"Good Lord!" says a voice, "It is you, isn't it?"
"Adam." Too late to run, I flick through excuses in my mind.
"Where are you off to at this time of night, all spruced up?" He hasn't changed. Forget "How are you?" or "How nice to see you." And look at him: briefcase, black umbrella, Burberry raincoat the colour of choux pastry. Short, stockily self-important figure, square cleft-chin. Longish, thinning, not-very-regularly-washed hair. He has to be 45 now, though he has one of those eerily ageless, cryogenics-friendly faces.
I glance nervously around, marking my escape routes, "Oh, just an exercise class - my back."
He steps closer, nudging a whiff of aftershave in my direction, "I always had you down as the leotard type."
Let's not beat about the bush. This man is repulsive - so unbelievably repulsive that, when I first met him, about 10 years ago, I actually couldn't believe it. We were working together. "My problem," Adam confided over a Rombouts coffee in some Trusthouse Forte foyer the first time we met, "is that I'm far too talented for my own good."
I laughed incredulously. He frowned. "I mean, I deserve more recognition - a bit of fame, maybe, and certainly more money." (He'd designed a catchy but useless children's game. After a brief success, it was now gathering dust on the shelves at Hamleys.)
Adam complained a lot about money. His penthouse flat was in Holland Park and his wife, Pat - tiny, blonde, doll-like, speechless and wealthy in her own right - was expecting twins ("Double the expense," he moaned, "Think of school fees").
He was mean in the thick-skinned, Marie Antoinette-ish way. The first time I went to his flat for a meeting, I arrived at 10.30 prompt and at 1.30 was still there. At two he offered me a banana. "I should buy you lunch some time," he bantered unseductively. Just a cup of coffee at his house would have been nice.
His capacity for self-delusion was staggering. "I have this magnetic effect on women," he announced as he took me on a guided tour of his house (and told me exactly what the apricot silk wallpaper cost). "A sexual effect. They won't leave me alone." By then I knew him too well to laugh. Maybe he thought he had this effect upon me? I didn't want to know.
He finally took me for that lunch. It was the end of "the project" and a "thank you" for all the work I'd done. I had done a lot of work - even before you counted all the refreshment-free hours I'd spent hearing how rich he was, what an unacknowledged genius, and how his wife was too quiet, too pregnant, too everything for him.
The restaurant was smart but - frankly - not that smart. Adam complained about the service and muttered about the price of the wine. We were just finishing our first course when he said: "Look, let's not beat about the bush. You know what this is all about."
"Sorry?" I mentally darted back to the work. Wasn't he happy after all? Was there some problem I'd failed to pick up?
He narrowed his eyes at me. "It's us, isn't it?"
"Us. Oh, Julie, come on."
He dabbed his mouth with his napkin. A bit of salad clung to his lip. "I'm an attractive man. You're an attractive woman. Something's going on. We can both feel it."
I stared at him. This was worse than the very worst sitcom. "If you want to go to a hotel now," he said, "I'll pay."
I laughed. "You're not serious."
He looked at me.
"What are you expecting me to do at a hotel?" I asked.
He gave me an injured look. "Don't play with me."
"I can't believe you. What about Pat?"
He shifted in his seat. But not much. "She understands. She just wants me to be happy."
"I thought she didn't understand you?" I quipped.
He ran his hands through his hair impatiently, flung his napkin down.
"I'm not even slightly attracted to you" - I'd hoped not to have to say it - "You don't mean this, Adam. Let's forget you even said it."
The waiter prowled over with the pudding menu, but Adam frowned, waved it away. "Just coffee."
"Would I have been allowed pudding if I'd said yes?"
"You'll regret this," he said as we parted on the wet pavement (it was raining then, too). "Well, you've had your chance."
And now here he is. "How's Pat?" I ask him.
"Oh, soldiering on. Twins'll be nine in January. Don't have kids - I tell you, they drain you. Money, energy - the lot."
"I've got three," I tell him.
"My new business is doing even better than predicted," he continues. "Profits tripled since '91. I employ seven people now. I've got a house in southern Spain, a property in Arizona." He hesitates, jabs the pavement with the tip of his umbrella.
A light rain is falling - drops cling to his cheeks and nose like sweat.
"Well, you're looking delightful, as always. Where're you off to? We should have a drink some time."
I don't say anything - what is there to say? As I move away, I don't even look back. The rain is heavy now. The man in rags is still intent upon the bin, oblivious.Reuse content