Cindy leant her weight to push open the heavy glass door that bore the words “Jessica Mulgrave, Solicitor” in gold plate at eye height.
“Hullo Mrs P,” she said to the older woman at the back of the reception lobby who was busy with some paperwork. She did not respond to Cindy’s voice.
“You still with us?”
The old lady looked up and smiled. Cindy waked around to her seat at the reception desk as a young man in white shirt and close fitting suit pants strode across the space.
“Hullo Jeremy,” said Cindy.
Jeremy held up one hand and said, “Ugh, don’t.”
Cindy smiled. “Ooh, is that the new girlfriend again?”
Jeremy paused midstride and rubbed his eyes.
“I think she’s the one,” he said.
“Jeremy’s got the lights on,” sang Cindy.
“My head hurts,” he said.
“All night was it?” said Cindy.
“And some,” said Jeremy, barely suppressing a smile. “She got back after a week’s holiday and wanted to make up for lost time.”
“What’s her name?” said Cindy.
“And what does she do?”
“Everything,” said Jeremy.
“No I mean -” said Cindy, but Jeremy held up his hand.
“I need coffee. Mrs P, can I make you a tea?” he said.
Mrs P nodded, and as Jeremy left for the kitchen said, “Here comes the storm.”
Jessica Mulgrave, solicitor, fifty-seven, strode in through the glass doors that bore her name. Sporting a crisp black bob above gaunt features, her wraparound dress of blue and green psychedelia swayed with the force of her entry above shining oxblood calf boots. She flung her tote on to the reception desk and said,
“What’s happening with young people these days? I just saw a bunch of millennials with shaved heads and tattoos and bovver boots for god’s sake. Just when I’d got used to the collagen and hair extensions, they start reverting to type. Or is Doc Marten having a sale? That’d make more sense than a mob of half-witted demi-punks with dried blood around the razor cuts on their grimy scalps and drool extruding from their lips.”
“I thought you said you were a punk once?” said Cindy.
“Oh sure, but that was forty years ago,” said Jessica. “We had a revolution to fight, all that goddam awful prog rock from the 1970’s. Testosterone driven men with socks in their pants and more hair than a Samoyed. We moved on as soon as we saw ourselves in the mirror and the Berlin Wall came down. I mean, who the hell nowadays shaves their heads and gets teardrop tattoos except the yobbo right and rejects from the left? The lame witted and the totally uninspiring.”
“People need to express themselves,” said Jeremy as he delicately transported a china cup of tea to Mrs P’s desk. The old lady’s backside greeted him from behind her desk as she bent over to do some filing.
“All I see is someone needing sleep,” said Jessica. “Is the new girl working you out?”
“You have no idea,” said Jeremy.
“Oh I have plenty idea,” said Jessica. “She’s playing you, Jeremy. You think it’s love; that’s your first mistake, she’ll work you to the bone, and you have no energy left but to live her life. Then she’ll dump you like road kill, having emptied both your soul and your wallet. You mark my words.”
“Were you never in love, Jessica?” asked Cindy.
“Oh god yes,” her boss replied. “It’s a phase we all have to go through, more painful than menstruation and menopause, but thankfully shorter, and you can banish it from your life. You love, you get caught, and then it all gets ripped away from you by some squalid hump of inhumanity that has no thought or sympathy for your plight. That’s why we have to take control, Cindy. Pussy whip ‘em, keep ‘em on a leash, and I don’t mean round the collar. That’s how we drag ‘em in and keep ‘em. Assuming you want to keep them of course. God knows why you would.”
“Hang on,” said Cindy, “that’s awful. What about love, and sex?”
“I didn’t say don’t enjoy yourself,” said Jessica. “More power to you if you can.”
“But don’t you want to be in love again?” said Cindy.
“Everybody wants love, my girl, but it’s a monster who’ll eat your innards as soon as make you happy, and you’re better off without it. But if you must, if you really must, enter the dragon’s den, stay in charge. Isn’t that right Mrs P?”
“That’s not how the modern generation does it,” said Jeremy.
“Oh it’s not?” said Jessica.
“You think there’s something new under the sun? Let me ask you this. Did you make her breakfast this morning?”
“She was still in bed when I left,” said Jeremy.
Jessica smirked. “I could rest my case there, but tell me, did you leave her a little love note as you left? Did you set out the breakfast goodies which you know she won’t eat? Did you iron her shirt?”
