by Nicola Abnett
“Wait... What did you say?” asked Kat. “And was that an exclamation mark?”
“Shit!” said Joel. “And yes, I believe that was an exclamation, but Shit! You look good in that dress!”
“Another exclamation mark!” said Kat. “Wait! I didn’t get an exclamation mark for the undies, but I get one for the dress. How does that work?”
“I chose the lingerie. Kathryn, you really can’t call that stuff ‘undies’. I had some idea what to expect from silk ribbons adorning your body. I had no idea what you’d wear for dinner. I had no idea you could find another dress as good as the White Cube dress.”
“Well now you know,” said Kat.
“I certainly do,” said Joel.
“And not so much for you with the exclamation marks,” said Kat.
“They do suit you rather better, don’t they?” said Joel.
“They do,” said Kat.
There was a pause.
“Kathryn,” said Joel.
“Yes, Mr Gerber.”
“You look lovely,” said Joel.
“Thank you, Mr Gerber,” said Kat.
“You’re welcome, Kathryn,” said Joel.
“Now, what’s for dinner?” asked Kat. “It smells amazing! It smells amazing, and oddly familiar... Oh you didn’t?”
“Didn’t what, Kathryn?”
“You bloody did, didn’t you?”
“I couldn’t possibly say,” said Joel, smiling.
“You made a brisket... It takes all day to make a decent brisket!” said Kat. “How did I not smell it earlier?”
“To be fair,” said Joel, “it only takes four to six hours to cook a small brisket, and I kept the kitchen door closed.”
“You’re a genius,” said Kat. “How did you know brisket was my favourite?”
“Because you told me... I don’t know... maybe three dozen times, and, despite being of the male persuasion, I do know how to listen to a woman’s needs,” said Joel. “Of course, there’s no chance it’ll be anywhere near as good as your mother’s brisket.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that,” said Kat, “although don’t tell my mother her brisket isn’t all that marvellous. Of course, it won’t be anything like as mouth-wateringly, meltingly amazing as Aunt Miriam’s, but you can’t have everything, and you offer certain advantages over all my wonderful aunts and their kitchens put together.”
“And what would they be?” asked Joel. “For future reference.”
“Well if you don’t know by now,” said Kat, “I’m not telling you.”
“If all the Adler women offer the same advantages in the bedroom that you do, Kathryn, perhaps I should take them all for a spin,” said Joel.
Kat threw a punch, albeit a girly punch, at Joel’s bicep, and he pretended to wince.
“Perish the thought,” she said. “That’s... Don’t even think about it, Gerber! That’s disgusting!”
Joel laughed. Kat thought he’d get over the idea pretty quickly, that it’d be one quick guffaw and then it’d be over, but it wasn’t. Kat realised that he was looking at her, that there was something about the expression on her face that was making him laugh, and he didn’t seem able to get a grip. He laughed, and he laughed, and then he did stop for a moment, but when she glared at him, he began laughing again, and he appeared not to be able to let it go.
“It isn’t funny,” said Kat. “Thinking of my female relatives, who, incidentally, are mostly on my mother’s side, and so mostly not Adlers, having sex... any sort of sex... isn’t funny... not at all! Thinking of them having our sort of sex... Well, it doesn’t bear thinking about!”
“No, maybe not,” said Joel, between guffaws and bellows, “but your indignation is hilarious.”
“Why?” asked Kat.
“Because you like it,” said Joel, suddenly apparently able to get his giggles under control, thank goodness, even though he was still smiling broadly. “You like it a lot, as far as I can tell, so why wouldn’t you want everyone else to enjoy it? Why wouldn’t you want all your female relatives to revel in it just as much as you do?”
“Because it’s not normal,” said Kat, indignant. “I don’t know what I am, but I’m not normal, and I’m not like them, because they are normal.”
Joel suddenly stopped smiling. He suddenly stopped smiling, and he suddenly looked terribly sad.
“What?” asked Kat.
Joel put a hand around each of Kat’s arms, holding her in front of him, elbows bent, so as not to be too close, nor too far away. He looked so serious that Kat didn’t know quite what to think.
“You are normal, Kat. What on Earth makes you think you’re not normal? Because you’ve found something that makes you feel good? There’s no shame in that. Life’s too short, and too sad, and there’s too little real joy to be had. Never think you aren’t normal.”
Kat didn’t know what to say. She loved being with Joel. She loved the sex and how it made her feel, but if she knew anything at all about what was happening it was that it most certainly was not normal, not in any way that she understood normal to be.
She was also pretty sure that she would never think it was normal, that she would always feel like a bit of a freak, that she would always feel something close to shame about what they were doing, if she thought about it too hard. She was determined not to think about it too hard. She was determined not to examine what she was afraid might become something of an obsession for her. She was determined to simply enjoy it while it lasted, and come to terms with it... eventually... maybe.
She didn’t want to talk about it. She didn’t want to contradict him, not like this. When she contradicted him, she wanted it to be a game, and this didn’t feel like that. This wasn’t fun any more.
She stepped into him.
“Whatever you say,” she said, and kissed him lightly on the mouth.
“I mean it, Kathryn,” said Joel, but he took his hands from around her arms and placed them flat on her back as she folded herself into his chest.
“I do too,” she said.
Learning to be submissive clearly had its uses outside of the bedroom, too.
“Good,” said Joel.
Kat put her hands on Joel’s face and smiled up at him.
“Feed me,” she said.
“Oh, I plan to,” said Joel, “but you’ll have to let go of me first.”
Before he let go of her, Joel kissed Kat once, very long and very hard, and as she turned to leave the kitchen he slapped her once, playfully, on the backside.
“That thing looks damned good from the back, too,” he said.
“That’ll be the arse,” said Kat, smiling over her shoulder as she left.
The kitchen really wasn’t big enough for two, and Joel had laid the table in the main room with the china and cutlery provided, while Kat had dressed for dinner. He’d poured wine, too, and brought candles, which he’d positioned all over the temple, making the place seem even more romantic, if that was possible.
Kat picked up one of the glasses of wine and took a long sip. She should probably have waited for Joel, it would have been more polite, but the thing between them in the kitchen had disturbed her and she wanted to move past it as quickly as she could; perhaps the wine would help her do that.
She thought back to that afternoon, to that moment when she had wondered how well she knew him. She’d only been thinking sexually, of course; she’d only been thinking about whether he would cum in her mouth or not, and yet she’d been certain, as certain as she could be, that he would cum in her mouth. She’d been sure of that. She’d known how that worked between them, known that he would expect that from her, that they didn’t need to discuss it, that it was a given. She’d known that if she took him in her mouth, he would expect her to accept the consequences of her actions.
What about the rest, though? What about all the things she didn’t know about him. That expression she’d seen on his face in the kitchen, she hadn’t seen that before. She hadn’t known that he could be so very sad. She knew he had a reputation for being serious, but that was for other people, that wasn’t how he was with her, that wasn’t the real Joel. That was just J.J. Horner, wasn’t it? Or was it?
Kat took another sip of her wine, and looked around the candlelit room. She closed her eyes and smelled the familiar smell of brisket, and she remembered the afternoon, and the sensation of Joel’s hands on her flesh and the warmth in her skin. She remembered what had happened in this room, when she had taken him in her mouth, on her knees, and she remembered what had happened in her little room upstairs.
She felt her shoulders relax, and her left hip drop as her knee softened, and she took another, smaller sip of the wine, and exhaled, long and low, and she felt better.
Then the smell was back, strong and meaty, and she turned to see Joel enter from the kitchen with a plate in each hand and a broad smile on his face, all sadness forgotten.
The brisket was good. The brisket was very, very good, and when Kat asked him his secret, Joel simply said that when he was a student, he had called his grandmother to ask for a recipe, telling her that he wanted to make it for a woman. She had been so impressed that a man not only wanted to cook, but wanted to cook real food, and wanted to impress a nice Jewish girl into the bargain, that she had divulged everything, every last family secret that had ever been brought to bear on a piece of brisket in the past century-and-a-half. He couldn’t remember how many variations of the dish she had talked him through, but at least two of them had begun with exactly how to choose and slaughter the creature as her great-great-great-grandmother had done on the old farm, back on the Steppes.
“She was on the phone for two solid hours,” said Joel.
“It was worth it,” said Kat.
“The girl I was trying to impress at the time turned out to be a vegetarian,” said Joel.
“Some you win,” said Kat.
