The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 3 Milton

I DECIDE TO pursue my idea of signing up to a dating website. I make up a few hobbies, things I’d quite like to do if I could get round to them. I put down astronomy, fell-walking and yoga, as well as things I do actually do sometimes such as reading and swimming and keeping fit. Everyone tells me that internet dating is by far and away the best chance of meeting a new partner, so that must be the case. And the males on these sites have had the confidence to put various things out there about themselves, therefore they must be true. Mustn’t they? I mean none of them would upload an old photo of themselves looking younger and more handsome would they? My own photo that I intend to use is five years old and I was a bit thinner then. But I think it’s one of the nicer photos of me and it’s not really very deceptive and I could of course lose the weight. And in the meantime I could wear a support garment.

So I sign up to a site. Not one of the free ones. It’s one that you have to have a friend to verify your identity and your profile. So that you know that if you check out the profile of a bloke you’re interested in, he’s not going to turn out to be a complete weirdo, a serial killer type with no friends whose mother hated him as a child and who is suspected of having tortured and killed neighbourhood pets.

Sharon verifies my profile, which is good of her as she has to subject herself to an identity check too, and, after looking at my profile and scoffing a bit, says yes it’s more or less true so she finalises it and whoopee, I’m up on the site.

I look at the feedback for the several days out of idle curiosity. But it all seems so unreal. The responses are from real people wanting to meet up and start a relationship. I can’t take it seriously therefore I decide to just read the feedback for the immediate future and form a view.

I do also out of curiosity check out a site that’s free and that actually isn’t really about dating. It’s a bit more specific. The photos some of the men put up are eye-watering. I don’t believe they’re real myself. They look as though they’d be injurious to health. The thought that men might, to attract a female, display false images as part of their profiles (including the full frontal ones) does rather make me worry that on the normal sites men might be lying about their ages or their jobs or, gosh, even their hobbies.

I’ve taken the step of advancing a little way along a course which might result in meeting suitable members of the opposite sex and, having so advanced, I think I’ll just sit back for a time and take things as they come.

So in the meantime, I innocently accept an invitation to a dinner party. I know what these are all about; usually there’s a spare man attending and they want a spare woman for him. Nonetheless, I have to go out occasionally. The hostess isn’t that well known to me. Her name is Clara and she’s more of a friend of a friend. So far as I’m told, she’s got some new neighbours and wants to invite them over along with some others who’ve been in the area for longer and, though I hardly qualify as a long-standing resident, apparently I’ll do. My friend Abigail, who is the friend of this once removed friend Clara who is putting on the dinner, is going to be there as well with her husband so at least there’ll be someone I know. Abigail apparently does know most of the guests so I’m hoping I can sit quite near her to get the gen on everyone.

I’m also hoping that I don’t get my name down on some sort of list that goes about of spare women thought to be desperate for a boyfriend, so that I end up getting emails from people I’ve never heard of who are a million times removed from any proper friend of mine but who need a female to make up numbers. Perhaps hostesses even pay for these lists in the same way as, if you’re foolish enough, as I have been, to fill in some online survey of your preferences in tinned artichokes in order to enter a competition to win a weekend for two in a bed and breakfast in Scarborough (which it’s said is a very nice place) and omit to check the box that says you don’t want your name passed to marketing organisations, you end up on a list and get deluged with offers which have nothing to do with artichokes, tinned or otherwise. The corollary here would be endless social dining opportunities of dubious merit. I’m not sure. Probably far cheaper than joining a dining dating club. Actually in fact free so perhaps it would be a good thing.

Anyway, for this evening I haven’t risked a trawl through the lesser known zones of my wardrobe. I’ve bowed to reason and bought some size 14 dresses.

Most importantly though, I’ve alerted Sharon and she’s round here now as promised. I’ve splashed out on an expensive corset type affair that, on first examination, looks like a wetsuit in the shape of an hourglass that’s been cut off both ends just below the bust and in line with the lady parts. We stand eyeing it critically and a little warily. I put it on my bed and it almost stands up on its own.

