by Nicola Abnett
“Crap! Crap! Crap! Shit and fuck! Well... That just means I can’t go!” said Kat.
“You have to go. You can’t not go!”
“Didn’t you hear the story?”
“I heard the story, and it’s a terrible story, and I feel terrible for you, but, you know what? It’s just a dress,” said Ally.
“It’s my only good dress. It’s the dress I was going to wear. It’s the dress I took to the dry cleaner’s especially so that it would look it’s best... So that I would look my best!”
“You own a hundred dresses, Kat.”
“I don’t own a hundred dresses I could wear to a family wedding,” said Kat.
“OK, you got me there, but think about it... How many dresses do I own, Kat? We’re the same size. You’d look amazing in the Vivien Westwood.”
“Your Vivien Westwood is red,” said Kat.
“My only wedding heels are green.”
“Didn’t you hear me say it was the Vivien Westwood? You know the whole point of La Westwood is that her dresses are supposed to be quirky,” said Ally. “You’ll look amazing. Besides, the wedding is... exactly eighteen hours and seven minutes away, so how long does that leave you to buy a dress and travel up from London?”
“Crap! Shit and fuck!”
“So, I’ll bring the Westwood and we’re in room 411. You just bring the shoes, OK?”
There was silence on the line for more than the second or two that might have been expected before Kat agreed.
“OK?” Ally asked again.
“OK,” said Kat.
“Good, see you tomorrow. If you’re OK, I’m hanging up, now.”
“Hang up. I’m fine. I’ll see you tomorrow. Are you sure about the shoes?” asked Kat.
“The shoes will be great. Just don’t do anything with your hair. I’ll sort it out when you get here.”
“My hair?” asked Kat. “Shit! What the hell’s wrong with my hair?”
“Nothing I can’t fix. Now say, ‘good night, Ally’.”
Kat had never really wanted to go to her cousin’s wedding, her cousin who was four years younger than she was. She especially hadn’t wanted to go to the wedding since she’d split up with Bobby, whom everybody adored, including her mother. She’d managed to talk Fredo into going with her until he’d had a better offer from his new boyfriend a week ago, but the last straw... the dreaded straw that had broken her hump... had occurred that afternoon when she’d walked the quarter of a mile to her local dry cleaner’s to pick up her one good dress... No, that wasn’t true, she had lots of good dresses: her one appropriate dress.
Under almost any other circumstances, Kat would have bought a new dress. More than most women, she didn’t need an excuse to buy clothes, it was part of her job, after all, but wedding outfits, in particular, dresses that might be considered suitable for a family occasion, weren’t the sort of clothes she liked to spend her money on. She had absolutely no desire to impress anyone, and she dreaded the very thought of her mother and her aunts introducing her to every remotely eligible man between the ages of twenty-five and fifty. Wearing a dress she already owned was a small act of rebellion, and taking it to the dry cleaners was a last minute concession to decency.
The sirens had been the first sign of trouble, and then there had been the smell of burning chemicals. The fire hadn’t been too bad, and there was still a chance that she’d get her dress back in one piece... eventually. The fireman she spoke to, who was a slightly breathless, portly man, clearly at the end of his career, and nothing like the studs you see in chick flicks, smiled at her and said they suspected some dodgy wiring.
It was a dry cleaner’s, and everything was wet from the fire hoses or smelly from the smoke and chemicals. Her Amanda Wakeley dress would not be ready for her to wear to the wedding. Bucky stood in the doorway of her shop, holding a handkerchief up to her face, and when she saw Kat, probably her very best customer, she lifted her hand in a half-hearted wave, took the hanky from her face and mouthed the word, ‘sorry’.
Kat felt terrible.
There was no point being cross. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault. God, she hoped the shop was properly insured. It wasn’t that her dress mattered very much, but this whole fiasco could easily put Bucky out of business, and things were hard enough.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Kat mouthed back, and lifted her hand in a sympathetic salute.
It mattered enough for her to call her sister, though.
Twenty-four hours later, Kat found herself sitting at a bar in her borrowed Vivien Westwood dress, which she thought was altogether too red, and probably too tight, too, and too swagged in front and behind, with too much cleavage, which she hadn’t realised she owned. Her shoes pinched, mostly because she almost never wore heels, because she was far too tall already, and she had a headache. Ally had pulled her kinky hair very tight and very straight and secured it in a very unforgiving knot at the nape of her neck, and the tension was killing her. To be fair to her sister, it did look incredibly chic, but Kat didn’t feel terribly comfortable, and, worse than that, as far as she was concerned, she really didn’t look anything like Kat.
The one advantage her ensemble appeared to confer on her, in perfect harmony with her enforced sobriety, was a certain stern aloofness that seemed to be keeping everyone at bay. Her own family had been warm enough, but even her doting mother hadn’t managed to snare a man to introduce her to or saddle her with, much to her relief.
To Kat’s critical feminist’s ear the wedding speeches centered far too squarely on the merits of the groom, and left very little room for anything at all to be said about the bride, other than that she looked delightful, so she left her table at the first opportunity.
After a quick visit to the loo, and a long stare in the full-length mirror that left her wondering when and whether she’d ever look quite like that again, even if she wanted to, Kat found her way to the bar, ahead of the crowd, and perched her too tightly clad bottom on one of the too high stools.
The barman, a callow youth with strawberry blond hair and a very pink neck, put a quilted, paper coaster in front of her and asked what she’d like to drink.
“Just a cup of coffee, please,” said Kat.
“Oh,” said the youth. “Coffee... I...”
Kat looked over his shoulder at the vast Gaggia machine that took up at least a third of the counter behind him and waggled her hand, perhaps a little impatiently.
“Yes, coffee,” she said. “Anything with caffeine in it. An Americano with milk on the side would be perfect, but I’ll settle for a double shot of espresso.”
“I don’t...” said the youth. “I’m sorry.”
“Really?” asked Kat. “I can’t get a cup of coffee?”
“I’m sorry... um... Madam,” said the youth. “I’m not trained, and Bob’s not here–”
“Bob,” said Kat. “I suppose he would have to be called Bob.”
“How about a glass of wine?” asked the youth, the red of his neck reaching his cheeks and the bridge of his nose.
Kat glared at him slightly. Not that it was any of his business, but if she hadn’t been on antibiotics she would, most certainly, be drinking.
“It’s turned on, right? The coffee machine?”
Kat and the youth turned to the man who was sitting at the end of the bar, who had asked the question. Kat hadn’t seen him in the wedding party, but it had taken over the entire hotel, so he was either one of them or one of the staff.
“Yes, sir,” said the youth. “It takes a while to warm up, and...” His little speech about Bob coming to join him just as soon as the toasts were completed, tailed off as the man dropped neatly off his stool and began to undo the cuff buttons of his well-cut shirt. He wasn’t wearing a tie and his jacket, which was also very well cut and sported a delicious, hot pink, silk lining was slung over the back of his seat.
Clearly, Kat thought, whoever it was couldn’t possibly be a member of the hotel staff.
He stepped past Kat and neatly behind the bar, pointing to the youth’s apron.
“I don’t...” began the youth, before tailing off again. Kat wondered if he’d ever finish an entire sentence, but her mental question about just how pink he was capable of turning was answered; not only was his entire face now red, but his nose almost glowed. If he lasted ‘til Christmas he’d be christened ‘Rudolph’ for sure.
“Step aside young fellow,” said the man, smiling at Kat. “You can call me Bob for the next five minutes. What can I get you? It’s been a while since my barista days, so you might want to stick to an Espresso, or maybe an Americano.”
“An espresso will do nicely,” said Kat, “especially if you can make it a double shot, and get one for yourself... Bob.”
“That’s very generous of you, madam,” said Bob in his best barista voice.
The youth wasn’t entirely sure what to do, but decided that the first thing he’d ever been told in his three-week-old job as a trainee, part-time barman at the hotel ought to stand him in good stead if he was blamed for Bob’s infraction.
“All right by you?” Bob asked the youth over his shoulder.
“The customer is always right, Bob... Sir,” said the youth, if possible, blushing a little more.
