The talk and subsequent discussion on the role played by religion in mental health issues turned out to be quite lively, although some of those bursting to put their point across evidently had more than a few issues of their own already. Julia sat toward the back of the room and watched mostly, realising that for some of the people present, this was the main reason for attending. She had a moment of guilt thinking of her own more selfish motivation but that passed. She had put her phone on silent but kept checking to see if there was a message from Angela. The discussion drew itself to a natural close when afternoon tea was brought in and a number of tables and display boards were set up at the far end of the room.
Julia stocked up on Christmas cards by mouth-painters, bought some hand-made wrapping paper and made a hefty donation. Desperate to escape the gushing pseudo-sympathy portrayed by the designer handbag ladies who were hell-bent on out-buying each other in an effort to appear altruistic, Julia slipped quietly out of the door and was about to go upstairs to the peace of her room when she was stopped by one of the organisers.
“Have you seen Rich at all? He’s disappeared and we were a bit worried that he might have left.”
“No, “ said Julia, “as far as I know he’s gone for a lie-down in his room. He’s asked me to have dinner with him so I’m assuming he’ll be around this evening.”
“That’s a relief although he’s rather picky about his food I understand.”
“Compulsive, not picky. What are we having for dinner?”
“Oh we’ve got a variety of dishes on offer; some of them quite unusual.”
“Ah. He’ll prefer to eat something he’s familiar with, and if you can do without him at the top table he’d rather eat somewhere quieter if possible.”
The organiser frowned, then realising that they had pulled of quite a coup getting Rich to do two sessions without having to pay any extra, decided to go along with what Julia requested.
“I’ll sort out a quiet table for you both and get a scaled down copy of the menu. Will that be okay?”
Julia beamed. “Absolutely wonderful. He’ll definitely be on good form tomorrow then.”
She decided to use the stairs rather than the lift and was tempted to put her ear to the door and discover whether Rich was asleep and snoring as she went past but decided that this was a little too much like stalking.
She called Angela and left a message saying that she’d had a lovely lunch with Rich and was meeting him for dinner too. Boasting, but she couldn’t resist after Angela’s comments earlier on. Deciding that a gentle nap in front of the evening news would be therapeutic, she turned on the television, taking care not to have the volume up too loud. Curled up on the bed with Angela’s pillows as well for extra luxury, Julia leaned back and closed her eyes having turned the volume back on her phone and set the alarm for six forty-five.
Her much-needed slumber was disturbed thirty minutes later by a text from Angela. Rod was home and what had appeared to be a heart attack turned out to be indigestion. Angela was staying put however as Rod was still traumatised by having been rushed to hospital in an ambulance and having to undergo a battery of tests. Sufficient to say Angela was green with envy about Julia’s acquaintanceship with Rich, but took full credit for it because it had been her idea to go away for the weekend anyway.
Julia snorted in response to this comment but sent a warm and loving message back, hoping that Rod felt better soon. She performed a cursory wash and brush up in the bathroom to wake herself up properly and having decided that her serviceable black linen trousers were still in reasonably good order, she took off the comfortable red shirt she’d been wearing all day and changed it for the more dressy black velvet tunic she’d bought on impulse the day before. The neck was low enough to enhance what she felt to be two of her best assets, but not too plunging. She pinned her long dark blonde hair up into a loose chignon, refreshed her make-up and decided that she didn’t look too bad really.
Just as she was debating whether to go and knock on Rich’s door, there was a gentle tapping sound that she knew could only be him. Quickly putting the pillows back on Angela’s bed and shoving her red shirt into the wardrobe, Julia checked round the room to make sure it would be tidy enough to pass muster. Not that she was entertaining any thoughts of having Rich spend any time in her room but she knew that if it was too untidy he would be compelled to come in and straighten things up before he could go for dinner.
With one last look in the mirror she picked up her handbag and walked to the door. Rich had also changed for dinner and the dark blue cord shirt suited him better than the polo shirt he’d been wearing with his jeans earlier on.
Julia smiled. “Did you get some sleep?” She watched Rich’s eyes dart round the room checking for flaws before she joined him in the corridor and closed the door. His shoulders relaxed and she felt a frisson of pleasure that her standards of tidiness had obviously met with his approval.
“Yes. Thank you , I slept very soundly considering. What time did you come back to your room?”
“About an hour ago, just to watch the news and get changed. I had a text from Angela as well. She’s not coming back.”
“Is she okay?” Rich’s shoulders were beginning to rise again and Julia felt quite flattered that this might be in response to a concern that she might go home now that Angela definitely wasn’t returning.
“She’s fine. It turned out that her husband had indigestion but he can talk himself into any illness when she isn’t there to keep him in line so she’s decided to stay home and pamper him.”
“But you’re staying aren’t you?” His anxiety was audible now as the pitch of his voice rose a few notes. Julia smiled and touched his forearm gently.
“I’m staying. Angela is very jealous that I’ve already had lunch with you and now I’m having dinner too. She’s decided that she is entirely responsible for my good fortune however.”