“Indeed you do,” said Joel, smiling. “Indeed you do.”
“I’m not going to ask just how many women your grandmother’s brisket recipe has actually impressed,” said Kat, “but can I assume those were two hours very well spent?”
“I think my grandmother enjoyed them,” said Joel, smiling some more. “There’s nothing quite like bonding with the grandchildren, after all.”
“Which only begs the question of what’s for dessert?” said Kat.
“Ah,” said Joel. “I rather thought that might be you.”
“Really?” asked Kat. “Surely you’re not going to disappoint a girl at the final hurdle?”
“Let me see,” said Joel, stroking his chin, as if deep in thought. “Why don’t I top you up, and then see what I can rustle up in the kitchen?”
“Why don’t you?” asked Kat.
Joel filled Kat’s almost empty glass back up to the waist, from the very good bottle of red that he’d bought to go with the brisket, and took the plates out to the kitchen.
There had to be dessert, and Kat had a pretty good idea what it would be, if he’d been able to find a decent bakery in Milton Keynes, of course.
She also had a pretty good idea what she’d be giving Joel after dessert, and a pretty good idea what he’d be giving her, and she was looking forward to that rather more than she was looking forward to the cheesecake.
A good cheesecake was a wonderful thing, but even a very good cheesecake couldn’t begin to compare to Joel and the pleasures he bestowed so freely upon her.
She was still thinking about those pleasures when Joel returned with the cheesecake.
“I’ve been looking forward to the next ‘Hair Today’ blog,” said Joel as he put down his fork on his empty dessert plate. “I thought the first one was rather funny.”
“Good,” said Kat. “I plan to go back, soon.”
“I knew you’d like Sarah,” said Joel.
“I can’t imagine anyone not liking her,” said Kat. “She’s beautiful, too.”
“Very,” said Joel.
Kat looked at him, trying to work out what he was thinking. She wondered why he should look sad, but she let it pass.
“And so nice,” said Kat. “I can’t believe she offered me mate’s rates.”
“She’s like that,” said Joel. “Any friend of mine.”
“She’s more than a friend, though, isn’t she?” asked Kat.
“I suppose she is,” said Joel.
There was a long pause.
“I never met him, though,” said Kat. “which is odd, because I always thought you were the black sheep. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember him ever being mentioned.”
“You’ve lost me,” said Joel.
“I never met your brother,” said Kat.
“What’s funny?” asked Kat.
“Of course you met my brother,” said Joel. “You were at his wedding, for goodness sake. He married your little cousin.”
“Not that brother,” said Kat. “Your other brother.”
“What other brother?” asked Joel.
“What do you mean, what other brother?” asked Kat.
“I haven’t got another brother,” said Joel. “It’s just the two of us. Why would you think I’ve got another brother?”
“Because Sarah told me she’s your sister-in-law,” said Kat. “That’s why.”
“She is,” said Joel. “Sarah’s my wife’s sister.”
<“Shit! Help! I don’t know what to do. Joel’s married! The bastard!> Kat typed and hit send.
She sat in the little round double bedroom with her back against the door. She was still wearing the gorgeous black dress, without any underwear, and she wanted to cry, but she was too stunned for the tears to come.
She had just put the last piece of cheesecake in her mouth when Joel had said what he’d said, and she’d almost gagged on it. She’d wanted to spit it out, but she’d wanted to keep her dignity more, and, somehow, she’d swallowed the gob of cheesecake that suddenly felt like the wedge of pumice stone she rubbed her feet with in the bath.
She’d got up from the table and excused herself, and now she was locked in her room, except there was no lock on the door, texting her sister.
She should have known something wasn’t right. She didn’t even know where Joel lived. She didn’t have a landline number for him, and they only ever met in public places. They fucked in hotels for heaven’s sake... In hotels and in these... These places... These weird and wonderful places that he found, but never at home. He was married... Joel had a wife!
How could he betray her? How could he betray his wife? How could he be seen with another woman in public? How could he be so brazen? How could he involve his own sister-in-law? How could he be such a sleaze?
That’s what he was... He was a sleaze and a bastard... and he made Kat feel dirty and worthless.
What had she done? What had she let him do to her?
Kat’s phone beeped and there was a knock on her door.
She checked her phone.
<What happened? Where are you? Are you OK sis? xxx>
Kat took a long, deep breath and began to think about what she could tell Ally, and how she could feel better. The screen went hazy in front of her eyes as two huge tears welled in her eyelids, and then everything came back into focus as the tears bulged over the rims of her eyes and trickled down her cheeks.
Kat sniffed, and there was another knock at her door.
“Go away!” she said.
<I’m with Joel in a bloody gothic temple in bloody Milton Keynes! Checking train times to get out of here! I’m OK! Can’t believe my shitty luck with men!> Kat typed and hit send.
“Kathryn? What’s the matter?” Joel asked. “Is something wrong?”
Kat did not answer. She started checking train times on her phone. It was only a little after 9, so she might still be able to get back to London. She dreaded having to stay in the temple overnight. She dreaded having to see Joel’s face ever again.
Another tear found its way down Kat’s cheek and then another, and, suddenly, her nose was full of wet, runny snot. She sniffed hard.
There was another knock on the door.
“Kathryn are you OK? Are you crying?”
“I wouldn’t cry over you if you were the last fucking man on Earth!” said Kat, loudly enough for Joel to hear, but not loudly enough to sound desperate.
She immediately wished she hadn’t said anything, because it really set off the waterworks. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose on the skirt of the dress... the bloody unlucky, bloody dress that she’d never bloody wear, ever again. What a bloody waste!
She wanted to get up and get changed out of the damned dress, but the door didn’t lock and she didn’t know if she could trust Joel not to come charging in. She didn’t know if he’d respect her privacy.
She’d always respected his.
It dawned on her that he was famous, that she could have googled him. Who was it that had suggested she google him? She hadn’t, though. She’d taken him on his merits. She hadn’t wanted to invade his privacy. She’d wanted to learn about him the same way she’d learn about anyone, by talking to him, by spending time with him. If she’d googled him, she’d have found out he was married. Did he have kids? What else didn’t she know about him? What else hadn’t he told her?
The tears came again.
Between sniffs and running mascara, Kat found that the last train left Milton Keynes at ten to ten, but then she remembered that it was a long drive to the station, and, somehow, she’d have to find a cab that would come out to the temple. Crap! She’d have to move fast.
There was another knock on the door.
“Kathryn, please, talk to me?” said Joel.
Kat ignored him. She was hurt, and the sound of his voice calling her Kathryn only made that hurt more painful. Why did he have to call her that? Why did he have to be different? Why did he have to say that he didn’t want to be just anyone to her? He was married for fuck sake! He shouldn’t want to be anyone at all to her!
In her desperation, Kat’s mind suddenly cleared and she ignored the beep on her phone in favour of typing ‘gothic temple, milton keynes’ into her search engine. The results gave her the nearest small town, which in turn gave her two cab firms to call.
She called the first one and asked for the driver to sound his horn when he was outside the temple, so that she could go straight from her room to the car. She didn’t want to talk to Joel. She knew she’d have to see him, but she also knew... she hoped she knew... that he wouldn’t make a scene, not in front of a stranger.
Kat got up off the floor, got changed, quickly, and threw her dress in the holdall. She left behind the lingerie. She couldn’t even bear to look at it. She scrubbed her face with a wipe from her make-up bag, so that at least the mascara stains were gone, even if her eyes were red and puffy, and waited for the sound of the car horn.
“We really should talk,” said Joel from the other side of the door.
It felt like a very long wait, but when the car horn sounded, Kat took a deep breath and opened the door to her bedroom. She walked straight past Joel, who had that same sad look on his face that Kat had seen in the kitchen. She tried not to look at him.
He did not reach out for her.
“What happened?” he asked. “Where are you going?”
She hadn’t planned to speak to him, but she had to say something.
“Goodbye, Joel,” she said, her voice sounding hard, even to her. She wondered what he must think.
Then she was gone, out through the heavy, studded, wooden door, and into the back of the cab. She didn’t look at him again. She didn’t look at him, and she didn’t tell the driver where she was going, because she knew that if she opened her mouth she would cry, and she couldn’t bear to cry.
She knew that when she was on her own she’d cry, but not now, not in front of a stranger.
The cabby pulled the taxi away and drove back down the track. He glanced in the rearview mirror and said, “Station, is it?” Kat nodded.