Bob never did get his apron, but he made Kat her coffee, using one of the cups that was sitting on the top of one of the heaving, gleaming piles on the shining stainless steel cover of the coffee machine, and handed it to her, complete with a pot of sugar that she didn’t need and a chunk of biscotti that he extricated with a pair of tongs from a tall jar on the counter behind the bar.
“The full service,” said Kat, for want of anything better to say.
“We aim to please,” said Bob.
He didn’t make coffee for himself, but, when he had finished making Kat’s, he buttoned the cuffs of his beautifully cut shirt, which seemed not to have creased where he had turned back the sleeves, and returned to his stool several feet further down the bar.
He was not, she supposed, the best looking man in the hotel that day. His hairline was receding and his nose was a little longer and slightly more hooked than it might have been, but his eyes were bright and clear and a slightly mesmerising hazel-green, and his smile was more than engaging. His teeth were perfectly white and perfectly straight, and, when he smiled, he showed the smallest chip at the inner corner of his front tooth. It could easily have been fixed, and he clearly took full advantage of a good dentist and capable hygienist, so why had he kept that chipped tooth? Perhaps he thought it gave his face character, but didn’t the nose and hairline take care of that?
When he had handed her the coffee, Kat noticed that there was a triangle of hair on the back of each of his hands between the wrist and the little finger, but it was trimmed and neat like the hair at the throat of his shirt. She didn’t normally like too much body hair on a man, but it was obvious that he was self-aware enough to groom, but not so vain as to wax, and it made her wonder what sort of man did that.
What sort of man steps behind a bar and makes a strange woman a cup of coffee? she wondered. What sort of man wears such a well-cut suit and shirt, attends to his teeth and even his body hair, but knows how to work an industrial coffee machine? Who does that and doesn’t, apparently, bring a date to a wedding?
Kat looked down at the red of her borrowed dress. Her bosom looked back up at her. She thought her cleavage looked rather vulgar, and she wanted to cover it up. She’d never worn a pashmina in her life, although her mother had bought her at least two as gifts. She’d used one of them to drape over the back of an old chair to artfully hide some wear and tear, and another was tied around an ugly lampshade that she hadn’t found the time to replace, and which rather suited her haphazard, hippy chic style of decorating her little flat in Clapham. She wished she had a pashmina now to draw around her shoulders and cover that great expanse of flesh that seemed to be heaving up around her chin, or better still a cardigan, that’d calm the Vivien Westwood down, make it a little less formal, a little more boho.
She looked away, trying to avoid her image, only to come face-to-face with it again in the grey, mirrored glass behind the bar. That didn’t look like Kat either with the forced hair and too much make-up. She sighed and felt her shoulders dropping.
All the Single Ladies began to play over the loudspeakers, before the volume was turned down and the DJ’s voice took over to introduce the mother of the bride... the mother of the bride and her sisters, the bride’s aunts, which, of course, included Kat’s mother.
Kat rolled her eyes, caught sight of an empty chair, a metre or two behind her at the edge of the dance floor, and took a couple of short steps back towards it. She was dropping softly into it when the spotlight hit her.
“Kathryn Adler, don’t you dare sit down,” said her mother, making the microphone squeak by holding it too close to her face. “Aunt May is coming to get you... And the rest of you single girls. Line up on the left of the dance floor. And all you single men line up on the right. Over 21s only, if you don’t mind. Sit down, Maisie darling, I know you think 12 is old enough to have a boyfriend, but your father would disagree and, if you’re not careful, you’ll give your grandfather a stroke. You wouldn’t want that on your conscience, now would you?”
Kat turned and grimaced at Ally, who made shooing motions with her hands, reminding Kat of their mother. Was it really every woman’s fate to turn into a version of her mother? Was it really Kat’s fate to have her sister turn into her mother and have to endure the solicitous ministrations of two women clucking over her spinsterhood, rather than one. Couldn’t she be a bachelorette like all those nice American girls, or was that just semantics?
Kat sat anyway, in defiance of the spotlight and of her kin.
Kat’s mother thrust the microphone at her own sister, making it squeak again, and crossed her arms in something like appalled resignation.
Kat reached out for Maisie when the spotlight didn’t leave her quickly enough, but, at twelve, her youngest cousin wasn’t prepared to be manhandled onto anyone’s lap, and, just like Kat’s mother, also huffed, crossed her arms, and stomped off across the dance floor: so many disappointed Adler women, and all of them disappointed in Kat.
When she was two-thirds of the way across the floor, Maisie’s grandfather scooped the nascent woman into his arms, and the DJ, quick as a flash, did a spot of mixing on his decks and cut Single Ladies with Just a Girl. Maisie couldn’t stay petulant at twelve like she’d be able to at fourteen, and she loved her grandad, so she wiggled and pranced with him for sixteen bars or so, and everyone smiled along.
Kat, on the other hand...
The truth was that none of the other single women seemed to mind. None of the other single women seemed embarrassed to stand at the edge of the dance floor staring into the abyss. None of the single men on the other side of the floor seemed to mind much, either. Some of them seemed to positively relish the idea of hooking up, not least those who were clearly single for the second time around... those who were bound, Kat thought, to make a beeline for her, especially in the damned Vivien Westwood with its damned embonpoint.
They were all, of course, drunk... OK, maybe not drunk, but not one hundred percent sober, not a man-Jack of them.
Hotel weddings are like that, and they are, these days, all hotel weddings. No one gets married in church or temple any more, not when a one-venue wedding makes life so much less complicated. Hotel weddings begin early with everyone standing around, gathered in little family groups, not mixing, and most definitely drinking nervously for an hour before the wedding party arrives for the formalities. Then, as soon as the ceremony is over, there’s the greeting line, which invariably involves trays of Mimosas, at the very least, and possibly something as fortified and potentially dangerous as sherry. Then there’s the wedding breakfast/lunch/dinner with more booze. Then, of course, there’s the toasting stuff with the bubbles in it while the speeches are attended to.
If everyone was buying his own drinks that’d be one thing, but this was a proper wedding; no one had to put his hand in his pocket for his wallet, and every opportunity to do anything was another opportunity to pick up a glass.
Kat wasn’t drinking, and when Kat was drinking, the only organs her beverages engaged with were her kidneys. No... Even that wasn’t true. Bob’s coffee had been good; in fact, it had been really very good. If Kat hadn’t known better, if Kat hadn’t known a very good suit when he’d been wearing one, she’d have thought Bob made a living as a barista, but even a magician with an industrial Gaggia contraption didn’t make the kind of money that bought handmade, Italian, silk-lined suits.
The problem was that alcohol is a depressant, and the people around Kat were beginning to mellow; shirts in all manner of pastel shades were inching their ways out of waistbands; matching ties, chosen by shop assistants, were finding their ways into jacket pockets, and those jackets were finding their ways onto the backs of chairs; eyes were beginning to mist and mouths to slacken, ever-so-slightly; and Kat? Kat was beginning to tense, and her blood pressure was beginning to rise.
Kat wasn’t relaxed. Kat was buzzing on caffeine, because Kat’s double espresso had been made with some really awfully good quality, awfully fresh, full-bodied coffee beans, and Kat’s espresso had been an extremely generous double.
She scanned the backs of the bodies of the women standing at the edge of the dance-floor: all over twenty-one, half over twenty-five, but surprisingly few over thirty. The women who were over thirty were all second-timers and could all be described as ‘somewhat’ over thirty. Kat felt like the spare wheel. The girls were all filmy maxi-dresses and gladiator sandals and hippy curls, and she was all stilletos and bustle and cleavage; and the second-timers were all sharp tailoring and fascinators and kitten heels. She was, as her mother would put it, ‘neither fish nor fowl’.
“Don’t let’s disappoint your mother shall we?” asked Bob, appearing at her side as if from nowhere. She was sure he hadn’t crossed the floor. He must have transgressed. He must have been on the single ladies’ side all along.
“Shan’t we?” asked Kat, still sitting, and then instantly regretting that she couldn’t act at least a little less petulantly than twelve year old Maisie.
Bob smiled... almost.
“Too much good coffee?” he asked, still not quite smiling.
“Really?” asked Kat, actually annoyed. “You might just as well ask me if I’m suffering from PMS.”
“Well... Are you?” asked Bob.
“No,” snapped Kat. “Just the buzz off your damned coffee. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
“Just dance with me, woman,” he said, actually smiling, possibly because very few alternative options remained open to him.