We scrutinise the instructions.

“I didn’t know clothing came with instructions,” Sharon frowns.

It says you have to step into it and work it over your legs, hips and trunk so that it sits ‘naturally at the level most needing careful re-shaping and control’.

“Quite honestly it could do with a zip,” I say as I struggle to achieve the necessary positioning.

“No. I don’t think so. You’d never get it done up.”

I wriggle and writhe and manhandle this thing to the best of my ability. Sharon assists and soon we’re gasping for breath, such is the violent elasticity of this strange garment.

“I’ve never come across anything like it,” says Sharon.

You never know what you’re going to get when you buy online and I’ve take off the label so I can’t send it back now. The material is quite thick and feels like rubber. It’s black and shiny and it squeaks and creaks as we wrestle it over my lumpy stomach and bottom. I’ve also bought a white one, but tonight I’m wearing a sophisticated little black number so my underwear also has to be black to avoid shine through.

“I hope it won’t be too uncomfortable,” says Sharon. “You don’t want to suffocate to death. It doesn’t look as though it’d let the skin breath at all. D’you remember that James Bond film where the girl gets painted gold all over and dies.”

“Gosh. That’s terribly reassuring.” I know however that she has my best interests at heart. We’ve been bosom buddies since we met while working in a chicken factory one summer holiday from uni, which, given my sensitivity over carnivorous food products, counts as one of the worst experiences of my life.

“Perhaps,” she says, “you should take it off and try a regular panti-girdle. I’ve got one with me.” She digs in a carrier bag she’s brought with her and produces what looks like an outsized pair of bloomers. Too huge for even my generous proportions.

“Sharon. I’m cut to the quick. Is it … it is, isn’t it? It’s a pair of your maternity support briefs. I remember you showing them to me. That you should think they might be suitable for me now!”

“Hmm. You’re right actually. They’ve stretched.”

“Well, thanks for that at least.” I frown down at the wet suit. “I’m not taking this thing off now. I bought it and I’m jolly well going to wear it tonight.”

Having somehow positioned the corset in the right place, I quickly put on my knickers and bra and then tights. Sharon zips up my dress for me with her cool grease-free hands. I look in the mirror and I’m suddenly two dress sizes smaller. It’s a miracle. Once the black high slingbacks are on, I really think I could grace any catwalk during London fashion week. We both cheer as though at some sporting achievement or awards ceremony.

“And,” I say, “it’ll have the dual function that I couldn’t possibly get too friendly with a man while incarcerated inside this contraption. We’d both die of exhaustion trying to get it off.”

“Well, I hope you don’t have to cut it off yourself later when you get home tonight. I’m afraid I’ll be at home in bed asleep by then. You’ll just have to call the fire brigade if you get into too much difficulty.”

I GRAB my bag and jacket as the taxi arrives bang on time and, swinging a scarf round my neck, I hurry downstairs. The corset hardly squeaks at all. I wave Sharon goodbye and leave her to lock up when she goes.

I realise that really I should have driven there which would have meant I would have had to have moderated my drinking, but I haven’t been out for two weeks, not since Dennis in fact, and I want to enjoy myself. I’m certain that I can remain sober and this is a dinner party after all, so we’ll get dinner right? Meaning something to eat to soak up the liquor. I haven’t had to shovel down a greasy pasty before I leave the house.

I arrive at the venue in good time and the taxi deposits me almost at the front door. The taxi company will send someone to collect me and take me home later. They just asked for thirty minutes’ notice. There are lots of cars parked in the drive and another car is arriving as I ring the doorbell. Clara has obviously roped in her children to help this evening as the door is answered by a serious young man in his early teens who lets me in, asks my name, writes it down against a number on a sheet of paper, takes my jacket and pins a raffle ticket to it.

