It was meant to be a one-night stand, not “I do.”
Joe Kaminski likes to go with the flow, a good trait to have as a young artist living in London. His laidback approach to life makes him a fish out of water when he’s hired at P&B Designs, a high-powered PR agency. The money’s good, but with his poor planning skills, he doesn’t see it lasting.
Harry Byrne likes his life the same way he likes his PowerPoint presentations: structured. Known for his dynamic personality, Harry suffered a blow when his seven-year relationship fell apart, souring his mood. The last thing on his mind is getting into another relationship, especially with a man who can barely make it to the office on time.
They’re not even supposed to like each other. But five years later, Joe and Harry are getting ready to tie the knot. They should’ve known it was only a matter of time before everything starts to fall apart: obstructive friends, well-meaning but meddlesome family, a hovering ex, international incidents, fires, pregnancies, and an airport chase. It seems their “I do”s were doomed from the start.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abandonment, acceptance, adoption, angst, bullying, coming out, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, found family, homophobia / transphobia, marriage, religion, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues, wedding, workplace romance
The Big Day
Things to avoid on your wedding day:
- Don’t even think about stealing your best man’s leg. Seriously. Don’t be that arsehole no matter how much he provokes you.
- Don’t set fire to anything. Should be a no-brainer.
- Don’t pour your future sister-in-law’s urine all over yourself.
- Don’t lose your groom.
For a moment, I stand there, trying to take it all in. The vision of carnage before me is so remarkable that time slows down for me:
Frank is shaking his prosthetic leg at me to emphasise the point he’s making. “Marriage is murder!” he yells. Though, in his thick Scottish accent, it sounds more like “Marriage es merder!” He’s desperate to get his point across. “You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into! It’s absolute fuckin’ wank, is what it is! Do ye hear me, pal? These are all signs that it’s the biggest mistake of your life!”
Chloe is dancing on the hotel room curtain, which she’s torn off the window, trampling down whatever the fire extinguisher missed, spraying white foam all over the carpet.
“It’s all right now,” she announces, her breathing strained. “Not to worry! I’ll just open the window and it’ll be like nothing’s happened!”
Siobhan is sitting in the armchair by the wall, weeping.
My mother’s poodles are making a cacophony in the bathroom.
The hotel staff is banging on the door, demanding to be let in.
And here I am standing with my shirt covered in a yellow splash of Siobhan’s urine, in my boxer shorts and socks, with my wedding suit trousers singed to the ironing board. My mobile is in my hand, the message, I messed up, Joe. I’m sorry, on the display.
All I can think, as rage and fear boil up inside of me, is how I want to grab that bloody prosthetic leg of Frank’s and chase them all out of my room with it.
How We Met
Five Years Before the Big Day
In my dreams I meet the perfect guy by looking across a crowded room. Our eyes lock, there are sparks, we smile, moments later we find each other by pretend-accident at the buffet or champagne table. We talk, there are more sparks, and then one thing leads to . . . well, shagging. And the rest becomes history.
This is not that story.
Frank had just met the “most amazeng gerl” of his life. His words, not mine.
“She’s a bloody marvel!” he told me, while I tried to locate, in the mess that was Chloe’s and my flat, the prints I made for a new job I’d been hired to do. It was a commercial thing—not my finest hour, I will readily admit—but it would pay the rent (something our landlord kept reminding us was the appropriate reaction to having housing offered to one by a kind stranger with a lawyer and little patience).
“She sings, she dances, she dresses like an angel . . .” Frank went on.
“What’s her name?” I asked, out of politeness.
“Gabriella,” he declared, much like another man might say Excalibur.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” he said. “And the way she pronounces it. Gabriella. Gabriella . . .” he went on. If she pronounced it anything like him, she sounded like David Tennant on mushrooms, but I didn’t say that.
“Have you seen my portfolio?” I asked. “It’s black and large and it’s overdue on the other side of the river five minutes ago.”
“Normally dating sites are shite.” Frank continued to ignore me. “The girls on there are never what they say they are. You think you’re going to meet an Audrey Hepburn lookalike who reads Tolstoy in the original Russian, and then you’re presented to someone who works in the local chippy, misses her front teeth, and thinks Britney Spears is a valid form of music.”
I rolled my eyes. “You worked in a chippy, and her teeth were fine and as to Britney . . .”
I saw the laugh in his eyes—he was teasing me—and so returned to searching my flat.
