exclaimed.
'Sorry. Schoenberg. At the Barbican. I've just remembered,' he said. 'Next Thursday. Shall we go?'
'What? Oh. Yes. Yes,' she agreed. 'Schoenberg would be great.'
'You were going to say something,' he apologized. 'So sorry. Do go on.'
'Was I?' she said, vaguely. 'Oh, it was nothing important. Er... I was just going to ask you whether you were keen on Liszt?'
Afterwards, as always, Gerald walked Jane to the tube. He always walked her to the tube, before getting a cab himself to his mews house in Earl's Court. They'd stroll along, side by side, Gerald walking on the outside of the pavement because he was always very 'correct'.
'Another wonderful evening,' he said happily, as she rummaged in her bag for her pass. 'Another splendid evening. Splendid. What fun.' He kissed her on the cheek. 'Schoenberg,' he repeated cheerfully. 'I'll call you tomorrow, Jane. Bye.'
'Bye,' she replied with a watery smile as he turned away. On the train, she avoided looking at the infatuated young couple sitting opposite her, their limbs entwined, like rope. And though Jane could always keep a stiff upper lip, her lower one was giving her trouble. So she breathed deeply - in and out - and held her book up in front of her face. Leaving Kentish Town tube she stared down, hard, at the paving stones as she walked along. Then she arrived at her flat, closed the front door, shouted 'Jesus CHRIST!!!' and burst into tears.
The next day, after lunch, the phone rang.
'Jane. It's Gerald. How are you?'
'I'm ...confused,' she replied, before she could stop herself. Oh God. Oh God. Too late.
'Confused?' he repeated. 'About what?'
'About you, Gerald,' she said quietly.
'Oh. Oh dear. Why?'
'Well... because...' she went on, inhaling slowly, '...I've been seeing you for three and a half months now - and you haven't even held my hand!' There. It was said. she had knocked a hole in the dam and now the water was going to pour through.
'Ah...' he began awkwardly.
'I just don't know what you want.'
'What I want? Er... ah...' he stuttered. 'Well... well... this is most surprising,' he expostulated, recovering now. 'Yes! This really is a most surprising conversation.' Jane took a deep breath.
'Well I find it surprising,' she went on calmly, 'that you keep asking me out, but never do anything.'
'We go on all these dates,' she added wearily, 'week after week after week, and you don't even, you don't even... Look, it's no good if you're going to be shy.'
'Shy?' Gerald exclaimed indignantly. 'Shy? I'm not shy!'
'Well you are with me,' she replied.
'Yes. Though you weren't to begin with. When you picked me up at the RA.'
'I didn't 'pick you up',' he said wonderingly. 'I was just making conversation. Being polite.'
'Oh. Well, then why did you ask me out after that? And why did you keep on asking me out? That's my problem, Gerald. I don't understand what you want.'
'Oh I see.'
'I assumed you were interested in... you know...' she sighed. 'In getting to know me better.'
'Well, I was. I mean, I am,' he corrected himself.
'But I think you know me quite well by now, Gerald. And to be honest I've been finding your 33 rpm approach a little...' she avoided saying 'frustrating' - 'slow.'
'Ah. I see. Well Jane, this really is a most surprising conversation,' he said again, now sounding almost amused. 'My dear, I simply didn't realise you felt like this,' he added. 'I... I...' Words eluded him. 'But now I know what I have to do!' he suddenly exclaimed. 'Yes! I know what I have to do. And I'm going to do it!'
By now Jane regretted her emotional candour. She felt her insides twist and coil.
'Yes,' he want on, excitedly now. 'I know what I've got to do and next time I see you, I'm going to hold your hand!'
'Look, Gerald,' she said wearily. 'You don't have to do anything you don't want to do...'
'Oh, but I do!'
'All I'm saying,' she added patiently, 'is that I'd just to know whether you see our friendship as just, well... friendship?'
'Well we do have to be friends first,' he said. 'That's very important. I mean I was friends with my last girlfriend for a year before we...'