“Er, what are the prizes?” I ask (joke) but he looks at me as though I’m an idiot and explains slowly that the ticket number identifies me on his list as the owner of this coat.

“OK,” I say, playing along. “Do you expect the guests to start nicking each other’s coats then? Must be some rum types here!” I laugh, however the young man looks aghast.

“God I hope not,” he says. “My mum’ll kill me! I mean, she really will!”

But the next guest is standing in line and the son gestures me frantically towards a door along the hall as “you’ll want to powder your nose” (the expression doesn’t fall easily from his lips and it sounds like he’s been practising the phrase all day). I scurry in that direction. Inside the room I make a quick appraisal of my appearance in the mirror (little change) and go out again.

There’s another offspring loitering outside, a girl of about ten, who directs me to a room further along from which the hum of conversation and soft tasteful chamber music can be heard. I half expect to be taken into the room and announced. This doesn’t happen and I have to make my entrance on my own. I quickly scan the room for anyone I might know. I spot Abigail and walk quickly over to her and her husband. They’re standing alone trying to look as though they’re talking to each other so they’re more than happy to welcome me into their midst.

I’m immediately informed without preamble that Abigail has told Clara all about me and that there’s a man earmarked for me this evening. His name is Milton something and he’s eminently suitable for me, being another lawyer. I look around for someone who’s obviously a lawyer. You can sometimes tell, but Abigail says he hasn’t arrived yet. She’s received the information from the hostess Clara who appears to have arranged the event down to the last detail. It seems a bit bizarre and I’m wondering if there’s some ulterior underlying motive to this evening, such as Clara’s husband wanting to be adopted as a Conservative Parliamentary candidate and the room consisting mostly of the whole of the local selection committee. Or something.

Clara suddenly descends on our little group and says we must entertain a new man who’s arrived. She introduces him as Milton Rosenberger. I surreptitiously look him up and down as we all shake hands with him and discuss how we know Clara and where we live locally and what we do for a living and all that crap. Milton says he’s a corporate and commercial city lawyer. I wonder if he knows the Backside, however I can’t ask as I don’t know her name. He’s quite tall for a Jewish guy and has goldy coloured curly hair cut short. His features are fine and chiselled with a hooked nose, a thinnish top lip with that lispy look about it and he wears steel framed spectacles.

I have no idea whether he’s been told that I’m eminently suitable for him, though since this gathering has been organised to the nth degree, I must assume that there’s a good chance that he has, yet to observe him now, you wouldn’t know it. He shows no particular interest in me or indeed any of us. My speculations are cut short. The crowded sitting room is thinning as people are making their way to the dining room, being ushered through by a number of children I haven’t seen before aged between about eight and fifteen. How many kids has this Clara got for God’s sake! They are well-trained and help us find our seats which of course have name place labels. I find that naturally I’m seated next to Milton. I hope the evening will go well.

IT’S THE following Saturday and it’s my first date with Milton. I didn’t expect him to call and I wouldn’t have worried if he hadn’t. Despite everyone’s apparently favourable impressions, I found him rather shallow. In fact looking at him and listening to him at Clara’s last weekend, I couldn’t help thinking that he’s the sort of person who would stab his own granny in the back for a shekel or two. Nothing specific; it was just the impression I got. I felt most of the time that he wasn’t listening to a word I said, that is when I could get a word in edgeways at all, and was looking around at what other people were saying and doing.

He concentrated on me for about twenty seconds when he told me that his ‘team’ has a Legal 500 profile (“Wow. Get that!” I thought) and that he personally is up for Legal Business Lawyer of the Year Award. Well mazel tov to you, I muttered under my breath.

In the main, the evening raced by in a blur of Milton’s disinterest in me so that when the taxi came, I got into it and fell back on the seat relieved but perplexed. I couldn’t help wondering if I’d actually imagined the whole thing.

