The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 9 Pre-Christmas Business Breakfast

AS IT’S NEARLY Christmas and since internet dating, not to mention other forms of entertainment, have basically bombed for me, I decide that I should at least treat myself to another business breakfast. They start quite early in the morning and it’s difficult to look one’s best when one’s face is still bearing the impressions of wrinkled bedclothes and one’s eyes still have that fishy puffy look. I do try to sleep on my back. I start off that way but, like a dodgy piece of software or a badly trained dog, it doesn’t hold very long and I quickly default to face pushed deep into the pillow coming up for air only when absolutely necessary.

I did set my alarm for six o’ clock this morning to give myself more time to come round. Didn’t work of course. When it went off I turned over and dozed for another hour as I haven’t been sleeping well since being on my own. It’s obviously a basic animal need to nest with others of the same species though, as things stand at the moment, I think a cat, dog or pet python would do. I wake frequently during the night and as a result I never feel properly refreshed and ready to leap straight out of bed first thing in the morning.

So I’ve given myself a quick face pack followed by a facial scrub, slapped as much foundation on as I dare, over-made-up my eyes to provide a distraction and hope that I haven’t left any giveaway green clay masque and/or ground apricot stones around my hair line or up my nostrils.

I’ve decided to try a different business breakfast this time and tell myself that it’s not to lessen the chances of meeting Dennis again. There’s no reason why I should try to avoid him. He’s nice, we had an evening out together, I showed myself up but he was understanding and didn’t make me feel like a complete pillock then or the next time we met, and I’ve no reason to believe that he’s going about telling people that that Anna Duke is a sad, disgruntled, bitter loser whom it’s best to avoid. Still, the evening wasn’t an outstanding success and I’d rather forget it and put it behind me. Though actually I’m not forgetting it very well.

I then managed, at our most recent encounter, to be amongst a group of hysterical women, one of whom was making an exhibition of herself and emptying the contents of her stomach in a public place. Dennis had hurried off. He had a good reason according to him. Still, best probably that I don’t risk another mishap in his presence.

I drive into town, park at the office and then hurry to the hotel where the breakfast is to be held. The breakfast is being organised by a local businessman. He’s a client of Ned’s and I think Ned will probably be there, so I can force my company on him if I find there’s no one else for me to talk to. I’m not so keen on this client really. He sits as a magistrate and obviously he knows how to make a bob or two but in any dealings I’ve had with him, he’s revealed himself to be a pompous, semi-literate windbag who encourages those sit-back-and-let-him-get-on-with-it-because-he’s-incapable-of-basically-shutting-up-and-he-won’t-understand-anything-cogent-you-say-to-him moments. His brains are obviously in his fat backside and he’s clearly either squashed or excreted most of them already. But Ned rates him and he’s rich so we have to be polite towards him.

The petit déjeuner (though I’m hoping that it won’t be so petit as all that as I’m still in need of a good square meal) is being held in a local centre of town hotel. At its core, it’s a charming beamed old coaching house, though the breakfast is being held in one of the many extensions done up to look reasonably authentically old, this one being a smallish conference/function room. A pleasant quite large conservatory adjoins this room with doors off it to other areas. From what I glimpse of the conservatory, it’s tastefully done out with Moorish-looking floor tiles, Kentia palms, weeping figs and large ferns, wrought iron brackets and comfy saggy sofas of different sizes and muted shades of co-ordinating materials. If the Arsehole and I hadn’t split up, I’d have liked to have a smaller but similarly appointed conservatory installed at our house.

However I am here for breakfast and therefore I line up at the buffet situated opposite the door by which I entered and look at what’s on offer. I’m deciding to go for the full English and am hoping it won’t run out before I get to the servers as everyone else seems to be plumping for it too, when I’m approached from behind and I turn to face … Dennis. He’s smiling and cheerful and he says how pleased he is to see me again, how nice I look and he asks if I’d care to join him at his table if I’m not meeting up with anyone else. As well as eyeing up the breakfast on offer, I’ve been casting about for anyone I know and I haven’t seen anyone yet. It’s frankly too early in the morning to start on the frantic ‘networking’ with total strangers that these events are theoretically supposed to foster, so I say yes that’d be good and he points out his table over in the corner behind the entrance door, which is why I hadn’t spotted him, and next to the conservatory.

“Good,” he says, “Can I take you a coffee, orange juice or whatever back to the table?”

I agree that he may get me both and he makes his way over to the table bearing these beverages near the middle of the room.