She took out her phone, which had beeped several times, but she knew it was Ally, and she knew that her messages might make her cry, too.
<Poor Kat xxx> said the first message.
<You sure you’re OK? xxx> said the second message.
<text me> said the third message.
<Kat, let me know you’re OK xxx> said the fourth message.
<In a cab on the way to the station x> typed Kat and hit send.
<I’ll ring when I get home xxx> typed Kat and hit send. She didn’t want to text, texting was too hard, too slow, not personal enough... not for this.
Kat wanted to cry, but not here, not now, so she slumped down in the backseat of the cab, in the dark, cradling her holdall, wondering.
“Shitting, fucking bastard! Why did he have to be married, Ally? And why didn’t anyone tell me?” asked Kat.
The train journey home wasn’t so bad. Kat arrived at the station with a few minutes to spare, and there were enough people on the train for her to feel comfortable, but they all kept themselves to themselves. The tube ride back to Clapham was the same.
She didn’t cry any more. She just wanted to talk to her sister. She just wanted to know why. She wanted to know why she felt so sick. She’d never felt sick over a man before. Maybe it wasn’t the man. Maybe it was just the brisket and that cheesecake. Maybe that was it.
“That’s what’s so weird about it though, isn’t it?” asked Ally.
“What?” asked Kat.
“That we didn’t know he was married,” said Ally. “He’s practically family, and no one told us he was married.”
“You didn’t tell anyone we were... you know... did you?” asked Kat. “If Mum had known I was seeing a married man she would definitely have said something. She’d have said something very loudly, and I never would have heard the last of it.”
“No, I didn’t tell her, but still, you know what she’s like, and they were all at the wedding. There was all sorts of talk about the great J.J. Horner coming to the reception, and I never heard anything about his wife,” said Ally. “Come to think of it, why wasn’t she there?”
“Oh my God,” said Kat. “You don’t think she was there, do you?”
“She couldn’t have been” said Ally. “If she was there, where was she when he was making you coffee at the bar? And where was she when he was dancing with you for the singles’ dance? And what a bloody cheek, dancing with you for the singles’ dance!”
“I don’t know where she was,” said Kat. “Maybe she was in the loo. Or maybe she was looking after their four kids. How long does it take to toilet a couple of kids and change a couple of kids’ nappies?”
“Now you’re being ridiculous,” said Ally.
“Am I?” asked Kat. Then she sighed. “I didn’t know he was married, so it stands to reason that I wouldn’t know if he had a couple of kids... What does it matter? It’s over, now, anyway.” She sniffed.
“Are you OK, Kat? I hate to hear you like this. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk like this about a man.”
“Don’t,” said Kat. “You’ll make me... cry... and I don’t want...”
“It’s OK, Kat. It’s OK. They’re all sons of bitches in the end. There’ll be another bastard along in a week or two, you’ll see.”
Kat laughed, but it was the sort of laugh that had no fun in it.
“This is me we’re talking about, sis,” said Kat. “Joel was the first man I ever... What makes you think...”
“Crap!” said Ally. “What a bastard! I think I hate him.”
“Don’t hate him,” said Kat.
“I think I will,” said Ally. “Wait, I thought you hated him... Kat, why the confusion?”
“I don’t know,” said Kat. “I don’t know anything, but, right now, I think it’ll be a very long time before I look at another man. Maybe Joel did me a favour. Maybe I’m better off on my own. Let’s face it, Ally, I’ve never really been happy with any man, and when I finally find a man that suits me this shit happens.”
“I know,” said Ally. “I know it looks that way, but trust me, there really are plenty more fish in the sea.”
“I don’t want a fish,” said Kat. “I want... I want... Apparently, it turns out, I want a bloody shark!”
“What?” asked Ally.
“Nothing,” said Kat. “Say n-night Kat.”
“Are you sure you’re OK?” asked Ally.
“I’m fine,” said Kat.
“N-night, then, Kat,” said Ally.
“N-night, Ally,” said Kat.
Sleeping On It!
There are any number of bits of received wisdom that I generally adhere to, things that my mother or grandmother say, or, for that matter, things that my sister has passed on, little bits of common sense that keep the World turning. Mostly these pearls are to do with manners, with being well-behaved and polite, but, as it happens, today, I’m in no mood for that.
Today I see no reason not to go to bed on a row, I see no reason to take a breath or count to ten, and I see no reason to sleep on it. In all fairness, I have slept on it, and I’m still bloody angry, and I’m still disappointed and let down, and I still have every right to be.
It’s about choice you see, and about having the right to make that choice and not have it taken away from you, or, at least, it’s about having the right to make that choice and not have it taken away from me.
Imagine you’re that poor sap; imagine you’re the (as it turns out not very bright) friend of the manipulative girl in school, and imagine being taken advantage of. Imagine that the manipulative girl nicks some make-up from Debenhams after school and dumps it in your bag, without you knowing, and imagine that the eyelashes she nicks have a security tag attached that sets off the alarm by the doors. Now imagine getting caught.
You’re not a thief, but you feel guilty anyway. You never would have been friends with the manipulative girl if you’d known she was a thief, and you’re horrified that you were duped, and you’re even more horrified when you realise that your so-called friend assumed you knew all along who she was and what she was, and she thought you were birds of a feather.
You aren’t like her and you never were like her, but you feel stupid and guilty, and you feel betrayed, and you wonder if you’ll ever trust anyone ever again.
Today, that’s how I feel.
I’m not going to name any names or point any fingers, but I have always thought of myself as honest and loyal, and I would never knowingly break a trust or perpetrate an infidelity. I do feel shame and humiliation, and I despise the person who made me feel this way.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing this, and if I should be writing it, perhaps I should be writing it with less vitriol, with a clearer head, and with a more direct purpose than simply to get it off my chest.
Forgive me, and I’m sure that the regular blog service will resume shortly.
(And for the literal among you, no, I wasn’t caught stealing.)
“Fuck!” said Kat.
The first thing she did on Monday morning was to send her article off to the editor at Grazia magazine. She’d had one of those moments when she’d woken up. She’d had one of those moments when she’d remembered what had happened the night before, and a lump had formed in her throat, and that sick feeling had churned over in her stomach. She’d swallowed the lump and ignored the nausea, and she’d got washed and dressed, and pulled herself together.
She had to concentrate on the work for long enough to impress that editor. This was a chance for a career break, and Joel bloody Gerber wasn’t going to get in the way of that, not if Kat Adler had anything at all to do with it.
That done, Kat had let the feelings come, and her first feelings weren’t of upset, but of anger. Maybe that was the work talking, maybe that was the determination to do well at Grazia, maybe that was just Kat channeling her professional side.
That’s when the swearing had started, even though there was no one to hear her, and that’s when the blog had happened, even though she wasn’t sure she should write it at all. The analogy came easily, and Kat thought it was a good one. She knew that she probably shouldn’t post the blog, having written it, but there had been plenty of blogs that shouldn’t have been posted, and plenty of perfectly innocent ones that had garnered all kinds of unexpected and even unsavoury reactions. She had no control over her readers, no control over the internet and no control over the people that used it. She had no control over her commenters, either, and, most of the time, she didn’t want any control over them.
Besides, she was right. She felt right and she felt righteous. Joel Horner had turned her into an unwitting adulterer, and he’d had no right to do it. It was bad enough, shaming enough that he’d turned her into some kind of sadist... or was it masochist? She didn’t even know, for sure, what her sexual perversion was actually called.
“Bastard!” she said into the empty room. Then she said it again, louder, and then the tears ran down her face, and when they finally stopped, the sick feeling deep in the pit of her stomach seemed to swell and grow until she could almost taste bile in her throat.
Determined not to cry, again, Kat closed her laptop, wiped her cheeks and went back into the bedroom where her holdall sat on the floor at the end of the bed, where she’d dumped it when she’d got home the night before, still packed.
She pulled the zip on the bag, and a froth of black silk poured out through the opening.
“Shit!” she said. She crumpled the dress in her hands, and stomped into the kitchen for a carrier bag, grabbing a jacket off the back of the bedroom door on the way.
She couldn’t get the dress out of the flat fast enough. If ever there had been an unlucky dress, this was it. It was a good dress, though. It wasn’t a great dress. OK, it was a great dress to wear, especially for her, but it wasn’t an especially expensive dress; it hadn’t cost her anything, of course, since Ally had given it to her, but it was top-end high street, and it’d only been worn once, so someone would love to own it at a discount price. Waste not, want not thought Kat, and she strode off to Bucky’s to get some of Ally’s money back.
