When Simone orders us a dessert to share called ‘For Your Favourite Lover’ (a Malaysian dish, Rojak Mamak), I think that’s it. I’ve made the top three. When I ask her outright she smiles a smile that says you’re right but I don’t want to say it out loud. I don’t know how she makes her face do this but it’s all there. It’s a kind of shoulder-shrug pursed lip smirk. Hard to describe.
Now I know the odds I can’t help but wonder what the other two might have that I don’t. Distinctive jaw-lines, maybe. Good jobs. Maybe they can wear skinny jeans and desert boots and not look squat like a sandwich bag full of soup. When I tell Kevin about this new development he immediately says he knows someone that might be able to find out who I’m up against.
“I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“Keep your enemies closer,” he warns.
“I wouldn’t say they were enemies.”
“They’re unknown entities, they’re the competition. That means they’re not on your side, which makes them the enemy,” he pours me another glass of wine. “I once knew a man who kept a profile on every person of significance in his life. His father, his daughters, his dry-cleaner…”
“Why? Was he afraid of something?”
“He was afraid of everything. He was a paranoid schizophrenic. He had a breakdown eventually. He lives in Phuket now, at a spa. Very rich in-laws. Provided everything for him. But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s possible, reasonable even, if you’re in the right frame of mind.”
He takes a mouthful of red from his own glass, swirls it around, plumps out his cheeks.
“His dry cleaner?” I ask.
He swallows, “yes, his dry-cleaner. Mine is a wonder. No-one can be that good without being desired, required, without having their fingers in a few pies.”
I think about this for a moment. It would be helpful to know who else she was dating, to maybe even plan a strategy. But I’ve never been wily enough for games. If I try to look more than two moves ahead all I can see are empty squares.
Kevin sees the defeat in my face and says, “don’t settle for bronze. Don’t even think that third would be acceptable,” then he takes a comb from his wallet and smoothes down his moustache. “Shall we go out then?”
Out on the street taxis water-plane creating tidal waves around sharp corners. Kevin steps forward to hail a hackney, slim fingers wiggling in the air and grabbing everyone’s attention. In the back seat he twirls a cigarette, asks the driver, “do you mind?” even though every window and the back of each fold-down seat has a no-smoking sticker attached to it. The driver shakes his head so Kevin continues to roll the filtered end between his finger and thumb.
“She said once that we, each one of her paramours, complement different parts of her personality. That one of us isn’t more apposite than any of the others.”
“What does that mean?”
“I just don’t know. Is she looking for a reflection? Someone who’ll finish her sentences? Or is she looking for her opposite, like a complement in a colour-wheel?”
“Interesting. So you like Fred Astaire, she likes westerns, it’s a match made in heaven, for example?”
“Yes, possibly. Wait, are those opposites? Anyway I can’t think of anything she’s mentioned that I’m on the other side of.”
“So maybe it’s the other thing then. Maybe you’re the same. Just here please!” The taxi jerks left and pulls up next to somewhere that sells Czech beer under low lighting. Kevin rummages in his pocket for change and drops a fistful in the plastic tray by the driver’s courtesy window, “maybe it means that she’s got an insecure side that she likes to hide with South American red wines; that she’s envious of runner’s calves too.”
I met Simone at a party. She was holding hands with everyone she spoke to like a child at nursery school, moving around in these pairs all night, to the kitchen, to the patio, to the bathroom, cupping hands like quotations marks around comments. Men and women instinctively followed her lead, recalling that feeling of how great it was to have someone when the class was told to partner up, how terrible it was to have to be the one to hold the teacher’s hand. Each one of us, everyone whose hand she tugged out of nonchalant pockets, or emptied of a glass, or pulled towards her across other people’s conversations, clung to the idea that we were special, waiting for a signal from her to suggest we might hold hands with her for longer than a discussion on Fassbender, frozen yoghurt or Gus Fring. And so we stayed far later than we should, till the host was in bed and empty bottles and bowls crowded every surface, till everyone had run out of cigarettes and someone was sent to the nearest 24-hour to buy more. She wasn’t smoking and neither was I so while the rest of them stood outside and pulled the life out of their fags in three deep drags, we cut limes in to wedges for tequila, the only booze left in the house.