“I’d given up hope! And then . . . Gabriella! Just like that!”
“Yes, it’s marvellous,” I said, without conviction. “You’re sitting on my portfolio. Please get up.”
I dragged the thing out from underneath his barely lifted arse, and then pulled on the first T-shirt I could get my hands on.
“We talked for hours,” Frank went on. “And then later she rang me to say good night, and we talked for hours more! I never had this much to say to a lass in my life!”
I’d already gone for the door, but he suddenly snapped out of this Gabriella-induced trance, and cried, “Oi! Hang on! Come back!”
I turned around.
“What? I’m late!”
“Take that off, ye tit,” he said with a laugh. “Ye can’t go like that!”
I glanced down at my chest and then burst into a chuckle. It was my I pooped today T-shirt, which I was meant to bin ages ago. I took it off and grabbed another.
“Better?” I asked.
Frank shook his head at me. “Marginally. Good luck.”
I nodded, waved, and headed out. It wasn’t my usual sort of gig. Normally, I worked for galleries, for independent shops and fairs. Once in a while, however, it became necessary to make some actual money, and that was when I looked for commercial jobs. Usually this was also small scale—an indie rock concert wanting leaflets, posters, and flyers designed, or small businesses wanting their interiors decorated with flair. This time was different, though. This time a chain of restaurants needed a marketing campaign, and the marketing firm they hired wanted local artists in each region to come up with local-flavoured imagery to advertise it.
I lived in Harlesden, which had a shitty connection to the city. You either took the always-delayed (and if not delayed, then always painfully slow) Bakerloo line, or you took the number 18 bus, which meant the exercise in patience that was the driver change around Willesden Junction—it was like those people had a special Japanese tea ceremony to conduct before they could get us places.
So I was late when I ran into the lobby of the high-rise in which P&B Design Agency had their offices. Panting from all the running, I threw myself into the sofa, waiting for someone to come and fetch me or to be told to piss off, expecting the latter more than the former.
“Mr. Byrne isn’t in at the moment,” the receptionist said, putting the phone down. “You might have to wait a little.”
I expected that as soon as this Byrne chap showed up I’d be told to go home again, but until that happened, I could cool off in the air-conditioned foyer. As I sat there, it was also beginning to dawn on me, watching the people coming in and going out of the building, that even in my non-poo-themed T-shirt, I wasn’t appropriately dressed. Everyone wore suits—insanity in this weather, I thought—and many of them stared at me like I’d got lost or was perhaps about to stretch my hand out and ask for spare change.
Then, a man, followed by a young woman, burst into the building, exchanging sharp words with someone on the mobile phone pressed to his ear.
“Do you know what?” he asked the unfortunate person on the other side in a sharp, cultured voice. “How about you fuck yourself? I have no intention— No! I’m going into the lift now . . . No. Absolutely not. Goodbye.”
The woman following him was tall and willowy, with a cream-coloured hijab around her head, and enormous purple-rimmed glasses, which made her face look tiny. She saw me, and while the man had entered the lift, she stopped in front of me and said, “Mr. Kaminski?”
“Yes?” I rose to my feet.
“You’re late,” she said, blinking up at me and then at one of the two watches on her wrist. “He’s not in a good mood today. I’ll have to make up an excuse for you, and you’ll just have to play along, all right?”
“Sure,” I said, shrugging. If she meant the bloke who’d just left in the lift, then the chances I’d still have the job by the end of the day were close to nil. She could do her worst, I thought. We waited for the lift to come down again.
“Something of a character, your boss, eh?” I asked.
She smiled. “He’s all right, really. Going through a bit of a rough patch.”
“Don’t worry, Harry’s very professional.”
Upstairs, she led me down a corridor and into her office, where she poured me cold water in a plastic cup from one of those enormous water dispensers, and then set off to inform her boss of my arrival. She came back moments later, and said, “They’ll be in the conference room with you in about half an hour.”
I wasn’t sure who they were or why we needed a whole conference room for this. But whatever floated their collective boats was fine with me.
“And if anyone asks,” she continued, “you were at the A&E helping your grandmother after she fell in her bathtub.”
“Oh,” I said, full of admiration at this lie. “I haven’t got a grandmother, but sure, I’ll stick to that. And thanks.”
“No worries.” She pushed her glasses up her nose. Then she leaned forward and admitted, “The other guy they wanted kept suggesting I wear fewer clothes.”