At one point as we sat through the meal, which was pretty enjoyable if on the minimalist side, I got so sick of the flow of Milton’s account of his own activities and the cases he was involved in, that I decided perhaps complimenting him on his success might wrap up the subject of him, Milton, and make him start talking about something else. Therefore I said that it was remarkable how well he’d done in becoming a leading partner in an international law firm, and was drawing breath to say something more general regarding a legal career, but I didn’t get the chance. He just said airily well of course cream always rises to the top. Hmm, I thought, there are other excreted substances that float too. I think after that I just gave up and switched off.

But, the whole evening had been surreal, not just sitting with Milton. Quite early on during the meal, a child of Clara, presumably, was marshalled to come round and collect everyone’s taxi cab numbers and then this child, or maybe another one, called all the cab companies to come and collect the guests in a clear and pre-ordained order at regular intervals to avoid any log jams in the drive. My coffee had barely cooled to a drinkable temperature before a couple of young lads came and more or less manhandled me up out of my seat and hustled me out of the house, handing me my jacket to boot. It looked very much as though the personae gratae were being allowed to stay on later (which may or may not have included Milton) while the less or non gratae, myself obviously in this category, were unceremoniously shown the door as soon as decently possible.

Still, he’s called so I said yes and we’re going to have a meal together and then go and watch some arthouse film he wants to see at a theatre club he apparently belongs to. He mentioned the name of the film. It’s Japanese and he said it’s called ‘Carved the Slit-Mouthed Woman’. I scribbled it down and checked it out on the internet and it’s some sort of horror story. As I looked at a preview of it I had to swallow and bite my lip. It is rather scary not to mention monumentally boring and subtitled. I have to wonder about Milton. But arthouse is supposed to be cultured, right, and I’ve accepted the invite out already so what the hell. Maybe he was just nervous last weekend and I’ll find he’s really a big softie underneath. If we get along OK during the meal, I can bury my face behind his arm when we see the film and/or fall asleep on his shoulder as necessary.

I don’t think I can risk wearing the supportive tight seal suit I managed to force my way into for the dinner party. It was all right for that night as in it didn’t hurt all that much given that the meal was pretty skimpy, but I couldn’t say it was comfortable. Tonight it’s going to be quite a long walk from the restaurant to the arthouse theatre and then sitting down for an extended period which means I need less restrictive wear. As Sharon isn’t at hand to help me out tonight, I decide on a tunic top and leggings, high boots and some co-ordinating scarves. I feel happier in this garb. It’s far more in the same style as I generally slop about the house in most of the time, apart from the boots.

We’ve agreed to meet in the restaurant. I take a taxi again and he’s there already when I arrive. I don’t see his smile reach his eyes as he stands to greet me and bends to kiss my cheek. Instead he’s looking me over through his metal framed spectacles in much the same way as a dealer might examine an artwork for value and saleability or rather, instead, for the scrapheap as the case may be. I wonder how I measure up. It’s impossible to tell. Is my dress this early evening too casual, my hair do earlier today in too self-consciously tangled a style? Is he wondering which hedge I was pulled backwards through? Is my perfume, even, too strong or too flowery? Or not flowery enough? Too musky perhaps. I can’t tell at all. I feel like a laboratory specimen and wonder inevitably what it would be like to be in bed with him. Would he score me against his last thirty conquests? If this is the effect the hello peck on the cheek has, I wonder what the heck the next five or six hours are going to be like and whether I’ll survive that long.

But Milton is sitting down and asking me how my week’s gone. Before I can even draw breath to communicate any supremely mundane facts about how I’ve mostly squandered my time, he’s already off on a monologue of his achievements and conquests in the realms of corporate legal practice. I’ve been pumped full of details of his expertise this week in about six or seven different cases and we haven’t even looked at the menu. I take up mine and peer at it and Milton just carries on. It doesn’t appear to matter if I’m listening or whether I’m the least bit interested in what he’s saying. He just continues regardless. This is doing nothing for my self-esteem. I start to worry that he must figure I haven’t anything of the least interest to impart and therefore he has to hold the table otherwise we’d descend into an embarrassing, cloying silence.