“How can you smile, Really?”
“It’s a case of having to in the face of all these marvellous women,” he said, taking her by the hand, as she stood, and leading her past the almost double row of single ladies lined up on the edge of the dance floor, many of them a little too expectant. It was then that Kat realised that in her heels she was at least a couple of inches taller than Bob, and probably closer to three or even four. It didn’t surprise her; she was five-ten in bare feet. They stepped onto the dance floor, among the first of the couples with plenty of room to move.
“Consider it a favour,” he said, close to her ear as he placed his other hand firmly on the small of her back and turned her body into his until their torsos were just touching.
“A favour?” asked Kat, surprised at his old-fashioned approach to the niceties of the dance, especially given the height difference that she was now acutely aware of, given the position of her bosom; if she had thought previously that it was edging remarkably close to her own chin, it was, now, even closer to his.
“I know almost no one here,” said Bob, “and I really have no desire to meet anyone.”
“Thanks,” said Kat, almost feigning effrontery.
“You and I have already met,” said Bob, “and it was voluntary on my part.”
“Well... Then we shouldn’t be dancing at all,” said Kat, “didn’t you hear the rules? ‘No dancing with someone you’re related to, know, or have already met’, that’s what Aunt May said.”
“Don’t say it too loudly,” said Bob. “I was hoping no one would notice. Besides, we haven’t been formally introduced, so it doesn’t really count, now, does it?”
“So you’ve decided that none of the single women at this little shindig are remotely attractive to you, or could possibly be worth your notice, let alone a single dance, or God forbid, a date? And that’s not arrogant?” asked Kat, pressing her left hand firmly against his shoulder to indicate that he shouldn’t make any attempts to get any closer to her than he already was.
“You were the one sitting down, lady,” said Bob. “Tell me you longed to dance with every single... single man, here.”
“That’s different,” said Kat.
“Because of the coffee?” asked Bob. “Or the PMS?”
“I’m just going to smile,” said Kat, very nearly dismissively, “because my mother’s watching, and I don’t want to make a scene, but if you could stop talking now, that’d suit me very nicely, thank you.”
“And when this record is over and another begins?” asked Bob.
“Then our obligation will be over, and you will have endured,” said Kat.
“But what of the next young single man?” asked Bob. “Now that you’re dancing with me, everyone in the room, including quite a large number of unattached males knows that you don’t have a man... Not even a date for a wedding... And in that dress...”
He didn’t finish the sentence, but he did take his hand off her back and step slightly away from Kat, casting his eyes at an angle to her décolletage.
He was mocking her.
“It’s my sister’s Vivien Westwood,” said Kat, trying not to blush, and, for the first time, rather grateful for the heavy make-up that meant that even if she was blushing her pink cheeks wouldn’t show through the layer of matt foundation that Ally had insisted on applying and then powdering heavily for the perfect, flawless finish. “It’s a good dress.”
“It’s a good... something,” said Bob, pulling Kat back into the formal dance hold.
No one dances like this, thought Kat, looking over Bob’s shoulder at the haphazard, formless way that the other random couples were throwing themselves around to Amy Winehouse singing Our Day Will Come.
And what was with the DJ’s song choices?
The song began to fade away as the DJ took to the mic once more and cued in his next track.
“So who’s next?” asked Bob, making a show of stepping away from Kat and bowing his head while holding her right hand slightly too high, almost as if he was going to kiss it. She took it from his grip, snatched it almost, and then covered her action by using it to turn her watch face as if it was critical that she check the time.
“I really must leave,” she said.
“The clock hasn’t quite struck twelve, yet,” said Bob, smiling slightly.
Kat look around.
“Show me my Prince Charming,” she said, “and I might consider staying.”
Bob placed a hand on his chest and grimaced.
“Ouch!” he said.
Kat felt mean.
“I’ve really got to go,” she said, “but thanks for the coffee.”
“And thank you for the dance, Kathryn,” said Bob.
“Kat,” said Kat.
She walked off the dance floor. She felt an odd urge to look back, but didn’t. She wondered if he’d ask another woman to dance. She realised that she didn’t want him to, but she didn’t know why. It was ridiculous to feel jealous. She didn’t even like him. It was just a coffee, just a dance, just a little banter, and he’d called her Kathryn. Besides, she wasn’t going to date another Bob, not after Bobby. She’d promised herself she wasn’t going to date another anyone, and, anyway, he hadn’t asked her for a date.
He’d mocked her, for goodness sake. He’d mocked her and he’d mocked her breasts. That wasn’t good. That wasn’t good at all.
God! She couldn’t wait to get out of that damned dress.
Thank God for living seventy miles away and not owning a car, and thank God for the last train and for traveling alone. Thank God her mother would never have allowed her to travel alone in the Vivien Westwood, because, despite the fact that it was her dearest wish, her heart’s desire, her mission in life to see her darling daughter married off, Mrs Esther Adler, nevertheless, believed that every man on the planet was a potential predatory pervert.
Thank God for hotel rooms and for her sister.
Kat took her green heels off in the lift and padded along the corridor to room 411 in her bare feet. Twenty minutes later, the Vivien Westwood was hanging on the wardrobe door in its dustcover and Kat was back in her Moschino jeans, Converse, and Rag and Bone jacket, her face scrubbed in the shower, and her hair still damp, hanging in loose curls around a huge pair of sunglasses that hid the fact she couldn’t be bothered with make-up.
Then the idiot thing happened, and she hoped to God it would be the last idiot thing of the day of idiot things: idiot hair and idiot dresses and idiot make-up, and idiot coffee, and idiot family rules about idiot singles-wedding-dances, and idiot men called Bob.
Bloody, bloody idiot men called Bob.
Her hand was half-raised. She’d got her hand half the way up for a wave. It had hovered there, somewhere between her elbow and her shoulder, and she hated herself for it. Then, of course, she’d had to lower it, nonchalantly, half-pretending that she wasn’t raising it to wave at all, that she was adjusting the strap of her tote-bag. Why had she done it? Why, oh why had she thought it was a good idea to wave at him? It must have been a reflex. That was it: It was a reflex, or it was the good manners that had been drummed into her by her bloody mother.
Esther Adler had an awful lot to answer for.
Kat Adler in civilian dress had crossed paths with a still-beautifully suited Bob in the hotel lobby. He’d been a few yards away, crossing between the events room and the cloakrooms, and at an angle to Kat, but certainly close enough for them to acknowledge each other... It would have been rude not to; they’d been dancing together, virtually cheek-to-cheek, less than forty minutes before.
Bob had looked right past her, or through her, or something. Bob had cut her dead. Bob had ignored her.
Kat pulled her tote bag closer against her body so that the heel of one of her green stilletoes, shoved inside it, dug painfully into her side. She didn’t care. She just wanted to get out of there, and get home, and forget today and the wedding and her mother, and the coffee full of caffeine and the dancing, and above all, she wanted to forget that she had ever met Bob.
She just wanted to forget it all... Until, of course, it came time to blog, and the time to blog always came sooner than later. Then she wanted to remember it all in excruciating detail so that she could use it, so that she could put it out into the World in a great cathartic rush, and have the World enjoy her pain, and, perhaps, have the World, the women of the World, at least, sympathise with her... just a teeny, tiny bit.
The time to blog could almost never come soon enough.
The next time to blog came twenty-seven minutes after the encounter in the hotel lobby, twenty-three minutes after she got in the taxi outside the hotel and asked the cabbie to drop her off at Bedford station, and two minutes after she found a seat on the ten-sixteen to St Pancras. An hour should give her just enough time to write a decent blog, and to vent her spleen on the subject of Weddings and on mothers and sisters, and on the subject of men... on the subject of men in general, and on the subject of one man in particular.
By the time Kat was sitting on the ten-sixteen to St Pancras, she had a subject in mind for her blog and that subject was, of course, Bob the Barista.
Bob the Barista
You know when I begin a blog, “Is it just me or...”? Well, this is one of those.
Is it just me or do men think that just because they can use some sort of gadget that a woman, any woman, every woman is somehow going to be impressed by that?
Take this man... No... Please... do take him.
Take this man I met at my cousin’s wedding.