I startled, dismayed. “Well, that . . . You don’t have to worry about that with me.”
She smiled in a knowing way, as though my preferences had been obvious from the start. I never knew what it was that tipped people off, because I don’t think I’m exactly camp, but yet the only surprised reactions I got when coming out to people were sarcastic.
“I’m Maya, by the way,” she said.
“Joe Kaminski.” I stretched out my hand. She took it, examining me with renewed curiosity.
“I know,” I said. “I don’t look much like a Pole, do I?”
She tipped her head sideways, taking me in from my hair, down to my tawny, beige arms, and shook her head. “Maybe Poland via the Pirates of the Caribbean?”
This made me laugh. “My birth parents were Jamaican, actually.”
“W-well, it’s a nice name, anyway.”
When the time came, Maya walked me through to the conference room, and asked if I needed her to set up PowerPoint for me. I didn’t. I hadn’t prepared anything beyond the prints in my portfolio, and I didn’t expect that I was going to have to present anything besides handing the contents of my bag over to whoever made decisions around there. I made no opposition to sitting down and seeing how this was going to unfold. At worst, this would be something to laugh about later with my friends, who already found the idea of me in an office environment amusing.
They would have been in stitches if they could have been flies on the wall that day when all the suits poured in. There they were: middle-aged men, red-faced from all the heat, their ties looking as though they were choking them, and women with professional bob haircuts, thin lips lined with fading red lipstick, and mascara that clumped on their lashes from tiredness, stress, and heat.
Positioning himself at the head of the table was their boss, the one whose name made up the B in P&B Design Agency; the one who told someone to fuck themselves earlier when I saw him go into the lift. Presently he stood, with his hands on his hips, his sleeves rolled up, his steely eyes scanning me, waiting for his employees to take seats around the table. He was young for a guy with a letter in a company name. Grey-eyed, brown-haired, he looked like the coldest motherfucker in town.
And there I was in my khaki shorts, my slightly too tight T-shirt, leather bracelets around my wrists, my ears pierced in several places, unshaven, with my hair tied back in a ponytail. I wasn’t nervous, but the whole thing was unsettling and unfamiliar enough that when Harry Byrne said, “Mr. Kaminski?” I responded without thinking, “Yo.”
This made some of the people around the table smirk. Not Harry though.
“All right,” he said. “We’re going to have to keep this short since I’m on a call in about half an hour. Mr. Kaminski, the floor’s yours.”
He sat down, and all eyes turned to me. My immediate reaction was to gape, because I really had nothing to say, and the conference room, with its ash-coloured walls and a horrible wall clock ticking away time between now and death was depressing to my spirit and creativity. I didn’t feel like Harry would tolerate any prevarication, so I stood, opened my portfolio, and said, “Er, well, I prepared some designs.”
I handed the prints over to the person on my right to pass on to the others. I explained, briefly, that the colours were vibrant and attention-grabbing; that since the location of the restaurant was between Belgravia, Pimlico, and Westminster, it played on themes of the history of the region. I told them how the font hinted at it being a sort of upscale place to dine, but the plants and the use of wood would indicate that it had warmth and was welcoming. To be perfectly honest, half of it I pulled out of my arse right then and there, but I thought it sounded good and the people around the table nodded, made notes, and examined each picture in turn very carefully.
Harry looked at them too, expressionlessly, and then passed them on. I had the feeling he wasn’t really listening to me. When I’d finished, he let his people give feedback or, as I like to call it, tear my work to shreds.
They decided that it was too “plant-y”, too green and yet not “green” enough; too London specific (“What about tourists?” someone asked). They didn’t like the orange tones, but they liked the blue, though they worried the blues might be too cold, and someone had to google how cold blue was.
Most of the things they said were contradictory, and Harry (whose opinion I thought would settle which way we would proceed) seemed to not be listening to them at all, and instead only snapped back to attention when one of the women asked him, “What do you think?”
He then shifted in his chair, turned to me, and said, “I’ve got a call to get to. Mr. Kaminski?”
I followed him to the door, half-expecting to be told never to come back. He was texting as we walked down the corridor together, and didn’t say anything.
“So,” I said, feeling a little awkward following him around like that, “do you want me to make any changes?”
“Yes,” he said, impatiently. I’d never seen anybody text so quickly and so angrily.
