A taxi is chugging outside in the road, and Tarquin ushers me inside. To be honest, I'm a bit disappointed it isn't a chauffeur-driven limousine – but still. This is pretty good, too. Being whisked off in a taxi by one of Britain's most eligible bachelors to… "who knows where? The Savoy? Claridges? Dancing at Annabel's?
Tarquin hasn't told me yet where we're going. Oh God, maybe it'll be one of those mad places where everything is served under a silver dome and there's a million knives and forks and snooty waiters looking on, just waiting to catch you out. But that's OK. As long as I don't panic. Just keep calm and remember the rules. Right. What are they, again? Cutlery: start from the outside and work your way in. Bread: do not slice your bread roll but break into little bits and butter each one individually. Tomato ketchup: do not ask for under any circumstances.
What if it's lobster? I've never eaten a lobster in my life. Shit. It's going to be lobster, isn't it? And I won't know what to do and it'll be hideously embarrassing. Why haven't I ever eaten lobster? Why? It's all my parents' fault. They should have taken me to expensive restaurants from an early age so I would develop a nonchalant savoir-faire with tricky food.
'I thought we'd just have a nice quiet supper,' says Tarquin, looking over at me.
'Lovely,' I say. 'Nice quiet supper. Perfect.'
Thank God. That probably means we're not heading for lobster and silver domes. We're going to some tiny tucked-away place that hardly anyone knows about. Some little private club where you have to knock on an anonymous-looking door in a back street, and you get inside and it's packed with celebrities sitting on sofas, behaving like normal people. Yes! And maybe Tarquin knows them all!
But of course he knows them all. He's a multimillionaire, isn't he?
I look out of the window and see that we're driving past Harrods. And for just a moment, my stomach tightens painfully as I remember the last time I was here. Bloody suitcases. Bloody Luke Brandon. Huh. In fact, I wish he was walking along the road right now, so I could give him a careless, I'm-with-the-fifteenth-richest-man-in-Britain wave.
'OK,' says Tarquin suddenly to the taxi driver. 'You can drop us here.' He grins at me. 'Practically on the doorstep.'
'Great,' I say, and reach for the door.
Practically on the doorstep of where? As I get out I look around, wondering where on earth we're going. We're at Hyde Park Corner. What's at Hyde Park Corner? I turn round slowly, and glimpse a sign – and suddenly I realize what's going on. We're going to the Lanesborough!
Wow. How classy is that? Dinner at the Lanesborough. But naturally. Where else would one go on a first date?
'So,' says Tarquin, appearing at my side. 'I just thought we could get a bite to eat and then… see.'
'Sounds good,' I say, as we start walking.
Excellent! Dinner at the Lanesborough and then on to some glam nightclub. This is all shaping up wonderfully.
We walk straight past the entrance to the Lanesborough, but I'm not fazed by that. Everyone knows VIPs always go in through the back to avoid the paparazzi. Not that I can actually see any paparazzi but it probably becomes a habit. We'll duck into some back alley, and walk through the kitchens while the chefs pretend they can't see us, and then emerge in the foyer. This is so cool.
'I'm sure you've been here before,' says Tarquin apologetically. 'Not the most original choice.'
'Don't be silly!' I say, as we stop and head towards a pair of glass doors. 'I simply adore…'
Hang on, where are we? This isn't the back entrance to anywhere. This is…
Pizza on the Park.
Tarquin's taking me to Pizza Express. I don't believe it. The fifteenth-richest man in the country is taking me to bloody Pizza Express.
'… pizza,' I finish weakly. 'Love the stuff.'
'Oh good!' says Tarquin. 'I thought we probably didn't want anywhere too flashy.'
'Oh no.' I pull what I think is a very convincing face.
'I hate flashy places. Much better to have a nice quiet pizza together.'
'That's what I thought,' says Tarquin, turning to look at me. 'But now I feel rather bad. You've dressed up so nicely…' He pauses doubtfully, gazing at my outfit. (As well he might. I didn't go and spend a fortune in Whistles just to be taken to Pizza Express.) 'I mean, if you wanted to, we could go somewhere a bit smarter. The Lanesborough's just around the corner…'
He raises his eyes questioningly, and I'm about to say, 'Oh, yes please!' when suddenly, in a blinding flash, I realize what's going on. This is a test, isn't it? It's like choosing out of three caskets in a fairytale. Everyone knows the rules. You never choose the gold shiny one. Or even the quite impressive silver one.