“Oh did you cut yourself?”
“No this lime juice is getting in a paper cut I gave myself today.”
“Good. I can’t stand blood,” she said and put my fingers in her mouth, ran her tongue across their tips and stripped them of the citrus sting.
I didn’t get the chance to explain how it happened. That I was reading Frank O’Hara, fumbled the front cover and caught my thumb, thank you very much. We downed three shots and she took me home.
Jason says she’s more likely to be interested in my honesty.
“What did she say at the start? That she wanted openness?”
“Yes,” I say.
“And that wasn’t code. She has been incredibly direct about the whole thing.” It’s true, from the get-go she was pragmatic. Monogamy was a misconception. She liked sex so why should she restrict herself. “So maybe that’s what she’s attracted to, your sincerity. The second conversation we ever had was about the size of your nipples,” he says.
We’re walking through the park towards a hardware store. Jason needs picture hooks. And I like the idea that the people in the shop might think I’m handy.
“Was that off-putting?” I ask.
“Not at all. It was nice that you shared and it meant I knew you, and your cup-and-saucers, a little better.”
He stops to buy an ice-cream from a van that’s always here, even on damp days. He looks like a pudgy child as he licks the end of the flake from his 99, crumbs falling to in to his brassy beard. I try to scrape mulched leaves from the bottom of my loafers on a railing to give us an air of adult nonchalance, but I lose my balance and have to hop myself right like a cartoon animal that’s stubbed its toe.
“If she sees herself in you, or something in you that complements her, just keep being what you are.”
“And what’s that?” I ask.
He pauses, surveys, makes an association.
“Like Michael Pitt in The Dreamers.”
“Didn’t his sister seduce him in that film?”
“I don’t think that was him, but if she did it was because he was just that darn attractive.”
The three of us, bronze-silver-gold, running through the Louvre trying to find the Mona Lisa feels a little too on the nose.
I decide to be honest with her over dinner. In response she asks what I think she might see in me.
“My maths is ok. I can read a map. And I’m a published poet of course.”
“When was that? You’ve never told me about that before.”
She hasn’t got the joke. Instead she is drawing a big tick next to my name in her mental pro and con list. I think about lying, but putter instead like an old car.
“I-well-I-I was eleven. It was a school project. Some of us got in to the local gazette. Don’t you remember? I told you the other day.”
She looks at me, not blinking her brown water-buffalo eyes.
“It was very postmodern though,” I say, “it was about the creative process and the nature of inspiration.”
She doesn’t say anything, just smiles at a waiter as he passes by our table, then smiles in the direction of the barman who’s tasting the drink he’s just made by dipping a straw in to the glass, holding his thumb over the top then supping the trapped liquid at the other end. He seems to think it’s ok because he nods to himself, impressed by the flavours, then puts the glass on a napkin, on a tray with a bill placed on a small, silver dish. The waiter brings it over to our table, gives it to Simone, and even upside I can see that it reads ‘***COMP***’. Maybe she knows this isn’t really what I’m after, maybe she’s just bored. And I know that if I ask her about this place, how often she comes here and with who, she won’t answer. She’s said once, and she won’t say it again, that how she divides her time is not up for discussion.
Instead I ask, “what is it you see in the others?”
“One is a banker but also an excellent cook.”
“That’s fine, I own a calculator and have excellent taste,” I say.
“One owns a French patisserie.”
“That’s a shame, all those anti-social hours.”
“And you’re a programmer.”
“Which means I’m very organised and always on time.”
When I tell Kevin this he immediately picks up his phone, scrolls through his contacts and dials.
“Adam! How are you?…Great, great. Listen, I’m putting together a party, something quite small. Do you still own that fantastic little bakery of yours?…Oh I see, I see. Well good luck with that…Adam? Who runs the place now? Do you have a number?”
