Chapter Four

There he was, the goofball. A weight left Rosa; Ernest’s floppy hair was visible once more.

Oh dear, he was holding a sign. She squinted, having forgotten her contacts: “Rosa ‘(Please be) On-Time Show’ Colbert”. Rosa assumed this was a bizarre reference to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

‘I think this may be your worst sign yet.’ She gave Ernest a kiss.

‘I’m inclined to agree.’

They planned to be as antisocial as possible that weekend, at least until Bert’s baptism on Sunday. As far as Rosa was concerned, no-one deserved to speak to Ernest besides her, and, once again, he was inclined to agree. The only stumbling block was Gylfi.

Ernest had done his best to reassure Rosa: although Gylfi’s behaviour was suspicious, she could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was abusing substances. Or maybe he was sick of spending each night on the bus and went to 24-hour cafés to unwind. He was a night owl, after all.

No good could come from worrying now, and Ernest was determined to craft a cocoon against the outside world, spinning silk with a verve rarely seen amongst holometabolous insect larvae. Tomorrow morning he would outstrip the Buff-tip moth caterpillar: he was going to let Rosa read “Yellow and Brown”.

The tale of the young couple’s courtship is a long and chequered one. Indeed, it became so chequered that Ernest once wrote a short story about his failed attempts to woo Rosa. No-one had gained access to this story, although Rosa and Bert knew that it was called “Yellow and Brown”. The young writer had tried to compose a sequel detailing his eventual romantic breakthrough, but, like many finer artists, he found it easier to write about sorrow than joy. Although he’d intended to keep its contents under wraps, Ernest now felt compelled to unveil his infamous story. Their first evening together was an unsuitable occasion: why would Rosa want to read his long-winded prose when she could hear him rambling in person? But as they lounged in bed on Saturday morning, an opportunity presented itself.

‘We should probably think about getting up soon,’ she said.

‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while. It’s a daunting prospect.’ Ernest was torn between kissing Rosa’s lips and watching them smile. He gave them another moment of respite before leaning over.

‘What do we have planned this morning?’

‘Well, now that you mention it, I did have one idea.’

‘Should I be worried?’

‘Uhh, potentially.’

Rosa was used to Ernest’s games. ‘What is it?’

‘Well, I was wondering if you’d like to read “Yellow and Brown”.’

Rosa’s eyes threatened the confines of their sockets. ‘You’re serious?’

‘Alively.’

‘…’

‘I apologise.’

‘Apology accepted.’

‘Thank you. So d’you want to read it?’

‘I’d love to. But isn’t it a bit of a tome? I don’t want you to be waiting around all morning.’

‘I wouldn’t call it a tome. I’ll go for a walk. I couldn’t cope with you reading it next to me.’

‘Gosh, how ominous.’

‘I thought you might like this plan.’

Half an hour later, Ernest left home listening to a podcast about Dolly Parton. Rosa, meanwhile, had decided to shower and change for the event; this was not a story to be read in bed. Having found an appropriate skirt, she opened the curtains and fluffed her armchair pillow. Ernest had been quick to point out that the story was five years old, so naturally his style had developed since then, etc., etc. Having prepared herself with a sip of tea, Rosa picked up the fourteen sheets of A4: 

Yellow and Brown 

It made no difference whether he looked at her or not. He would sit there in his usual spot, awaiting her return; and then she would glide into that quiet haven, brown hair bobbing, head up with innocent confidence, eyes wide like always. They were beautiful bright blue eyes, thrown into relief by her clear complexion and swoonworthy cheekbones. When he lifted his gaze they would share a smile; for a moment, everything would fall into place. Her smile formed so easily (mouth open, eyes aglow, head tilted slightly back) that others might have thought it feigned; but, seeing Mary then, he knew that her joy was not artificial but effortless. And he too felt happy for a moment. It was difficult not to revere this passing joy; this wave carrying him towards the safety of land. But then she would walk on by, taking one of her three favoured seats in the neighbouring room, and the wave would break too early, forcing him underwater, depriving his lungs of air, until he thought that this was it, his time had come. And although he always reached the surface, his vision laboured against drops of obstinate water.

Then there were the times he didn’t look up; the times he resisted the urge to swim. By now he could recognise her approach through intuition – or perhaps it was just the swish of her puffer coat. Either way, he would decide not to brave the waters, since lifting his gaze and saying ‘good morning’ would prove her mastery of these depths; Mary would pass his stack of books unnoticed. But rather than providing some much-needed distance, these times reminded Giles of the connection he was not allowed to cultivate, like a wave surfed only in his dreams.

*** 

The first time he saw her, Giles wondered if she was insane. They were listening to his friend Elisabeth playing love songs in the college bar. Mary had recently joined Oxford, whereas Giles was an aloof second-year enjoying the set with a drink in hand.

Although Elisabeth was an outstanding singer, you’d have thought she was Whitney Houston reincarnate from the expression on Mary’s face. She sat there transfixed, staring at Elisabeth with wide-eyed glee. It wasn’t so much the expression itself that unnerved Giles but its duration. Had Elisabeth hit a high C or put that distinctive trill in her voice, then a glimpse of Mary’s broad grin and manic eyes would have been understandable. But her euphoria refused to wane. Giles pointed her out to one of his friends: ‘See that girl? I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone look so happy.’ Torn between admiration and disdain, he felt compelled to watch this strange naiad revelling in her newfound freedom. When he overheard her talking, Giles drifted closer to contempt: Mary’s voice was whiny and loud.

***

She walked towards him, cartooned her eyes, swayed as if to fall over. This was how they met, at the end of an uncivilised dinner. An assumption flirted with Giles: here was a first-year who couldn’t handle her booze whereas he was a calm and collected second-year. But something told him she was putting on a show; he later discovered that Mary liked to act. The moment was too surreal to elicit more than a chuckle, but their first encounter proved easy, helped by the wine no doubt, and Giles realised that her voice, rather than annoying, was full of life, just like the eyes he had seen at Elizabeth’s concert; the eyes staring at him now. And yet, when he and Mary parted ways en route to the nightclub, he still wasn’t sure whether she was insane.

He soon had a chance to make up his mind, as they spent close to an hour talking in the smoking area. Looking back on this conversation, Giles could not help smiling at its subject matter: their lack of experience with the opposite sex.

It had taken until university for Giles to manage his first kiss, and Mary was now in the same boat. Half a year later, Giles wished he had stopped talking and given her an average-at-best first experience, but he was infatuated with someone else at the time and thus failed to appreciate Mary’s joie de vivre. Besides, when it came to women, he had the confidence of a suppressed public-school boy (which is exactly what he was). And so they were united by their lack of experience. He wanted to say that this unity was an indictment of modern society, but he couldn’t work out how to phrase it without sounding like a pretentious arse.

***

‘If I were a fruit,’ she said several months later, ‘what would I be?’

‘I was thinking about that the other day, actually.’ He knew which of her laughs would come next: the one where she leaned forward with a slight bend at the waist, played a low, staccato song whilst looking at the ground, then lifted her gaze with an expression that said: ‘Are you weirder than you are funny?’ When this look arrived, Giles reminded himself that she was the one asking about her spirit fruit. ‘I’d have to say a plum.’

‘Really!’

‘Wait, no, I jumped the gun. A nectarine.’

‘Why a nectarine rather than a plum?’

‘Well, my initial thought was something sweet and quintessentially English.’ Somehow this didn’t seem like the weirdest sentence he’d ever said, and she smiled, not looking the least bit fazed. He liked to think that rather than being a product of the wine they were drinking, this proved the snugness of their world; they existed in that single corner of the room.[1] ‘But there’s a bit of tang to you that often goes unnoticed. And a good nectarine has some tang, whereas a plum is only tangy if it’s unripe.’ Ach, he had to admit it, the wine had something to do with this. ‘Besides, a plum is too understated.’ Before she could provoke the embarrassment that he was surprised not to be feeling already, he said, ‘What about me?’ She hesitated, took a sip of their cheap white wine, pursed her lips.

‘A kiwi.’

***

‘I’m actually writing a play.’

‘Ooh, what’s it about?’

‘It follows this guy who’s obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. He ends up thinking that Jimi Hendrix tribute bands are tainting the singer’s name, so he decides to kill all their members.’

As expected, there were the wide eyes. ‘So sinister!’

‘You’re probably thinking, ‘Christ, I’m with an absolute weirdo’.’ No comment from Mary, only laughter on both sides as they walked through Oxford’s Botanic Gardens on their first date. It was, in hindsight, not the best time of year to visit a garden – the end of January –  but he’d always been more romantic than practical. Given the sorry state of the gardens, their eyes were drawn to the lemons in the greenhouse; they glowed a deep yellow.

‘Yellow’s my favourite colour,’ said Mary. ‘It’s so bright and cheery. How could you look at those lemons and not be happy?’

‘Life-affirming,’ with a nod. ‘My favourite colour’s brown.’

‘Brown?!’

‘Yep, it’s just so solid and understated and surprisingly stylish.’ He pointed through the glass. ‘Like that bench outside,’ letting her follow his gaze. ‘It’s subtle and smooth.’

‘I actually get what you mean.’

‘I remember this one team we used to play at school, they wore a yellow and brown football kit. It was awful.’

‘Oh no, that sounds horrible. Who on Earth would try to mix those colours?’

A few minutes later, one of the gardeners smiled when she saw them laughing, and he knew that others sensed it. Yes, his happiness tended to be reserved whilst hers was spread across her face. Yes, he was cynical whereas she was busy expressing her delight in the lemons and daffodils. And whilst it mattered that they shared a love of music, books and family, that he wrote novels and she was in plays, that they were both studious, sporty, and contented people, these were all just adjectives and labels and hobbies. What mattered to him was that their first one-on-one conversation had lasted three-quarters of an hour, that the woman in the garden had smiled as they laughed, that he knew she was a nectarine and she knew he was a kiwi.

***

It happened two mornings after the date; the date whose end she had wanted to avoid, as they moved from the gardens to a coffee shop, where they shared a peanut brownie and discussed her passion for dance. So it was on a Friday morning that she opened the door for him and asked if he was busy.

‘Yep, I’ve got a class. What’s up?’

‘Giles, last night someone asked me if we were dating.’ Her tone did not suggest enthusiasm.

‘Oh.’

‘Why does this always happen?’ It had never happened to Giles. ‘I wanted it to be like how you and Elisabeth hang out.’

Loneliness, he realised on that Friday morning, is not a question of being by yourself.[2] He had spent the previous evening reading in his room, thinking of their date between pages, listening to Mellow Yellow because it reminded him of her. Nobody else in sight, and yet he could hardly have felt less alone. Whereas now, as he stood right next to the woman he wanted to love, he understood that loneliness was a question of being too broken to look beyond oneself.

‘I’m going to be late for my class,’ which was true, ‘but I’ll have a think and we can chat later?’ Quite what he needed to think about, he wasn’t sure. All he wanted was to escape the sickness in his stomach.