“She wore a dress.”
“But you still folded it, yeah?”
Jeremy’s eyes flitted about the room and he let slip a tiny nod of acknowledgement.
“Now I rest my case. Mrs P, do I have any meetings today or am I a free woman?”
The old woman lifted her gaze and said,
“Jonathon Turtleman came in early to see you.”
“What, Trust Fund Jonathon? I don’t recall him making an appointment.”
“No, he said he has something urgent to discuss with you,” said Mrs P. “I put him in the meeting room with a cup of tea.”
“What does the little loser want?” said Jessica as she gathered her bag and coat.
Mrs P stood up and cleaned her spectacles anxiously on her cardigan hem.
“What is it?” said Jessica.
“Well, he’s … well, you’ll see,” she said and sat down, then added. “I’m sure you’re capable.”
Jessica pushed open the meeting room door.
“Jonathon,” she began, and stopped, stunned. “Oh Jesus.”
At the end of the room sat a slightly podgy young man with a completely shaved head, wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Blood and Iron’ in scarlet font atop an eagle’s angry visage.
“Hello, Jessica,” he said.
“What the fuck have you done?” she said.
“I haven’t got my tear drop tattoos yet,” he said.
“You look like a mooring buoy in harbour sludge. Hang on, I’ve got to take a photo of this.”
She pulled out her phone and snapped him as he snarled back at her. She examined the photo.
“The office will love this,” she said.
Jonathon stood up and leaned over the table in front of him.
“You don’t get to mock me,” he said.
“Blood and Iron,” said Jessica. “What is that, Bismark, on your shirt?”
Jonathon looked down at his shirt, scrunching his chin into white folds.
“We want to stand out,” he said.
“The Band of Brothers.”
“The Band of Brainless Bowling Balls more like it,” said Jessica. “Who the fuck are they?”
“My new friends,” said Jonathon.
“I’ve been reading up,” said Jonathon.
“On what, pages of bullshit?” said Jessica.
“We are the new politics, the new order. Our voice has been suppressed by the populist media for too long and now we are making our selves known,” said Jonathon.
“Hang on a tick, back up,” said Jessica. She sat opposite him and looked at the ragged mess of baldness above the sullen face. “You’ve joined an alt right gang of skinheads whose main aim is to spread their version of hatred, self-interest and ignorance in the name of the national good, is that what you’re saying?”
“I expected nothing less from a liberal like you,” Jonathon replied.
“Just how far down the rabbit hole have you gone?” said Jessica.
“Enough to know my rights,” replied Jonathon.
“Jonathon – ”
“It’s J-Jon now.”
“It’s my brotherhood name,” he said.
Jessica took a deep breath, and said through gritted teeth,
“You’re Jonathon on the Trust Deed and Jonathon when you want something from me, capiche?”
The man retreated into his seat.
“So what is it you want?” said Jessica.
He made a determined show of puffing out his chest as he spoke.
“I want you to dissolve the trust and transfer the assets to me,” he said, and shrank back into the chair. Jessica stared at him, thoughts swarming in her mind.
“And the money goes to?” she said.
Jonathon smiled proudly and rose a little from his slouch.
“The Band,” he said.
Jessica looked about the room – the landscapes on the walls, the leather chairs around the amber desk, the low cabinetry, the view across the city.
“No,” she said, “I don’t have that power. And if I did I wouldn’t exercise it. Not if you’re going to piss the capital away on a bunch of sponging incel pseudo-cocks with mummy issues. I get it, you’re a trust fund baby, bored as fuck with nothing to do all day. You lack social identity so you cling to a bunch of shrunken testicles with swastikas, all of whom see you as a free source of lucre to fire their own pathetic dependencies on lust, drugs and power. Get out now, while you can. Join a chess club, go ballroom dancing, base jumping I don’t care, but get out of that nonsense now.”
“It’s my right,” said the bald head.
“It’s your fucking wrong,” said Jessica. “You get the trust assets on the later of you turning thirty-five or accumulating $500,000 in assets. In the meantime I am the executor of your parents’ estate and trustee of the fund. And I will honour the memory of the people who mentored me by safeguarding their assets until you have met the legal threshold. End of story.”