I reverse my earlier speculation about Milton maybe having a soft centre and realise afresh that, despite the accolades everyone has heaped on him, I’m unable to get worked up about him. Perhaps he is clever, or at least I suppose he must be being an ace corporate lawyer, a city high flyer, but he seems a cold person to me, an opportunist, a fair-weather friend.

Inevitably I just switch off and decide what I want to order. Milton notices at last and clicks his fingers at a waitress in a condescending way. She comes across, pen brightly poised over a small pad and looks at me expectantly.

“Thanks,” I say, “I’ll have the pâté for starters and the partridge for the main course.”

“No, no,” says Milton laughing. “Pâté’s far too, er, heavy. I’d already decided on the oysters. We’ll both have the oysters.” He turns to the waitress who understandably displays uncertainty.

“But I don’t like oysters,” I say.

“Have you ever had them?” says Milton.

“Well no but…”

“So how do you know you don’t like them? You’ll love them. It’s the end of October. Don’t you know what that means?”

“Hallowe’en?” I believe that on Hallowe’en a woman is supposed to walk upstairs backwards with all the lights off at midnight, turn round and she’ll see a vision of her future husband. Or is it facing away from a mirror looking into another mirror? Whatever. If I were to do either and see an image of Milton floating ethereally in my vicinity, I’d think it was the Backside dabbling in the occult, and successfully too as befits an A list lawyer, not cack-handedly like my attempts.

“It’s oyster week in Colchester of course,” Milton corrects me. “I went to the Mayor’s Oyster Feast yesterday. We’ve got to have oysters.”

“I can’t eat something that’s still alive,” I say.

Milton brushes my protest aside. “It’s like custard sliding down your throat. You’ll love it.”

It sounds repulsive to me. “I don’t want to have custard for a starter,” I say. “I’ll have some with my pudding if I want any.”

Milton takes this seriously at its face value and says, “There won’t be time for pudding. We’ll miss the start of the film if we stop for pudding.”

“OK, I won’t have pudding but I’m not having oysters.”

“Suit yourself. Oysters for one,” he tells the waitress, “and I’ll have the trout for main course.”

She scribbles down the order and hurries off and I don’t blame her. We talk in a desultory fashion as we wait for Milton’s oysters and my pâté to arrive. I assume it won’t be long since the poor old oysters don’t have to be cooked and the pâté just has to be hacked off a loaf and laid on a plate with some toast and garnish. Indeed the oysters arrive in no time at all.

I sit and watch Milton tipping his head back and lifting shell after shell to his mouth and the custardy living (presumably) contents sliding down his throat. Happily I can’t see it in any detail from where I’m sitting the other side of the table, though I still start to feel sick and wonder when my pâté will turn up to divert my attention. But it doesn’t. At last Milton wipes his mouth with his napkin and pushes his plate aside and I realise that somehow he’s effected to deprive me of my starter, that the waitress interpreted the interplay to mean that I wasn’t going to have a starter.

She comes and takes Milton’s plate away and I can’t be bothered to remonstrate with her, though it worries me as I’ve already had a glass and a half of strong red wine. I call her back and ask her for some more bread as Milton’s eaten the lot while tossing back his oysters.

The one-sided conversation continues while we wait for our main and apparently last course. Milton’s telling me that in the current climate, a lot of operatives are being ‘severed’. This sounds awfully painful. Quite dangerous in fact. I ponder what he means. Didn’t the CIA used to have an expression: to be ‘terminated with extreme prejudice’. A euphemism for being murdered. I don’t know if they use such daft terminology now. It sounds ridiculous, like schoolboys playing at being spies.

Actually I do really know what Milton means by ‘severed’ although to lighten the atmosphere, I ask what they do with the body parts so accumulated and if it covers all extremities. He gives me a scathing look. He doesn’t dignify the question with an answer. There is a minute or so of blissful silence.

