How to find a Clever Enough Man
It’s 28 degrees at eleven o’clock on an August Saturday when my best friend Lisa lets herself into my flat with her emergency key.
‘Ever thought of knocking, or did no one explain that concept?’ I ask from the sofa, where I have my feet on the coffee table, Christopher Hitchens book in hand, and daytime TV on mute.
‘I didn’t ring as I knew you’d pretend to be out, turn off the lights in case I checked the windows, and wait till I went away,’ she explains, as though talking to a small child.
I tut and look pained. ‘It’s so sad when your friends don’t trust you.’
She’s quite right of course, I have used that tactic more than once, on her and others. She marches over and lifts my legs off the table. ‘Come on, we’ve got to go,’ she says, all headmistressy.
‘I know,’ I say, sitting up straight, like a perky sixth former who knows the answer, ‘How about you go, and I stay here and repeatedly bang my head on the kitchen counter until you come back?’
‘Shower,’ she orders, unimpressed.
Standing up, I feel like a slob in my baggy pink pyjamas and huge slippers next to her black and white striped summer dress. ‘For god’s….’ I’ve metamorphosed into a petulant teenager under her ‘responsible adult’ act.
‘No,’ she says, ‘I’m not having any of that. You agreed to come to this garden party to meet Sebastian, and you’re not wriggling out of it. Now, it starts at twelve so we’ve just got time. I’ll pick something for you to wear while you shower.’
I traipse to the bathroom, muttering, get into the shower and start lathering my hair. I keep it short for convenience. Friends sometimes look at it wistfully and say they liked it long, but they’re not the ones who’d have to spend forty five minutes every morning drying and trying to restrain its curls.
Lisa I’m sure would not be happy if I told her the real reason I don’t want to go to this party. There’s the obvious of course – that it’s embarrassing being set-up, it’s always a disaster, and I know Sebastian is going to turn out to have all the charm of a jellied eel. But behind that there’s the other reason… It’s Paul’s day for coming over. I can hardly tell Lisa I don’t want to meet her barrister-type as I’m hoping to catch sight of Dishy Paul, the window cleaner, can I?
She’s fairly open minded in general, but she’s very much about making a good choice of husband, like hers. Once, she said, after one too many Pimms, ‘I want you to make a good choice and have a nice lifestyle and family and leisure and everything.’ Not something that being a theatre director, even a rather good one like me, seems to offer apparently.
Paul always seems a bit of a sweetie whenever we’ve spoken though. But, then again, I suppose we wouldn’t have anything in common. And I’ve had enough bad relationships to just not want another one.
When I pad into the bedroom wrapped in my towel, she’s laid out three outfits on the bed. There’s a skirt I bought in a hurry which from the back looks like elegant silk, long and stylish, until you realise it’s a pleated mini skirt at the front. I grabbed it off the rail for a work do and paid for it before realising its treacherous little secret. She’s paired it with white peasant blouse. There’s also a black mini kilt that I bought for a fancy dress party where I went as a naughty school girl eight years ago; never seen it since. And there’s a dress that I definitely haven’t seen before. Its puce pink, short, frilly, with tiny sleeves, silky material.
‘What is this?’ I demand, holding it up against me, ‘Where’s the rest?’
She’s silent and when I look up at her I can see her eyes have filled with tears. I lower the dress, place it back on the bed. ‘Lisa?’
‘I bought that for you yesterday. Took me hours to find. It’s your size and everything. I don’t know why I bother. I just want you to find a man and be happy. But you won’t make the best of yourself.’
I stare at her, wondering where all this has come from. ‘It makes me sad,’ she concludes. She may have a point. I am 36 after all. ‘I mean,’ she says, rallying, ‘When did you last have any sort of boyfriend?’
I think for a bit, trying to calculate, while she does the same.
‘Deadly Derek,’ we yell in unison.
‘Ah, Derek, the black hole of conversation,’ I reminisce.
‘That was five years ago,’ she says, triumphant. She picks up the dress from the bed and thrusts it at me. ‘Put it on.’
Once I’m in it and my hair’s dry and glossed up and makeup on, she stands me in front of the mirror.
‘Weird,’ I say,
‘Sexy’, she corrects, satisfied.
The dress does somehow make me look shapelier and my legs longer.
As we set off, I cast a look around. No sign of Paul arriving early - pity. I suppose it was unlikely he’d just happen to be two hours early. I’m sure he was eyeing me more than strictly necessary when we last had a chat, and I was looking forward to see if he’d do so again.