“You cry law and principle now, but I know, I know you were a commie once,” said Jonathon, shaking his finger in her direction.
“I’ve been many things in my past,” Jessica said, “but none of them have any bearing on my role now or in the future. Now I suggest you get out of here, buy a pair of grown ups’ pants and a couple of balls to go with them, and return to earth.”
“It’s always the people with money who run the state,” he said. “I’m the victim here.”
“You’re a loser lazy arse trust fund baby too accustomed to his own privileged existence to know how good he has it, and you’re lucky enough to have me on board to wipe your sodden back side when you walk into trouble. Now get out.”
Jonathon rose and worked his way to the door.
“This is not the last you’ll hear from me,” he mumbled as he filtered past her and headed to the small lobby. “I’m gonna get a lawyer.”
“Then I’ll deduct his fees from your allowance,” Jessica said in reply.
Jessica was about to follow him when she saw a slip of a girl with raven hair leaning over the reception desk. Her locks spilled down to her flimsy cotton dress, covering her features. Jessica paused to watch.
“Is Jeremy in?” the young woman said.
Cindy called his office. The woman flicked her hair behind her ear, revealing four varieties of jewellery along her lobe. He arm was a sleeve of blue jade and red inks.
“Hello, lover boy,” said the woman, and before he could object she had entwined her arms about his neck and launched an insistent kiss upon his lips. His eyes darted to Cindy behind the reception desk but she was assiduously staring at her computer. Pressing her forehead against Jeremy’s the woman said,
“Is this what you do in a law office?”
She swept her hair back with one hand. With the other still clasping Jeremy’s neck she said to Cindy,
“Anyway, I’m Cassandra by the way. No doubt Jeremy’s told you all about me.”
“Let’s go into my office,” said Jeremy. His voice was high pitched.
“You have an office,” said Cassandra. “Can anyone see inside?”
Jeremy rolled his eyes and loosened the hand about his neck, leading her away from the lobby.
Jessica stepped out from her hiding spot.
“She’s gorgeous,” said Cindy. “Did you see her waist? And those cheekbones! I wish I could be like that.”
“Don’t waste your time being some else,” said Jessica. “I give it a fortnight at most. And I bet she’s got an emotional undercarriage more potent than the pair of panties she’s hidden in her bag for Jeremy as a memento, just to keep him alert all day. You watch.”
“I think it’s sweet,” said Cindy. “I wish I was that in love.”
“Oh that ain’t love, Cindy,” said Jessica, “that’s pure power. She’ll have him spayed by the
end of the day and he won’t even know it.”
“You’re so cynical,” said Cindy. “He’s a catch. He’d be great to be in love with.”
“I’ve seen it before, kiddo,” said Jessica, “in fact I’ve done it myself. Nice boys like Jeremy are just putty in their hands. They’re so grateful that someone so exotic, so transgressive of their secure upbringing, is paying attention to them. It’s a wild ride, but like all wild rides, you throw up at the end and wonder why you wasted your money.”
“But if you came across someone who was nice, who treated you right, and was gentle and wrapped his arms around you at night, and who listened to everything you had to say and still loved you, wouldn’t you fall in love with him?”
“Oh purrlese,” said Jessica, “’Treat me right.’ Who says that? As if opening doors and paying for coffee secures your future. Young women have to realise that they’re just traps that drag you in and suddenly the shackles are on and he’s running around opening more than doors elsewhere.”
Cindy turned to the older woman behind her.
“What do you think, Mrs P? Is Cassandra fake or real?” she said.
Mrs P looked up from her desk.
“That young girl?” she said. “She’s working harder than she knows. Pride can easily be our downfall.”
Jessica leaned over the reception desk.
“Mrs P, do you remember that social worker we’ve use a couple of times, Adrian?”
“The one whose calls you stopped taking?” said Mrs P.
“Well, someone had to call a halt to it all. Him. Yes. Do you have his phone number handy at all?”
“Is that something you want to rekindle?” said Mrs P.
“Oh, it’s all above board, Mrs P. I’ve got a job for him.”
She entered her office and sat on the black leather chair behind the piles of papers that crowded her desk. She turned on her computer to get the phone number Mrs P had emailed to her.
“Adrian!” she said when the phone answered.
“Jess Mulgrave,” said Jess
“Oh fuck,” said the voice on the phone.