Then: “Do you ride?” Milton asks me suddenly. For a moment I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about. Does he mean motor bikes? Because if he does (and I know that a lot of professionals these days like to don leathers in their spare time, straddle a machine of immense and more or less overwhelming power and ineptly test their inadequate reactions against the challenges of the open road) quite frankly I think they’re death traps. I once had a matrimonial client who was decapitated whilst riding a motorcycle leaving two young children to be cared for by a drug addict mother.

Then I realise that he was of course talking about horses and, because I now understand, I smile and … I must have nodded. In fact, I know almost nothing about horses, not really. So far as I’m aware, they mostly stand about in fields looking glum and having enormous erections. I look at Milton and try to force from my mind visions of equine tumescence. One shouldn’t talk to men, or indeed be talked to by them, while thinking about erections, though I have to confess that I quite often do. While attempting to re-arrange my thoughts, I don’t really listen to what Milton is saying. I think I faintly hear the word ‘tomorrow’, but I’m quite sure I haven’t agreed to anything.

We progress through our main course. Milton’s trout gazes lugubriously up at him and apparently at me too with sad resentful eyes, as well it might, its mouth is open as it must have been when it took its last desperate gasp. This is one of the reasons I don’t usually eat fish; the fact that they have to suffocate to death, though I acknowledge that possibly trout get despatched a bit more quickly by being tapped on the head. However I rarely raise my feelings in public as I know it tends to cause offence, though more often derision.

And tonight I can’t really talk. The poor little partridge I’ve nearly finished, served up whole on my plate just so that I can see how pathetically small it actually is, was probably blasted out of the air while innocently trying to fly away from beaters. Doubtless it had to experience a literally heart-stopping plunge to the ground where it may have laid flapping uselessly until an excited dog seized it and shook it to death. I try to focus instead on the fact that at least it had some wild time before being chased down by bloodthirsty hunters and rabid dogs in the countryside where it ought to have been able to live peacefully and‒

No. As a means of justification, this isn’t working. And anyway Milton’s trout will presumably have lived in the wild as well and done all the things trout like to do before it, too, succumbed to the needs of man to put whole creatures on plates in restaurants in order to impress, or alternatively in my case somewhat depress, the paying public.

At last the meal’s nearly over. Despite my over-sensitivity and many reservations, I’ve enjoyed my partridge, or at least I think I have but since I’m almost brain-dead from the bombardment of facts about Milton I’m not too certain about anything. I’m feeling as though I’ve been mentally steamrollered. I’m sure it’s not the wine.

I look up and frown as the door opens and, for a moment, the wind whistles in and a flurry of leaves enter with it. Using his foot, the man, who is bespectacled with brownish hair, gallantly sweeps aside for the woman the small carpet of leaves just inside the door. I realise it’s Dennis. When I think of my behaviour the last time we met, I hope he won’t notice me. I try to bury my head in the pudding menu at which Milton looks annoyed. He’s just opening his mouth, no doubt to tell me I’m not having pudding, when Dennis comes over to our table and the woman follows.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Dennis says smiling broadly. I adjust my mental state so as to be able to utter a coherent sentence, as I’ve hardly been allowed to speak since arriving here. I hope Dennis doesn’t think I’m drunk again as I struggle to respond.

“Oh yes, and you too,” I say. “Er, this is Milton Rosenberger. Milton this is Dennis Barrow, a surveyor-cum-arbitrator.” Dennis nods at Milton then turns back to me. “We’ve just been to see a live transmission of Guillaume Tell from the ROH at the Odeon. It’s had mixed reviews but I enjoyed it.” The woman is standing behind and to one side of Dennis and she and I say hello. Dennis introduces her as Andrea. Andrea looks classy and is dressed smartly, though in an under-stated sort of way. Just exactly right for a live screening of a classical work but not so fancy as would be necessary for the actual thing at the actual live venue. I assume Andrea is a lover of opera. She excuses herself to go off to the ladies.