Bucky was leaning on the counter of her newly refurbished shop, which was all gleaming stainless steel and gorgeous green tiles. Bucky even had a new green apron to match.
“I was just thinking about you,” she said, as Kat entered the shop. “Your boyfriend was all over the Sunday supplement yesterday, look!” And before Kat knew what was happening she was looking at a picture of Joel, looking gorgeous in his impossibly uncrease-able shirt sleeves, and she was trying to read his answers to a series of quick-fire questions even though the page was folded over. “I knew I knew that name: J.J. Horner.”
“Oh,” said Kat. “Yes.”
Bucky was so excited, Kat hardly dared disappoint her by saying that Joel was a total bastard, and that she never wanted to see him again as long as she lived. Besides, she was struggling to tear her eyes away from that picture, and something inside her was compelling her to find out what he had to say for himself. She wanted to know what those questions were, how personal they got, and what his answers would be. This wasn’t like spying on him, or even googling him, this was coming straight from the horse’s mouth... with editing obviously, but from the horse’s mouth, none-the-less.
Neither of the women spoke for a few seconds, and then, realising how rude she must seem, Kat flipped the magazine closed and pushed it towards Bucky.
“I didn’t know,” she said.
“Keep it,” said Bucky, pushing it back towards Kat. “I must have read it ten times, already. There’re some pretty amazing scenes in the chapter from his new book. You’re a lucky girl, if half of that stuff’s true to life.”
“I couldn’t take your magazine,” said Kat.
“Nonsense,” said Bucky.
Kat was beginning to feel sick again, and she didn’t want to argue, and, anyway, Bucky had turned to her gleaming hanging rack, full of clean, pressed clothes in smart, newly designed bags with Bucky’s new green logo.
Bucky toed a button on the floor, and the whole contraption rotated, stopping at the shirts. Then she pulled out two hangers and brought them to the counter, peeling back the plastic wrappers.
Kat had completely forgotten Joel’s shirts. Crap! She couldn’t leave them with Bucky, and now she’d have to take them home. What the fuck was she supposed to do with them? Send them to his agent? Oh... Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea, maybe she could send them back, care of his agent. That might be simplest. She didn’t have a home address for him, anyway, and she couldn’t just dump them on poor Bucky; none of this was her fault. Bloody Joel! Bloody, fucking, bastard Joel!
“What do you think?” asked Bucky, showing Kat the pristine shirt-fronts.
“I think you’re brilliant,” said Kat.
Bucky let go of the shirt she was holding and looked at Kat.
“Are you OK?” she asked. “You don’t look all that bright.”
“Bit of a sore stomach, that’s all,” said Kat.
“Big weekend?” asked Bucky with a smile.
“Something like that,” said Kat, trying to smile back, but not really managing it.
“Well it’s all right for you independent women,” said Bucky, “you can go home and go to bed. I can’t remember the last time I had a duvet day.”
Kat finally managed that smile.
“And I can’t remember the last time I met a woman half as independent as you are,” she said.
“Touché,” said Bucky, rewrapping the shirts.
When she’d finished, and the counter was cleared, Kat took the dress out of the bag and plonked it down in front of Bucky.
“This needs a good clean,” said Kat. “If you can believe it, I actually got the contents of someone’s nose on my skirt.” She knew it was always best to let Bucky know what she was dealing with, and she hated to lie, and this way she didn’t have to, not really.
“That’s nothing compared to some of the stains I’ve seen,” said Bucky, “or some of the weird and wonderful explanations people come up with for them.” She leaned over the counter, conspiratorially. “A woman once told me that the huge semen stain down the arse of her cocktail dress was something to do with an over-excited dog, as if that was less embarrassing than an illicit encounter with a gorgeous stranger. Funny creature.” Bucky laughed. “Having said that, I reckon it must have been at least two gorgeous strangers, so maybe the dog thing was a better bet.”
“There’s no accounting for people, I suppose,” said Kat, smiling again.
“None at all,” said Bucky, taking the dress by its shoulder seams and shaking it out. “Pretty,” she said.
“That’s the other thing,” said Kat. “I won’t wear it again, so do you think you might have a buyer for it?”
“I’m sure I have,” said Bucky. “Usual terms?”
“That’d be great, thanks,” said Kat.
“It’s not the sort of dress you usually wear only once, though, Kat. Are you sure you want to get rid of it?” asked Bucky.
“Very sure,” said Kat. “It’s to do with the bloke and the snot...”
“Say no more,” said Bucky, pinning a paper ticket to the label on the dress and making a note on it.
“What do I owe you for the shirts?” asked Kat.
“If they’re for J.J. Horner,” said Bucky, “he can have the first ones on me.”
“No,” said Kat, horrified. “You must let me pay you for them.”
“If there’s any chance that he’ll give me his business, instead of using that God-awful laundry, you’ll have done me a huge favour bringing his shirts in,” said Bucky. “There’s no chance I’m going to let you pay. Now, off you go, and look after that stomach. Ginger tea should fix you up nicely, or mint, but ginger’s better.”
Kat knew that there was no point arguing with Bucky, even though her gorge was rising again, and she actually felt the colour drain out of her cheeks.
“Honestly, Kat, you don’t look at all well. Do you want to sit down for a minute?” asked Bucky.
“No, I’m fine,” said Kat. “I should probably just get home.”
“Well go carefully,” said Bucky, “and look after yourself. You really do look like you’re coming down with something.”
“I feel like I am, if I’m honest,” said Kat. “I’m not sure why I feel so sick.”
“Like I said,” said Bucky, “ginger tea. Lei, two doors down, sells a nice one. Why don’t I pop and get you some.”
Kat smiled as broadly as she could manage.
“Thanks, Bucky, but I can do it, honestly, and thanks again for the shirts,” she said, turning to leave before Bucky could lift the counter-flap and start fussing off to find whatever herbal infusions were best for dodgy tummies. “I’ll get some tea, I promise.”
“Make sure you do,” said Bucky, waving to Kat as she left the dry cleaners. “Feel better.”
Kat took a couple of steps down the street so that Bucky couldn’t see her, and stood for a moment while she took two or three deep breaths. She still felt nauseous, and she thought she might cry again. She was aware of a sharp pain in her left hand where she was clutching, too tightly, the coat hangers that Joel’s shirts hung on, and she could feel the sticky sensation of glossy paper adhering to the skin of her sweaty fist as she gripped the Sunday supplement too hard in her right hand.
Kat didn’t stop in Lei’s, and she didn’t buy ginger tea. She hated breaking a promise to Bucky, but she just wanted to get home. She just wanted to get home and lie down and feel better. She just wanted to get home and read Joel’s article and cry, and probably vomit.
Kat had never vomited over a man before... At least she’d never just vomited over a man before, because on the one or two occasions when the end of a relationship had been accompanied by this sort of nausea, it had also been accompanied by a decent quantity of booze, and certainly a very good deal more than the two or three glasses she’d drunk over dinner the night before.
It was on her way home that Kat’s phone beeped. She wasn’t expecting a text or a call, not even from Ally, not on a Monday morning, but she assumed that it must be her sister, checking up on her. It was reassuring, somehow, even though she didn’t stop to answer it, even though all she wanted to do was get home and put a kettle on, and hide away from the World for a little while.
Her phone beeped twice more before she arrived back at the flat, and Kat began to think that something urgent must have come up. As soon as she got through the door, she dropped the hangers over the back of a dining chair, and peeled the glossy magazine out of her right hand, where its heavy black cover had left weird ink stains all over her palm and fingers, showing the lines in her hand, almost like fingerprinting ink.
She took her phone out of her bag and checked her messages. The second message was from Ally, who was obviously checking up on her. The first and third were from Joel.
Ally clicked on the message from her sister.
<Just checking in xxx> it read.
<Thanks, Ally. I’m OK. Having a duvet day. Talk later xxx> Kat typed, in reply, and hit send.
She didn’t want to look at Joel’s messages. They were obviously long as they ran to more than the couple of lines that appeared on her screen, but she had to click on them to delete them, and clicking on them would reveal the entire messages. She didn’t know if she could trust herself not to read them before deleting them. She didn’t want to read them. She really didn’t want to read them.