“No, don’t hang up,” said Jessica. “I’ve got a job for you.”
“Like last time? How’s that going to work out?”
“Oh come on, that was ten years ago. We’ve grown up since then, haven’t we?” said Jessica.
“You broke my heart,” said the voice.
“They do that when they’re brittle,” said Jessica.
“Still the ice queen I see.”
“Harsh. Plenty of people warm to me.”
“That’s the fires of hell.”
“Well,” said Jessica, “you can’t say I lack balance.”
“You lack empathy,” said the man on the phone. “People have needs, Jessica, and wants, and deserve respect for that reason alone.”
“And that’s why I’m calling you,” said Jessica. “I need you.”
“What, like a snake needs its prey?”
“Oh don’t be like that. Why do people always take the negative extreme? We’re here to help each other aren’t we?”
“I have a life now, do you know that?” said Adrian.
“I’m happy for you,” said Jessica.
“I don’t want it mucked up.”
“Look,” said Jessica, “I’m not wanting to bust anything up. I’m trying to help you here, and one of my … charges, shall we say.”
There was a long pause on the phone.
“Hello, Adrian, you still there?” said Jessica.
There was a deep sigh. Jessica visualised him rubbing his chin and throat and gritting his teeth with bitter resignation. Next he’d rub his eyes, with finger and thumb, and there it was, the creak in the chair as he slumped back in, beaten. She smiled victoriously. She still had it.
“What’s the story?” said Adrian.
“Are you still doing that social work, group dynamics work you were so good at?” said Jessica.
“Yeah, some. Why?” said Adrian.
“I’ve got a client – well he’s not technically a client – he’s a trust fund kid and I’m the trustee appointed by his late parents – who’s about to go badly off the rails.”
“In what sense?”
“He’s early twenties, doesn’t need to work, so he’s lost. He’s got no purpose. So he’s fallen prey to an alt right mob of bully boys called the Band of Brothers. He came in asking me to give him all the trust funds his parents set up for him so he could use it for the so-called Band.”
Adrian sighed again.
“How far down the rabbit hole is he?” he said.
“Exactly what I asked him,” said Jessica. “He’s shaven his head but hasn’t yet scuffed his new Doc Martens.”
“So let me get this right,” said Adrian. “You want me to help some idle rich kid who’s never known a day’s work and who’s falling for stupid politics, all because he’s feeling lost on the inside?”
“That about sums it up,” said Jessica.
“What is this? I don’t like Mondays, so I’ll spray the local supermarket with lead?” said Adrian.
“Why do you care?” said Adrian. “What’s in it for you?”
“Let’s just say it’s for auld lang syne,” said Jessica. “You remember how we used to sink shots down at the Jelly Club and argue over the rights of the state and freedom of association and all that stuff? Long into the morning, and you’d get het up about trusting people and I’d laugh and say people ain’t worth shit. Remember that?”
She heard a snort at the end of the phone.
“And now you want my softy approach, is that it?”
“Well I tried calling out his BS, but it didn’t work,” said Jessica. “You have a more gentle approach that somehow works, although god knows I can never work out why.”
“No surprises there.”
“The kid’s parents, they were great people. They mentored me through the toughest periods of my life. I owe it to them to make ensure their son doesn’t sink in the quicksand.”
“And what’s in it for me?” said Adrian. “You offering the old malarky? You got the pincers out?”
“Nothing like that,” said Jessica. “It’s a paid job. Name your price.”
“That bad huh?”
“I think so,” said Jessica.
“You see, that’s what you do. You show a man this good side and then, whammo, you whip his balls off just as he takes up your invite to lower his pants.”
“It’s strictly business,” said Jessica. “A young man needs help and you are the best one I know to provide it.”
“Flattery,” said Adrian.
“Gets you a free lunch on me,” said Jessica. “Meet me at Bar Rondo at one and I’ll give you details and we can work up a strategy.”
“Bar Rondo,” said Adrian. “Fuck. They still got the flowered wallpaper and Formica bar top?”
“They did an upgrade two years ago,” said Jessica. “You’ll like it. It’s sympatique.”
She heard Adrian breath in. It reminded her of when her spindly teenager brother used to head on to the rugby field to face a wall of thuggery twice his size.
“Alright,” said Arian. “One-o’clock at Bar Rondo it is.”
