I have this little fantasy. I’m walking down the street, on my way somewhere really cool, when I see Mike out of the corner of my eye. I’m looking good; I’ve lost a few pounds and have just got back from somewhere exotic, so I’ve got a nice tan. I’m walking along hand in hand with Pierce Brosnan, or maybe Russell Crowe—you know, so long as he keeps his temper under control. Or even Brad Pitt. I mean, I know he’s married to Jennifer Aniston and everything, but I’d only be borrowing him. The point is that I’m with someone gorgeous, glamorous, and obviously besotted with me. Whereas Mike is on his own and looks really lonely. His horribly thin blond girlfriend has left him and he is looking terrible. I can tell just from looking that things are not going well—he has lost his arrogant swagger and is sort of shuffling along the street. And when he claps eyes on me he suddenly sees how stupid he was to dump me. He immediately understands that things started going wrong from the moment we split up, and he realizes that he has never stopped loving me. He looks at me and smiles hopefully. Do I stop and talk to him? Do I, hell. I walk past, giving him a sympathetic smile as Pierce/Brad/Russell and I make our way to some glamorous party.
That’s the way it’s meant to go. That’s the way I’ve imagined it for the past two years. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always go as planned.
In reality, it’s Sunday afternoon when I bump into Mike. A dreary, rainy Sunday afternoon, and David and I are on our way back from Homebase, the hardware store; my curtains have fallen down and David has offered to help me put up a new rail. We’re walking along carrying this stupid iron rod thing and I’m not really looking at anything except my feet. So when a car slams to a halt next to us and drenches us with water, I go over to the driver’s window and start shouting stuff about Sunday drivers and people not looking where they’re going. I’m wet through and my new Jimmy Choos are ruined (I know I shouldn’t have worn them, but I was watching old episodes of “Sex and the City” last night, and was inspired to turn a boring shopping trip into a glamorous expedition by wearing high, frivolous shoes). And then the car window comes down and a really sexy face looks up at me and says “Georgie?”
I mean, I’m over Mike. I really am. And I’m also completely in love with my boyfriend, David. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten that Mike dumped me by leaving a note on the kitchen table. That after two years of running around after him, he didn’t even have the decency to say good-bye. Naturally, I think he’s despicable. And I’m very pleased that he never got back in touch (not even to see how I was or anything), because I have absolutely nothing to say to him. It’s just that I’d like to know, you know, that things have gone downhill since we broke up. That he can’t believe how stupid he was to leave me. That he hugs his pillow at night, pretending that it’s me. That he would do anything to get me back. Just so I can turn him down, you understand.
The thing is, Mike’s the sort of person people like me don’t usually get to go out with. I mentioned Brad Pitt earlier, remember? Well, Mike’s up there with him and Jude Law and Hugh Grant and Robbie Williams. He’s drop-dead gorgeous. Everyone loves him. When you walk down the street with him people stare. And for two whole years he was going out with me.
So there I am in the street, with hair stuck to my face, looking at Mike sitting in some amazing car, grinning. He starts saying something about how great it is to see me, and then he sees David.
I should probably mention that David and Mike don’t get on very well. Actually, they hate each other’s guts—done since school. It’s never been an issue—I didn’t start going out with David until after Mike left, and I haven’t seen Mike since. But it does make chance meetings like this a bit awkward. For a moment I kind of revel in the idea of two men staring each other out because of me, but then I start feeling a bit sorry for David. He’s always been the one who did well for himself, got a proper job and everything, while Mike has been doing sod all since leaving university (he didn’t do much there either by all accounts—he gets very sketchy when you ask him about his degree), and now here’s Mike in a swanky BMW looking like a pop star or something, while we stand on the road feeling cold and miserable. Or is that just me?
Either way, this is not the time for conversations with Mike. I have no time to compose myself and to suddenly appear cool and successful. So I tell him we have to be getting on (“you know,” I want to add, “got a couple of premieres to go to . . .”), then he winks and says “Bye, gorgeous,” and he’s off.
David and I stand by the road for a couple of minutes not saying anything. Like we’re not quite ready to go back to our boring existence just yet.
“Come on, darling,” David manages eventually. “Let’s go home and have a nice cup of tea.”
We get back to my flat and David puts the kettle on. David’s response to any crisis is to make tea. Which is good—I mean, Mike used to go out and buy a bottle of whiskey if things didn’t go his way. Tea is much better in my opinion.
I sit at the kitchen table, watching him methodically warming up the teapot (tea is important to David; it just doesn’t taste the same if you don’t use a pot) and adding the right amount of tea leaves. The curtain pole is leaning up against the wall and the rain is still pouring down.