They met for lunch an hour later. As he waited in line at Prêt, they passed the time with idle comments that neither would remember; they had never struggled for words before. And then they went outside and the bubble burst.

‘Well,’ he began, ‘we should probably have our chat.’

‘Oh, I wish we didn’t have to.’

‘Tell me about it.’ He nodded to a passing friend. ‘So someone asked if we were dating and you didn’t like that?’

‘It made me scared. ‘Cause I thought you just wanted to hang out, but then people have been saying we went on a date.’

Her earlier comment about Elisabeth had been the bullet wound: she wanted to be friends and nothing more. And now, with these last few sentences, she had extracted the bullet, reminding him of the gunshot and aggravating the pain, before handing him the metal slug as a memento of his courage on the battlefield. ‘I meant it to be a date,’ was all he could say.

‘Oh, Giles, I’m so sorry.’

He tried to look at her but only reached her left cheek. ‘Maybe I should have made it more obvious. I kind of thought you’d realise friends don’t go for a walk in the Botanic Gardens.’

‘No, you’re right, I was being naïve. It’s my fault. I just thought that after the other week…’

Ah, the other week. Given their tendency to find any excuse to drink, the students marked the start of Easter Term with a party. Giles arrived with his head and his heels battling for ascendancy: having always thought of Mary as a friend, something had changed two nights earlier.

They bumped into each other outside the library. Her hair was wet from water polo training, and she clasped a bike helmet in her right hand. She was wearing a sports fleece. As they chatted about the holiday, which Mary had spent dancing and visiting grandparents, Giles found himself captivated by her dripping hair and goggle-marked eyes. They talked for some time, as they always did, until Mary declared that she really had to go to bed; her spick-and-span room awaited. Giles, meanwhile, cycled home faster than ever, having awoken to his true feelings; or perhaps it was on that night that those feelings began to take shape. Maybe there wasn’t much of a difference between the two.

Even if he hadn’t quite struck the ground, he was now rapidly falling for her, after a term of denying such allegations. He and Mary had laughed about this one November night, since she too had been a victim of the rumour mill and all its insubstantial corn.

He arrived at the party to the sound of Mary crying ‘Giles!’; this squeal of excitement infected him with joy. Yes, that was it: he found his joy in hers. He gave her a warm grin and said, ‘Hey, Mary. I just need to pop to the loo, but I’ll see you in a second.’ In hindsight, there are better ways of wooing a girl. He returned a minute later to find her bounding across the dance floor with a smile too theatrical to be false. From there, they spent most of the night together: dancing, chatting, drinking, saying things they would remember, things they would forget; things he would try to forget but always remember.

He wished it had been more romantic. Sure, the sentiment was refined, but he had slurred words he wasn’t yet sure he meant, something along the lines of ‘I think you’re amazing, Mary, not just as a friend, it’s more than that, you’re so pretty and I have a crush on you.’ Not words to remember a man by, but words that meant far more in the months to come.

He woke up to the taste of rejection-steeped beer. He remembered what she’d said, that his friendship was all she wanted, that she genuinely loved that friendship, that he was wonderful but confused, and then she’d begged him to stop saying how much he liked her, assuring him that he really just wanted to be friends, all the talk had got to him and he was drunk. He admitted that he was confused, he wasn’t sure how much he liked her, but the important thing was that he did like her, enough to stay in her room for forty minutes eating her gluten-free rice cakes and rambling on about how great she was, before borrowing her coat for the walk home. He returned it the next morning with an ovine smile.

And that was why she said: ‘I just thought that after the other week…’

‘I get that, but I had to try again. Even though I remember the gist of that night, it’s all a bit of a blur. So I didn’t want to over-interpret it. Also I was confused back then, but I’m not anymore.’ She looked up, stopping herself from going completely wide-eyed. ‘Which is probably not what you want to hear.’

As the conversation progressed, he laughed from time to time – a defence mechanism fired in short, sharp bursts. When she mentioned this, he said it was to hide the pain.

‘Oh, please don’t say that.’ Her eyes were blinking rapidly behind her glasses. ‘This all makes me so sad.’ He nodded. ‘At least I have an audition this afternoon to take my mind off things.’

‘Well, onwards and upwards, hey?’ He smiled at her, but even she must have seen how unlikely that was, as she let out an unexpected chuckle of her own.

‘Onwards and upwards,’ she said, trying to believe it.

*** 

A few weeks after The Chat, he went on a date with a girl called Olivia. As ever, he and Elisabeth discussed how it had gone, and it was not long before his thoughts returned to Mary.

‘So I bumped into Mary on my way back.’

‘Oh, Giles, come-’

‘No, let me indulge myself.’ She had to smile at that. ‘It just made the difference so clear. Obviously when you know someone better the conversation is more likely to flow, so it’s not a totally fair comparison, but what I mean is, the conversation with Olivia was nice and pretty interesting, we had some things in common, but then I spoke to Mary and we just couldn’t stop talking.’ He prepared his next sentence, not wanting to break the flow mid-sentence. ‘Pretty much every conversation we have only ends because one of us has to head off. Sure, it’s usually her, but she always says she’s going to be late now, not to make me feel bad, but more as an acknowledgement of how we lose track of time when we chat.’ He looked at Elisabeth, checking that she was still listening. ‘You know how with lots of conversations, it’s pretty clear when things are coming to an end? Well, with Mary, one thing just leads to another. We’ll bump into each other outside the library loos, hardly the place for a catch-up, and we’ll still be there ten minutes later, when all I’d been planning to do was fill my water bottle. What I’m saying is, it’s almost like we have to bring the conversation to an end, rather than us wanting to. Or, at least, I don’t want to.’

Elisabeth advised him to keep some distance from Mary. And whilst it pained him to agree, he knew that she was right.

***

The setting for their next encounter was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a nightclub. Her eyeshadow flashed amber, and he could not resist joining her for a dance. He tried to strike up a conversation over the sound of The Killers, but fifty students screaming ‘Cause I’m Mr Brightside’ rarely makes for an easy tête-à-tête. When he realised that Mary was more carefree with others than with him, he managed to walk away, although he stole frequent glances whilst sipping at a gin & tonic and half-listening to a friend.

After that night, the waves began to settle. Mary was working on a play; he paddled in the shallows. With the distance growing bit by bit, he went on another date with Olivia; he liked to see this as his bodyboarding phase.

It was hard to say what triggered the relapse. It may have been the time they smiled at each other through the library window, sharing a moment that was lost on others. Or perhaps it was the honey she made. Having discarded this delicacy to the back of a cupboard, he lost his nerve, spread it on toast, and thought of her, muttering a few lines of ABBA between each mouthful. Whatever the cause, he soon recovered his earlier sadness. He had little desire to see Olivia, who paled in comparison to Mary’s yellow. A friend suggested that the one who got away will always be glorified, but there was more to it than that. The first time he met Mary, they spoke for close to an hour. The first time he met Olivia, they spoke for ten minutes; he wouldn’t have given it much thought if he’d never seen her again. He soon realised that this wasn’t a question of distance. At times, absence made his heart grow fonder; at others, it made it grow numb. Seeing Mary could wash away the pain, but it could also stir the waves into a frenzy.

With the end of term approaching, he had fewer commitments and more opportunities to see her. The first such occasion took place on Broad Street. Having spent the past few days creating an entire World of Mary in his mind, reliving their conversations, placing her on a pedestal that perhaps only his image of her deserved (he refused to believe this; he could not betray Mary like that), it was almost surreal to see her in the flesh; he wondered whether he had become more comfortable in his world of dreams and regrets than in the waking, living world. But then she smiled and he forgot their saga, feeling warm because she had crossed the road for him.

‘Giles!’ A soft exclamation. ‘How are you?’

‘Hi, Mary, all good, thanks. It’s been a while! How’s life? How was the play?’ After watching her first performance at Oxford, Giles had created a Spotify playlist called “She is (a) wonderful (actress)”. The playlist was yet to receive its first follower, although that said more about Giles’s music taste than Mary’s acting ability. She was far too good an actress not to sow seeds of infatuation in her audience, which was why Giles had bought a ticket for her second play, only to sell it after heeding Elisabeth’s advice. ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it, life’s been pretty hectic.’

Two friends walked past, smiling because he was with her; at least, that was how he saw it. Mary explained that he hadn’t missed much. ‘I only had a small part. Anyway, I’ve finished all my assignments for the term, so I think I deserve to cut loose tonight.’

They laughed together, anticipating her drunkenness. ‘Well, I can’t wait to see your moves.’ Keeping his shoulders very still, he pouted his lips and moved his head from side to side. Mary was a much better dancer than Giles, which may have been why his caricature made her laugh so much.  

‘And you’ll be doing your usual…’ She imagined herself as an Old Etonian: giving her chin a haughty tilt, she made her lips go serious, clenched her fists, and moved her arms in feigned effortlessness. She couldn’t keep the pretence going for long, as they ascended into laughter.

***

It was a cold, dry night, and he was beginning to understand something about nightclubs. Whenever he was feeling low they grinned at him, promising a chance to hide from it all: the pressures of work, England’s icy winds, his lonely thoughts. Each club provided a number of escape routes, although these often became intertwined: drinking and dancing were his usual fare. Sometimes he did feel that a door had been unlocked, with Elisabeth tending to provide the key. Whereas now, as he stood in a crowded room where Mary danced and Olivia lingered, he recognised the fine line between liberation and imprisonment. He spoke to Mary, and a cocktail of chemistry and awkwardness was poured down his throat, making him feel sick rather than drunk. He sensed the presence of the guards until after she’d left, whereupon he had visions of the clichéd days they might spend together: punting, visiting galleries, hiking the Yorkshire Dales. But here he was in a dark, congested room with a floor made sticky by vodka lemonades, as reggae remixes blared from immodest speakers. The songs, which were wonderfully relaxed at first, soon blurred into a hellish concoction of slow beats, muddy bass-lines and high-pitched vocals, until, at long last, he made his way outside and found a form of respite.

‘Gi-yals… Gi-yals.’ Mary was saying his name in a sleepy, smiley drawl. He hesitated – not even the dreaded jägerbomb could put his heart in this much danger – then perched next to her on the bench. To make matters worse, she was soon resting her head on his chest. He placed a hand on her arm, wanting to keep her close but aware that it meant something different to each of them. Sometimes he felt particularly bold, particularly drunk, and stroked her coat or hair. At one point she held his earlobes and said, ‘You’ve got wonderfully cold ears.’ He did not expect to forget that moment.

‘I wish we could hang out more often,’ he said.

‘Why can’t we?’ Oh, she just didn’t get it. Part of him wished she would gain some perspective, understand the depth of his obsession, but her obliviousness was also part of her charm, her youthful abandon, her ability to find joy and simplicity where he experienced this combination of profound harmony and profound longing.

All he could say was a suggestive ‘Well…’, which he repeated once or twice, hoping she would fill in the gap. Either she was too drunk to do so or she wanted to avoid the subject, because he received no direct response. Instead she asked him what he thought of her black dress, which was beautiful and told of an under-appreciated maturity beneath her innocence, and he was acutely aware of her failure to grasp the complexities of their friendship; complexities that existed largely in his mind. But these were occasional skips on the record, mere distractions from the fact that she was resting on him, telling him how wonderful he was.