I’m now faced with a dilemma. I’m keen to pig out this morning but if Dennis has formed a poor view of me, I don’t particularly want to exacerbate it by heaping loads of bacon and sausages and fried bread and fried eggs and hash browns (hmm, I love hash browns!) onto my plate and deluging the lot in tomato ketchup, so that he thinks I’m a complete gannet on top of everything else. I consider the eggs Benedict or a dainty plate of lightly scrabbled eggs with Scottish smoked salmon.

But I’m afraid that greed wins out. I have to hold my piled-high plate carefully balanced in two hands as I weave my way over to Dennis’s table, while imagining the ignominy of dropping the lot right in the middle of the conference room floor, causing the poor harassed staff to have to clear it up as I wipe the worst of the ketchup from the front of my beige-coloured dress. Fortunately this doesn’t happen and I deposit my meal safely on the table mat at right angles to Dennis’s. He’s finished his main breakfast and is onto the toast and marmalade. If the conversation falters, we can make appreciative noises about the conservatory.

Dennis looks admiringly at my plate.

“That’s what I like to see. A woman with a good appetite,” he says and smiles at me. I hope he’ll do most of the talking as I shovel my food down. “I’ve been coming to as many of these breakfasts as possible since my ex-wife left. It’s just…” he shrugs, “nicer than eating on one’s own.”

There’s a short silence. I must say something about the Romford to-do. I must apologise. Before I get the chance though, Dennis wades in.

“About that Romford event,” he says, “I really must apologise‒”

“No, of course not. If anyone should it’s me. I‒”

“No honestly. I felt it was so rude of me to just march off like that. It was just that, well, perhaps you know … you probably do. When one’s about to make a speech, it’s a bit nerve-wracking. I was just rather distracted. And the group of surveyors I was with had had a bit of a schism and I had to say which lot I was siding with. It was possibly going to get a little heated.”

I feel so selfish as he says this. Of course people get nervous about public speaking. And there was me thinking only of myself and my own situation.

“Dennis. There’s no need at all to apologise. I didn’t even consider it.” I decide not to mention the finger up the urethra incident. It seems superfluous now.

“Oh, well. Good. I thought you might be offended. But … Anyway how did you get on with Milton wotsisname?”

He seems to have blotted out the Romford fiasco. I suppose maybe that’s what nerves can do to you. I decide to move on completely from it too.

“Actually not that great,” I say waving my fork around as a counter to my chewing of a mushroom. “He was rather ‒ well I thought ‒ rather a selfish person. I only met him once after the restaurant meal where you saw us. And that was a complete disaster.” I recount the sad tale of the fatally injured stallion and spear a chunk of sausage.

Dennis nods. “I’m not surprised.”

“Why? Do you know him?” Perhaps that would account for Milton’s hostility towards Dennis that evening.

“Not really, but he came before me on an arbitration not that long ago. I formed the impression that he’s a completely unprincipled shit actually.” Dennis looks quite dark and angry as he says this and goes quiet for a short time. I find I’m surprised to see this as his usual demeanour from what I’ve seen is sunny, calm and in control. “But I’d better not say any more.”

Happily though I’ve managed to chew and swallow a whole piece of bacon during this disclosure.

“So,” I say quickly, “how is it going with the opera-loving Andrea? Been to see any more opening nights, live broadcasts or otherwise?”

“No, I’m afraid not. It turns out she wasn’t really an opera fan at all. She just went onto this classical music-lovers’ website thinking she’d meet ‘a better class of person’.” He mimics a lower-middle-class voice aping an upper class accent. “I mean,” he shrugs, “it wouldn’t have bothered me what her preferences were. But I didn’t like being lied to, to the point where it was absolutely clear she had no idea what she was talking about.”

I nod sympathetically while chewing on another mushroom.

He goes on: “Actually, I’m learning quite a bit about this dating business. Things that didn’t seem to occur when I was younger. It turns out, and I’m not necessarily saying that Andrea fell into this category, that there are quite a lot of women out there whose husbands have left them high and dry and they’re just really looking for someone to keep them and their children so that they can avoid getting a job and doing a decent day’s work.” Two hash browns, a piece of fried bread and a large fried mushroom.

“Yes,” I say, “I came across quite a few of them in the days when I used to do matrimonial work. The recession was in full swing then making it that much more difficult because they couldn’t sell the house for enough to even pay off the mortgage sometimes, so I suppose they thought the ideal solution would be to pull a bloke who’d sort everything out financially for them. Pretty unattractive.”