What you're supposed to do is choose the dull little lead one, and then there's a flash of light and it turns into a mountain of jewels. So this is it. Tarquin's testing me, to see whether I like him for himself or if I'm only after him for his money.
Which, frankly, I find rather insulting. I mean, who does he think I am?
'No, let's stay here,' I say, and touch his arm briefly. 'Much more relaxed. Much more… fun.'
Which is actually quite true. And I do like pizza.
And that yummy garlic bread. Mmm. You know, now I come to think about it, this is quite a good choice.
As the waiter hands us our menus, I give a cursory flash down the list, but I already know what I want. It's what I always have when I go to Pizza Express – Fiorentina. The one with spinach and an egg. I know it sounds weird, but honestly, it's delicious.
'Would you like an aperitif?.' says the waiter, and I'm about to say what I usually do, which is, Oh, let's just have a bottle of wine, when I think sod it. I'm having dinner with a multimillionaire here. I'm bloody well going to have a gin and tonic.
'A gin and tonic,' I say firmly, and look at Tarquin, daring him to look taken aback. But he grins at me, and gays,
'Unless you wanted champagne?'
'Oh,' I say, completely thrown.
'I always think'champagne and pizza is a good combination,' he says, and looks at the waiter. 'A bottle of Mot, please.'
Well this is more like it. This is a lot more like it.
Champagne and pizza. And Tarquin is actually being quite normal.
The champagne arrives and we toast each other and take a few sips. I'm really starting to enjoy myself.
Then I spot Tarquin's bony hand edging slowly towards mine on the table. And in a reflex action completely without meaning to – I whip my fingers away, pretending I have to scratch my ear. A flicker of disappointment passes over his face and I find myself giving a really fake, embarrassed cough and looking intently at a picture on the wall to my left.
Oh God. What did I have to go and do that for? If I'm going to marry the guy, I've got to do a lot more than hold his hand.
I can do this, I tell myself firmly. I can be attracted to him. It's just a matter of self-control and possibly also getting very drunk. So I lift my glass and take several huge gulps. I can feel the bubbles surging into my head, singing happily, 'I'm going to be a millionaire's wife! I'm going to be a millionaire's wife!' And when I look back at Tarquin, he already seems a bit more attractive (in a stoaty kind of way). Alcohol is obviously going to be the key to our marital happiness.
My head is filled with a happy vision of our wedding day. Me in some wonderful designer dress; my mum and dad looking on proudly. No more money troubles ever. Ever. The fifteenth-richest man in the country. A house in Belgravia. Mrs Tarquin CleathStuart. Just imagining it, I feel almost faint with longing.
Oh God, it could all be mine. It can be mine.
I smile as warmly as I can at Tarquin, who hesitates – then smiles back. Phew. I haven't wrecked things. It's all still on. Now we just need to discover that we're utter soulmates with loads of things in common.
'I love the ' I say.
We both speak at once.
'Sorry,' I say. 'Do carry on.'
'No you carry on,' says Tarquin.
'Oh,' I say. 'Well… I was just going to say again how much I love the picture you gave Suze.' No harm in complimenting his taste again. 'I love horses,' I add for good measure.
'Then we should go riding together,' says Tarquin. 'I know a very good livery near Hyde Park. Not quite the same as in the country, of course…'
'What a wonderful idea!' I say. 'That would be such fun!' There's no way anyone's getting me on a horse. Not even in Hyde Park. But that's OK, I'll just go along with the plan, and then on the day, say I've twisted my ankle or something.
'Do you like dogs?' asks Tarquin.
'I love dogs,' I say confidently.
Which is sort of true. I wouldn't actually like to have a dog – too much hard work and hairs everywhere. But I like seeing labradors running across the park. And the Andrex puppy. That kind of thing.
We lapse into silence, and I take a few sips of champagne.
