The fine drizzle that had started just before the end of the fireworks was turning into a steady downpour and temporarily put a dampener on any passion. Rich grabbed Julia’s hand and they ran in through the nearest patio door; managing to avoid most of the would-be gamblers and finding themselves in a deserted lounge. Julia sat down on a high-backed chair, determined not to get into another clinch, Rich grinned and lounged on a small sofa opposite.
“So, what are we talking about then?” he asked.
Julia shrugged, “We don’t have to talk. We can go and spend money that we haven’t got or dance to music that we don’t really like, or …”
“,,,or? What do you want to do Julia?”
At that moment, she really wasn’t sure. There was a part of her that wanted to throw caution to the winds and drag Rich up to her room, but at that point the fantasy changed into a reality and she started to think of the practicalities: which bed would they use? Would Rich rather they went to his room and would he send her back to her own room afterwards because he wanted his own space? If he decided to stay the night with her, would he stay in her single bed or move into Angela’s? Would he need to have a shower immediately afterwards? Would he think her disgusting if she didn’t have a shower immediately afterwards? Whilst she felt she had a grasp of most of Rich’s compulsions, the complexity of his disorder could spring any number of surprises and she began to wonder if she wasn’t too old and set in her ways to cope with anything as new and unsettling as embarking on an affair with a man half her age and with enough compulsions to satisfy the research needs of all the crusty academics at the conference and still have some left over.
Undoubtedly Rich had already thought of all these things, but would he have come up with solutions or was he waiting for her to come up with them? Julia suddenly felt tired, very tired and very middle-aged. Had she completely lost the knack of all this flirting business, was she just woefully out of practice or was it just that her current lifestyle was far more appealing?
Rich had been waiting patiently for some kind of a response to his question but his paranoia began to creep in. He leaned forward and tapped her gently on the knee. It made her jump and brought her back to reality.
“Sorry Rich. I was turning things over in my head. What is it that you want to do? I don’t want to impose myself on you.”
“You aren’t. Let’s go upstairs to my room and talk. All the time we’re down here there’s a possibility that scary Amanda will come and talk to me about a friend who washes her hands at least a hundred times a day and is therefore just like me.”
He had a point. Julia laughed and stood up. She felt that Rich had sobered up enough to be rational about whatever he decided to do. The hotel lobby was empty save for the night porter behind the reservations desk. He was engrossed in a book and barely acknowledged them as they walked past. Rich counted the stairs on the way back up and seemed gratified to find that no one had added another step during the evening.
It took three swipes before the key card unlocked the door to Rich’s room, he stepped aside and ushered Julia through. Once inside she put her bag down precisely on the coffee table, waiting to see if he would put it somewhere else that felt was more appropriate to him. The bag stayed where it was. She watched him going through the ritual of checking that the door was shut properly and that the card was placed, together with his car keys, in the ornamental ashtray on the dressing table. That done he turned back to her and took her in his arms once more; not kissing her yet but holding her very closely.
“I still want to know why you can know what I want to do before I do it. I know you said that you’d read my book and seen me on the television but so have a lot of other people and they don’t seem anywhere as empathic or understanding as you.”
She could feel his lips against her neck; soft butterfly kisses that were making her stomach flip. She shivered and tried to keep some hold on what she thought was reality.
“My parents were devoted to each other and that made it much easier for my father to function fairly normally. My mother had a stroke though and died shortly afterwards. Losing her made his world fall apart. My kids were still young then but they were out at school all day, Andy works in promotions and was away most of the time. I became my father’s carer and had to learn how to deal with his compulsions. I have a few of my own – as do we all and probably as a consequence of all the time O spent with Dad, and I must admit some of my compulsions are bothering me right now.”
“Should we compare compulsions? Mine are rearing their ugly heads too.”
Julia smiled and broke away from him, seating herself on the winged armchair by the window. Rich perched on the bed, watching her intently and absent-mindedly pleating the green floral cover between his fingers.
“Who’s going first? This could be excruciatingly painful.”
Julia shook her head. “It doesn’t need to be. If we can be honest with each other there won’t be a problem – or not as much of a problem anyway. This is what I meant by damage limitation. Tell me what you want to do Rich?”
He took a deep breath and got to his feet; walking slowly towards the window before stopping and turning to Julia.
“If you’ve read my book you’ll know how crap I am at relationships. You’ll also know that I haven’t been in a relationship with anyone for some time and that I have an uncanny knack of screwing things up before they even begin. That said, the people I meet usually see me as an oddity, they’re often initially attracted to me by the celebrity thing, but ultimately annoyed or repulsed by the level of my compulsions. You’ve almost made me feel normal today – or at least acceptable anyway. Not only that but I’m very attracted to you and if I wasn’t such a neurotic mess I would have dragged you into bed by now and we’d be making mad, passionate love – probably.” Rich gave a nervous laugh and Julia could see that he was afraid he’d said too much and offended her. She looked down at her hands; trying to focus on something in the room that wasn’t part f the fantasy.
“Does it help if I say that the feeling is mutual?” said Julia. “I’m very attracted to you and it has nothing to do with the celebrity status. I can’t deny that your compulsions fascinate me but they certainly don’t repulse me. I wish I could allow myself to be dragged into bed without any thought for the consequences of my actions but that’s an area where my own issues lie. My mind is currently so occupied with practicalities that I’m almost as stressed as you are.”