And whether it was the result of her praise or his second tequila shot, the hours they spent on the dance floor were some of his happiest at Oxford until then. Sometimes it was just the two of them, sometimes friends appeared, and sometimes, in her seemingly unflinching happiness, she included total strangers. He remembered a group of Turkish men whose gleeful smiles revealed the effect she had on others.

When he and Mary danced alone, they displayed the full array of basic turns: with one hand held, he spun her; with arms aloft, they spun each other, twisting as one. There came moments when their faces drew so close that he almost tried his luck, but he knew she was far from sober. And yet, it was his fear of a third rejection that truly made him hesitate.

And so they danced together. She repeated how great he was, whilst he let slip the words ‘I love you, Mary’. It was unclear whether they were said in romance or solidarity. The truth lay somewhere in between, and she did not respond.

***

There was a roundabout. It was yellow, of course. For a short while, he believed they were riding it together, with mutual affection providing the required spin. In reality, he sat alone, smiling as she pushed him round. She was not toying with him; this simply made her happy. But as soon as he realised the truth, she left to find a swing-set nearby; she giggled as she flew. And still the roundabout turned, propelled by his thoughts, by his tendency to create an entire world of past and future. He sat there watching Mary, delighted by her laughter but wishing it was he who made her feel that way. It was not anyone. It was just her sweet, life-loving self and the rhythm of the swings.

They moved whilst going nowhere. She found joy in this tension, whereas he sought the courage to leave the roundabout and return to solid ground. The summer breeze blew the hair from her eyes.

There danced through his mind a series of memories – her cold hands, her head on his chest, her body swaying backwards – and at last he understood: he could not experience it whenever he wanted, that feeling of laughing with her, talking to her, focusing only and entirely on her. He had to wait his turn and find joy elsewhere.

He tried to keep Mary in view, but the roundabout was going too fast and all he managed were glimpses: she reached the apex; she flicked her feet; she extended her legs, preparing to plummet. He clung to the yellow railing, willing the roundabout to slow down. Just as he felt ready to collapse in a dizzy heap, the ride settled. For once he felt no need to work out why; he was simply grateful for the respite, relieved that he could see Mary’s grin rather than a brief flash of the sun on her teeth. She continued to swing, moving her legs without a trace of adulthood. Even when she dragged her heels to bring this game to an end, there was no fatigue in her bearing. She rose to her feet, patted her shorts, and, much to his surprise, walked towards him. He suppressed his confusion and focused on her confident strides, the glint in her open gaze.

She stopped by the roundabout and grabbed the railing. Without a word, she pumped her legs. What was happening? What bitter-sweetness lay ahead? As if to reassure him, she smiled. Her fingers tightened their grip, her thighs bulged with effort, and he realised that she was running. She was running, she was laughing, she was pushing the roundabout! He forgot the past as she galloped with speed and grace, forgot his sorry self, forgot even who she was, this girl with shoulder-stroking hair, swoonworthy cheekbones and beautiful, bright blue eyes that seemed destined never to close (did this girl even blink!). He was meeting her for the first time, but they met in silence, speaking not with words but with running feet and laughter. They moved together, and he understood that he could not move alone.

But what was this? What bold step was she preparing? Her legs became less frantic; she held fast to the metal. And as he sensed the dwindling power of their spin, something told him he could trust this nameless woman. With an intake of breath, she leapt from the ground and landed on the roundabout. She did not take a seat – no, she had no time for leisure – but began instead to dance! She was dancing on a roundabout! dancing on the roundabout, keeping her shoulders very still, pouting her lips and moving her head from side to side. He felt that he had seen this dance before, lived this moment before, and he watched her, mesmerised, as they turned again and again. And even had he known that this strange and wonderful experience would be over soon, that this girl whom he knew and yet did not know would return to the swing-set, he would have been grateful to have had the experience at all. For perhaps that was enough, perhaps that would be enough, to know this joy just once or twice, or, if he was lucky, a dozen times or so, not whenever he wanted, but whenever she wanted, and perhaps he would rise to dance with her one day, or she would sit alongside him and stay there forever, or he would never see her again, perhaps this one experience would make the perpetual motion of the roundabout bearable, this cycle, this ride without end, as he went on spinning and thinking of the girl he knew and yet did not know, the girl who was taking something from her pocket, a daffodil which she tucked into her hair, a yellow flower amidst brown locks, yellow on brown, yellow and brown, and he hoped that this moment would be enough.


[1] Incidentally, Giles later discovered that the UK was not even in the top ten for national plum production.

[2] After searching online for pithy statements about loneliness, Giles gathered that this was not an original thought. 

Chapter Three

The man closest to Ernest was the devious, loyal, and controversial Bert Eynsham. Every university has a Bert Eynsham. In fact, every social circle has a Bert Eynsham, from the Colombian drugs cartel to the top table at Goldman Sachs. We’re talking brushstrokes here, and it’s worth remembering the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.

And so, as much as Bert Eynsham was another remarkably confident yet surprisingly sensitive womaniser, he was also a downright queer fish.

Whilst Ernest told Rosa that he’d call back in half an hour, Sophie’s mind turned to the teeth of this brazen barracuda. Such inexplicably perfect teeth. With every moment that she dwelt upon this endorsement of the Kensington dentist industry, the ache between Sophie’s eyebrows grew stronger. She forced herself to move beyond Bert’s dental hygiene, to recall what she knew about his friendship with Ernest.

Bert and Ernest met at a techno club. Not being fans of techno clubs, they soon found themselves in a damp smoking area, where Bert offered Ernest a public school handshake to go with his prep school grin. Ernest knew that he was in the presence of trouble.

Where the young writer was also a young romantic, Bert was like Casanova on steroids. Which is to say that he got into rather a lot of trouble with women during his three years at Oxford. He had four girlfriends in that time; he blamed this on the lack of equilibrium between his levels of libido and his levels of commitment. Having said that, he remained faithful to Juliette, Ellie, Daphne and Salomé (Bert liked to joke that this acute accent was evidence of a certain maturity in his final year, as he managed to expand his horizons beyond the darlings of Surrey (Ernest resisted the temptation to point out that Salomé’s father had moved to London at twenty-three, whereupon he married the unofficial Miss Devon 1985, made his millions at JPMorgan, and sent his only daughter, who did admittedly speak excellent French, to St. Paul’s Girls’ School between the ages of eleven and eighteen)).

Ernest and Bert’s friendship grew at a steady pace. They attended the same parties, held the same political views, and, crucially, were key players for the college football team that year (Ernest was a skilful, committed and surprisingly strong centre back, whilst Bert was a quick, tricky and surprisingly selfless inverted winger, which is to say he was a left-footer playing out on the right, a very common tactic of the era, which Ernest liked to see as a metaphor for the fact that here was an actually quite unconventional young man who had chosen a conventional social position because it was inevitable, privilege-bearing and -derived, as well as fundamentally fun). So it was on the football pitch, and in the pub afterwards, that these two young men tested the murky waters of an inter-year friendship.

At the same time as all this, Sophie was embarking upon her own freshman year at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, as a student of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. She, too, was a reasonably talented sportswoman – not as gifted as Ernest but a more useful athlete than Bert, if only because it was on the sports pitch that Monsieur Eynsham (as some referred to him during his courtship of young Salomé) experienced the occasional loss of confidence. Sophie, on the other hand, was uncompromising in her will to win: if Boudicca had chosen to play lacrosse instead of leading a revolt against the Romans, it would have been hard to tell the difference between the two women.

And so, rather than true talent, it was determination that propelled Sophie’s Cambridge career. There would always be someone more adept at conjugating medieval Welsh verbs or discussing the treatment of Norse mythology in Snorri Sturluson’s Gylfaginning (there was, of course, a specific someone: Gujureet Singh, whom Sophie came to love and hate in equal measures. In her more drunken moments, Sophie would ask herself what on Earth an Indian Sikh was doing studying Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, although once she’d sobered up and regained her usual English propriety, she would ask herself what on Earth anyone was doing studying these languages. In reality, Gurjureet was a kind boy who hailed from an understated, overweight family based in Croydon. He was a ridiculously good linguist, a perceptive literary critic, a dab historian and an incorrigible swot. And he was the first man that Sophie truly fancied, a word she had not used since her graduation, with his strong nose and endearing monobrow, but Sophie knew that she was too jealous of Gujureet to ever make a move).

‘Hey, Sophie, sorry about that.’ She had almost forgotten about Ernest. ‘Where was I?’

‘You were telling me to commit to improving my life.’ What Sophie wanted to do was continue daydreaming. ‘But, actually, can we talk about something else? You’ve been a massive help, but I’d like to take my mind off things.’

‘Sure, sure, good idea.’ Ernest wondered whether he was supposed to take the initiative here. Before he could think too deeply on the subject, Sophie said,

‘You know, I was wondering: how come you and Bert are such good friends?’

Ernest chuckled. ‘I always used to get asked that. ‘Cause I was pretty darn innocent and Bert was one of Oxford’s biggest womanisers.’ He paused, side-tracked.

‘What?’

‘I was just thinking about the word ‘womanise’. As in, who’s being womanised? Did Bert supposedly turn Oxford girls into women by sleeping with them, or is ‘to womanise’ intransitive? As in, does it mean you’re just having lots of sex?’

‘I tend to think of sex as pretty transitive. But enough showing off, tell me about you and Bert.’

‘Right. Bert. Well, like I said, most people saw us as very different guys, and we definitely are in some respects, as I’m sure you can tell. But we also have a lot in common. First, the unavoidable: our background.’ Sophie gave a futile nod. ‘I’d also like to think we’re both loyal to our friends. That’s important to us. And we’re both Christians.’

Sophie was glad she didn’t have any water in her mouth. ‘Sorry? Bert, a Christian!’

‘He may not always act like one, but Bert’s a Protestant. Yes, he struggles to control his carnal instincts, but he believes that God is love, believes in the resurrection. Honestly, the fact he’s so conflicted is part of why I find him so interesting, regardless of whether I think he’s a good guy or not. And obviously I do think he’s a good guy; he’s just made some mistakes. Which hardly makes him unique…’

Now was not the time for Ernestian social commentary. ‘Do you think he regrets playing the field? Repents, even?’

‘I asked him that once. Essentially he said that even if he was a bit wild in the past, those experiences have shaped him as a person and he wouldn’t change a thing. Besides, Bert would never try to hurt anyone; he would never even think about cheating. And as for repentance, he and I have a liberal interpretation of scripture.’

‘Speaking of which, I should let you speak to Rosa. She must be missing you.’

‘How could she not?’ Sophie felt lighter now; she could hear the cars again. ‘It’s not easy,’ Ernest continued, ‘but it’ll make seeing her all the more special.’

‘She’s coming home soon, right?’

‘Yep, in five days. Not that I’m counting.’