“Is that the first time you’ve seen Mike since—”
“Yeah.” I’m trying to sound uninterested, but since Mike drove off I’ve been going over and over our encounter in my head. What did I look like? How did I come across? Did he look single?
“Okay? Of course I am. Why shouldn’t I be? Actually, I think he looked rather podgy. Don’t you think?”
I want to talk about Mike, I want to discuss in minute detail everything about our meeting, to analyze every look and nuance. But I can’t, not with David, anyway.
“Really? I couldn’t tell,” says David in measured tones.
“Must be all that good living.”
“Oh come on—the car, his clothes. He’s obviously doing well for himself,” I say, as airily as I can. I hope I don’t sound as bitter as I feel.
“Mike doing well for himself? More like doing well off of someone else,” says David evenly as he swirls the teapot.
“You think his girlfriend is rich then?”
I haven’t met or seen the girl Mike left me for. For all I know he could be on his fifth girlfriend since me, but I always picture him with the same person, and I generally imagine her to be incredibly annoying and rather stupid. All I know is that she is blond and thin. My neighbor saw her picking him up in a Mercedes when he walked out on me. He didn’t remember much about her—although he described the car in detail—but I could tell from what little he told me that she was your average nightmare. Pretty. Long legs. You know the sort.
“Girlfriend, parents, friends—anyone he can get money out of.” David brings over two mugs of tea and a packet of biscuits and sits down opposite me. I sometimes forget how good-looking David is—he’s got a really strong face and gorgeous blue eyes that twinkle when he smiles. Maybe not quite in Mike territory, but pretty tasty all the same.
“But enough of Mike,” he says very slowly. “I think right now we should forget the stupid curtains and watch a good film instead.”
I sit down on the sofa with a hot cup of tea, and David walks over to the shelf to pick out a video. It’s only done for show, because we always end up watching the same one.
There are two films I know by heart and back to front. One of them is Footloose (owing to a teenage crush on Kevin Bacon), and the other is Roman Holiday. I don’t know exactly why, but David and I have watched it at least twenty times, and I never get bored of it—it’s so sad, so funny, it’s set in gorgeous Rome, and Audrey Hepburn looks just amazing. She plays a princess who has to spend all her time going round meeting people and making speeches; Gregory Peck is a cynical American journalist who’s trying to make enough money to get back home. She escapes from the embassy for one night and meets him, then they spend the day together before she goes back to being a princess—having fallen in love with him of course. Oh, and he realizes who she is and decides he could get a front-page story out of it, then doesn’t go through with it because he falls in love with her, too. Okay, so it’s not particularly realistic, but still. The first time we watched it, we were transfixed. And right afterward, David murmured in my ear “I’m going to take you to Rome, my darling. I’ve going to hire one of those scooters and I’m going to take you wherever you want to go.”
I mean, how romantic is that? I have that picture in my head a lot—me being like Audrey Hepburn, floating around in pretty dresses, and David being like Gregory Peck, all manly and hard but warm in the center.
Of course we haven’t actually been to Rome yet—David’s always really busy with work and stuff—but we’re going to go. Definitely. I actually bought some plane tickets to Rome about a year ago, as a surprise. I’d arranged with David’s PA for him to have a Friday off and I was going to turn up at his office on Thursday evening and whisk him off for a long weekend. But then on the Monday before there was a huge crisis at work and he had to go to New York on short notice. I didn’t actually tell him about the tickets to Rome because I didn’t want him to feel bad. Still, there’s always this year. David has promised me that he’s going to take a proper holiday this year, so nothing’s going to stop us.
I lean my head on David’s shoulder as the film begins. Already I’m a European princess and he’s my sexy bit of rough.
Except that David isn’t quite Gregory Peck, if you know what I mean. He is solid, dependable, respectable, and generous. He’s also an accountant—and I can’t imagine Gregory Peck spending hours looking at boring numbers, can you? Actually, David’s what you call a forensic accountant, which is perhaps a little bit nearer Gregory Peck territory. When he told me, I thought he meant he was going to be working for Scotland Yard, but he told me it isn’t that sort of forensic. But it does sound better than numbers crunching; forensic accountants trace dodgy dealings and stuff. Like once he was working on the divorce settlement case of some really rich businessman, and his job was to track down the numerous offshore bank accounts where the husband had put all his money so he didn’t have to give any of it to his wife. And another time he was investigating this drug ring that had bought up a whole load of property in London. Last year his firm even started working for the Fraud Squad, and now he gets to work with the police and secret intelligence and people like that. But that’s about as much as I know. Somehow David makes exciting things like breaking drug rings sound really quite boring—lots of detailed investigations into balance sheets, and no breaking down doors and shouting “Hold it right there.” I guess he’s still an accountant; he just happens to be an accountant who works for the Fraud Squad and that’s just not the same, is it? Not that there’s anything wrong with being an accountant or anything, but they don’t tend to be cool and strong, silent types. Come to think of it, they don’t usually get invited to particularly good parties either. Unless you count the Accountancy Age Awards, that is, and I don’t.