He picks up a pen from an empty fruit bowl and scratches a number down on the top of the coffee table in front of us which is made out of old palettes. I lift up a newspaper and find a dozen more numbers; this table, it seems, is his address book.
“Okay, that’s great…This evening? No I’m terribly busy I’m afraid, bye!” He hangs up the phone and throws it down on to the sofa next to him.
“Shame,” he says, “that guy’s an idiot. We could have taken him down, easy. But it’s not him. It’s someone called Richard.”
“But there’s got to be more than one French patisserie. Are we being a bit presumptuous?”
“No because that’s the only one that anyone would boast about owning. It’s all mismatched furniture, soft lighting, posters from the ‘20s. It’s woefully trendy. Nothing classic about it at all.”
“Do they do those fruit tarts with the confectioners custard and the sugar glazes?”
“I believe they do.”
The cafe’s round here are called things like ‘An Epicure’s Delight’ or ‘Partridge and Sons’ even though the business hasn’t been run by a family for 50 years; but the signs look vintage and that’s all that matters. It’s enough to lure a certain kind of people in.
We’re on the other side of the road to the French patisserie, a little ways down the street, watching strollers and shoppers and diners go in and out of the small row of independent businesses as we sit on a wall and Kevin smokes.
“Look at the size of those prams. Honestly, they might as well be sedan chairs. ‘Make way for Theodore, Prince of Hyndland!’” He conducts a parade with his cigarette.
“What did he sound like on the phone?” I ask.
“Unreasonable. No weight behind his voice. I imagine he has very thin arms.”
“Did he sound like he might be good at giving head?”
Kevin’s amused by the question, “and what would that sound like? A tongue so big he struggled to get the words out? How does a circular-breather speak? Without pausing for breaks?” He laughs at himself then says, “why do you ask?”
“That’s one of the things she said, that one of us was good at it. I always thought I had that going for me. I’m very…focused,” I point this out with four fingers shaping them like an arrow.
“Perhaps it’s a ploy, to make you up your game. Think about it, what is she saying to the others? It’s a smart tactic.”
I wonder if she’s really thought that hard about all this. Perhaps this is what she does for a living.
Kevin stubs out his cigarette leaving an ashen streak on the white wall, “Come on then,” and stands to straighten his slacks.
“I’m nervous,” I say, my knees bouncing up and down
“There’s absolutely no need. He has no idea who you are. You’re simply a friend of mine who’s come to help me pick up some baked goods for a party. Let’s go, I’m so intrigued by all of this, it’s really very entertaining.”
He bounds towards the pelican crossing and taps the button continually until the lights change. We cross the road and pause to look at the window display before we go inside. It’s incredible. Cakes with dozens of delicate layers, pastries that look as if they might crumble into dust if we stared at them for too long, bright fruit singing under the hue of syrupy coats of sugar and egg.
“The quiches, oh look at the quiches,” Kevin moans, “I’ve never seen a spear of asparagus like that before. Look at the way it glistens.”
We are both mesmerised.
“Oh god, he’s going to be amazing isn’t he?”
“He’s putting himself at a distinct disadvantage if we’re more interested in his baked goods than him.”
Kevin goes to open the door.
“Wait a second. How do I look?” I turn to the side, tilt my chin up and give him a stern gaze.
“Like someone not to be trifled with. Ha! Trifle.”
“That’s not even…you don’t get desserts in a patisserie.”
He pushes the door and holds it open for me as I walk past. I turn my back as soon as I’m in, I can’t quite bring myself to look at him directly yet, so I glance at the shelves of preserves. From behind me I hear Kevin announce himself and I know he’s put his hand over the counter to shake his, to get the measure of this guy.
“Thanks for doing this Richard. I didn’t give you a lot of notice did I?”
“It’s not a problem. Adam, he spoke of, mmm, how…what good parties you throw.”