“Which of the comments—” I began, and his head snapped up, suddenly, as if remembering I was there.
“I’ve got a meeting,” he said. “My colleagues have explained to you what we want, I expect you’ll know what to do.”
This last he said like an accusation. As though, if I couldn’t make out the contradictory mess of non-instructions his colleagues discussed in the conference room, it would mark me as a poor artist.
“I’m not clairvoyant,” I said, a little defensively.
“Clearly,” he muttered. His phone buzzed in his hand and he frowned down at it. Without lifting his head, he said, “Maya will help you set up another meeting. Next week, no later.”
He was texting again, frown lines deepening with every thumb tap. Then he hit Send, finally looked up, and dryly added, “I hope your grandmother recovers well.”
Maya was not a convincing liar, apparently. He turned into his office without shaking my hand or even saying goodbye.
I hated, hated, hated the guy.
Six Months Before the Big Day
Things to avoid when telling your parent you plan to get engaged:
- Don’t tell your mother while she’s holding a hot beverage in her hands and her poodles are crowding around her feet.
- When you tell your mother while she’s holding a hot beverage and her poodles are crowding around her feet, don’t try to kick the poodles away, hoping to rescue your mother from getting burned by hot beverage.
- While your mother is screaming in shock and agony, don’t take it personally when she calls you a bumbling idiot.
- Don’t then tell her, dramatically, “Fine! No grandchildren!”
- When you do upset her, don’t then compound the problem by begging her forgiveness, promising her a small country worth of grandchildren, when you haven’t discussed children with your SO at all.
My mother is the first person I decide to tell. There are many reasons for that, the main one being that my former flatmate and one of my closest friends, Chloe, doesn’t like Harry, and my best friend, Frank, is going through a rough separation. It seems sort of appropriate, anyway, to tell one’s parent first.
The reason I decide to confide in someone, instead of just popping the question, is that I’m equal parts scared and excited about this, and I need someone to get excited with me, to make it more parts excited than scared, so that I have the courage to actually go through with it.
“Are you serious?” my mother asks, when at last she sits, putting her tea on a coaster and telling her dogs to calm down.
“I think so.”
“Well, do you think so or are you sure?” she asks. “There’s no if-ing and but-ing in marriage.”
“I hope there’s butt-ing in my marriage,” I murmur. She slaps my hand and tells me to be serious.
“Okay, I am serious,” I say. “I do want to marry him. What do you think?”
She sighs heavily.
“I never thought about it.” She sips at her tea. “I never thought you’d get married at all, after— Well, you know.”
It’s not something we ever discuss—a situation in which actions have always spoken louder than words—and so I put my hand on hers and say, “You don’t hate the idea, do you?”
I really want to get married, but I couldn’t do it without her on board. Not after all she’s done for me. I don’t even mean just the fact that she adopted me (contrary to the wishes and advice of all her friends and family). Not to brag, but she alienated her entire community and divorced her husband for me. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses at the time when it became clear that I would never live up to the standards of the religion. You can’t be a gay Jehovah’s Witness. At least, you can, and some probably are, but in our case our elders strongly believed you shouldn’t be, and when everybody found out, we were shunned (we call it D-ed, meaning disfellowshipped).
“I don’t hate the idea,” she says, turning her hand in mine and pressing back. “You know I love Harry.”
When I brought him home (and it was the first time I’d ever brought a bloke home to introduce to her), she was in love with him almost from the moment he stretched out his hand, smiled, and said, “Nice to meet you.”
Harry is the sort of guy all parents hope their children might bring home one day.
“Joe,” she says earnestly, “marriage is a very serious thing. It changes everything, you understand? Your relationship with Harry, your relationship with yourself, everything. And you’re not the most—how do I put it?—you’re not the most together person there is. You have a way of throwing yourself at things . . . recklessly. I want you to think deeply about this. Is this really what you want?”
“Yes,” I say, without skipping a beat. “I want to be with him forever.”
That makes her smile, which makes me sigh in relief, because her gravity was starting to get to me.
“Well—” she sips at her tea “—I can’t blame you.”
I roll my eyes. For some reason, Harry is very popular with women.
“Do I ask for your blessing or something?” I ask.
“I suppose if you want to be traditional about it, you’d have to ask his father for permission,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. Then she bites her lip and, repressing a laugh, adds, “Maybe you can make him cry again?”