He was just a man, an ordinary man, nothing special in the looks department. To be honest, he couldn’t be bothered to get his chipped tooth fixed, and his head was growing through his hair, and I know that because I was looking down on the top of his head. You know the type... Just because he’d put on a decent suit, he clearly thought he could get away with that nose.
Then the macho thing started.
All I wanted was a cup of coffee.
How hard is it to get a cup of coffee at a hotel wedding? You might well ask. As it turns out, it’s not that easy. The huge, industrial Gaggia machine can be installed on the counter behind the bar, it can be covered in gleaming espresso and cappuccino cups, it can be cleaned, primed, turned on, with its lights lit and its tanks filled, and the coffee beans can be ground and ready to go, but unless the poor chump behind the bar can work the damned thing, the girl sitting on the bar stool can be well and truly out of luck... coffee-wise.
The girl sitting on the stool on this occasion was yours truly, and don’t even ask about the borrowed dress, because the least said on that subject the better. I will only say that tits and arse were the start and end of that thing, and it was categorically not my finest sartorial hour, although it might have been had I been attending a vicars and tarts party and not a family wedding. I do love Vivien Westwood, you know that I do, but her frocks and my body are not a match made in any kind of heaven in the Home Counties: heaven in Hades, undoubtedly, heaven in London with a following wind, probably; but really, really not heaven in Biggleswade.
The poor chump behind the bar was daft enough (although I don’t blame him entirely, because, you know, macho had come to Biggleswade)... The poor chump behind the bar was daft enough to let Bob the Barista behind there with him. The light was red on the Gaggia and it was the only signal Bob needed. Never mind red for danger. Never mind red for stop. That light was like a red rag to a bull, and nothing was going to stop Bob from showing off his barista skills.
Give a man a barbie... Is it just me or... (yep I’m going to do it twice in one post). Is it just me or is there a reason why an outdoor grill has the same name as a sex-doll for little girls?
Anyway... Give a man a barbie or a fancy coffee machine, give him a juicer, a bread-maker or even a George Foreman Grill, and it doesn’t matter who he is or how reasonable he seems, something happens to him, a switch is thrown in his head. Give a man a gadget, particularly a kitchen-related gadget, preferably made of gleaming stainless steel, and preferably noisy and steaming, and he turns on the macho and becomes utterly insufferable, even if he is a remarkably good barista who makes a fabulous cup of coffee.
If he’d been able to stop at the coffee it might not have been so bad, but get this!
(I’m going to start a new paragraph, because even I can’t quite believe what happened next.)
I wouldn’t have danced with him in a million years. I wouldn’t have danced with him from choice, but I really didn’t have much choice; in fact, I really had no choice at all. You know what weddings are like. You know what families are like. You know what my mother is like.
(If you haven’t read my blog before, you can scroll down and find posts about my mother. Don’t get me wrong, I love my mother. I love my jewish mother and I love my sister, who also happens to be a jewish mother, (and who, incidentally, lent me that dress (thinking about it, I can’t help wondering what her agenda might have been, it’s not as if she didn’t have half a dozen more suitable dresses to choose from that didn’t thrust my tits up under my chin)), and I wouldn’t swap either my jewish-mother sister or my jewish-mother mother for the World, but everything you’ve heard about jewish mothers is true... and then some.
So, Bob the Barista made me coffee, and then pulled a macho stunt in order to dance with me. He smiled at me with his smug chipped-tooth smile, laughed his smug chipped-tooth laugh at the heaving cleavage my sister’s dress had forced my tits into, and then, get this... the macho shit-head blanked me.
Bob the Barista walked past me in the hotel lobby; honest to God, as I live and breathe, no word of a lie, he looked right through me as if I didn’t exist at all.
The good news is that my cousin is only going to marry the guy she married once, and since I haven’t met Bob the Barista before, or Macho Shit-head as I like to call him, I’m guessing he must be a friend or relation of the groom. With any luck Macho and I won’t find ourselves in the same room again any time soon.
Maybe if my fabulous cousin and her equally (I hear) fabulous husband make it to their silver wedding anniversary there’s a chance we might meet again at the inevitable family party, and there’s bound to be a barmitzvah or batmitzvah, or two, in our futures, but, with any luck, we’ll be unrecognisable to each other by then.
I don’t care how good his coffee was, if you meet a guy called Bob and he offers to make you an espresso, or an americano, or even your favourite machiato, look out for the nose and the chipped tooth and make sure you can’t see his head through his hair, and, if you find those things, I recommend you steer clear. I don’t call that guy Macho Shit-head for nothing.
“Crap! Crap! Crap! I can’t believe he left a comment!”
“It’s hilarious,” said Ally.
“It’s weird,” said Kat.
“What’s weird about it?” asked Ally.
“It’s weird that he found my blog,” said Kat. “It’s weird that he looked me up. It’s weird that he follows me on Twitter. It’s even weirder that he set up an account called @BaristaBob! Who does that?”
“Maybe he fancies you,” said Ally.
“He fancies me so much that he blanked me in the hotel lobby,” said Kat.
“And I quote,” said Ally, “It’s your own fault for being a chameleon.”
“And no exclamation mark!” exclaimed Kat.
“You don’t like that he’s understated?” asked Ally.
“I don’t like that he knows I called him Macho Shit-head.”
“So?” said Ally. “Apologise.”
“I can’t,” said Kat. “How would that look?”
“It would look like you were apologising,” said Ally.
“You should apologise,” said Kat.
“Me?” asked Ally. “What the hell should I apologise for?”
“The dress was your fault for a start,” said Ally, “and the hair. If you hadn’t got me all done up like a dog’s dinner, I wouldn’t have been a chameleon and he would’ve recognised me in the lobby, and he would’ve waved back, and I never would’ve written that damned blog, and he wouldn’t have read it, and I wouldn’t have been left feeling like an idiot.”
“Think twice, write once.”
“What? Who said that?”
“Miss Agee, third form sewing...”
“Measure twice, cut once,” they said in unison.
“By the same token,” said Ally, “you could blame the woman with the daft name for setting her shop on fire.”
“Bucky, her name’s Bucky,” said Kat, “and she didn’t set her shop on fire. I think it is your fault, actually. I think you put me in that dress on purpose. You must have a dozen good dresses; Sam’s always taking you off to posh, work-related things, and yet you picked the Vivien Westwood, and you didn’t even give me a choice... In fact... Where were you on the night of Bucky’s unfortunate fire?”
“I was at a work-related thing with Sam, if you must know. Kat, I thought you’d look good in the dress... I thought you did look good in the dress, and, clearly, one or two other people thought you looked good in the dress, too.”
“So that was it... You were doing a mother... You were setting me up... You wanted me to get noticed... You wanted me to get picked up!” said Kat.
“Weddings are great places to meet people. Families get together, everyone knows someone who knows someone; there are no real strangers, no real surprises. Who knows, Bob might be one of the good guys.”
“Are you listening to yourself, Ally?”
“So... What are you going to do?” asked Ally
“I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to do a damned thing,” said Kat. “Say goodnight, Kat.”
As Kat put down the phone she opened her laptop and looked again at the comment on her blog, which read, as Ally had said:
It’s your own fault for being a chameleon.
Then she read the rest:
You really do appear very different in your profile picture, although I thought you looked good in that dress.
And it was signed:
Then she looked at the comments on the comment.
What does he mean by ‘chameleon’ Kat? We want facts and we want them now!
I spy half a story, here. You can’t just call the guy Macho Shit-head and not explain yourself.
If he was that bad, surely he wouldn’t put a comment on your blog.
And then it went from bad to worse, and, suddenly, what had been intended to be an amusing, if sarcastic, blog about a tiresome and slightly hurtful incident had become something else entirely, and Kat’s commenters were beginning to side with Barista-Bob.
You admitted yourself that you were all T&A.
Was followed by:
All the poor guy did was help you out, and you, yourself said that he was ‘a remarkably good barista who makes a fabulous cup of coffee’. Maybe you should cut him some slack and stop being a bitch.
Kat thought about closing her laptop. Then she switched to her Twitter feed. There he was: @BaristaBob. He was following one person, and he had no followers, not one: zero. He was following only her; he was following @AddledKat. His profile was a picture of the Gaggia logo and the description read, “a remarkably good barista, who makes a fabulous cup of coffee”.