Driving us to the fabled Sebastian’s house, Lisa chatters even more than is normal for her. ‘Now, I know that matchmaking can be a bit of a minefield,’ she changes gear and indicates cautiously early, ‘But, I do think you two will hit it off. Yes, I do. I mean, don’t be insulted if he’s not quite as attractive as you,’ I wonder fretfully what kind of troll she’s found under a nearby bridge. ‘Just remember, the big thing Sebastian’s got going for him is he’s clever. You know you’re always saying you never meet guys who are clever enough for you. Well, he is. He was captain of the debating society at Cambridge, and now he’s a very successful barrister.’
‘Yes, alright,’ I say, ‘I’ll give Sebastian a chance. Name’s a bit of a mouthful though isn’t it? Whole four syllables. Does he go by Seb at all?’
‘No,’ she says, and I can see from the side she’s getting tight-lipped, ‘just Sebastian.’
I stop taunting her and consider that it’s true about the clever thing. In my work I mainly meet actors, who you might assume would be clever, but actually, most of them aren’t. Or, worse, they aren’t, but they think they are. Sometimes they might have a smattering of knowledge that can help them pass as a brainiac, but, scratch that veneer, and every time you find Peter Andre underneath.
And, in a way, I don’t know why I’m being so reluctant. While there’s a run at the theatre I haven’t got time for much outside work, but in the lulls between I’ve often started feeling as though something’s missing from life. Things seem kind of empty, coming back to my flat on my own, and I would never have thought I’d find myself saying that.
What Lisa neglected to tell me is that Sebastian is loaded. We pull up at what’s basically a mini mansion near Hampstead Heath. There’s a gravel drive, ornate porch and a bloody butler opens the door.
‘Good afternoon, ladies,’ he says. We both say good afternoon back, unconsciously mimicking his cut glass accent.
‘This is all very Downton,’ I hiss at Lisa as we make our way through an enormous lounge towards the double glass doors to the garden.
‘Yes, and please behave,’ I don’t know why she thinks she needs to tell me that. The worst I’ve ever done at these sorts of dos is get drunk and start taking the piss out of everything.
‘Oh my god. What’s that?’
I’m staring at the back-end of a lion sticking out of the wall near the glass doors.
‘Oh, that’s Lionel the lion.’
‘It’s stuffed, of course. It’s a joke, you know. The front half’s supposed to be in the garden. It’s as though the lion’s – oh never mind.’
As we make our way outside I feel growing concern about the master of the house.
‘Oh, there you are!’ Lisa pipes up while I’m distracted by the many urns of flowers and bustle of well-dressed people on the lawn. I look round, with a thrill of anticipation, but it’s only Stephen, Lisa’s husband. He’s not a hot-weather person and looks uncomfortable in his work suit as he gives me a kiss on the cheek, a sheen on his skin. I like Stephen.
‘You girls both ok for drinks? Right, where has old Seb buggered off to -’
‘Sebastian,’ Lisa states.
Stephen wheels round, calls, ‘Seb, old man,’ across the garden.
The man who looks up has dark hair and eyes, impressive height and looks unruffled in the sun. As he heads over to us I clock his jeans and white shirt – sleeves rolled up to expose decent arms. A bit of a frown on his face. Wow. If this is what Lisa thinks is a bit less attractive than me, I’m pretty made up.
Stephen introduces us and I say something nice about the flowers. ‘Oh, thank you, thank you,’ he says, good gravelly voice, and appears genuinely touched.
‘Jessica’s the one I told you about, Sebastian,’ Lisa chimes in. ‘I’m sure you’ll have an awful lot to talk about.’
Could she be more obvious if she held a flashing sign reading ‘Available’ above my head?
‘So,’ Sebastian takes a sip of wine and looks at me like someone who has a task to do, ‘I hear you produce plays?’
‘That’s right,’ I answer, taking a breath to tell him I’m casting The Importance of Being Earnest right now, he interrupts before I can.
‘Gosh, jolly well done you!’
I see Stephen twitch while apparently absorbed in talking to Lisa.
‘What sort of plays have you produced?’ Sebastian presses on.
‘Um, well, the last one I did was Tales of Ovid.’
‘Really? How interesting? That’s very on trend at the moment. Did you know there was an absolutely seminal production of it earlier this year?’
‘Oh really?’ I wonder who else had been putting on my play and how I’d missed hearing about it.
‘Yes, it was quite ground-breaking: all performed in a swimming pool.’
‘Yes, that was mine,’
‘What? Oh, yours was in a pool too? But, no, this chap’s was on at the Roundhouse, they had to build a pool specially.’
‘Yes, I -’
‘You must have heard of it?’