“Well, I’m glad,” I find myself saying, “that you’ve found a fellow opera-lover.”

Dennis shrugs. “Apparently,” he says vaguely still smiling down at me. He must be finding it all immensely amusing. “How’s the corn dolly making going?” he says.

“Oh, you know, it’s the devil of a job these days to get the materials.”

He laughs. “Yes, I’m sure it spells disaster if they’re not quite right.”

“I must have used the wrong PIN when trying to pay for them online. And I’m not sure I can magic up the initiative to bother any longer.”

“Not even the sympathetic variety?” says Dennis laughing. He obviously thinks I’m a complete pillock after our last meeting and he’s just playing along with me.

“No. I think if I turn to the arts again, they’ll have to be the white variety. Speaking of the arts, we,” I say by way of keeping up my end in the cultural league tables, “are going to see a Japanese film called ‘Carved the Slit-Mouthed Woman’ at the Northgate Theatre.”

“Well, very good luck to you then. I hope you enjoy it.” He sounds so sincere. I can’t detect even a trace of sarcasm, at least in the second sentence.

It’s about then that I notice Milton’s reaction to all this. He’s bristling like a pit bull at an illegal dogfight. I fail entirely to understand why. After all it isn’t as though I’ve plighted my troth to him or anything like that. I barely know him and the impression received is that he’s singularly not attracted to me, finding himself of far greater interest in all possible respects. Dennis either doesn’t notice Milton’s hostility or pretends not to and then Andrea’s back and Dennis has to say goodbye and go off to their table.

Soon Milton and I leave, after he’s made a big thing of paying for both of us.

I’m glad I didn’t put on my highest of high heels as I decidedly don’t want to rely on Milton for support of any kind and he doesn’t offer an arm for me to take either as he’s punching away at his smartphone the whole time. He has, he says, to “keep an eye on a deal for an overseas client”. Even so, two and a half inch heels can be tricky and by the time we reach the theatre my feet are quite painful, but I’m buggered if I’m going to admit that to Milton. I curse inwardly that we have to queue, and transfer my weight from one foot to the other, hoping Milton doesn’t think I’m dying for a pee.

We have tickets so we could have left the restaurant a little later when the queue would have dispersed and avoided waiting, thereby also allowing me to have had that pudding and to have surreptitiously checked how Dennis was getting on with Andrea. I’d detected some indifference in his attitude towards her. You can’t help noticing these things.

But now we’re inside and sitting in our assigned seats.

The movie is breath-takingly terrifying. It’s quite possibly the worst, most nauseating film I’ve ever seen. It even has children in it. The gratuitous carnage is completely unnecessary. I’ve no idea why anyone would want to write this sort of material, much less put it on a screen to horrify people and give them bad dreams for years to come. I wonder if I can sue the makers and the theatre for PTSD as I’m sure I’ll suffer after-effects. I’ll ask the PI department on Monday. I don’t even consider, however, hiding behind Milton’s arm. He’s watching the film critically. He’s not scared or even remotely affected by it yet it’s the sickest thing I’ve ever seen.

As we leave I ask him: “Did you know it was going to be like that?”

“Oh yes,” he says. “I’ve seen it twice before.” I mentally cringe and decide to call for my taxi home straight away.

“Don’t forget,” Milton says as he stands at the open taxi door. “I’ll be round for you at ten tomorrow.”

“But … but…” I mouth as the taxi draws away. However my protests are lost in the late October wind that whistles along the road and the taxi bears me off back to my home.

I WAKE early the next morning. I know that something is terribly wrong and for a moment I can’t work out what it is. Then the words ‘tomorrow’ and ‘ride’ flick up in my brain like fairground targets. Although I try to shoot them down, I keep missing.

Quickly I text Milton that I don’t have any riding clothes.

He texts back almost immediately saying it doesn’t matter. The stables will lend me some. Just come in anything. He’ll be round to collect me at ten. Yes, I did remember that bit and I think about putting a ‘For Sale/Sold’ sign up in the window, drawing all the curtains and pretending I’m not at home but I feel sure he’ll see through this.

