On the importance of realism

Isn’t it about time we stopped kidding ourselves?

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling this year, and I’m beginning to wonder how many more times I’m going to be able to take a plane without becoming one of those people who gets dragged off by security staff, shrieking and in handcuffs, before it’s even left the tarmac.

It’s not that I have a fear of flying. It’s that I have a very strong aversion to bullshit. In this case, the fake sense of security provided by the safety briefing.

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I blame Norwegian Air. Their ridiculous animated version takes the whole thing to the ultimate pinnacle of farce. The happy smiles of the mother and child as they go calmly through the evacuation procedure make the whole thing seem like just another fun ride at Disneyland. This is so clearly not an emergency. Let’s face it, in the real world the two of them would most likely be screaming while other passengers trampled over them in their eagerness to escape.

But it’s not just Norwegian who are at fault.

ryanair

This is a Ryanair safety card. The three pictograms centre left, showing things prohibited during an emergency landing, represent:

  • false teeth and glasses
  • high heels
  • earrings

Srsly? The plane’s coming down at an insane angle, the alarms are shrieking, the passengers are hysterical and you expect me to remember to take my earrings out?

And then there’s my favourite bit, when the stewardess says “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water…” and then proceeds to tell you how to put a life jacket on while you think about the emails you forgot to send before you turned your phone off. No. Let’s have the truth. Let’s have her saying “In the unlikely event of the plane landing on water, we’re all going to die horribly”. I don’t know about you, but I’d happily pay more for my ticket just to hear that in a safety briefing.

Of course there is a possibility that this honesty might put people off flying. Which would be an excellent outcome, given that we need to be reducing the number of flights we take. In any case, flying is actually an incredibly safe means of transport. We don’t need safety briefings when we’re flying. Do we have a safety briefing when we get in a car, stressed and tired and distracted, and drive ourselves down a crowded motorway at 130 kph, surrounded by people who aren’t very good drivers even when they are sober, in vehicles that last saw a mechanic six months or more ago? And yet in the really quite likely event of the car bouncing off the crash barriers and spinning across three lanes of traffic, would you know what to do? Well, die, obviously.

Because we do stupid, dangerous things every day. And yet in the modern world we somehow think that we’re protected from them just because we’ve got ABS and animated smiling mothers and children and a safety briefing that wouldn’t help us even if we did listen to it because people panic and explosive decompression doesn’t leave you much time to pass the straps twice around your waist.

And let’s not forget that we’re only on the plane because we’ve tacitly agreed to the paper-thin illusion that security scans actually prevent terrorism. Yet I can think of a handful of ways that I could cause chaos in an airport or on a plane, even with much stricter security procedures.

If people accepted the possible consequences of their actions, then the world would be a much better place.

On 23 June, the jingoism constantly hosed over the British population by the likes of the Sun newspaper will finally have its inevitable result and the UK will vote to leave the EU. A dose of realism right now might save us all.

 

Behind you

For an OU course, Start Writing Fiction.

Assignment: Pick one of the characters from the opening video, Keeping track of useful details. Write a short character sketch – no more than 200 words – in which you concentrate on appearance and any particular mannerisms you noted.

Actually, it’s a bit more than 200 words, and it’s probably more about the narrator than the girl, but it ran away with me.


 

Behind you

girl

It amuses me to observe her as she observes others. She sits in the centre of the café, so absorbed in noting down the traits of the people in her line of sight that she doesn’t think to look behind her, where she would instantly spot me, watching her every gesture and smiling.

She is young, this girl, no more than early 20s, and the fresh curve of her cheek and the eager way she bends over her tatty notebook with each new inspiration remind me of myself at that age.

She has skin the colour of milky coffee, smooth black hair tied back into a short, neat pony tail and wears clothing that seems somehow too thin for the season. But perhaps she is one of those trusting souls who leave their coats on the rack beside the door. I’ve never been able to, myself. This is London, after all, not some village in rural… what is she, Indian? Thai, perhaps? I can just make out that the characters she is so diligently scribbling in her notebook are not English. But she’s most likely a local, like me – as far as anyone is ever local in London – and simply confident in her youth.