Kat turned off her phone, ignoring Joel’s messages. How dare he contact her? How dare he? She was angry again, and when she got angry with him, the tears came. She threw her phone onto the couch and stomped off into her little kitchen, where she moved around half-blind, filling her kettle, putting a teabag in a mug, and dumping three or four spoons full of sugar on top... Hot, sweet tea, wasn’t that supposed to cure everything? That and time, and she couldn’t bear to wait for the requisite amount of time to pass. She didn’t know how long the requisite amount of time might be; she’d never been through this before, but she guessed it was a bloody long time: weeks at the very least, probably months, and, who knew, maybe even a year or... heaven help her... longer even than that.
She kicked off her shoes, and got into bed in her clothes with her mug of too hot, too sweet tea. Two minutes later she was out of it again, looking for her phone, which took a while to find, because she’d forgotten that she’d thrown it on the couch, and, naturally, it had slipped under one of the cushions. While she was looking for it, Kat found the Sunday supplement.
She looked at the cover of the magazine and the strap-line that said, “20 questions with J.J. Horner, and an exclusive extract from his new novel.”
It was torture. Kat knew it was torture, but she also had the feeling, despite being new to the pain of a broken heart, that she might as well have all her pain at once.
“Bastard!” she said. “Utter fucking bastard!” It didn’t make her feel any better. She didn’t know if she wanted to feel any better. She only hoped that he was feeling some of the pain that she was feeling. She only hoped that he was feeling guilt and remorse, and maybe even a little heartache. He didn’t deserve her... Whoever his wife was, Joel didn’t deserve her, and Kat hoped to God that he knew that. He didn’t deserve her and he didn’t deserve Kat, and he’d lost Kat, and who knew, maybe he’d lose his wife, too... and it’d serve him bloody well right if the poor woman did find out what sort of a man she was married to, because she was married to a shitting bastard!
By the time she got back into bed with her phone and her Sunday supplement, Kat’s tea was still piping hot, but it was just the right temperature for sucking between her teeth with lots of air, and swirling around her mouth, just scalding her tongue, the way she liked it. She took several sips, between several deep breaths, and thought she felt a little better. She thought she felt strong enough, at least, to delete Joel’s phone messages.
Just as Kat picked up her phone, it beeped again, and another message flashed up on the screen. It was another message from Joel, shorter this time. It said, <Dearest Kathryn, Please check your blog comments.> She couldn’t help but read it, because it was brief. It was all there in one sentence. She could hardly not read it. She was determined, though, not to read the other messages.
Kat clicked quickly on the message icon on her phone, and then on Joel’s name on the contact list. She hit the edit button at the top of the screen, and then ruthlessly hit the clear all button. They were gone. Every message that Joel had ever sent to her and every message that she had ever sent to Joel was expunged, lost and gone forever.
The fact that the messages were gone didn’t make Kat any happier. She tried not to think about what might have been in those messages, but even thinking about not thinking about them made her want to cry, and once she felt like she wanted to cry there was no preventing the tears from gathering in her eyelids, and then rolling down her cheeks.
She didn’t know what was worse, what was more painful, more humiliating, more upsetting, the tears or the nausea; at least while she was crying she forgot that her stomach was sore, and at least while her stomach ached she forgot that she’d been crying... mostly.
Kat hugged her mug, and cried, and, between sobs, she sipped her tea and tried to breathe deeply, and she soon calmed down.
Stupid, stupid cow!
Perhaps that was better. Perhaps it was better to berate herself than to think about him all the time.
Kat looked at the Sunday supplement on the bed next to her. The cover was a rather good photograph that looked as if it might have been taken by Mario Testino, and was certainly in his style. It was of a very famous politician whose name Kat couldn’t bring to mind, which was ridiculous, because his name was on the cover of the magazine, somewhere. The problem was, the only name that Kat could see on the cover of the magazine was Joel’s name. In fact, the only type that Kat could read on the cover of the magazine was, “20 questions with J.J. Horner, and an exclusive extract from his new novel.” Everything else just seemed to swim out of focus in front of her eyes.
Kat thumbed through the supplement, which fell open easily at the photograph of Joel. It felt like some awful coincidence, but, of course, it wasn’t. It fell open at that page, because that was the article that Bucky had read over and over again; it had nothing to do with fate, and nothing to do with Kat, except that she was Bucky’s friend, and she knew that she shouldn’t think for a moment that it did have anything to do with her, even if it did make her heart leap and her stomach turn over... again.
She looked at the picture, which had been taken recently, since Joel had cut his hair. He looked exactly like him, exactly the way she thought of him, and she loved that he looked that way, and hated the way that it made her feel.
Then she started to read the stuff on the facing page, the stuff that she’d wanted to read in Bucky’s shop, the potted biography and the twenty questions.
The questions were what you’d expect from a Sunday supplement, they were open-ended so that the interviewee could be as funny and flippant or as personal and revealing as he or she chose to be. J.J. Horner had chosen to be charming and understated. He was warm, but, when push came to shove, he hadn’t shared any real details of his life. He’d been asked about where he’d like to be right now, whether he was a cat or dog person, where he was happiest and saddest, who he’d invite to a dinner party, that sort of thing. Some of the answers were funny, and even seemed intimate, but Kat knew that he hadn’t really intended to let anyone in. Kat knew that it wasn’t in his nature really to let anyone in.
Kat had known Joel for months, and she felt as if she didn’t really know him at all... She knew that she didn’t really know him at all... She hadn’t even known that he was married.
Joel didn’t mention his wife, or his family in the article. There was no mention of anything to do with his background, his schooling, his ethnicity, nothing, not even in the biography. It was all a mystery, and yet he didn’t seem remotely mysterious. From the inside, and Kat did believe that she’d been in his life, or at least that she’d seen into his life, a little... From the inside, Kat could see that he was shielding himself and his privacy, keeping the interviewer and therefore the public, very much, at arm’s length.
Who was he? And what had happened to make him this way?
It was the same with the names. Kat called him Mr Gerber, but was he Joel Gerber or was he J.J. Horner? Or was he someone else entirely? Was he just some pervert who wanted to beat her?
Kat’s eyes welled up with tears, again, and her stomach knotted, and she couldn’t believe that she was aware of both pains at once. It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t bloody fair!
“Bastard!” she said to no one. “You’re a bastard J.J. Horner or Joel Gerber, or whoever the bloody hell you are! A bloody, shitting bastard!”
Kat’s phone beeped, almost as if on cue, right in the pause that came after her final exclamation mark. She ignored it, sipping on the last of her tea, which, blissfully, still had enough warmth in it to comfort her.
Then it beeped again.
Suddenly, Kat felt horribly hemmed in, and the feeling translated back to the sickness in her stomach and to a sudden prickling heat in her face. She didn’t want to cry, thank heavens, but, suddenly, she was desperate to check her phone and her e-mail and her twitter feed and her blog.
She didn’t dare to do any of those things, though. Suddenly, she could see and hear Joel everywhere.
Suddenly, when her phone beeped again, Kat was sure that the last three messages must be from him, that he couldn’t leave her alone. Then she remembered the message that she’d read on-screen, and she knew that there was a comment waiting for her on the blog. She couldn’t bear to look at that, now, either.
Kat’s phone beeped again.
She picked it up, not knowing quite what she’d do with it. Part of her wanted to throw it across the room, but she knew she’d never do that.
Her phone, e-mail, blog and Twitter feed were her connections to the World; she relied on them to keep her in touch, to take her out into the World, and to bring the World to her. She couldn’t let some bastard take that away from her. She couldn’t let a man spoil everything. So what if he’d messaged her? She could always delete his messages; she didn’t even have to read them. If she just didn’t answer them, he’d stop sending them, eventually... Wouldn’t he?
The same applied to the blog. She’d just delete his comments. She could even moderate her messages. In fact, there was probably a mechanism for preventing certain people from commenting at all. It was her blog, and he wasn’t going to stop her enjoying it. Besides, she needed it for work; it was part of how she networked, and spread the word, and part of how she’d got a name for herself as a fashion journalist. She wasn’t going to give up her blog, not for Joel bloody Gerber... Not for anyone!
E-mails were easiest. If he’d sent her an e-mail, she could just click on his address and delete his mail, wholesale, without reading any of it. Anything he’d written in the subject box would come up on her screen, but no one ever put anything worth reading in those fields, so she was pretty safe on that front.
That was it. She’d start with e-mails.