‘Ah, Ernest, this has been great, thank you. And I’m really excited for you and Rosa.’

‘Don’t mention it, Sophie; call whenever. And thanks, I’m pretty darn excited myself.’

Determined to forget herself, Sophie thought about Ernest and Bert’s Christianity. It seemed so… contradictory. She didn’t want to challenge them, especially not when they’d both been so good to her, but their faith came across as the cherry on top of their lives. She imagined it as a source of comfort when their careers became stressful; a pick-me-up when they had no Sunday plans; a reassurance when existential questions threatened their equilibrium. Even Ernest, who was the more introspective of the two, failed to push beyond the surface level of religion. Sophie had gathered this from his writing, where spiritual questions added nuance to the characters but failed to strike a deeper chord. And although she’d only just found out about Bert’s faith, surely that suggested a lack of religious fervour? Sophie didn’t think there was anything wrong with that; she just couldn’t understand half-hearted Christians. She remembered hearing a verse along those lines, and her phone found it in the Book of Revelation: “So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”

Sophie’s father had left a great mark on her spiritual outlook. A semi-retired history teacher, he was also an amateur biblical scholar of the postmodern variety, and thus encouraged his daughter to view the Testaments as fascinating cultural documents but nothing more; the miracles they recorded were the delusions of a pre-scientific era. Sophie had never been particularly moved by the Gospels, feeling a distance between herself and the figure of Jesus; his words did not stir her, his signs failed to move her. She bore the pronouncements of her father: “The Gospels are a mess of contradictions; we know for a fact that Jesus didn’t say many of the things he’s reported to have said, at least not in the form we read them.” Only a handful of lionhearted verses had managed to touch the Boudicca within her; she remembered the armour of light and the exhortations in Joshua: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” Scoffing at the humility demanded by Christ, Sophie could see the appeal in a sentiment such as this.

But Ernest and Bert didn’t live the Christian life; Sophie had read enough of the New Testament to know as much. Even if she disregarded the Bible’s claims at truth, she saw the contradiction in professing one’s allegiance to Christ whilst being absorbed in worldly pleasures. Ernest may well have been one of the most romantic men Sophie had met, and of course he had been such a help just now, but his writing made it clear that he tended to see the lives of others through the prism of his own self rather than through a sacrificial Christian light. And as much as Sophie was fond of Bert, he would readily admit that he had shades of Don Juan. She did not hold these flaws against her friends since she knew she was no better, but Sophie wondered if they understood the tepid nature of their faith.

Further muddying these waters was an email Ernest sent the following day:

“Hey Sophie, was skimming through Jordan Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life last night and decided to write my own list. Thought it might help you (and me!). Here’s what I came up with:

Ernest Krandle’s Thirteen Rules for Life

  1. Never give up on life.
  2. Love your family, love your friends; heck, try to love the lost and the evil.
  3. Stay hydrated whenever possible.
  4. Don’t think too much about what you eat.
  5. Don’t watch porn. Ever.
  6. Listen to music every day.
  7. Read every day.
  8. Cook at least once a day, even if it’s only a fried egg.
  9. Exercise every day.
  10. Be kind to at least one stranger every day.
  11. Nip harmful thoughts in the bud. Once they’ve blossomed, they’re mighty hard to prune.
  12. Don’t entertain existential thoughts when your mental health is precarious. It’s unlikely to end well.
  13. Have faith in God.

Would be interested to hear what you think.

Have a great morning,

Ernest.”

For a few days, Sophie felt buoyed by these rules; they provided structure to a life fast spinning out of control. She made an effort to smile at the employees in her local bookshop, she went to the gym after work, and she didn’t allow her depression to morph into existential angst. But all it took was one lonely evening for this hard work to come undone, and then it was back to wallowing in thoughts of weak enamel and wonky canines.

It was the lethargy above all else; the feeling that every good act was too much to bear; every thought for another, every challenge at work, every home-cooked meal. Sophie recognised the value in these pursuits – to lift the weight was to strengthen herself and thus make the weight feel lighter. So why, she asked herself, did she rarely lift the weight? Because it was easier to wallow, easier to skim through a book or listen to a podcast whilst her attention drifted towards her mother’s dental hygiene. Had she always been the jealous type and never known it, constantly comparing herself to friend and foe alike? Or was she the helpless victim of the fragile human mind? No, she had ceased to believe in her own victimhood. This thought loop was no longer an external threat bombarding her defences; she and the thought loop were one.

The Sunday after her chat with Ernest, Sophie’s alarm went off at 08:30. She leapt out of bed and opened the curtains, trying to convince herself that she was raring to go, that this would be the day, yet again, that she got back on the horse. She watched the street below, where a branch swayed like a drunkard at an empty taxi rank, and a father held his daughter’s hand, his eyes smiling at the prospect of a quiet Sunday, hers at the sensation of being alive. And just when Sophie sensed the approach of childhood’s dawn, the return of blissful innocence, her mind attacked with plaque and acid. Letting go of the windowsill, she shut her eyes, tried to calm her angry breath, but the debris between her teeth continued to stain her mind. She tried to remember the irony, the obvious irony that she had outstanding teeth; a number of friends had told her so. Why couldn’t she accept their compliments rather than deciding that they simply didn’t know, that if they examined her mouth through a magnifying glass they would be appalled? And as her breathing failed to settle and her chest began to pound, Sophie collapsed under the shocking burden of her tears.

***

The phone rang. Her head struggled away from the pillow. Sophie wiped her eyes, scanned her apartment, and followed the noise to its source: her beloved fridge. She was both relieved by the prospect of company and annoyed at the thought of putting on a brave face. Then again, her face would not be visible. Resisting the urge to analyse the contents of her fridge, she saw Bert’s name on the screen. She felt no flutter at the thought of Bert; theirs was not the type of friendship destined for romance. She smiled nonetheless: today might not be a lonely one.

‘Hello?’

‘Sophie, hey. What are you up to?’

‘Very, very little.’

‘Good. I’m extremely bored.’

‘Same here.’

‘Excellent.’

If not perfect, at least this was better. ‘You’re such a sympathetic soul, aren’t you?’

‘Far better for two people to be bored than one alone.’

‘Did you just make that up?’

‘Yep.’

‘I can tell.’

‘Right, I like this rapport we’ve got going so I’ll extend you an invitation: I was thinking we could go to church.’

‘Church?’ The timing was typical. ‘Well, I’m not a Christian.’

‘Nor was I until recently, and now I am.’

‘What’s your point?’

‘My point is you should come to church instead of staying home all day.’

Sophie looked at her apartment. ‘I didn’t think those would be my options on a Sunday when I arrived in London.’

‘Yeah, the whole brunch with your gal-pals thing is a hoax.’ Sophie remembered the smoked salmon in her fridge. ‘I tend to think people are even more boring than usual on the weekend. Not that brunch is interesting…’

Sophie resented giving Bert another laugh, but his ego was already too big to be inflated any further. ‘Alright, I’ll join. What time’s the service?’

‘10:30 at the Westminster Baptist Church. But meet me there at twenty past. I’ll be wearing a blue blazer.’

‘I know what you look like, Bert.’

‘Well, you’d think so, but I actually woke up this morning looking dangerously attractive. I’m not sure you’ll recognise me.’

‘Gosh, this could be an interesting service.’

‘None of that, Shaw.’ Bert really did scream public school. ‘See you in an hour or so.’

‘Yes, sir. Until then.’

‘Adios.’

Sophie left early. She pounded the pavement on her way to the station, willing herself onwards, fixing her mind upon her graceful but strong march through the pedestrian traffic. Today would be her day; she was resolved to ensure that.

Bert was wearing a tweed jacket.

‘What happened to the blue blazer?’

‘Damn, you recognised me.’

‘You look exactly the same.’

‘No, I don’t. Trust me, I’m looking dangerously attractive. God has blessed me.’

‘Somehow I doubt that’ll be the message of today’s sermon.’

‘Oh, bit of an expert, are we? You should read the Song of Solomon.’ Bert cleared his throat. Oh no, he’s going to perform. He spoke with music in his voice: ‘“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead.”’ Bert stopped looking into the distance. ‘Don’t you think there’s something particularly goat-like about my hair today?’

‘The word you’re looking for is caprine. Much nicer than ‘goat-like’.’

‘No, Shaw, my hair is goat-like. It takes a deep understanding of scripture to see that.’ His tone became ominous: ‘You’ll understand one day – God willing. Speaking of which, let’s find our seats.’

Sophie was surprised by the church. She’d expected Bert to be more of a Holy Trinity Brompton man: opulence and renown, dyed hair and sparkly tee-. She stared intently at the baptism pool, the wooden benches and bare altar, above which was written: “Make his praise glorious.” On reading these words, Sophie realised that this was not a question of goat-like locks. But before she could change her mind about today’s activity, Bert found two seats towards the front. He gave his neighbours a warm greeting, and Sophie did her best to follow suit, but she was now aware of her entire self, not just her teeth. She focused on Bert, who seemed transformed in this sacred space; his cheek and arrogance had dissipated, replaced by an eagerness to listen, as a sister reviewed her week or a brother lamented Chelsea’s recent form. It struck Sophie that she had only met Bert a few weeks earlier; she couldn’t bring to mind the verse about not judging others.

The first twenty minutes made her uncomfortable. She could handle, perhaps even enjoy, a traditional Church of England service: a spot of Jerusalem here, a dash of frankincense there, and, to round things off, a nice sermon about home being where the heart is at. Good English stuff. Whereas the first song at the Westminster Baptist Church had people closing their eyes, stretching forth their hands, biting back the tears. This continued for the next three hymns, and then the happiest man in the world discussed the church’s Christmas baking group. After his fourth pun in five minutes, Sophie groaned; the child within her had died.

But then the church pastor, David, returned to the pulpit. ‘Thank you Michael for giving us a taste’ – would it ever stop? – ‘of what to expect this Christmas. I hope lots of you will join us for some baking this year; it’s always a real highlight.’ David was thin. His shirt was tucked into dark blue jeans. ‘Now, today we have something a little different. You can probably guess what it is, given the large baptism pool to my right.’ A ripple of laughter spread through the audience. ‘We feel so blessed to have two candidates getting baptised this morning. Honestly, these are some of my favourite events of the year; I just love the total surrender to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It really is a beautiful thing, I’m sure you’ll all agree. I still remember getting baptised when I was a student, all those years ago.’ David had just celebrated his thirtieth birthday. ‘It remains one of my happiest memories, and I hope Bert and Melissa will be able to say the same when they’re my age.’ All of a sudden, Sophie forgot that she even had teeth. ‘But enough from me, let’s welcome them up here. Please, Bert and Melissa, where are you?’

Bert gave Sophie an eyebrows-raised grin. She hadn’t suspected a thing. He stood up and walked to the front, where he was joined by a young black woman wearing a t-shirt and trousers.

‘True to form,’ David continued, ‘Bert has come somewhat over-dressed for the occasion.’ The congregation laughed. Sophie couldn’t tell if this was all a ruse. ‘I’ve never baptised someone wearing tweed before.’