I find myself wondering whether, in another 20 years, I will be even more cynical and defensive than today. And I look over my shoulder, just in case that older me is already there, making notes.

Orange

In response to a free writing prompt. (Instructions: write for 15 minutes – more if the fancy takes you – don’t plan, don’t cross out, just write.)

I originally intended this to lead up to the revelation that the main character had caused some kind of road accident due to her inability to see that colour, but I quite like the way the tension increases without any neat ending.

19 minutes’ worth.


 

 

Orange

I haven’t been able to see that colour for 28 years now. It’s not that I ignore it, or I’m scared of it, or even that I dislike it. I just don’t see it.

I know, I know, it sounds mad, but believe me, there’s a good reason for it. Oh, you know? Of course you know. That’s why you’re here. To try to help me. But I don’t need helping. Honestly, it’s really not a problem. And besides, don’t you think they’ve tried before? After the… other incidents? You know that too? Well why are you still sitting there, then? Wearing an understanding expression that I don’t believe and a cord skirt that – frankly – is most unsuitable for someone with your hips.

Rude? Well, perhaps I am being. But wouldn’t you be a touch put out if someone came and pried into your private thoughts and said they were going to try to fix a problem you really didn’t see as a problem?

Oh, you think it is a problem? Well, that’s your prerogative, of course. But I really would rather that you didn’t call me Maria, if you don’t mind. Yes, I know it’s my name. Of course I do. I may not be able to see orange – oh yes, I can say it, I just can’t see it – but I do know my own name. I simply don’t like people to call me by it, that’s all. What should you call me? I’m sure that’s in your notes too. As will be the fact that Maria was my mother’s name as well.

No, no, I insist. You started it, after all. You started asking about my ‘problem’, as you so charmingly put it. So I’ll tell you. I don’t see orange – not I don’t choose to see orange, regardless of what your predecessors have scribbled in their uniformly illegible handwriting – I don’t see it because of what that colour means to me. That colour is my mother, Maria – yes, I do have to continue, I do and I shall – that colour is my dead mother, dead these 28 years on the 14th of March. Because she was wearing an orange dress. An orange dress – I am not shouting, you’re the one who’s raising her voice – an orange dress with slightly darker orange flowers on it. When she threw me into the water from that boat.

I don’t care if you do get someone in here to restrain me. I’ve started so I’ll finish. Isn’t that how it goes? Orange dress, orange flames behind her figure as I surfaced from that freezing dark water. And an orange lifejacket on the steward who fished me out of the water and hauled me onto the lifeboat. The one functional but severely overloaded lifeboat to escape from that death-trap ferry.

The orange lifeboat.

A disclaimer about Sweden

I’m likely to say some fairly rude things about Sweden here, at times. I’m not Swedish, and nobody is forcing me to live in Sweden, so I see that there’s a strong argument for me keeping my opinions to myself.

But what I find most annoying about Sweden is not the things it gets wrong; it’s that it gets so much stuff right! Which means that the things it gets wrong – almost all of which other countries do better – are very frustrating.

This is a beautiful, large, empty country with plenty of natural resources and a generally well-educated population. And yet…

Anyway, that’s for the future. Here are just a few of the things that are good about Sweden.

1. It’s empty

I mean, really, really empty. This photo was taken in early September, in southern Sweden, on one of the most popular coasts in the country for tourists. The sea was warm enough to swim in, but there was nobody around but me.

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On the same basis, there’s very little traffic outside the major towns.

2. It’s clean

Probably as a corollary of the fact that there aren’t many people here it’s noticeably cleaner than, for example, the UK. There’s almost no litter along the roadsides, even on the motorways. The streets are clean, the buildings are clean, and people will generally walk out of their way to use a bin.

3. There’s a lot of wildlife

Even where I live, right in the south, deer and moose are common. It’s not unusual to see them pottering about in the daytime, even, and at night it’s sometimes difficult to cross my garden without terrifying/being terrified by some kind of large mammal.