‘No, I –‘
‘Exciting new director. Frightfully clever chap. Published a book about theatre for modern audiences too, J.J. Thompson I think he’s called,’
‘For God’s sake,’ Stephen says, still facing Lisa, ‘It’s like watching a car crash.’ He turns towards Sebastian, ‘This is J.J. Thompson.’
Sebastian looks at me, blank confusion in his eyes.
‘I’m afraid so,’ I actually feel embarrassed. ‘Jessica Jane Thompson, at your service,’ I say, apologetically.
He looks as though someone’s just told him his favourite grandmother’s been shot.
‘Good lord,’ he says in a subdued tone. Then, after a pause, ‘What an absolute ass I am.’ He begins to laugh and, after a moment of surprise, the three of us join in.
Maybe, he’s not so bad after all. He can laugh at himself. Seeing us laughing, Lisa and Stephen look relieved and disappear to the drinks table.
‘Sorry about that,’ Sebastian says to me, once they’re gone, ‘silly of me. I just thought you were far too pretty to be that clever.’
The feminist in me cringes. But, there’s another side that blushes and smiles at being called pretty, then hates herself a little bit for it.
Maybe I’d better take over the running of our conversation to avert further disaster. ‘So,’ I launch in, ‘Lisa tells me you like to travel? Where’s your favourite place?’
‘Oh, Italy, no choice about it, have you been?’
I tell him I have. Before I have time to elaborate that my mother is Italian, I spend every Christmas there, lived there from the age of fifteen to twenty two, and spent a year travelling around it alone, he continues.
‘Let me tell you where you should go on holiday in Italy…’
I take a swig of wine as he gets into full flow, and can’t resist a glance over to the drinks table. Stephen, wearing a hollow eyed expression, is shaking his head at Lisa.
On the way back in the car later I feel like a child whose parents are arguing over it.
‘I told you she’d hate him,’ Stephen tells Lisa.
‘I didn’t really hate him, he was just a bit –‘
‘Well, sorry for trying to do something nice. I’ll never try to make anyone happy ever again,’ Lisa’s voice is shrill, close to tears. I decide silence is the best policy.
As they let me out back at my flat I rush out: ‘I didn’t hate him, he’s lovely, just not for me, and thank you very much for trying,’ before fleeing inside.
I flick off my high heels and subside onto the sofa with a sigh. I’m still lying there some time later when the doorbell goes. They’ve probably come back to apologise again.
But when I open the door it’s the window cleaner, Paul, I find there. He really is the most beautiful man. All fair hair and dark blue smiley eyes, tall and solid, yet willowy.
‘Sorry to bother you, but could I fill my water bucket at your tap?’
His voice is warm and a bit apologetic. He explains the outside tap is broken, and I let him in while he tells me he’s a few hours later than usual after visiting his mother who’s not well. A light sweat is making his skin glow, and that’s making his smiley eyes even bluer.
‘Why don’t I get you a cold drink?’
He sits at the kitchen table while I get it. I don’t know if it’s just the heat, or the dress, or the alcohol, but as I lean against the kitchen counter watching him drink, his eyes on me feel warm. He’s watching me as though he’s never seen anything like me before. I’m glad I’m still wearing the pink dress.
He talks, telling me more about his mother and how worried he is about her being in the hospital. I make concerned noises. I remember him mentioning his mother once before now. He elaborates that he’s started going round to do the shopping for her friend now his mother can’t help her out anymore. I look at him and it crosses my mind that this sexy and this kind is a rare combination.
I go over to refill his glass and his fingers brush mine. I glance down, uncertain. Was that brush of his fingers accidental? Then he’s caressing my hand: the cold glass contrasted to his warm touch sends a shiver through me. I put my hand on his cheek. I can’t help myself. He pulls me onto his lap, his arms are round my back, he’s kissing me, his back warm, his mouth firm and tender.
‘Sorry,’ he says, when I come up for air.
‘You always seemed so… I dunno. I guess I was a bit intimidated. You’re so sharp.’ He sees my expression, ‘In a good way. I never expected… never imagined, you’d give someone like me the time of day.’
‘This is a little more than the time of day,’ I say. He smiles.
‘And anyway, you know,’ I put on an imperious voice, ‘A gentleman should either know everything, or nothing. Which do you know?’
I see the reference fly right over his pretty head. Not a Wildean then. He thinks I’m just much drunker than I am.
Looking anxious, he considers for a while before replying, ‘I know nothing.’
I giggle and wrap my arms round him more closely. ‘That’s absolutely fine by me.’
In which our sceptical protagonist tries to resist the matchmaking of a
This story is published with grateful acknowledgment to Rebecca Solnit, whose feminist essay 'Men Explain Things to me' greatly inspired the pivotal point of this work of fiction.