“Er, yes, well. We were just talking about how great your window display is, weren’t we? We can’t wait to taste what you have for us.”
This is my cue. I turn around with my look in place but as I do another customer bowls in bringing with her a gust of wind that blows motes, a croissant crumb, a pastry flake, something into my eye so when I greet him my face is lopsided, scrunched up and then stretched out, left lid firmly closed ‘til it begins to water and I have to turn away to tend to it.
“What did he look like? I couldn’t see him, he was all blurry.”
We’re walking away towards the bus stop, I’m stemming the flow from my eye with the cuff of my sweater.
“Did you hear the way he swerved me? It’s Adam the wee prick. He’s been bad-mouthing me. Jesus Christ how dare he. This city is like a sewing-circle. I say something, one time, and it’s everywhere.”
He swings two bags full of boxes of baked goods violently back and forth as he strides towards the shelter.
“What did you say to him? Adam, I mean,” now my nose is running, clear wetness that drips from the tip and down, caught in my cupid’s bow till it overflows.
“I asked him once if he preferred tattooed women.”
“Hold on,” I have to stop for a second to wipe my face with the back of my hand, rub my eye some more, even though I know this will do no good what-so-ever, “why is that offensive?”
“His wife has a couple of tattoos.”
“They aren’t anywhere you’d be able to see with her clothes on.”
Kevin flags down a bus and pays for my fare, my hands are too sticky to effectively fish for change. We move down the bus to the back row where we won’t be over-heard. He tugs the knees of his slacks as he sits to make space for himself, his long legs leaning like italics leaving little space for the likes of me. Kevin has a way of alienating the company he keeps, to stay one step-ahead of them.
“Will there be consequences? Will you be shunned by the patisserie community?”
“No no, nothing that drastic,” he’s calmed down, like a toddler soothed by the motion of a moving vehicle, “it just makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“But you love people talking about you.”
“Yes, yes, that’s true. I just prefer it when I’ve set something in motion on purpose.”
Everything he does is on purpose. Even this. It’ll help him, somehow, to act hurt. He’ll twist it to his advantage.
My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket, buzzing my ribs, “it’s Jason,” I say, “shall we get a drink?”
“Okay,” he says, “but I have to be back in the office by three.”
He doesn’t have an office. And he’s never had to do anything by 3pm in his life.
“Except be born,” he says, after I tell him this, “my mother only had the birthing pool ‘til three then another woman in the commune had it booked. In fact I was very punctual. 2:51pm.”
Jason gets the answer to the question I first asked.
Kevin says, “he’s got pock-marked skin. Grey eyes. Hands as soft as balm-infused Kleenex.”
All of these things, I think, are plus-points. I imagine Edward James Olmos in a chef’s hat, and he doesn’t look silly, he looks devastating. We’ve opened a couple of the boxes on our table to help share Kevin’s burden. I’m on to a second slice of a chocolate-almond tart which is so good it makes me mad.
“Don’t eat your feelings, it’s not healthy,” Kevin is completely serious.
A waitress comes over to drop off our tray of drinks and scowls at our consumption of outside food as she unloads the glasses.
“Here, please take these to share with your staff,” he hands her a box of tarts, “they’re fresh-bought today and they’re wonderful, aren’t they?”
I nod. The waitress seems unsure but Kevin flips the lid of the box and suddenly her face radiates in the glow of golden pastry cases, tropical-green pistachios and flushed raspberries. She smiles, thanks us, and walks away appeased. Richard. Rich-ard. His cakes can solve crises. I could spit, but I want to hang on to the flavour of frangipane.
Jason asks, “I wonder if you all look different? You know, one blonde, one brunette, one red-head?”
“At least that would avoid a goldilocks situation,” Kevin says, “I’m not sure if your Caucasian colouring is ‘just right’. You get a bit freckly when you’ve had too much sun.”
The next time I see Simone I ask her about this and she says, “yes, precisely, I want a Benetton advert of boyfriends.”