There’s also often a variety of birds performing acrobatics and screeching in the field next door (ornithologist I am not). Yes, it’s a big country, but essentially animals here simply aren’t being wiped out in the same kind of numbers as in the UK, either by traffic, construction or the “guardians of the countryside”.

4. You can go anywhere

Sweden has a thing called Allemansrätt (literally “Everyman’s right”). This gives you the right to enter anyone’s land, providing it’s not their garden. You can also swim in any lake and boat on any water, providing you’re using an unpowered boat. And you pick any flowers, mushrooms or berries that aren’t legally protected.

Obviously this originates in the fact that Sweden is a country with a harsh climate – it’s simply not humane to insist that people have to walk around someone else’s land if they’re going to freeze to death by doing so. But it’s interesting that it’s still enshrined in modern law.

In practice, much of Sweden is actually covered with impenetrable forest so it’s kind of irrelevant. But I live in the soft south and it’s nice to be able to just set off for a walk in the countryside without having to find a public footpath first (although such things do exist too).

5. Everyone speaks English – really well

I know that as a linguist this shouldn’t be on the list, but sometimes – especially when you’ve spent all day working in your other source language – you really just can’t find the words. So when you’re there struggling to remember how to pronounce the registration number of your car to a mechanic, it’s good to just be able to do it in English.

This facility with English is partly down to the education system, but largely – I am assured by Swedes – the result of the fact that TV programmes here are subtitled rather than dubbed. This means that many children have a good grasp of basic English (or at least American) even before they start school.

6. There are no poor people

Obviously this is rubbish. There are poor people in Sweden, it’s just that there are fewer of them per head of the population than, even the poshest bits of the UK. There are rich people here, too – even obscenely rich people. It’s just that there are fewer of them. The vast majority of Swedes (and even second-generation immigrants) have an extremely high living standard. It’s a great country to bring up kids, should you be that way inclined, because they really will find both a job and a house when they grow up. How many other European countries can say that?

7. They do really good cheesecake

Nuff said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worship

The broad black low-ceilinged room is pretty full by the time I get there; pairs and groups of bearded men, mostly, talking in a variety of languages. It’s already quite warm so I shed my outer layers of clothing in the cloakroom and drink my wine – from a glass! A real glass! I can tell I’m in Sweden and not the UK.

Then I wait. There’s a tension in the room. People are talking, but you can tell that they’re also listening for something.

And finally it comes. A rhythmic drone emanates from the soundsystem, and the lights go down. There’s some movement among the spectators – I make my way to the centre, near the back of the crowd – and then we stand there, in the dark, silently with the exception of the various Danes behind me, who tell each other loudly that nothing’s happening. My opinion of that particular race immediately plummets.

Because something is happening. We’ve responded to the noise like a group of Morlocks, obediently moving into position and facing the front of the room. The drone continues, and we stand immobile, hands by our sides, waiting. Waiting for the touch of the sublime that we know is coming. Waiting for something to fill up the empty space within each of us.

Sporadic applause and cheering greet a movement on the cramped stage, and I rise on tip-toe to see what’s happening. Someone, a woman, is standing in the corner of the stage. I know this must be the violinist, but I can’t really see her or the violin. The problem with Scandinavia is that everyone’s so unfeasibly tall. If I was doing this in France I’d be the tallest woman in the room – possibly even the tallest person of either sex. Here I’m looking at the neck of a guy a metre in front of me. The drone is increased by the sounds wrung from the violin. The woman onstage is joined by a man with a double bass, also squeezed into a corner. The screen behind the stage is showing a moving image of some kind of inchoate, black-and-white mass, like thousands of eye floaters.

Gradually more of the band weave their way among the equipment and into their places, but I can’t see much of anyone. It’s not important. By this time the Hope Drone has built to a frenzied wall of noise and the rapture has truly begun.