I found I didn’t like matrimonial work. I felt as though one was making money out of people’s misery while getting involved vicariously in their little power et cetera. struggles. To me it didn’t seem right somehow. I didn’t think the law was an appropriate forum for the sorts of disputes these couples wanted to play out which were entirely personal and to my mind mostly not legal matters at all.

But going back to what Dennis had said, it made me think. “I wonder if it works the other way around,” I say. “You know. Men looking for women to prop them up financially so they can afford to keep paying maintenance for the kids. I’d not thought of that. I suppose I’d better watch out for it. Though I can’t say I’ve had too much luck on the dating front. Especially not the internet dating front.”

Dennis nods understandingly. “Anyway. On a brighter note, something positive did come out of our evening together. I decided on the strength of your story about the maintenance of the cat’s grave in perpetuity that I’d get myself a cat.”

“Oh. I’m sorry about that. You probably guessed it wasn’t true at all. I’d actually been thinking about Dennis Pennis but I didn’t feel I could say so.” I find I’m laughing now and so is Dennis. Very briefly, I picture Dennis Pennis’s orange hair, his yellow spectacle lenses and his manic, toothy grin while being told good-naturedly by Hugh Grant to “fuck off”. I push the vision away and say: “Is it a grown up cat or a kitten or what?

“She’s a little blue-grey tabby kitten called Trixie. She’s terribly sweet. She’s got blue eyes and I think she’s going to be short-haired eventually but she’s all fluffy now. I’m bringing her into the office with me most days so she won’t be on her own at home. She’s too young to be let outside yet.” Half a fried egg.

I picture Trixie curling up at nights with Dennis in his bed. He sounds besotted with her. “I bet she’s gorgeous,” I say.

“She is. I’m just a bit worried what I’m going to do about her next week. I have to go to London for a few days and she can’t go into kennels. She hasn’t had all her inoculations.”

“Oh dear,” I say indistinctly through a slice of black pudding.

“A neighbour’s said she’ll come in and put Trixie’s food down,” says Dennis, “and change her litter tray. And I’ve changed my cleaning lady’s day for next week so she’ll be there for one of the days but even so. I’m worried she’ll be lonely all on her own most of the time. And I’m staying overnight in London.”

Half a piece of fried bread dunked in ketchup and egg yolk. Swallowing the mouthful, I ask, “What are you doing in London?”

“It’s a collective enfranchisement case on a big block of obscenely expensive flats.” Sounds like one of Ned’s ‘fucking great cases’ of a standard suitable to Dennis’s elevated talents.

“Oh yes?” I mumble. I’m still trying to deal with half a slice of buttered bread. I swallow some orange juice to make it go down quicker. Come on Dennis. Help me out here. And he does.

“A solicitor mate of mine I was at university with needs a valuation done. He suggested me to the leasehold owners and they decided to appoint me. He chucks me some work every so often and I try to reciprocate. Actually, I did law at university.” Most of one of the sausages which I cut into chunks only lightly smeared with English mustard though it makes my eyes water rather.

“Really? Why didn’t you become a solicitor then or some other type of legal beagle?” I say.

“Too much like hard work for far too little financial reward,” Dennis says. “Over-regulation. And of course difficulty getting a training contract at all.”

I nod as conversation hums around us, people laughing at other’s jokes, cutlery clinking on plates, chairs scraping on the floor. Just about any solicitor I know would sympathise with the sentiments about low pay, excessive hours and cloying regulation by bureaucrats who mostly have no idea about the job in practice.

Dennis says, “It might’ve been easier to get a pupilage at a chambers, but young barristers could easily starve to death before they earn anything worth having.”

“Yeah. Right.” You shouldn’t really eat and talk. I hope something doesn’t go down the wrong way and start an embarrassing and prolonged coughing fit.

“My dad’s an architect. There were usually plans all over the house and construction is so interesting. Far more so I think than dry old legal cases.”

“You’re probably right there.”

“I’ve always loved woodwork,” says Dennis. “Also I’d worked on building sites during my gap year and school and uni holidays.”

Irresistibly, I picture a jeans-clad topless Dennis, rippling back muscles showing obviously through his tanned shiny skin, effortlessly bearing a hod of heavy bricks up a long ladder. Did he whistle at passing girls from the safety of the scaffolding?