'Do you like EastEnders?' I ask eventually. 'Or are you a… a Coronation Street person?'
'I've never watched either, I'm afraid,' says Tarquin apologetically. 'I'm sure they're very good.'
'Well… they're OK,' I say. 'Sometimes they're really good, and other times…' I tail off a bit feebly, and smile at him. 'You know.'
'Absolutely,' exclaims Tarquin, as though I've said something really interesting.
There's another awkward silence. This is getting a bit sticky.
'Are there good shops, where you live in Scotland?' I say at last. Tarquin pulls a little face.
'I wouldn't know. Never go near shops if I can help it.'
'Oh right,' I say, and take a deep gulp of champagne.
'No, I… I hate shops too. Can't stand shopping.'
'Really?' says Tarquin in surprise. 'I thought all girls loved shopping.'
'Not me!' I say. 'I'd far rather be… out on the moors, riding along. With a couple of dogs running behind.'
'Sounds perfect,' says Tarquin, smiling at me. 'We'll have to do it some time.'
This is more like it! Common interests. Shared pursuits.
And OK, maybe I haven't been completely honest, maybe they aren't exactly my interests at the moment. But they could be. They can be. I can easily get to like dogs and horses, if I have to.
'Or… or listening to Wagner, of course,' I say casually.
'Do you really like Wagner?' says Tarquin. 'Not everyone does.'
'I adore Wagner,' I insist. 'He's my favourite composer.'
OK, quick – what did that book say? 'I love the … er… sonorous melodic strands which interweave in the Prelude.'
'The Prelude to what?' says Tarquin interestedly.
Oh shit. Is there more than one Prelude? I take a gulp of champagne, playing for time, desperately trying to recall something else from the book. But the only other bit I can remember is 'Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig.'
'All the Preludes,' I say at last. 'I think they're all
'Right,' says Tarquin, looking a bit surprised. Oh God. That wasn't the right thing to say, was it? Change the subject. Change the subject.
Luckily, at that moment a waiter arrives with our garlic bread, and we can get off the subject of Wagner.
And Tarquin orders some more champagne. Somehow, I think we're going to need it.
Which means that by the time I'm halfway through my Fiorentina, I've drunk almost an entire bottle of champagne and I'm… Well, frankly, I'm completely pissed.
My face is tingling and my eyes are sparkling, and my arm gestures are a lot more erratic than usual. But this doesn't matter. In fact, being pissed is a good thing because it means I'm also delightfully witty and lively and am more or less carrying the conversation single handedly. Tarquin is also pissed, but not as much as me. He's got quieter and quieter, and kind of thoughtful.
And he keeps gazing at me.
As I finish my last scraps of pizza and lean back pleasurably, he stares at me silently for a moment, then reaches into his pocket and produces a little box.
'Here,' he says. 'This is for you.'
I have to admit, for one heart stopping moment I think… This Is It! He's Proposing! (Funnily enough, the very next thought that flashes into my mind is Thank God I'll Be Able To Pay Off My Overdraft. Hmmm. When he proposes for real, I must make sure to think something a bit more romantic.)
But of course, he's not proposing, is he? He's just giving me a little present.
I knew that.
So I open it and find inside the box a little gold brooch in the shape of a horse. Lots of fine detail; beautifully crafted. A little green stone (emerald?) for the eye.
Really not my kind of thing.
'It's gorgeous,' I breathe in awe. 'Absolutely… stunning.'
'It's rather jolly, isn't it?' says Tarquin. 'Thought you'd like it.'
'I adore it.' I turn it over in my fingers (hallmark good) then look up at him and blink a couple of times with misty eyes. God I'm drunk. I think I'm actually seeing through champagne. 'This is so thoughtful of you,' I murmur.
Plus I don't really wear brooches. I mean, where are you supposed to put them? Slap bang in the middle of a really nice top? I mean, come on. And they always leave great brooch-holes everywhere.
'It'll look lovely on you,' says Tarquin after a pause – and suddenly I realize he's expecting me to put it on.
Aaargh! It'll ruin my lovely Whistles dress! And who wants a horse galloping across their tits, anyway?