For the following period – I’m not sure how long exactly, but close to two hours – I stand, rooted to the spot, swaying slightly from the intensity of the sounds being hurled at me. At times my chest vibrates to the bass. At times I want to throw myself around in convulsive movements. At times the crescendos of pure sound make me smile broadly. I see, occasionally, the images being projected onto the screen; images of moving grasses, of electronic stock exchange ticker-tapes, of glaring suns and blank-eyed empty buildings. But mostly – like many others in the congregation, I think – I have my eyes closed, which makes things difficult for the few non-believers in the audience who want to move through us. Near the end of the set I realise that many of the people behind me are no longer there. Presumably for the Danes nothing ever did happen. But for the rest of us, despite the bleak knowledge that the human race is doomed, the vision of pointless waste and environmental disaster, the incoherent rants of Blaise Bailey Finnegan III in the final track… we know that someone understands. We know that humans aren’t entirely without merit. Because the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, drifting back off the stage as they arrived, twisting dials and leaving us – bereft yet fulfilled – with a dwindling hypnotic drone, have produced something truly divine.

Summer writing circle assignment #6 – On the bench

This one needs a bit of explanation too. It’s the last assignment in the writing circle, which is a shame because I’ve enjoyed it, but then again I’m doing two new writing courses this autumn, so I hope to keep up the momentum.

Anyway, for this one we had to describe a person/animal with a handicap, write about an encounter, include a dialogue and try to express as much as possible between the lines. I had a major mental block with this one and wrote it in a hurry at the last minute. Given that, I’m pleased with how it came out, particularly how I dealt with the handicap part, although admittedly it’s a bit of a cheat.

Cheat #2; this isn’t my photo. Must remember to nip out and take one of a park bench so I can replace it.


On the bench

I’m sitting on the park bench where we’ve met every Tuesday for the last 8 months, and I know this is going to be the last time, one way or another. I can feel the pale spring sun on my face, and I’m picking the flaking paint from the wood beneath my thighs. The breeze brings the scent of awakening earth mixed with the sound of children playing from down the hill near the park gate, and nearby a woman is shouting for a joyfully barking dog to “Come here, you bad boy!” But there’s breathless laughter in her voice and the barking is dopplering as the dog runs around avoiding her, so I know it’s more play scolding than serious.

I lean down and pat the smooth head of Mackenzie, well-behaved as always, tucked in by my feet but alert and interested, his warmth spreading into my leg.

I hear Stefan’s footsteps well before he arrives; that curious light-footed gait that Sara said, the one time they met, reminded her of Mr Spock. And then I catch the scent of him; his deodorant, fresh but somehow intoxicating at the same time.

“Hey sweetie!” he says, and he bends – rustle of his jacket – to kiss me on the forehead. Which gives me all the answer I need, really. I should get up now and walk away, but I keep hoping, as I’ve hoped with increasing disappointment throughout our affair, that I’ll be wrong.

“I’ve been in meetings all morning”, he says, collapsing onto the bench beside me with a sigh and stretching his long legs out in front of him, crunching the gravel beneath his baseball boots.

“Oh yes, the funding meeting for the new show”, I say, pretending that I don’t remember exactly what it’s called. “How did it go?”

And he tells me about what the various attendees said, and what was decided, and I try not to be too interested, not to keep track of who’s who and where they fit into the balance of power within the theatre company that he works for, what that might mean for his eventual promotion prospects.

Finally, his account comes to an end, and I take a couple of bites of my sandwich and chew them thoroughly before saying, “I was thinking that next week…”

“Did you hear the one about the dinosaur who goes into the bar?” he says. And he starts telling me the joke even though it was actually me that first told it to him, a month ago.

I force myself to smile, and wonder if it looks as artificial as it feels. Presumably not, or he’d notice. Maybe. Possibly. I can tell from the sound of his voice that he’s not looking at me, he’s looking off down the hill towards the theatre.

“I’ve been…” I start, but he says something at the same time, and I run out of courage again.

“Sorry, babe”, he says. “What were you going to say?” He’s leaning close to me, I feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek, and I smile again and turn my head away.

“Nothing, it’s not… no, you go on”.

“OK. Well I was just thinking about my buddy David, he’s a photographer and he’s been working with a circus, and he was taking photographs of the clowns and…”

And off we go again. It’s very like being on a swing, really, up and down. Exhilarating but dizzying and you don’t get any time to stop and think about what you’re really doing and then suddenly it’s over and you’re off the swing and it’s someone else’s go.