“Don’t thank me,” said Adrian. “Just pay me and leave me the hell alone.”
Jessica hung up and smiled to herself. Then she rang Mrs P to ask her to make a booking for the bar. “A nice cozy spot, I need to work on someone and build his confidence,” she said. Then she rang Jeremy.
“Your floosie still there?” she said.
“Floosie, just how old are you?” said Jeremy. She heard a tiny giggle in the background.
“You got clothes on?” said Jessica.
“Ye-es,” said Jeremy.
“Both of you?”
“Doulbe hhmmph for that.”
“Good, can you come in? I need to go over the Anderson contract with you.”
Jeremy entered shortly after with a bundle of papers in his hand. Jessica looked him up and down.
“Do I need to buy you socks?” she said.
“Socks?” said Jeremy.
“I can see your ankles and shoes, but no socks.”
“They’re ankle socks,” said Jeremy. “You might need your glasses to see them.”
“Ironic name, ankle socks when you can still see your ankles,” said. “And what about the prophetess, has she gone now?”
“The very same.”
“No, she’s going to sit in the reception til lunch.”
Jessica stared at Jeremy drily.
“Doesn’t she have a home to go to?”
“She can work anywhere,” said Jeremy.
“Do you want me to keep you too busy for lunch, or are you happy to be fawned on over a glass of house white while she runs her toes up your leg under the table?”
“I’ll have lunch with her,” he said.
* * * * *
Bar Rondo was a discreet cavern squeezed into the corner of a city block. It serviced office workers at lunch and at office lovers at night. It was elegantly lit with an array of pendant lights which cast a bronze hue upon the tables; a long bar boasted and expansive selection of alcohol. An awkwardly shaped interior had been adroitly configured by its owner, Paulo, to provide nooks and crannies where business deals and intimate moments could incubate away from prying eyes.
“Paulo!” said Jessica as she strode into the soft interior.
“Jessica darling, you look fabulous. Are you man catching today?” said Paulo, and a wide white smile lit up his unshaven jowls.
“Those days are long gone,” said Jessica.
“Ah, so it’s business,” said Paulo. “I have you at the rear. Come, follow me.”
He seated Jessica on a cushioned wall seat. A small table light showed her the location but nothing else of the menu.
“And today, you are in a negroni mood, I think,” said Paulo.
“Paulo, you are a magician. I had thought of nothing and now I crave a negroni,” said Jessica.
Paulo’s eyebrows leapt as he smiled again. “I would drink with you and put all sorts of ideas into your head, but alas, I play the wrong team, and I have a business to run.”
“Surely there is a queue outside your door?”
“Oh yes, but they all run when they see the hours I work. This bar is my lover. Last week I found one curled up asleep on the doorstep when I closed up. He had the face of an angel. I took him home and held him like his mama as he slept. I was back at work before he woke.”
Jessica rummaged in her bag for her glasses and turned on her iPhone torch so as to read the menu.
“Today I think you will have the special,” said Paulo. “It is Tagliolini allo Zafferano con Salsa di Scampi – a saffron tagliolini with Tasmanian scampi tossed in white wine, garlic, butter & parsley. It is magnificent.” Paulo kissed the tips of his fingers and flung them open like a flower.
“Why is it that women in charge love being told what to do by a gay guy?” said Jessica.
“Because we know you. Everybody wants to be carried by their papa; it’s just less complicated for me to do it for you. Are you in a hurry, or do you have to beguile this man slowly?”
“I don’t know,” said Jessica, “I think I have him across the line. It depends on how he wants to play it.”
“Okay,” said Paulo. He twinkled his fingers towards the table. “We will spread a little magic, yes?”
Jessica chuckled. Paulo said,
“I think your business man is here. He will want a Peroni, and the spatchcock.”
A tall lean figure was attempting a clumsy slalom between the diners as he searched for the table. Paulo raised a hand. “Signore, Ms Mulgrave is here.”
Adrian stumbled across to the table.
“Please, sit,” said Paulo, holding a chair out for him while he raised his eyes to Jessica. “A birra perhaps?”
“A what?” said Adrian.
“A beer,” said Paulo.
“Oh yeah, thanks,” said Adrian. “Do you have Peroni?”
“Does the Pope blow white smoke out his ass?” said Paulo, then left to arrange the drinks.
Adrian and Jessica stared at each other across the table.