'I must put it on,'I say, and open the clasp. Gingerly I thread it through the fabric of my dress and clasp it shut, already feeling it pulling the dress out of shape. How stupid do I look now?
'It looks wonderful,' says Tarquin, meeting my gaze. 'But then… you always look wonderful.'
My stomach gives a flip as I see him leaning forward.
He's going to try and hold my hand again, isn't he? And probably kiss me. I glance at Tarquin's lips parted and slightly moist – and give an involuntary shudder. Oh God. I'm not quite ready for this. I mean, obviously I do want to kiss Tarquin, of course I do. In fact, I find him incredibly attractive. It's just… I think I need some more champagne first.
'That scarf you were wearing the other night,' says Tarquin. 'It was simply stunning. I looked at you in that, and I thought…'
Now I can see his hand edging towards mine.
'My Denny and George scarf?' I cut in brightly, before he can say anything else. 'Yes, that's lovely, isn't it? It was my aunt's, but she died. It was really sad, actually.'
Just keep talking, I think. Keep talking brightly and gesture a lot.
'But anyway, she left me her scarf,' I continue hurriedly. 'So I'll always remember her through that. Poor Aunt Ermintrude.'
'I'm really sorry,' says Tarquin, looking taken aback. 'I had no idea.'
'No. Well… her memory lives on through her good works,' I say, and give him a little smile. 'She was a very charitable woman. Very… giving.'
'Is there some sort of foundation in her name?' says Tarquin. 'When my uncle died-'
'Yes!' I say gratefully. 'Exactly that. The… the, Ermintrude Bloonwood Foundation for… violinists, I improvise, catching sight of a poster for a musical evening. 'Violinists in Malawi. That was her cause.'
'Violinists in Malawi?' echoes Tarquin.
'Oh absolutely!' I hear myself babbling. 'There's a desperate shortage of classical musicians out there. And culture is so enriching, whatever one's material circumstances.'
I can't believe I'm coming out with all this rubbish. I glance apprehensively up at Tarquin – and to my complete disbelief, he's looking really interested.
'So, what exactly is the foundation aiming to do?' he asks. Oh God. What am I getting myself into, here?
'To… to fund six violin teachers a year,' I say, after a pause. 'Of course, they need specialist training, and special violins to take out there. But the results will be very worthwhile. They're going to teach people how to make violins, too, so they'll be self-sufficient and not dependent on the West.'
'Really?' Tarquin's brow is furrowed. Have I said something that doesn't make sense?
'Anyway.' I give a little laugh. 'That's enough about me and my family. Have you seen any good films, recently?'
This is good. We can talk about films, and then the bill will come, and then-
'Wait a moment,' says Tarquin. 'Tell me – how's the project going, so far?'
'Oh,' I say. 'Ahm… quite well. Considering. I haven't really kept up with its progress recently. You know, these things are always-'
'I'd really like to contribute something,' he says, interrupting me.
He'd like to what?
'Do you know who I should make the cheque payable to?' he says, reaching into his jacket pocket. 'Is it the Bloomwood Foundation?'
And as I watch, paralysed in astonishment, he brings out a Coutts chequebook.
A pale grey Coutts chequebook.
The fifteenth-richest man in the country.
'I'm… I'm not sure,' I hear myself say, as though from a great distance. 'I'm not sure of the exact wording.'
'Well, I'll make it payable to you, then, shall I?' he says. 'And you can pass it on.' Briskly he starts to write:
Pay Rebecca Bloomwood
The sum of
Five hundred pounds. It must be. He wouldn't just give five poxy…
T. A. J. CleathStuart
I can't believe my eyes. Five thousand pounds, on a cheque, addressed to me. Five thousand pounds which belongs to Aunt Ermintrude and the violin teachers of Malawi.
If they existed.
'Here you are,' says Tarquin, and hands me the cheque – and as though in a dream, I find myself reaching out towards it.
Pay Bebecca Bloomwood the sum of five thousand pounds.
I read the words again, slowly – and feel a wave of relief so strong, it makes me want to burst into tears.
