4

There was a little knot of people standing outside the cinema, and Michael was having his photograph taken with a man of his own age, presumably his friend, who looked uncomfortable and apologetic. The photographer was a young woman, and she was using her phone for the shot, so it was hard to imagine that it would be featured on a tabloid website, or in Hello! magazine. Lucy guessed she worked for the publisher of the unfortunate writer whose book had been butchered, according to Michael.

When Michael saw her, he excused himself and came over to kiss her on both cheeks. The young woman with the iPhone smiled in her direction, and took a couple of shots as Lucy and Michael embraced.

“Oh,” said Michael. “No. No. You see . . .”

“Oh,” said the young woman. “Shall I delete them? I’ll delete them.”

“They don’t need deleting as such,” said Michael.

“Right. So. Keep them?”

Michael turned to Lucy and laughed awkwardly.

“Would you forward them to me?” said Lucy.

“Sure. Give me your number before the end of the evening.”

“That’s very sweet of you,” said Michael when the photographer had gone. “And hello, by the way.”

“Hello.”

“Like I said, I’m not sure it’s going to be an evening you’ll want to remember forever. But I’m flattered that you wanted the photos anyway.”

She didn’t want the photos. She’d wanted to stop the excruciating conversation about whether they should be deleted or not. And now, within seconds of her arriving, Michael Marwood had come to the conclusion that she was overexcited about both the premiere and the date.

“Will you send one on to me when you’ve got them?”

She could tell that he was saying this because he thought he had to, otherwise it would seem as though the evening meant nothing to him.

“I don’t want them,” she said.

She had now gone too far the other way.

“I only said I wanted them because the poor girl was embarrassed about having taken them in the first place.”

“Oh,” said Michael. “I see. Well. That’s put me in my place. You’re good at that.”

“I mean, I’m sure I will want to keep them. Eventually. If I . . . If we . . . Actually, I’m just not going to give her my number.”

Michael laughed.

“OK then.”

How else was one supposed to deal with the problem of being captured for all eternity, or until the young woman ran out of storage space, in the first ten seconds of a first date?

Heartstrings was the story of two lonely people living solitary lives at the opposite ends of the country, who meet online through their shared love of medieval music in general and the lute in particular. If you wanted to learn about the lute, then Heartstrings was the film for you: who knew, for example, that the town of Haslemere in Surrey, where the instrument makers Arnold and Carl Dolmetsch lived, loomed so large in lute folklore? Or that there was a Dutch church in London, where lute recitals frequently took place, and where the couple eventually meet? Or that, if you listened to the lugubrious sound of the lute for nearly two hours, you wanted to gather up every lute in the country and burn them on a gigantic bonfire?

Lucy could see what the filmmakers had been pitching for. They wanted Lucy’s mother, and every other middle-class retiree in the country, to flood their local cinemas on a weekday afternoon when the tickets were cheap, and then tell all their friends to go the following weekday afternoon. The trouble was that the film was too boring even for Lucy’s mother, and, worse still, was psychologically opaque. Why did the lonely woman give her lute away to a dim-witted teenage girl just when she seemed to be finding happiness with a member of the lute-playing community? Why did the lonely man have a small collection of whips in his bedroom, clearly visible on the wall beside the mirror, but never explained?

“In the book, he was up to no good with the whips,” said Michael afterward. They were in a French bistro not far from the cinema, but tucked away at the back in case the butchered author and his entourage should happen to choose this particular restaurant for their wake.

“Really? The whips were put to use?”

“Yes. On young men. It was quite an odd book. And I think at one point they wanted to preserve some of the darkness but then they changed their minds in the edit. Decided to go for the Best Exotic crowd instead. But let’s not talk about them.”

Michael clearly thought that the gap between the cinematic preferences of Britain’s pensioners and seduction was too wide to bridge elegantly, and he was right: he had failed to pull it off. Lucy laughed at the gear change, and Michael looked puzzled.

“We can talk about them if you want,” she said.

“Well, do you want?”

“I’m happy to talk about anything.” And then, with a twinkle, “It won’t make any difference.”

Michael looked at her.

“To what?”

“To anything that might happen at another time, I suppose.”

She was going to say “later” instead of “at another time,” but that seemed a little too bold, even for her current mood. She could see now that she had merely been confusing.

“Which other time?”

“Well. Later.” She’d said it. “Or anytime after that.” She’d retracted it again.

For two reasons, she had decided on the way to the cinema that she would sleep with Michael. Her ridiculous text conversation with Joseph had troubled her. If she was going to make a fool of herself by mooning over a young man nearly half her age, she should at least find out whether an enforced period of sexual abstinence had anything to do with it.

And in any case, all inappropriate thoughts of Joseph aside, a single woman having sex with a reasonably attractive single man didn’t and shouldn’t require an enormous amount of consideration. What was the big deal? It hadn’t been a big deal before she met Paul. She wasn’t slutty back then, by any stretch of the imagination, but neither had she regarded each potential sexual experience as an episode of The Moral Maze. She wanted to take the weight off it all, or at least see if it was possible to do so. She was almost sure it was, but it had all been so much easier before.