Bert leaned into the microphone. ‘What can I say, I like to look smart for God.’ More laughter. ‘But I actually need to get changed. Can I slip backstage for a minute?’

‘Again, I’ve never called it ‘backstage’,’ and David said this kindly, ‘but this is quickly becoming quite theatrical. Just be quick, we have plenty to get through.’ Bert slipped out of view. Melissa, meanwhile, was smiling somewhat awkwardly. ‘While Bert gets ready, let us all pray.’ David asked his heavenly Father to support the Christians facing persecution in Algeria, Iran and Sri Lanka, and then thanked the Lord for saving Natalie from cancer. Sophie bowed her head, trying to picture this unknown woman, and she felt her heart soften. As soon as the ‘Amen’ had sounded, Bert reappeared in a grey t-shirt and a pair of tennis shorts. ‘Quite the transformation, Bert! I guess I’ll have to wait a little longer for my first tweed baptism.’ Sophie realised that Ernest and Rosa were both in London; why weren’t they here? ‘We’ll begin with Bert’s testimony, and then I’ll say a few things about the significance of baptism, before we move onto our prayers for Bert. Melissa, you can take my seat; I’m sure Bert will keep you waiting. And, on that note: take it away, Bert.’

Bert removed two sheets of paper from his pocket. He unfolded them on the pulpit and cleared his throat. Sophie realised that he was nervous. ‘Good morning. As you may have gathered, my name is Bert. Bert Eynsham. I’ve lived in London my whole life, and I’m lucky to have two loving parents, a loving brother, and two annoying younger sisters, who are all here today.’ He looked up, and heads turned to the Eynsham family at the back of the congregation. Sophie wondered when they had arrived. As she cast her eyes back to the altar, she spotted two familiar faces on the right-hand side of the church: Ernest and Rosa had shown up after all. They waved to her with excitement. Sophie smiled without understanding.

‘I don’t think my testimony is like many of the ones I’ve heard. I don’t say that out of pride, but out of gratitude. You see, most people who stand up here will tell you that Jesus saved them from rock bottom. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, they were struck by a glorious light, filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding. But I can’t relate to that. I’d be lying if I said I was on the verge of giving up when I heard the call of Jesus. The truth is, God has blessed me with a very happy life. Like I said, I have a wonderful family. I also have amazing friends, I had great church experiences growing up, and I’ve been offered pretty much every opportunity anyone could ask for.’ Bert paused. Sophie watched his eyes taking in the audience. ‘But I was also a spoiled brat.’ Those who knew Bert well laughed the loudest. ‘I needed things to go my way: getting into the top sports teams, having the prettiest girlfriends,’ and Sophie noted his use of the plural, ‘going on expensive holidays with my family. If I didn’t get what I wanted, I felt that the world was unjust, that God had let me down. I believed I deserved the best.

‘But then a friend sent me a line by the writer G.K. Chesterton.’ Sophie suspected that this friend was Ernest. ‘Chesterton writes: “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” When I read that line, I felt strangely conflicted. A part of me was lifted up by the truth of these words; I saw hope in the angels. But I also felt a thorn in my side; a niggling pain that was trying to tell me something. And eventually I heard these damning words: “Bert Eynsham, you are a proud, proud man.” And, just like that, I knew I was not a true Christian. Sure, I believed that Jesus was the Son of God, but where was the fruit of that belief? Was my behaviour different from that of any other decent but proud young man? I looked back over my short life, and the answer was clear: no, it wasn’t. And I hated this answer. I knew that I was the worst of all men: someone who brings shame to the name of Jesus, since anyone who claims to be a Christian but lives only for himself does God a disservice. I was effectively saying to God: ‘Thanks for sending your son down to us, that was really kind of you, but I’m going to tread my own path; I’m going to make sure Bert Eynsham comes out on top.’

Bert turned the page. ‘You see, I have lived a charmed life. I’ve indulged myself in drink, in money, in the pleasures of the body.’ Bert’s voice was louder now; it contained a self-disgust Sophie had never heard. ‘And God has been patient with me; he has shown me mercy. But eventually he sent that thorn into my side. It was only a small thorn, far less than I deserved, but it made me realise that if I kept to the same path, God would turn that thorn into a dagger. He would show me how foolish all my pride really was. But he spared me the pain, and I think that’s because he saw how weak I was; how much I depended on the so-called good things of this world.

‘Having felt even that slight pain, I decided to commit to my faith. I chose to take up my cross.’ Bert gripped the pulpit. He was both younger and older than ever before. ‘No more sleeping around, no more heavy nights, no more living for pleasure. From now on, I will do my very best to live according to God’s plan. And even though I’ll fall short along the way, I know that God will never desert me.’ Sophie realised there was something goat-like about Bert’s hair. ‘My life used to be guided by one big question: what will make me happy? But now I’m guided by a different question: what would Jesus do? I’ve realised that I never really saw people for what they were; I never really cared about them. I didn’t listen as much as I should have, I didn’t go out of my way to help anyone. Or, if I did, I was still putting my desires before theirs.’ Bert looked at the congregation. His eyes were steely as his lips smiled. ‘That’s been the biggest change for me: trying to focus on the happiness of others rather than my own. But the funny thing is, I’ve felt so much happier ever since. God has given me a hunger I didn’t have before. I want to be awake at every moment, I want to see my family more often, I want to share this joy with as many people as I can. If I can help save even one soul, that would be a great thing.’  

Bert turned away from his notes. ‘Faith is an incredibly difficult thing to explain. I don’t think it makes much sense until you’ve experienced it yourself, which seems like a flaw in the system.’ Sophie joined the congregation as she laughed. ‘I never thought I’d be one of these people. I never expected to say that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, and I don’t think my family or friends would have expected it either. But Jesus is my Lord and Saviour.’ He ran his fingers through his hair. ‘Wow, what’s happened to me.’ People laughed the kind of laughter that is streaked by tears. ‘It makes me very happy to share this day with you all. I may not have been a drug addict or a murderer, but I’ve hurt people by being selfish and proud, by not loving enough. But as Jesus said: “You must be born again.” And I do feel like a completely different person.’ Bert looked straight at Sophie. ‘I hope that every one of you makes more space for God. I can guarantee that doing so will change your life.’ He paused once more, swallowing in the absence of water. ‘I’d like to finish by quoting my favourite passage from Isaiah, since I’ve already used far too many words of my own.’ Bert picked up his notes, and he spoke with a boom in his voice:

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.’

Bert stepped away from the pulpit and heaved a sigh of relief. Then he patted himself on the back.

As applause resounded through that unassuming church and David stepped towards the pool, Bert smiled with schoolboy innocence rather than schoolboy cheek. And as Ernest and Rosa hugged each other out of joy for their friend, Sophie looked at him upon his stage, saw a man transformed by love, a man prepared to sacrifice his life for what he could not see, and, in so looking, she began to cry for the second time that day.

Chapter Two

Rosa returned from the Portaloos to find Ernest bearing two bottles of water, dutifully filled during her time in the queue. 

‘Did you know Portaloo is trademarked?’ he asked. ‘Like Hoover or Jacuzzi.’

‘I didn’t know that. How… intriguing.’

Ernest smiled and handed a bottle to Rosa, who took three small sips. Ernest opted for a large gulp.

‘Who’s playing here?’

Ernest turned around, as if the white canvas might reveal something. ‘No idea.’

‘Want to check it out?’

‘Sure, why not?’

They went into a tent large enough for eighty fans, but only twelve had shown: the usual assortment of Hawaiian-shirt-clad men and back-tattooed women, all donning sunglasses in what was essentially an indoor space.

The stage was occupied by four men in their late twenties: Youri, Gylfi, Aaron and Jake. Jake was the only one without an instrument, clutching his microphone like a life-raft, his defence against the demons of life. ‘Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, we are 38 Children Called Stone. Don’t ask how we came up with the name.’ Jake said this with a grin. ‘We’re going to be playing some new tracks today, so even our most loyal fans are in for a surprise.’ Youri placed a headband over his corkscrew locks. ‘Oh, and by the way, if you’re not into elliptical lyrics, you may as well leave now.’ Ernest was the only member of the audience to find this joke genuinely funny. ‘Wow, you’re all still here. Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.’ Jake smiled with his mouth closed. He shut his eyes, tightened his grip on the mic. And then he whispered ever so slowly, ‘1…2…3…4.’

Rosa would never forget hearing the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the first time. She was sitting in Ernest’s room on a cold summer’s morning when he decided to blast that sweet cacophony through Balliol College. The chord isn’t far off a G seventh suspended fourth, but that doesn’t quite convey how it jolted Rosa. She felt the chord in her legs, which spasmed into life. She felt it in her head, which wanted to recoil at the sound but could only embrace it. And she felt it in her chest, which was where she felt all powerful music; so too the pangs, both sweet and bitter, of love.

When Aaron struck his first chord, Rosa experienced a similar upheaval. Her focus became so intense that it morphed into light-headedness; her stomach butterflied slightly; her chest pumped with blood. She heard her heart beating in her neck as the chord slowly faded. Once its final trace had disappeared, Aaron returned his electric guitar to its stand, where it remained for the rest of the afternoon. Then Jake began to sing:

            It’s easy being me,

            Cause I’m the velvet prince of three.

Rosa and Ernest wanted to roll their eyes at this couplet; they wished it would sound as contrived as it must look on paper. But there was just something about it. Perhaps it was the metre or the range of sounds, but most likely it was that phrase, ‘the velvet prince of three’, a phrase that seemed to make no sense but which somehow evoked a smooth yet mysterious Casanova or the anti-hero of a fantasy novel. Jake’s voice was strong and deep, and it possessed a growl that was, by turns, sexy, menacing and humorous. This was the voice Rosa had been waiting for; she had finally found her band.

The rest of the group had talent to match: Youri’s drums were tight and crisp, Gylfi’s keys sent the young couple on an artificial LSD trip, and Aaron’s bass playing was reminiscent of a young Paul McCartney’s. If Rosa were a critic, she might have deemed 38 Children Called Stone the lovechild of Todd Rundgren and Cream; instead she enjoyed their energy and flair.

By the end of their set, 38 Children Called Stone’s crowd had expanded from twelve to thirty-eight, and Rosa had settled on her career. She was going to work for this band; heck, one day she would manage this band. Her favourite song was the inimitable The Square of Tolerance. Named after a square in Sofia that’s home to a Roman Catholic church, a Mosque, a Synagogue and an Eastern Orthodox Church, the song told the story of a picnic shared by these four places of worship. The image of a young Jewish woman offering her challah to the Imam next door was, in Rosa’s eyes, a true hallelujah.  

‘Ernest, I want to work for this band.’ Of course, Rosa was only twenty-one at the time and her credentials were slim, but she was prepared to wait. This motley crew was a small beacon of hope in a world turned sour. Psychedelic they may have been, but their approach to life was not to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream; no, their approach could be seen in the dancing kisses of their mostly late-forties audience, for whom the burden of time had ceased to weigh heavy, at least for now.