Rich smiled, “And mine. I dread the evening dinners even more than the buffets, especially when they decide to have loads of different dishes that I’ve never heard of let alone tasted.”
“I don’t think you need to worry about that. I asked if you could be excused from the top table too. I hope that was alright?”
Rich’s smile widened into a grin and he looked the most relaxed he had all day. They walked down the corridor and as they passed the lift she instinctively turned toward the stairs.
“I can do lifts,” said Rich “but it’s only one flight and if you don’t mind…”
“I don’t,” said Julia as she opened the door to the stairs. They walked down in what seemed to be a companionable silence but out of the corner of her eye she could see him counting and it was a relief when they reached the last one and Rich nodded in confirmation that the number of stairs was even.
The reception area was busy with hotel residents heading toward the restaurant and coming out of the leisure spa. Julia was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the dressed-up, the overdressed and the extremely underdressed; self-conscious in their slightly too short towelling robes and flimsy freebie slippers.
As they entered the restaurant, the organiser that Julia had spoken to earlier waved vigorously and came over to them.
“We’ve put you on a small table to one side of the main group; it shouldn’t be so noisy there. I’ve asked the waitress to leave both menus on the table. If there’s anything else you want, just call me – and I’ll sort it out for you.”
“Thank you – um – uh…”
“Yes, Amanda. Of course. I’m not very good with names I’m afraid.” said Rich.
Amanda rushed back to the top table and the waitress showed them to the more secluded and quiet alcove where their table had been set up. It was actually in a very good position for both of them to watch the other guests without too much danger of making eye contact. Rich looked happy and his smile grew even wider when he picked up the menu that the waitress had left for him.
“Rack of lamb – nice but fiddly, lasagne – okay but ordinary. Lancashire hotpot with red cabbage. Now that’s what I call soul food. Did you want a starter?”
“No, I’ll go straight in for the chicken and chorizo salad.”
Rich looked puzzled. “Have we got the same menu?”
“No, you have the simple no-messing-about menu and I have the fancy lets-see-how-many-different-cultures-we-can-cram-in menu. Do you want to have a look at mine? I warn you, there are at least three misplaced apostrophes.”
“No thanks,” Rich shuddered, “although the salad sounds nice, I’d rather have the hotpot.”
Julia smiled and sent up a silent prayer of thanks as Rich ordered a bottle of red wine. Once the waitress had taken their orders and moved away, Rich straightened up his cutlery, ensured that the pepper and salt mills were symmetrically placed, lined his water-glass up so that it mirrored Julia’s then relaxed again and leaning back in his chair looked quizzically at Julia.
“Okay. So you seem to be second guessing me about everything at the moment, are you a particularly intuitive person or have you been stalking me? In which case – should I be afraid?”
“I’m too old to stalk anyone. I haven’t the time nor the inclination. I’ve read your book however and seen you perform several times – not live – just on the television. I find that as I grow older, serious things just make me feel anxious and I prefer to laugh rather than be made unhappy.”
‘”That’s a good philosophy, I wish I could adopt it. You aren’t old though.”
“Thank you for the compliment but I think you’ll find that your mother and I are probably contemporaries. My children are only a couple of years younger than you.”
“You have children? So I suppose you have a husband too?”
“A boy and a girl. Twenty three and twenty-six years old with their own homes and their own lives. I had a husband but he’s been an ex for the past seven years. I live alone with my dog Spike and value my space after having had other people occupying it for so many years. I love it when my children and their partners visit but I’m equally relieved to see them go. My ex-husband pops in but never stays long. It’s usually when he’s in-between young models and needs some reassurance. He’s just married for the third time and I’m hoping that this one keeps him busy because she has more money than any of the others had.” Julia finished defiantly and took a reassuring sip from the glass of wine that the waiter had just poured for her.
Rich raised his glass in salute. ”If you’ve read my book, there’s probably not much about me that you don’t already know then. So, are you a glutton for punishment or do you have an affinity for obsessive compulsives?”
“Possibly closer to the latter. My father had many obsessive compulsive tendencies; he was never formally diagnosed but the behaviours got worse as he grew older and by the time he died it was almost impossible to even get him out of the house. His rituals got longer and longer until they took over and the smallest of actions had to be repeated at least fifty times. So you see, by comparison, you’re much easier company. We all of us have some element of obsessive compulsive behaviour; it just gets more developed in some than in others.”
There was a moment of awkward silence and Julia wondered if she might have said too much and made Rich feel like he was building up his compulsions in order to enhance his comedy role. She took another sip of wine but when she finally looked over at him, he was still smiling..
“I thought I might have upset you – but you don’t seem to be too perturbed?”
He shook his head, still grinning, “I almost feel normal. Most people think I’m totally weird and I’m more used to that kind of reception. I can’t say that I feel totally comfortable at the moment but that’s me – not you.”
Julia snorted and nearly choked on her wine. Rich’s face was initially deadpan and then he laughed too. The waitress arrived with their meals and the awkward silence passed. The other occupants of the restaurant were growing more rowdy as alcohol levels rose, but for Julia and Rich in their hidden alcove, their fellow diners seemed totally removed.