“You look as stunning as ever,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Jessica.
“You haven’t aged since we – since back then,” he said. “In fact, you looked ten years younger back then.”
“I was ten years younger then,” said Jessica.
“No I mean – ” Jessica held up her hand.
“I get it,” she said.
Adrian unfolded the napkin, then refolded it.
“Lovely jacket,” said Jessica.
Adrian smiled. “You always said I looked good in chocolate,” he said.
“The shirt’s good too.”
“I had good advice,” said Adrian.
“Stand up,” said Jessica. “Show me the whole ensemble.”
Adrian stood and raised his arms for Jessica’s inspection.
“Very handsome, with the navy trews,” she said. “I always liked you in those colours.”
Paulo arrived with the drinks. “Have you chosen a meal?” he said to Adrian.
“Oh, hang on a tic,” said Adrian and flipped the menu open.
“I suggest the spatchcock,” said Paulo.
Adrian slapped the menu shut. “Done.”
“The buzz cut and beard is very aujourd’hui,” said Jessica.
“I’m feeling young again,” said Adrian.
“Ah,” said Jessica, “purloined some young pudenda, have we?”
Adrian smiled coyly.
“Younger, yes, but not young,” he said.
“Oh, so, you’re Depeche Mode and she’s more, what, Pearl Jam, is that it?”
He examined the beer bottle label.
“Okay, yes actually, she’s young. She’s more, well, Battlesnake.”
“Battlesnake?” said Jessica.
“Yeah I know, right,” said Adrian. “I’d never heard of them either, but she’s got this real insight into contemporary vibes.”
Jessica took a sip of her negroni.
“What sort of name is Battlesnake for god’s sake?”
“It’s ironic prog rock, and they’re really good. We’ve been to see them three times. The band only wears underpants,” said Adrian. He slammed his beer bottle down for effect.
“Jesus, Adrian, how young is this woman?” said Jessica.
“Young enough to keep me alive.”
“Let me guess,” said Jessica, “she’s all tatts and tangles and rides you like a cowgirl.”
“And some,” he said.
“Can you keep up?” said Jessica.
“It’s ideal. She’s FIFO – a medical assistant of some kind in the mining sector – so I get every second week off to recover and get back to the gym. I am getting so fit.” He flexed his right biceps, but it was hidden beneath the jacket.
“So she likes old men who are wrinkly from repeated Epsom baths,” said Jessica.
Adrian chuckled, and said,
“When she’s in town though, it’s full on. She hardy leaves the house.”
“And you hardly leave the bed,” said Jessica. “Does she have a name, this FIFO vamp of yours?”
“Sandy,” said Adrian.
“Short for …?” said Jessica.
“Alexandra I think. That’s what it usually is, isn’t it? Anyway, she’s not pretentious.”
“Does she cost you?”
“Not excessively. Anyway, I see a future there, so I regard it as an investment.”
Jessica rolled her eyes and took a big swig of her negroni.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” said Adrian.
“I’m not here to judge,” said Jessica, and added, “Anyway.”
The food arrived. Jessica stabbed the pasta with her fork.
“What do your kids think about this potential step mother who’s their age?” she said.
“They haven’t met her yet. I don’t see them much. They still live with their mother. They’re older now of course, and have lives of their own.”
“So you’re a free man.”
“Best of all possible worlds,” said Adrian. “But tell me about you.”
Jessica took a mouthful of pasta. When she had swallowed she said,
“You know me. I’m still the ice queen, intolerant, gruff, and uncompromising in my censure of the world’s follies. I’ll be a right curmudgeonly spinster one day.”
“No-one on your horizon?” said Adrian.
“Rent boys aren’t as thick on the ground as your Sandys. Plus you can only laugh at them. It’s cheap sex if you want it, but it feels cheap afterwards. I’m not interested in love.”
“Go on, we all are.”
“Why is it magazines push romance in women’s magazines, when it’s men who are the real suckers? No-one reports that. Stick ‘em in front of a fire, fill ‘em full of food then fuck ‘em, and hey presto, you go all droopy eyed and start on about kids and family vans and taking little Johnny to the footie and you buy an investment property off the plan in some future slum town, and all because your nose is stuff full with her perfume and your head with her thoughts.”
“I haven’t heard a J Tirade in a while,” said Adrian. “I miss them.”