Mike, on the other hand, is a bit nearer the mark. He never really had a job, as such, but he is a really good DJ and record promoter (I’ve only heard him DJ once and he was a bit drunk, but he told me about how he could have been more famous than Pete Tong if he’d wanted to), and he’s really well connected and stuff. Like, if you want to go to a gig, he can always get guest-list passes. And whenever you read an article on some new model or musician or actress, Mike always knows them. At least he did two years ago, but I can’t imagine he’s changed that much.
Sorry, I was talking about David, wasn’t I. Okay, so David is really nice. He’s “take home and meet the parents” nice. He earns quite a lot of money I think—we always go to nice restaurants and he never lets me pay unless we go to Pizza Express. He’s also got a really nice flat in Putney, on the river.
I first met him at a dinner party that my old school friend Candida had “thrown.” Candy is not like most of my friends—she has “chums” named Rupert or Julian and she has “soirees” instead of parties. Anyway, I was at a loose end and Candy thought a dinner party might be fun, so I dutifully bought a cheap bottle of wine, put on some lippy, and took the Tube to her Notting Hill flat.
I love going to Candy’s flat, not that I’ve been there for ages; I kind of fell out of touch with Candy a bit before I met David again. To be honest, we never had that much in common; we used to live near each other when I was younger and we kind of stayed in touch. But her flat is gorgeous—stucco-fronted, with a huge garden that’s shared with the other houses in her street. And it’s huge: three bedrooms, a sitting room, and a separate dining room. I mean who has room for a dining room when they live in London? Not me, certainly. Which is probably why I don’t have dinner parties very often—or ever, actually.
As soon as I got to Candy’s I realized I’d made a huge mistake. She was all dressed up in this incredible backless number, and seemed to have half forgotten that she’d invited me when I arrived. And then, after she’d introduced me to all her boarding school “chums” and I was just beginning to relax, Bridget and Ralf, one of the couples there, announced that they had just done a wine tasting course at Christie’s and were going to deliver a verdict on all the wines on the table. Thinking that my £2.99 Château de somewhere in Eastern Europe would not hold its own against the expensive-looking French wine already out, I made my way to the kitchen to hide my wine at the very back of the fridge, figuring that no one cares what wine tastes like when you’re on the eighth bottle. Except that someone stopped me before I could get there.
A very good-looking guy dressed in black and in Prada trainers grabbed my hand and called out really loudly “Candy, one of your guests is trying to sneak her wine out.” I turned a horrible puce color. I couldn’t remember his name even though we’d been introduced about five minutes ago, but decided I hated him already.
“Needs cooling,” I muttered, trying to get past him.
“Rubbish,” he said in his public school tones, prising the wine from my hand. “I think it’s already cold enough in Bulgaria, isn’t it?”
He was laughing and I smiled thinly. Everyone in the room had stopped talking at this point and was looking awkwardly at me, not quite sure what to say. And then someone came to my defense. A rather sweet-looking bloke wearing chinos with a shirt tucked in walked over.
“Bulgaria has actually won some major prizes for its wine-making recently,” he said seriously. “And 1999 was a particularly good year in some regions.”
I smiled gratefully and took my bottle back from the Prada-wearing bastard who had mortified me in front of people I’d never met before. He laughed again and wandered off toward two girls who immediately kissed him and laughed loudly at everything he said. I realized that the guy in chinos was still standing next to me. “I’m David,” he said. “It’s very nice to meet you.”
Of course, it took another two and a half years before I started seeing David. That night I ended up sleeping with the guy who was rude about my wine. He was called Mike and we left halfway through the meal because his hand was inching under my skirt and I couldn’t believe that someone so gorgeous was interested in me.
David was very good about it. I bumped into him about six months after Mike left, and he asked me out to dinner. And then he asked me out again. He was so sweet! He called when he said he would. And now he’s helping me put my curtains up. I mean, how nice is that?
Excerpted from When in Rome... by Gemma Townley. Copyright © 2004 by Gemma Townley. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.