You couldn’t miss him – the man at the bar of the Rampaging Bull.
Tall, slender, in a charcoal suit and black Kurt Geiger loafers, he was sitting with an easy, casual grace on a bar stool. As I watched, he turned his head and caught my gaze, his eyes lingering for a second, tugging at me with an invisible thread. Then he looked away, running a hand through glossy, dark-brown hair cut to perfection above a sun-tanned neck.
I sipped my Sauvignon and wondered what he was doing here. In his well-cut threads he looked way too smart, too classy for this no-nonsense Norfolk pub. Most of the clientele consisted of lush women in short skirts out on the razz on a Friday night and big guys clutching pints of lager to generous bellies. But this man was something different. He was talking in a low voice to a weedy bloke who had his back to me, and whose wispy hair was held in place with plenty of hair product. As I watched, the weedy bloke held up his finger and ordered drinks for them both.
With a sigh I looked into my disappearing glass of wine, wishing I could scrape up the cash for another.
Early that morning I’d been sitting in my flat in Stoke Newington, sipping an espresso, admiring a clutch of purple tulips clustered in a white jug. The next thing I knew, a bailiff was hammering on the front door, yelling up at my window while I cowered behind the blinds.
‘Get down here! I’ve got an order for vacant possession.’
Yes, I’d received a letter from my money-grabbing landlord when I’d fallen behind with the rent, but I’d assumed I had a few weeks to get out – not a few days. When the bailiff stomped off, presumably to get reinforcements, I started packing. Fast. Now the jug, my furniture, clothes, and books were stored in my best friend Carola’s basement, and I’d exiled myself to Middleham, aka Back of Beyond, with just my battered Burberry suitcase and Epiphone guitar for company.
I’d fallen asleep on the train from King’s Cross and woken as it was bumbling through fens lit up by a huge, cloud-filled sky towards Cambridge. Soon after that the black soil gave way to reed beds, glistening ditches and flowered gardens as we rocked into Norfolk, with the train emptying at each small station, until we drew to a halt at King’s Lynn. After that I picked up a bus which swished through the gentle slopes of North Norfolk to the market town of Middleham. The landscape was so familiar: I’d been born and raised in King’s Lynn until the age of nine, when my mother left Dad and whisked me off to Devon. I’d not visited much since then – it was steeped in a sadness I wanted to leave behind. That solemn, small person living in a house where her parents were unhappy: that wasn’t me! I was Rags Whistledown, successful journalist at the heart of the action in London town.
Except that wasn’t me either. Not anymore. I was Rags Whistledown, out of work, out of funds and out of luck.
My phone’s ring-tone started up – Respect, by Aretha Franklin. My pulse did a huge thump. I fumbled the phone out of my bag. Let out a breath of relief. No, it wasn’t my landlord hassling me for money yet again, but Carola, my oldest and closest friend. Though we’re both the same age (43), she’s everything I’m not: sensible, solvent and married.
‘How’s it going, babes?’
‘Great! I’m here and in the local pub,’ I said, brightening up my voice because I was plucky Rags who never let anything get her down for long.
‘Yup. And the sun’s come out.’
Her voice softened. ‘It’ll be all right, you know. Promise.’
As she spoke I could visualise her calm, brown eyes, and wished they were here in front of me. We’d met as students, and had cheered each other on through thick and thin. She’d dried my tears and shared my plonk. She was also a mean bridge player, and once a month for the past two decades we’d met up at her house with two gay friends to play cards, drink wine and put the world to rights.
‘I’ll be fine,’ I said. ‘And it won’t be for long.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want to borrow any more money?’
‘Think of it as a prolonged holiday. Your stuff can stay in my basement as long as you want. You can rest while you’re there. Relax. Save some money. Bee Cool will be bringing in some dosh, won’t she?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘You may be fed up with writing her stuff, but she’s popular,’ said Carola, reading my mind as usual.
‘I know,’ I said, telling myself to be grateful. Bee Cool, my alter ego who churned out articles like Finding that Elusive Orgasm for glossy magazines, had just about kept me afloat for the past couple of years. Until my landlord doubled the rent.
Carola’s voice became brisk and encouraging. ‘Come on. At least the bailiffs won’t find you. You’ve had a crap time, but you’re a clever, resourceful woman. Things will look up.’ ‘Will they?’ I said, sounding forlorn even to myself.
‘Yes. Take some walks by the sea. Go to Holkham. Play the slot machines at Wells. My kids always loved going there.’
‘I don’t like slot machines.’
‘Then buy yourself some fish and chips.’ Even saintly Carola was sounding exasperated with me now.
The weedy bloke had moved off to sit at a nearby table. Mr Handsome was on his own. He looked over and held my gaze again, with a smile lifting the corners of his mouth.