‘You think so?’

‘I’m positive.’

‘Rosa, that’s amazing!’ Ernest wrapped his life’s comfort in a strong embrace. ‘D’you want to go talk to them?’

‘Not now, I’m a bit tipsy. And I need to figure out my line of attack; I’m pretty clueless about the whole music industry.’

Four years later, Rosa’s dream was realised: she became 38 Children Called Stone’s manager on 14th January 2019. And at the end of September that year, a few weeks after meeting Sophie, Rosa left for her first tour with the band.

Truth be told, she was finding it more difficult than expected – mostly because of the haphazard sleeping arrangements. Having always cherished her nine hours of shut-eye, she now had to contend with Gylfi ‘the darkness is my muse’ Sigurdsson bashing away on his keyboard until four in the morning. At least he had the courtesy to let everyone know how his compositions were progressing, as he alternated between groans and chuckles depending on whether his Muse was obliging him or not.

Jake, meanwhile, lamented the need to switch off, often quoting Nas’s N.Y. State of Mind: “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death,” which Rosa found striking if a little strong. The reality was that Jake did sleep, because he knew that his performances suffered if he managed fewer than five hours. Unfortunately, his determination to reach this magical number had been the catalyst for insomnia. In a way, Rosa found Jake’s tossing and turning more difficult to deal with than Gylfi’s jam sessions or Aaron’s late-night drinking; she didn’t see how he could last two months on the road when he spent most of the night listening to the Joe Rogan Experience.

But the issues really began when Gylfi, neglected by his Muse, started disappearing every night. The usual routine was for the band and crew to enjoy a beer after every show, and although Gylfi continued to attend these gatherings, his mind seemed elsewhere, with his phone receiving far more attention than usual. He would then slip away at around eleven, telling the band that he was going to see a few friends, before returning to the bus at four or five, or sometimes not until morning. At first Rosa was grateful for her improved sleep quality, telling herself that she had nothing to worry about so long as Gylfi played well the following evening. But soon a voice in her head started to nag: Gylfi was putting the band’s future at risk. And so she committed herself to solving the mystery of the Icelandic keys player’s nocturnal movements.

Rosa’s initial thought was drugs, which was the first time that could be said of her. She knew that Aaron and Gylfi both dabbled, but she wondered whether Gylfi might have become more heavily involved. Unfortunately the rest of the group was clueless, so she turned to other resources, hoping to unearth a clue from an interview or a photo album. One section from a chat with Rolling Stone magazine caught her eye:

Jake: Just to clarify, none of us has ever performed high. Each of us has a different stance on recreational drugs, but our band policy is that alcohol and nicotine are the only drugs allowed before or during a show.

Youri: And caffeine.

Jake: Yeah, and caffeine. Gylfi fuckin’ lives for his green tea.[1]

Interviewer: Is that policy to optimise concentration levels? To make sure you’re in the right frame of mind?

Jake: Yeah, partly. That’s very important to us. But I also think we’ve got to set an example to fans. Personally I’ve never taken any illegal drugs, and whilst I won’t give someone a lecture for smoking a joint every once in a while, I don’t want to be compounding our mental health crisis by making it seem cool to take drugs.

Interviewer: Sure, sure, that’s a noble cause. But you must have a few clean stories from your time on the road.

Aaron: Oh, man, definitely Gylfi’s cover of Do You Realize??.

Interviewer: A classic Lips track.

Aaron: Yeah, we all love that song. So we were playing Latitude and we were like two-thirds of the way through our set. I think we’d just played Cholera in the Time of Love, and we’re all, like, taking a sip of beer or changing our instruments, the usual transition shit. And then, out the blue, Gylfi starts playing the opening chords of that song, Do You Realize??. As in, loud enough so as the audience can hear. It was bad enough none of us were ready to play, we were enjoying a pint for Christ’s sake, but we’d also never rehearsed that song. Never even talked about playing it. And then Gylfi, the little bugger, starts singing, ‘Do you realize/ That you have the most beautiful face,’ and I look at Jake who’s staring at Gylfi with this, like, shocked grin, and then Jake follows Gylfi’s gaze to a girl in the third row, and we all realise he’s singing the song for her, or more like to her, and we just sit down with our beers and let him do his thing. It was an awesome performance. Poignant but also super uplifting. You really put everything into it, didn’t you, Gylf?

Gylfi (deadpan): What can I say, love is love.  

Youri: Some great keys as well. Very spacy.

Jake: Yeah, it was probably our best song that day. Romance isn’t dead, hey?

Interviewer: That’s amazing. (To Gylfi) Did she realise you were singing to her?

Gylfi: Oh, for sure. I mean, I was staring right at her for three and a half minutes, and I don’t tend to go for blind girls (the band laughs).

Interviewer: And did you meet her afterwards?

Gylfi: No way, man. There’s no way the reality could have lived up to my expectations.

Interviewer: Man, that’s pretty depressing.

Jake: I’d just like to add that the rest of the band doesn’t share Gylfi’s pessimism.

Gylfi: I wouldn’t call myself a pessimist.

In fact, Gylfi Bjorgsson was a self-proclaimed existentialist, and he partied like one too. Many of his friends found this confusing, as they assumed that being an existentialist would make the Icelandic rocker an abyss of despondency; Gylfi could only pout and mutter inwardly at their lack of understanding. Or, if they were unlucky, he might tell them how Sartre once wrote of drinking, ‘I liked having confused, vaguely questioning ideas that then fell apart.’ Or perhaps he’d point them to de Beauvoir: ‘In songs, laughter, dances, eroticism, and drunkenness, one sees both an exaltation of the moment and a complicity with other men.’ In Gylfi’s eyes, meaning had to be provided by people, which meant that parties held a particular appeal: not only did they display a communion of spirit, but they were also an attack on the seriousness of life.

When it came to the nuts and bolts of partying, Gylfi took inspiration from an article called ‘Being and Drunkenness: how to party like an existentialist’, published by the American website aeon. For, although he had read Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ and de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’, the young musician’s knowledge of the great existentialists was actually quite limited.

Bearing in mind Gylfi’s pseudo-philosophy, Rosa became increasingly convinced that he was sliding down the slippery slope of drug addiction. It would explain his secrecy, his mood swings, and the magnetic relationship between his hand and his phone: he needed to keep in touch with his dealer and his fellow revellers. But Rosa had no evidence. Besides, what could she do about a member of a psychedelic rock group taking drugs on tour? Naturally she had to make sure the band was putting on a good show, but Gylfi was playing better with each night, which meant Rosa’s hands were tied. She wondered if she could blame him for the slight tension within the camp. When she raised the issue with Jake, Aaron and Youri, however, they said it was standard tour behaviour: ‘We all need our space,’ Aaron explained. ‘It’s the shitty sound quality that’s pissing us off.’ She decided to consult Ernest, who had spent the past three weeks writing at his family home in Sicily. He’d set off on 4th October with a small suitcase and a rucksack, determined to distract himself from the absence of his love.

***

Arriving at Catania airport, he was met by that strange but familiar change in temperature, as the heat of the Sicilian afternoon drew tears of sweat from his muscular back. In the carpark he found Francesco, the house manager, who never failed to collect guests from the airport. Of course, Ernest was far more than a guest: the Dolce Vita mansion had been in the Krandle family for two generations, and Ernest would inherit it one day.

‘Mr Ernest! How are you?’

‘Francesco, good to see you. I’m fine, thanks, happy to be here. How’s everything?’

‘Very well, my friend. We have been having some beautiful weather. You know that wonderful breeze that blows from the Mediterranean?’

‘I know it well, Francesco.’

‘She has been keeping us company in recent weeks.’

‘Well, I’ve missed her!’ Joy surged through the base of Ernest’s neck. Three weeks would fly by in these surroundings.

His fine mood did not waver that night, with Francesco joining him for dinner. They sat opposite each other, and began with a glass of dry Sicilian white wine. A few minutes later, Dolce Vita’s Antonio and Giorgio produced a prawn risotto that was lemony and buttery, and Ernest felt at peace. The seafood was fresh, the rice perfectly al dente. Never one to hold back, Ernest enjoyed a second helping; Francesco, meanwhile, gave his stomach an affectionate pat. ‘No seconds for Francesco these days.’

‘You’re looking fitter than ever, Francesco!’

‘Let us not tell fibs, Mr Ernest. I have lived fully, and my doctor says I must tighten the reins a little.’

‘Well, let us enjoy tonight, my friend. I’m sure your doctor can forgive you one hearty evening.’

Right on cue, Antonio and Giorgio brought out another bottle. ‘Some red wine for sir?’ they asked Ernest, who felt a mixture of embarrassment and delight at this form of address.

‘Yes, please, thanks.’

‘And for Signori?’

‘Si, si, grazie.’

After the wine had been poured, Francesco turned to Ernest. ‘How is your Italian these days?’

‘Oof, it’s been better. Give me a few days to revise and then we’ll see if I can keep up.’

‘Excellent! And what are you writing at the moment?’

‘My third novel. It’s a family drama.’

‘Wonderful, wonderful, I love family dramas. Can you tell me more, or is it all hush-hush?’

‘No, definitely not hush-hush. Shall I start at the beginning?’

‘If such a thing can be done…’

With a chuckle, ‘Ok, let’s see. It starts at a hospital. A woman called Victoria Trafford is giving birth to her sixth child, a little baby girl called Clare, which she later realises is a suitable name for a woman but not for a baby.’

Smiling at this detail, ‘Yes, I agree with Ms Victoria.’

‘I’m glad. So she and her husband, Tom, are at the hospital, amazed that they’re going through this process for the sixth time. But they are incredibly happy; they know that every child is a blessing, a gift.’

‘From God? They are a religious family?’

‘Well, that’s an important theme in the book. Victoria is a Christian, but in a very English way: she doesn’t go to church all that often, the usual Easter and Christmas fare, but sometimes she prays before bed, depending how tired she is. And she’s usually very tired. Tom is a more complicated beast, at least when it comes to his beliefs. At the time of Clare’s birth, he is an ordained Zen Buddhist-.’

‘Mama mia, Mr Ernest.’

‘Ha, ha, mama mia, indeed, Francesco. But don’t worry, his spiritual journey is a long and complex one; he’ll be a devout Christian before too long.’

‘God shows him the light?’

‘As he always does.’

‘Bene. So what next?’

‘Well, Victoria and Tom return to their home in Chelsea, where three of the remaining five children are waiting patiently for their new sister. The eldest, Lawrence, and the third, Sol, are both away at boarding school.’

‘So they are a family with money. Ms Trafford is not knitting underwear for her children.’

‘Ha, ha, no, they’re well off. You see, Victoria is what some call a ‘superwoman’. She is a champion of free speech, and her most popular lectures receive millions of views online. Her husband, Tom, gave up working years ago to stay at home with the children; he does all the cooking, the shopping, the school runs. He used to be a stockbroker and was actually earning more than Victoria, but he knew she had greater potential. So Mr and Mrs Trafford are the focus of the novel. Their children obviously play a big role, but I want to track how the parents have come to this unusual position of having six children and being hugely successful. Add to that the inversion of the usual gender roles.’

