12 months ago
Alex Thompson is the head of public relations for a major publisher in Manchester. He is tall, good-looking in the way that dark-haired men with designer stubble are often perceived to be. He met Nicola at a party for a book launch. Nicola was there as a researcher for the BBC doing the spadework for an interview with the author.
The first time she noticed him, he was going through the motions, working the room, handing out press releases, amiable and knowledgeable as the publisher’s public face. Not knowing who she was, he responded to her questions almost dismissively with studied politeness, until she mentioned she was a researcher with the BBC when there was a transformation, and he became almost unctuous in his enthusiasm to help. She asked for background on the author, a rather eccentric academic with startling views on the future of democracy. The Beeb were keen to record his far-right views which will be highly controversial once the book hits the streets.
It was when she had briefed Tom Smart the interviewer, who she was fairly certain was going to give the academic a tough grilling, that she decided to help herself to a glass of mediocre wine that all too often accompanies book launches.
As she sipped the vin ordinaire standing next to the cameraman, she took an almost savage pleasure knowing that her briefing was helping him make the academic squirm. She gazed around taking note of a few people who were watching with amusement, when she happened to glance across the room to catch Alex studying her furtively, and if she was not mistaken, rather lecherously. He had looked away guiltily as their eyes met ever-so fleetingly. But a lecherous look is like a chance insult; it cannot be undone or explained away, and she had stared at his back, a half-smile on her face.
After the interview had been wrapped and the academic bundled away, Nicola was chatting to the crew and Tom when Alex had rather furtively sidled up. Conversation had stopped instantly, and six pairs of eyes studied him silently. The only pair that didn’t belonged to Nicola who decided to study the camera settings instead.
‘That went well, didn’t it?’ he said jovially, beaming at them each in turn.
‘Glad you think so,’ said Tom, smirking at the crew, knowing it was blindingly obvious that Alex was not aware of the car crash that was now in the can.
‘Actually, I would just like a word with Nicola,’ he announced staring at her back. She grimaced at the crew who smiled back mischievously.
‘Me! ‘She exclaimed, feigning shock, turning and looking at him squarely. ‘You want to talk to me as well. Are you sure?
He coloured up in embarrassment and averted his gaze. ‘Just a quick chat,’ he muttered and inclined his head for her to follow. She mouthed tosser at the crew, shrugged and followed.
‘Lucky you,’ murmured the cameraman, grinning at her.
She didn’t tell the crew as they packed up later that she had agreed to go out with him. She just felt too sheepish to own up.
‘What did Prince Charming want?’ asked the cameraman whose name was Phil. ‘Was it an offer to buy you the most expensive meal in Manchester while running his hand up your thigh?’ He laughed heartily.
If only he knew, she thinks, but instead of coming clean and admitting her guilt, she said: ‘I would rather feast on turnips with the pigs.’ The crew just grinned at her.
Two months later she and Evie meet for a catch-up in one of the fashionable bars near Media City in Central Manchester where they had decided to hang out for the evening.
Evie studies her friend quizzingly. ‘Well, are you going to tell me or not?’
‘Tell you what,’ says Nicola innocently.
‘You bloody well know what. How is the love affair of the century? she asks, sipping a large vodka cranberry while treating a designer-dressed guy at the bar to a mischievous smile.
Nicola hesitates before answering. If she is honest, she isn’t totally sure herself. She still does not know why she agreed to their first date two months ago. She had thought him obnoxious when she first met him. She simply found herself saying yes when he asked if she fancied a meal out. Maybe it was his good looks. Maybe it was just curiosity. Maybe it was a desire to fleece him to the most expensive meal she could find. She still isn’t sure.
But the first date led to a second and then a third. It felt like she was sleep-walking from one date to the next. It was all so easy. He was so attentive, so charming, nothing was too much trouble, and she enjoys the looks of admiration – or is it envy – when they are out together.
‘You’re not in love with him, are you?’ continues Evie eyeing her up suspiciously.
Nicola sidesteps that and instead says: ‘I don’t understand why you don’t like him. You’ve only met him once and you were really obnoxious for no reason. What’s the problem? He’s done nothing to you. He tried his best to be pleasant.’
‘You really don’t get it, do you? He’s bloody boring Nicola, a smile in a suit and completely insincere to boot.’ She stares at the man at the bar and turns to Nicola, nodding in his direction. ‘We all know what he’s after. You go out, you know what to expect. It’s the real deal. With your lover boy, you just don’t know, and you never will know until it’s just too late.’
Nicola is looking uncertain, staring at her vodka. She also glances at the man at the bar. He has a ready smile and is dressed in a carefully reckless way with designer jeans and a red leather top. Evie notices and grins. ‘Tempted, are we? It might take your mind off lover boy. No? Are you quite sure? You definitely will after a couple of months with slimy Alex.’ She grins mischievously. ‘By then you’ll want to climb into your coffin to relieve the monotony. . .’ She pauses . . .’ that’s if he lets you!’
Nicola giggles at that. ‘Don’t be so bloody melodramatic Evie. He really isn’t that bad. You don’t know him. He’s Ok really. He tends to be quiet until he knows people. And I have never had a boyfriend who is so attentive, so’ . . . she hunts for an appropriate word . . . ‘so admiring,’ she says finally.
‘Bullshit,’ mutters Evie, staring at the guy at the bar.
Nicola knows it is Evie who is the attraction. It has always been the same. She knows she cannot compete with Evie who is blonde and knows it with eyes that survey the world with an amused detachment. She also has the figure to match. Not that Nicola would crack any mirrors, but she is different in almost every way. She has dark, shoulder-length hair with green eyes and an oval, serious face and is tall, a good six inches taller than Evie which can be a turn off. There are men who have a problem with it, not that they would admit that because it’s an ego thing about having to look up at a woman, no doubt inherited from their stone Age ancestors.
Evie is staring at her with an unbelieving smirk. ‘He’s a PR man for God’s sake Nicola. PR men aren’t quiet. They’re a pain in the arse. They are paid to convert lies and half-truths into what passes for facts. And complements come cheap Nicola, remember that.’
She sits back on her high stool, frowning. ‘I would rather a bloke call me an ugly, cold, hard-hearted bitch because at least I would know he means it, rather than one who smothers me with insincere crap just because he wants to get my knickers off.’
‘You have a way with words,’ smiles Nicola. ‘What’s the betting you’ll soon find out which one he is.’ She nods in the direction of the bar.
‘Maybe.’ Evie frowns and shakes her head. ‘No. Don’t think I’m in the mood. I would rather go home and have a takeaway with you.’
‘I’m up for that,’ says Nicola. ‘Do we need to buy some booze on the way? Or have you decided to go teetotal?’
‘Don’t be silly. We may need some mixers though to go with the bottle of poison dreams somebody gave me.’ She grins as I look at her questioningly. ‘He thought he could get me pissed and shag me. He was wrong but I kept the bottle anyway.’
Nicola shakes her head. ‘You’ll come unstuck one of these days.’ She glances at the bar and notices designer jeans man is standing up and looking like he is going to make his pitch.
‘Let’s get out of here before we have to peel Mr Trend off.’
They make their way to the door. Nicola turns and glances at the bar. Mr Trend glares and sticks a middle finger up. ‘I think you’ve just become an ugly bitch,’ Nicola says laughing as they head outside.