“It works differently for women, lover boy,” said Jessica. “For women, the young ones are a joke. They’re both intimidated by you and boring to boot, and think only of two things, how to empty their balls and fill their bellies. They have enough spunk to starch a wardrobe of socks between the times they service you, and when they’re done they want to know what you’re cooking them for dinner. And all the older ones, who might have a brain to talk to, are all chasing younger flesh and drugging themselves with Viagra in a vain attempt to mollify their inevitably aging egos and increasing senescence. But it’s easier for you. You flash some cash and catch something half your age who thinks you’re big time and whose need for emotional security is matched only by her inability to make a worthwhile contribution to society and she’s happy to lube and leg up and scream like a banshee until your heart’s awash with shame and awe and the looming sense of your own pathetic wretchedness. At the first mention of arthritis she’ll dump you for the next one on the conveyor belt.”
She paused to insert another mouthful of pasta and chewed.
“You dumped me, if you recall,” said Adrian.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. You were getting too clingy and gooby eyed. The Porsche Cayenne was the last straw.”
Jessica watched him chew a mouthful of meat. He put down his knife and fork and dabbed his lips with his napkin.
“You know,’ he said, and paused to drink the last of his beer, “ever since your husband left you all those years ago, you’ve kept the shutters down on your heart and never let anyone get near. And you carry on, shelled up like a bitter turtle pushing everyone away with your ranting and raving and ball breaking persona. But I came along and – at great risk to myself I should add – I ventured in and got too close, and suddenly you got frightened that you might have to risk yourself again, so you pulled away and ruined my life with it.”
“Hmmph,”’ said Jessica with a mouth full of prawn meat. “I’ve had worse than my ex leaving me.”
“Look,” he said, “I know I don’t stand a chance with Sandy. She’s young and carefree and in some ways very naïve. You know I had to teach her how to use a knife and fork? She was hopelessly ill prepared for life. She couldn’t even make a cup of tea. She’s still learning emotionally, and can be volatile, but that’s part of the fun of it all. So yes, she’s just using me for whatever it is she wants, but I’m having fun. And besides, it distracts me from what I really want.”
“And what’s that?” said Jessica.
“You know the answer to that question,” said Adrian. “Why do you think I got dressed up in colours you like, the jacket and dark shirt, and trimmed my hair and beard? I still carry a candle for you, Jessica, even after all you did, and even though there’s probably less chance than a snowflake in the outback of it restarting. But I was thrilled when you called. I’d been hoping you would someday, even if just to use my professional skills. So of course I’ll get going on your trust fund boy – I’ve briefed one of my best colleagues to run with it – but I came to lunch today to see you and say the door is still open if the little turtle girl is up for coming out.”
The ice gurgled at the end of Jessica’s straw. She set the glass down gently.
“You’re right,” she said. “You have this ability to let people shout at you and when they’ve shouted themselves out you calmly show them love. That’s why I thought you’d be good working with Jonathon. You’ll get to the heart of what he’s doing.”
“And the other?” said Adrian. “You’re dodging the main issue.”
Jessica took in a deep breath.
“You’re probably right there too. Maybe I am protecting myself. It’s my professional manner, to attack and call people to account. That way I call myself to account. It keeps me real. It keeps the world real. It’s the way I think. Maybe that is why I rang you. ”
Adrian aligned his knife and fork on the plate and pushed it away from him slightly.
“There are more ways to interact with the world, Jessica,” he said.
He stretched a hand out towards her, the palm turned upwards.
“How about it then. Is there room for another viewpoint in your life? Can we start again, give it another go?”
Jessica set her utensils down and swiped a hand through her hair. She looked around the room, but could not see any familiar faces.
“It’s no use looking around for help,” said Adrian. “It’s just you and me. It’s just your decision. I’ve exposed my heart. Is yours there?”
She forced a smile.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s been awhile.”
“I’ve sold the Porsche,” said Adrian.
“What do you drive Miss FIFO around in?” said Jessica.
Adrian smiled. “Something I can just as easily sell.”
“You see, that’s you being accommodating again,” said Jessica. “People accommodate too much. They endure the compromise and when they get to the end, call it happiness.”
“If you don’t accommodate you have nowhere to live,” said Adrian. “It’s only a fucking car after all.”
Jessica laughed. Adrian smiled.