The sum of five thousand pounds. More than my overdraft and my VISA bill put together. This cheque would solve all my problems, wouldn't it? It would solve all my problems in one go. And, OK, I'm not exactly violinists in Malawi – but Tarquin would never know the difference, would he? He'd never check up.
Or if he did, I could come up with some story.
Anyway, what' ?5,000 to a multimillionaire like Tarquin? He probably wouldn't even notice whether I paid it in or not. A poxy ?5,000, when he's got ?25 million! If you work it out as a fraction of his wealth it's… well, it's laughable, isn't it? It's the equivalent of about fifty pence to normal people. I'm talking about pinching fifty pence. Why am I even hesitating?
Tarquin is staring at me, and I realize my hand is still inches away from the cheque. Come on, take it, I instruct myself firmly. It's yours. Take the cheque and put it in your bag. With a heroic effort, I stretch out my hand further, willing myself to close my fingers around the cheque. I'm getting closer… closer… almost there… my fingers are trembling with the effort…
It's no good, I can't. I just can't do it. I can't take his money.
'I can't take it,' I say in a rush. I pull my hand away and feel myself flushing. 'I mean… I'm not actually sure the foundation is accepting money yet.'
'Oh, right,' says Tarquin, looking slightly taken aback.
'I'll tell you who to make a cheque payable to when I've got more details,' I say, and take a deep gulp of champagne. 'You'd better tear that up.'
As he slowly rips the paper, I can't look. I stare into my champagne glass, feeling like crying. Five thousand pounds. It would have changed my life. It would have solved everything. Tarquin reaches for the box of matches on the table, sets the scraps of paper alight in the ashtray, and we both watch as they briefly flame. Then he puts down the matches, smiles at me and says,
'Do excuse me a minute.'
He gets up from the table and heads off towards the back of the restaurant, and I take another gulp of champagne. Then I lean my head in my hands and give a sigh. Oh well, I think, trying to be philosophical.
Maybe I'll win ?5,000 in a raffle or something. Maybe Derek Smeath's computer will go haywire and he'll be forced to cancel all my debts and start again. Maybe some utter stranger really will pay off my VISA bill for me by mistake.
Maybe Tarquin will come back from the loo and ask me to marry him.
I raise my eyes, and they fall with an idle curiosity on the Coutts chequebook which Tarquin has left on the table. That's the chequebook of the fifteenth-richest man in the country. Wow. I wonder what it's like inside? He probably writes enormous cheques all the time, doesn't he? He probably spends more money in a day than I spend in a year.
On impulse, I pull the chequebook towards me and open it. I don't know quite what I'm looking for really, I'm just hoping to find some excitingly huge amount. But the first stub is only for ?30. Pathetic! I flip on a bit, and find ?520. Payable to Arundel and Son, whoever they are. Then, a bit later on, there's one for ?7,515 to American Express. Well, that's more like it.
But I mean, really, it's not the most exciting read in the world. This could be anybody's chequebook. This could practically be mine. I close it and push it back towards his place, and glance up. As I do so, my heart freezes. Tarquin is staring straight at me.
He's standing by the bar, being directed to the other side of the restaurant by a waiter. But he isn't looking at the waiter. He's looking at me. As our eyes meet, my stomach gives a little lurch. Oh damn.
Damn. What exactly did he see?
Quickly I pull my hand back from his chequebook and take a sip of champagne. Then I look up and pretend to spot him for the first time. I give a bright little smile, and after a pause he smiles back. Then he disappears off again and I sink back into my chair, my heart thumping.
OK, don't panic, I instruct myself. Just behave naturally. He probably didn't even see you. And even if he did – it's not the hugest crime in the world, is it, looking at his chequebook? If he asks me what I was doing, I'll say I was… checking he'd filled in his stub correctly. Yes. That's what I'll say I was doing if he mentions it.
But he doesn't. He comes back to the table, silently pockets his chequebook, and says politely, 'Have you finished?'
'Yes,' I say. 'Yes, I have, thanks.'
I'm trying to sound as natural as possible – but I'm aware my voice sounds guilty, and my cheeks are hot.
'Right,' he says. 'Well, I've paid the bill… so shall we go?'