Kat opened her laptop and pulled up her e-mails. She had nearly sixty new e-mails, and got rid of more than two-thirds of them, including three from Joel, simply by checking boxes and hitting ‘delete selected’. She hesitated over the ‘delete selected’ button, but only for a second or two, and she only needed a couple of deep breaths to get her nerve back after she’d done the deed.
Kat knew that there was always the ‘recently deleted’ tab in the menu down the left hand side of the screen, and she prayed that she wouldn’t be tempted to use it. In a day or two, there’d be no point being tempted, but maybe it wasn’t so bad, having a safety net.
She intended to check her blog next, but thought better of it, especially when she remembered what she’d written that morning. It wasn’t just Joel’s comment that might cause her some trouble; she’d written the sort of blog that anyone could say just about anything about, and she’d need to brace herself, even on her best day, to take some of the crap that might come her way because of it.
“Shit!” she said. “Shit! Crap! And Fuck it all!”
Kat’s phone beeped again, and, halfway through her tirade, she picked it up, automatically. When she looked at the screen, she was surprised to see that all of the messages she’d missed were from Ally.
She clicked on the first one and read down them, one at a time.
<Had a minute, so read your blog. Sad for you xxx>
<Kat! Have you read the comments on your blog?>
<Text me when you get this xxx>
<If you’ve read the comments on your blog, let me know you’re OK xxx>
<Make sure you follow Joel’s link! You absolutely must read the comment and follow the link, and then text me! xxx>
Shit! Ally had written her five texts in about as many minutes, and she had done it on a Monday morning, from work. That was unheard of. What on Earth was going on?
“Shit!” said Kat. “Fuck!”
She put her phone down on the duvet, next to her laptop, picked up her empty mug and got out of bed.
Kat had two things to do, but first she had to make another cup of tea and go to the loo, and then she had to think; she had to think long and hard about what order she wanted to do those two things in.
Kat had to read the comments on her blog, and, in particular, she had to read Joel’s comment on her blog, and she had to follow the link that he’d obviously left there, and there’d probably be something to read at the end of that. Kat also had to read the extract from the novel in the Sunday supplement, although she wasn’t entirely sure why.
J.J. Horner had a reputation as a writer. He had a reputation for honesty and subtlety, and for understanding something about what they used to call ‘the human condition’ at school, although Kat was pretty sure that no one had called it that for at least the decade since she’d left. He had a reputation for being thoughtful without being maudlin, and for being romantic without being sentimental. He told a kind of truth that was universal, or so she’d read, and he was much admired for it. If that was the case, perhaps Joel’s writing could tell Kat something about him, perhaps it could tell her why he had done what he had done to her, because, frankly, she wasn’t sure that she could believe any of it.
She wasn’t sure about much, though.
Kat wasn’t sure where the real truth lay. She wasn’t sure whether the truth lay in his fiction, in his words to the World, or whether the real truth lay in his comments, in his words to her. Of course, his words to her, on her blog, were pretty damned public too, so maybe that said something about him, said something about his willingness to expose himself. That rather depended on what he said, though, on what his comment consisted of, and all she knew for sure was that it included a link, which might be anything, which might lead anywhere.
Kat rinsed her mug, dropped in a new teabag, and spooned in more sugar, albeit not as much as the first brew had contained. Then she took the steaming mug back to her bed, and sat there thinking.
She read through her sister’s messages again. She knew Ally better than she knew anyone, but she was so unsure of her own feelings that she was finding it hard to interpret the tone of Ally’s messages. She read them through again.
There was clearly some urgency in the messages, just the fact that Ally had sent them proved that. She was quite clearly telling her to read the comments, too: Joel’s comments, and Ally would never do anything to hurt her, so she must believe that reading Joel’s comment and following his link would somehow make Kat feel better. Kat’s problem was that she couldn’t see how anything Joel had to say to her could possibly make her feel better, especially not something he was prepared to say in front of the entire World.
Then Kat remembered the last comment he had left on her blog, and she remembered thinking that it was the nicest thing that anyone had ever said to her or about her... Ever.
The tears streamed down her cheeks, and for a minute or two, she couldn’t think of reading either the blog comment or the extract from the novel.
When it was over, when the sobbing finally stopped, Kat wiped her face on her sleeve, and sniffed hard. That was it, she was determined to have all her pain in one go. She simply couldn’t keep this up for weeks, it was all too much. Nothing could have prepared her for this. She hadn’t cried this much over all the men she’d ever dated put together, and she’d dated some of them for years more than the few months that she’d known Joel for.
She knew that she’d read the extract in the Sunday supplement. She was convinced that she’d learn something about Joel, and maybe something about herself because of it, but first, she’d read the comment on her blog, and she’d follow that link, because that’s what Ally wanted her to do, and Ally was her sister, and she loved her, and Ally always wanted what was right for her.
My name is Joel Gerber. Some of you might know me as the novelist, J.J. Horner, some of you might not. I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of books published and to have had some success, but I cannot claim to be hugely well known, and I’m certainly not a household name.
You all know me best as Barista-Bob.
Kat, or Kathryn, as I have come to know her, has told our story better than I ever could, and I would not argue with her portrayal of me for a moment. I am what she says I am. She is what you think she is; she is bright and funny, and warm and emphatic, and she is not only beautiful, she is so radiant that she lights up a room when she walks into it, and everyone sees it.
Somewhere along the way, somehow, I became the manipulative thief in her latest blog. I do not know when or how it happened, and I could not be more sorry that it did.
I never believed that Kathryn was ever anything other than noble and honest and wonderful, and I quickly came to adore her for those qualities.
If I was a cad or a bounder, if I was a thief, if I manipulated or hurt her, I shall ever despise those qualities in my character, and I shall ever hope that she can find it in her heart to forgive me, to forgive my behaviour, and perhaps, one day, to think more kindly of me than she does today.
I am by nature a private person, but most of what is written about me in the following article is true; the details that are not true are inconsequential to the whole. I hope that Kathryn will find the time to read it.
There followed a link to a page on Wikipedia dedicated to all things related to J.J. Horner and his work.
Kat didn’t know what to think. Joel had said some perfectly nice things about her, things that turned her stomach over, especially the stuff about how she’d told their story, and about her being radiant, but the whole thing was also a bit too self-deprecating, a bit too smarmy. Was he just trying to get them all on his side, all her regular readers? Was he just manipulating them, and, for that matter, her? And if he was, did he really think she was that stupid? Maybe he was just doing what he was good at, and maybe he’d just sucked Ally into his little game, too?
“Bastard!” said Kat. If he’d sucked Ally in, if he hurt her sister, or if he used her to get to Kat, then she really wouldn’t ever forgive him.
She thought about the link, but she really didn’t know whether she wanted to click on it. Then she thought about the other comments, but she didn’t really want to read them, either.
Kat closed her laptop and sipped at her tea. After two or three minutes, she opened her laptop, again, and read the comment for a second time. His writing was oddly formal, but also quite economical, sort of poetic and balanced, somehow, and she wondered if it was typical of his prose style. She wondered how long he’d thought about what he’d written, how honed it was, or whether the style came naturally to him.
He couldn’t have taken terribly long over his comment, because she’d only posted the blog this morning, and he’d commented fairly promptly by anyone’s standards. It seemed... aloof, somehow. The things he’d said were warm enough, but somehow, there was no warmth in the way that he’d said them, or, maybe, it was the other way around. She couldn’t decide.
Kat wished she knew something, anything, about literary criticism. Then she wondered if it would really make any difference at all to the way she felt, to the way that Joel and the things he said and didn’t say, and the things he wrote, made her feel about him and about herself, and about the two of them together. She thought, on the whole, probably not.
Kat left the computer open in front of her while she sipped at her tea. So, Ally had read the comment, and she’d been sufficiently convinced by it to click on the link, or, maybe she’d just been sufficiently nosy to click on the link; Kat could buy that.
Kat tapped the mousepad on her laptop so that the screen lit up, and she read the last paragraph of the comment again. In it, Joel had suggested, quite clearly, that the reader would learn something private about J.J. Horner if she followed the link and read the article. He’d suggested as much in the very first sentence. He’d then gone on to suggest that the link was for Kat’s eyes, perhaps for Kat’s eyes only, making it even more private, making the casual reader feel even more privileged to be let into the secret.