I sink my face into my hands. “Don’t remind me.”
“Maybe this time don’t wear a skirt. That might help.”
“It wasn’t like that! It was a—”
“I liked it. I’d kill for legs like that.”
This was when Harry first introduced me to his parents. In fairness, I could have chosen a different time to pioneer skirts for men. And I could have, come to think of it, not made things worse by arguing forcibly that Harry’s dad should wear them too, armed with a bunch of information about testicular health.
Harry’s dad is a “traditional” man. This makes it funnier for my mum that, as legend has it, I am the reason Harry’s old man cried for the first time in his life.
“Well, don’t despair,” she says, laughing. “He accepted that ex-boyfriend of Harry’s once. He’ll come around to you too, eventually.”
I groan. “I don’t think I can de-evolve fast enough for that to happen!”
She chuckles. “You’re pretty charming when you try to be, Joe. Don’t underestimate that.”
“I think I’ll go ahead and skip the ‘ask the father of the bride for permission’ bit anyway, thank you.”
“So.” She leans back from me again. Her glasses have patches of steam on them from her tea, but I can see her big, blue eyes looking at me with concern from behind their thick lenses. “Sort of sudden, isn’t it?”
“We’ve been together over four years. What do you mean ‘sudden’?”
“I didn’t mean I expected you not to stay together, but . . . to be frank, I didn’t think you’d do so conventional a thing. Not like you.”
I ruminate over this. It is terribly conventional. Perhaps this is what she meant earlier, when she said she never thought I’d get married at all. After all we’ve been through together, throwing off the shackles of an oppressive religion, why would I bend to tradition now?
“I think . . . I think Harry would like it,” I say. Watching Harry eat breakfast, or brush his teeth or sort his ties, or frown over his iPad, reading the news—it came to me recently that I’d be devastated if that ended one day. And once in a while a mate of mine would describe some girl he’s been seeing for a few weeks as my girlfriend, and I thought how strange it was for me to use the words my boyfriend to describe Harry. The terms are the same, and yet the realities are so different. Harry and I live together. I can’t get a good night’s sleep if he isn’t in bed next to me. There are whole TV shows I have never seen because Harry doesn’t have time to watch them, and it would be sacrilege for me to watch them without him. Harry and Joe is one of those sets of words that just go together, like bread and butter or rock and roll or Adam and Steve.
“And I think it’s time,” I tell my mother, saying but a small part of the whole truth.
Chloe, my former flatmate, a fellow artist, an activist, and a bullshit detector now in her late sixties, is not pleased when I eventually do tell her. She didn’t like Harry at the beginning, and while she accepts that we are together (“For now,” she says), she holds as an absolute truth that people are better off outside of stable relationships.
“Marriage is nothing but patriarchal horseshit,” she tells me. “It’s a device used by men to subjugate and enslave womankind.”
“We’re two men,” I say. “It doesn’t apply.”
“Oh but doesn’t it?” She rolls a furious eye at me. “Let me tell you something: equal rights are all well and good, and I will fight for them to the death, you know I will, but you gays are well out of matrimony, mark my words. Why tie yourself to someone legally for eternity? Why, but to prevent someone from leaving, no matter how royally shitty a bastard you become? Eh? Answer me that!”
I can’t answer her, not because I share her opinion, but because she’s spent decades debating in various political and social organisations, including feminist, atheist, and socialist groups, for the rights of women, labourers, homosexuals, transgender people, and various other causes, and has therefore got a counterargument for anything. Arguing with her is like playing tennis with one of those machines that spits balls at you. You might become a better arguer, but you won’t win.
“Let me tell you about Henry VIII—” she continues.
I interrupt her by grabbing her arms, looking her in the eyes, and saying, “Don’t. It’s no use. I’m going to do it.”
She stares at me.
“I’m going to go on one knee . . . or, no, I won’t do that, that’s tacky, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll just do it over dinner . . . No. No, it’s got to be something special. Either way, I will do it. I don’t know how, I don’t know when, but by God I will do it!”
Her expression is sour as I make my declaration.
“Your funeral,” she says darkly.
Neither does Frank receive the news with any degree of pleasure. Granted, I could have found him at a better time. He just finished moving into his mother’s attic room, living like, he claims, Bertha bloody Rochester, after Gabriella left him.
“Have ye learned nothing, man!” he demands of me. “Are ye looking on at what is happening to me, and thinking to yourself ‘I want that’? What is wrong with you? Don’t do it! Don’t! Do! It!”