And that's it. That's the end of the date. With him peccable courtesy, Tarquin ushers me to the door of Pizza on the Park, hails a taxi and pays the driver the fare back to Fulham. I don't dare ask him if he'd like to come back or go for a drink somewhere else. There's a coldness about my spine which stops me uttering the words. So we kiss each other on the cheek and he tells me he had a delightful evening, and I thank him again for a lovely time.
And I sit in the taxi all the way back to Fulham with a jumpy stomach, wondering what exactly he saw. As the taxi pulls in front of our house, I say goodnight to the taxi driver and reach for my keys. I'm thinking that I'll go and run a hot bath and sit in it, and calmly try to work out exactly what happened back there. Did Tarquin really see me looking through his chequebook? Maybe he just saw me pushing it back towards his place in a helpful manner. Maybe he saw nothing at all.
But then why did he suddenly become all stiff and polite? He must have seen something; suspected something. And then he'll have noticed the way I flushed and couldn't meet his eye. Oh God, why do I always have to look so guilty? I wasn't even doing anything. I was just curious. Is that such a crime?
Perhaps I should have quickly said something made some joke about it. Turned it into a lighthearted, amusing incident, But what kind of joke can you make about leafing through someone's private chequebook? Oh God, I'm so stupid. Why did I ever touch the bloody thing? I should have just sat, quietly sipping my drink.
But in my defence… he left it on the table, didn't he? He can't be that secretive about it… And I don't know that he saw me looking through it, do I? Maybe he didn't. Maybe I'm just paranoid.
As I put my key into the lock, I'm actually feeling quite positive. OK, so Tarquin wasn't that friendly just now – but he might have been feeling ill or something.
Or maybe he just didn't want to rush me. What I'll do is, tomorrow I'll send a nice chatty note to him, saying thanks again, and suggesting we go and see some Wagner together. Excellent idea. And I'll mug up a bit about the Preludes, so that if he asks me which one again, I'll know exactly what to say. Yes! This is all going to be fine. I need never have worried.
I swing the door open, unbuttoning my coat – and then my heart gives a flip. Suze is waiting for me in the hall. She's sitting on the stairs, waiting for me – and there's a funny expression on her face.
'Oh Bex,' she says, and shakes her head reproachfully. 'I've just been speaking to Tarquin.'
'Oh right,' I say, trying to sound natural, but aware that my voice is a frightened squeak. I turn away, take my coat and slowly unwind my scarf, playing for time. What exactly has he said to her?
'I don't suppose there's any point asking you why?' she says after a pause. 'Well,' I falter, feeling sick. God, I could do with a cigarette.
'I'm not blaming you, or anything. I just think you should have. ' She shakes her head and sighs. 'Couldn't you have let him down more gently? He sounded quite upset. The poor thing was really keen on you, you know.'
This isn't quite making sense. Let him down more gently?
'What exactly…' I lick my dry lips. 'What exactly did he say?'
'Well, he was only really phoning to tell me you'd left your umbrella behind,' says Suze. 'Apparently one of the waiters came rushing out with it. But of course I asked him how the date had gone…'
'And… and what did he say?'
'Well,' says Suze, and gives a little shrug. 'He said you'd had a really nice time – but you'd pretty much made it clear you didn't want to see him again.'
I sink down onto the floor, feeling rather weak. So that's it. Tarquin did see me leafing through his chequebook. I've ruined my chances with him completely. But he didn't tell Suze what I'd done. He protected me. Pretended it was my decision not to carry things on. He was a gentleman.
In fact – he was a gentleman all evening, wasn't he? He was kind to me, and charming, and polite. And all I did, all throughout the date, was tell him lies. Suddenly I want to cry.
'I just think it's such a shame,' says Suze. 'I mean, I know it's up to you and everything – but he's such a sweet guy. And he's had a crush on you for ages! You two would go perfectly together.' She gives me a wheedling look. 'Isn't there any chance you might go out with him again?'
'I… I honestly don't think so,' I say in a scratchy voice. 'Suze… I'm a bit tired. I think I'll go to bed.'
And without meeting her eye I get up and slowly walk down the corridor to my room.