Not that I didn’t know it from the start. When you meet a married man and he says he’s been doing this for years, with a string of other women, you have to assume that you’ll become part of his past at some point. Only I foolishly believed his assurances that he always stayed friends with his conquests. Actually I do still believe it. I just don’t believe that he knows what being a friend really means. I am – though I try hard not to be – interested in his preoccupations. He no longer even pretends an interest in mine. So I distance myself, and the pain when he doesn’t notice makes it even worse.

Some people will say that it’s my own fault for seeing a married man. But I actually don’t want to live with someone all the time. I’ve got Mackenzie, and my work, and a few friends, and I’m bad enough at standing up for myself when I’m not living with a man.

He’s still talking, now about a play he’s going to see tonight. I’d love to go with him, but he’s long since stopped involving me in his plans.

I interrupt him. “I was thinking that next week I might go to the coast for a couple of days. Can you get away for a night?”

There’s a silence for a few moments, and the world seems to go very quiet. Beyond the park I can still hear the buzz of the city, and the planes rotating around the airport, but close by it’s as if everything has stopped. And I’m thinking ‘This is it. If he changes the subject or makes a joke now, then I’m going to get up and walk away’.

“I’m sorry”, he says, without a hint of sorrow in his voice. “But I don’t want the sexual side of our relationship any more. Can you find it in your heart to just be friends? I’d really love that.”

I think someone’s stolen all my oxygen. Breath just doesn’t seem to be coming. But as my spine turns into ice and my stomach sinks down to my feet I manage to speak all the same. “Oh really? Why’s that then?”

“Oh, the reptile side of my brain just got bored, I guess”, he says. “But the rest of me still feels the same way about you.”

I remember the last time we spent the night together, a fortnight ago. He dragged me through the hotel and practically ripped my clothes off me. We were in bed together five minutes after meeting in the lobby.

Then I think about friendship and about how little he’s ever been a real friend to me. I sigh, and for a moment I wonder whether he’d even notice if I hit him.

“Well thanks for the explanation”, I say. “That makes things a lot clearer.”

Then I get to my feet, fumbling for my bag.

“You’re not going already?” he says. “I haven’t finished my sandwich yet.”

“Sorry about that”, I say, and I’m surprised to hear my voice coming out perfectly level; even civil. “I have to go.”

“Bye sweetie”, he says, cheerfully, giving me a quick, clumsy hug over Mackenzie’s head. “See you online!”

‘Not if I see you first’, I think.

As I walk away, slowly at first, but then gradually more quickly, I feel sad, but I also feel as though a heavy burden has been removed from me. It’s been so difficult to force myself to step back from him, over and over, but now the thing I feared has actually happened what I feel is relief.

It’s as if I’ve been blind, but now I can suddenly see again. The colours seem brighter, the sunshine is more intense, all the couples I pass are smiling and holding hands and looking fondly at each other. I’m wearing my turquoise gloves that he once told me he liked but which I’ve always hated, so I strip them off and throw them in a bin, feeling faintly guilty as I do that I ought to have taken them to the charity shop instead.

I rummage in my zebra-striped bag for Mackenzie’s red frisbee. We’ll have a game, then we’ll go home and I’ll have a cup of Earl Grey tea and a chocolate biscuit and call Sara – who always said I was wasting my time on Stefan – and then I’ll spend my afternoon doing something more worthwhile than wondering when his next email is going to arrive. I know I’ll be really upset at some point, but I also know that I’ll get through it. Because the worst is already over.