With this lack of enthusiasm from my friends and family, I am reluctant to let anyone else in on it, lest they make me lose my courage altogether.
In the end, I involve one more person. I ask Siobhan, Harry’s twin sister, to come with me to the workshop of a friend of mine to pick up the engagement bracelets I designed and ordered to propose to Harry with. At first, I don’t tell her what they’re really for, and say they’re for our anniversary. But it doesn’t take me long to crack.
We sit together in my friend Freya’s living room while she finishes up with another client in her workroom. Siobhan swipes through her phone looking for a new hair style.
She eyes a pixie cut with a mixture of curiosity and dismay.
“How moon-faced am I? On a scale from one to moon?” she asks.
“You have a lovely face, darling,” I say, “but that would look like arse on you. That Katie Holmes one, though . . .”
“Yes!” She beams, delighted. “Do you think I should change colour? I was thinking ginger, but I don’t know. Ollie says redheads are hot.”
She shows me various shades of red hair dye so we can determine which would look best on her. I honestly want to keep the engagement from her, but the way she speaks to me, the angle at which she holds her head, something about the way she smiles at me, the shape of her eyes maybe, something, so reminds me of Harry that I blurt it out.
She says, “. . . and this one is Christina Hendricks-red, which would make me look awfully pale, don’t you think?”
I nod. “I want to marry your brother.”
She startles. Her eyes go wide. “What?”
“I want to marry your brother,” I repeat, my heart hammering in my chest. I love Siobhan, and if she’s against this, if she piles on with a list of reasons why I’m being stupid, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go through with it.
“Oh!” she says, blinking rapidly. “Do you mean it?”
That’s when Freya comes in to present me with the two bracelets each in a separate box. Siobhan’s blinking stops, and tears spill out.
“The— Is that— Do you mean— Oh my God!” she whimpers.
The bracelets are exactly what I wanted. Braided leather straps with a silver clasp, and on the clasp the letters J and H intertwined.
“This is so beautiful!” Tears are pouring liberally down her cheeks. “Harry is going to love it!” She throws her arms around my neck and hugs me, hard. “It’s going to be so beau-u-u-utifu-u-ul!”
“Thank you,” I whisper. Freya, sensing a personal moment, smiles and leaves us.
Five Years Before the Big Day
For a while, I wasn’t invited to present in the conference room again—a move I chose not to interpret as a verdict on my first performance there—but instead handed my work in to Harry directly. Usually this meant that I visited Maya’s office, dropped new prints off at her desk, and spent a half hour or so chatting with her over coffee. Once in a while Harry burst in, demanding irritably whether or not Mr. This-And-That had called or whether or not some email had arrived. When he saw me, his reaction was usually frosty but polite, mostly verging on the sarcastic.
“Ah, Mr. Kaminski,” he said, dryly, “how’s your grandmother? All better, I hope?”
“Oh yes,” I said, ignoring his tone. “Not a pleasant thing, hurting your hip at that age.”
“And what age is that?”
I don’t have a grandmother. I didn’t know what ages they naturally come in.
“Ninety-four,” I lied bravely.
“Ninety-four,” he said, suppressing a smile.
“Yes. Ninety-four,” I enunciated. When lying, always stick to your story.
“She must have been very fertile into a very old age to have a grandson your age.”
“Well . . . you know what they say about her generation.”
“No, what?” he asked.
“They—they were very fertile into an old age.”
“I never heard that said of them,” he said, and then smiled at Maya. “One learns something new every day.”
Maya maintained her gravity with difficulty.
“So that’s quite an age to hurt her hip and recover so quickly,” Harry went on. He’d seemed in a hurry before, but now leaned with his elbow against the counter of Maya’s desk, content to dig deeper into the matter. “But if she’s all better—and thank God for small miracles—then what is the reason, I wonder, for you being late today?”
“Am I late?” I asked, innocently. “I’m sure I arrived on time. Didn’t I?”
Maya nodded and lied solemnly, “He arrived an hour ago. We just got to chatting.”
“Must be nice to have so much time to spare,” Harry said to both of us, a slight humorous glint in his eye, and then left.
Once he was gone, I said to Maya, “I don’t know how you put up with him. If I had to work for that wanker, I’d put a bullet through my head.”