“So how about it?” he said.
She looked at his dog-eyed gaze and vulnerable smile, and let him take his hand when he reached for it. She looked at her hand in his. It felt warm, and strange and familiar, all the more strange for being familiar. She thought of the turmoil of her life, even today, with Jonathon’s surprise and Cassandra ad Jeremy and the skinheads on the street and thought how lovely it would be to have a set of arms to rest in, a safe haven, a moment’s respite from all she carried in her soul. She raised her eyes to meet his. His gaze was steady, reassuring, and gentle. Words formed in her mouth. She was about to speak when she was interrupted by a kerfuffle in the far side of the bistro. A woman’s voice was shouting.
“I don’t care, I just don’t fucking care!”
Jessica turned to see what was happening. A young woman was standing, and she threw a napkin on to the table below her.
“You bunch of middle class jerk offs, you think you can lecture me?”
Jessica recognised the woman as Cassandra, and then saw it was Jeremy who was the butt of her tirade. She saw Paulo standing by.
“You’re a sad little mummy’s boy, that’s what you are!”
Then she turned and did her best to storm out of the room, bumping patrons’ chairs carelessly as she fought her way clear to the door.
Adrian was standing.
“Sandy, is that you?”
Cassandra flashed a thunderous scowl at him and continued her march through the labyrinth. Adrian leapt out to follow her.
“Sandy, you told me you were interstate!” he said, as he stumbled into a table and sent a carafe of wine flowing over a woman’s business suit.
She squealed and he apologised briefly, and pressed on through the throng.
Then they were gone. Paulo was attending to the woman who had been drenched by the wine, showering her with promises to pay the dry cleaning bill.
Jessica leant back in her chair and laughed. She noticed Jeremy standing by his table looking awkward and lost, still clutching a fork in his hand.
“Jeremy!’ she said, and motioned for him to join her.
He made his way over with a look of relief and embarrassment.
“Wow,” he said as he sat down. “I’ve had some break ups, but that’s a first.”
Jessica waved at Paulo as she said, “Let me buy you a drink.”
Paulo barrelled over, holding a bottle of amber spirits and three glasses. He sat down between Jessica and Jeremy and poured each of them a drink.
“Vin Santo,” he said. “Ideal for this little conflagrazione.” He held a glass into the air and added, “del Chianti Classico. Saluti.”
“Saluti tutti,” said Jessica. She turned to Jeremy and said, “I thought Ms Allnight was alright.”
“So did I,” said Jeremy. “She had it all: looks, the smile -”
“The legs,” said Jessica. “So what happened?”
“This sounds terrible,” said Jeremy, “but she had no idea how to eat.”
“How to eat?” said Paulo.
“Didn’t you see her? She couldn’t use a knife and fork. She was shovelling food into her mouth like a farmer pushing hay into a stable. She didn’t cut anything, she just ripped it with her teeth, and trowelled it in. Bits kept on falling out, and she’d shove them back with the fork. I couldn’t look.”
“Wait,” said Jessica, “you mean to tell me you’d never seen her eat before?”
“Er, not really,” he said.
“So in all the time you’d spent together had you shared a meal?” said Jessica.
Jeremy didn’t respond.
“What did you do?”
“Well,” he said, “we sometimes ate in bed, but mostly we were too busy to, well, eat off a plate.”
“Oh spare me the details,” said Jessica.
“So what did you do just now to spark her fury?” said Paulo.
“I mentioned how she was not coping, and she got angry, and said I was just like her stupid uncle.”
“Her uncle?” said Jessica.
“Yeah, apparently she has an uncle who’s been trying to teach her about it.”
“Ha!” said Jessica.
“Who was that man that went after her?” said Jeremy.
“Just another lonely heart,” said Jessica.
“Wow, poor man. Think I dodged a bullet,” said Jeremy.
“All he had to do was sit down and shut up, and no-one would have been the wiser. But instead he’s made a fool of himself for all to see,” said Jessica. “Tell me Paulo, how much should we tell each other about our private lives? For example, if you had an affair, would you tell your partner?”
Paulo refilled the glasses.
“It is not love unless you can shout it from the mountains,” he said. “Saluti.”
Jessica’s phone rang.
“It’s Mrs P,” she said. “Iola Anderson wants to know how the contract is. We should get back.”
* * * * *