Julia closed her eyes for a moment; torn between concern for Rod and Angela, disappointment that their weekend away had been so suddenly curtailed, and experiencing a moment of blind panic at the thought of staying on at the hotel on her own.
The touch of a hand on her arm brought her back to reality and she opened her eyes to see him standing in front of her. “Are you okay? You look a bit upset.”
“I’m fine. My friend Angela has had to leave suddenly and I’m debating about whether I should go too. I’ve seen the main attraction after all.” She smiled.
He gave a comedy groan and shook his head. “Not quite the main attraction if you’re talking about me. I’m told that they have a hypnotist tomorrow who makes people act like chickens.”
Julia raised her eyebrows. “And that’s supposed to persuade me to stay?”
“No,” he shook his head and chuckled “but they’ve asked me to do another spot to round things off after lunch tomorrow – different material but along the same lines as today.”
“Does it help? Baring your soul to us all?”
He took a deep breath and looked upwards, marshalling his thoughts with care. “I think it does. I’m a total basket case beforehand but I do feel more relaxed and kind of cleansed after a performance. The laughter, the applause, the standing ovation, it’s all a kind of validation that maybe I’m not so weird after all. I hope you were crying with laughter though not sympathy for the pathetic wimp before you?”
Frowning, Julia folded up Angela’s note and put it in her handbag. “If you’re staying on, then so am I. The weekend has been paid for, there’s no washing up or having to shop for food and best of all you’ll be there to make me laugh again tomorrow. How could I go home under the circumstances? ”
“Thank you. I mean good. I mean – would you have lunch with me? Please? If it wasn’t for your intervention this morning I would probably have made a run for it and had to pay back my fee – plus compensation too.”
Julia looked around the entrance hall, aware that they were attracting some attention, particularly from a group of very pretty, very young girls who were doing their best to get him to notice them. “You’ve a bit of a fan club over there. I think I already know your answer but are you sure you wouldn’t like to?…it’s okay, I can see from the look of sheer terror in your eyes that lunch and adoration don’t mix. I’d love to have lunch with you and I promise not to fawn or drool.”
She watched as the tension dropped from his shoulders and his smile returned. “It isn’t the adoration, I don’t get much of that, and it’s usually just curiosity to see if I’m as neurotic as I say I am. Buffets are extremely difficult for me though. I don’t really like eating food after other people have touched it; well I don’t mind chefs and waitresses but some people are so messy and pick things up then put them back on the plate again.”
“You could ask them to put something on a plate for you straight from the kitchen? Come on, let’s have a look at what’s on offer and then have a word with the organisers. After the success of your performance I would lay money on it that you could ask for anything and get it.”
Leaving the giggling girls behind them they walked the length of the now devastated buffet table and came to the conclusion that there was nothing edible left anyway. Julia waved at a waitress who looked vaguely sympathetic and explained the situation . Fortunately she’d been one of the staff who’d been doubled up with laughter at the back of the room earlier on. She motioned them to a table set apart from the rest of the room and went into the kitchen.
She returned very quickly with two plates of bread, cheese, salad, pickles and a bowl of fresh fruit. “Chef had a couple of Ploughman’s ready to go out but he says you can have these and he’ll make up some more. He watched you too and says he hasn’t had such a good laugh for ages. Also says he doesn’t blame you for not wanting to touch the buffet after that lot have been at it. Those girls have been double dipping the crudités. Disgusting! Would you like fruit juice or water?”
“Can I have some orange juice and some sparkling water please? And for you Julia?” Julia nodded her assent and the waitress hurried off again.
“So are you Rich or are you Richard?”
“Depends on whether I’m being a stand up or sitting at my Mum’s for dinner. Mum is the only person who calls me Richard but I answer to both. Rich will do – although I’m not – rich I mean.”
Julia nodded, pleased that she wasn’t being classified with his mother at least. The waitress brought two bottles of sparkling water, a carafe of orange juice and two very clean glasses. Rich held his up to the light and smiled. “This is one advantage of being famous for a cleanliness compulsion. People go over the top in trying to make sure I don’t find any dirt on their glasses.”
Mindful that he had already expressed his dislike of chattering meal companions, Julia kept the conversation to a minimum until they’d finished eating; covertly watching as Rich identified the best parts of his Ploughman’s lunch and put them to one side to save till last. There were still a few grapes and slices of apple left in the bowl at the end of the meal and Rich lined them up in order of size and with a precision that made it a shame to eat them and spoilt the symmetry
“What do we have in store for us this afternoon?” he asked, moving an apple slice to make a new pattern.
“A contortionist, an illusionist and a man who makes animals out of balloons.” said Julia consulting her agenda.
“Really? I was going to crash out for a couple of hours but maybe …”
“I was lying. This afternoon we will be having a talk on religion and its impact on mental health issues. This will be followed by a display of craftwork made by leprosy victims who have lost their limbs. Stop smiling, that is not a joke. This weekend is billed as an ‘alternative experiences’ weekend. Angela felt it would be good for me – for us both.”
“I think I prefer your agenda, although I’ve always been a bit worried by balloons, unexpected bangs and all that. Can I ask you something please?”
“Ask away – unless it has anything to do with my age or my weight.”
“Neither. Will you still be here when I wake up?”
Julia smiled at the childlike honesty of his question. “I’ll still be here – well not here exactly – I expect they’ll want to clear this table soon. If the religious guy gets too much I may sneak back to my own room this afternoon and give Angela a call.”
“So if you’re staying, can I ask you another favour? Will you join me for dinner?”
“That’s not a favour, but shouldn’t you be sitting at the top table with the organisers?”
“Do you think I’d enjoy that?” “Not much. If you’re really sure, then yes, I’d love to. Having been abandoned by Angela, dinner with you is a far more agreeable prospect than being droned at by some dry old academic whose theories were all disproved years ago or having to make polite conversation with the Cheshire Set.”
“I’m renowned for my droning too. I’ll try not to though. If you change your mind and have to go home would you me let know? I’m in room 28.”
“I’ll bang on the wall, I believe we’re next door neighbours then. I’m in room 27. You’ll still cope if I’m not here though. You’ll be just as funny tomorrow – if not more so because you’ll inevitably get irritated by something in this hotel and have brand new material as a consequence.”
Julia stood up and went to pick up her bag. Rich was on his feet immediately, picked it up and passed it to her with a shy and hasty peck on the cheek. She smiled to herself as he hurried off to his room; it was a bit of a maiden aunt kiss, perhaps even a Mum kiss but a kiss nevertheless and more than any of the giggling girls had got. Double dipping in the crudités indeed!