She laughed and shook her head. It was true, though, that despite being an enormous dickhead, the people in his office seemed to like him. Maya seemed fond of him. His employees greeted him cheerfully. They even, to my surprise, celebrated his birthday with a party in the pub across the street from their building. I knew this, because Maya invited me to come along. I wanted to refuse, for obvious reasons, but she insisted.
“Be my ‘date,’” she said, putting date in air quotes. “It’ll be so much fun, I promise.”
“Not my style,” I said. “Although it makes sense that he wants to celebrate the day some coven spawned him from the entrails of dead birds in the circle of people whose wages he pays.”
She laughed and made me promise to think about it.
“Of course ye should go!” Frank told me over the phone, when I asked him. He sounded tired. “It’s called networking. By the way”—here he lowered his voice and sounded at once proud and amused—“I’m at Gabriella’s right now. Her father is an I-shit-ye-not vicar. He doesn’t know I’m in the house. I have to sneak out of here like a fuckin’ Shakespeare character.”
“What? Where is she?”
“Went to work. Just left me here,” he said, laughing. “I’m telling you, she’s one in a million.”
Yeah, like Charlie Manson was one in a million.
I investigated my wardrobe for clothes appropriate for a networking event, but found that I had no idea what networking was and how one was supposed to appear when attending the process. In the end it didn’t matter, because when the day of the party arrived I completely forgot about it, and was, in fact, in the middle of painting when Maya rang and asked me where I was.
Then I had to quickly shower (and let me tell you, quickly showering is not an option when you’re covered in oil paint) while Chloe, instead of helping me, critiqued my work.
“Derivative,” she said, examining the painting through her glasses, while I rushed around searching for a clean-ish shirt.
“Derivative of what?” I demanded, indignantly. “Does this have holes in it?”
She eyed the T-shirt I was holding up. “Well, no, but that’s because it’s mine.”
“Ah.” I dropped it.
“Rauschenberg,” she said.
“What?” My face was swaddled in a different T-shirt that seemed way too small for me, my hands tangled above my head.
“Derivative of Rauschenberg,” she said.
I pulled the T-shirt down my chest. It didn’t belong to me or Chloe, I decided peering down at it, but it would have to do.
“This is not a bloody pop art collage!” I shouted, before turning to the bedroom and flipping my bed over in search of socks.
“The colours,” she said. “Besides, I like Rauschenberg.”
“That’s because you know nothing!” I hopped one-legged out of the bedroom, putting on my shoes. “Do you know where my wallet is?”
She found my wallet, phone, and keys.
“We really should clean up in here,” I said, heading for the door. That sentence could very well have been our anthem. My mother liked to “joke” that my and Chloe’s flat was how they invented penicillin.
At the pub, Maya spotted me before I spotted her. The people from P&B, all still in their shirts and ties and pencil skirts, were well into their libations, roaring loudly at each other, clinking glasses, clearly delighted to not be working.
“You came!” Maya was more pleased than I deserved. “Come, let me find someone to get you a drink. Wait, let me find Harry . . .” And with the best of intentions, I have no doubt, she went off, and I didn’t see her again until much later.
I got my own drink therefore, and since I didn’t know anybody there besides Maya, I contented myself with drawing caricatures of them on the pub napkins. Networking, I decided, was a very strange thing indeed.
It was one of those historic pubs with dark, low beams and roaring fires, evoking memories of bewigged gentlemen demanding satisfaction from their red-faced chums for some imagined infraction. At least, looking around, I had the impression that they were all roughly drunk enough for that sort of thing to happen. But they were good-humoured, laughing at each other’s jokes, patting each other’s shoulders, and loosening their ties.
They were, for me, conveniently absorbed, so that I could watch them, and draw them, at my leisure. I’m particularly fond of an interesting profile, and I caught one or two romantically lit by the fire.
This would have been quite an entertaining way to pass the evening—a pint of lager in front of me, and some paper napkins and a pencil for my drawings—if I hadn’t been accosted by a man I hadn’t met before, who glanced over my shoulder and said, “Ha! That’s good!”
He was gawky and skinny, with a copper-and-gold moustache, old-fashioned glasses, and intense dark eyes.
“Hit it to perfection!” he said, laughing. “Marvellous. Who’s that, then?” He pointed at one of the napkins.
“No, let me guess,” he said, before I could open my mouth. “That’s Sophie, isn’t it?”