'A year?' she repeated. Good God!'
'...but now I know how you feel I'm going to... well,' he concluded darkly, 'I knowexactly what I'm going to do.'
Jane replaced the receiver with a leaden heart Having a conversation with Gerald about whether or not he was going to hold her hand was not quite what she'd had in mind. She just wanted him to do it. She'd been wanting him to do it for weeks. She just wanted him to quietly take hold of her hand, at some suitable moment, and hold it in both of his. But there'd been nothing. Not so much as a touch. Just these endless cultural excursions in which they sat side by side, like intimate strangers, barely brushing sleeves. She'd sometimes wondered if he was gay.
'He isn't gay,' she reassured herself again, as she headed down Harley Street later that day. 'He's just a bit awkward with women. Very brainy men often are. But at least now, he knows how I feel. I can't let it go on for too long.' She went upstairs to Dr Sharp's waiting room. Dr Sharp was her gynaecologist. Jane was too embarrassed to take 'those' sorts of problems to her GP because he was an old family friend. Dr Sharp's name suited her, Jane thought, as she lay back on the examination table, staring at her stirruped feet.
'It's probably candidiasis,' she said briskly. Well, I have been candid recently, Jane thought.
'Commonly known as thrush,' Dr Sharp went on as she prodded Jane's nether regions with a latex-gloved hand. 'A bit itchy, are we?'
'Had sex recently?'
'No,' said Jane ruefully.
'Ever had it before? Thrush, I mean, not sex?'
Jane shook her head.
'However,' said Dr Sharp, judiciously, as she picked up a swab, 'it could be bacterial vaginosis. I'll just... ' Jane winced, '...get it looked at. It's called Gardnerella vaginalis, if you want the Latin name.' Jane rather liked that. It sounded like a type of clematis.
'Gardnerella's often linked to anxiety,' Dr Sharp explained as Jane pulled up her tights. But it's nothing to worry about,' she added. 'And it's easy to treat. I'll write to you with the results.'
On Tuesday, Jane received a letter from Dr Sharp informing her that she had a simple case of thrush, and that it would clear up in time with the enclosed prescription. On her way to meet Gerald at Frederick's that Thursday, Jane took it to a nearby chemist's.
'Do read the instructions carefully,' advised the pharmacist as Jane slipped the slim package into her bag. Then she made her way to the restaurant, breathing deeply. She and Gerald weren't going to the Schoenberg. They were just going to have dinner, and talk. And though Jane was glad she'd cleared the air, she felt like Gary Cooper in High Noon. She'd dressed carefully. Nothing too sexy, just a smart grey Jasper Conran dress. She opened the door and there was Gerald, sitting on a dark blue sofa by the bar. Jane had imagined he'd be looking nervous. But he wasn't. He was all smiles.
'Our table's not going to be ready for fifteen minutes,' he explained as he go to his feet. 'Would you like a drink?'
'Yes please,' she said as the waiter took her coat. 'I'd like a glass of white wine.' Gerald gave her order to the waiter, and sat down. Then he looked at Jane, cocked his head to one side, and patted the sofa in a flirtatious way. Jane felt her entrails begin to knot. She sat down at the other end of the sofa and put her bag in the space in between. Now Gerald was just looking at her, smiling, knowingly. She found herself wishing he'd stop.
'Have you had a busy day?' she asked. He nodded. She sipped her glass of wine nervously while he talked about some merger he'd been doing.
'And have you had a good day?' he enquired with an amused smirk, as though there were some secret between them.
'Er, yes,' she said, 'I did.' And she babbled on about a project she was taking to Channel 4 about men who have plastic surgery. And all the while she spoke Gerald sat with his body turned right in towards her, one eyebrow raised, smiling.