Kat couldn’t help smiling.
Kat couldn’t help pressing the follow button on @BaristaBob’s profile page.
Kat arrived at the V and A early.
She loved the museum; it was one of her favourites, particularly the design and costume exhibits, the textiles and fashion. She happily spent hours at a time in the various rooms.
Bob had invited her to meet him there. He needed to go, he’d said, ‘to look around’, whatever that meant.
It was almost three weeks since the wedding and the blog, and Kat had promised herself that she wouldn’t meet him, that it was all too silly, that nothing good could possibly come of them meeting the way that they had, that she didn’t fancy him anyway, that she’d had enough of men, that, in any case, she was beginning to wonder whether she’d ever had a truly satisfying relationship... ever.
She tripped up the steps and in through the very familiar double doors on Cromwell Road, and straight to her favourite room, room 40, where some of the best of the permanent fashion exhibition was on display. It never failed to impress her.
Getting dressed had been the oddest thing. What to wear? She liked to dress for the V and A; she always thought she ought to live up to the idea of the place, somehow, as well as the beautiful objects inside. She always tried to wear a little vintage when she visited, maybe something of her mother’s or grandmother’s.
Then there was the whole chameleon issue.
Which Kat would Bob expect her, or want her, to be? There was no question of her wearing the Vivien Westwood, obviously, but she might take her favourite Westwood handbag, and she thought the Agent Provocateur tie-side panties would be a good joke, except, of course, he’d never see them. She blushed when she thought of it.
Clothes were supposed to be easy. She understood clothes. Clothes were her job, and her life and her pleasure, but, until now, clothes had only been a stumbling block with Bob.
The clothes that had been her stumbling block hadn’t even belonged to her, though, and the hair hadn’t been her choice, either, or, for that matter, the make-up. Besides, Bob had seen her profile pic since then. It’d be fine. While she decided what to wear, riffling through her wardrobe, and picking through her accessories, Kat stopped several times to tell herself that everything would be OK.
She’d be on and off tubes, and she’d be walking a lot, and Bob couldn’t be taller than she was, so flats; she’d definitely wear flats. Converse were too casual for the V and A, so maybe the vintage Crockett and Jones brogues she’d picked up on the net; the tan colour was gorgeous with blue jeans, so that took care of the trousers, too. The Rag and Bone jacket would be enough protection against a summer shower, and the Vivien Westwood bag was her nod to the wedding and their first meeting; that just left the shirt.
Whatever she wore, she was determined there wasn’t going to be any cleavage on show, none whatsoever. Then it dawned on her: if she could pull off the Bianca Jagger deep ‘V’, white shirt look and keep Bob guessing about her bosom that could be a bit of a coup, and she could reference the very chic sixties and seventies retro vibe that was playing out right now.
That meant one of two things, either Kat had to find the pack of nipple petals she’d bought months before, and risk them not being sticky or she had to track some down locally, so that she could wear the Paul Smith shirt with the gorgeous buttons. Failing that, she could dig out the Calvin Klein shirt in the heavy poplin that she’d bought four or five seasons ago and hadn’t worn for at least a year, and run it round to Bucky to see if she could freshen it up and steam press it in time.
Bucky was working out of the half of the shop that had managed to escape the worst of the fire, doing laundry and ironing and repairs, and she could use all the business she could get.
Kat decided she needed the distraction, and the chance to change her mind, and she dropped both shirts in a bag and walked around to Bucky’s.
“I’ll have both shirts freshened up and pressed within the hour... Promise,” said Bucky. She’d taken the shirts out of the bag and held them up against the light, one at a time, to make sure there weren’t any marks on them. “This one’s more flattering on you,” she said, indicating the slimmer fitting Paul Smith shirt.
“I was going for a sixties or seventies, braless thing, though,” said Kat. “You know, a bit Bianca Jagger, and I’m not sure I can lay my hands on nipple petals at the last minute. The other one’s a bit more forgiving.”
“Ah,” said Bucky, tapping the side of her nose in a way that would have signalled a conspiracy if Sid James had done it in a Carry-On film in 1972, “but you’re forgetting Melinda.”
“Starchy Melinda?” asked Kat.
“She runs a knicker shop,” said Bucky. “There’s only so starchy she can be.”
“She’s ninety, if she’s a day,” said Kat, “and she runs, and I quote, ‘an emporium for ladies’ foundation garments’.”
“She also keeps a supply of crotchless knickers, peephole bras, fishnet stockings, and, best of all, nipple petals under the counter next to the mechanical till with the shillings on,” said Bucky, “just in case anyone ever dares to ask for them.”
“And does anyone ever dare?” asked Kat.
“Most importantly, do you dare?” asked Bucky.
“Listen, Bucky,” said Kat, “I dare to meet @BaristaBob at the V and A ‘to look around’, so I guess I dare do anything today.”
“Right answer,” said Bucky.
“Wish me luck,” said Kat, “I’m going in.”
“If you’re not back by the time I’ve pressed your shirts, I’m shutting up shop and coming in after you,” said Bucky, a broad smile spreading across her face.
“When was the last time you smiled like that?” asked Kat.
“I can tell you exactly when that was,” said Bucky. “That was two days before this lot went up in smoke.”
“I can’t believe you’re back on your feet already,” said Kat.
“I’ll be back on my feet when the insurance company gives me a green light to spend some money on machinery and a decent refurb,” said Bucky. “Cleaning and painting half a shop and drawing a veil over the rest ain’t gonna cut it, not for long.”
Kat reached across the counter and squeezed Bucky’s hand.
“It’ll all come out in the Wash,” she said.
Then her mouth fell open and she blushed slightly.
“Not the wash... as in the laundry... You know... the Wash, as in the body of water in Norfolk.”
“Go get your nipple petals, Kat,” said Bucky, “and let me get on with your shirts.”
“Yes, right... Miss Melinda’s Emporium,” said Kat, “that should prove to be adequate punishment for my foot in mouth problem. See you later.”
“Seeya,” said Bucky.
Bucky had been right about the Paul Smith shirt. The collar was longer and softer than the one on the Calvin Klein shirt, and it made the placket drape beautifully rather than fall open too wide, so that a narrow, and, Kat thought, tantalising strip of skin showed down her torso and between her breasts, which sat low on her chest and soft and wide, totally feminine, in that slightly hippy, youthful, flower power way, but entirely without cleavage, and without ostentatious nipples either. Perfect.
Men’s shoes, skinny jeans, white shirt, plaid jacket, and almost no make-up. The look was completed with glossy, but unstructured curls and cat’s eye sunglasses, and she was sexy androgynous, but elegant, and the Westwood handbag in red patent leather with its distinctive gold crown was very girly. She felt right for the V and A, right for London in the summer, and right for a casual daytime meeting with a man she hardly knew, even if they hadn’t got off to a terribly auspicious start, even if she wasn’t interested in dating... even if she wasn’t interested in men.
She loved the V and A. She looked good. She’d already written a blog today, and she wasn’t going to fall into the trap of writing about Bob again, whatever happened.
Everything was going to be OK. Everything really was going to be OK... So why was she nervous?
They met in the cafe.
Kat saw Bob first.
That didn’t surprise her.
He looked exactly the same as he had sitting on the stool at the bar at the wedding in Biggleswade. He was wearing an elegantly cut, well-fitting shirt without a tie. It crossed her mind that he must have been the only man at the wedding that hadn’t been wearing a tie during the speeches; mostly the ties had only come off after the formalities were over. Strange, but, she thought, kinda cool that he’d clearly worn the beautiful suit and immaculate shirt, and foregone the tie altogether; the ensemble didn’t, after all, need one. She smiled to herself as she remembered. She noticed, again, the triangles of dark hair at his throat and on the backs of his hands. He looked cool, but serious.
Some people look lost when they’re alone, especially if they’re waiting for someone or something. It’s almost always obvious. He looked relaxed, comfortable, complete somehow.
Then he saw her and smiled, and he stood at the table as she walked towards him.
She thought about how she would greet him as she approached. She didn’t want any awkwardness. She didn’t want any embarrassment. They had danced. They had touched. There had been a form of intimacy in his mockery of her and in her misunderstanding of him, so when she reached him, she deliberately rested her hand on his forearm, and leaned in and rested her cheek against his for a moment.