‘I like it, Mr Ernest, I like it a lot. Many of these family dramas can be a little depressing, but this seems to have an uplifting message.’

‘That’s the idea. There are plenty of ups and downs, but the ups will prevail. Too much negativity in the world already.’

The rest of the dinner was a joyous affair, and those first three weeks in Sicily were happy ones for Ernest. It was hard not to be happy in a place like that. Ernest was particularly fond of the family’s orange grove, whose subsequent marmalade put Wilkin & Sons Ltd. to shame. And then there was the pool, installed by his grandfather in the 1970s.

A passion for swimming seemed to be passed down the male Krandle line. Some of Ernest’s most treasured memories were the mornings he had spent with his father in Parliament Hill Lido. Tobias had joined the club not long after Ernest’s birth. He would often wake up and realise that he really didn’t want to walk out in the rain, change into his briefs and think about extending his arm as far as possible whilst beating his scrawny legs, but every day he forced himself into the icy pool and swam his twenty lengths of crawl. And every day he felt better for it, shaking off his early-morning lethargy before the commute to Tate Britain, where he worked as a curator.

Ernest received his first call-up to these morning swims at the age of eight. He had looked forward to this opportunity for the past year, crossing off the days till his birthday on a Lewis Carroll calendar.

As Tobias had promised, the water was cold enough to goosebump Ernest’s arms and make his head slightly ache. But he exulted in his limitless energy, in the sensation of a tumble turn, and, above all, in the chance to spend a whole hour with Dad before school had even started.

Sixteen years later, towards the end of his holiday, Ernest slipped into the pool and wished that he had invited his parents to join him. He and his father would enjoy a ‘friendly’ race whilst his mother, who had never liked swimming, would put down her murder mystery to adjudicate. Pushing away this daydream, Ernest swam forty lengths of the fifteen-metre pool, noticing how his body first strained against and then welcomed the strange motion of its limbs. He swam aggressively, passionately, remembering how his dad had told him to always give his all, advice that sounded cheesy to most adult ears but which he appreciated all the more for that. And if a child experienced the sense in the maxim, then no doubt it pointed to the truth.

Ernest put on his sandals and walked back to the house with a towel wrapped around his neck. He missed Rosa, but it was a sweet longing, a kind of Sehnsucht. He was onto chapter eight of his novel and had managed to keep Sol, his avatar in the story, from drowning out the other voices. As the sun beat down upon him, Ernest thanked his parents silently, and God he thanked aloud.

His peace was shattered by the impertinent ring of his Samsung. Wiping his hands on the towel, he saw Sophie’s name on the screen, and his resentment faded.

‘Hi, Sophie, great to hear from you. What’s up?’

‘Oh, hey, Ernest,’ and he noticed the gentleness in her voice, the lack of her usual confidence. ‘Sorry to call you out of the blue, I know you’re probably kicking back by the pool right now, but I was wondering if I could chat to you about something?’

‘Of course, of course, I’m completely free. Is everything okay?’

‘Well, yes and no.’ Ernest hung up his towel and stepped outside, making his way to the garden. ‘Basically I’ve been struggling with my mental health over the past few weeks, and I didn’t really know who to turn to. But something told me you might be able to help.’

‘Oh, Soph, I’m really sorry to hear that. And, of course, I’ll do my best.’

‘Thanks, Ernest. So I guess I’ll just tell you what’s been on my mind.’

‘Sure, whenever you’re ready.’

It all started on a Saturday morning. Sophie stepped out of the shower, and the details of her bathroom were lost in fog. She opened the window to clear the air, to feel the breeze on her shoulders. With time, the mirror’s condensation passed away; she began applying moisturiser to her cheeks. The cream was cold and soothing against her skin, and she looked forward to a relaxing weekend. But then she noticed something: between two of her teeth, the upper left incisor and its adjacent canine, there gaped a small hole. Closer inspection revealed that one side of the canine had been worn away. In the weeks to come, Sophie would waste many hours trying to determine the cause of this erosion. Excessive coffee consumption? A failure to floss? Her penchant for snacking on tomatoes, whose pH level was far lower than she’d expected? Whatever the case, she soon became enthralled by the brown stain on her bean-shaped canine. Unfortunately, it didn’t stop there. Within a few days she was lamenting the slight wonkiness of her lower teeth, the weakness of her molars, the plaque beneath her gumline. She remembered the time she’d forgotten to bring her retainer on holiday; she saw lemons and pictured the words CITRIC ACID; even an empty coffee cup would bring to mind the stains on her lower incisors. She couldn’t focus; all she saw were tiny imperfections in her mouth. Her biggest mistake was thinking that detailed analysis of these flaws would alleviate her concerns; in reality, this analysis rewired her brain, until she was lost in a labyrinth of images and thoughts. She was trapped in a steam room, dripping with sweat, struggling to breathe.

Out of a mixture of embarrassment and pride, Sophie felt unable to turn to her parents, or anyone else for that matter. Instead she slogged through her work like a swimmer paddling through treacle, and kept up her social engagements with oblivious friends. But it was difficult to enjoy pub trips and dinner parties when all she saw was dentin.

Ernest soon realised that Sophie was enmeshed in a web of addictive thoughts and behaviours. Having experienced periods of OCD himself, he imagined magnifying those compulsions by a few degrees, and felt a deep sadness for his friend. She was a happy young woman, excited by her new life in the city, but something had gone awry; he just hoped that the damage wasn’t too severe.

‘That all probably makes me sound insane,’ Sophie concluded, ‘but I just had to tell someone.’

‘No, no, I actually think it’s really normal what you’re feeling.’ Ernest had heard his dad using this line many times; he hoped it would make her feel less alone. ‘Trust me, loads of people go through a stage like this. One of my sisters did when she was about fifteen. She had this really…’, Ernest stopped himself from saying ‘odd’, ‘… strict routine before bed, where she had to touch certain objects in her room in a certain order, and she couldn’t fall asleep until she’d gone through this twenty-minute process. She felt this horrible itch in her chest, and-’

‘That’s exactly how I feel! And going through the routine just makes the itch stronger, but it’s so hard to resist…’

‘I know it is, I know it is. I’ve never had really bad OCD, but there’ve been times when it’s got pretty intense. For a while I had to keep everything on my desk in perfect order, otherwise I couldn’t focus on my writing, but every time I straightened a book or moved a stray wire I’d just think about it even more, until I learned just to let go, to resist the urge and throw myself into the writing. It took a lot of willpower, but it was so worth it.’

‘So that’s your advice? Refuse to give in, focus on something else?’

‘It worked for me. My sister’s case was a bit different because the urge just gradually left her as she grew up. I guess it was part of being a teenager or something. But I think at the end of the day you’ve got to find a way not to give your teeth the attention they’re crying out for. Actually, give me a moment, I have a great line from C.S. Lewis in one of my notebooks, let me find it. And I’m not trying to be all annoying and intellectual, ha, ha, I genuinely think it will help.’

‘Ha, ha, don’t worry, Ernest, I know you’re trying your best.’

Twenty seconds later (for Ernest knew his notebooks with a remarkable, perhaps even obsessive, intimacy), he found what he was looking for. ‘Here we go: “To cease thinking about or attending to the woman is, so far, to cease loving; to cease thinking about or attending to the dreaded thing, is, so far, to cease being afraid.” So you’ve got to cease attending to your teeth. But I think it’s important not to rush it. I know this might sound worrying, but if you’ve been thinking about your teeth almost constantly, you’re not going to conquer this overnight.’

‘Yeah, I realise that,’ and there was such weariness in her voice.

‘But equally it doesn’t have to take ages, so long as you really give your all.’ His father was feeding him these words. ‘That’s the thing, Sophie: it all comes down to how badly you want this. What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to feel better?’ It was at this moment that Rosa rang, desperate for Ernest’s advice on Gylfi.

 

 

 

[1] Rosa suspected that the trouble ran deeper than green tea.

Chapter One

Mother mine,

London is not what I expected it to be. It is greener than in my memories; not so green as Cambridge, but that goes without saying. It is bigger than I realised; unlike Paris, it cannot be walked. The people are either remarkably friendly or remarkably unfriendly; there is no middle ground.

My flat is bare but comfortable. The front door is a deep pink. I have a view of the tourists as they walk towards Portobello Road. I sleep on a mattress on the floor; the floorboards creak when I walk across them but are silent when I’m away. The photo of us all is next to my makeshift bed. This is my beginning, before I make more of myself.

I start at 9 a.m. tomorrow – a leisurely hour! I’m grateful for the sleep, though. I suspect I’ll be exhausted before too long.

I hope you and Dad and Ezra are all well. How was the boat trip last weekend? I miss you, but I’m excited to be here. I guess that’s how it should be.

Love,

Sophie x

Having written this kiss, Sophie turned the postcard over. The picture showed a small shop on Portobello Road, whose wares included leather footballs, leather rugby balls, old cricket bats, and other paraphernalia of an England now fading. The sheer browness of the shop was remarkable. It was a world away from the colour of Notting Hill Gate, a street Sophie loathed for its chaos but appreciated for its tube station.

She found a first-class stamp and placed it in the top right-hand corner. Having read through the card one last time, she smiled with a mixture of pleasure and pain. Not being someone who tended to dwell on sources of the latter, Sophie fetched her thin beige overcoat, pocketed her keys, and made the short walk to the post office on Kensington Church Street, where she mailed her first missive home.

Her ultimate destination was the Foyles on Charing Cross Road, which she had been meaning to visit ever since moving to London a week earlier, but whose wondrous book halls had remained just out of reach due to slightly more pressing concerns, such as furnishing her flat and getting used to life in the capital. And whilst she really ought to be on the hunt for a proper bed, this was her last Sunday before work, so she had prescribed herself a mild dose of self-indulgence. 

Given that her tube journey was limited to the Central Line, it was a hot and unpleasant one. But Sophie managed to exit Tottenham Court Road Station with a spring in her step, giddy at the prospect of choosing a few books to keep her company now that she was living alone for the first time.

Whilst Sophie tended to go to bookshops without any idea of what she was going to buy, Ernest Krandle was a very different kettle of fish: he liked to arrive with dozens of titles swirling through his brain. On this fine September afternoon he was walking to London’s literary emporium with Rosa Colbert, his girlfriend of three and a half years. It had been a quiet start to their Sunday: having kissed themselves awake at nine o’clock, they had spent most of the morning cooking and listening to Neil Young, before setting off from their place in Battersea for the lengthy walk to Charing Cross. It was a ritual of theirs to travel the city on foot every Sunday afternoon, provided that Rosa wasn’t away on work. This particular outing took them across the river, through Westminster and St James’s Park, along the Mall and then finally to the heart of London, where the Foyles flag fluttered in the urban breeze. They noticed the smell of candy-floss vape disappearing at their entrance. In its place, the woody, dry-yet-damp smell of paperbacks. Ernest read the famous Foyles sign, ‘Welcome book lover, you are among friends’, gave Rosa a parting kiss, and mounted the stairs to the fiction section with a smile.