I seem to have stopped chewing. There isn’t much left on my plate now. I look down at my last sausage. I find I’m slightly mesmerised by it. Recumbent but proud in the middle of the plate; large, turgid, well shaped. I detect Dennis’s kind eyes also on my plate, then looking at me instead, the corners of his mouth turned up. I cough and tear my gaze away from it. I have to make conversation.

“A building site you said?” No, actually I don’t say that. I change the subject.

“Do you have to stay overnight in London? Can’t you come home in the evenings if it’s just work?”

Dennis looks a little uncomfortable. “Well,” he says, “I may be seeing someone. I … er … had to speak at a conference in the North of England a few weeks ago and I met someone there. She’s probably going to be in London next week too, so we … er … hope to meet up for a meal, or perhaps a show at least, one of the nights.” The other half of the fried bread lavishly doused in egg yolk goes down as I witness his discomfiture.

And what else, I can’t help thinking. But it’s none of my business I tell myself as I hack the evocative sausage to bits trying not to wince too obviously. I start to eat them one by one, and I honestly wish him well, the best in fact, if he’s found someone to be happy with or is about to.

“Er, well if it’s any help Dennis,” I say, “I’d be happy to look after Trixie for you. The Ar … er … my ex wasn’t keen on having any pets but I know all about cats from my grandparents, especially not letting them out when they’re little or when they’re taken somewhere new. And Trixie sounds delightful. I’d be happy to go to your house in the evenings or take her to mine or both. If it helps.”

“Oh. Would you? Would you really? I didn’t tell you about the trip away in the hope you’d offer. It didn’t occur to me at all that you might. But now you have, I mean, it would be so kind of you.”

“Well it’s no trouble. I’m not doing anything next week. She can help me wrap some Christmas presents.”

“She’ll do that all right,” he laughs. “She’s into everything.”

With relief I polish off the last piece of sausage.

“And she can come into work with me the day or days your cleaning lady isn’t at yours.”

“Oh. That’s wonderful. It’s actually such a weight off my mind.”

“I’m glad it is. You should enjoy yourself.” I nearly say he deserves it (which I think he does because he’s so likeable) but it might seem patronising.

I’m just cleaning my plate of the last of the egg yolk and ketchup with an extra slice of bread and butter I’ve added to the feast. I find I can’t manage any toast and marmalade and anyway time’s getting on. I down the remains of my coffee and orange juice and Dennis and I agree a time on Sunday evening when he’ll bring Trixie round to my house with all her paraphernalia.

As we walk out together, I catch sight of Ned peering at us closely over the mountain of food he’s managed to fit onto the modest sized plates the hotel obviously felt would be big enough to contain most people’s reasonable needs. I’d been so deep in conversation with Dennis that I didn’t even notice Ned arriving. Ned is seated with the breakfast organiser and some of his other cronies, all of them at least two or three times the body weight they should be. The serving staff must be having to call for emergency rations.

I HAVE a busy Friday at work, quite a bit of it spent trying to dodge Ned and avoid having to explain how I now appear to know Dennis so well, and then a totally arid Saturday and Sunday at home and I sleep badly Friday and Saturday nights. I find I’m looking forward to curling up with Trixie in bed Sunday night.

Sometimes, as on this Sunday morning, I wish I was an ardent Christian and church-goer. It must be very satisfactory to wake up knowing one’s day is organised in advance for one with a set of imperatives to be spent with like-minded people who are sympathetic to one’s separated state and the reasons for it, to have this blind faith capable of banishing all logical argument against it possibly being of any value whatsoever, bringing about mental peace and harmony to the emotionally needy such as myself.

I decide to join the village walking group for a three-mile ramble in the afternoon. I think that qualifies as ‘getting out’ and it’s only a short walk so that I’ll be back by five to greet Dennis who plans to go to London that evening. As I tidy up for his arrival, I wonder if the carnal activity in London, if there’s to be any, will start this evening and I try to cast such thoughts from my mind.

Dennis arrives bang on time and I let him in with Trixie’s bed, litter tray and a large bag of litter. How much poo, I wonder, can a small kitten produce in three days. He has to take another trip to the car to get more of her stuff and then another trip to get Trixie herself in her cat carrier. We decide to put the litter tray within obvious and easy reach in the middle of the sitting room floor for the time being and to let Trixie out straight away. She really is adorable. A darling charming furry fluffy little bundle of energy.