As I dress, I think about Milton but I just can’t work him out. He doesn’t seem interested in me in any recognisable way. He’s asked me out twice but I can’t fathom why. Perhaps, like me, he’s been fed the line that I’m the perfect mate for him and he’s still trying to work towards how that could possibly be the case. I’m afraid I’ve by-passed that stage myself and after this morning, unless he redeems himself somehow, I doubt if I’ll see him again.

MILTON leads out two mounts, one for me and one for him. I quake at the size of them. Mine is pale and dappled with a blonde mane and beautiful soft brown eyes, whilst his is a dark shining chestnut colour. My girlie, in keeping with the rest of her kind, has an enormous posterior. A bit like the Backside has. I wonder if the Backside has the equine facial features to match. I do so hope she does.

And wouldn’t you know it; Milton’s horse has a hard-on the size of Cleopatra’s Needle. Milton doesn’t seem to notice so either it doesn’t matter if a horse does this and it’s just to be expected, or else he’s far too well bred to react to it, or possibly he’s shit-scared of the beast as I definitely am; or maybe he’s the sexless humourless automaton I’ve begun to believe he is.

I heave myself onto my horse, which blessedly seems to be a docile creature, while Milton’s prances around and stamps backwards, forwards and sideways as though it’s waiting to take off in the Grand National. The wild beast is snorting and rearing as Milton desperately holds the reins taut. I did in fact have a few horse-riding lessons in my girlhood. I just never took to it like some other girls, and one or two nasty experiences with hooves and teeth put me off for good. Even the tales that the exercise of gripping hard with the knees and thighs would result in wonderful orgasms didn’t at the time act as much of an attraction. And who wants thighs like tree trunks anyway?

But I retain the rudiments of horsewomanship so, as Milton is trying to whip his steed into some sort of submission, I bend over and kiss the neck of my placid mount and whisper in her ear what a lovely girl she is, then I dig my heels softly into her sides, say encouraging words to her and we take off at a leisurely trot over the picturesque fields.

I’m just appreciating the calm of the country scene, the beautiful muted autumn colours of the little copse off to the left, the band of mist ahead partially hiding the distant house roofs and church spire, when a bolt of chestnut fury passes by me at a trillion miles per hour, thundering over the ground, digging out and distributing divots a yard in diameter from the soft turf. Mud splatters my face. Before I have time to yell at Milton to be careful, the pair of them have disappeared over the rise. I see in the distance a fence. It looks quite high from here but it’s difficult to tell. In what seems like a fraction of a second, Milton and the medieval destrier he’s chosen are climbing up the other side of the valley and are fast approaching the fence. I can’t tell if Milton is in control or not. Perhaps this is his thing; taking charge of the most furious animal a stables has to offer and pitting his wits and his ability against it.

As I watch with mounting horror, it doesn’t seem like it. The pair of them run at the fence as though it’s not there. When the animal should have been, at the behest of its rider, pacing the steps to the point of perfect take-off, instead the animal’s pace doesn’t falter and it carries on implacably apparently towards the fence and inevitable doom. Milton and the stallion charge into the fence full-on. I can hear it from here a second or two behind the horrifying sight. The crash. There’s a sickening rending of timber and a high-pitched scream. If it’s the horse or the rider I don’t know.

I press my heels harder into my girl and gallop her as fast as I dare without falling off towards the mêlée. On arrival I see that Milton, undeservedly, is sitting on the ground looking dazed and nursing his arm but apparently not awfully badly hurt. However the beautiful stallion is lying panting and grunting, eyes wide, his legs at odd angles. Apart from erections, I know enough about horses to realise what this means. The poor animal will have to be put down.

I take out my smartphone. Luckily there’s a signal here and I look up the stable’s number and dial it. And I decide that I never want to see Milton again. Ever.

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