He was a clever man, Joel Gerber, far too clever for his own bloody good, but Kat could see right through him. Kat could and did and would see right through him. Perhaps, after all, Kat Adler did know exactly who Joel Gerber was; perhaps, after all, she did have the upper hand.
Holding her mug in her left hand, and still sipping, Kat clicked on the link, in the honest belief that nothing written on J.J. Horner’s Wikipedia page could have any effect on her, now. Joel had tried to manipulate her, and he had failed. She had the measure of him, and there was no way left to trap her, no way left at all.
“Shit! Shit! Fuck! I don’t... Fuck! I don’t believe it! Shit! What have I done?”
Kat put her half-empty mug down on her bedside table, as if in slow motion. She could not believe what she was reading. Her eyes were wide, and she was reading, slowly, back over the page, taking in every sentence, reading them one at a time, working over every detail in her mind. She had her hands one on each side of her face, and her eyes were open wide, unblinking.
She wanted to text Ally, or talk to her, but she couldn’t take her hands from her face, and she couldn’t stop reading the Wikipedia entry, over and over again, and she couldn’t stop looking at the picture of J.J. Horner and his beautiful, fragile wife. Kat wanted to tear her eyes away from it, but she couldn’t.
She took in every detail of the chiseled cheeks and nose; and the straight, but delicate brow; of the huge eyes and the full bottom lip; of the face-framing, elfin-cut hair; of the heart-shaped face, ending in the narrow, but soft curve of that chin. The face was so like Sarah’s and yet so different, so much lighter, somehow, less robust, more serious, despite the broad smile.
Joel looked exactly like Joel, except with his old hair. He looked exactly like Joel, right down to the pristine shirt, and he was looking at his wife with such sadness and such longing. Joel loved his wife, it was as clear as the rather large nose on his beautiful face. For a fleeting moment, Kat thought that she’d like him to look at her that way. Then she recognised the expression on his face; it was the same as the look he’d given her in the kitchen when he’d taken hold of her arms and told her that she was normal, that life was too short.
“Shit,” said Kat, and another tear trickled down her face. This time she wasn’t crying for herself, though, this time, Kat was crying for Joel and for Rebecca.
Then another tear came and another as Kat remembered all the things she’d thought about Joel since last night, and all the things she’d said about him. She remembered thinking that he didn’t deserve his wife, she remembered hoping that he’d lose her. She’d hoped that he’d been hurt by her leaving him as much as she’d been hurt by the revelation that he was married. Kat began to sob, her eyes closing, and her hands covering her face as her chin dropped down onto her chest.
She couldn’t see the picture of Joel and his wife through her tears, even if she wanted to, and she didn’t want to look at them. She didn’t want to feel that kind of shame and guilt.
She felt it anyway.
Joel Gerber had married the poet, Rebecca Disraeli, in 2005. They were both published, by then, but she had already won several prizes, and, if it were still possible in the twenty-first century for a poet to be a celebrity, she could be said to be one, with regular appearances on BBC 2’s Review show and on several radio programs, mostly on Radio 4. She was sharp and clever, and fearless in the face of a television camera and, for that matter, an audience. She, famously, had used the worst of the four-letter words on live television when it was still considered taboo, and had got away with it, because she had done it appropriately and with huge aplomb; it had even helped to establish her popularity in the hearts and minds of some of her less intellectual followers.
Rebecca Disraeli had died, suddenly and unexpected, two days before Christmas in 2007, of a stroke. She had been mourned with glassy eyes by the most hardened of all the television journalists, and by the hundreds of fans who left flowers at the gates of television centre.
Kat had been a fan of the poet, and remembered her death. She didn’t remember that she had been married to the not terribly well known novelist, J.J. Horner, at the time of her death.
That was five years ago. How could she possibly have known?
The problem was, Joel had clearly thought she had known.
Kat didn’t know how long she’d sat in bed crying, and, in the end, she didn’t know who she was crying for any more. Eventually, there were no more tears, and she felt exhausted... numb, but exhausted. She reached out and closed her hand around her mug of tea, but it was stone cold. The screen of her laptop had gone black, so she closed it.
She checked the time on her phone, and was horrified to find that it was almost two o’clock in the afternoon, and she still hadn’t texted Ally back. Everything else could wait, but she really had to text Ally. She had to text Ally, and then she had to make another cup of tea.
<Read it. Don’t know what to think. Talk later xxx> she typed, and hit send. It would have to do. If nothing else, it had the advantage of being the truth.
She felt calmer about Joel, calmer and better, and less hurt, but she still didn’t want to talk to him. She would want to talk to him again, and probably soon, but not right now.
Kat’s eyes hurt, and her stomach hurt, and she didn’t feel so much that she’d been betrayed by Joel as that she’d betrayed him, but that didn’t seem fair, either, not really.
She didn’t want to think too hard about it all, so she got out of bed to make another cup of tea. She might even force down a slice of toast if her stomach would allow it. She couldn’t tell whether she felt sick or hungry, but she hadn’t eaten anything since she’d forced down that lump of cheesecake, so she ought to try to put something in her stomach, and in the absence of good, homemade chicken soup, toast was about as good as anything else.
She made tea and buttered toast, and put it on her little tray to take it back to bed. It was the middle of the afternoon, so there didn’t seem much point even pretending to get up, now. Today must rank as one of the most emotional in her life, certainly the most emotional in her personal life, and she felt like a total novice, like a teenager who didn’t know how to handle herself. It was a strange, uncomfortable feeling, and all she could think to do was roll with it.
Back in bed, Kat ignored her phone and her laptop, and nibbled at her toast, leaving a broad, ragged crust, but kidding herself that she’d eaten something, and she drank her tea while it was still too hot.
When she was halfway down her mug of tea, Kat picked up the Sunday supplement, which fell open, again, at the page with Joel’s picture and twenty questions on it. She thought she was beginning to understand why he was so private. It stood to reason that he would want to protect himself after everything that he’d been through.
Joel’s tragedy had been only too public at the time, too sudden, and much, much too public. She could understand that Rebecca had really belonged to him, and yet the public had somehow annexed her, taken her from him when he probably needed her most. The public’s grief had mattered more to them than Joel’s. Even the funeral, which was supposed to be small and private, had been mobbed by so-called well-wishers.
Kat put down the magazine and sniffed back a tear. She couldn’t bear to cry, not any more, not today. When she thought the urge to cry was gone, Kat took another sip of her tea, and turned back to the supplement, skimming down through the article with the questions and answers. There was nothing there; it was just as she remembered it.
Then she turned two pages, past the double page spread advert for the fancy car, and the extract from Joel’s next book, ‘Palm Prints’, covered the next spread and then several columns on a number of pages after that. Kat couldn’t tell for sure, but she guessed there must be at least four or six thousand words. Someone at the Sunday paper really must like Joel’s work to give him so many column inches.
Kat took a deep breath and thought for a minute. Did she want to read this? Did she really want to read it?
She decided, as she had a couple of times already, that she’d take all her pain at once, thank you very much, especially if new light could be shed on her predicament. She was some way to understanding Joel, and she was some way to understanding how she felt about him, even if the prospect of really caring for someone scared her half to death, and even if the prospect of the kind of sex life they might have together scared her the other half.
This man, this relationship, might actually kill her!
Kat was some way to understanding Joel, and almost all the way to forgiving him. He shouldn’t be so bloody private, but she could learn to live with that. She honestly believed, feeling the way she did, that she could learn to live with that. She was private, too, about some things, at least. She could understand it. She could live with it. Who knew, maybe, one day, she could even learn to live in the shadow of someone as beautiful and as brilliant at Rebecca Disraeli.
She’d read the extract. She’d see what she could find out about J.J. Horner. She’d see if what she found out about him showed her someone different, showed her someone who wasn’t like Joel Gerber at all. Then she’d cross that bridge, too, just as she was prepared to cross all the other bridges for him... and for her.
She knew... She thought she knew, that she couldn’t see Joel, couldn’t speak to him, until she’d read his work, or some of it at least, and this seemed like fate. Bucky had cleaned his shirts, and Bucky had given her the magazine, and what had Bucky said about the story? Something about her being lucky, something about reading it ten times? What was it?
Kat took another sip of her tea and another deep breath, and she began to read the extract.
It didn’t begin at the beginning of something, it began somewhere in the middle, and it took Kat several paragraphs to realise what she had walked into the middle of.
When she realised, she began reading again.