Even in London, it was common to kiss, but not really to kiss. Women didn’t kiss each other because of leaving marks on made-up faces, and women didn’t kiss men if they were wearing anything other than the most matt and well-blotted of lipsticks. Kat had slicked a sticky, summery gloss over her lips in the bathroom only minutes before joining Bob in the cafe, and it would have been an unkindness to leave a gooey mess on his face. He’d understand that.
He did understand that.
He turned his forearm, to return the greeting, taking a gentle hold of her arm to match her grasp, just for a moment before letting go, and he brushed her cheek with his lips, which were pleasantly dry and matched the temperature of her skin.
She noted that he smelled good, of something light and citrus, rather than musky, of something summery and expensive, and ever-so-slightly old-fashioned, something that had probably been around for decades, and might easily still be around for decades to come... Something classy. She couldn’t quite place it, but she knew, instinctively, that it must be good.
“Food or drink, or both?” asked Bob.
“A quick coffee while you tell me what you need, and then we can decide... If that suits?” asked Kat, trying to be businesslike.
“Perfectly,” said Bob.
He pulled out a chair for her, and, as she sat, he smiled and asked, “Decaff?”
“Are you mocking me?” asked Kat, smiling back.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said.
“Regular will do nicely, thank you,” said Kat. “I’ll need some milk, though. The coffee here isn’t bad, but it’s not a patch on your stuff.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” said Bob, turning to join the queue for beverages.
Kat put her bag on the spare chair next to her. She thought about opening it to take out her mirror so that she could inspect her face, but she’d only checked it five minutes before in the bathroom. She wondered why she felt agitated. There was nothing whatsoever to feel nervous about.
She looked to her left, eyed the cut of Bob’s trousers and looked at what he was wearing on his feet. He clearly liked his clothes on the formal side: beautifully cut classics that fit well and flattered his robust shape. He wasn’t heavy, but he was certainly built more like a man than a boy with a breadth across his shoulders and a depth through his chest. She found herself speculating about the weight in his calves; she bet his legs were built more for rugby than football.
Bob returned with a tray and put it down on the table.
“You studied fashion?”
“You were on the groom’s side?” they said together.
“No,” said Kat.
“Yes,” said Bob, also together.
“Oh,” said Bob, “then I’m afraid I’ve brought you here under false pretences.”
“It’s fine, any pretence is OK by me. I love this place,” said Kat.
“And you don’t have anything better to do on a Thursday afternoon?” asked Bob. “You don’t have clothes to try on or shopping to do? You don’t have a column to write, or a blog?”
“You’re mocking me again,” said Kat. “Clearly I haven’t apologised enough for that. Or is there really no hope of me ever living that blog down?”
“None whatsoever for as long as you know me,” said Bob. “And yes, I was on the groom’s side, family, in fact, although the least said about my errant ways the better.”
“Then I’m amazed we haven’t met, or at the very least been introduced before,” said Kat.
“Hence my use of the word ‘errant’. I’m the worst sort of black sheep... Don’t ask.”
“I won’t ask, if you promise to stop mocking me,” said Kat.
“That’s a deal,” said Bob, offering his hand to shake.
Kat put down her cup and took his hand. It was as dry as his lips had been, and cooler than she expected. The skin of his palm was soft, but the flesh was firm and solid, and she could feel the hair against her fingertips as her long fingers reached around the back of his hand towards his wrist.
“I didn’t study fashion, but like I said, I love the V and A, and I’m happy to help in any way I can. You said you wanted to look around.”
“I did,” said Bob. “Twentieth century design, domestic stuff. I want to see how we lived and worked and why.”
“Well, my guess is that it’s a lot like fashion. My gran doesn’t live much like me, just as she doesn’t dress much like me. I love to see room sets, as if someone, in say 1960, bought a brand new house, decorated it from scratch and filled it with new furniture, like a show-home. People do that a bit now, I suppose, but not as much as you’d think, and they really didn’t do it fifty years ago, unless they had pots of money.”
“You’ve really thought about this,” said Bob as they left the cafe.
“I just think people keep favourite things and heirlooms and stuff they like, or stuff that’s too good to throw away, and replace the things that wear out, or add new pieces when they need to. I think they’re much more likely to do that than throw out a whole set of old furniture in favour of a whole set of new furniture.”
“What about people setting up home for the first time?”
“Who has the money to do that from scratch? What about hand-me-downs? What about e-bay? What about flea markets and junk shops and Aunty Hannah? What about all those tv makeover shows?”
“They didn’t have those in the sixties,” said Bob, “but I take your point.”
“My point,” said Kat, “is that they didn’t need them. My point is that our grandmothers... our mothers even, knew how to alter curtains and turn old shirts into patchwork quilts and sew buttons on and make-do, because they had to. They weren’t too proud for secondhand furniture, especially if it was well-made and solid and beautiful, and they were sufficiently in touch with extended family to know who was getting rid of what.”
“You’re going to start saying things like, ‘when I was a girl’, and ‘in the good old days’ if you’re not careful,” said Bob.
“I am, aren’t I?” said Kat, smiling. “Sorry.”
“Honestly, though, how much kit have you bought in Ikea since your student days?” asked Bob. “Honestly, how much flat-pack do you own?”
“Honestly?” asked Kat. “I love the market place in Ikea. I love the kitchen stuff: plates and glasses, trays, mugs, tea-towels, but you couldn’t give me furniture made of ply or MDF. In fact, you couldn’t pay me to take it away.”
“Really?” asked Bob.
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” said Kat.
“Well you’re no fun,” said Bob.
“Nope,” said Kat, “but I thought we’d established that three weeks ago.”
“So, you didn’t study fashion, but you work in it, and you seem to have a pretty good idea about design,” said Bob.
“Does anyone ever end up working in the field they studied?” asked Kat.
“Accountants?” said Bob, “architects?”
“Well, if you’re just going to give me a list,” said Kat. “What did you study?”
They were walking slowly through the two rooms on the third floor devoted to twentieth century design, where they seemed to be alone.
“My mother wanted me to read the law, preferably at Oxbridge,” said Bob.
“Heavens,” said Kat.
“Hell,” said Bob.
“But I’d begun to be errant long before then, so it was never really expected. I was determined not to go to any university that expected me to ‘read’ anything, it was bad enough that I was expected to study, so I worked hard to find somewhere that would let me ‘study’ something nice and amorphous like ‘humanities’.”
Kat thought he said some of the words as if they had quote marks around them; if he’d been a different sort of person, less subtle, he might have made those stupid little air-quotes with his fingers. She’d have cringed if he had. She didn’t mind them in the tone of his voice, though, his quiet, even-toned, slightly slow, sardonic voice.
“So where did you end up?” asked Kat.
“I had four magnificent years at Stirling where I somehow managed to get a staggeringly decent degree in Media Studies, which my mother hates me for to this very day.”
“Hates you for because you turned out to be good at it? Or because it was only Media Studies and not something she could at least understand?” asked Kat.
“If only it’d been English or, better still, something you could actually cram for and learn concrete facts about, like History, she might have forgiven me,” said Bob. “She might have heaved me back into the bosom of the family if I’d got my bloody 2-1 in History, and think how badly that might have turned out... For one thing, that might have been my wedding we were at last month.”
Kat looked pointedly at Bob. He looked back at her. They stopped walking halfway down Room 76. Bob squinted at Kat and tilted his head.
“Oh,” he said.
“You’ve met my cousin, the bride?” said Kat.
“I really didn’t–” Bob began.
“It’s fine,” said Kat. “I get it: Not married, don’t plan to be. I know the feeling. I can even sympathise. On the other hand, I don’t know that the groom’s a better catch than my cousin, now, do I? And neither do you, if you’re honest.”
“No,” said Bob. “You’re right. Neither do I.”
They walked silently across the room for a minute, and then stopped in front of one of the exhibits.
“Is this the sort of thing you were looking for?” asked Kat.
“Not really,” said Bob. “I think I’m rather barking up the wrong tree.”
“Oh,” said Kat. “I’m sorry about that.”
“Not your fault,” said Bob. “I shouldn’t have asked you. Perhaps we should call it a day.”
“If you like,” said Kat.