J-J-J. Ah, J. James-James-James. Ah, James. No, not bloody E.L. James. Ah, yes, Henry James. Honestly, how does Penguin publish so many books? Uninspiring cover. Flick-flick-flick.

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not – some people of course never do – the situation is in itself delightful.” He was vaguely aware of the slow, heavy footsteps of a teenage girl. “Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold – Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime.” He looked around to see three women, each on her phone. He returned The Portrait of a Lady, a novel he had been putting off for years, to its shelf.

‘Have you read any Franzen? Jonathan Franzen?’

You bet.

‘He’s so great.’

Couldn’t agree more.

But this woman wasn’t speaking to Ernest Krandle. She was addressing her somewhat nervous friend (how sad to be nervous in a bookshop of all places), who was yet to have the pleasure of reading one of America’s strongest contemporary writers. Ernest considered saying something like ‘Good choice’, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t.

Instead he made his way to the essays and letters section, where Susan Sontag offered a smile: “Every era has to reinvent the project of “spirituality” for itself. (Spirituality = plans, terminologies, ideas of deportment aimed at resolving the painful structural contradictions inherent in the human situation, at the completion of human consciousness, at transcendence.)” He heard snippets of Spanish and Italian. He skipped to the second essay. “No one should undertake a discussion of pornography before acknowledging the pornographies – there are at least three – and before pledging to take them on one at a time.” Ms Sontag’s intellectual hooks had him in their grasp. He tucked the paperback – also published by Penguin – under his armpit.

Ah, there she is. Rosa’s face came into view from behind a whitewashed pillar; her square, chocolate face, out of which shone surprising bright blue eyes; her unassuming nose; those lips that turned his own into an adjacent jigsaw piece; the scar on her chin. She wore a typical Rosa Colbert outfit: a black leather jacket over a grey turtleneck, dark blue jeans, and yellow trainers scuffed by their endless strolls. Her hair was darker than her skin but lighter than her jacket.

‘Hello, my love.’

‘I heard a kiss from you.’

This was another routine of theirs. Ernest would recite the first half of the first line of Shuggie Otis’ Strawberry Letter 23, and Rosa would respond with the second half. For a long time, Ernest thought the title was a joke, since the only strawberry letter mentioned in the song was ‘strawberry letter 22’. He discovered the title’s meaning whilst browsing Genius.com, that haven for music nerds like himself. He might have solved the puzzle on his own if he’d listened to the lyrics more closely, but that may just be some unconscious male thinking right there. In any case, he learned the truth from the great Shuggie himself: “The song has nothing to do with a strawberry.” Ernest’s mind was not exactly blown by this. “What I pictured when I was writing that song, was a girl handing a guy a pink envelope. A love letter. The guy and the girl had written each other twenty-two letters so far. And the twenty-third one he writes is a song.” It seems, therefore, that Strawberry Letter 23 is the twenty-third strawberry letter in question, which would suggest that Mr. Otis and ‘the guy’ are one and the same person.

‘Find anything?’

‘Not yet,’ said Rosa, in her gently nasal voice. ‘Ooh, what have you got there?’

‘A collection of Susan Sontag essays. They seem excellent.’

‘You do like her, don’t you?’

‘I do indeed.’

‘Can I read them after?’

‘Of course, my dear. I think I’ll head back to the fiction section.’

‘Sure, I’m off to the music.’

‘See you in a bit.’

‘I look forward to it already.’

On the way back to his sanctuary, Ernest was met by a shocking sight: a Foyles bookseller was wearing a kilt. Like most Scottish leg-clothes, it was a simultaneously murky and garish number; it reminded Ernest of his many half-Scottish friends who wore their trews at every opportunity. And yet, somehow, this employee managed to pull off his absurd legwear. Ernest then realised that this was an unfortunate turn of phrase. Better put, the fifty-year-old man in question showed himself to be a man of character. No doubt the magic of the bookshop persuaded Ernest of this.

He moved onwards, desperate to find a novel for the coming weekend. He had heard whispers of a 1020-page tome by one Lucy Ellman, and was also intrigued by Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. But Ernest Krandle had more than browsing in mind: he was taking notes for a short-form piece about Foyles.   

Most of the male browsers were wearing t-shirts or polos. Ernest wished this could be put down to some proclivity for short-sleeved clothing amongst book aficionados, but the reason was far simpler: it was a warm day.

The men were outnumbered, both by books and by women. The only place where they dominated was the intriguing corner dedicated to records, ‘Ray’s Jazz’, which Ernest tended to visit halfway through each Foyles trip, when his head was spinning with too many opening paragraphs.

At the time of note-making, he was in the section marked ‘I’. Beyond Ibsen and Ishiguro, it was not the most exciting of sections, but it was here that Ernest saw an old man making notes on a small sheet of paper. This old man,[1] let us call him Bernie, was wearing a black suit, a white shirt, and a black tie. Bernie’s hair was grey and thinning. On second thought, he was more of a Rupert. Rupert’s attention was divided between the waiter’s notepad in his hand and the books on the third shelf from the top. Ernest began to make notes about Rupert making notes, and he wondered what would happen if Rupert turned around, whether they would share a smile, or whether Rupert would scoff at Ernest’s inconveniently large pad of paper, an A4 pad, so inferior to Rupert’s compact scrawling space, or whether Ernest would look away for fear of being caught in the act. But Rupert never turned his head. He went on making notes, and Ernest wondered whether Rupert could be making notes about his making notes about his making notes. If Ernest had been able to steal a glimpse of Rupert’s notepad, the only words he would have read were ‘John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany’.

Moving to the ‘K’ section, Ernest Krandle stopped writing. He took a closer look. Yes, there was no doubt about it. That was the cover, with its royal blue background and pure white title. The woman holding it looked roughly his age, which is to say the right side of twenty-five. She was tall, perhaps five foot nine, and she had a slight but muscular frame. Her face was thinner than she’d have liked, but this allowed her cheekbones to protrude. Her hair was a very light brown. These were Ernest’s first impressions of Sophie Shaw, who was examining his second novel, eyes moving left to right and steadily downwards. She flipped the book over to re-read the blurb; glanced again at the cover; flicked to a random page one-third of the way through; took a final look at the cover; and returned the book to its shelf.

Ernest felt a mixture of disappointment, anger and, strangely, relief. But he allowed his disappointment to grow, and soon the cancer had spread throughout his body.

‘Excuse me?’

She looked up, and her face was kind. Ernest noticed that her bottom teeth were ever-so-slightly crooked. ‘Yes?’

‘Sorry to bother you, but I was just wondering something: what made you put that book down?’

‘Which one? Version Six?’

‘Yep, that’s the one.’

‘Oh, well, no reason in particular. I guess it didn’t grab me enough.’

‘Too many books to choose from, huh?’

‘Yeah, exactly. It looked good, but… I don’t know, not quite my cup of tea.’

‘Right.’

‘How come? Are you a fan of…’, she glanced at the bookshelf, ‘… Ernest Krandle?’

‘Um, yes, I think he’s a decent writer.’ Ernest noticed a stain on her dress. ‘Version Six is a good read, even if it’s got some issues.’

She smiled, but wondered where this was going. Luckily for both of them, Rosa returned at this point. ‘Made a friend?’

‘Um, well, sort of. She was having a look at Version Six.’

‘No way! That’s so great.’

‘Uhh, how come? Do you like it?’

‘Of course! Don’t let Ernest sell himself short, it’s a wonderful novel.’ Rosa gave her boyfriend a loving smile, but he was busy wondering how long it would take this poor woman to cotton on.

‘I’m confused. Are you Ernest Krandle?’

‘Um… Surprise.’ Ernest’s voice contained the faintest trace of jazz hands.

‘Wow, I’ve never bumped into a writer at a bookshop.’

‘You’d think we spend all our time haunting shelves like these, but actually we just wallow in self-pity at home. Far less effort.’

‘Ha, ha, tell me about.’ Sophie tucked hair behind her ear. ‘Well, Ernest, I think I’ll buy your book.’

‘Oh, you don’t have to-.’

‘You should!’

‘Well, as long as you don’t feel forced into it.’

‘No, not at all. It’ll be a memento to this… surreal encounter.’

As if to ratify this description, Rosa said, ‘Do you want to have coffee with us?’ Although it tried to, this question didn’t surprise Ernest.  

‘Um…’

“We can discuss Ernest’s book.”

‘Crikey.’ By way of explanation he added, ‘Rosa loves making new friends.’

Sophie hesitated. She didn’t understand these people. Either they were supremely confident or incredibly socially awkward. But they were a wonderful pair, full of varied smiles. ‘Okay, sure. Anyone as bold as you guys should be worth hanging out with. Mind if I buy this first?’

‘How could I mind? Meet you outside in a few minutes?’

Sophie went to the front desk downstairs, and, a minute later, Version Six was hers. As for Ernest, he bought Styles of Radical Will and, in a typically impulsive move after hours of private deliberation, the latest Elizabeth McCracken novel. Rosa restricted herself to one book, Philip Glass’ Words Without Music. The paperback edition was gold on black.

With their books clasped in sweaty palms, the young couple sauntered outside to meet Sophie.

‘I don’t think we know your name,’ said Ernest, as a bus creaked nearby.

‘Oh. I’m Sophie.’

‘Nice to meet you, Sophie.’

‘Just in case you’d forgotten, I’m Ernest, and this is Rosa.’

‘Ha, ha, I don’t think I’ll be forgetting your names anytime soon.’

They went to a café that Rosa knew well, having once attempted to write an album of her own in its coffee-scented rooms. They made their way to the counter, which was womanned by two fresh-faced baristas with clips in their hair.

Ernest ordered a matcha latte with no sugar, Rosa ordered a cup of English Breakfast, although she resented paying for a drink that cost all of 10p at home (bearing in mind a healthy dash of milk), and Sophie ordered a cappuccino. Truth be told, Ernest and Rosa were in need of some caffeine, having stayed up until two that morning watching Groundhog Day and making slow, passionate love (one activity after the other rather than simultaneously; their Bill Murray fandom didn’t extend that far). As for Sophie, she and a few school friends had gone to a bar until the late hour of eleven-thirty p.m., at which point she returned home feeling far tipsier than anyone should after two pints of cider. But she gulped down a jug of water before bed and slept through till ten. Upon rising, she thanked her bladder for its remarkable service and delighted at her head’s lack of ache.

They found a window table for three; Ernest sat next to Rosa, and Sophie sat opposite them. ‘I don’t know many men that drink matcha lattes,’ she said. Ernest realised that their friendship was a dead cert.

‘Well, as Rosa will tell you,’ with a smile already forming, ‘I’m very confident in my masculinity.’

‘Oh yeah, you’re in the presence of a real man’s man.’ Rosa winked at Sophie, who then asked Rosa what she did for a living.

 

[1] He played one.