Her smile suggests she’s being sarcastic, but she’s quiet for a moment and I think even if she is joking, she might quite like the idea. Maybe I’ve opened the floodgates.
But then she says, “I had to dump the baker.”
I’m startled by this. I wonder if she knows that I found him out, sourced his trade. Maybe this is against her rules.
“A taxi-driver asked us if we were brother and sister. There are enough incestuous elements to this arrangement as it is.”
The banker went to university with her, and in between then and now he dated her flatmate. It’s a small city and we’re all running in circles.
“I understand,” I say, “when I’m out with my sister people often assume we’re a couple, which annoys me because I think I could do so much better. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s a handsome girl…”
I let this trail. Finally, I’ve figured out the math.
“And then there were two?” I ask.
She shakes her head.
I don’t hear from her for a while and I think it can only be a good thing. She says I shouldn’t see it as a competition, to concentrate on her, on me, on us together, but the anxiety of it all made my gall bladder reflux. Being unfettered was fine for her. It gave her a kind of glow but made me pallid.
“You shouldn’t keep concerns to yourself,” Kevin says, “why do you think I look so young? Because I talk about everything. No emotional stone left unturned, no worry lines.”
It’s true. His skin is smooth and tight and lightly tanned like a ten-year-old boy’s after the long summer holidays.
“See it through to the end,” he says, “it’s the only way to relieve the tension.”
When I finally muster the nerve to call her she says she’s moved in with someone. I don’t ask with who, it’s enough to know it isn’t me.
“I wanted to let you and the others know in case it makes you uncomfortable. I know for some that co-habiting is, um, what is it they say?”
“Serious,” I say, which is another way of saying undeniable, indefatigable.
She’s quiet for a second, then says, “I guess I was thinking more, impractical.”
She laughs to let me know how humourless she thinks I am, then asks, “so what do you think? Are you willing to cross a threshold?”
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that, but this does seem like a good time to put our arrangement to bed.”
“You want to go to bed?”
“No, no, sorry, that was a poor choice of words,” I’m relieved, honestly. I’d rather not be in the game at all if I have to always try to win. It’s too tiring. I need something for my ego though, “what was my placing? I mean, now that my race is finished, what placing would you give me?”
She says, and I think she means it, “you were my favourite lover.”
Later Jason asks, “well what does that mean? Biggest? Brashest? Boldest?”
“Perhaps all three,” Kevin suggests.
I decide to agree with this. To celebrate we go to a place where we can drink gin with cucumber, gin with black pepper and strawberries, gin with lime-rimmed glasses. It’s a wooden-floored bar with garden furniture and a conservatory at the back where bands play. It’s busy and this outfit has a brass section, so we huddle, become conspiratorial, cup our hands around each other’s ears to make ourselves heard. After disappearing for twenty minutes, Kevin comes back from the toilet with a teary Richard who insists on buying us all drinks. He’s not how I imagine him at all. He has short, curly hair that bounces with energy and bulging, astigmatic eyes. He’s sincere, not aloof.
“He was snivelling about being dumped,” he says to Jason and I while Richard’s at the bar, “so I gave him a hug and he burst into an apology about the way he was with me at the patisserie. Said he shouldn’t have listened to Adam,” he takes a triumphant sip from my glass, “I might be able to take him down yet.”
“To being better,” Richard says when we have fresh drinks in hand.
“Adam’s a prick!” Kevin says, instead of repeating the toast, but his enthusiasm is fitting so we allow it.
There’s clinking and sipping and complements for the cocktails.
“We’re like the musketeers,” Richard says.
I wonder if, later, when we’re full of the night and empty-headed we’ll fight over which three he meant and who’ll get to play D’Artagnan.
Laura Tansley’s creative and critical writing has appeared in Butcher’s Dog, Gutter, The Island Review, Kenyon Review Online, New Writing Scotland and is forthcoming in lowercase lit and The Ostrich Review. She is also co-editor of Writing Creative Non-Fiction: Determining the Form (Gylphi). She lives and works in Glasgow.