“I’m parked at Kingston House, can I drop you off somewhere?”
“No... Thanks,” said Kat. “I’ve got some stuff to do.”
“It was nice to see you,” said Bob. “Shall I walk you out?”
Kat fussed with her handbag, so that it was in front of her and her hands were busy. She raised one of them in a half-wave so as to avoid contact.
“Nice to see you too,” she said, her smile nowhere near reaching her eyes. “Thanks, but you’ll want Exhibition Road and I was going out on Cromwell Road so...”
“Crap! It was utterly crap! Whoops, I probably shouldn’t be talking so loudly,” said Kat.
“Why, where are?”
“I’m still in the V and A,” said Kat. “I haven’t eaten, so I came back to the cafe for cake.”
“It was that bad?” asked Ally.
“It was worse,” said Kat. “At least I was right. I bloody knew it. I knew it was a bad idea. I shouldn’t have listened to you. I shouldn’t have taken any notice of the bloody commenters on my stupid blog. I shouldn’t have let him wheedle his way back in with his @BaristaBob crap!”
“But you liked the whole @BaristaBob schtick. You didn’t think it was crap when he did it, and you didn’t have to follow him back on Twitter,” said Ally, “and you love your commenters.”
“Loved,” said Kat. “That’s all in the past. I’m sticking to my guns on this one. My instincts are never wrong where men are concerned.”
“What about Bobby?” asked Ally.
“You liked Bobby!” said Kat.
“That’s hardly the point,” said Ally.
“And I’m absolutely, categorically, never... ever... going out with anyone called Robert, Robin or any version of Bob or Bobby ever again... Never!”
“Was this a date, then?” asked Ally.
“Well clearly not,” said Kat, “but how the hell was I supposed to know that?”
“What is it with you and men?” asked Ally.
“Are you there, Kat?”
“Kat, answer me before I hang up and call the police... Kat?”
“He just walked in,” whispered Kat. “I’m going to hang up.”
“What did you say?” asked Ally. “I can’t hear you, Kat. Are you OK, Kat?”
“Ally, I’ll have to call you back,” said Kat, trying to sound breezy as Bob walked towards her, well within earshot. “Everything’s fine. Someone just want’s to talk to me. That’s all.”
Kat hung up the phone, and dropped it into her Vivien Westwood handbag on the chair next to her. Then she picked up the bag and put it on the floor between her feet while she gestured for Bob to take the seat.
“You’re still here,” said Bob.
“Yes,” said Kat. She wasn’t going to give him any information voluntarily. She wasn’t going to get caught out. If he wanted to know something, he’d have to ask her.
“I thought you had stuff to do,” said Bob.
“I did,” said Kat.
“Can I ask what?” asked Bob.
“I wanted to look at some of the exhibits,” said Kat, hoping that she sounded non-committal.
“Oh,” said Bob. “I see,”
“And eat cake,” said Kat, gesturing at the crumbs on the empty plate in front of her, because she felt mean and a little guilty.
“I see that, too,” said Bob, smiling slightly.
“Can I ask what exhibits?” asked Bob. “Fashion?”
“Art,” said Kat.
“Oh,” said Bob. “Who are your favourites? I take an interest, but only in modern British paintings, really.”
“Twentieth century?” asked Kat. “Freud, Hodgkin, Auerbach... Why do you ask?”
“You’re a sensualist,” said Bob.
“Why do you ask?” asked Kat again, her tone hardening slightly. Was he still taking every opportunity to mock her, even after dropping her so suddenly, so unceremoniously?
“I realised after I left you upstairs that you were angry with me,” said Bob. “Really, I just didn’t want to waste your time. You must have better things to do.”
“Clearly you do,” said Kat.
“This was a research day for me,” said Bob.
“And the research wasn’t working out?” asked Kat.
“That wasn’t the point,” said Bob.
“Wasn’t it?” asked Kat.
“Let me buy you a late lunch,” said Bob.
“I’ve had an early afternoon tea,” said Kat, picking a large cake crumb off her plate and eating it.
“Old white men,” said Bob.
“What?” asked Kat.
“You like art made by old, white men. Lucian Freud is dead, of course. You’re a sensualist, but the art you prefer was all made by old, white men. That seems... I don’t know, it seems strange, somehow.”
“You said twentieth century and you said British and you said painting, and they weren’t always old,” said Kat, “and I’m not sure what you mean when you say, ‘sensualist’, unless you just enjoy mocking me. I’m not sure the term has been defined in artistic circles. It hadn’t been when I was studying.”
“You did your degree in fine art?” said Bob, warming to his subject. “I didn’t know that.”
“You didn’t ask,” said Kat.
“No,” said Bob.
“If you mean by ‘sensualist’ that I like paint then you’d be right. I like paint and I like flesh, painted. If you’d rather I liked women artists, if that seems more appropriate then let’s talk about Paula Rego, although I prefer her pastels, or we could talk about Jenny Savile, probably one of our greatest depicters of flesh, whether in oils or charcoals, and young, too. We could talk about Sam Taylor Wood’s work or Tacita Dean’s, or Sarah Lucas’s, if you know anything about film or photography. We could talk about Tracy Emin, or is she too avant-garde for your tastes? Do stop me if I’m boring you.”
“Wow! I really did piss you off, didn’t I?”
Kat’s phone rang. She looked at Bob.
“Do you mind if I get a cup of coffee and join you? I’d really like to talk to you, as long as you don’t mind?” said Bob. He got up and stood next to his chair for a moment. “Answer your phone,” he said, and turned to join the queue.
“I’ll text you,” said Kat into her phone.
“Is everything OK?” asked Ally.
“Everything’s fine,” said Kat. “I just don’t want to be overheard.” She looked over at Bob in the queue. He was looking the other way, his back firmly to her, giving her some privacy, even though Kat knew that he must be able to hear her every word.
“Text me then,” said Ally.
“Bye,” said Kat, aware that her voice was too bright and a touch brittle. She disconnected the call and began to text, fast, turning her phone on its side and texting with both thumbs, typing quickly.
<Crap! Crap! Fuck! Bob just turned up in the cafe! I’ve been caught red-handed! How random is that? He’s getting coffee, and seems to want to talk about art! How dare he?>
She placed her phone on the table and waited for it to beep. She checked; there were three customers ahead of Bob in the queue so she had a few minutes to text Ally, and her sister could type almost as fast as she could. Her phone beeped.
<Well, good, perhaps it’s all just a misunderstanding. Be nice x>
Kat put her phone down in disgust, and then picked it up again.
<Fuck off!> she typed and hit send. She put her phone down, and then picked it up again.
<If anyone should be nice, it’s him.> she typed and hit send again. She put her phone down, and then picked it up again quickly.
<xxx> she typed and hit send.
As she was typing the kisses to her sister, her phone buzzed with a new message coming in.
<Don’t get stroppy with me. I didn’t do anything. Don’t be nice then. Do talk about art, though, you’re good at that... And, anyway, you like it. Perhaps if you liked your men as dangerous as you like your art... What, no kisses? x>
Bob arrived back at the table with a tray, and Kat raised a finger to him to hold him off for a second or two as she typed another quick text.
<Later x> she typed, hit send, and dropped her phone back in her bag.
“Perhaps I should apologise,” said Bob.
“Perhaps you should,” said Kat.
“Coffee with milk, no sugar,” said Bob, lifting a cup off the tray and placing it in front of her. “A peace offering.”
“Thank you,” said Kat, lifting the cup to her mouth.
“Will you meet me again?” asked Bob. “There’s a thing next month.”
“Really? asked Kat, putting her cup down. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You’re probably very nice, but we’ve met twice and we’ve stepped all over each other both times.”
“You’re right, we have a bit,” said Bob. “You’d like this, though. I’ve been invited to a private view. It’s supposed to be rather good... Maybe not Jenny Savile good, but up-and-coming sort of good, a recent graduate of St Martins, a painter, life study abstractions. Lots of good paint, or so I hear.”
“I really don’t know,” said Kat.
“Well you don’t have to decide now,” said Bob. “It’s not for almost three weeks, so think about it. Think of it as my way of saying sorry for being a shambles.”