She starts to examine every inch of the room, mewing every so often and running back to Dennis for reassurance. We both kneel on the floor and cuddle her, then she romps off again for more exploration. Dennis hands me a folder containing her veterinary records and some notes. Lots of notes actually giving his address, directions, all possible contact details for him while he’s going to be away; notes on her care, her daily routine, the vet’s number, her eating preferences, what to do if she gets any sniffles, the cleaning lady’s details. The list goes on and on. Every section is clearly headed and there’s also some cross-referencing.

“Sorry,” says Dennis, seeing my eyes glaze over.

“No, no,” I assure him. “She’s only little. You can’t be too careful.”

Dennis stays for an hour and a half. I make us a quick snack. Then I think to ask him what time his trains leaves and he checks his watch and gasps.

“I’ll have to go now. This is so very kind of you.” Trixie by now is asleep in my lap having had her dinner and worn herself out with her explorations. She’s also, to a great deal of praise from both of us, found the litter tray and made a small deposit in it. “You sure you’ll be OK?”

“Course I will,” I say. “I’ll be straight in touch with you if I need to. Just go and enjoy yourself. I hope … er … everything works out OK. I mean with the job and so on.”

“Hmm,” he says.

Then very quickly he’s gone, and Trixie and I spend the rest of the evening watching Sunday night TV. I start yawning about ten and bear Trixie upstairs to my room with the litter tray. Then I go downstairs and get another tray Dennis has left for her food and water bowls which I wash and fill with fresh food and water and take upstairs. I find Trixie on the floor next to my bed on her back fighting with the tassels of my bedspread and intermittently getting up and chasing after things that aren’t immediately visible to me, jumping into the air trying to catch them before going back to the bed and resuming combat with the bedspread. I hope she doesn’t keep this up half the night but as she seems to tire quite quickly, I leave her to it while I go and have a shower in the en suite and clean my teeth.

Back in the bedroom I find I can hardly keep my eyes open and soon get into bed. As I’d hoped she would, Trixie comes over and begs to be lifted up onto my bed and we lie there together, Trixie kneading the bedspread and purring while I wonder how Dennis is getting on and whether he’s already humping the woman he’s gone to meet in London. If it’s going to happen, then it’ll happen I think but also that if it comes to any sort of encounter, he’ll be a lot more relaxed knowing Trixie’s in good hands. I can’t work out if that’s actually a good thing or not.

Suddenly, the mobile rings next to my bed and lo, it’s Dennis hoping it’s not too late to ring and asking after Trixie’s health and welfare. I tell him there’s been little discernible change since he left, i.e. recurrent energetic bouts of play interspersed with periods of deep sleep. And I’m ashamed to say that I strain to hear any possible sounds of female company from Dennis’s end, such as an electric toothbrush from the bathroom, make-up being removed, nails being filed, heavy breathing next to his ear. But there’s nothing at all even remotely suggestive of any hanky-panky. I put my phone briefly next to Trixie so that Dennis can hear her purring. He seems happy with the state of things and my report and rings off.

So I lie with my hand resting gently on Trixie wondering if Dennis and I have started on a course leading to a point after which it might become impossible to engage romantically at some time. We are becoming friends, relaxed in each other’s company, even relating to each other our attempts to find romance with others. Like old clothes that you’re happy in, comfortable to slop about the house in but not wear for best, it’s becoming the sort of companionship you might hope to have after fifty years of marriage as you’re entering or well into your eighties or nineties; not necessarily after three or four meetings. I’m considering that maybe this state of affairs will set in, making it impossible later, even if the time is right, to have a proper relationship because it will seem almost like incest.

Worryingly, it’s rather like those placebo things. You think something’s going to happen, or rather in this case not going to happen, and so, in this case, it doesn’t. Or mayn’t.

And suddenly it occurs to me that if this thing with The Lady of the North takes off, I may well get roped into further episodes of looking after Trixie while Dennis gallivants about Yorkshire with some surveying version of Cathy Earnshaw. Dennis of course doesn’t smoulder enough to be an effective Heathcliff but I feel that nonetheless he could stride manfully across any moor, his dark hair blowing wildly about, spectacles cast aside and thrown to the four winds. But, I smirk to myself, didn’t Cathy come to a bad end, dying in childbirth! And it wasn’t Heathcliff’s child either, so there Lady of the North; stick that in your clay pipe and smoke it!

But I mustn’t let my imagination run away with me as it always does. I’ll be burning effigies of Cathy Earnshaw next and I really can’t afford to get into such a daft and negative state of mind again. So if it is a Trixie-carer I am to be against a background of Dennis and a Bronte character traipsing about Yorkshire, then so be it. That will have to be my lot.

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