“Tell me about the practicalities then?”
“Okay. I’m too old to go ripping off my clothes in hotel rooms. If I’m going to do anything in a bed I like to have brushed my teeth, had a quick wash and be wearing the appropriate apparel. Anything other than sleep also demands a dab of Chanel No 5 behind each ear and at least a trace of lipstick. You have a king size bed, I have two singles. Your room is more suited to mad passionate love-making but I can’t even think about anything like that when all my belongings are next door?”
“We could bring them in here?”
“We could but we’re still both a bit drunk and things look different in the cold light of day. Do either of us want to experience that awful feeling of regret tomorrow? Do I want to find myself curled up in a strange bed with a man who feels embarrassed by his indiscretion of the night before and is inwardly cringing?”
“You’re doing both of us an injustice now. Do you think I’m that shallow – or that I would find you unattractive when I’m sober? I was sober this morning when you rescued me from the receptionist, and when we had lunch together. The alcohol this evening has made me more brave but not foolhardy.”
“I’m too old for one-night stands and too wise to expect anything more.”
“I’m too insecure to risk getting into relationships that I know will be doomed by my own issues. That’s why I’ve spent so much time avoiding them. You’re the first person for such a long time that I’ve actually relaxed with. Perhaps you can save me from myself? Or am I asking too much?”
“Oh Rich. Life must be so easy for people who can be spontaneous. “
“Yes, messy. I agree but at the moment we’re both tiptoeing around each other. We’re both scared of committing to anything that might disrupt our nice ordered lives, to causing offence to each other by saying or doing the wrong thing and at the same time we’re both desperate to be held; to be wanted by someone else for however brief a moment that might be.”
Rich sat down on the bed again, his head in his hands and Julia had to fight very hard against the impulse to go to him and push all the fears and compulsions aside. Somebody had to make a decision and however hard it was, she knew it had to be her. She stood up, a little unsteadily.
“Thank you for inviting me into your space Rich, but if I share it with you tonight you’ll have nowhere left to go but home. I’m going back to my own room now. I’m going to get changed for bed, have a wash and clean my teeth. I may watch a little late night TV. I’m going to leave Angela’s key card next to the phone here so you won’t get it mixed up with your own. If you feel the need for company, for someone to hold you or you find a spider in your bath, feel free to use it. There’s a spare bed in there and no one has slept in it so you can still have your own space. I won’t be offended if you stay where you are and I’d love to have breakfast with you in the morning if you want me to. I’m very much looking forward to hearing you speak again tomorrow and the time we’ve spent together has been a delight.“
Stopping briefly to drop a kiss on top of his head, she left the key card by the phone and returned to her room without waiting for the response that she knew he was trying desperately to make.
Julia got ready for bed; enjoying the softness of the old blue cotton nightshirt she always took with her when she went away. She looked in the mirror after brushing her hair and removing almost all of her make up and didn’t feel too disappointed by what she saw. A faint wisp of hope made her pick up the perfume bottle and dab it in the appropriate places. Most of her lipstick had gone but there was still enough to prevent her from looking thin-lipped and washed out.
Her own damage imitation system had set in now; weighing up all the cons that might be involved in a relationship with Rich. She’d spent years having her life dominated by her father’s neuroses and her husband’s infidelities. Her life now was what she had built for herself; rules set by her in accordance with her own wants and needs. A home of her own with all her books and precious things, a front door that when locked kept the world outside away from her, a job that fulfilled her, good friends and a loving family who knew when to visit and when to leave. Spike was the only unpredictable force in her life and provided he was fed, watered, walked and cuddled regularly, he didn’t really present a problem. Did she really need any complications in her life right now?
Half an hour of waiting was enough; Julia turned out the bedside light and rolled over onto her favourite side clutching a pillow instead of the lonely, lovely man next door.
On the other side of the wall Rich sat in the bath. There was no water. Just Rich, wrapped in a dressing gown, in a foetal curl with a bath towel over his head to block out any outside intrusions. He often sat like this for hours at home. It felt safe from everything in the world that bothered him. But Julia hadn’t bothered him. She had understood him and made sure that so many of the things in life that irritated and disrupted him on a daily basis were taken care off. Even his mother didn’t have as much insight into the devils that ruled his life. He weighed up the pros and cons of his situation. He liked Julia. He enjoyed her company and she seemed to enjoy his. She had her own life, she must be successful in whatever it was that she did – or she wouldn’t be able to afford to employ Angela as a PA. She had salvaged his weekend and made him feel that perhaps there might be someone there who could do more than just tolerate him. But what did he have to give back? A picture rose in his mind of a relationship with Julia that consisted of him visiting her but always going back to his own house, his own space. Would that be enough? It would suit him surely but would Julia want more than that? Would she be able to tell him or would their relationship be doomed to more endless pussyfooting around for fear of offending each other.
At exactly three o’clock in the morning Julia heard a noise that made her stomach flip and dispelled every con she could think of. She smiled sleepily as she pictured Rich slipping into Angela’s bed only a few feet away and she was happy that he felt safe enough to leave his own space in order to share the room with her.
There was a slight draft however as the duvet moved and she felt his body, slightly chilled and not very relaxed, climb in beside her. The last of the cons flew out the window, to be replaced by the discovery that their mutual need seemed to have triumphed. Things would never be the same again but nothing else mattered when she turned to him and he kissed her.