She got halfway down the first page, and she stopped reading. She wanted to throw up, but she swallowed hard, instead, and drank the last of the tea in her mug in one large gulp.
Kat began to read again, not from the beginning, but from where she’d left off, and she didn’t stop reading until she had finished the whole extract.
By the time she had finished, Kat’s face was very white, and her eyes were big and dark and red-rimmed. There weren’t any tears left.
She suddenly felt very, very sick, and she half-staggered, half-fell out of bed, and hurtled into the bathroom, where she threw-up in the loo, a brown, liquid mixture of too much, too sweet tea with crumbs of toast floating in it.
Kat sat heavily on the bathroom floor.
“Bastard!” she said.
“How could you?
“How could you write about it?
“How could you write about sex, you bastard!” she said, clutching at the loo.
“How could you write about sex and then tell the World who you are, and use my blog to do it? How could you?”
The tears that she thought had dried up and were non-existent came anyway.
Kat put her forehead against the cold porcelain of the loo, and she let them come.
She could never forgive him. She knew that now. She knew, now, that she didn’t understand him, that she had never understood him.
How could he claim to adore her and then expose her like that? Defile her? Anyone who knew her, anyone who read her blog, anyone, anywhere would know who she was, and would know what J.J. Horner had done to her, because he had written all about sex in his sordid little book.
How could he do it? How could she live with the knowledge that he’d done this to her?
It was over. Whatever it was, whoever he was, and she felt as if she’d never known him, not for a moment, whatever she’d felt about him, and whatever she’d felt about any of it... it was over.
Kat Adler would never see or speak to Joel Gerber again... Ever.
From her place on the bathroom floor, her forehead against the cold porcelain of the loo, Kat heard her phone beep.
She had a message.
She ignored it.
Two minutes passed, or three, and the phone beeped again.
She ignored it.
Kat knew... Somehow, she knew that the messages were from him... She couldn’t even bear to use his name anymore, not even in her head... He was just ‘him’ now, and it didn’t matter how many times he messaged or how many times he commented on her blog... And it didn’t matter whether he duped his sister, although Kat would never forgive him if he he made a fool of Ally...
None of it mattered, because it was over. There was nothing left to say... There was nothing left between them...
He had betrayed her... And no one betrayed Kathryn Adler and lived on in her memory... No one... Not even him!
Kat woke up to the sound of Joel’s voice echoing in her ears.
“Thanks, Mark. Yes, this book has been a long time coming.”
“Why did it take so long, J.J? Was it classic writer’s block? Or was it more complicated than that?”
“No,” said Joel, and Kat heard his laughter.
How could he bear to laugh?
She opened her eyes. She vaguely remembered crawling into bed after the miserable hour she’d spent in the bathroom, and she vaguely remembered turning on the television for company, and turning off her phone. She didn’t want to speak to anyone, not even Ally, and certainly not Joel... Never Joel.
Kat blinked and rubbed her eyes, still aware of voices, but still not entirely sure that she wasn’t dreaming.
She looked over at the television. She wasn’t dreaming. Joel Gerber was sitting on a chair on some late show on the BBC and someone, Mark somebody-or-other, apparently, was talking to him about his book.
“No,” said Joel, again. “This book was published out of sequence. I actually wrote this book before my wife died.” He coughed slightly, as if suddenly a little nervous or reluctant about something.
“That was... How long ago, now? Why did it take so long to publish it? Was it something to do with the content? There really is an awful lot of sex in this book. If books were rated the way films are, this would be rated an X or an R, for the American market, surely?”
“My books always have a lot of sex in them,” said Joel, the smile gone from his expression. “I’ve built my reputation on it. I think if you could go back and ask Chaucer or Shakespeare, they’d both tell you that all the best stories are about sex and death. I think any writer worth his salt would still tell you that. I always struggle to write really good death scenes, so I tend to stick to sex.”
“You’re not averse to a little violence, though, are you J.J? And that’s well-demonstrated in this latest book... Sexual violence, even.”
“Sexual violence by consent,” said Joel. “Yes, this book does examine some of the psychology behind the less extreme forms of sex play between partners with a penchant for bondage and other sadistic and masochistic behaviours.”
“Isn’t that just an intellectual’s way of excusing porn?” asked the interviewer.
“That isn’t the first time I’ve been called a pornographer,” said Joel, smiling again. “In fact, Mark, that isn’t the first time you’ve called me a pornographer, and yet I can’t help noticing that you’ve made a pretty close reading of this and all of my other books, and every one of them examines some form of sexual behaviour in some detail.”
The interviewer smiled.
“I won’t pretend I’m not a fan, then, or for that matter a pretty friendly acquaintance.”
“In the interests of full disclosure and all that,” said Joel. It was clear the two men were on good terms.
Kat didn’t know if she wanted to watch Joel. She didn’t know if she could risk him smiling again... That smile. Every time he smiled it was as if he was smiling at her; it was as if something was taking a firm grip of her heart and trying to shake it loose from her chest.
Kat closed her eyes and slumped back on her pillows. She couldn’t stop listening to his voice, its tone and rhythms. Then the words began to filter through properly, too.
“Getting back to the question,” said Mark. “You wrote this book five years ago, and, in fact, you’ve published two other books since then. So, tell us, why did it take so long to publish this novel in particular?”
Kat lay absolutely still for a second or two. The silent moment between the end of the question and the beginning of the answer seemed to last forever, certainly for long enough for Kat to wonder whether she’d actually heard what she thought she’d heard. She wanted to watch Joel give his answer, but she didn’t dare to sit up or even open her eyes in case she inadvertently made some noise that caused her to miss his reply.
“I’d only just finished ‘Palm Prints’ when my wife died. I couldn’t face the edits and rewrites that I needed to do to get the thing ready for the publisher. I could barely have a conversation about it with my agent. I was grieving, and I couldn’t grieve for my wife and edit my book at the same time. It wasn’t fair to Rebecca, it wasn’t fair to me, and it wasn’t fair to the book.”
“So you waited?” asked the interviewer.
“So, I waited,” said Joel. “I wrote two other books. Then, I came back to ‘Palm Prints’ about a year ago, and it was a revelation. I might even make a habit of it.”
“Of putting books away and not looking at them for a long period of time?” asked the interviewer.
“I never realised how much of my own work I could forget, given the right circumstances. It really was almost like reading somebody else’s novel,” said Joel.
“Which begs the question of how much of your work is autobiographical,” said the interviewer. “You say you could forget your own work, which suggests that it doesn’t necessarily reflect your own experiences. Is that the case?”
Joel smiled again, but this time the smile turned into a short laugh.
Kat stared at the screen and watched as his mouth seemed to move in slow motion, the words not coming nearly quickly enough.
The scenes she had read... the sex... had not been their experiences, not exactly, but they had seemed true, real, memorable, sexy. They could have been about the two of them. She had believed he had been writing about the two of them.
“If I wrote science fiction, would you ask me if I’d ever travelled into outer space? Or met an alien? Just because I’ve had sexual relationships, must all the sex I write about be self-referential? Of course not. I write fiction. I write about characters in relationships, and I write about how their sexual experiences form their characters, and how their personalities dictate the kinds of sex they have and the relationships they form.”
“And coming back to the fiction after an extended period of time made a difference to the outcomes?”
“It made me see very clearly where work needed to be done, and what was already as near perfect as I could make it. It made me a much more decisive, and, I think, a much better editor of my own work.”
“And this is the end result,” said Mark, holding up a copy of the novel. “‘Palm Prints’ by J.J. Horner is available from all good bookshops now, and don’t be surprised if you see it on some of this year’s book prize shortlists, at the very least. It’s a revelation. Thanks, J.J.”
It was the same book.
Kat was sitting up in bed watching the television intently. The interviewer was sitting on the left of the screen, and Joel was on the right, with a small table between and just in front of them. The interviewer was winding up proceedings and had picked the book up off the table. It was a hardback edition of a novel with a distinctive grey dust jacket, which had a picture of a slightly forensic looking palm print on it. It could, Kat supposed, be mistaken on the bookshelf for a thriller. Kat thought that the grey cover was a cop-out; the cover should have been pink. The palm print didn’t look forensic to Kat, at all; it looked like the print that Joel had left on her thigh that first night in the Sofitel.
The dust jacket should have been pink, and Kat decided, right then, that the next time she saw Joel, she was going to tell him that the dust jacket to ‘Palm Prints’ should have been pink...
The very next time she saw him...