'You see, the proportion of men having plastic surgery has gone up hugely in the past ten years,' she explained. 'In fact it's gone up by 20 per cent and many of the men who have it say they're doing it to please their wives or girlfriends so I talked to the commissioning editor at Channel 4 - he's very nice by the way - about maybe a three-part series in which' - Suddenly, Gerald's hand shot out and his chubby fingers clamped themselves round hers. I have been hoist with my own petard, Jane thought, as her face began to flame.
'Gerald...' she began. 'Gerald, when I said...'
'You're right, Jane,' he interrupted, oblivious to her polite resistance. 'It's hightime I held your hand and may I say...' he gave it a squeeze - 'what a charming hand it is.' Jane wished she could return the compliment but his own hand felt clammy and hot. He was still smiling at her. She felt her bowels shrink as he now interlocked his short, thick fingers with her own.
'Look, Gerald... this wasn't quite what I mean, I ...' But he continued to hang on to her as though she were about to run away. And then, to her horror, he began to incline his face towards hers...
'Another drink, madam?' It was the waiter. Thank God!
'Oh yes, yes, please, yes,' she said. But despite the presence of the waiter, Gerald continued to paw her with his broad, damp hand.
'Please, Gerald,' she said softly, aware that they were beginning to attract strange looks.
'Do you know what I'm going to do now, Jane?' he whispered, hoarsely, as she shuffled along the sofa towards her.
'No,' she said truthfully. Oh God.
'I'm going to kiss you!'
'No, Gerald, please don't,' said Jane. 'Not here. It really isn't the right place, I...'
'Ahaaaa!' he was grinning now. 'You're embarrassed,' he announced triumphantly. 'You're discomforted. You are - might I add - discombobulated even! But I don't care, I'm going to ki- '
'Sir!' It was the waiter again. Thank God. Jane wanted to kiss him. 'Your table's ready now. Please follow me.'
Jane was overwhelmed by feelings of relief as she sat down opposite Gerald - with the table a buffer in between. Furthermore he could hardly grope her whilst wielding a knife and fork. She swallowed the rest of her wine, too quickly. Gerald was talking about T.S. Eliot
'I really want to get into the Waste Land,' he announced, pushing his glasses up his nose. 'Can you recommend a good critical guide?'
'Er, well, I think the Helen Gardner's the classic one,' she said. 'It's called The Art of T.S. Eliot I remember reading it at college it's .... oh thanks -' the waiter was refilling her glass. Gerald looked at him as he did so, indicated Jane with a flourish of his right hand, and said, in a theatrical whisper, 'Don't you think she's gorgeous?'
'Yes, sir,' said the waiter politely. And as he retreated Gerald reached across the table and grabbed Jane's hand again. I have only myself to blame, she thought bitterly, as she felt a little pool of sweat start to collect in the runnel above her upper lip.
'You're embarrassed!' he said again, gleefully. 'Aren't you? Ha!' There was a faint layer of steam on his glasses. He leant across the table and grabbed her hand again, and she wanted to shout, 'No, Gerald! No, Gerald!' Down! But now he was forced to let go again as their plates of sea-bass arrived. Jane found it hard to eat, so she drank instead. By the time the bill came, she'd had the best part of a bottle.
'Cab...' she mumbled as they collected their coats. 'Need a cab...'
'We certainly do,' said Gerald, with a smirk. 'My place or yours?' he added with a knowing grin.
'What? Look, sorry... I've had too much... drink. G'ld. Iss been... great... but... Oh God... gotta go home.' They walked out on to Upper Street, and Jane flung out her right arm as an amber light came into view.
'Thanks, G'ld,' she mumbled. 'S'great. See... soon.' She offered him her cheek, but instead he gripped her by the shoulders and clamped his soft, rubbery lips on to hers.
'Helen G'dner,' she called out of the open window as the cab pulled away. 'Art of Teeyessel't. Faber. C'n lend it to you if y'like.' Gerald stood there, for a moment, a lonely figure. Then he waved once and turned away.