Kat sipped at her coffee so as to avoid rejecting him any more than she had already. She didn’t like rejecting him, not in person anyway. Her manners didn’t comfortably allow for it. Maybe she’d reject him in her blog, later. She’d most definitely reject him to her sister, and, possibly to Bucky; after all, it had cost her the price of pressing two shirts instead of one, and then there was the memory of braving Melinda’s Emporium for the nipple petals. Right about now she wasn’t even sure whether the investment in the nipple petals had been worth it. She couldn’t recall him so much as glancing at her breasts.
Kat felt herself blushing. She couldn’t stop herself looking down to make sure that she wasn’t inadvertently showing too much of anything in the deep ‘V’ of her unbuttoned shirt, which maybe hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
She looked at Bob, who was looking right back at her, and she felt herself caught up in his gaze. She didn’t know where to look as she felt her face warming. She wondered how pink she was getting, and felt her hand tremble as she put her cup back in its saucer. It clattered slightly.
“Are you OK?” asked Bob.
“Fine,” said Kat, attempting a nonchalant smile. “It’s hot in here.”
“You probably didn’t need that jacket, today,” said Bob. “It’s turned warm.”
You have no idea just how much I need this jacket, thought Kat, but she said nothing. She waited for her flush to subside before she picked up her cup again.
“I like Howard Hodgkin, too,” said Bob.
“I don’t get it,” said Kat.
“You don’t get what?” asked Bob. “I thought you said you liked Hodgkin. I was agreeing with you. It was a conversational gambit... Not a terribly exciting one, but, given our track record, I thought it was safe enough.”
“No,” said Kat, “not that. I don’t get why you asked me here.”
“I told you,” said Bob. “I wanted to do some research, and you seemed like a good person to bring along. I thought you’d be interesting... and interested. Was I wrong?”
“No,” said Kat. “No, I suppose, not wrong, exactly.” She paused for a moment. “But was it really work?”
“Is your work really work?” asked Bob.
“Hardly,” said Kat. “That’s why I do it.”
“Well then,” said Bob, as if that was an answer. “I thought coming here today would be fun.”
“But it wasn’t?” asked Kat.
“It wasn’t really what I was looking for, and then that crack about your cousin and the wedding, which wasn’t really intended as a crack, and you went a bit cold on me. I thought you’d had enough,” said Bob. “I was letting you off the hook.”
“I still don’t get it,” said Kat, putting her almost empty cup down.
“What’s to get?” asked Bob, shrugging.
She looked at his face. He wasn’t giving anything away. His expression was... well it wasn’t anything, really. She looked harder at his eyes, but she couldn’t work out what he was thinking. They really were an extraordinary colour. He blinked and Kat realised how long his eyelashes were. Then she blinked and looked away.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she said.
“Will you think about the private view? he asked.
“Those things are always crowded,” she said. “You never really get to look at the art”.
“Would it help if I mentioned it was at the White Cube?” asked Bob.
Kat’s eyes widened involuntarily, and she made herself blink again, but she couldn’t help smiling.
“We definitely won’t be able to see very much then,” she said.
“You never know who you might meet, though,” said Bob.
“You mean apart from you?” asked Kat. “Come to think about it, how the hell did you get an invitation to a private view at the White Cube, let alone a plus-one?”
“It’s never what you know,” said Bob. “It’s always who you know... So you’ll come?”
“Message me the details on Twitter and I’ll definitely think about it,” said Kat, picking her bag up and standing, pushing her chair in under the table.
“OK,” said Bob. “In the meantime, would it be safer to stay away from your blog?”
“You promised not to mock me,” said Kat, shouldering her bag.
“That’s not mockery,” said Bob. “That’s good old-fashioned self-preservation. Seriously, I like the blog. I think it’s rather funny. Don’t stop writing about our liaisons on my account. It’s not as if anyone knows who Barista-Bob is.”
“Liaisons?” said Kat. “So that’s what they are?”
“It’s as good a word as any: liaisons, encounters... assignations perhaps? Anyway, you have my permission to write about today in any way you choose,” said Bob. “Not that you need my permission.”
“Not that I do,” said Kat. “And I hope you don’t expect me to be gentle with you.”
“I’d never expect that,” said Bob. “Now off you go, woman. There must be a pair of shoes out there somewhere waiting for you to buy them.”
“No doubt,” said Kat.
Bob the Barista at the V and A
I did everything right.
I did everything I was supposed to do.
We met in a public place, surrounded by public people. I made sure that I was not on my own with him. I was not drunk or high, and I made sure that he could not get me drunk or high. I was dressed appropriately, because, let’s face it, this is me, and the one thing you can rely on with me is that I’m always dressed appropriately (if you ignore the little episode with the borrowed Vivien Westwood, but even that’s OK, because I was among family and friends, and it was a wedding, and everyone’s allowed to wear La Westwood and get away with it, and, besides, and I’m paraphrasing, he thought I looked good in that dress).
Anyway, I met Barista-Bob at the V and A, as he put it, ‘to look around’.
You’ll be glad to hear that I didn’t dress up for him, although I did dress up for their majesties Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, obviously. I always dress up for their majesties. They deserve it. I like the museum and it’s been kind to me over the years, always giving me a good time, so I try to return the favour and look nice for the original royal couple.
I’m not going to recount the lengths I went to in order to look good and be dressed appropriately for my rendezvous for two reasons: 1) I hate to sound vain, because Barista-Bob will be along in a minute to point out my obvious feminine weaknesses, and 2) I don’t want to let down women everywhere by telling the other half of the World any of our little sartorial secrets. It’s bad enough that we have to employ some pretty randomly unpleasant and, on occasion, actually painful practices to maintain an elegant façade, without divulging those secrets to my very few male readers and spoiling the subterfuge for all my lovely friends and allies on the pink side of the divide.
You will all be terribly relieved to hear that Barista-Bob didn’t look through me this time. He didn’t actually look at me much, either, but at least he didn’t blank me.
In fact, the man recognised me... Not until I’d recognised him and was walking towards him, but, nevertheless, he did recognise me, and he did stand to greet me, and he was what my mother would call well-turned out, clean and neat, and he even smelled nice.
I don’t know what happened after that... No... Really... I don’t. I’ve been racking my brains ever since, and I have no idea what happened.
I know that something happened, and, later, I even asked him what went wrong, but there seemed not to be anything that might qualify as an explanation. Perhaps he’s a flitter, or I’m just not very interesting. Perhaps I wasn’t what he was looking for, or the exhibit wasn’t... Honestly, I don’t know.
Perhaps, he just likes discombobulating girls. Perhaps that’s it. (And yes, Barista-Bob, discombobulating is a real word).
I did wonder whether he was gay, but I’m confident that he isn’t. It’s the hair, and the tooth, and, possibly, the nose, although, I suppose, if you were squeamish, or poor, you might excuse the nose. The thing is, I don’t think for a moment that he’s poor; the clothes are too classy and so’s the smell, although those two things do rather make my gaydar twitch. A gay man would almost certainly get that tooth chip sorted out, especially a gay man who clearly has a great dentist, as evidenced by the otherwise pristine, smile, but, in the end, it’s definitely the hair that convinces me he’s not gay.
Barista-Bob’s hair is very, very straight in that oh-so-heterosexual way. I’m almost sure that he goes to a salon that his mother recommended, to someone who’ll make the most of his thinning hair, rather than to someone who knows when to quit while he’s ahead, while he’s still got a head, and just get rid of what’s left of the damned hair altogether.
You can’t do anything with thinning hair and every gay man under forty knows it... Correction, every gay man alive knows it. No... Barista-Bob isn’t gay.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I want him to make a pass at me. How weird would that be, in the V and A on a Thursday afternoon? But... really? He invited me ‘to look around’ and he dumped me after half an hour without an explanation. Then half an hour after that, he turned up in the cafe and asked me out again.
So, either there’s something wrong with him, or there’s something wrong with me, or there’s something wrong with him and me... Or something.
I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that I didn’t have my tits out. Who knows? Maybe he’s living in the hope that I get the girls out at least fifty percent of the time. Maybe he’s living in the hope that I’ll get the girls out the next time. Maybe he cut this date short so that he could get to grips with the girls the next time. Who knows?
If you’re reading this, buddy, you’ve got two hopes, as my dad would say...
... And one of them’s Bob.