‘What about debt counselling?’ said Carola in my ear. ‘It really can help.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘And you’re entitled to benefits.’
I drained the last drops of my wine. We’d been round this one before. I couldn’t face putting myself through the ordeal of the Job Centre. Now I’d got the crippling burden of renting a London flat off my back I planned to hide out in Norfolk, make some money and pay off my debts.
Mr Handsome lifted his glass of red wine and mouthed, ‘Drink?’
‘Rags?’ said Carola, her voice a tad irritated. ‘Are you listening?’
‘Sorry, babes. I’m losing my signal. Got to go!’
And I cut her off.
Turned out Mr Handsome was Michael Cleverly, an estate agent. We exchanged names. I told him mine was Ragnell, ‘but everyone calls me Rags,’ adding that I was named after Gawain’s wife. He gave me a blank look then moved on. After he’d presented me with a chilled glass of Sauvignon, he asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer.
‘Have you written a bestseller?’
Sigh. The question all writers get. ‘I write features for magazines.’
‘Contemporary issues, mainly.’ I wasn’t going to tell him I penned pieces that helped women up their orgasm count.
We chatted. I listened with half an ear, happy to be distracted from my woes, for Michael Cleverly was seriously well put together. Slim but not gangly, he fitted his clothes to perfection. He had charm, too: his grey-blue eyes watched me with keen attention as he listened to whatever came out of my mouth. Yet a couple of things made him more interesting than your usual run-of-the mill chancer. A scar ran through one of his eyebrows, and his voice had a thread of Norfolk backwater running under his estate agency accent that suggested he hadn’t come from money.
He soon steered the conversation towards the topic he really wanted to talk about: Cleverly-Made, his fledgling property development company. Turned out he was setting up a deal for an apartment block in the South of France (‘immaculate new build’) and looking for investors.
‘It’s a one-off opportunity to get an excellent return for your money. I can email the literature to you right now, if you’re interested,’ he said, pulling out a sparkling new iPhone.
I spluttered into my glass of wine. ‘Who says I’ve got spare cash lying around?’
He laughed, showing snowy teeth. ‘Or perhaps you’ve got friends who’d like to take advantage of my offer. A woman like you must be well connected. And I can guarantee that any investment will double within three years.’
Bollocks, I wanted to say, but didn’t, because being conned by him was much more fun than sitting on my lonesome. I knew why he’d targeted me – my Whistles dress and natty Hobbs ankle boots, a legacy from my days of earning a fat salary – but I wasn’t going to tell him that I’d fled London to escape the bailiffs over the little matter of £4,200 owed in back rent.
His mouth moved closer to my ear – close enough for me to feel the warmth of his breath. ‘Have I told you you’re the most interesting woman I’ve met in a long while?’
I laughed. ‘No, but please do,’ thinking that flattery is always welcome, particularly when you’ve had the day from hell. As he waxed lyrical about Cleverly-Made I tried to guess his age. Early thirties? He’d stopped talking now, and was smiling, his mouth half-open, as if he were about to say something of great importance, when suddenly he swayed to one side, almost losing his balance. I grabbed his arm, so he wouldn’t fall off the stool and make a complete arse of himself.
‘I think I’d better visit the facilities,’ he said, getting carefully to his feet. A burst of laughter erupted from behind us. I turned to see the weedy bloke and a couple of his pals doubled up with stifled giggles.
Daft, but I felt protective towards this bullshit-spouting show-off. Yes, he was a hustler, but I liked him more than the idiots laughing at him. ‘I’ll give you a hand,’ I said, then found myself blushing. ‘Not like that!’
‘I should hope not.’ His eyes, fringed in thick lashes, held mine. ‘I’m spoken for.’
‘I know.’ I’d seen his wedding ring, and he’d told me his ‘lovely wife’ would have dinner waiting for him when he got in, but we were only chatting, weren’t we?
I steered him towards the loos, but as we turned into the corridor, he stumbled and the pair of us ended up leaning against the cold wall. My mouth was inches away from his, and the scent of his woody cologne hummed through my tired body. I found myself hungry for a kiss that would blot out the crap day I’d had. Our mouths moved closer and ...
... and his phone beeped. With a jerk, he pulled back. ‘Sorry,’ he breathed. ‘Sorry about that.’ As he read the text a slow smile spread over his face, softening its sharp planes. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, he turned and headed for the Gents. I dashed into the Ladies and splashed cold water on my face. Dilated pupils looked back at me from the mirror. Just the thought of kissing him had made me dizzy, light-headed. I dithered in the loo for a bit, composing myself before heading back out to the bar, which was getting noisier as more booze was consumed. Be sensible, I told myself. Be sensible, and leave him alone. He’s married and you’re up shit creek. Nonetheless, the not-sensible me looked over to the bar stool he’d occupied all evening.
It was empty. He was gone.