He pointed her out, and I confirmed that it was indeed the woman I had drawn—I liked the sharp line of her jaw and her Roman nose.
“Great!” He laughed. “Is that Harry?” Here he laughed harder still. “Oh this is perfect!”
He laughed at some of my other drawings. I didn’t know who he was, but since I was there to network, I thought I’d buy him a drink.
“Oh no,” he said earnestly when I offered. “I don’t drink. Water, from time to time, but I try to avoid it.”
At my surprise, he eyed my pint and said, “That stuff’s poison, you know.”
I shrugged. “It’s okay once in a while. Water’s not poisonous, though, is it? I mean, clean water? Tap water?”
His expression was full of pity. “You are putting something foreign in your body. It is . . . unnatural, shall we say.”
I was sure he was having me on. Nobody, surely, believed that. “Are you serious?”
“I’m a practicing breatharian.”
Living in London, especially in art circles, you meet people who want to tell you about their strange diets all the time (ever heard of the werewolf diet? I have), and yet I’d never heard of breatharians before.
“Breatharian,” he said. “It’s the belief that you should live without eating and, in advanced stages, without drinking.”
“You’re having me on.”
“There used to be Indian gurus who lived their entire lives like that. Nowadays it’s more difficult because our parents fill our bodies with toxins from a very young age.” He shook his head solemnly. “They don’t know the damage they do.”
“Wait, hang on.” I put out my hand to stop him. “You mean you don’t eat anything?”
“Well, I’m not as advanced as all that.” He laughed with false humility. “But I try.”
“To live a spiritually pure life of course! I couldn’t bear to do that to myself.” Here again he nodded at my pint. “Filthy stuff!”
“You can’t live without eating. That’s insane,” I insisted.
“Well, excuse me!” he said, offended. “I am not insane. It’s a valid belief and a practice that would—”
“If people could live without eating, mate, there’d be no starvation,” I maintained. “You’re pulling my leg.”
“I am not pulling your leg, young man,” he said, indignantly, even though he couldn’t have been more than a decade older than me.
“It’s a scientific impossibility.”
“Science, you know, doesn’t explain everything.”
“Yeah, maybe, but it does explain that. You can’t live without eating. It’s impossible.”
“Then explain to me”—he was flushed and bright-eyed with anger—“how this woman I once met lived without eating for five years! And scientists tested it and couldn’t explain it.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have reacted, but I’d spent a lot of my life arguing with religious people who wanted me to control my urges and needs on the basis that godlike beings were real, and who offered as proof precisely such statements: “I knew someone who knew someone who definitely saw this miracle with their own eyes.” It goaded me.
“Any scientist worth their salt,” I said, “would have locked her up for a week without food or drink, and seen how she coped. And they’d have found her ill and possibly dying, and then they’d have sent her home and told her to find something useful to do with herself instead of wasting everybody’s time.”
His brows furrowed and his lips thinned and quivered. I knew I’d said too much.
“Your ignorance,” he said, “is extremely disappointing.”
“It’s just common sense,” I persisted. “Like, you’ll agree, probably, that we need nutrition, right? Well, where does that woman of yours get her nutrition from if she doesn’t eat?”
“The sun,” he said slowly, as though I were stupid. “The sun is the source of the purest energy.”
I shook my head sadly. “Mate, if you don’t know the difference between humans and plants, you shouldn’t be allowed to decide your own diet.”
“You—!” His nostrils flared. “You dare—!”
“Do you take me for an idiot?” he enunciated furiously.
“Well, yes.” I was surprised he had to ask. He stared at me, speechless. For a moment there, I thought he was going to punch me. Instead, a familiar voice said, laughing, “Okay, okay. Easy there.”
Harry stepped in. I didn’t know he’d been standing nearby, but apparently he’d heard the conversation, and now put his arm around the man and said, “Come on, Malcolm, walk it off, mate. Maya, I think Mal needs a bit of fresh air, it’s getting stuffy in here . . .”
Maya walked the guy named Malcolm away, shooting worried glances in my direction. Then Harry turned to me, his eyes brimming with amusement. “Do you know who that was?”
“The village idiot?”
Harry stifled a laugh.
“He’s Malcolm Peppard,” he said. “The P in P&B Design Agency”
Word Count: 75,000
Page Count: ~284
Cover By: LC Chase
Release Date: 03/02/2020
Release Date: 03/02/2020