I find myself smiling broadly as I walk through the park gates, past the exuberant display of spring flowers. Tulips and daffodils and… No, actually, not daffodils. Narcissi.

o1xNUf8

Summer writing circle assignment #5 – How I met Mr Wonderful

(This one needs a bit of explanation. The brief was as follows:

The following must/must not be in your text:

  1. At the start, your hero/heroine must already be in a tricky situation.
  2. He/she escapes from this, only to end up in an even worse situation (and perhaps yet another).
  3. There must be at least two changes of location in your text. You can move the action from Eslöv to Mexico City to Stockholm or from Narvic to the moon to a garage in southern France. Or from Möllevången to Värnhem to Rörsjöstaden in Malmö. From one room to another in the same house. DON’T describe how your hero/heroine has got there. It’s only important that there are changes of location.
  4. You may NOT use the following words: think, know, understand, realise, believe, want, remember, expect and other verbs that describe thoughts. Nor may you use the words “love”, “hate” or related words. (This means that instead of DESCRIBING your hero’s thought processes you must SHOW them with actions.)
  5. There should be an open ending and a title that makes the reader curious.

And all of this in two pages? Er… Well, mine overran a bit and even then I cut loads of stuff. But my God it was fun to write!)


How I met Mr Wonderful

As it starts to rain over a midnight Paris I’m hanging head down from the decorative twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier that’s seen better days.

This isn’t as bad as it sounds. Two minutes ago I was hanging by my fingertips from the guttering of a hôtel particulier etc. etc.

Fortunately all those hours doing CrossFit have really paid off, so I manage to extricate myself from that situation with only the loss of the red Jimmy Choos that caused my precipitous descent of the roof in the first place.

Now I’m merely caught on these bloody twiddly bits by the strap of my handbag. I could be in a much less dangerous position if I’d simply slip the strap off my shoulder and abandon it. But it’s an Alexander McQueen – limited edition, if you please – so if I let it slither out into the darkness over the murky waters of the Canal St Martin I might as well just chuck myself after it. Also, the rather trashy trinket I’ve just risked life and limb – not to mention virtue – to obtain almost certainly wouldn’t survive the fall.

No, I’m just going to have to… ladder my tights on the sharp little hooks clipping the roof tiles in place, dammit, before sliding myself slowly back over the roof ridge, every muscle straining to cling on, and then having another go.

Better. Now I’m sitting upright, gingerly straddling the extremely uncomfortable twiddly bits on the roof of a hôtel particulier

As the rain pours down on my ruined hair and almost certainly ruined Vivienne Westwood dress, I look out over the Paris skyline and wonder whether there might not be an easier way to earn a living.

***

At least this time the client – Mme Monnier – is suitably grateful when I return her property the following afternoon. In fact, for a few minutes I think I’m going to expire from being smothered in ermine and 24 Faubourg as she enfolds me in a surprisingly strong embrace, gushing about me being formidable and having saved the honneur de sa famille and so on. The honour of her family in this case being a rather risqué China shepherdess that Napoleon is reputed to have given to Josephine, and which Mme M unwisely showed to her latest toy boy, who promptly absconded with it. “Le petit con”, Mme M exclaims. And I express sympathy it’s easy to fabricate given the size of the fee she’s just paid me for recovering it.

I’m about to take my leave, perusing my mental wishlist for Galeries Lafayette, when she hands me a business card.

“A friend of mine. A very good friend”, she says with a lascivious wink. “An Italian Count. He needs the help of someone discreet, you know?”

I do indeed.

And that’s why, three nights later, I find myself jumping off the Orient Express as it thunders through the French countryside en route for Venice.

Some weeks would be better if they just didn’t happen.

***

It all starts so promisingly too. I ring the number on the card and speak to a male secretary. He’s a bit put out that I won’t give him my name, but when I explain about Mme M he suddenly sounds more cheerful.

“Ah yes, the discreet young lady”, he says. “The Count would like you to accompany him to Venice. Tonight. Leaving in three hours. On the Orient Express. At his expense, naturally.”

I try to sound like this is the kind of trip I take all the time.

“Er… OK… But I’m going to need a little more information before I…”

He interrupts me smoothly. “I’m afraid the Count has not taken me into his confidence on this matter, so I really cannot tell you any more. However, he desired me to inform you that he will pay the sum of €20,000 to accompany him to Venice and listen to his…”, here he coughs politely, “…problem, regardless of whether or not you ultimately accept the assignment.”

Twenty grand for a night’s work? Either this is something well dodgy or… Or nothing. This is something well dodgy. Fortunately dodgy is my middle name. Except it’s Catherine, but you get the idea.