A lot of things, she remembered, were done vertically—not sex, very often, but drinking, and talking, and dancing, and all these vertical activities seemed only inches away from a kiss, and the kiss was only a few more inches away from a bed, and horizontality. Now there were films about lutes, and menus to study, and awkward, self-aware conversations. There was psychology! What use had she had for psychology when she was drunk and twenty-five? Years and years of being a grown-up had given her entirely obstructive clues to what was going on in the minds of other people. They half revealed themselves in everything they did and said, and Lucy wished she could ignore it all.

“I’m still not sure what will make a difference to what,” said Michael. “Or what might or might not happen as a result.”

“I can see that,” Lucy said.

“Do you know what you fancy to eat? The steak frites is very good here.”

“‘Is’? Or ‘are’?”

“I see what you mean. But isn’t it ‘le steak frites’ in French? It’s one dish. Not one steak and many frites.”

The steak frites was twenty-five pounds. She was glad that Joseph wasn’t here, although it was hard to imagine the circumstances in which he would be. In her guilty imagination, he already thought they were mad for occasionally spending eight quid on a piece of meat. What would he say if he knew that they would then spend another ten or fifteen paying someone to cook it for them? She was glad that Joseph had no access to her mind, because then he would know that she was almost certainly patronizing him. He had probably long got used to the prices in his shop. And he probably knew how much meals cost in nice restaurants. If he lived at home and worked several jobs, it was possible that he had as much disposable income as she did. But to be on the safe side, she decided to give meat a miss.

“The squash risotto looks nice.”

“Are you a vegetarian?”

“I have two meat-obsessed sons. I eat meat every other day of the week because I’m too lazy to cook two dinners.”

This was a perfectly plausible explanation, she thought. She didn’t need to tell him about Joseph, and money. And then it occurred to her that if she did invite Michael back after the meal, he would meet Joseph.

“You’ll meet our butcher if you come back for a drink.”

There was a baffled pause, and then Lucy laughed, embarrassed. This was a more direct invitation than the reference to nothing making any difference, but she had somehow managed to make it sound like a small reception for local shopkeepers at the same time.

“Jolly good,” said Michael.

“He’s our babysitter.”

“Ah. I see. He needs extra money despite all the meat you buy from him?”

“He works in the shop. He doesn’t own it. The boys love him.”

“Because of their meat obsession?”

“Because of his knowledge of football and his skills on the Xbox.”

She was talking more about Joseph than she’d intended.

“Anyway. None of that is relevant. But if you’d like to come back for a drink, you’d be very welcome.”

“Thank you.”

He wasn’t leaping up and down in gratitude and celebration, but neither was he saying too quickly that he had to be up early in the morning and therefore he would have to politely decline the offer. Maybe the jumping up and down was too much to expect at their age, especially as, from the sound of it, it wasn’t the first time Michael Marwood had been invited back for a drink. Maybe the jumping up and down was too much to expect at any age, come to think of it.

“I’m spared all that.”

“Sorry?”

“Xbox. Two girls.”

“Oh. Yes. Lucky you. What replaces it?”

“Books, mostly.”

Lucy shot herself in the head with her fingers. He laughed.

“Sorry. They’re not good books, if that makes any difference. Lots of dystopian misery.”

“Oh, awful. I’m glad my boys are spared all that and sit with their mouths open looking at a screen all weekend. Do the girls live with your ex?”

“Yes. They stay with me every other Saturday night. The old story.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Oh, it’s painful, of course.”

Lucy wondered whether she’d hear some version of this for the next ten or fifteen years, until she started dating men whose children had gone to college. She wondered too whether one of them would ever say, it’s f***ing great! I see them and I pay for their upkeep but the rest of the time is my own. She doubted it. For a start, it wasn’t allowed. She’d have to withhold all sexual and emotional contact from a man like that, however refreshing the sentiment.

“I can imagine.”

There. They had observed the traditions, and they could move on.

Their starter was a shared garlicky prawn dish, so of course she began to think about whether she had any chewing gum in her bag, and whether he’d be offended if she offered him some on the way home. And then she wondered about the message that would send, its directness and its prissiness, and then she worried that he’d notice she was thinking about everything that might or might not come afterward and not noticing the conversations they were having now. She shook herself down and banished all anxieties about chewing gum.

They talked about writing, teaching, the referendum. (Michael scoffed at the idea that a country would ever vote against its own economic interests, and Lucy was reassured by his confidence.) They talked about the failure of their respective marriages, and his explanation for the misdeeds that brought about the end of his was neither glib nor self-servingly self-loathing. She liked him. She invited him back for a drink, and he looked at her and pantomimed fear. But he was smiling too.

Just Like You: A Novel