He didn't phone the next day. Jane didn't mind - she was too hungover to talk. But by Saturday her searing headache had gone, leaving just a vague fog. She called Gerald's house, but his answerphone was on. 'He'll ring,' she said to herself. But he didn't. He didn't ring on the Saturday, or the Sunday. Nor did her return any of her calls. On the Monday she was feeling neglected and wondering what to do when she suddenly remembered her prescription. She opened the packet. Inside was something that looked like a torpedo, and a small tube of white cream. What on earth were you meant to do with it? She'd never used this stuff before. Unusually, there were no instructions. So she rang Dr Sharp.
'I'm afraid Dr Sharp's away until Wednesday,' said the assistant. 'If it's not an urgent matter I suggest you write.' So Jane got out her pad and wrote, 'Dear Dr Sharp, by an unusual oversight, my packet of thrush treatment came without any instructions. Please could you tell me whether that white torpedo thing is a pessary or a suppository? How far up should it go? And can the accompanying cream be applied directly into the vagina or not?' There, that should do it, she thought. Then she picked up the phone, and dialled.
'Gerald, it's Jane. How are you?' There was a momentary silence at the other end.
'I'm fine,' he said cautiously. 'But I'm ...busy.'
'Oh,' she said, and was surprised at how disappointed she suddenly felt. 'Well, maybe we can get together when you're not so busy,' she went on quickly. 'There's a new production of Rosenkavalier opening at the Opera House - shall I get tickets?'
'No,' he said curtly. 'No thanks.'
Jane felt her face begin to flame.
'I thought you liked Richard Strauss,' she said.
'Don't you want to see it then?'
'Yes. But not with you.'
'Oh.' Jane felt her knees begin to shake. 'May I ask why?'
'Look... let's just call it a day, shall we?' said Gerald, irritably. 'There's really not much point.'
'I see,' she said. Her hand shook. 'Or rather, I don't really see at all. In fact I find your present attitude rather strange. Are you cross?' she added gently, backtracking a little. 'Because I pushed things along a bit?'
'No,' he said. 'Not at all. But I just...' he sighed. 'I've just decided that I don't think I could feel really ...passionate about you.'
'Oh. Well... don't you find me attractive?' she enquired, fatally, her heart banging in her chest.
'Um. No,' he said brusquely. 'I don't.'
'Oh. Well then...' she said. 'That's fine. Although it's a bit of a surprise. After your bizarre behaviour in Frederick's. But thank you for making it so clear, Gerald. Thank you very much indeed. Good bye.' She put the phone down, then shouted, 'WAN-KER!!! What a creep. What an effing weirdo! What a - Christ she'd never be able to show her face in Frederick's again! She went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of coffee. How dare he, she said to herself as she slammed the cupboard door shut. How dare he say that to her after asking her out for three months. How DARE he say that to her after slobbering over her in public like that. Jane went to her writing desk and opened her pad. Right. He was going to get it now. Quite unnecessary candour...' she scribbled. '...total lack of chivalry... embarrassing performance in Frederick's ...behaviour flatly contradictory... not exactly God's gift... no wish to meet again... Goodbye!' Jane re-read it with immense satisfaction, addressed it to Gerald's office, then rushed straight out to the letter box and posted it with the note to Dr Sharp.
'I am SO glad I did that,' she said to herself as she got the tube to channel 4 the next day. 'Bloody weirdo. Dysfunctional bastard. He'll be livid, but he won't write back.'
Two days later Jane heard the clatter of the letter box and the soft fall of envelopes onto the mat. There were three - a couple of bills, and a reply from Dr Sharp. Jane opened the oyster-coloured envelope. Puzzlement furrowed her brow. 'Dear Jane,' Dr Sharp had written. 'I do hope your thrush has now cleared up with the treatment I prescribed. I was rather surprised to receive the enclosed' - it was Jane's letter to Gerald - 'which you seem to have sent me in error - easily done when one's in a rush. But I enclose it now, in case it's important. Yours ever, Janet Sharp.'
Published 'Girls' Night In', published by HarperCollins 2000