I arrive at the Gare de l’Est with five minutes to spare before the train departs, dressed in my finest but still looking like a pauper compared to all of the other passengers, of whom there seem to be many. Quite how the Count has found a berth for me at this late stage I don’t know.

A uniformed flunky intercepts me and my overnight bag and leads me onto the train and along a wood panelled corridor to my cabin. Here he points out the note from the Count which has been left on the table, together with an exquisite arrangement of pink orchids and a bottle of champagne sweating in an ice bucket. The note asks me to meet the Count in his cabin for supper in an hour’s time.

I decide that while I’m waiting a nice glass of bubbly is exactly what I need. Only one, though; I want to keep sharp for whatever this “problem” is.

So I watch the lights of Paris gradually thin then disappear outside the window and I sip my Krug, and finally I make my way to the Count’s cabin.

And it’s when the door opens I realise that I’m in deep, deep trouble.

Trouble in this case is maybe a little older than me and slightly over six feet tall, with greeny-blue eyes and hair that’s somewhere between caramel and blond, and white teeth and a smile and… Oh no. Not now. Not again.

And it’s made worse by the fact that he’s staring at me like he’s never seen a woman before. He stumbles over his own feet as he backs out of my way, and his voice takes a second to settle down as he invites me in. The door closes and we’re alone in the cabin. His presence overwhelms me, even though he’s standing several feet away. I can’t breathe. I’m too hot. My hands and feet feel enormous and I can tell my mouth is open but it won’t obey me when I try to close it.

“Andrew… er… Thurston”, he stammers, holding out his hand. And even though I know what’s going to happen, even though I’ve done this before too many times and always regretted it in the end… I take it. The electric shock turns into a singing in my ears and a numbness in my arms. We stand there, hand in hand, for hours – perhaps days – before he finally releases me and steps back. He turns away from me and fusses with some papers on a table. “I’m afraid the Count has been slightly delayed”, he says, and his voice is still uneven. Still with his back to me, he carries on speaking. “Please take a seat, Miss…?”

I almost fall into a chair, my knees buckling, admiring the muscles in the back of his neck above his suit collar, and for once I’m relieved that the Bloody Name Thing will give me a few minutes’ thinking time.

This is how the BNT goes:

Other person: “Miss…?”

Me: (resigned) “Lavish. Miss Lavish. Stella Lavish.”

Other person: (incredulous) “Stella Lavish?”

Here I watch out for the momentary dip of the eyes to my chest, which most definitely doesn’t live up to my name.

Me: (brusque) “Yes. People are called Lavish, you know.”

Other person: “I’m sorry, it’s just that it’s a bit…”

Me: “A bit too James Bond. Yes.”

I’ve been playing my part in this scene since I was about 15. So it’s a sign of exactly how disturbed I am by Mr Wonderful that I don’t initially spot how we’ve gone off script. Because he’s spun round to face me and he’s not doing incredulous, he sounds – not to put too fine a point on it – utterly bloody terrified.

“Stella Lavish?” He repeats it a couple of times, and I notice that his accent is suddenly a great deal less upper class. “You’re Stella Lavish?” I nod, and he looks at his watch, then starts patting his pockets urgently. “Shit”, he says, and now he’s definitely more Ivybridge than Oxbridge. “Oh fucking shit and hell. We’re dead. We’re both so fucking dead.” He opens a drawer in the desk, yanks out a small attaché case and then grabs me by the wrist, pulling me to my feet. “We’ve got to get out of here. Right now.”

“What? Why? What are you talking about?” I’m pulling away from him, but he’s stronger than I am, and he’s dragging me across to the door. He stops before he opens it, bends his head down to mine and hisses, “Did you do any due diligence on this guy at all? Do you have any idea who he really is?”

I stare at him. He sighs, and the way he flares his nostrils makes me quiver and consider reaching up and kissing him. But his next words change all that. “He’s Anders de Jong.”

Shit, shit, shit. Well I don’t know what his part in all this is, but he’s right about one thing. I’m definitely dead.